As she explains in her author's note, Lionel Shriver wrote this comic novel about terrorism in 1998, but was unable to sell it because of American lack of interest in terrorism. So now it's a novel set in an alternate past. I found it quite funny.
The main character Edgar is an unpleasant, chauvinistic guy who feels he's always second best. He's always jealously hero-worshiping someone else. Even though the character was a jerk and kept making poor decisions, I felt sympathetic to him and I was rooting for him. He doesn't understand other people and views them in the most shallow way. I think it's tricky to pull off an awful but likable main character, and the whole novel is consistently in his voice. Edgar has thrown over a career in law to become a journalist, and is assigned to a (fictitious) area of Portugal. Again, making up a country is something that could go very very wrong but I thought Lionel Shriver got it just right.
Edgar is replacing another journalist, Barrington Saddler, who has mysteriously vanished. Barrington was a larger-than-life person who was everyone's favorite guy, and all the people left behind compare Edgar unfavorably to the legendary Barrington. Why can't Edgar ever have the charisma of someone like Barrington? It just so happens that when Barrington arrived in Barba a horrifying terrorist movement arose there, and when he disappeared it stopped. I can't say that I was surprised by the twists and turns of the plot, but I enjoyed them. I was also anxious for Barrington Saddler to finally reappear, and I wasn't disappointed by the way it happened. Journalists, academics, terrorists and the people who love them all get skewered in this farcical story. Obviously, terrorism isn't really funny, and again I think Lionel Shriver got a difficult thing just right.
Lionel Shriver's prose is very ornate. I'll give you the first sentence as an example--"Whisking into his apartment house on West Eighty-Ninth Street, Edgar Kellogg skulked, eager to avoid eye contact with a doorman, who at least got a regular paycheck." You'll either love it or hate it. But I stopped even noticing it after a few pages because I found the story so absorbing. It also made me nostalgic for that bygone time when Americans had floppy disks, used AltaVista for their search engines, didn't have cell phones, and never gave terrorism a thought except to blithely donate money to the IRA.
I guess my only complaint about this novel is about the supporting characters who were journalists in Barba. There were five to seven of them, and each one was thinly sketched and then I was supposed to remember them all. Some of them end up being important, like Nicola and Henry, so I got a grasp on them. But others made no impression, so by the end of the book I still could not tell the difference between Win and Ordwray, if indeed those are two different characters.
I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway, and I'm glad I did.