Reviewer’s Choice – Birthright by Charles Lambert

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Review by Rob Spence

Birthright. The word smacks of entitlement, doesn’t it? The idea of being privileged because of the status of your parents. There’s plenty of entitlement on show in Charles Lambert’s latest novel, in which Fiona, a future heiress, makes a startling discovery one day: she has a secret twin. What follows is a labyrinthine tale of desire, deceit and, in places, depravity, as the two siblings engage in a dangerous game of psychological warfare with dramatic and far-reaching consequences.

The main narrative takes place in Rome in the early 1980s, where Fiona has gone in search of her doppelgänger. But a frame narrative is set elsewhere in Italy in the present day, and the reader is tantalised by the relationship between the events in the two timelines. As is the case in Lambert’s previous novels, the characters, while vivid and eminently believable, are not attractive. We are not inclined to support Fiona’s selfish pursuit of her twin any more than her sister Maddy’s resentful rejection of this new reality. Other characters are similarly unsympathetic: Fiona’s smooth-talking con-man of a boyfriend, Patrick, or Ludovico, the Italian family friend, whose shallow nature precludes him from making a commitment to either woman. As for the mothers: one a prissy, old-before-her-time widow, the other a reckless alcoholic. These characters are drawn into the maelstrom of Fiona’s obsessional quest, with life-altering results.

Once again, as with his previous novel The Bone Flower, Charles Lambert expertly dissects the  vicissitudes of human existence, emphasising the frailties and the compromises that characterise most people’s lives. It makes for occasionally uncomfortable reading, but is never less than compelling. The narrative moves rapidly, driven at first by Fiona’s need to connect at all costs, and later by Maddy’s desire to extract some personal advantage from the situation. But although plot is paramount, there is much to admire in the language and structure of the novel. The eighties Rome setting is evoked with deft descriptions of bus-rides, bars and apartments. And the intriguing present-day storyline remains at the back of the reader’s mind as we move towards the shocking conclusion.

Most of all, though, this novel impresses through the uncompromising truthfulness of its portrayal of imperfect, damaged people. The focus on the psyches of the main characters is relentless and unsettling, but also provides some of the most chilling moments, which reverberate in the mind of the reader long after the book is finished. This novel once again demonstrates the author’s eye for the unusual and the uncanny, heightened by the familiar and commonplace settings in which the events occur. It’s a novel that raises uncomfortable questions about identity, family, trust, friendship and belonging. 

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Rob Spence’s home on the web is at robspence.org.uk He is also on Bluesky: @spencro.bsky.social

Charles Lambert, Birthright (Gallic, 2023). 978-1913547288, 416pp., paperback

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