|Title:||The Echo Chamber|
|Publisher/s:||Penguin Random House/Doubleday|
|Disclaimer:||Penguin Random House South Africa kindly sent me a copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.|
If you are expecting the usual from John Boyne then The Echo Chamber is going to present you with something very, very different (so obviously not the usual). To be clear different does not automatically mean better, or worse – it means exactly that – it is just different.
This is the story of a very dysfunctional family – The Cleverleys. I like to think of their place in this world as not dissimilar to a Wes Anderson family, but the kind lacking in pastel colors, with absolutely no hope for redemption. Every single one of them is as unlikable as the next one, and it will be difficult as a reader not to shriek at the pages constantly. Though they may be unlikable, the Cleverleys are as entertaining as hell – if one is able to look past the narcissism, the sarcasm, and the general inability to think of anyone other than themselves.
The patriarch, George Cleverley is an aging tv host for the BBC, and though he appears to have only good intentions, George just never seems to say the right thing, or post the right Tweet. He is having a secret affair with his psychologist, who has recently discovered she is pregnant, and to make matters even more complicated, George has also managed to alienate himself from the British public by launching an attack on present society’s incessant “wokeness”.
George’s wife Beverley is the author of numerous popular romance novels – or at least, her name is on the covers of the novels. She definitely wrote the first two books, but after that, and for the last number of years she has been employing ghostwriters, of which the last one died after being eaten by a lion. Beverley is also having an affair – with her Ukrainian dance partner from when she appeared on Strictly Come Dancing. Her lover, Pylyp, has left his pet tortoise in Beverly’s care whilst he has returned home to Ukraine to see his dying mother.
The Cleverley’s children are atrocious – even more so than their deplorable parents. The eldest son Nelson is a 22-year-old schoolteacher whose never been in a romantic relationship and has the odd habit of wearing uniforms when out in public – he is partial to doctor’s scrubs and dressing up like a policeman. He is definitely seeing a therapist – a woman named Angela Gosebourne who is having an affair with Nelson’s father.
The youngest son Achilles is really the modern-day Holden Caulfield, without the redemptive trait of secretly being a tortured genius type. He is attracted to, and attracts both men and women, and is always trying out some scheme or another to make extra money which includes, and is not exclusive to blackmailing older men he meets on dating apps.
Elizabeth Cleverely is 21 and dating Wylkes (just Wylkes). Wylkes has decided that he is going to stop bathing for a while, and plans to whisk his very self-absorbed girlfriend off to a leper colony to help out those less fortunate. Besides Wylkes, Elizabeth also seems to find pleasure in bullying people online with a secret Twitter profile. She especially enjoys taunting celebrities, and sometimes even her own parents, who are both minor celebrities, in a very end of the alphabet sort of way.
This is a family obsessed with social media, and the validation it brings. The Clevereleys are also all extremely self-absorbed, which just heightens their status online, and the way in which each of them views the world. Though they are only human (which allows us to forgive them their trespasses), they are also representative of the worst kind of human there is, making The Echo Chamber a most poignant cautionary tale.
Though the key element (read: villain) here may at first glance appear to be technology itself, it is really the human beings that abuse it that are the true evil here. Through the framework of satire and understanding satire, The Echo Chamber uses outrageous and over-the-top characters with very little self-awareness to bungle through a series of insignificant situations all in the name of tapping into a proverbial sore spot (especially if you’re a member of Generation Z), and declare war on ‘wokeness’ and cancel culture.
This is a novel that pitches different generations against one another, and also, ironically, makes every attempt to be as offensive as possible. If you are hoping at the end of the novel that the characters will find some sort of redemption, you will most likely be disappointed, but in no way is this a spoiler – more than anything this is the dose of reality cloaked in screens and scrolling that we all need, and a warning that if we don’t look up (see what I did there?) we may just receive the same fate as the Cleverleys.