Robert Irwin’s lengthy career has consisted in equal parts of scholarly excellence and pure mischief. He is the long-standing Middle East editor of the Times Literary Supplement, was formerly a lecturer at Oxford, Cambridge and SOAS and has written a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism. His fiction, though, reveals a different side to him, puckish and lightly experimental.
His new novel, Tom’s Version (a sequel to 2021’s The Runes Have Been Cast), is the work of a man who is now closer to eighty than seventy. One wonders which of his peers Irwin has in mind when he has a character opine that ‘old writers got over-preoccupied first with illness and then death and the stories they wrote were dominated by that final full stop’.
Certainly, Irwin himself cannot be accused of sharing this fixation. Tom’s Version is set in 1970, at the point at which the Sixties are curdling into something darker, flatter and greyer. Tom, an Irish poet in his twenties who works in a London warehouse, is first seen standing stark naked in a circle of like-minded people at an introductory session for an encounter group in a city basement. He is drawn at once to the brilliant, beautiful