A troubled social worker finds solace in the tall tales of a welfare fraud.
London has never seemed so depressing. As presented by British second-novelist Murr (The Boy, 1998), the city is a rain-soaked heap of estate flats, sanitariums, and pubs populated mostly by the wretched, irredeemably sarcastic, or those on the verge of insanity. Daniel Mulvaugh is the tortured soul at story’s center, a social worker who seems to be drawn to his work through some self-flagellating sense of despair and regret over his poorly lived life. Throughout, he’s haunted by memories of how he never truly let his mother feel his love before her death, how he essentially abandoned his childhood friend, and how he might have driven his wife, Sally, to the nervous breakdown she’s currently recovering from. The only thing providing him with a modicum of stability is, oddly enough, a stranger. Amos is an old man who’s been receiving fraudulent welfare checks (“the king’s shilling,” as he grandiloquently refers to it) and living in the old estate flat where Daniel grew up and his mother died. Determined at first to expose Amos, Daniel is quickly sucked in by the man’s stories of his youth, his years in the merchant marine, and an impossibly operatic, tragic and action-filled account of love, loss, and murder. Murr’s narrative swings from place to place—from Daniel’s office (where he actually tries to care about the plights of the wrecked souls who come before him) to the pub where he and his co-workers hang out, then on to Amos’s flat and Sally’s room at the sanitarium. Murr’s prose, meantime, is full to bursting with ripe, powerful imagery, and he has an almost uncanny sense for the mechanics of group conversation.
But because things keep coming back to Amos’s story, The Genius of the Sea never, for all the psychoanalysis going on, quite gets a bead on Daniel.