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A Personal History of Thirst Hardcover – February 1, 1996
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From Publishers Weekly
Former lawyer Burdett's first novel cleverly exploits a love triangle to highlight the mordant ironies of the British class system. Couched in terms of psychological intrigue, this three-part thriller uncovers deception involving ambitious James Knight, a defender turned prosecutor; Oliver Thirst, his former client; and Daisy Smith, an Anglomaniac American. In the first part, Daisy is charged with Oliver's murder. The second part is a flashback to the late 1970s, which establishes and develops the dark triangle. James, Oliver and Daisy all seek escape from their respective places in society. James, not being of blue-blood public-school stock, feels an outsider in the legal ranks even as he rises to the verge of receiving silks as a Queen's Counsel. That's when Oliver, trying to polish his native intelligence with schooling in order to escape the streets, reenters his life. Though it's unethical to continue contact with a former client, not to mention socially inadvisable to step down the class ladder for tea, James does so because of a secret in his own past. Meanwhile, Daisy is trying to erase the memory of a brutally abusive father while her British mother moves towards a devastating end. A convoluted strategem fabricated to free Daisy hides several sinister truths as the final battle of wits ensues in Daisy's trial, which consumes much of the third and most compelling-and funny-part of the novel. As legal machinations and revelations of cunning duplicity mount, Burdett drives his sharp-eyed amorality tale to its startling conclusion.
Copyright 1995 Reed Business Information, Inc.
James Knight, successful London barrister, is visited by two policemen investigating the murder of Oliver Thirst, a convicted criminal whom Kinght once defended and later befriended. Daisy, Knight's ex-lover and Thirst's wife, is accused of the crime. What follows is Knight's narration of the connection between these three. Knight first meets Daisy, an American, when both are in school. His working-class origins are one of the things that attract Daisy, but Knight is determined to climb the social ladder and, as he puts it, "amputate his past." As he is starting to establish himself in his career, he is asked to handle an appeal for Thirst, a thief with whom he has a slight acquaintance, so that Thirst can be paroled from prison and make a new start. The theme of starting anew, making oneself over, changing identities, is central to the book. The appeal is successful, and from that point on the lives of Knight, Thirst, and Daisy are fatally intertwined. The characterizations are not quite strong enough to make this first novel a complete success. The reader never quite buys Daisy's alleged charm and Thirst's charisma. Still, the author does a skillful job of managing his theme of shifting identities, all the way to the surprising but inevitable conclusion. Mary Ellen Quinn
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And to a large extent, this is the watermark of a Burdett novel. There's always something unexpected and strange. Sometimes it's overt, sometimes it's more nuanced, and in some cases, you get pretty much the entire range. This one is not one of them.
The characters are not likeable people overall, and that makes it a bit harder to get engaged with the story. The story itself, though, keeps the reader interested enough to make finishing almost compulsory. You nearly HAVE to know what happened, even though at some points you almost don't want to. Some of this is difficult to read - some of the activities alluded to are pretty unpleasant. Burdett doesn't shy from this sort of thing as a general rule. But you will have to finish it. The end is of course unexpectedly twisted. Burdett manages to tie all the strings together so well with it, though, that you're nearly surprised by your own surprise.
Not my favorite Burdett novel, but good, nonetheless.