The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi
Hired to write the biography of the distinguished but aging writer, Mamoon Azam, Harry Johnson is in not only awe, but also excited and a little overwhelmed. Mamoon's reputation precedes him with rumors of his caustic personality, monumental intelligence, and a charisma that entrapped women throughout his life. Despite this daunting task, Harry needs the money if he's going to make a home with his fiancée Alice. Furthermore, Harry's agent, the constantly drunken Rob Deveraux, is promising untold wealth and fame if he succeeds, while dooming him to exile and teaching creative writing in America if he fails. Mamoon is also less than agreeable to the idea. However, his present wife Liana has been spending his money at alarming rates, and a biography could put some new funds into his account by renewing interest in his works. There's nothing left but for Harry to leave London and Alice behind, so he can stay at Prospects House and learn everything he can about one of the writers he's always admired.
With this novel, we get somewhat of a story within a story, that's all also somehow within a story. Between Harry and Mamoon, their lives and their work, we also have practically everyone around them also wanting to write or tell their stories. All the while, there's the story of Harry trying to discover how to write this biography, while Mamoon and Liana try to keep him from telling the whole truth. That's already interesting, especially with all the intrigue laid out quite early in the novel. This includes Mamoon's tragic first wife who essentially killed herself out of the desperate and no longer requited love for her husband. We also get his abandoned ex-mistress in the United States, who directs her bitterness (which borders on insanity) towards everyone, but she too is still in love with him. Furthermore, it looks like Liana is going down that same path. No one knows how many other women Mamoon caught in his spell, and essentially abused, and now he has his sights on Harry's Alice.
With all this angst, desperation, excessive drinking and cruelty, we automatically look for one major character we can like. Unfortunately, while Harry starts out sounding like a good person, we soon find out that he's equally as much of a misogynist as Mamoon. The women here are no better. Liana is greedy and self-absorbed, and like all the rest of the female characters, her adoration of Mamoon is unfathomable because he's such a disgusting person, despite his apparent literary genius. That all the women in this story end up in the same position - worshiping this man who is incapable of loving them back - only makes it worse. In fact, while there are some I disliked less than others, there are actually no fully sympathetic characters in this book.
The question then is why didn't I totally hate this book? To begin with, there was something captivating about the writing here, particularly because it is so intelligent. There isn't one moment when we don't believe that Mamoon is as talented a writer as everyone thinks. At the same time, we are fully aware that Harry's ability is also quite significant. The exchanges between them and all the other characters have a level of wit that shines through even some of the most unpleasant situations. Since these objectionable characters are involved in such nasty goings on, it could very well be that our dislike for them is thereby justified. We therefore actually enjoy witnessing all their hardships. In other words, what makes this book so fascinating is our human penchant for morbid curiosity. You know, like when you see a car crash - you how unpleasant it is, but you can't turn away. Furthermore, somewhere in the back of your mind you're thinking that one of those drivers might be to blame, and maybe this will knock some sense into them - although you know they'll probably never learn their lesson.
With that said, the only real drawback I found in this book was that it felt somewhat inconsistent in places. Having never read anything by Kureishi before, I investigated his work and found that he's best known for his plays and screenplays (including "My Beautiful Launderette," which gained him an Oscar nomination). This explained why the dialog in this novel was so vibrant and alive. Unfortunately, this made the third person narrative feel somewhat stilted, and I kept wondering why Kureishi didn't use first person points of view, which might have matched the dialog better.
Despite this one problem, I did enjoy this novel, even though I hated the characters and was incredulous about their actions. Nothing and no one here is predictable, which in itself is a feat that few authors can achieve, and makes the story one you can't stop reading, despite the bad taste in your mouth. For all that, I think I can easily recommend this book and give it a solid four stars out of five.
"The Last Word" by Hanif Kureishi, published by Scribner, released March 10, 2015 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley.