Joan Smith – What Will Survive (2007) [SPOILER]

Aisha Lincoln is an ex-model who now devotes her life to a charitable Trust established in her name devoted to campaigning for women and the poor in developing countries. In the company of a renowned photographer, Fabrizio Terzano, she takes a trip to Syria and Lebanon, and while in the south of the latter country is involved in an incident with a land-mine in which Fabrizio is killed, and she dies soon after her arrival at hospital in Beirut. The book is then devoted on the one hand to the reactions of those close to her – her husband, lover, children and friend – and their lives both following her death, and in the year before she left, and on the other to the investigations of a journalist, Amanda who goes to Lebanon to try and find out what happened in more detail. Just as Amanda uncovers the truth Princess Diana dies in Paris and no-one is interested in what she has found out (the book is obviously set in 1996-7).

I am breaking all rules regarding spoilers here because I believe that readers would be even more disappointed if they did not know that there is absolutely no connection whatever between what happens in the Lebanon and the various characters to whom we are introduced in England. As far as the Lebanese ‘plot’ and the historical and social background are concerned the book is competent enough, though it certainly did not contain anything new to me. But certainly this was the strongest part of the book. For the rest – and for the lack of connection between the two stories – I found this a big disappointment. Smith was an important and innovative mystery-writer in the Loretta Lawson series which ran between 1987 and 1995, Loretta herself being one of the first – if not the first – overtly feminist protagonist in English mystery fiction; I remember the books as engrossing and well-written (of course memory may play me false!). But quite apart from the plot deficiencies of What Will Survive, the sociological and psychological aspects of the book seem very predictable. The major male characters of husband Tim and lover Tory MP Stephen are both horrors, especially the latter who is vicious to his unfortunate wife Carolina. But the female characters are not really given any depth either.

The book is in a sense a work of historical fiction looking at the collapse of the Major Government, the arrival of Blair and of course the death of Diana and the events which followed. But there are no new insights or observations as far as any of these matters are concerned. In fact in relation to the latter  Smith seems almost to be blaming Diana for the fact that the news-frenzy after her death prevents the reporting of her fictional character’s story! Certainly the book seems obtuse in its understanding of what was actually happening at this time.

The book is certainly well-enough written and is competent enough in its use of shifting time-frames; it may be that if I had not brought some considerable expectations to the table I would be less critical – but even in that event I think I would have assessed this as a very minor work.

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