Fiction & Biography

AnonEwoiHAcAN Personality - .: w W -' 0..

'Talent is the heart‘s bid for freedom.‘ 80 claims Opportunity Knocks supremo Hughie Greene or at least. the philosophical phantom of him enlisted here by Andrew O'Hagan. Greene is one of many friends. associates. relatives and admirers who offer their opinions on the breakneck rise and fall of Maria Tambini, a born performer discovered living in a chip shop on the Isle of Bute.

Maria‘s voice makes a variety superstar of her; but her heart‘s bid fails. Like the faceless, lost protagonists of O‘Hagan's celebrated 1995 non-fiction work The Missing. she becomes increasingly estranged from her family, her roots. and finally her own body. She may be firmly in the public eye, but she's also a missing person.

It hardly needs to be stated that the late Lena Zavaroni casts her all-too-slender shadow over O‘Hagan‘s second novel, his follow- up to the Booker-nominated Our Fathers. Maria's Italian heritage, her upbringing in Rothesay. the progress of her career from Opportunity Knocks to Las Vegas, her eating disorder. her mother's suicide and an eventual. humiliating arrest for shoplifting are all such direct lifts that one feels a touch uncomfortable on Zavaroni's posthumous behalf.

However, rather than put words in her mouth, O‘Hagan keeps Maria herself at arm‘s length. Through all her torments, her effect on those around her is documented, while she herself remains a distant, enigmatic presence. Meanwhile, from the Under Milk Wood-style opening onwards, the narrative point of view flits from character to character. O‘Hagan includes everything from letters and first person monologues to great swathes of family history and whimsical commentaries signed between deaf bystanders.

It‘s a strategy that makes for a rather undisciplined narrative, as if O‘Hagan had come up with a hundred

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O'Hagan offers up a graceful, humane character study

possible means of telling his story, and settled on all of them. Certain tangents just seem irrelevant, as if they’ve been drafted in from other unfinished projects. Still, his gentle, lyrical style holds the attention, and his tender respect for his subject never wanes. It‘s no startling revelation that those loved by the whole world often go home alone. or that the pressures of success can warp a sensitive mind.

But O’Hagan nimbly sidesteps cliche, and also evades the easy option of sneering at Maria's tacky showbiz milieu. There’s nothing hollow about her talent or her effect on the public; even Hughie Greene‘s florid pronouncements are given genuine resonance. Personality is a graceful, humane character study, with an unexpected strain of defiance that precludes mere martyr-worship. (Hannah McGill)

Shelf life

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What the critics said

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