Lambert, Charles – ‘Any Human Face’
Paperback: 323 pages (Nov. 2011) Publisher: Picador ISBN: 0330512455
ANY HUMAN FACE is an excellent, well-written novel of suspense (as long as you don’t read the cover words before reading the book!) set in Rome, the main narrative switching between the early 1980s and 2008. As the story opens in 1983, Bruno and the much younger Alex meet late one evening. Alex notices some full carrier bags on the back seat of Bruno’s car as the two men drive around. Bruno asks Alex to look after the bags for him, so Alex drives back to his flat and leaves them there. But on returning to Bruno’s home later, he discovers a horrible scene.
In 2008, Andrew is running a small bookshop in the city. He’s “inherited” the shop from its previous owner Joost, for whom Andrew worked. Joost has made enough money to retire somewhere exotic, leaving Andrew with the slowly failing venture. Andrew is a lonely man who is pretty disorganised, never getting around to sorting out the piles of stock everywhere, often giving books away or pretending he doesn’t notice customers stealing them.
Gradually we come to learn how the two men’s stories are interlinked by a chain of circumstances and characters. What is in the bags, and how the contents are related to several crimes, gradually becomes apparent. ANY HUMAN FACE is not, however, a typical crime novel. There is no formal investigation, either by police or other characters. The crime that is the motive for other crimes unfolds in parallel with the story of the characters’ lives. There are no heroics, solutions or shocking plot revelations.
The main pleasure of the novel is its depiction of its small cast of interconnected characters, almost all male. It’s a story about love and belonging, as Alex evolves from a shallow young man intent on making what he can out of his older conquests into somebody quite different as a result of a series of life-experiences; and as Andrew comes to realise that his abandonment by his lover is not for the reasons he had assumed. Other characters who intersect with the two men’s lives are strongly drawn in a convincing portrait of Rome and those who live there, rather than using the city as a shallow background of famous tourist attractions.
There is a lot of sadness in the novel – several of the characters are mourning lost lovers, a sorrow made more poignant by their exclusion by the biological families of the deceased. The outsider status of these men is echoed by the main “crime” plot, which never comes into focus but is seen episodically, in reflections, or elliptically in a series of vignettes, assumptions and guesses. The last part of the novel is both optimistic and very bleak. It’s a wonderful book, beautifully written.