End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood
Reviewed by Claire Brialey
Gollancz, London, 2006, 342pp, £12.99, h/b, ISBN 0-575-07616-X
In Tokyo there's a girl called Nijie who's stolen a fortune and whose family are dead. And in another dimension there's a girl called Neku – Lady Neku – who's finding something very strange has happened to her home and her family, or at least to her memories. And now she finds herself somewhere stranger still. It seems like the end of her world, whichever one it is.
Also in Tokyo there's a man called Kit whose wife has died, only for him to discover that she wasn't really his wife and her family aren't very happy about any of it.
And in another country there was a boy called Christopher whose ex-girlfriend now also seems to have died and her family, whilst unhappy, aren't coming to terms with it well. His world has ended several times already, and it's coming around again.
Around these unlikely friendships and alliances identities begin to unravel, disperse, reform and make the world – any world – seem even less straightforward than before. If you go on a journey, is it to find who you think you are or lose who you don't want to be? And what happens when you try to go back?
In Tokyo and in London, Kit Nouveau has mysteries to trace, memories to face, and some big questions about whether anyone is who they seem to be. Meanwhile, Neku believes that Kit holds the key to her own rather strange memories: memories which seem to have melded Gormenghast with The Godfather against a backdrop of far future space opera. What was her life is really at the end of the world.
And this is the blues. Kit is, at heart, a musician, and the tangled web of his teenage romance and betrayal and loss of his best friend is played out against the soundtrack of their garage band.
You love someone, you lose someone, you lose yourself. Reset, repeat. You love someone, you lose someone, you blame yourself. You're not the only one.
As a character in this cycle, you can't escape. You can go to the end of the world, but you can't forget – even if you also can't quite remember.
As a reader, you can't look away. The pain you see will draw you in even as you recoil. And how else will you find out what happens, and how this world ends?
Jon Courtenay Grimwood regularly excels at composing a fractured narrative; in this novel, as shifting perceptions, false leads, temporary identities and timeframes spiral, the plot seems not merely fractured but fractal, with the full chaotic pattern only slowly emerging from multiple pinpoints of brightly coloured light. It's become a standard to expect such elegant complexity in his narrative framework, along with a richly sketched cast of characters balanced across the web of the story; and it's equally characteristic to find that balance upset with a sudden savagery, the world turned over and over and upside down – the players reset, some bloodied, some unbowed, and some very and shockingly dead.
Depending on where you're standing, Grimwood's novels could appear to be noir-ish thrillers in a science-fictional setting, or science fiction novels with all the ambience of crime. Here, each story – complete and, by comparison, straightforward in itself – effectively compliments and lifts the other. The science fiction may be in another dimension, but it's intruded directly into this world; now the plot can't be resolved without it. Similarly, organised crime is not a metaphor in this novel; it's a part of everyday life. And not some mere exoticism of another dimension or a city on the other side of the world. Like the security services, like the armed forces, like the biker gangs who also circle through the mandalas of the story, the criminal cadres of England and Japan are comprised of people, with their own motivations, complexities, uncertainties and humanity – for good and ill.
There are other Grimwood trademarks to be found here. The cat that initially appears attached to Neku – some manifestation of her dimensional shift, perhaps – comes to tip the balance for Kit. Topologically, it seems like the eponymous totem of 9tail Fox, which itself echoed the fox – which may, or may not, have existed in some form outside the protagonist's head – of the Arabesk trilogy.
And although this novel, like its predecessors Stamping Butterflies and 9tail Fox, is not presented as part of a sequence, it seems to form part of a wider pattern in itself. Grimwood has played out similar themes in all three novels, despite their very different – exotic, domestic, beautiful, brutal – settings, exploring from many angles of speculative fiction ideas of alienation, atonement, displacement, duplicity, friendship, betrayal and love. Notwithstanding the strengths and the growth in the earlier two novels, this one is the variation that settles it.
This article first appeared in Vector 252. Back issues of Vector are available from