Book Review: Sketch of a Last Day by Will Varley

Last week I needed something new to read, and thought I could use a break from all the dystopian futurism, Russian existentialism and American misanthropy. I turned to my bookshelf, lined with books yet to be read, only to realise that not one of them sounded remotely uplifting. So, a few days ago I got my hands on a copy of Will Varley’s Sketch of a Last Day – a short novel which now sits perfectly amongst the Huxleys, the Dostoevkys and the Bukowskis. As the title and the book’s bleak grey cover might suggest, Sketch of a Last Day isn’t a particularly uplifting book either.

Will Varley is a young and upcoming folk singer previously based in London before moving to Deal, Kent. I first came across Will in a cosy East London café, where he was playing an acoustic set to a small audience. His music left quite an impression on me as throughout his performance I often found myself on the brink of tears – at times with laughter, at times with genuine sadness. I would describe his style as a classic folk characterised by a dark sense of humour, with songs varying from the strongly political to the beautifully sentimental, and a lot of genuinely hilarious bits in between.

Sketch of a Last Day is the detailed account of one man’s last twenty four hours, set against the backdrop of a dystopian reality – an imminent future not too different from our own times. This antihero is an anonymous young man in his late twenties, living in what we perceive to be an austere and hostile London, marked by Orwellian echoes and swarming with cold money-driven masses. He has just received a letter from the government informing him that he is scheduled for execution and is to be injected with a “cheap, slow working poison”.

“I received my extermination notice in the evening. The kind of evening that reminded you of doing the washing up when you were young. The kind of evening that reminded you of overdue homework on Sunday evenings, and being on the phone to your very first girlfriend. That manically still kind of evening which rolls and drags and stops, where all your thoughts get concentrated into a tiny square of wallpaper on the other side of the room which seems to move and change colour the longer you stare at it.”

As in Kafka’s The Trial, in which an innocent Joseph K. is arrested without explanation, we can only speculate as to why exactly this unfortunate protagonist has been selected for this particular fate – an interesting concept, and provocative in the most discrete of ways.

Bleak descriptions of a collapsing capitalist society slowly blend into a bittersweet love story, as the man stumbles across a young woman, again nameless, who has also just received an injection. Together they wonder aimlessly through the austere city, occasionally catching glimpses of the world which once was, desperately seeking a meaning with which to fill their final hours of life.

“She lived where millions of Homo erectus sat waiting for something that never came, where the adolescents drank to escape, where the old never went out and the young never stayed in. She lived where the exterminations had begun, where the seeds were sown and where hope and faith had been rolled into noting more than a cocaine fuelled evening followed by a headache and a bacon sandwich.”

The narration unfolds through a series of flashbacks, as the chronological order is cut up and then carefully and very cleverly pieced back together. As a result, the story switches back and forth between separate moments of a single day. More than a sketch, this is a hyperralistic picture, a highly detailed and brilliantly described piece of fiction. The apathy of the anonymous pair, the dreariness of the urban landscape, the harsh reality and depressing prospects, are all made up for through Varley’s poetic language and his use of beautifully constructed metaphors. The musician’s prose is characterised by an extremely vivid attention to detail – one which I would instinctively associate with visual artists. Will Varley’s view on the world comes across quite strongly, as I find subtle connections with his songs. I’m fascinated by the way in which he observes the world, picking up on little details which would otherwise go unnoticed and drawing analogies in interesting places, in order to get certain points across. His are the sort of sentences you want to read over and over.

Sketch of a Last Day is terribly depressing, yes, but at the same time there’s a deep sense of comfort within its pages, maybe due to the slightly romantic nature of the relationship between the two nameless individuals. Amongst all the anguish there is after all a spark of humanity – only slightly suggested by the characters’ feelings towards each other – but certainly accentuated by Will Varley’s touching artistry.

The plot itself isn’t particularly exciting, but then again, why should it be? Rather, the book becomes a melancholic reflection on mortality, with occasional observations on society and a vague sense of Existentialist angst. Sketch of a Last Day encompasses all the qualities that make a book worth reading: it’s well written, occasionally rude, gripping, and it makes you think. I was delighted to find that I enjoy Will Varley’s writing as much as I enjoy his music, and that the two are equally powerful. Sketch of a Last Day is something which will no doubt stay with me for quite some time, something I know I’ll find myself reading again and again.

Varley is currently working on his second album, As the Crow Flies, which will be released on the fifth of July this year. Check out his website at: http://www.willvarley.com

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