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Memoirs Of A Master Forger
William Heaney
Gollancz hardcover £9.99

review by David Hebblethwaite

William Heaney is not the man you think he is. In this, his sensational tell-all memoir, the head of the National Organisation for Youth Advocacy reveals a past (and present!) of drunken debauchery, fraudulent dealings, and dabbling in the occult! Sort of...

You see, Memoirs Of A Master Forger is actually a novel by the multiple award-winning author Graham Joyce. Joyce has openly declared his authorship (I personally have known since I heard him read from the book at Alt-Fiction in April 2008), so it's no great secret; but Gollancz are carrying through the pretence that this is a genuine work of autobiography, which is actually quite appropriate, given the novel's main themes. (In the US, however, the novel is being published in Joyce's own name, under the title How To Make Friends With Demons, a sly pun in itself.) For the sake of clarity, I'll continue to refer to the author by his real name; when I talk about William Heaney from now on, I am referring to the character.

By day, then, Heaney is the outwardly respectable head of a non-profit organisation; but he has a secret sideline dealing in forged antiquarian books. Currently he's playing toy-shop owner Otto off against a poet named Ellis to see who'll bid the highest for a fake first-edition copy of Pride And Prejudice. Heaney will donate the proceeds from the sale to GoPoint, a homeless shelter run by his friend Antonia. The only trouble is that the book hasn't actually been made yet, so Heaney spends considerable time badgering his forger, Stinx.

In another sphere of his life, Heaney's wife has left him for a celebrity chef, taking the children with her (William first met Stinx over a drink - for Heaney likes a drop or five of the old vino - and tales of their bad luck with relationships). Now our master forger finds himself falling for Ellis's lovely young companion, Yasmin - but can't help wondering whether she is the poet's spy. News of a book launch by an old university acquaintance brings back memories of the time Heaney cobbled together a spoof incantation that turned out to be effective, ultimately leaving him with the ability to see 'demons'. And William encounters Seamus Todd, a veteran of Desert Storm who chains himself to the railings outside Buckingham Palace, and claims to be able to see the demons himself.

There's a lot there, but my abiding impression of the book as a whole is of duplicity, an elegant tangle of deception and misdirection, because almost none of the characters is everything he or she appears to be - whether it's little things such as Antonia dressing more like a resident of her shelter, or something greater, like Seamus Todd not being the raving madman he seems at first. Even the demons (which Heaney describes as looking like sooty clouds that can sneak in and out of people, and embodying concepts such as falling in love and finding significance in random numbers) are of uncertain provenance: are they real (after all, other people can see them) or just a figment of Heaney's imagination? There's a strong suggestion of which answer is correct; but, quite pleasingly, the issue is never clearly resolved.

Then, of course, there is the character of William Heaney himself, a highly complex individual, something of a walking contradiction. He's a drunkard, a crook, and a charlatan; but with a genuine concern for a good cause. He rails against fakes whilst being responsible for fakery himself. His narrative voice is funny and engaging, but that doesn't always make him endearing, as epitomised when he complains that nobody comes to help a man being choked in public ("Indicative of our modern and uncaring society"); Heaney, of course, is the one doing the choking.

He may not be the greatest of role-models but, as noted, Heaney has a moral centre. Why spend thousands setting up a committee to investigate a problem, he wonders, when the same money could be spent on simple practical steps to solve the problem? He also has little time for certain aspects of the literature industry, such as a perceived tendency towards box-ticking in the name of diversity. William amusingly exploits this by drafting verses of doggerel, which are then published in the name of Jaz Singh, another of his drinking buddies; Jaz duly becomes a hot ticket as a result. Of course, Joyce has serious points to make underneath all this, and he makes them well.

Actually, Joyce does everything well in Memoirs Of A Master Forger. His management of the narrative is superb, even as it switches between present and past, different areas of Heaney's life, and even different narrators - two of the chapters are told from the viewpoint of Seamus Todd; the contrast between, and control of, these different first-person voices is as good as any I can remember coming across.

In an unfortunate turn of fate, this novel, which is critical of aspects of the publishing industry, has fallen foul of some of the vagaries of that industry. As Joyce reports on his blog, 'William Heaney' has been treated as a new writer, with booksellers taking a greater chance on him than they may have on Graham Joyce. For the first time in his career, one of Joyce's novels reprinted in its second week of publication - but there's a danger that new readers may not make the connection between Heaney and Joyce, may not realise that they're reading the work of one of the best living writers in the field, and that they have many more books by this writer to investigate. That's why I've been so keen in this review to emphasise the author's true identity, to say that Memoirs Of A Master Forger is not a promising debut, but rather another marvellous entry in the career of one of our finest authors.
Memoirs of a Master Forger

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