Thursday, 18 March 2010

An Empty Room by Talitha Stevenson

Stevenson’s impressive debut follows rich Londoner Emily, back from several months abroad and about to go to university. Her good looking boyfriend Tom is possessive and manipulative, and despite his protestations of love, she doesn’t love him back. Clearly attached to him out of habit, she inhabits his world of long meals at Italian restaurants and late night drinking and cocaine at Raf’s, a seedy West London club.

Emily is, to put it tactfully, spectacularly naïve, although she herself thinks that she’s just emotionally detached. Looking back on it all, she realises that her time with Tom really was dreadful:

Now I think there was nothing that added up to anything in our times together. They were all broken – broken sentences, forgotten names, split drinks – blackouts.

Tom likes to impress, spend money, be the centre of attention. He certainly isn’t the sort to take disappointment on the chin:

We sat down. Tom ordered two bottles of red wine and the thin waiter gave us a wink. “A man who does not like to hold back,” he said.

Emily falls instead for Tom’s cousin Simon, several years older, talented, and married. A raging affair begins, its intensity matching that of the summer heat. Emily thinks that he’ll leave his wife and fantasises about going to college with him but it’s no great surprise that in the end he doesn’t. Still, it was good while it lasted. One night they walk out along the Embankment, drinking a bottle of whisky together:

We drank the whole bottle that time. We followed the river, watching the black water lighten to grey. Lights came on in the office blocks. An hour or so later, we were laughing and stumbling against each other near Battersea Bridge. The sun was coming up and the early-morning big lorries were on the road, heading out to the motorways. We were comic figures suddenly – drunk before breakfast, out of place in the early morning people. We stopped on the bridge. Simon held up the bottle and shook the whisky around. “One last drink each.”

It will all end in tears of course. Emily tells Tom she doesn’t love him and he storms off in a tizzy, getting himself completely slaughtered before nearly killing one of his friends in a drunken car crash. His discovery of Emily and Simon’s affair is the final nail in a nasty coffin, and Tom reveals himself for what he truly is, a spoilt narcissistic rapist.

An Empty Room is a powerful portrayal of a vacuous, disconnected world, filled with alcoholic excess. A sales pitch for Holland Park it is not...

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