A Lonely Man is a novel about a writer in Berlin who becomes drawn into the life of a stranger he meets in a bookshop, who may or may not be being chased by Russians. Robert lives in Berlin with his wife and two daughters, where he spends his time trying and failing to write a follow up to his debut book of short stories. At an event in a bookshop, he meets Patrick, who seems drunk and unpredictable, but after he helps Patrick out, they meet for drinks and Robert discovers that Patrick is a ghostwriter for a recently-dead Russian oligarch. Robert doesn’t believe Patrick is really in danger, but maybe his story could give Robert so much needed content for a novel.
The atmosphere of this novel really drew me in, with a vividly described Berlin and a real sense of this British man who still sees the novelty of living there (he does know much German, much less than his Swedish wife). At first, it was hard not to be like ‘oh great, another novel about a writer struggling to write another book’, and I think this feeling would’ve been worse if I knew that Chris Power is also known for writing a book of short stories, but after a while I got more engaged with the narrative, especially the way it stays mundane whilst also having underlying threat.
The narrative is broken up by sections that Robert has supposedly written as he turns Patrick’s story into fiction, which both unfold the story (unreliably of course) and bring up questions about what is the truth and what writers can write about. It was quite apparent this was what the novel was going to engage with seeing as quite early on it becomes clear that Robert’s short stories were mostly just anecdotes from other people he fictionalised. This did make the ‘novel about a struggling writer’ stereotype a little more palatable, as it brought up some questions about what people write about and even by implication if writers should write so many books that just fictionalise people they know (and, indeed, themselves).
Though I did enjoy reading A Lonely Man for the Berlin setting and the low level tension, it didn’t do enough to subvert or play with the kind of novel it is, especially with a writer protagonist. There was a momentary flirting with having an affair which I didn’t see why the novel needed, especially as most of the other narrative elements felt controlled and very much like they’d all been purposefully chosen for symmetry and comparison throughout the novel as a point about how writers turn stories into something better for fiction. Overall, I appreciated the execution (the sections of Robert’s writing about Patrick were a bit dull, but necessary for the concept) and the atmosphere as a low key literary thriller and it had quite a noir feeling that I think people will enjoy.