Peace Talks by Tim Finch review – a moving study of love and loss

Aida Edemariam
Photograph: Gavin Hellier/Alamy

One of the striking things about Tim Finch’s 2013 first novel, The House of Journalists, was the degree to which his characters colluded in what was unsayable. This did not include extreme violence – in the London house of the title, which sheltered writers and journalists fleeing repressive regimes, trauma was currency; it got the inhabitants their visas, shored up their brittle fame. But voice after interior voice was saturated with knowingness about the ways in which everyone was playing everyone else; the small necessary secrets; the idea of story as a commodity, on every possible level – which did not, importantly, make the stories untrue.

The novel was especially concerned with the business of liberal do-gooding, and of a certain subset of writing about refugees, whether in memoir, fiction or poetry: the vanities and anxieties and ruthlessnesses of acquiring and marketing and (unconsciously or otherwise) massaging for public consumption the narratives of those to whom terrible things had happened. It was as though Finch – who was a BBC political journalist and a director of the Refugee Council, and then went on to establish two charities, one of which is called Sponsor Refugees – had collected up a whole working lifetime of things he couldn’t say out loud and tipped them all into a furiously satirical, self-consciously metacritical novel.

Tim Finch. Photograph: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty Images

Many of the same preoccupations run through his second book, which is, in part, about the “business” of peace. The main character, Edvard Behrends, is the lead arbitrator in talks between two unnamed Middle Eastern factions. He has been doing this for years, as has almost everyone involved in the negotiations; he knows the twists and turns, and has earned his insights into the face-saving feints and performances of the process. He also knows that, just off stage, all the talk is shadowed by gory acts of violence – in dark counterpoint to the novel’s setting, a tastefully quiet state-of-the art resort at the top of a Tirolean mountain.

In its tone and minor-key approach, Peace Talks is reminiscent of the Julian Barnes of Levels of Life, plus lashings of (duly credited) James Salter. And whereas in The House of Journalists the relentlessly knowing satire eventually felt wearing, here there are no points to be scored by noting venalities; they are what they are, there is sometimes humour in them, often sadness, and perhaps wisdom. Gone, also, are the multiple (and frequently rather similar sounding) interiorities, in favour of one voice, Edvard’s, which is quietly pitched and full of intelligent, sometimes slightly effortful cultivation. He reads Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and goes to Haydn recitals in his downtime; notes wryly how many of the negotiators have tackled Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (including in Arabic). His is a deliberately high European sensibility, at home (or equally not quite at home) in Vienna, Ghent, Geneva, London, a sensibility he shares not with his colleagues but with his interlocutor, Anna – his wife, now dead. He speaks to her anyway, imagines her answers, builds himself up to making various confessions to her. The burnished phrases are searching, sometimes crass, often vivid and sophisticated and beautiful (the American delegate and his “threat-level enthusiasm”; the river that “seethes under its lid of ice”). They are for her benefit, gifts of a kind.

Not a huge amount seems to happen. What in other novels, or Finch’s previous novel, might be clues leading to flamboyant plot twists turn out to go nowhere in particular. Loose ends are just that: loose ends. Edvard is knowing about this, too: “If I was telling a story with a discernible shape, with a narrative arc, I would reveal at this point … ” Of course this is a bluff: there is a tightly managed arc here – just not the high-stakes, cloak-and-dagger politics one might expect.

For little happening is partly the point. The game and its rules, both spoken and unspoken, are a thin screen. Behind it is the higher-stakes game of feelings, unspoken because it is so hard to name them, or to face them, to make accommodations for or even understand them. Peace Talks turns out to be a moving and direct study of frailty, love and time, and luck and grief, of what is left when all the noise – of machination, violence and competing stories – is stripped away.

Peace Talks is published by Bloomsbury (RRP £16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.