Tell by Jonathan Buckley - review by Julia Jordan

Julia Jordan

Called to Account



Fitzcarraldo Editions 200pp £12.99

There is a deep-seated, if perhaps unexpected, affinity between storytelling and accountancy. To tell a story is to recount it, and a ‘teller’ usually works at a bank; tales and their tellers have always had a relationship with matters of counting, balancing and reckoning. Tell, the remarkable new novel by Jonathan Buckley, the co-recipient of the 2022 Novel Prize, is concerned with assessment and measurement. Any sort of precision, it suggests, is fundamentally at odds with the business of storytelling. 

The novel concerns a very rich man, Curtis Doyle, and the various attempts made to weigh – or account for – his life. Doyle’s family, houses, art collection and staff – including those tasked with telling stories about him – fan out around him. The story is ostensibly narrated by Curtis’s gardener, whose testimony appears to be directed at a silent interlocutor who will later tell a new version of the story. Another character, Lara, is writing about Curtis, and her status as chronicler affords her certain privileges. Narrative intimacy pays. ‘Telling’ is also contained in ‘foretelling’, and this is a book ruled by the teasing mechanisms of prolepsis – ‘We’ll come on to it later.’ Not that these promises of enlightenment are ever fully realised. The narrator consistently emphasises his or her own partiality and limitations as a guide in asides like ‘the water’s too deep for me’ and there’s a formal counterpart in the frequently scattered notations ‘[Indistinct]’ and ‘[Inaudible]’ in the transcripts. Curtis eludes everyone – his reckoners and the reader.

Tell is an undeniably slight book. Slightness is sometimes understood as a negative attribute in novels, which can seem to aspire to the large-scale, the explanatory or the historically or culturally detailed. But Buckley has succeeded in developing an aesthetic of slightness: his is writing designed to slip

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