Cast your mind back. Do you remember when segments of the so-called Skin Tapes showing, in horrific detail, Dr Alex Seymours violent death in Sherry Thomass basement flat in London found their way onto the internet 2 years ago? The resulting media attention & public outcry intensified our awareness of just how widespread covert surveillance has become nowadays. It is all around us. We are being watched.
The flames of the controversy were fanned by the existence of the notorious Seymour Tapes. During the last few weeks of his life, Dr Seymour, using cameras & microphones concealed in smoke detectors throughout his suburban house, had been secretly videoing his family; & the tapes he recorded, the subject of endless conjecture & discussion but hitherto unseen, have now been made available to journalist Tim Lott.
If you cant recall any of this, dont worry: it didnt really happen. The premise of Tim Lotts most recent novel is that he is telling a true story. Lott, or a version of Lott, is one of his own principal characters. Boundaries between reality & fiction are blurred when, at the start of the novel, the widowed Samantha Seymour asks him to write an unbiased account of the events that led up to her husbands death to set the record straight, she says. She has approached Lott, he surmises, because of the unwavering honesty he displayed in his first book, The Scent of Dried Roses, & in a piece about the break-up of his marriage that appeared in the literary magazine Granta. The autobiographical book (an acclaimed, heartbreaking elegy to his mother, who committed suicide) & the article exist in the real world, allowing the character Lott to exist in a strange no-mans-land between fact & fiction.
Its various conceits & contrivances enable this novel to examine the nature of truth & the effects of voyeurism on both observer & observed, while also succeeding as a compelling thriller. Structurally it consists of transcripts of Lotts interviews with Samantha Seymour interspersed with descriptions of events as they unfold on her husbands video diaries & tapes from other surveillance cameras. We know from the first sentence of the book that Gerald Seymour is dead, but we dont find out why or how he died until near the end.
A month before he dies he is quietly, corrosively unhappy. A lapsed catholic in his early 50s who misses the certainties of religious faith, he feels that his teenage son & daughter have no respect for him, & suspects his wife of having an affair with an unemployed actor who lives nearby. She has recently given birth to their third child & is not working, so money is tight. He is a GP, & any medical idealism he once had has long since been eroded by the day-to-day grind of working in an inner-city practice. He worries about the possible repercussions of a misunderstanding with a patient from Somali & an office-party dalliance with an embittered receptionist. When he meets Sherry Thomas, an American surveillance expert, she convinces him that secretly monitoring his familys activities will make him happier. By installing cameras at home & at work he hopes to regain some control over his life. (His name, of course, is a pun: he wants to see more.)
At first his campaign goes well. He feels less insecure at work. At home he skulks in the attic watching his family. Soon, although he realizes that he is betraying his wife & children, he gains confidence by knowing things about them that they dont know he knows: he has them taped, in every sense. Or does he? Does the camera never lie? What would happen if the fly on the wall were noticed? In her interviews Samantha Seymour proves to be evasive & manipulative as befits her background in PR, some might say. Her interviewer, Lott the unreliable narrator, is forced to reveal shameful secrets of his own as a quid pro quo for her cooperation. Are these revelations, we wonder, fictional or factual? And is she being honest in her turn?
This novel, with its literary devices & intriguing, booby-trapped plot, marks a new departure for Tim Lott. His talent for investing domestic minutiae with significance is evident here & in his previous 3 novels, but their narratives are far more straightforward. He is at his best when portraying ordinary people like Alex Seymour struggling to make sense of their lives. Sherry Thomas is emphatically not ordinary, however, & more than once she makes it difficult to suspend disbelief. My other reservation about The Seymour Tapes is that, at times, the prose has a dryness & drabness about it. This is intended to give it an objective, distancing quality suited to the transcriptive format of the book, & fair enough. But I have kept & reread Lotts first & second novels White City Blues & Rumours of a Hurricane largely for the clarity & vitality of the writing. Many scenes from them have stayed with me because they are so lucidly described.
So: 4 stars for his fourth novel. It works on many levels; &, above all, it is a compulsively readable thriller.
Dr Alex Seymour seems to have it all - with a solid marriage of twenty years, two teenage children, a new baby and an unblemished career as a London GP, his life seems perfect - but then a simple trip to the local supermarket changes things irrevocably. As he witnesses a shoplifter foiled by a combination of the owner's beady eye and the surveillance camera under the counter, Alex Seymour starts thinking about the reality and the fragility of his own seemingly perfect domestic situation, and what he does not see. With a son he suspects is stealing, a daughter whose first boyfriend may be going too far, and a wife he thinks is being unfaithful, Alex needs something to help him find out the truth and put him back in control. Enter Sherry Thomas, the mysterious Managing Director of Cyclops, a surveillance shop, and the catalyst for Alex Seymour's descent into a world ruled by cameras, tapes, lies and deceit, with devastating consequences. This is a gripping story of suspense that mirrors modern preoccupations with surveillance, tabloid voyeurism and morality.