Two female journalists: one, a venerated Pulitzer Prize-winning octogenarian; the other, a young, struggling freelancer. Against every expectation, their paths converge fatefully when the novice receives an assignment that she can't afford to refuse.
The Spoilerby Annalena McAfee
A deft and impressive debut novel—a dark hyper-comedy—set in London in the late 1990s during the height of the newspaper wars just before the dot-com tidal wave.
Honor Tait, a legendary prize-winning war correspondent (called in her day "The Newsroom Dietrich" because of her luminescent beauty) is now in her eighties and looking back at a career that… See more details below
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A deft and impressive debut novel—a dark hyper-comedy—set in London in the late 1990s during the height of the newspaper wars just before the dot-com tidal wave.
Honor Tait, a legendary prize-winning war correspondent (called in her day "The Newsroom Dietrich" because of her luminescent beauty) is now in her eighties and looking back at a career that saw her on the front lines and in the foxholes of every major theater of war in the twentieth century. Tamara Sim, a young feature writer who compiles lists (what's in/what's out, ten best/ten worst) for a newspaper gossip magazine, is sent to interview the venerated "doyenne of British journalists" for a well-respected publication. What starts out as a tango of wills and egos turns into a high-stakes game of cat and mouse as secrets are revealed, lies unearthed, and one paper plays off the other in a ruthless, desperate grab for sensation and circulation.
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Read an Excerpt
Excerpted from Chapter One
London, 17 January 1997
She had two hours to conceal the secrets of her life. Evidence of vanity, foolishness and worse must be expunged. Domestic disorder was not a concern; the maid had remedied that this morning. And though Honor Tait might have been a slattern by inclination, she was never a collector, of people or of things. Divorce, bereavement, a house fire, a stringently unsentimental nature and the protocols of regular travel had ensured that, for a woman of her years, the flotsam was minimal. She had always travelled light. In love, as in life, it was hand baggage only. So what was left here in the London apartment? Which piece of junk, what accidental survivor of time’s winnowing, would betray her?
Breathless and gripped by uncharacteristic panic, she glanced around the room at the furniture, pictures and bookshelves. It was mostly Tad’s, of course. It had been his bachelor apartment and then it became their married pied-à-terre. Now it was her widow’s cell. He had been the homemaker, after a fashion. He had bought paintings, framed photographs, chosen curtains, indulged a whim for Staffordshire figurines and Sèvres china, taken a strange delight in the pair of soiled wingback chairs he had found in an Edinburgh antique shop, and spent silent hours, like a medieval monk at his manuscripts, poring over cumbrous books of fabric samples. Even at the companionable peak of their marriage, they both regarded Glenbuidhe, seven hundred miles north, with its invigorating discomforts, as her home and Maida Vale as his. Just as Honor had taken little interest in dressing the flat, she had no urge to dismantle it—to strike the set, as he would have said—once Tad had gone. Now she would be called to account for the acquisitive spirit and questionable taste of her dead husband.
Artifacts so familiar that Honor no longer saw them, books and pictures haphazardly accumulated, unwanted gifts and gewgaws, sentimental impedimenta, carefully dusted and rearranged by the maid, would be seized on as telling details. Too much had been said and written about Honor already; rumours, misinformation, insinuation and distortions had been picked up, polished by successive inquisitors and turned into lapidary fact.
She was still smarting from the Vogue piece, which Bobby had talked her into. It was more than a year ago now, but she felt incensed, demeaned by its inanities (and the photograph!) every time she saw an issue of the magazine—invariably, these days, in a doctor’s surgery. To insult and patronise and get so much wrong in the space of a three-hundred-word caption was quite an achievement. There had been radio appearances, on Woman’s Hour (so much fuss for an eight-minute slot) and with Melvyn Bragg on Start the Week, where Honor had attempted to make herself heard over a lugubrious scientist, a cleric who seemed to be under the impression that he was still in the pulpit and a novelist with eccentric views about animal welfare.
More recently, there had been the South Bank Show. (Melvyn again. Were there no other serious broadcasters left?) She had been assured that the programme would focus exclusively on her work—she had made it clear that her personal life was out of bounds—and she had been stupidly flattered into thinking that it would celebrate her “place, as a writer, at the heart of twentieth-century history.” Instead, what had it amounted to? A shrivelled old cadaver talking in the gloom about world events that no longer meant anything to anyone; a quavering Miss Havisham recalling the wedding that never was.
They had punctuated the interview with archive footage and stills— of Scotland, Paris, Spain, Germany and Los Angeles, with a procession of artists, poets, politicians and Hollywood panjandrums, and, successively, three husbands—a parodic distillation of her life in six minutes of flickering film. Painstakingly true to their word, the programme makers had refrained from actually mentioning any family, husbands or lovers, but the relentless pictorial parade was less discreet.
The researchers had unearthed a publicity shot of Maxime, waving a cigarette holder like a conductor’s baton, dwarfed by his own shadow, flamboyant as Noël Coward, though without the wit or warmth, or indeed the testosterone. Sandor Varga appeared twice: sleek and saturnine as Honor’s bridegroom in Basel, then, ten years later, plump and smug in Monaco with the cheap little trollop he had left her for. Tad, her third and last husband, had, bizarrely, received less attention in the documentary than the overpraised actress Elizabeth Taylor—the voiceover included an oafish reference to “Hollywood royalty”—with whom Honor and Tad had been photographed once at some film industry gala. His work was represented by a couple of clips from his films, which proved a mixed curse; out of context the humour had seemed even more puerile and strained, its nudging sexual references suggesting repression rather than liberation. She had felt for the poor old thing, safely out of it, in St. Marylebone Cemetery.
Respect was paid to her working life with some war footage— juddering front-line stuff from Madrid, Poland, Normandy, Buchenwald, Berlin and Inchon. Shadowy figures flitted through the Casbah in fifties Algiers—more stock footage—and there was a mawkish picture of her cradling a startled infant in a Weimar orphanage in the late sixties.
Hungarian students dashed themselves against Soviet tanks in 1956, and thirteen years later (three seconds in absurdly concertinaed screen time) their Czech counterparts did the same, while across two borders, in Paris, the privileged sons—it was mostly the sons—of the bourgeoisie, future lawmakers, academics, politicians and pundits, played at revolution, kicked in shop windows and hurled bricks and firebombs at the proletarian gendarmes.
A shot of Honor in the fifties in a Korean foxhole, unkempt and besmirched, showed her looking less like a war correspondent at work than a debutante surprised in a face pack. Mostly, though, the clips showed her young self as shiny and groomed, lustrous hair tumbling artfully to her shoulders, her smile an Olympian beacon, defying anyone not to find her beautiful, to desire her, to admire her cleverness and envy her success. The juxtaposition of this luminescent, capering goddess with the palsied pensioner in the filmed interview made for an exquisitely cruel vanitas: an Ozymandia for the modern age—Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. The friends and lovers momentarily brought to life on-screen might all be ghosts now, decomposing slime beneath the soil, or long ago cast to the air as ashes, but the grimmest spectre of them all was Honor Tait, the survivor, condemned to watch, appalled, over her own slow shrivelling.
What a mortifying thing fame was these days. It astonished her that so many people appeared to have little better to do than to sit gapemouthed before late-night TV arts programmes. She had been recognised everywhere—taxi drivers, maître d’s, shopkeepers, strangers at gallery openings, passers-by in the street. One labourer in an orange jerkin, shouldering scaffolding poles near her consultant’s clinic in Wimpole Street, had tipped his hard hat at her and called out, “Keep up the scribbling!”
Then there had been T. P. Kettering, the fawning academic who had volunteered as “official biographer” and, when rebutted, attempted to become unofficial snitch. His book, published by an obscure university press, with a title of preposterous grandiosity—Veni Vidi: Honor Tait, History’s Witness—had been a flaccid collage of cuttings, neutered by lawyers and fatally sunk by Honor’s unspoken decree that anyone who wished to retain any connection with her should have nothing to do with the proposed book or its author. Martha Gellhorn, Honor had been galled to see, had given Kettering a polite and mendaciously respectful quote. The book had been poorly reviewed. (“There is a compelling biography to be written about the extraordinary Honor Tait, but this vapid volume is not it,” Bobby wrote in The Telegraph.) The book had been mercifully forgotten, as had Kettering himself. Honor’s pleasure on learning that he had sunk into alcoholic desuetude, and was reduced to ghosting a footballer’s autobiography, had verged on indecency.
