In a sense, then, I’ve scuppered myself, because it’s difficult for me to write a review that would be half as interesting as Lambert was that day. So if you’re interested in finding out more about the background to Any Human Face, I’d suggest that you start with the Charles Lambert interview.
Little Monsters was a very good novel indeed, and both it and Lambert’s short story collection, The Scent of Cinnamon, were well received by critics and bloggers. Any Human Face is Lambert’s second novel, which is always a dangerous moment for a writer, and especially in this case, as Picador have taken a risk, shaking Lambert’s fledgling fanbase up by packaging the new book as a thriller.
Fortunately, Any Human Face does live up to the promise of Lambert’s earlier work, and despite the cover, there’s no great change in style: it’s thrilling, but many of those thrills come from Charles Lambert’s storytelling ability and eye for character, rather than from plot or genre conventions. The novel isn’t perfect, but for the most part it’s a treasure trove of the things that Lambert does best.
The story hangs on Andrew Caruso, a bookseller in present-day Rome, who find himself in possession of a collection of police photographs. He decides to put together an exhibition in his bookshop, and in so doing, he incurs the wrath of the anonymous powers that lurk in the city. While the consequences of this play out, other threads follow the history of the photographs and the kidnapping of a girl in the early eighties. (Parts of the book are inspired by true events in Rome, although Lambert is clear that this is a work of fiction, drawing loose inspiration from news items, rather than trying to shed light on them.)
The characters and the relationships between them are often as real as any that you’re likely to encounter in a book. They have physical, visceral presence, and the way they behave is equally solid and convincing. The character interactions are driven by Lambert’s interest in the way people react to power and vulnerability in themselves and in each other; it’s tempting to say that the archetypal Charles Lambert scene is one in which two people are in a room, and one of them is bleeding. Little Monsters was largely driven by the way different people responded to the protagonist’s needs as a child, and later how she responded to others’ needs, and to her own. Some of the more powerful scenes in Any Human Face involve people either delivering or failing to deliver in their relationships with each other: The Birdman’s repeated support of Alex and Alex’s own response to Andrew redeem them, while the art critic and all-round awful human being Daniela dell’Orto – who gives Lambert the opportunity to indulge in some fine faux art bollocks – is finally condemned when she fails to rise to her friend’s needs.
If the characters and the world they inhabit are outstandingly well presented, the book perhaps fares less well is in its structure. Lambert can write tense scenes very well, and much of the second half, from the moment when the police – for want of a better word – arrive at Andrew’s shop, is tense and claustrophobic. Earlier, though, there’s a vagueness, as the book slips between too many viewpoints and time periods, each change jarring the reader a little out of the spell that Lambert has weaved so well with his characters.
According to an interview on Nik Perring’s blog, the editing process for Any Human Face was rather brief, and I wonder whether that was perhaps a mistake. The hardest thing about editing isn’t cutting bad writing (of which there’s none here); it’s making tough decisions about the good writing, and it’s possible that a little more time spent on that decision making process might have led to a tighter novel. As it is, there are times when Any Human Face feels a little shapeless. The result could be described as a selection of fresh ingredients, carefully selected, matched, and exquisitely prepared, but perhaps served a little untidily on the plate. Still, an excellent meal, and one that I found worthy of more than one helping.
…and why is it that Charles Lambert’s writing always gets me thinking about food?