REVIEW by Ffion Lindsay

NWR Issue 100

The Vanity Rooms

I read The Vanity Rooms by Peter Luther one Sunday afternoon in the bath, and it made a pleasant change from reading the backs of the shampoo bottles. My initial impression was not entirely favourable. The bizarre cover design shows the painted portrait of a smug aristo hovering jarringly over a photograph of a chess set. She looks like the soon-to-be victim of a cruel prank: the table she is leaning towards about to be pulled away at the last minute. The cover is so distractingly awful that it would undoubtedly have put me off buying this book in the first place, but that is hardly the fault of the author, so I put my reservations to one side and gave it a go.
The Vanity Rooms by Peter Luther

The Vanity Rooms centres around the life and aspirations of Cardiff actor and screenwriter Kris Knight, a character so charmless and uninspired I found myself siding with the antagonists in the final chapter. His desire to be a success and have a play produced by the BBC leads him into dodgy dealings with a sort of dark magic cult that feeds on the half-baked dreams of the mediocre. He is controlled by and controls others via an automated chess game, assisted by a sentient building which provides him with allies, inspiration and talent. It is easy to see why Y Lolfa has dubbed Luther ‘The Welsh Dan Brown’as the book is full of the same sort of riddles and pseudo-historical scenery as Brown’s novels. Unfortunately, The Vanity Rooms falls down in precisely the same way as Brown’s novels do: the quality of the writing. The dialogue is often clunky and sometimes unintentionally hilarious when read with a thick valleys accent in mind, and the novel comes complete with a sex scene deserving of a nomination for the Bad Sex Awards:

She wouldn’t let him stroke her hair, so he caressed her shoulder; she had long bones and her skin smelt of almonds.
‘Answer me,’ she whispered sweetly.
‘Yeah I love you, babes,’ he said.
It was his stock answer in such situations, but he meant it. He had never been with a woman so beautiful. She seemed to briefly consider the response.
‘Answer me,’ she repeated, in a louder voice.
His eyes remained closed.
‘No, I mean it, babes. Honest I do.’

I found certain elements of the novel problematic, not least the way in which the female characters serve as one-dimensional foils to Kris’ ego. Here we have a full line-up of tired stereotypes: bitchy, man-hungry ex-wife, vapid starlet, butch Eastern European Bosslady and an exoticised Asian love interest whose initial feistiness (without giving too much away) peters out before dissolving entirely. Kris is clearly intended to be read as self-deluded and egotistical, but as his delusion is hardly questioned within the text, he remains repulsive and irritating throughout. In an attempt to make Kris come across as a bit of a ‘boyo’, Luther has him describe the character of Fabrienne in terms suggestive of the fantasies of a lecherous fourteen-year-old boy rather than an adult man. Fabrienne, with her sloppy, barely thought-out backstory, exists only as an object of exotic desire for Kris and the overall effect is off-putting, to say the least.

It would be wrong to say that this was entirely a bad book, however. Luther’s love for all things Welsh shines through, and brief moments of joy were to be had every time he described a setting in Cardiff that I recognized. A Welsh setting is clearly very important to him, and he wants these places to be important to his readers too. On his website, Luther expresses a desire for his novels to be seen as ‘inventive and completely original’, and there are certainly some intriguing ideas in The Vanity Rooms. I especially liked the penultimate scene and the series of grim events preceding it, which include two people being brutally scissored in two by a possessed lift, and a mobile phone turning into a petrified heart, but I felt that the story just fizzled out soon afterwards. Maybe it is testimony to the fact that I enjoyed this book more than I’ll admit, but I found the ending quite disappointing.

Reading this novel was a little akin to eating a whole bar of chocolate in one sitting; you enjoy it in the moment but you feel a bit dirty afterwards. It would make an ideal holiday read, more entertaining than the in-flight film. But you wouldn’t be upset if it got left on a sun-lounger.

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previous review: Coleshill
next review: This is How You Lose Her


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