Risk, By CK Stead, MacLehose Press, 267pp, £16.99
Strange how a life can fall apart, gradually being deconstructed as the elements that gave it meaning, or even just its glue, are damaged, lost or erased. Though not always: some people prove better able to save themselves. One such survivor is Sam Nola, the convincingly human if not altogether likable central character of Risk, the offbeat, at times irritating but always canny and topical new novel by the veteran New Zealand innovator CK Stead.
Risk is a confident, briskly paced and practical account of one man’s self-rescue, but it is a personal odyssey that is also a study of modern society on the run. Even the unwilling will gradually identify with this novel as it offers a snapshot of life in the shaky infancy of the 21st century.
In the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq War, and the money bubble that heaved and swelled until it burst and woke the world, Nola, a middle-aged lawyer, embarks on a pilgrim’s progress with a difference.
As the marriage that produced two sons founders on his infidelity with a distant cousin, he suddenly discovers that he has a grown daughter from an earlier affair. He had actually loved Simone, the Frenchwoman with whom he had shared a heady romance even though she was already engaged elsewhere. Then she left him. Nola took to licking his wounds, an activity he appears to have mastered during a life in which he has never had to try very hard to attract female company.
Stead’s use of the word “risk” has many meanings in this novel, aside from the financial context. Nola takes many personal gambles – as does Stead with a character who is neither a hero nor an antihero. Sam Nola clearly suggests that it is, as many commentators maintain, a man’s world and that women really are from another planet.
Risk, with its shifting use of time and floating set pieces, is highly readable. Stead, who is also a former academic, literary critic and poet, writes with an ease and efficiency comparable to those of Justin Cartwright, the South African writer who has made contemporary middle-class British fiction his own territory.
In ways, Cartwright has already written Risk, with Other People’s Money (2011). Yet he is far more playful than Stead – now 80 – whose robust common sense and reading of human nature are less concerned with comedy than with expressing an edgy irony tempered by harsh truths.
Nola arrives in England as a divorced man who has bid farewell to his family life. Yet he is not quite a newcomer, having lived in London more than 20 years earlier. His return is different; he is more vulnerable, trying to read the intentions of the younger man who is interviewing him for a job. Here Stead ensures that most readers will briefly empathise with Nola, who has to ask outright if he has got the position.
A great deal appears to be happening, including various deaths, in a novel in which nothing much actually takes place. This is because Stead, a wily storyteller – and winner of the Sunday Times short-story award in 2010, when, at 78, he was the oldest contender – is such a shrewd observer.
In turn, Nola also takes to watching others. An old friend and fellow New Zealander, now an academic settled in England, bickers about politics with his righteous wife as Nola attempts to make friends with Letty, his doctor daughter, who has tracked him down and to whom he can never really be a father.
Nola quickly takes to working in a financial empire built on intrigues and lies, but then he has his own secrets, including a failed novel that was lost in the post when a literary agent died as a result of bee stings.
Since Stead (right) retired from academia, in 1986, he has continued to add to what is now a vast body of work. Risk is his 12th novel and his first since the outstanding My Name Was Judas (2006), in which history’s most famous betrayer tells his story.
Even more impressive is The Secret History of Modernism (2001), Stead’s finest work, which contains more than a few nods to the lively maverick Anthony Burgess. It opens: “My name is Laszlo Winter. I’m a novelist, and for the purposes of this identification we will begin in Auckland, New Zealand, at the beginning of the new century, a time when I’d been experiencing for perhaps three months, perhaps six, something new for me, an obstacle commonly known as writer’s block.”
An interlinked band of characters wander about, preoccupied with people and ideas, as well as doomed projects. Winter decides to attempt a memoir. Stead does not make it too easy, but it is enjoyable, as he can be clever in an entertaining way.
Risk has traces of this earlier, superior novel and its uses of random observation and realities. Stead succeeds in making it apparent that Nola, sustained by rather than burdened by a past that adds up to a life, remains open to new experiences. A particularly effective minor plot involves a perfectly acceptable romance with a soon-to-be-widowed woman married to an ailing billionaire. Stead makes it clear that the relationship is mutually comfortable rather than intense.
This renders it all the easier for the surprise return from the dead of a character whose absence appears to prove not only that Nola has a heart but also that he is far luckier than anyone could hope to be.
Risk, a laconically universal novel, may at times set one’s teeth on edge, but so does life. As well as telling one man’s story, Stead provides an entertainingly blunt, realistic glimpse of how a small circle of individuals stagger through the days, eating, drinking, mating and making noise and not much sense.