Books

The Imposters by Tom Rachman review: Dark humour and a flair for invention

The critically acclaimed literary novelist's latest is an intelligent, tricksy novel that keeps the reader off balance

The Imposters

Tom Rachman’s The Imposters begins during lockdown, in the north-west London home of Dora Frenhofer, a spectacularly unsuccessful Dutch novelist, and her husband Barry, an equally unsuccessful “couples therapist”. The marriage is a late one and neither entirely happy or normal – Dora, 73 (Barry is nine years younger), is exhausted and disillusioned, and admits she sought a partner mainly to help her “pull the plug” when she has finally had enough of this world. 

It is soon apparent that this odd situation is even odder than it first appears as Dora, as well as being a writer of fiction, is an unreliable narrator of her own existence. So the scene is set for an intelligent, tricksy novel that engages the reader while constantly keeping you off balance, straining to discern when you are being told the (fictional) truth or spun a yarn. 

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She may be wholly untrustworthy, but Dora is dryly entertaining, affecting company. We find her struggling to create what she knows will be her final book, no doubt fated to be as little read as all the others – a backlist she describes as “a succession of small novels about small men in small crises”. “Maybe I need to retire,” she tells a friend. “Retire as a writer?” he smirks. “Who would you tell?” 

Each chapter is effectively a short story given over to a different character stemming either from Dora’s life or imagination (we’re not always sure). 

They are interspersed with diary entries that lead teasingly to the next section. Dora’s estranged daughter Beck is an edgy comedy writer for US television attempting to build a career while avoiding being cancelled; her brother Theo disappeared during a youthful trip to India; a former lover, a lockdown deliveryman and a young man who finds himself working for a clickbait website in an office populated by grotesques add to the rich tapestry. Each tale grows in intriguing and unexpected ways with the final chapter given over to Dora herself as she confronts one last, ultimate decision. 

Rachman is, deservedly, a critically acclaimed literary novelist, whose past works include the excellent The Imperfectionists and The Italian Teacher. The Imposters carries perhaps the most downbeat air of all his books, but is enlivened throughout by his dark humour and flair for invention. Its relentless twists and turns may tempt you into a second reading, too. 

Chris Deerin is a journalist and the director of Reform Scotland

The Imposters cover

The Imposters by Tom Rachman is out now (riverrun, £16.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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