Becoming David by Phil Sloman
Review by Gary Fry
This was the first thing I’d read from Sloman, though I’m confident it won’t be the last. I really had no idea what to expect from the novella, and, I find, that kind of tabula rasa approach can often be the best experience of all.
The book starts with a bad guy, Richard, someone we’re clearly expected to dislike. I mean, the stuff he does in his cellar, the way he treats his cleaner, and just his general attitude to life… Ugh.
Fear not, however, because once our introduction to this vile fella is out of the way, we’ll surely meet his nemesis, the good guy, the novella’s emotional centre of gravity.
But here’s the rub: there is no good guy.
Just the bad.
And so the novella goes, as Sloman depicts Richard’s loathsome life, his empty and impulse-governed existence.
It’s a brave move, focusing such a lengthy piece of fiction on someone obviously unsympathetic. Nevertheless, as the piece develops, we the readers are invited to at least empathise with him, and even, once his predatory orientation to others begins to be savagely inverted, feel a little anxious about his survival.
With a series of surreal ghostly episodes, Sloman turns the book into a kind of “will he get away with it?” caper, with some memorable passages, especially towards the end, as Hitchockian cops and befuddled oldsters unwittingly hinder and help his progress.
It’s a highly unusual performance from Sloman, boasting a jet-black sense of humour and some genuine tension. The nature of the figure which soon haunts Richard slips and slides, as he attempts to gain some control of his burdensome proclivities. The book possesses, in this sense, psychological gravitas; certainly it has much more to offer than your standard serial killer outing.
Sloman’s prose throughout is packed with quirky touches. A dripping tap dramatizes the mental anguish experienced during a visit from the police. The narrative’s shifting viewpoint keeps the reader both inside and outside of Richard’s head, problematizing our allegiances. This is all good stuff, full of confidence and tricksy ability.
Any faults here? I guess the hallucination scenes were “explained away” a bit glibly – comedic allusions to Dickens’s Scrooge and his undigested food aside, I thought the way Richard dismissed his full-on vision of one of his victims a tad convenient, even factoring in his fragile mental condition.
But this is a churlish quibble. On the whole, I greatly enjoyed this odd, exciting and morally ambiguous story, and will surely be back for more from its fiendishly readable author.