What a thing of wonder a mobile phone is. Six ounces of metal, glass and plastic, fashioned into a sleek, shiny, precious object. At once, a gateway to other worlds – and a treacherous weapon in the hands of the unwary, the unwitting, the inept.
The Cleverley family live a gilded life, little realising how precarious their privilege is, just one tweet away from disaster. George, the patriarch, is a stalwart of television interviewing, a ‘national treasure’ (his words), his wife Beverley, a celebrated novelist (although not as celebrated as she would like), and their children, Nelson, Elizabeth, Achilles, various degrees of catastrophe waiting to happen.
Together they will go on a journey of discovery through the Hogarthian jungle of the modern living where past presumptions count for nothing and carefully curated reputations can be destroyed in an instant. Along the way they will learn how volatile, how outraged, how unforgiving the world can be when you step from the proscribed path.
Powered by John Boyne’s characteristic humour and razor-sharp observation, The Echo Chamber is a satiric helter skelter, a dizzying downward spiral of action and consequence, poised somewhere between farce, absurdity and oblivion. To err is maybe to be human but to really foul things up you only need a phone.
The Echo Chamber looks at our reliance on technology and social media in society today and the way in which our lives are increasingly lived online. I’ve not read anything by John Boyne previously, and going into this I wasn’t aware that he has previously run into criticism similar to that explored within The Echo Chamber for a previous novel of his. Knowing that, it puts quite a difference perspective on this novel as it comes across as a reaction to his own experiences, and I think this is one that will divide opinions.
It’s told from the perspective of the Cleverley family – parents George and Beverley and their adult if not necessarily grown up children Nelson, Elizabeth, and Achilles. They are, it has to be said, a deeply unpleasant bunch and there is very little about them that is commendable. We follow the family over the course of a single week and see them fall from grace quite spectacularly. While I didn’t like them – any of them – I felt pulled into their stories, and I think it’s easy to become gripped by this narrative that is partly how the other half live with an element of the bigger they are, the harder they fall. I was expecting things to go badly for them, but exactly how that would come about was anyone’s guess.
George Cleverley is a popular BBC chat show host – a national treasure in his own mind, but well known and admired even if he hasn’t actually achieved the status and love of the general public that he thinks he deserves. George’s crime is an ill thought out tweet that may have been done with good intentions, but one that misses the mark spectacularly. There are several moments while reading this novel that I felt a moment of “oh – that’s not good”, and this was one of them – the reader can see the issue immediately even if George can’t. While this is problematic, we do all make mistakes, and I think that the real issue is his refusal to accept that he has made an error. If he admitted this and used the experience as a learning opportunity, then I expect that it would have been embarrassing but something from which he would ultimately recover. But then, it wouldn’t be much of a novel if it were that simple, would it? Instead, he has the opportunity to publicly apologise and show contrition, but only manages to make things worse for himself.
His wife Beverley is a pretentious woman who sees herself as a successful and celebrated writer, despite the fact that her previous novel was written by a ghost writer. Beverley’s downfall doesn’t come until the end of the novel, and yet the build-up is excellent if extremely cringeworthy at times. The Cleverley children are little better. They’re all dealing with their own issues and situations entirely of their own making, and I like the way in which their narratives begin to overlap as the novel progresses. I have to say that their daughter, Elizabeth, is the most spectacularly vile individual. I think that she emphasises some of the worst aspects of social media, particularly the way in which it enables trolls to hurl abuse from the safety of their keyboards with little to no retribution.
The Echo Chamber is a satirical work, and on one hand explores the ways in which a potentially well-intended tweet can be blown out of proportion. On the flipside, it highlights that there are – quite rightly – ramifications for those who, under the pretext of free speech, feel that they are able to share their vitriol and prejudiced views with a world that is becoming increasingly quick to call out such behaviour. An amusing and particularly timely novel, I think that what you take from it will depend on your own perspective on cancel culture.
The Echo Chamber will be published by Doubleday in hardback, eBook, and audio formats on 5 August. Huge thanks to Patsy Irwin for the early review copy.
Disclaimer – I received a copy of this novel from the publisher. This has in no way influenced my review.