James Meek’s novel follows his hugely acclaimed The People’s Act of Love (2005), a historical epic set in northern Russia in 1919. Here, by contrast, is a novel set in recent years, in which the hero-in-crisis, Adam Kellas, is a liberal, left-wing foreign correspondent and novelist who has enough in common with the author to give the book, despite its several international changes of scene, a very close-to-home feel. If the title, among other allusions, was intended to include a joke about the pressure of following The People’s Act, Meek has sidestepped the problem by producing a categorically different type of novel.
Adam Kellas agrees to cover the invasion of Afghanistan in order to prove his manhood to himself, and is soon running with a pack of international journalists who report from each bombsite as if they alone had just discovered it. One of Kellas’s counterparts amid this weirdly artificial, macho professional world is a beautiful American reporter named Astrid, whom he pursues until she agrees to a sexual tryst in Bagram, while Taliban trucks roll past. Astrid is, in the earlier part of the book at least, one of the ballsiest, most intimidating literary heroines seen for a long time, and the infatuation she inspires in Kellas is entirely understandable.