Little, Brown, Blackfriars e-book, £3.99
The year 1983 may be another country, but it's one we're inescapably connected to by slender threads. Friendship is one. Many of us can look back on long-term relationships that have survived career changes, children, relocation and divorce. Broadening our view, as Ajay Close encourages us to do here, we could also regard present-day Britain as the product of the economic reforms passed by Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s.
Close opens her novel with Thatcher's credo, "Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul", a reminder that even this right-wing icon once shared some narrow common ground with the feminist left in acknowledging that the personal and the political are intertwined. Much later in the book, there's a scene set in 2009, in which the central character, Alexa, is in the palatial house of bank CEO Alison Babbington and sees a shelf full of the Women's Press and Virago books she too had once owned. Alexa associates these books with "cheerfully-decrepit tenements", not mansions owned by high-flying businesswomen.
That dissonance is partly what Trust is about. By 2009, Alexa has become "a Guardian-reading baby boomer who'd moved from squishy centre to hard left just by standing still". She can't be doing with the contemporary politics of self-interest when the struggle for equality is so far from won. And what is she to make of businesswomen who say their aim is to "learn from [men] without becoming them"?
But the political and personal are inseparable, remember? So this is also the story of three women's friendship. Alexa, Gabriel and Rae come together when Alexa, from a Scottish village, arrives in Leeds in 1983 to take a job with merchant bank Goodison Farebrother. The first words from her new boss sound like "the voice of Empire, familiar from a thousand black-and-white films but never employed to address her, until now". But class is only half the problem. Sexism is at the heart of the firm's dynamic. Women are expected to look glamorous and pour the tea at meetings, not to protest when the boss touches them.
Goodison Farebrother is handling the sale of a colliery, which Alexa is obliged to visit frequently, finding herself irresistibly attracted to the union representative, Stuart. Her sympathies lie with the miners and, perhaps to prove she isn't a middle-class tourist like the social workers and teachers up from Camden, Alexa is drawn deeper into their lives. Before you know it, there are mounted police, flying bricks and Molotov cocktails. Her employers aren't impressed.
Close picks up the story again in 2009, as a 25-year bankers' spree ends in a global crash. The Caledonian Bank's share price has dropped, and its shareholders want CEO Alison Babbington's head on a plate. Alexa, Gabriel and Rae are still close friends and all living in Scotland. Alexa works in the field of conflict resolution now, but is coming under pressure to try to bring her positive influence to bear on Babbington's situation. This isn't just a case of the financial sector's chickens coming home to roost: the threads left dangling from Goodison Farebrother have to be tied up too, and Stuart, whom Alex thought belonged to her past, is still very much around.
Intelligent and uncompromising, this is a novel that rewards careful reading. The complexity of the political and economic milieu is matched by the three women's long and multi-layered relationship.
There's a spikiness to Trust too, an accusatory tone infusing much of the dialogue. Every gesture of affection seems laced with ambiguity, every compliment has a barb attached, every question is loaded. With so many agendas flying around, both in the '80s and noughties sections, everyone is suspicious of each other's motives. As a consequence, it's hard to imagine her characters ever being truly relaxed and accepting around each other. But Close's refusal to sentimentalise them or romanticise their relationships, preferring instead a rigorous forensic examination, in no way undermines the emotional impact of its ending.
Ajay Close is at Aye Write! on April 6