Book Review: Caledonian Road // Andrew O’Hagan

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At one point in Andrew O’Hagan’s state-of-the-nation novel, Caledonian Road, one character tells another: “A real writer doesn’t reveal the truth. He hides it beautifully.” And that statement could comfortably be made about O’Hagan. His perennially provocative new epic tells of an “ailing” Britain at the height of the pandemic – one that is internally divided politically, economically, racially, and culturally – from a distance. At no point in time does he promote or champion a specific perspective nor reveal his point of view: that is left to the reader. 

He leans instead on his protagonist, celebrity author and UCL professor Campbell Flynn, to raise the questions. After building rapport with one of his students, Milo Mangasha, the middle aged, middle classed, and moderately famous academic has an existential crisis. An extended where-do-the-ducks-go phase leads him to question his privilege and role in perpetuating the status quo. Issues that have been discussed in the British media over the last few years, from the ownership of foreign art to Russian money in London, all come under scrutiny in the pensant’s more troubled hours.

The book’s plurality of interests makes it read like a snapshot of contemporary London society and, in some ways, of British society. It goes beyond touching upon contemporary hot button issues and tries to represent all its members – as the multi-page character list at the start of the novel foreshadows. From London’s gangs to its elites, everyone is connected in a quasi-Balzacian way through Caledonian Road (or to “the Cally” as others call it). On his wife’s side, Campbell has access to the uber rich aristos with their Warhols, Breguets and Indian help. Through Milo, he indirectly ties to the likes of 0044, Big Pharma or Ghost 24, murkier underground characters who are themselves connected to less savory characters.

The perspective shifts that O’Hagan employs also contribute to creating an impression of societal totality. Some characters – Milo, Campbell’s sister, Jakub, etc. – appear several times and represent other parts of society. They shed light on interests and worries that are radically different from Campbell’s despite often being tied directly or indirectly to his own. Others appearing only once provide narrative clues that connect people, places, and provide alternative perspectives to his often-subjective experience. They keep each other honest and do not allow the reader to accept its characters at face value. They reveal that, perhaps, there is nothing we can do except try harder. As one of the characters puts it: “we’re all stupid sometimes”.

This layering of contradictions is central to the novel and is often supplemented with incisive absurdist humor. In one delightful passage, we are told about Campbell’s colleague Jennifer Mearns, a fellow academic who has “searched the universe (and the world’s archives) for evidence of famous writers making sexist remarks in or around the year 1888.” In another, a new student approaches Campbell. “My mom got me your book on Vermeer for my birthday,” she says. “I haven’t read it yet, but we were in Berlin and saw two of the paintings.” The underlying humor questions, provokes, and demands that we reflect on our own actions.

In other hands, Caledonian Road with its aspirations of capturing the zeitgeist (a feat comparable to capturing lightning in a bottle) might have failed miserably. But with seven books under his belt, O’Hagan doesn’t miss. This Dickensian novel is a page turner with an extensive cast, a clever plot, and is sure to charm even the most reluctant reader through its wit and ideas. Whether Caledonian Road and its current issues will stand the test of time is unclear, but it is undoubtedly one of the greater novels of our time.  

Words by Elkyn Ernst


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