Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird - review by Philip Womack

Philip Womack

A Social Merman

Utterly Monkey


Fourth Estate 344pp £10.99

Nick Laird’s debut novel, which follows his poetry collection To a Fault, is a well-paced and intelligent tale about culture clashes, terrorism and, er, due diligence. Told with a roughened elegance and sprinkled with phrases of unexpected beauty (a cigarette makes a ‘seahorse of smoke’), it concerns a five-day period in the life of Danny Williams, who is, as Laird once was, a young litigator at a Magic Circle law firm; also like Laird, Williams was born in Northern Ireland and read History at Cambridge (‘there was so much of it’, he had mused when deciding what to study), although he does not seem to have any poetic or literary ambitions. He is a ‘social merman: pinstriped lower, denimed upper’, and this uneasy friction between disparate parts is a main theme of the novel – evidenced in particular by the contrasts between his smart new London life and his gritty Northern Irish childhood, and by the tensions between corporate policy and individual freedom. 

This book is essentially a fantasy; one imagines that all the time he was at his law firm, Laird was plotting the rebellious act which Williams, having worked all night subsisting on whisky and water, performs early one Monday morning when he throws an extremely important document into the Thames. But it is not just about one man’s struggle against the monkey-work of his well-paid job; however much fun due diligence may be, it would not make for the jolliest of plots.

Williams’s ordered, aspirational life is suddenly overturned by the arrival of an old schoolfriend, Geordie Wilson, who in the words of his teacher ‘had no brakes’. Wilson is a ghost from the past that Williams would rather have laid to rest. He also happens to be carrying £50,000 which belongs to an Irish nutcase called Budgie whose sister he was caught with in flagrante delicto; the nutcase is also planning to bomb the Bank of England. This is a simple plot which hurtles along, only losing momentum once or twice; Laird observes incidents and people with a lawyerly precision which never becomes pedantic or blustery; he is also skilful at recording the awkwardness of everyday human interaction. Laird’s prose is not polished ‘to a fault’ like his poetry collection, but any roughness is in keeping with the plot and contributes to a warm, funny and thoughtful read.

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