Cape Times

Satirical take-down of social media-fuelled outrage gone mad


JOHN Boyne is known as a brilliant writer, and one whose novels usually treat their subject matter with compassion.

So, it is an absolute delight that in The Echo Chamber he has created a satirical take-down of social mediafuell­ed outrage gone mad.

Some critics have said that this book is a response to the flak he took after the publicatio­n of the novel My Brother’s Name Is Jessica, which caused something of a social media uproar when he was accused of a number of “unwoke” sins.

Whether it is a reaction to that or not really doesn’t matter. The Echo Chamber is a hugely entertaini­ng and brutal exposition of lives lived by social media likes, Twitter follower numbers, and a world that is so fake that it seems almost impossible, until you realise that you might be guilty of much of it.

Probably not as guilty as the Cleverley family, though. George, the father, is a long-time television host with the BBC. He is, in his own words, “a national treasure”. His wife Beverley (never to be called Bev) is a wellknown novelist who doesn’t write her own novels any more; she hires ghosts to do the actual writing because she is very busy.

Son Nelson (named after Nelson Mandela) is a teacher who is in therapy, which is ironic as his father has literally been in therapy, which is causing him some stress. Nelson hates his job, still lives at home, a very large house in Belgravia, and feels most comfortabl­e when wearing a uniform in public (think scrubs, police uniforms etc). He is socially awkward, but quite sweet.

The daughter, Elizabeth, also still living at home and with no job, has a hideous partner, Wilkes, who doesn’t care much for washing, but is very addicted to documentin­g his good works on social media.

Wilkes and Elizabeth don’t say they love each other; that would just be too, too ordinary. They “appreciate” each other.

And then there is Achilles, still at school, but a scammer of note, using - obviously - social media.

When George screws up royally trying to be supportive of his lawyer’s receptioni­st, who has transition­ed from Nadia to Aidan, the whole stack of cards of deceit come tumbling down.

The novel is extremely funny, and its obvious reliance on almost old-school humour is at sharp odds with the world the Cleverley’s live in, where everything is documented and commented on. It’s rather like being at a concert and wondering if anyone is interested in being in the moment, or showing the world that they are there.

The family’s name might well be a nod to the absurdity of the plot, and the fact that at times even though the reader is laughing, one suddenly realises that tears of sorrow would be more appropriat­e.

I relished every word of this book; the absurdity of it had me in its clutches, and the literary devices are clever and sharp. The only part I found a little tired was the ending: I would have preferred to go out with a bang rather than a bit of a whimper.

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