A fashionable London townhouse, which serves as a sanctuary for persecuted writers, is the deceptively serene setting for former journalist Tim Finch's engaging debut novel, writes Malcolm Forbes
Book review: The House of Journalists, a poignant tale about persecuted writers
The House of Journalists, the title of Tim Finch's entrancing debut novel, recalls Dostoyevsky's The House of the Dead (1861) and Martin Amis's House of Meetings (2006). Both these novels tracked the suffering endured by inmates of Siberian prison camps, Amis's novel revealing that with the Soviet gulag, Dostoyevsky's 19th-century horrors were alive and well, just operating under a new name.
On the surface, Finch's book sounds lighter, the house in its title more like a cosy dwelling than a penal colony. We learn from the outset that it refers to a fashionable London townhouse for exiled writers, less a writer's retreat as a refuge for retreating writers. "This is a place of sanctuary for all those who have used the power of the word to expose tyranny throughout the world."
Its inhabitants are "fellows" who receive support, counselling and English lessons while waiting to see if they are granted asylum. Personal testimony is key, with each writer encouraged to write about their individual plight, to share their trauma in broadcasts and films. As a result, tales of appalling human rights abuses are aired and contained within its walls, unable to be banished. And while the house may be a safe haven, it can't prevent tension and closely guarded secrets from seething and bubbling under its roof.
A host-like narrator deferentially ushers us through the door of the house and into chapter one. We are addressed as "you": "Welcome to the House of Journalists. We are pleased to receive you into our House and our fellowship." There follows a guided tour along with the sobering fact that all the inhabitants have at one point been imprisoned and tortured. (The House of Journalists is thus where you end up if you are lucky enough to have survived the House of the Dead.) We meet Julian Snowman, the institution's overbearing, borderline-obsessive founder and chair, before moving on to hear in more detail - a lot of it grisly - the histories of several of the House's fellows.
There is shy and retiring Mustapha, a journalist, publisher and minor poet, who resisted a coup in his torn-apart country and paid the price. The House protects him, but he fears reprisals against the family he had to leave behind. "My wife and children are still there: lost to me, safe from me."
His story is comprised of flashbacks, most of them painful, and we veer from memories of ice-bound plains, freezing interrogation huts and wind-beaten execution sites to total-recall snapshots of the "weekly spectacle"- public hangings of dissident filmmakers and liberal playwrights in Revolution Square.
Mustapha's tale serves as a template for those that follow. Family love is offset, at times smothered with, accounts of brutal oppression. The names of fellows are changed (indeed Finch gives us a neat summary of the importance of names, explaining how each writer set out to make a name for himself, only for that name to put the writer in danger and to be later exchanged for a number when the writer became a convict - or worse, "counted among the numberless nameless"). Many of the countries mentioned are not pseudonymous but anonymous, leaving us to read between the lines and piece together clues.
More fellows are fleshed out. Agnes is a photojournalist who has escaped civil war, but her feistiness is subdued on remembering the image of her lover's decapitated body and his head displayed on a stake. Adom, a black sheep, despite witnessing tribal barbarism, believes freedom is overvalued. AA, however, is the dark horse, the new fellow who remains aloof, monosyllabic and reluctant to tell any tale. It is not only the fellows who have suffered. Mr Stan, "Our Father of Chapel", is a mangled wreck, his hands hammered to a pulp by government stooges.
It is in sketching these mini-biographies that the author truly excels. Finch, a London-based former BBC political journalist who has worked on immigration and asylum issues for the Refugee Council and the Institute for Public Policy Research, has drawn on his rich experience to provide authentic insight into what makes migrants flee their homelands, how they go about doing so and what kind of shelter is available at their journey's end. "These are not just stories," our narrator reminds us, "these are people's lives." Each character's story feels like a genuine case study, uncomfortably realistic but, as a corollary, absolutely gripping. The longest and by far the best testimony is that of Sonny. Over the course of 15 pages, we are mesmerised by "a story that should be told", one that charts a harrowing escape across continents, routinely blighted by rape, beatings, the casual sadism of people-smugglers and internment in squalid refugee camps and soul-sapping detention centres.
Finch's characters' tales, however, manage the dual feat of being both the book's strength and weakness. Bluntly stated, The House of Journalists has no plot. One character's potted personal history begets another, and each tale of past hardship and present acclimatisation is the red thread which connects. But connection isn't direction, and there are places where Finch seems to write himself into a corner, unsure of where to lead us next. At one juncture, something amounting to a plot strand asserts itself - is the enigmatic AA in cahoots with the famous visiting writer, Edward Crumb, to bring down the House? - but Finch refuses to develop it until the closing pages, by which time we have absorbed ourselves in other areas.
In this age of postmodern trickery in fiction, the very notion of plot can be disparaged as quaintly archaic, even dismissed as superfluous. If the writer has other balls in the air, we can happily dispense with plot altogether or at least settle with the faintest outline. Fortunately, Finch is enough of a conjurer to dazzle with distractions; plotless, in this book's case, is by no means rudderless. Just when those well-defined characters appear all dressed up with nowhere to go, Finch gives them a sense of occasion - they interact with each other, sweat out the tribunal's decision on asylum, stoke Julian's paranoia or simply spin more tales. It isn't only the House's émigrés that impress with their finery. The novel has a wonderful cast of bit-parters who are at hand to offer light to contrast with the swathes of darkness. There is Andrew, the hapless Sanctuary Minister; Miriam, whose soft-focus memoir on 1930s Berlin is about to be turned into a glitzy musical; and Crumb, the acerbic Nobel laureate and political provocateur whose bilious interior monologues are suffused with caustic wit and clever wordplay, particularly when railing against the "Minuscule of State" and 'Prim Minister".
The House of Journalists is, then, a character-led book, and one that prioritises the human condition and elevates "the irrepressible power of great stories". Finch excites with his box of stylistic tricks, flaunting shifting narrators, bitter ironies and sharp dialogue. There are subtle Kafkaesque touches and Orwellian undertones and also moments where the antics in the House of Journalists begin to resemble the absurdity in Griboyedov House, the salon for Moscow writers in Bulgakov's hallucinogenic The Master and Margarita.
And then there are the graphic, visceral descriptions. The capital city Mustapha, once called home, formerly "an enchantment of domes, minarets, and perfumed souks", has decayed into a stinking warren, "every alleyway snarled with street stalls, taxis, rubbish and vegetable waste, mangy dogs and muscled rats". Agnes has fled a "superabundance of atrocity". Her photojournalist's attention to detail records the way "bodies hung from trees, or lay rotting among the rubbish heaps beside the roads, or floated bloated down the slow brown rivers where they were eaten by crocodiles. The tracks of beatings and torture ridged and crisscrossed many a back that was unsheeted for her magic eye. She came across a whole congregation preserved at prayer in charcoal inside the blackened ribcage of their church. Villages, from which the men were marched to mass graves now heaving with decomposition, were repopulated overnight through the ferocious, sweat-stinking, heavy-membered fecundity of soldier rapists." There are blips that grate - the likes of "floated bloated" here, and elsewhere "the trite tyranny of this trite trope" - but they are quickly forgotten when submerged in or flanked by writing that is potent, lyrical, scabrous or heartfelt.
Julian's grand plan was for his House of Journalists to be a place for writers to share their humanity and their heroism, to connect and empathise, and in doing so "throw a far greater light on the phenomenon of forced migration and the condition of exile than any thesis or treatise". Finch has brought this phenomenon to the fore in The House of Journalists and given us a cast that matters, each with stories that should be told.
Malcolm Forbes is a freelance essayist and reviewer.