Neil Blackmore’s latest novel is set in Georgian London. Radicalism is in the air- spread by seeds sown in the French Revolution. Established ideas are being questioned, slavery has been abolished, it seems like the start of a new age.
Only it’s not, the rot is still there and hatred and prejudice still prevalent. William Wilberforce, celebrated for his achievements in ending slavery still placed black dinner guests behind a screen to keep them separate from the white diners. Main character and narrator John Church has set up his own place of worship, the Obelisk, to preach tolerance in well-attended services which attracts free thinkers as well as those unimpressed by his motives. For many the limits come with any suggestion of acceptance for homosexuality and yet molly-houses thrive. John Church accepts an invitation to attend rooms above a pub where he will attempt to alleviate some of the gay shame and self-hatred by marrying any men who wish to be coupled with one another. Is he beginning a path of greater acceptance in London or is this just a step too far?
What I like very much is this reclaiming of history, of developing the true stories behind the established facts, as certainly here the novel is based upon actual events. Over the last few years this has been done very successfully by Black British writers. Paterson Joseph and his “Secret Diaries Of Charles Ignatius Sancho” (2022) and Sarah Collins’ “The Confessions Of Frannie Langton” (2019) immediately spring to mind. Neil Blackmore does this to an extent with black experience but particularly here with gay men’s stories. Tom Crewe has done similar so successfully earlier this year with “The New Life” (2023) and Blackmore attains a high standard with this.
If you don’t already know about John Church (and I didn’t) greater pleasure will be had from this book by not finding out too much beforehand, especially as in his main character the author has created a gloriously untrustworthy narrator. We can tell from the start that this is a man of contradictions and it is with great relish that these contradictions are brought to life.
This probably comes as close as a novel is going to get this year to being five stars without me actually awarding my top rating. (I don’t believe that was because the review copy I was sent was so badly formatted that it did affect my reading flow and thus some of my enjoyment, luckily the book rattles on at such a pace the effects of this were diminished) but I think with John Church so central we only see the other characters from his (sometimes) off-skew perspective which doesn’t give them as much chance to shine as I would have liked. The radical aspects come across strongly, are well balanced and the ideas very accessible (more so than Tom Crewe’s novel, actually, which is set in a repressed Victorian London of the late nineteenth century). I also feel that, Neil Blackmore is here just like a cat that toys with a mouse for just a little bit too long before going for the kill in his development of his plot. It is full of appalling hypocrisy, there’s hope and despair but above all a vivid bringing to life of a forgotten man whose attempts to find and bring love to Georgian London produce this extraordinary tale.
Radical Love will be published on 1st June 2023 by Hutchinson Heinemann. Many thanks to the publisher and Netgalley for the advance review copy.