Playwright and stand-up performer Claire Dowie’s début novel is constructed as the chronology of a commune, spanning the last 30 years of the 20th century. When Jonathan’s father dies, leaving him the rambling family seat of Tadley Hall, it seems, in the freewheeling 1970s, natural for him and his radical university friends Ewan, Dave, Sarah and the rest to move in together and attempt to form a self-sufficient community, the ‘Tadpoles’. The usual alternative lifestyle mix of free love, drugs and organic farming ensues, as do the predictable interpersonal squabbles and political ‘issues’. Somehow, though, the commune survives and even thrives through barter and blind luck and children are born, including Chaos, first-born of the Tadpoles.
As the decades pass and Chaos grows up, he becomes a musical icon, leader of the cult band Frogs and guru to the band’s followers, the Frogspawn and their radical direct action wing, the Chaotics. Chaos treads a fine line between using his fame for honourable purposes and abject sell-out. However, a fateful encounter with Tony Blair at a music award ceremony changes everything and tips the balance between fruitful anarchy and destructive turmoil.
Claire Dowie deserves credit for her attempt to create a story of friendship and betrayal using the material of alternative living and radical politics. But the combination of flat, banal writing and the sheer implausibility of character and events conspire to undermine her good intentions. Both the novel and its central figure, the irksome anti-messiah Chaos, demand much more suspension of disbelief than they have any right to expect.Peter Whittaker
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