Books

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: Lush and memorable

This historical novel about a forgotten city planner is a moving tale of loss, hope, and accidental murder, writes Patrick Maxwell

Writing a historical novel about a forgotten city planner in the hope of creating a moving tale of loss, hope, and accidental murder would be a prospect to scare most novelists before they got to the plot. But Jonathan Lee is not a scared novelist, and he is certainly not a scared writer. His new work The Great Mistake manages to weave all of these qualities into its dense narrative, resembling both a fully formed biopic and a deeply personal account at the same time.

Throughout the whole tale he is haunted by the figures of two Samuels; one a childhood friend, with whom a first moment of intimacy strips away their bond instantly and for life. The other is Samuel Tilden, the arrogantly unworldly lawyer with dreams of the political office he will come so close to acquiring it will at times bring the two closer and at others drive Andrew into episodes of self-hatred.

Andrew’s desires for both Samuels are restricted by his position: financially, socially, spiritually. His father, whose mistrust he so wants to rebuke, at the same time holds immutable influence over his outlook. The lesson to show ‘restraint’ in everything he does leads Andrew to focus entirely on his work, on becoming a lawyer, on improving New York. Never on being free for doing or being what he wants with Samuel Tilden or anyone else.

Lee’s depiction of this supposedly grand but increasingly tragic character of Andrew Green drives this novel beyond the usual strictures of biographical mores; that it is written in the simultaneously unassuming but rich style Lee possesses only increases this. Such a style seems to have much of its base in the very period portrayed; in the polite mannerisms of the late 19th-century gentlemen, or the bland formalities of the newspaper reports of the day.

The Mistake, in case you were wondering, is clear from the start. Green is murdered, when the novel opens, outside his house in November 1903. His killer, later declared insane, had mistaken him for a supposed lover of a brothel owner. The luckless, deranged nature of his death shadows over the whole story, acting as a backdrop against the guilts, doubts and also uncomfortable certainties of Green’s life, cut short in so many ways. We have only the lush writing of Jonathan Lee to make it so memorable.

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee is out now (Granta, £14.99)

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw
Books

Top 5 books about the British seaside, chosen by crime writer William Shaw

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age
Books

The Other Valley by Scott Alexander Howard review – the moral conundrums of coming of age

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history
Graffiti

From castle walls to Banksy: How graffiti has given us the writing on the wall throughout history

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel
Books

Fragile Animals by Genevieve Jagger review – a captivating and original gothic novel

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know