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A Lonely Man by Chris Power: Short story star had more in his locker

Chris Power's intriguing debut novel A Lonely Man is packed with drama and humour but Chris Deerin wishes it would let loose a little

In literary circles, Chris Power is synonymous with the short story. He is the writer of an insightful and exhaustive 14-year series for The Guardian called (surely ironically) A brief survey of the short story, covering, well, everyone really: from JL Borges to JG Ballard, from Lydia Davis to Elizabeth Taylor, from Carver to Cheever. If there is a thing to be thought about fiction’s short form, Power has thunk it.

It was inevitable that his first book, Mothers, would be a collection of stories. It was good, too: taut, unornamented and often pleasingly absurd, it wore its learning lightly and was deservedly well received.

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There was the sense however that Power had more in his locker, and so it proves with his intriguing debut novel, A Lonely Man. Like Mothers, it arrives garlanded with praise from ‘serious’ authors, anointing him that rarefied – and sometimes dreaded – beast, a writer’s writer.

The tale moves between the Berlin apartment and Swedish lakeside summerhouse that Robert Prowe shares with his wife and daughters. Robert is a blocked novelist, but thanks to a chance meeting with a drunk man in a bookshop finds himself with a ready-made story. The man, Patrick, has fled from the UK to Berlin following the death of a Russian oligarch whose biography he was writing – he believes his subject was murdered by Vladimir Putin’s goons and that they are now on his trail.

A Lonely Man by Chris Power
A Lonely Man Chris Power book reviews 1455

Power excels at capturing the small details and at nudging subtle shifts in relationships between his characters: the tensions in Robert’s marriage and with his children; his uneasy alliance with Patrick, who is unaware he is providing material for a planned novel.

There is drama, but also humour. A brief return to London for the funeral of a friend who has killed himself is booze-soaked and eventful. Robert refuses to believe there is any truth to Patrick’s tales of hitmen and harassment until events prove him wrong. Power’s powers of description are arresting – a statue of a weeping woman has “a line of thin, solemn poplars at her back like mourners at a grave”; water dripping through tree branches sounds like “the snap of a fire”.

This is a book freighted with moral choices, with the biggest saved till last. I loved it, even if at times I found myself wishing Power would cut loose a little and bust through the restrictions imposed by his own good taste.

A Lonely Man by Chris Power is out now (Faber & Faber, £14.99)