Source: Review copy
Publication: Available now in e-book and paperback on 11 July 2019 from Orenda Books
Tom is a successful author, but he’s struggling to finish his novel. His main distraction is an online admirer, Evie, who simply won’t leave him alone.
Evie is smart, well read and unstable; she lives with her father and her social-media friendships are not only her escape, but everything she has.
When she’s hit with a restraining order, her world is turned upside down, and Tom is free to live his life again, to concentrate on writing.
But things aren’t really adding up. For Tom is distracted but also addicted to his online relationships, and when they take a darker, more menacing turn, he feels powerless to change things. Because maybe he needs Evie more than he’s letting on.
A compulsive, disturbingly relevant, twisty and powerful psychological thriller, The Closer I Get is also a searing commentary on the fragility and insincerity of online relationships, and the danger that can lurk just one ‘like’ away…
Paul Burston is a dangerously seductive writer. His novel, The Closer I Get is a brilliant, surprising masterclass in the dangers of social media and the ease of cyber stalking, but it is also a book about the lies we tell ourselves and the masks we use to hide our true selves.
Delightfully, Burston takes the old cinematic trope of the single girl with the gay man best friend and here turns it on his head. Our protagonist is Tom Hunter, a writer who shot to fame with his first novel which was optioned and then made into a screenplay, with Ryan Gosling in the lead role. His second novel was less successful. Frankly, it bombed. Now he is struggling to keep his agent’s interest and his third book is stalled; Tom has lost faith in it, though not in his ability to write. No, Tom is far too narcissistic to doubt his talent.
Emma Norton is his single best friend; the one to whom he pours out his carefully considered hopes and fears. He worries sometimes that their relationship is holding her back from finding someone with whom she can have a sexual relationship, but mostly, it’s just good to have the company and someone who always has a sympathetic ear when he needs to unload.
Evie Stokes wants to be a writer. Single, in her mid-thirties and an only child, she has an active social media profile, blogs frequently and pretty much lives her life as an online persona. Evie loved Tom’s first book so much she went to a signing and plucked up the courage to speak to him of her ambition. Tom was flattered, even signing his book to ‘a kindred spirit’.
Evie knew that was a sign that they were destined to be friends.
The Closer I Get starts with a letter from Evie to Tom. The reader can tell just from this one letter that Evie is not entirely stable; the fact that she is writing it following her court appearance is symptomatic of just how divorced from reality she is becoming.
Roll back 8 months and we find Tom at the Police station, reporting Evie for online harassment as the run up to seeking a restraining order.
But is everything as it seems? How reliable are Tom and Evie as they tell their stories? Clearly Evie has mental health issues. We can see that for all her hard words and sharp verbal attacks, she has a fragile shell, but why has she fixated all her energies on Tom? In seeking answers to these questions, Burston cleverly helps to obfuscate the picture by painting Tom in the third person, but allowing Evie a full flow, first person narrative.
Seeking respite, Tom takes a break from London and moves to Hastings as part of the FILTH crowd (Failed in London, try Hastings).
There we are able to see Tom more clearly. His need for validation and to some extent, adoration has to be fed. His self-portrait is one of a physically attractive, talented writer destined for great things, with everything to offer the right young man. If only he weren’t being constantly stalked and harassed by Evie.
And yet….you can’t help but feel uneasy. There’s something going on here that we’re not being told. Is it simply that Tom is deeply unsettled, or is something more sinister at work? There’s a sense you get that perhaps the relationship here is a symbiotic one. Could Tom be feeding off Evie’s adoration even as he seeks to repel it?
Burston’s introduction of Colin, a Hastings neighbour of Tom’s helps to cement our confusion over what’s going on with Tom. Colin is everything Tom is not. Authentic, kind, reserved and unashamedly gay, he has known his fair share of persecution on account of his sexuality and has the scars to show for it. Contrast his behaviour with that of the sometimes near hysterical Tom and we see that Tom’s self-perception is not necessarily what everyone else sees.
The Closer I Get is a beautifully observed and chilling work which highlights the dangers of social media and how easy it is to craft a persona that is part fairy tale, part lie and part obsession and which reminds us how much of our lives we disclose to a whole range of strangers.
It is also a book about how well we are able to lie to ourselves and the ease with which we can use our own sense of self to cover up the uglier parts of our persona to present a flawless, if facile, acceptable self-portrait.
All too plausible and with really well observed characterisation, Burston lays out a dangerous game of cat and mouse, with the reader kept wondering which is Tom and which Jerry.
I read this in awe of its wit and cleverness and was blown away by a tense and chilling ending I did not see coming.
Verdict: Clever, perceptive and very, very chilling.
Paul Burston is the critically-acclaimed author of five novels and the editor of two short story collections.
His last novel The Black Path was longlisted for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize 2016 and became a Number One bestseller at WH Smith.
He is curator and host of multi award-winning LGBT+ literary salon Polari at London’s Southbank Centre and founder of The Polari First Book Prize for debut writers and The Polari Prize for established writers. For further information visit http://www.polarisalon.com
In 2016, Paul was featured in the British Council’s Global List, celebrating ’33 visionary people who are promoting freedom, equality and LGBT rights around the world.’