Having read and enjoyed Gavin Extence’s previous two novels (The Universe Versus Alex Woods and The Mirror World of Melody Black), I was excited to read his latest tome, The Empathy Problem, if a little trepidatious about whether I would enjoy it as much as his others. But, if anything, I loved this one even more. Extence is a superbly original and refreshing author to read, with an inimitable style of his own, all of which is shown off to great effect in The Empathy Problem.
At the heart of the story is Gabriel Vaughn, a self-confessed cynic and egotist, what’s worse he’s also a hedge fund manager and unashamed about it! By all rights, he should be the villain of the piece, the antihero rather than the hero. But such is Extence’s skill in crafting his characters and engaging the reader with them that despite Gabriel’s very obvious flaws, Extence manages to bring the readers onside, not in a small part through his dry wit and humour. And this humour comes through in spite of one of the central motivations of the novel being that Gabriel is diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. But Extence’s novel is not a comedy nor does he belittle the illness, rather it is through protagonist Gabriel’s uncompromising unsentimental approach to life (and death) that transforms what one would typically expect to be an otherwise maudlin and dreary experience into something surprisingly light.
However, that’s not to say the novel is without emotion. Indeed, despite its unsentimental approach to life and love, it’s impossible for the story not to get under your skin and in many ways the effects are felt even more keenly for this lack of melodrama. Whilst at times Gabriel’s journey of self-discovery may be a little Hollywood, as too his final act of redemption, it’s easy to forgive Extence any liberties here, when the ending is so quietly powerful and the overall novel so brilliantly executed. Naturally, given Gabriel’s job, there are some discussions about the world of finance, but Extence manages to make these neither too dull nor too complicated for the lay person, whilst also keeping up a veiled sarcasm throughout.
The love story that emerges in the novel is also superbly evoked, again with Gabriel’s customary pragmatism and cynicism serving to deliver a wholly refreshing and surprisingly tender romance. For readers both familiar and new to Extence’s writing, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest reading The Empathy Problem, either as individuals or as a reading group. For me, Extence’s novel is an absolute triumph, once again reiterating his skill for characterisation and voice.
– Jade Craddock
The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence, published by Hodder & Stoughton on 11 August, 2016 in hardback at £16.99
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