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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



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To purchase Risk

Title: Risk
Author: C.K.Stead
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 267 pages
Availability: Risk - US
Risk - UK
Risk - Canada
Risk - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : rich, unusual novel-of-the-times

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 1/11/2013 Alfred Hickling
Irish Times . 15/12/2012 Eileen Battersby
Sunday Times . 21/10/2013 Trevor Lewis
Sydney Morning Herald . 22/12/2012 Andrew Reimer
TLS . 4/1/2013 Peter C. Baker

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)here's something reassuringly old-fashioned about the latest novel from one of the country's senior literary figures, although it covers the period from 9/11 to the collapse of Lehman Brothers." - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "(T)he offbeat, at times irritating but always canny and topical new novel by the veteran New Zealand innovator CK Stead. Risk is a confident, briskly paced and practical account of one manís self-rescue, but it is a personal odyssey that is also a study of modern society on the run." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "Apart from one not entirely convincing narrative twist to do with Sam's cousin Maja, this is a deft, stylish novel that contains its large-scale themes within the confines of insignificant but sharply observed lives." - Andrew Reimer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Risk is the story of a man who is well-informed and in many ways perceptive but who remains fundamentally detached, even from certain basic truths in his own life. (...) Instead of complicating our sense of what has come before, the conclusion leaves us with a frustrating sense that the journeys on which we've accompanied Sam were in truth just a prelude to something else hidden off-page, or perhaps not there at all." - Peter C. Baker, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Risk is the story of Sam Nola, starting over in his late-40s, in the shadows of "9/11" and the global upheaval that followed. Newly divorced, he leaves his native New Zealand and two sons and settles in London, where he had spent some time some two decades earlier, after graduating from university. A trained lawyer, he soon lands a good job at the London outpost of Interbank America -- and, his first Christmas there, also discovers he has a daughter, from a fling from his post-university European stay, Leticia 'Letty' Clairmont.
       A Prologue set in September 2002 describes Sam and his "recently acquired French daughter" Letty returning to London from a summer stay in France -- the stay itself then described at greater length later in the book, as it circles back after this Prologue to describe Sam's settling down in England from the beginning. The reactions to and concerns about the September 2001 attacks, and then the lead-up to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, are prominent in the background, unavoidable subject- and debate-matter, and the cause of tension, including among friends of Sam's, who take different positions. Later, it is the clouds of the coming financial crisis that darken around the story -- though Sam is secure enough, personally and financially, to weather that too.
       Risk is a novel of the first decade or so of the twenty-first century -- from a distinctly English (London) point of view. It is also suffused with nostalgia: the present is tinged with the past, from how this second London stay is colored by echoes of Sam's first, when he was much younger and lived a looser life (though he remains surprisingly carefree, for the most part, even as he nears and reaches fifty) to his repeated falling back on memories of past encounters and adventures; he often asks and reminds others about shared past experiences. New Zealand, however, -- his ex-wife, his sons -- is a distant, small connection, while he easily embraces much that is new -- especially the new-found daughter, with whom he quickly establishes a very comfortable rapport; eventually, these familial worlds are brought together when he takes Lettie to New Zealand, when his ex-wife marries a former close friend, but the visit is barely a blip and by that time his life is entirely antipodean, settled on the other side of the globe.
       Both the novel and Sam are easy-going, flowing comfortably along, come what may -- and with the Iraq war, the 7 July 2007 London bombings, and then the global financial crisis ("2008 was the year of the clusterfuck"), quite a bit does happen, incidentally affecting Sam but not buffeting his life in any more significant way. He is near but rarely directly involved in personal tensions and conflicts, especially between couples; Sam stands mostly apart: beyond an icy e-mail from his former wife, he is rarely in an antagonistic, or antagonized role. He becomes involved with several women along the way, from a one-night stand with a Russian prostitute to a deeper relationship with the (married) sister of a colleague and a brief, intense fling with a co-worker, and each relationship is marked by its calm understanding, each separation a friendly one. (Here, too, nostalgia occasionally creeps in: long after their night together, Sam even considers reaching out to the prostitute again.)
       Sam revisits places from the past too -- including Croatia, where he is sent by his boss, and where, years earlier, he had had an affair with a distant relative, which also marked the beginning of the end of his marriage. He stayed in loose touch with the woman, Maja, who later emigrated to America and married, and she too resurfaces as first an absence and then presence in his life.
       Compared to some of those he knows, especially his boss, Sam isn't much of a risk-taker, but, as the title suggests, it is unavoidable. Even when Sam senses that there's reason for concern, he's in no position to influence much -- as when he warns his colleagues that, while he doesn't understand much about the markets and instruments his firm makes so much money on, he hears enough that he thinks there's good reason for concern; of course, no one at his firm is willing to get off the gravy-train that had been moving along so smoothly for so long. His daughter's menacing former boyfriend, and then responsibility for a secret Swiss bank account suggests some personal risk for Sam, but he navigates these comfortably -- largely by inaction, things almost taking care of themselves. The financial crisis eventually does hit home -- yet hits others close to him much harder; he saw it coming, and isn't unduly concerned. If Stead then also leaves Sam's future open at the conclusion of the novel, it is also with a sense that Sam will be able to slide comfortably into it: things will work out, one way or another.
       Along with much else, there's considerable literary (sub)text: a colleague is a would-be poet (who eventually does place a piece in the Times Literary Supplement), while in his younger days Sam had tried his hand at writing and even gotten an agent for the thriller he wrote -- the only copy eventually lost in the mail. Just as well, he thinks, realizing it probably wasn't much good -- and yet when he looks back and recounts what he remembers of it, and those times, for his new-found daughter:

that story, with its fragments out of his own life, and its passages of sheer improbable invention, had its own piquancy and its own nostalgia.
       So too quite a bit of poetry is recited and recalled -- and Stead even amusingly suggests the general atmosphere and feel of the work early on, when he observes how:
It was one of those lovely late afternoons that seem to happen often now that the globe is warming, when the English end-of-summer simmers as it used to only in works of fiction by novelists with initials (always two) rather than forenames -- P.G., E.M., D.H., L.P.
       And Stead even slips Sam into a party at the Royal Society of Literature, complete with A.N.Wilson and Hanif Kureishi discussing Wagner and Dante .....
       Risk is a novel of calm life in tumultuous times, Sam an observer and hanger-on who avoids greater commitments -- and risks. He seems more or less to float; among the pleasures his new-found wealth affords him is to be able to travel on a whim, as he then often does. He's not goal-oriented; he's happy enough taking things as they come -- unlike some of the more determined people around him. It makes for an interesting reflection on a heated decade, with many lives thrown in turmoil (and quite a few deaths, one way or another) while Sam comfortably drifts alongside.
       Stead's writing flows as easily as Sam's life does, and there's considerable pleasure simply in this confident and assured presentation. It's also an agreeably surprising read, with feints of possible tension and danger, and unexpected resolutions; it moves like life does, as predictably and unpredictably as the everyday -- one reason why this near-decade-in-Sam's-life tale seem so very real (even as it is, surely, quite unusual).
       A solid, very enjoyable read, and interesting take on the first decade of the twenty-first century.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 January 2018

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Risk: Reviews: C.K.Stead: Other books by C.K.Stead under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       New Zealand writer Christian Karlson Stead was born in 1932. He taught at the University of Auckland and has written many works of fiction, poetry, and criticism.

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© 2018-2023 the complete review

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