Abigail Strafe, the protagonist of Sarah Dearing’s arrestingly funny and linguistically daring new novel, loses her job as a school teacher after a confrontation with a student that gets out of hand. The reason for the confrontation is that a young boy was being bullied. As she puts it:
It was the coddled, over-privileged boys doing the torture and their victim was the fatherless fat kid who probably never learned how to fight back. His mother whispered her thanks when she came to collect him, but he never returned to that school. I think my reaction was not only appropriate but also long overdue. He’s on my list too, that little boy, and twenty years from now I’ll ask him if I did the right thing.
It’s the “fatherless” bit that holds the key to that passage, and indeed to this entire book. The Art of Sufficient Conclusions has Abbie on a quest to learn more about the life of her now-deceased father, a former child film star who was (apparently) “sold” to an infamous sculptor to be his model. This journey takes Abbie to London, riding on the coattails of her on-again off-again partner Julian, a scholar who is there to attend a conference. Concurrent to all this is a flirtatious affair that Abbie strikes up with a man named Martin, who is Julian’s old university roommate and whom Julian may have set up Abbie to fall in love with. Bundled up in all this are issues of science, mortality (Julian has discovered himself to be a candidate for early onset Alzheimer’s) and the very nature of inevitability.
The great strength of this novel is Dearing’s manic, almost hyperactive prose: whether describing the streets of London, how much Julian annoys her, or the surly librarian overlooking her research, Abbie’s voice wows us with its hilarity and cutting observations. This is a character whose brain you want to inhabit, whose witty inner world seems enviable even as her life teeters toward the edge of collapse. In this regard, The Art of Sufficient Conclusions reminded me of the best of Amis, Burgess and A.L. Kennedy.
Still, I found the novel lost a bit of its steam in the last quarter. There is a dourness that infiltrates the long heady exchanges that come near the end as Abbie wrestles with her troubled love triangle with Julian and Martin, the family secrets she is learning about her father, and her own mortality. It’s almost as if Dearing felt the book needed to become Serious Literature as it reached its conclusion, lest it be dismissed as little more than a comic romp. But a marvelous romp it is—some of the funniest writing I’ve read in a long time—and it’s too bad it didn’t maintain that momentum all the way through.