Bookworms like reading books dealing with books. The Pretender is just one of the kind and thus recommended to this species.
When Mark Trace is 14 years old, his teacher of English gives the class the assignment to write the beginning of a chapter of David Copperfield. "...pretend you *are* Dickens." Mark is proud of what he's come up with but to his great surprise his teacher threatens him with detention if he doesn't 'fess up were he copied his text from. To save himself he mutters something about The American Notes, a title he makes up like he's made up his piece of Dickens.
After finishing school he decides to spend a gap year in Paris because he's still very young for uni as he was put forward a year. Oh, to be able to write like Hemingway! He reads Hemingway's stories written in Paris until he's soaked up his style and then composes something himself. He does this merely to hone his writing skills, but by chance the young woman he gives private language lessons to finds one of these stories. By chance she's the wife of an American dealer in manuscripts and fate takes its course. Literary experts and linguists claim they're 90% sure that the story is genuine, who is Mark to correct them? He only gets mad because the Americans cheat him out of the reward, he had told them that he had found the story on a flea market.
As a student of Eng Lit in London he finds a job as an amanuensis and general dogsbody for Tony, the editor of a small but brilliant literary magazine and a room in the building in Soho where the office is. It doesn't take long for him to realise that the magazine is in financial trouble and that it'll die an inglorious death in the near future. One of his tasks is to sort out the chaotic store room, what if he 'found' a forgotten manuscript of one of the former famous writers of the magazine there? The typewriter Graham Greene wrote one of his stories on is still in the office . . .
The Pretender is a literary thriller, a gentle one, however, no corpses plaster the protagonist's path. The reader is led into the world of authors, public readings, literary agents, dealers in manuscripts who're only interested in making money, not in literature proper. It's a world where young and naïve idealists can quickly lose their illusions. Then there's also the general public which obviously wants to be deceived, for a thrill they can forget their better judgement. Hitler's forged diaries come to mind which the German newsmagazine STERN published some years ago.
Literature as such is an issue, too. In order to forge a piece of literature, the forger must have understood the writer's style down to their idiosyncratic punctuation. The discussions Mark has with Tony on how certain writers use words and construct sentences are enlightening. Provided Mark can get all the technicalities right, can he get away with his forgeries? Can he fool Tony, the sharpest intellect in the field of literature? And what about the heirs of the authors, don't they become suspicious? The ending is a twist I didn't foresee, it's fair and cruel at the same time.
I was a bit surprised at first about the simple style in which Mark tells his story. Shouldn't someone who's so good stylistically be able to talk in a more elaborate voice? I informed myself about the author and learnt that he's famous for writing literature for young adults. First I concluded that he wasn't used to an adult audience and had written The Pretender in his usual, not too high-brow style but then I changed my mind.
After all, Mark is only 19 years old when he starts working for Tony. He's self-conscious, a loner if there ever was one. The style reflects that he's just a normal, naïve youngster and that his extraordinary gift for literary forgery doesn't affect his other spheres of life. When he writes as a famous writer, he's transmogrified, when he doesn't, he's just his ordinary self. The Pretender is also a coming-of-age story, we watch Mark in his desperate attempts to find a girlfriend and lose his virginity. He loves living in Soho, the centre of things, but he could as well live in Nether-Piddleton-on-the Marshes as he's too shy, and also too poor, to make use of all the possibilities surrounding him.
David Belbin writes on his homepage about The Pretender, "I'm sure that it's the best thing I've ever written." I can't compare, I don't know his other books. But I like his attitude, self-confidence is a good thing. He continues, "I'm pushing this book as much as I can and will heartily appreciate any support I get - book groups, Amazon reviews, blog entries, Richard and Judy, whatever..." - Mr Belbin, why not include this site?