David Peace, on the back cover, describes The Singer as "the Great Punk Novel". As a man who is passionate about music, and lived through, and loved, the punk era, this augured very well.
The book is firmly based within the UK punk, and post-punk eras, so plenty of real bands and songs feature in the story. Part of the fun of the book, for those steeped in the musical history of the era, is trying to work out who Cathi Unsworth modelled some of the fictional characters and bands on. For example there's a photographer who appears to be a combination of Kevin Cummings and Anton Corbijn, and one of the main bands draws heavily on 1980s indie favourites The Cocteau Twins, whilst another has elements of The Birthday Party, amongst others.
At first The Singer felt enjoyable if a little hackneyed, however as the story progressed, flipping between the early 2000s and the late 1970s/early 1980s, it became progressively more compelling, and by the end I was racing through the book's 450 pages keen to find out how it all ended.
A strength of the book is the range of diverse and distinctive characters, all of whom, to one degree or another are looking back at the past, many damaged by their personal histories, and bring their own interpretation of what happened and why.
Cathi Unsworth evokes the punk era very powerfully and also convincingly places the tale in a range of places which include Camden, Portobello Road, Little Venice, Stoke Newington, Pigalle, Montmartre, and Bairro Alto. I know all of these places and she does a great job of describing each location.
Ultimately The Singer is a genre piece, and part of the grand tradition of crime fiction, although that said the book's conclusion owes more to gothic horror. Cathi Unsworth's dark tale convincingly evokes the punk era (and early 2000s) via an exciting, original and unexpected story.
After I'd finished I reflected on some of the more implausible aspects of the story, and how some of the writing felt rushed, but to dwell on that is to downplay the book's many strengths. This was a great read, my first book by Cathi Unsworth, and not my last. I will be reading more very soon. 4/5