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Caledonian Road by Andrew O’Hagan: enjoyable but groans under the weight of its own ambition

The strands of this 700-page novel feel more like a series of loosely-linked narratives than a cohesive whole

Caledonian Road
Caledonian Road
Author: Andrew O’Hagan
ISBN-13: 978-0571381357
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Guideline Price: £20

Unless you happen to be a member of the 19th-century Russian aristocracy, it’s generally a bad idea to open a novel with a cast of characters, even if the book it introduces is close to 700 pages long. Still, that’s how Andrew O’Hagan chooses to introduce Caledonian Road, an epic tale of art historians, columnists, people traffickers, land developers, influencers, oligarchs, parents, children and students that is as frustrating as it is entertaining.

Top of the roll-call is Campbell Flynn, a 52-year-old public intellectual and author of a popular book on Vermeer. For someone with a lot of irons in the fire, he’s not quite as well-heeled as his CV might suggest so, to keep the Dom Perignon on tap, he’s written a self-help book titled Why Men Weep in Their Cars, which both he and his publishers anticipate will sell millions. Too ashamed to put his name to it, however, he employs a handsome young actor to claim authorship and undertake the twin pleasures and indignities of the publicity circuit.

It’s a clever premise for a story. Or would be, if O’Hagan had concentrated on it.

Alongside him sits Sir William Byre, Campbell’s best friend, who’s found himself in some serious #MeToo bother, along with a nine-figure debt after a Saudi Arabian real estate deal, underwritten by a Russian billionaire, has gone wrong. When it comes to pecuniary matters, I’m not sure who it’s less advisable to upset, the Saudis or the Russians, but somehow Sir William’s managed both.


It’s an interesting idea for a caper. Or would be, if O’Hagan had concentrated on it.

There are plenty of other characters who pop in and out. An elderly tenant, Mrs Voyles, who lives beneath the Flynns and whose every appearance is more amusing than the last. Angus, a celebrated DJ whose narcissism makes Donald Trump look like Uriah Heep. A duke. A duchess. A countess. Yuri, of whom the oligarch laments that there are “sixty-eight million men in the whole of Russia, and I must have this one for a son?” Antonia, a right-wing columnist. Jakub, a sexy Polish gay. And, crucially, Milo, a student who Campbell takes under his wing in a spirit of mentorship but who, as proteges are inclined to do, is playing a game of his own.

Caledonian Road might have benefited from O’Hagan looking at his dramatis personae and taking one character out. Or five. Or 20

Taken individually, the multiple plot strands are engaging, but unlike some other multi-charactered epics – John Lanchester’s Capital, Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency or, more recently, Paul Murray’s The Bee Sting – the strands feel more like a series of loosely-linked narratives than a cohesive whole.

That said, there are plenty of terrific moments. Milo’s machinations take some time to untangle, but they’re worth the wait. Sir William’s arrogance leaves the reader longing for his downfall. The old woman downstairs, spitting inexplicable fury through word and missive, is a genuine delight and Maggie Smith can clear a few weeks in her diary if there’s to be an adaptation. But the oligarch is a cliche, only short of a football club to enrich, while the youthful characters have an entitlement that’s more annoying than satirical. Also, as a fiftysomething white novelist myself, I’m not sure I would have risked recreating the dialogue of young black Londoners in quite such a vivid manner.

It all adds up to a bit of a muddle, but an enjoyable muddle. The novel equivalent of an Eton Mess. It looks wonderful, one devours it quickly but afterwards there’s a feeling that it might have been better to stick with just the strawberries, meringue or cream individually, rather than making a pig of oneself.

O’Hagan has written at least one masterpiece in Be Near Me, and possibly two with Our Fathers. To employ Forster’s dictum of “only connect”, the separation of the heart and the head in Caledonian Road felt, for me, too distant, the critique of the wealthy sitting uncomfortably alongside his dissection of academia, public intellectualism and the publishing industry. Perhaps there’s simply an excess of ambition, one of those flaws that isn’t really a flaw at all.

Coco Chanel advised that before one leaves the house, one should look in the mirror and take something off. Caledonian Road might have benefited from O’Hagan looking at his dramatis personae and taking one character out. Or five. Or 20. A great novel bursts with ideas and this novel is a veritable Vesuvius of ideas. But perhaps some could have been set aside, allowing the author’s undeniable talent to sound more clearly against the background noise.

John Boyne

John Boyne

John Boyne, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic