It’s a new world. Science has separated 33-year-old conjoined twins Blair and Bunny. Privatisation has plucked them from their institutional cocoon and dropped them in the middle of London. Violence has given young Ludmila the opportunity to escape her Ublilsk village, where civil war looms, cannibalism hovers in living memory and tractors are fuelled by goats’ piss.
DBC Pierre’s latest novel charts the twins’ and Ludmila’s first encounters with freedom, the unalienable right to go after something better than they had before. “The optimistic presumed there would be a great devouring of life,” he writes. But Pierre is no optimist: he lets Ludmila warn us, “what you devour, devours you”.
Pierre is merciless. He thrusts his protagonists on a trajectory of tragedy, never pausing in misfortune, always moving on to the next inevitable blow. His hard-talking characters have a painful naivety: Blair dreams of starting suburban families with lap dancers, Bunny believes mutant royalty wanders his old home and Ludmila waits for the heroic fiancé who will never come. All are deluded and made vulnerable by imaginings of freedom.
The three are eventually drawn together by a series of setbacks that find Ludmila’s photograph on a website for Russian brides and Blair at his computer with a wild-cherry-flavoured, drug-induced erection.
This is a strong follow-up, but no equal, to Vernon God Little, Pierre’s Booker-winning debut. The characters in Ludmila’s Broken English lack the ability to repel and draw in the reader with the same force. Certain strengths remain. Pierre’s language has a frank poetry: harsh, bare and possessed of a noble honesty. And while the novel is not as funny as its predecessor, black humour soaks the rationalisation and relentlessness of exploitation within every relationship it describes. It won’t warm readers with the power of the human spirit, but it will induce a shrug – and perhaps a smirk – at its survival.
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