Monday, 13 August 2012

The Price of Fame

I firmly believe that when you are lucky enough to get a review copy you asked for (as opposed to one which turns up unrequested...), it's your responsibility to do your best to get it read and reviewed in a reasonable time frame.  Things come up in life which can upset your plans, but on the whole, it's only fair to hold up your end of the bargain - which is to review the book someone has been kind enough to send you.  Whether that review is generous or scathing is another matter entirely...

Having said all that, I was especially embarrassed to recently discover that I had a review copy of a book hidden behind a stack of new acquisitions on my bookshelves.  Even worse, it was one I had asked for - from an independent writer who had probably paid for the printing himself.  Consider this a very belated review :(

David Milne's The Ghost of Neil Diamond is set in Hong Kong in 1998, where we meet Neil Atherton, a folk singer in his late forties who came over to the former British colony when his wife managed to find a job in a large international company.  At a karaoke night, in front of a group of drunken ex-pats, Neil silences the crowd with a wonderful rendition of a Neil Diamond song, and later, at the bar, a local in a bright Hawaiian shirt comes up to introduce himself - Mr. Elbert Chan.

Chan has plans to set up a show with impersonators of legendary musicians, and Neil is to be his first act.  However, the discovery of this dream gives Neil's wife the excuse she's been looking for to end things with her husband, leaving the poor musician on the streets of Hong Kong.  If Chan can deliver, things may turn out alright - but Chan is not exactly the kind of man who instills trust...

Right from the start, The Ghost of Neil Diamond is a book which grabs the reader, setting up an intriguing scenario which you never quite get to grips with.  Neil's quest to become his famous namesake is played out against the backdrop of a society split between the luxury of the international workers and the poverty of the locals who help keep the upper layers of the community afloat.  Interestingly though, Neil himself is actually trapped between them, neither affluent nor dirt poor, able to catch glimpses of the two worlds, but fated to be merely a fleeting visitor to both.

Milnes also does a great job of portraying the claustrophobic atmosphere of Hong Kong, one of the most densely-populated areas in the world.  We start off in Neil's wife's apartment, a sanctuary from what we are to later encounter.  Once Neil has been kicked out of this safe haven, his days are spent traipsing through the streets, unable to return to his squalid accommodation before nightfall, trying to put off his trip to McDonalds (the only public space with cheap food and air-conditioning...) for as long as possible.

What it's really all about though is the music, the chance for Neil to become a star, even if it's not quite the direction he expected his career to move in.  He overcomes his initial snobbish attitude to Diamond's music and gradually becomes obsessed with the singer, to the point where he is unable to walk away from the project, even when it becomes clear that Chan simply cannot be trusted.  Lost in a foreign country, without family or friends, Neil is a man with nothing to hold onto - with the exception of his hope of becoming a star...

When he finally gets to perform (a long way into the book!), it's a big moment both for Neil and the reader.  The tension which has built up is finally dissipated as he takes the stage:
"But now there was a sudden shedding of inhibitions all round, an outbreak of shared nostalgia for good times past.  Reading the mood to the second, Anthony and the bass player were right behind him, with the big chords for the chorus faster now, on time.  The good times were on their way.  They had been named and they had been summoned for everyone, rich or poor, small or tall, lovely or unlovely.  The good times were back and they were even better than before." p.170 (What Tradition Books, 2010)
As you might expect from what I've said so far though, the performance is far from an unqualified success.  So why doesn't he give up?  Why doesn't he just go home?  What is he staying in Hong Kong for?  Well, to find that out, you'll just have to read it yourself ;)

I'd just like to finish my post by reiterating that this is a great read, and a book which makes you believe that there is good writing out there which doesn't make it into the mainsteam publishing world.  It's a lot more literary than it may sound, with a focus on Neil's obsession and the role of the ex-pat in Hong Kong.  However, it's also simply an entertaining story, one which often moves into areas you weren't expecting it to visit.  Most reviews I've seen (including the one from The Parrish Lantern which first whetted my appetite) have been very positive, so if this sounds like your kind of story, why not give it a go?