Book review: The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle by Neil Blackmore

(cover image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

Love, in and of itself, is almost universally a good and perfect thing.

It encompasses and supports, it fill us with hope and security and a sense of purpose and care, and it makes once dull things feel vital and alive in ways their once vapid sheen never suggested.

In short, it brings things wholly alive and transforms them in ways we never thought possible.

But in the thrillingly dark and hopeful The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle, written with stunningly compelling resonance by Neil Blackmore, love is also dark and threatening and hopelessly, heartbreakingly out of reach.

Or perhaps it is not so much love itself that is that troubled and broken but those who, like the title character himself, seem to hold it desperately close them as it slides off them like so many stains off a Teflon exterior.

For is there is one thing this fascinatingly immersive book is full of, and to devastating effect, it is broken, sad people, all of whom want the very best life and each other have to offer but who are ultimately ill-equipped to make the very best of the laudably wonderful tools at hand, such as love which goes from being the stuff of Cupid and airy daydreams, of sighs and roses to something awful and out of control, which destroys rather than nurtures.

“‘Yes,’ he replied, smiling perfectly. ‘Otherwise, how am I going to save you?’ He gave a dark smile. ‘ When do you go south?’ he asked then, light as air.

I was confused. ‘South?’ I repeated.

He was talking as if it was all nothing at all. ‘Don’t you want me to come south with you? Or are you afraid of what your brother will say?’

‘I am not afraid of Edgar,’ I said.”

‘Good,’ he said. ‘Good, Benjamin. It is very important in this life – the most important thing – for us not to be afraid.’

I was looking at him. I did not know what he meant. But I knew that I wanted him to show me.” (PP. 85-86)

Not that you would know that at the start.

When first we meet brothers Edgar and Benjamin Bowen at the start of The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle, the men, one year apart in age, are in their early twenties, stuffed full of ideas of the Enlightenment, of quotes by Voltaire, the heady thoughts of Descartes and Diderot, and of the shimmering possibilities that come with being part of that cruelly unaccepting but dazzlingly alluring thing that is English society in the mid-eighteenth century.

Pushed with calmly maniacal zeal by their parents, both of whom are outsiders to the suffocatingly exacting world of the English, the young men, who still share a bedroom and remain under the ever-watchful and demanding gaze of an education-obsessed mother and a driven, businessman father, are all set to embark on a Grand Tour of Europe where they will, according to their mother’s boundless, unshaken confidence, meet and become close friends with “People of Quality”.

This is not simply a social undertaking though that is an important goal; it is also a business venture with the hope being that these People of Quality, rolling in money without counting, will become clients of the shipping company that the boys’ father has built into a power house of trade and commerce.

Neil Blackmore (image courtesy Penguin Books Australia)

It is a compellingly seductive idea and one that Edgar, the elder of the two and almost dangerously close to their mother, is committed to with a gusto and enthusiasm that Benjamin, far more the reluctant outsider, can never muster.

Reality, however, is never as accommodating as we would like, even for a force of nature such as Rachel Bowen, and as the brothers embark on their Tour, as close as ever, Benjamin begins to wonder anew about what it is they are really doing.

Is he destined to simply live out the dreams of his parents or can he chart a different course?

Just as these thoughts are beginning to consume more and more of their waking hours, Benjamin meets the sparklingly beguiling Horace Lavelle, a charismatic and very handsome young man who seems to be singlehandedly committed to ripping to shreds every last vestige of those things that English society holds most dear.

Not for him the wigs and affectedly pale make-up of gentlemen of the day nor the endless parties or vapid conversation that passes for learned and cultured behaviour.

He is a witty thought cruel, compelling though brutal force of destructive nature who seduces a doubting Benjamin in every way possible including physically, with the two lovers embarking on a wild quest to upturn everything that Edgar and his parents, and wider English society holds dear.

“People want love. They demand love. They prescribe love. They proscribe it, too. People make mistakes, and people grow afraid, and they fail and hurt each other. Some people talk about love like drunkards, and their words end up meaning nothing. But some people cannot talk about love; it kills them to do so. And with time, passing straight through the hurt itself, we come to see the nature of their love. We come to see how transformative it was, and what an honour it was to have it in our lives.” (P. 297)

You can understand why Benjamin finds Lavelle such an attractive proposition but the young man of such vicious wit and charm might not be quite the saviour Benjamin thinks he is … or is he?

What makes The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle such an enthralling, captivating read is that Blackmore refuses to treat love as a wholly redemptive and perfect thing.

How can it be when it is wielded by people who have often experienced such callous hurt and trauma that the very thing they seek, which is love and acceptance of the unconditional and nurturing kind, keeps sliding from their avaricious grasp?

We are, all of us, broken in some way, and so then love, ostensibly pure and unflawed, becomes broken in some way too, at least its expression anyway, with something that could save us becoming instead the possible agent of our destruction.

Make no mistake – Horace Lavelle is everything your desperate, rebellious, witty retort-craving soul has ever asked for, a man who rejects everything that society regards as important and worth holding close, whatever the cost, and demands you think and feel for yourself.

As a liberating ideas go, his are top shelf exciting in their ferocious, giddy zeal to upset the established order.

But The Intoxicating Mr Lavelle, which is full of love and pain, hope and crushing, lifechanging disappointment and dark sadness, proves that what we want may not be what we get, even when we hold to something perfect and pure, because we are broken people, and broken people, despite their best intentions, always break things, something fatally and without any hope of redemption, even when thrilling, hopefully possibility is staring right in the face and has the capacity to free them from their existential imprisonment.

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