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Who's Who in Hell: A Novel Paperback – August 12, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Chalmers's debut novel explores that territory to which Nick Hornby has so expertly laid claim: the feckless man who has reached the fateful dividing point between the slacker lifestyle of the 20s and the bourgeois comforts that beckon in the 30s. Londoner Daniel Linnell is on the verge of losing his job with Resolve, a counseling center where he mans the pay-per-minute therapy hot lines. Into his life comes Laura Jardine, an expatriate American who manages a hipster pub. Laura defines herself by her hobbies: taking pictures of dogs and parachuting, the latter a little too obviously portentous of disaster to come. After Daniel receives the boot from the institute, he eventually finds his true niche as an incredibly well-remunerated obituarist for a London paper (in a country where obituaries are a sort of literary extreme sport). Essentially, Daniel's job is to compose farewells that hint at the vices and inadequacies of the dearly departed. Inspired by his job, Daniel begins work on an obituary almanac of the more notorious inhabitants of hell. Meanwhile, he and Laura surmount, with some mutual angst, Lauras penchant for infidelity, visit Laura's boorish Kansas family and produce a child. Chalmers can be witty, but he lacks Hornby's light touch; there is too much exegesis per joke and scenes run on longer than they need to. Still, there are some inspired moments, and he tackles family tragedy with more assurance than he handles comedy, the book's dark denouement offers a strong finish.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
This first novel by a young British writer is sure to invite comparisons with Nick Hornby's work. Because the novel is so layered with idiosyncratic anecdotes--the lead character is an obituary writer, his girlfriend is a skydiver--it is not as accessible as Hornby's best-sellers. What Chalmers does share with the author of High Fidelity (1995), however, is the ability to tell a hip, passionate love story without a shred of sentimentality. When Londoner Daniel Linnell meets American barkeep Laura Jardine, she goes "off in his life like a bomb." Daniel is initially intimidated by the fact that she has slept with so many men and, although they are at once inseparable, he is haunted by the fear that she will be unfaithful. He falls into a cushy, high-paying job as an obituarist working for a brilliant, deeply eccentric editor; he visits Laura's welcoming, unpretentious hometown in Kansas; and he and Laura eventually have a child. Witty, very well written (the obituaries themselves are gems), and delightfully unpredictable, this is an impressive debut by a writer to watch. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
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The first concerns his career as a psychotherapist and a newspaper writer. This is a satirical story with echoes (perhaps deliberate) of Waugh's "Scoop." One problem here for me was that I'd recently been reading Scoop. Although Chalmers's jokes are often quite good, Evelyn Waugh's seventy-year old jokes are funnier.
The second concerns his love affair with the adventurous, much more self-assured, promiscuous American girl, Laura. This is poignant and tragic.
Laura's relationships with her Babbitt-like parents and her lonely, misunderstood, unsuccessful brother is a third plot.
Interspersed with these are multiple anecdotes and farcical incidents concerning a large number of other characters. Flashbacks and changes of narrative point of view add to the confusion and prevent this from being a page-turner.
It contains lots of excellent writing and sharp observation but the cook has failed to blend the ingredients.
My least favorite part of the book was Chalmers insistence on switching between first and last names to describe characters, other than Laura and her co-workers, and in particular the times early in the book when I actually had to stop and remember that "Daniel" and "Linnell" were the same character. Other authors pull this off without you noticing, but it rankled here.
My favorite part, and why it deserves five stars, is the way in which Chalmers would plant seeds early in the novel and then use them to great effect later on, without smacking you in the face with them. Situations, jokes, motifs and games people play are described, not particularly emphasized, and then come back to haunt the characters in interesting and either remarkably funny or poignant ways. To describe them would be to ruin the novel, but the three most significant uses come right after they return from America, before a business trip by Daniel and at the very end.
As others have noted, the reason for the title itself also disappears quite early in the book, but if you think about it long enough, it comes back at the end, too. A wonderful read that repays the effort to follow what Chalmers is trying to do.
But to leave it at that is a disservice to a fine piece of writing. Chalmers' clear strength is relating the emotional highs and lows of the main character, Daniel. There are several points during the story in which you feel intimately connected to Daniel.
The story spans several years the life of Daniel Linnel, a heavy drinking late-20's Brit. As his career shifts from amateur therapist to obituarist, he meets Laura, with whom he instantly falls in love. The rest of the story follows the couple's ups and downs and the resulting emotional rollercoaster ride Daniel takes.
Chalmers also succeeds in building strong characters outside of Daniel and Laura. One feels a particular bond with Whittington, Daniel's salty boss and Paul, Laura's estranged brother. On the other hand, one feels particular disdain for Kate, Laura's best friend and Mr. Jardine, Laura's father.
The attempts at comedy are largely successful, with a few duds thrown in. But sometimes we get the sense that he's trying a little too hard to concoct a funny antecdote.
The ending takes a rather dramatic and unpredictable turn, but it plays towards Chalmers' strengths successfully. A good measure of a successful novel is the strength of emotional response it elicits. This book will make you emotional.
I was given this book on my birthday and pretty much read it straight away. I was really intrigued by the title and the premise. I must say it took me a while to get into it, but after a while I could not stop reading Who's Who, until I finished it in one go.
I really wanted the actual compiling of Daniel's book to extend further into the novel, but that's not what it is really about. The relationship between Daniel and Laura is really the crux of the story. At times I was getting (annoyed) with it, but by the end I was hooked. Obviously I will not say what happens, needless to say I had no idea and could not stop telling people about it afterwards.
I have read a lot of books recently, very glutinous, but this one stood out becuase of the range of emotions that it produces. The final scene is amazing, I wish I could publish it here, but that would wreck the ending to a bloody brilliant novel.