She could not, however, excise her name from the indices of other people’s biographies, or from the press cuttings that had been Kettering’s source. Nor could she remove her work from the archives. So much was in the public domain already. At this stage she needed to preserve the few shreds of dignity and privacy she had left.
She must look around her flat with the eye of a stranger, a malign stranger: a journalist. For her, of all people, this should not be difficult. But she was old and out of practice—she had not published any original reportage for eight years and her last piece, on the plight of Vietnamese boat people in Hong Kong, had been turned down by The New Statesman six months ago, with a letter of breathtaking obsequiousness. The “New Journalism,” of which she had once been seen as an exemplar, had been superseded by even newer forms, whose guiding principles baffled her. Like the nouvelle vague of French cinema, or the wasp-waisted full skirts of Dior’s New Look, Honor Tait’s distinct brand of New Journalism—politically informed, veraciously impartial—was as obsolete as an antimacassar in this ironic modern age. Only the wilfully arch, the nostalgia nuts with a taste for “vintage” style and Bakelite aesthetics, held her approach in any esteem.
She stood in the centre of the room, a fragile, fretful old woman, her hair awry, in a shabby dressing gown of paisley silk. She had recently developed a sporadic tic, a nodding tremor of the head that seemed to become more pronounced when she was agitated, as she was now, and gave the impression of enthusiastic endorsement when the opposite was invariably the case. Her left hand gripped the back of one of Tad’s precious wingback chairs and, steadying herself, she turned slowly, her watery blue eyes narrowing, trying to take in the room as if for the first time, to read it as if she were illicitly scrutinising someone else’s intimate journal.
Start with the walls: the pictures and photographs. How long was it since she had actually looked at these things? That watercolour of verdigris waves and muddy mountains—Antrim? The west of Scotland? Not Loch Buidhe, anyway. It was too wild and open for that sheltered glen. Another of Tad’s impulse purchases; blamelessly unbiographical and criminally inept. Honor’s young interviewer would have difficulty drawing disparaging conclusions from this crude seascape, unless she was a connoisseur of art, which, given the calibre of most newspaper people these days, or indeed most young people, was unlikely. For the dealer in swift stereotypes, the picture might reflect a fondness for conventional Sunday painters or Celtic melancholy. Entirely wrong, but a harmless misreading.
The deceptively simple ink and wash of Tristram and Iseult could be more problematic. Tad had found it so. His first inclination had been to destroy the drawing, rip it in two with his meaty hands, or at least to leave it where he had found it, in a stack of Honor’s unregarded papers at Glenbuidhe. But the proprietorial husband, furious that his wife, whom he had married in their middle years, had ever been close to anyone else, lost out to his peculiarly American deference to fame. It was Tad who eventually chose the unwieldy ebony frame, after a degree of contemplation and dialogue that would not have discredited Plato, and placed the picture over the mantelpiece in the flat, where it still hung today. The artist had united the lovers in a single line and, if an interviewer were to examine the drawing closely in an unobserved moment—when, say, Honor was making tea in the kitchen—she might detect his dedication, written vertically in his tiny square print up the line of Iseult’s gown: To Honor from Jean. Je t’embrasse.
The story of their friendship had been regurgitated several times, in biographies of Cocteau and in the few profiles of her. Most recently, Kettering had attempted to warm it up and serve it again to an apathetic public. And the South Bank Show had shown jerky footage of the party for Le Bel Indifférent—with Picasso characteristically clowning for the cameras—but, observing her stipulation to the letter, the programme makers had refrained from attribution or comment, using, instead of informative voiceover, a rippling guitar soundtrack from Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club de France. “Oh, Lady Be Good.” Not an exhortation that was often heard in her circles in those days.
Her brief time with Jean had preceded her marriage to Tad—the last and best of husbands—by many decades, but timing had never been the issue for Tad. Nor did he need any evidence of intimacy. His jealousy— retrospective, current and prospective—had seemed a manifestation of madness evident nowhere else in his nature. A naughty deed in a good world.
