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MICHAEL NATH’S third novel The Treatment is about corruption — of communities, individuals and justice itself.
Spanning two decades, it is nothing if not ambitious. Set mainly in south-east London and various holiday resorts in Spain — hot-spots for the criminal fraternity — it mines them deeply, and lovingly, for arcane knowledge.
It's a book that took Nath close on three-and-a-half years to write and it was, he says, like “building a power station with a style of its own, not a private house for the middle-class.
“It’s a big operation. If you work in miniature, you might get your books out quicker and more easily but, to quote Goethe, I like to carve from the whole block.”
The results are trademark Nath — raw narrative and vivid characterisations, from a one-eyed comedian to a meteorology-obsessed rent boy and from a campaigning lawyer to a serpentine bent copper.
“It’s artistically and morally important to treat every single character as something like an end in themselves, not as an ideological convenience,” Nath explains. “I suppose that the way of doing this is by a kind of attention to their particular nature, even if their time in the book is brief, or they are foul people.”
This plethora of characters form a precise account of a society defined by, and responding to, racism. Protagonist Carl Hyatt is an investigative journalist –— formerly for a paper waspishly referred to as the G******* — but he now he works for a far humbler yet much braver publication.
He's absorbed in the murder of Eldine Matthews, a young black man, whose death has striking parallels with the murder of Stephen Lawrence.
Nath spent hours reading Searchlight magazine in the 1980s and the book is informed not just by Lawrence’s murder but by others which Hanley, a lawyer, refers to as examples of “politicised terror from within a majority community.”
He admits that this was his own reaction to Lawrence’s murder and that perhaps partly explains his scepticism that “identity” should be invoked as a response to institutionalised racism.
“It is cardinal to regard a person, any person, as more than a group representative. Is it ever considered that so-called BAME people might feel thoroughly patronised by the label?” he stresses. “To counter racism, I believe in immediate confrontation.”
He recalls some 20 years ago hearing a thug in Tesco, where many of the staff were black, making remarks about “'needing some ethnic cleansing round here.' I went up to him and said in his ear, ‘I think it’s you who need ethnically cleansed you c***. I’m watching you.’”
The novel is at its most satisfying in representing the many strong women in its pages, among them Hyatt's wife Karen and work colleague, Fabiana.
“The women are more effective in this book,” says Nath. “It’s they who bring down [crime boss] Mulhall and his crew, by violent physical means. I daresay that’s a crude endorsement of feminism... but female readers have not been displeased by it.
“There’s a place in the book where Carl thinks about the women’s units of the PKK; they command his admiration — and mine.”
Though Nath doesn’t portray Hyatt as a hero, there is a clearly a latent admiration for his journalistic perseverance. But Fabiana and Andy, Hyatt’s colleagues at the newspaper, do become heroic in the way they take on Mulhall. “They’re prepared to risk their lives, aren’t they? That’s a measure of heroism,” Nath says.
Readers might struggle to keep track of these, and dozens of other characters, but they should trust the author and keep with him to the novel’s explosive — and perhaps tongue-in-cheek — conclusion. “Marshalling this large, noisy and vulgar crowd” means ensuring that “everyone has their job to do, which of course requires an effective and comprehensive plot,” he explains.
Nath is careful not to allow context to circumscribe his work. “I do think it’s important to distinguish the novel from journalism and documentary and not to saturate it with topical matter,” he explains, “that’s a sure way to date your fiction. Who wants to read a Brexit novel now? The 2012 Olympics appear but in the background, the proper place in fiction for the affairs of the day.”
He gifts his characters with vivid language and no-holds-barred conversations because, he says, “I’m an ‘ear’ writer and I like doing voice work. Some people complain about the amount of dialogue, which suggests a narrow appreciation of the novel as a form.
“We’ve forgotten how to have conversations, that’s the problem.”
The generous display of memorable slang from all points of the compass — fanfaronade, kokum and molly house being my favourites — embellish The Treatment. It's an uncorrupted account of our corrupted society and a beautifully vulgar one at that.
The Treatment is published by Riverrun Books, £20.
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