Utopia’ by Peter Cowlam -Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee
Utopia by Peter Cowlam

Utopia’

Peter Cowlam

Centre House Press

ISBN 9781902086255


‘Utopia’ starts with an unnamed narrator describing wealthy Zora Murillo’s takeover of a run-down hotel, the Pleiades, with intentions of refurbishment and making it the social hub of the large village she has moved to. Her competition is the Happy Parakeet, a restaurant run by Louella Angstrom and the person Zora needs to impress is Andrew Mawdrie, senior reporter on the local newspaper, the Valley Tribune, and local historian. After the grand opening, Mawdrie does his research and attempts to discover the source of Zora’s wealth. Zora rebukes him. So far it is set up as a social comedy of manners: mysterious heiress upsets local order, starts competition with established social star and is hiding a secret past. The characters would easily fit in E F Benson’s ‘Mapp and Lucia’ stories. Caryl Brahms and S J Simon’s Inspector Quill would be at home here. It has that feeling of a British sitcom set in the 1930s, which is not a bad thing.

However, the plot takes a dark turn. Izabela makes the bookings for the hotel’s social events and inadvertently books a comedian called Clump. Zora panics and pulls the bookings. It is chapter 12 and readers finally get to Utopia, an ironic name for a banana republic under a dictatorship. Murillo, Zora’s father – she’s merely a child at this stage – runs research into artificial intelligence (AI). This is not science fiction so the details of what he does are skipped in favour of the outcomes of what his AI can do. His wife is permitted to travel abroad when she gets a job in New York, but Murillo’s travel is restricted and Zora is not allowed to travel to visit her mother. Unsurprisingly, the marriage doesn’t last. Meanwhile there are complex and bloody political manoeuvrings, a large network of spies who gather information on Utopia’s citizens and a series of shadowy intelligence agents known by initials M, X and K. K reports to X who reports to M. Murillo is forced to use his AI to revive a dead man, given the name Alfredo, whom the intelligence service need to question. Murillo succeeds but the intelligence service realise they need him to continue his work to their benefit.

Zora has now grown up, graduated and become her father’s assistant. She builds the family wealth through gambling and hatches a plan to enable her father and herself to escape. On their first attempt, Murillo does manage to escape and Zora is caught. There has been a change in dictatorship, a popular man, Forsiss, buoyed by an excellent propagandist, Arango. Forsiss charges Zora with making an AI clone to replace him when his natural life runs its course. Zora plans a second escape, this time successful, and winds up buying a hotel in an English village. Behind her father’s back, she’d built a series of clones to confuse Utopian security forces, forced to tread with caution when they blow up a clone on foreign soil, triggering a diplomatic incident with a country they’d rather not start a war with.

The unnamed narrator turns out to have a key involvement with Zora’s time in Utopia. Although the light-hearted, gentle humour of the opening scenes works, the Utopian scenes are told and described in the same tone. This is problematic since Zora and her father’s lives are at risk and it makes it hard to take the scenario seriously. Zora is intelligent and desperate for escape, but she never seems to lose at gambling which suggests those who are keeping a close watch on her activities may also have a hand in them. This further undermines the credibility of her escape and sense of danger. Especially given that the narrator clearly knows who she is and seems content to watch what she does next.  In any case, readers know she survives.

That said, the characterisation was good. Murillo is a caring father, passionate about his work but given little choice over compliance with Utopia’s regime. Zora comes across as an intelligent woman in need of a project: it’s clear that when she’s refurbished the hotel and it’s running a profit, she’ll move on to something else. The minor characters too are fleshed out. The book though is unsettled, its comedy-of-manners opening contrasts with the more serious political plot where the comedic tone feels misplaced. ‘Utopia’ does not feel like a parody but the parts don’t quite add up to a whole. Zora’s story would have had more credibility if it had not been told in flashback but uncovered in fragments with Louella teaming up with Mawdrie to learn more about her rival.

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