The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence

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Review by Annabel

In three novels now, Gavin Extence has proven that he can maintain a light-hearted narrative that can ultimately uplift, no matter how bad life gets. That’s not to say that his novels aren’t serious – they are, but getting the balance right without descending into melodrama is tricky. His debut, The Universe Against Alex Woods was the heart-warming story of the unlikely friendship between a geeky epileptic teenager and an older Kurt Vonnegut-obsessed Vietnam veteran and I laughed and cried while reading it. 

In The Empathy Problem, Extence gives us a very different main character. Gabriel Vaughn is the co-founder of a hedge fund. He is rich – very, very, very rich. He has a multi-million pound flat in Docklands, drives a yellow Ferrari, is chauffeured to work, has great sex with a high class prostitute, and lives for his job, which he’s very good at. He has no friends, no interests, apart from the gym, just the job. We shouldn’t like him at all – he’s everything we should despise, except that once we get to know him, we can’t.

Gabriel’s emotional behaviour starts to change – he breaks down crying on the tube which embarrasses him enough to visit a doctor where he discovers he has a large inoperable brain tumour and six months to live. They agree medication and his doctor tells him to stop driving.

‘There’s a chance your insurance will no longer be valid.’

Gabriel nodded, and left shortly afterwards.

His car was parked just around the corner from the clinic. It was a Ferarri 458 Italia, in yellow. It could go zero to sixty in 3.4 seconds and had a top speed of over two hundred miles per hour. This was extremely useful in central London.

He does love his car, but his changed state of mind and knowledge of his imminent demise does make him want to become a better person. There will be no bucket list for Gabriel though – he has no intention of stopping work or telling them – he’d rather die in front of his computer screen. 

This is an attitude confirmed by finding he shares it with Admiral Nelson, whose tomb he sees during his first ever visit into St Paul’s Cathedral where he discusses the naval hero with another visitor.

Gabriel looked back to the huge sarcophagus containing Nelson’s remains, minus his arm. ‘Didn’t he think of calling it a day at that point? I mean, first the eye, then the arm – seems like he was getting some strong signals about where his career was likely to end.’

‘Yes. He considered it,’ the old man wheezed. ‘But for some, the fear of no longer being of any use is far worse than the fear of death. That was certainly true for Nelson. After he lost his arm, his biggest worry was that he would not be deemed fit for service. But his fear of death was greatly diminished…’

… The old man rose ponderously to his feet. ‘These days the Cathedral hires this room out as a drinks venue. Corporate functions. Can you believe that?’

‘Yes,’ Gabriel said. ‘Very easily.’

His mission of self-improvement starts opposite his office – outside the Cathedral where there is currently an economic peace camp of protesters. A busker plays the violin – and it moves him – music had never moved him before. Without thinking he follows her, but loses her. Next week she’s back, and he stalks her again so when she is mugged, he is able to come to her rescue. Before you know it, Gabriel and Caitlin are starting a relationship – but it’s one built on lies. Gabriel knows she’ll reject him as a hedge fund manager, so conjures up an alternative life as a data analyst living in South London. He doesn’t tell her about his terminal illness either. Can he keep the act up?

I loved this novel in the same way I adored Extence’s bittersweet debut. The Empathy Problem is similarly, very funny in parts, but again, it also wears its heart on its sleeve, and I was crying (sort of happily) at the end. 

The novel tackles many issues – there’s the central romance and Gabriel’s illness, and running parallel is the discussion of the world of finance, hedge funds, economic poverty and inequality, as exemplified by the protesters outside and the pay of the office support staff who are glorified slaves inside – and it was brilliant to see the friendship between Gabriel and his PA Nicola develop and his acceptance that the protesters are normal people who have a point as Gabriel’s emotional outlook changes. Additionally, there is Gabriel’s father whom he had become indifferent to – is it too late for them to re-bond?

Extence tackles everything with wit, charm and a light-hearted writing style but is also gutsy and not afraid to twang your heartstrings. You soon bond with Gabriel – at the start he’s not dissimilar to Graeme Simsion’s hero Don in The Rosie Project. From Gabriel’s sessions with a psychotherapist and looking at his obsessive single-track lifestyle, you would think that he could be ‘on the spectrum’ too. Gabriel has such an emotional epiphany, (although he wonders whether it’s him or his tumour doing it), his personal journey is bigger still.  Do read this book.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and quietly enjoys a good happy cry.

Gavin Extence, The Empathy Problem (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) ISBN: 978-1473605213, hardback, 332 pages.

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