The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

10th Mar 2019

Lost and directionless, convinced of his genius potential but somehow unable to make the work that lives up to it, Finn Garvie thinks all his prayers have been answered when his artistic hero and distant ancestor Caravaggio turns up opposite him on a train. Sadly, Caravaggio isn’t so much interested in helping Finn realise his artistic capabilities, but something a whole lot darker...

There’s a lot to love about The Backstreets of Purgatory. It’s filthy, frequently hilarious and features a vivid cast. Helen Taylor has a knack for dialogue, using dialect to brilliant effect and often making me laugh out loud with the creative insults traded between the characters.

A good test of whether a writer has succeeded with their character-building is if I can hear their dialogue spoken ‘aloud’ in my head as I read, and each of Taylor’s creations had their own distinct voice.

It’s not a book without its weaknesses. Finn, the main character around whom the majority of the plot and the rest of the characters orbit, is pretentious, deluded and prone to self-aggrandisement.

This, of course, is largely the point, but it takes a skillful writer to make a protagonist deliberately unlikeable without losing the audience’s commitment to finding out what happens to him.

Other characters make reference to his strange appeal and beauty, but sometimes it’s hard to see what this appeal actually is. (It must be said, though, having attended art school myself, that it’s certainly an accurate portrayal of a certain type of tortured artist!)

Indeed, it’s rare to find a character within The Backstreets of Purgatory who isn’t deeply flawed and/or trapped in harrowing circumstances. It’s true that life is often nasty, brutish and short, but a glimmer of hope is always appreciated, and they’re few and far between here.

The book overall would have been improved by a more rigorous editing process. The prose sometimes meandered, veering dangerously close to self-indulgence in the Finn sections in particular.

Again, while this is warranted at times to show the reader just how self-absorbed Finn is, it sometimes meant that an otherwise funny and action-filled chapter would lose momentum.

Given all that, though, The Backstreets of Purgatory is a promising debut from a writer who clearly has a good eye for writing vivid, multi-dimensional characters and wide-ranging plots that tie together multiple character arcs without becoming confusing.

The story largely moves along at a good pace and it’s a compulsive read (dare I say it, everyone’s least favourite adjective, ‘unputdownable’).

The book builds to a brutal crescendo which, while feeling a little bit too neat in places, held my attention well and felt shocking enough to justify the length of the book.

While The Backstreets of Purgatory is not perfect, it’s an engaging and entertaining read, and I’m excited to see what Helen Taylor comes up with next.

The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor is out now