But, really, what interest could such a story of busy couplings and sunderings, opium addiction and wild drinking among artists and bohemians in Paris—what was it? sixty years ago? sixty-five?—possibly hold for readers of a British Sunday newspaper magazine in the dying days of the millennium? Today art was about smearing your bodily fluids on canvas or parading your personal inadequacies for the benefit of the gawpers. They were all artists now; at it like farm animals, drinking like Bacchae. Opium, or its contemporary equivalent—was it cocaine again? or Ecstasy?—was served at industrialists’ dinner parties, shopgirls’ suppers and suburban pubs. Yesterday’s scandal was today’s optional footnote. Who really remembered Jean? And of those few wilful connoisseurs of obscurity who remembered him, who cared? The picture could stay. Besides, it was too heavy for her to move it unassisted.
Opposite the Cocteau, in a frame of unvarnished oak, was a harsh oil portrait of her, painted ten years ago, stiffly coiffed, carmine lipped and glacial. It was unflattering, even menacing, but something about it, its raw candour perhaps, or the timeless impassivity of a Russian icon—The Temptation of St. Honor, facing down innumerable unseen demons—had appealed to Tad, despite his constitutional antipathy to the artist. Daniel had painted it in his first and, as it transpired, final term at the Slade. His final year. She wrested the picture from the wall, cursing the effort this simple act required of her. But setting it down against the skirting board, she was dismayed to see that the painting had left a ghostly rectangle of dark wallpaper, like the poignant patch in the Boston museum that awaited the return of the stolen Vermeer. The absence of the portrait might invite more speculation than its presence. Better to leave it. She struggled to replace it on its hook. Her heart began to race uncomfortably, a prick of pain in each beat. She sat down to catch her breath.
Despite Honor’s initial refusal, her publisher had persuaded her to meet the interviewer in her flat. For all her earth-mother affectations, Ruth Lavenham, founder and editor in chief of Uncumber Press, was a steely operator. The intrusion would be good for sales of Honor’s new book, Ruth had said. Good, too, was the implication, a threat sheathed in a smile, for Uncumber Press, a valiant David to the corporate Goliaths of the publishing world. Honor owed her. It was Ruth who had rescued her from insolvency two years ago, just after Tad’s death, with a smart new edition of Honor’s first collection of journalism, Truth, Typewriter and Toothbrush, originally published by Faber in the 1950s and long out of print. The book, in its second incarnation, included her Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the liberation of Buchenwald and became a surprising succès d’estime. Honor Tait was “rediscovered” and, more gratifyingly, she was able to pay off some of her more pressing debts. The hope was that the new book, Dispatches from a Dark Place: The Collected Honor Tait, would repeat the trick. And next year, if all went well, there would be a third book, with the title, suggested by Ruth though resisted by Honor, of The Unflinching Eye.
“Oh, come on,” Ruth had said when they discussed advance publicity for Dispatches, “an interview with the most respected magazine in the land? In the comfort of your own home? Where’s the harm in that? And in publicity terms it’s infinitely better than a double-page advert.”
Cheaper, too. So Honor had capitulated. But she knew it was a mistake. On the few occasions in her life that she had consented to be interviewed, she had never admitted any reporter to her home. Even the most well-disposed journalist would regard the flat and its contents as her psyche’s porthole, curtainless and illuminated in the dark. The South Bank Show conversation with Melvyn had been filmed at the London Library, where she had previously agreed—in a moment of reckless narcissism, justly rewarded by the photograph itself (a Halloween fright mask in hell’s reading room)—to pose for Vogue.
Hotels, impersonal no-man’s-lands, stripped of signs and souvenirs, were best for these encounters. The most energetically malevolent reporter would find it hard to take you to task for the blandness of the interior decoration, the stains on the sofa or the musty smell pervading your room. Even then, in a corporate suite of beige leather and chrome, where the only indigenous books were the Gideon Bible and the Yellow Pages, you could be caught out, like poor John Updike. She had written him a note of sympathy after one newspaper interviewer had spotted a discarded pair of underpants under a chair in his hotel room and went on in her article to use the white briefs as a metaphor for what she considered to be the casual, masculine attitude to sex reflected in Updike’s fiction. It was the priggishness Honor had abhorred. Here in her flat, at least, thanks to the maid, there would be no underwear on view.
