Cherry by Matt Thorne
Matt Thorne is one of the co-founders of the New Puritan movement, the manifesto of which focused primarily on narrative, on the need to strip a story down to its bare essentials and create fiction in 'its purest and most immediate form'.
Cherry, his sixth novel, is a page-turning urban adventure with a strong cinematic feel. The film it owes its greatest debt to however isn’t some minimally lit Lars Von Trier effort but David Fincher’s 1997 follow-up to the dark, rain-swept Seven. In The Game Michael Douglas played an uptight but lonely millionaire who becomes involved in an elaborate hoax that rapidly takes over his life. No aspect of his existence is above infiltration by the dubious corporation his brother employed to inject a little excitement into his life. His sense of what is real and what is part of the game quickly begins to crumble.
In Thorne’s novel, secondary school teacher Steve Ellis lives in a grubby, unnamed London borough and hasn’t been involved in a relationship for over twelve years. On one of his rare excursions outside the confines of his run-down flat he meets Harry Hollingsworth, a mysterious character and something of a kindred spirit. The two men click and after Ellis confides his desires to the stranger (by way of voyeuristic video tape), he finds that Hollingsworth has set him up with an organisation that promises to supply its customers with the woman of their fantasies. Ellis is sceptical but then Cherry comes into his life, a woman who is everything he hoped for; she meets his every specification of the ideal partner and he falls immediately, completely in love.
The question of her identity remains unanswered. Is she an actress? A prostitute? Is she on Hollingsworth’s payroll or is she a creation of his increasingly paranoid mind? After a brief period of sex-filled bliss Cherry starts to become ill, dangerously unwell, and faced with the prospect of losing her for good, Ellis must decide how far he will go to keep her.
Ellis is a hard man to get a handle on. He’s selfish, lazy and has an unnerving capacity for violence, but he’s not as extreme as he needs to be for Thorne’s conceit to truly work. Even though the narrative powers along there’s something off balance about the whole enterprise; New Puritanism was supposed to be about clarity but that’s a quality Cherry lacks. The questions it does raise about obsession, about choice, about the lengths a person will go for love, are lost amidst the many twists of the plot. It’s a compelling piece of writing but Thorne is playing as many games as anyone in the novel, he throws in so many red herrings and wrong turns that, when you think back on it, nothing really adds up. A seedy tale of the unexpected stretched to novel length, Cherry is a gripping but ultimately unsatisfying read.