The Ruins by Mat Osman

Review by Annabel, 19 March 2020

I am an absolute sucker for any novel with a bit of rock’n’roll in it, and two of my favourite reads from 2019 fitted that bill. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & The Six was one of them (reviewed here), but the novel that went on to be top of my ‘best of’ pile last year was the first crime novel by cult author Jeff Noon. Slow Motion Ghosts (reviewed here) is at first glance a police procedural about a dead rock star, but it had so much more in its dark, symbol-laden, music-steeped heart which, I was delighted to discover, is also the case for The Ruins!

Mat Osman’s name may ring a bell with you – he does have a younger brother who’s big in TV called Richard – but his first claim to fame is as bassist of the band Suede, who were Britpop darlings in the 1990s, disbanding and reforming in 2010 to new critical acclaim. Osman has previously written pieces for many publications, but The Ruins is his first novel.

The Ruins is a novel about identity, seen through the eyes of a pair of identical twins who, on the face of it, have as un-identical minds and lives as can be imagined. But, as you may imagine, they are closer to each other than they realise.

The novel begins with a corker of a first line or two:

I was about the start the earthquake when the phone rang. It wasn’t to be a big earthquake – I was thinking of two, maybe three hundred dead.

This is how we are introduced to Adam. But in the second paragraph, it becomes clear that he is talking about a model land; village or even city are too small words for it. Umbrage, as his land is called, is Adam’s obsession, it has working traffic lights and cable cars, clouds provided by a dry ice machine, everything engineered in miniature, with Adam playing God, inflicting occasional disasters on his creation.

The phone had been ringing a lot over the past few days, but this time he actually picked it up to find an American woman on the other end,” “It’s Rae.” A pause. “Brandon’s Rae? In California.” ”  This is how Adam discovered that his twin brother, Brandon, was not only married with a son in the USA, but was in London – and very dead!

Even after over a decade of non-communication between us, people assumed Brandon and I had some kind of mental bond. It’s the identical twin thing. People expect a connection that – for me at least – has never really existed.

Brandon, a struggling rock star, didn’t die of a drugs overdose as you might expect. He was gunned down in broad daylight several days ago in a quiet London square by two men dressed in black wearing Donald Duck masks. There’s been nothing on the news at all for some reason.

Adam will have to identify the body and liaise with Rae. It soon becomes clear that Brandon was involved in all kinds of schemes and plans – with the ultimate aim of making a comeback album, he was near completion but it is missing. From his notebook, which he’d written up, it’s clear he abandoned Rae and Robin in Tahoe to pursue his obsession:

When I’m far enough from the orbit of my soon-to-be-ex family I pull over and do a couple of lines in the restroom of a coffee shop about as close to San Francisco as it is to home. Here’s the last point at which I could turn back. Half-life. Wave or particle. For the moment I’m Heisenberg’s cat. Until someone peeks in my box I’m both doting partner and abscondee (and I’ll leave it you to guess which is life and which is death.

Brandon has also re-mortgaged their house, and soon, as Adam talks this through with Rae, it becomes clear to him that he needs to help Rae and get her money back. With the only people knowing that Brandon is dead being Rae, Adam, the police and the killers, Adam must become Brandon to see the schemes through. He’s also beginning to fall for Rae, and Robin doesn’t yet know his dad is dead.

Thus begins Adam’s impersonation of Brandon in which this fish out of water must work out exactly what his brother was doing. He seems to fool Kaspar, the concierge of the exclusive hotel where Brandon had holed up in a suite, readily enough. It will involve getting close to Brandon’s former band-mates: the damaged Kimi, the front-woman of their group Remote/Control, who now has a robotic voice-box and a new solo career, Baxter, now a rare record dealer, Saul who lives a simple life, and producer Dillon who is as dangerous as ever. Adam as Brandon will have to play them all at their games to find out what happened and why Brandon died.

I was intrigued from the very start of this dark noir novel. The twin brothers are perfectly realised, the geeky Adam, the hedonistic Brandon; combined into the answer-seeking single twin, with Adam learning to play his brother’s part almost faultlessly. Of the other main characters, Rae and Robin are just loveable, and the band members and crew are all archetypal middle-aged rockers, but such is Osman’s skill in developing their characters that they never descend into those rock’n’roll stereotypes.

The mystery behind Brandon’s lost album is a labyrinthine one, deftly woven into a web of literary and musical influences that shine a light on the trials and tribulations of song writing and recording processes. Ever the tortured artist, there are layers of symbolism that add delicious detail as Brandon seeks to elevate himself to mythic status. There’s a strong feel of William Blake and Elizabethan alchemist John Dee rippling underneath, alongside all the 20th century cultural mentions.

Structurally, the book alternates between Adam in real-time and Brandon’s diaries and songs as Adam uncovers where the next bits are hidden. Osman’s writing is full of authenticity with regard to the world which Brandon inhabited. This is a slightly slowburn mystery; there’s a lot to absorb – possibly too much for some – but I found I was enjoying these characters so much that I didn’t the book to finish.

Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.

Mat Osman, The Ruins (Repeater Books, 2020). 978-1912248674, 398pp., paperback.

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