Book Review: Irvine Welsh – The Blade Artist

Following ‘An evening with Irvine Welsh‘ at the University of Brighton, we review his latest novel, The Blade Artist.

The Blade Artist is Irvine Welsh’s 11th novel, and we find it returning to the familiar faces and stomping grounds of his first, Trainspotting. Frank Begbie, the unrepentant and ultraviolent psychopath who loves nothing more than sticking first a boot, then a knife in, is back. But he’s a changed man now, a sculptor in vogue, channelling his knack for butchery into clay busts of celebrities rather than the face of the poor sod that dared to step to him in the pub. He’s now called Jim Francis, and married-with-children to the beautiful art-therapist who first got him to realise his artistic potential whilst in prison.

The Blade Artist feels lean, having shed any excess weight in an attempt to keep the narrative thundering along at a breakneck speed. Begbie’s rehabilitation may strike many of Welsh’s more avid fans as superficial, the most incendiary of characters completely transformed. That he might slip back into his periodic explosions of violent rage hangs ominously over the majority of the novel.

It emerges that Begbie is dyslexic, much like Welsh, and though it would be far too much of a stretch to describe The Blade Artist as autobiographical, there are clear parallels between the working class author who escaped the Scottish greyscale to America and Begbie, who has followed a similar, if more extreme, trajectory.

His new, idyllic, surroundings do not last long, however, as his wife discovers something gruesome has happened following an incident at the beach, and that’s before Begbie is called back across the Atlantic following the death of his eldest son. Facing the old adversaries and locations that had driven him to violence in the past, Begbie insightfully notes that people “whisperingly condemn his violence with these sour, baleful expressions until they wanted some cunt sorting out”. Much of the treat of this latest novel comes in the threat of violence, rather than the action. That being said, some of the choreography towards the book’s latter stages can smack you as both familiar and contrived.

Whereas before, Welsh has presented liberal dashings of idealistic socialism throughout his narratives and characters (which do appear again, to some extent), in The Blade Artist we delve into the psychology of what can make a man turn violent. Though it may rankle to hear Begbie introspect, Welsh succeeds in raising questions about whether he was a thug by nature, or whether we was made that way.

Constrained within the tight ‘will he/won’t he’ structure of a thriller, where the question is whether Begbie can remain in control, Welsh has managed to avert some of the criticism that he is a continually repetitive writer, and though The Blade Artist is by no means a masterpiece, it provides a concentrated, threatening development to Welsh’s literature. Oh, and if you liked his previous, you’ll love the ending.

By Lennon Craig

The Verse Staff

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