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A risky business

The main protagonist of CK Stead's politically ruminative tale is a strangely untouchable fellow.

Friends and relations drop like flies around him; ex-wives remarry and "love-children" pop up from nowhere; odd East Europeans give him access codes to millions of pounds. All of these would drive the average person quite deranged but, throughout it all, Sam Nola remains cool, detached, quoting appropriate pieces of poetry and trying to keep the many women who fancy him at bay.

Stead's brilliance lies in his lack of melodrama, his refusal to reduce this family romance to soap, to remain real. Sam's "real world" is, of course, a relentlessly middle-class one, where he reads the Guardian, attends literary parties, buys cookbooks by Lizzie Spender and Miranda Seymour and goes to dinner parties with people named Ivan and Hermione. The topic for discussion is always the impending Iraq war – dodgy dossiers and WMDs become part of everyday conversation.

But Sam remains behind it all: his sons from his first marriage are, he asserts, happy and doing well (although he rarely sees them and corresponds only by email) and his relationship with Letty proceeds without difficulty. When, at the behest of his employer Interbank America, he visits Croatia, the land of his forefathers and he learns that a previous lover has since killed herself, he is also informed that his boss at the bank has just died in a motorbike accident.

Risk in this novel isn't just financial or diplomatic or political, it is also personal. Risk can mean loss of life, reputation, freedom. But Sam, one senses, will always walk away, untouched and essentially unchanged.

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