It was an old technique: alight on an apparently insignificant object and use it to construct a catchpenny psychological case history of its owner. How else to sum up a life on the evidence of an hour’s conversation and a little legwork in the cuttings library? Honor had resorted to the practice more than once herself, particularly when the interviewee was unforthcoming. Every tchotchke tells a story. Even in the newest New Journalism, some things never change. She recalled her own blood-sport thrill when she had spotted the netsuke mule on MacArthur’s bureau in Tokyo; a playbill for a Max Miller burlesque in Beckett’s Montparnasse redoubt; the copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets by Mme Chiang Kai-shek’s hospital bedside; and the signed photograph of Ida Lupino in de Gaulle’s austere wartime office in Carlton Gardens.
Could her own photographs, still on the bookcase and on the walls where Tad had first placed them, withstand such scrutiny? One black-and-white shot showed her as a young war reporter, lithe as a lioness and chic in fatigues among the grinning doomed boys before Normandy. Next to it was the iconic image, for Collier’s, sitting with Franco, newly appointed commandant general of the Canary Islands. Above the waist she was primly professional, her notebook and pen raised in a posture of exaggerated attentiveness, like a thirties stenographer. “Take a letter, Miss Tait.” Below she was all showgirl. Her long tanned legs, in tailored shorts and high-heeled sandals, looked as if they were on temporary loan from the Ziegfeld Follies. The picture was syndicated all over the world. “The Newsroom Dietrich,” they had called her. All on the record. All part of the myth. Nothing could be done about that now.
What People are saying about this
“[McAfee] writes with poise and polish, using her reportorial eye to create a fictional world that feels like a fun-house mirror of journalism from the late ‘90s…that could not be more timely. . . . A blackly comic, Waugh-esque portrait of a newspaper.” —Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“A dark, sparkly gem of a book: smart, knowing, funny, tragic: Miss Havisham meets Sex and the City. I don’t know how Annalena McAfee pulled off such a balancing act, but I very much hope she goes on writing novels of this quality. A stunner.” —Christopher Buckley
"An acid satire of London newspaperdom . . . . Spiky, vivid, and almost pathologically clever.” —Entertainment Weekly
“McAfee skewers the Fourth Estate with an insider’s insight, cutting wit and razor-sharp writing.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Funny, fast-paced. . . . As the drama ramps up into a race to the presses, the decadence and cynicism of a sunset industry is revealed.” —The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“A witty and entertaining debut about two very different worlds of journalism.” —The Guardian (London)
“Richly comic and entertaining.” —Tatler
“A wonderfully entertaining comedy of manners about the dying days of Fleet Street and the cult of celebrity . . . A clever, literary romp with flashes of Nancy Mitford and Helen Fielding . . . A darkly, deliciously witty read.” —The Independent on Sunday
“Masterly. . . A striking and accomplished novel.” —London Evening Standard
“Brilliant . . . It grips from the first with verbal polish and razor-sharp satire.” —Mail on Sunday
“Wily, insightful and engaging . . . McAfee has an excellent eye for detail and a wry comic touch . . . The Spoiler has a cracking plot, alive with twists and turns and meaning.” —The Times (London)
“Extremely funny and sharply observed.” —The Independent (London)
“Marvelously entertaining . . . McAfee’s novel is irresistible.” —Glasgow Herald
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The author is a show off. Yes, the author has a big vocabulary and can use esoteric terms. Yes, she knows 20th century history and historical characters as well as Hollywood stars. The plot is trite. the writing is not reader-friendly. Who was the author trying to impress? I believe she wrote this book to impress Ian McEwan. I wonder if they're still together. this is not a book with any appeal. I read a great deal. I have university degrees. I know several languages. Believe me, I have not read very many books that I have disliked this much. Don't waste your time and/or money on this book. There are too many GOOD books available to waste your time on this pretentious tome. Eeew..
I was excited to read this book then I did. I disliked almost every character in it.