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Bruce Dennill reviews Steven Boykey Sidley’s latest novel Free Association

Published in the Sunday Times

Free AssociationFree Association
Steven Boykey Sidley(Picador Africa)

Steven Boykey Sidley has, over the course of his three previous novels (Entanglement, Stepping Out and Imperfect Solo), developed an enviable line in intense character studies of people who are entertainly flawed, gloriously real and worryingly, unsettlingly familiar. Max Lurie, for whose self-indulgent podcast this latest book is named, is another of these protagonists, operating on the margins of the society in which he lives by virtue of his restless intellect, thirst for new experiences and deep-seated cynicism.

Sidley adopts an interesting stance as the author, becoming Lurie (in the first person) via the character’s transcribed podcasts and then switching to third-person narration in between. It’s a mechanism that helps readers to feel like they’re getting to know Lurie and the context in which he exists separately, with the option of combining those threads.

Satisfyingly, Sidley provides a guide for readers who may see a disconnect in these two perspectives in the person of the Free Association producer Bongani, who is at once Lurie’s employee, business partner and tangible moral centre. As such, there is regular conflict between the two characters as Bongani suggests Lurie’s potential both to Lurie himself and to the reader.

The clashing of Lurie’s on-air iconoclasm (and the actions played out in the name of maintaining it) and the relatively normal, everyday life that he is otherwise living is what makes the story compelling and intimately recognisable.

Lurie is an artist and a visionary and an idiot and a frustrating schmuck. He’s people you know — and he’s you. You’ll find yourself judging him and defending him, which suggests that Sidley’s expression, via Lurie, of the uncertainty that comes with not meeting societal expectations (regarding age or talent or gender or whatever) has touched a nerve.

Follow Bruce Dennill @BroosDennill

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