The Empathy Problem by Gavin Extence

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This is the third novel by Extence – his first, “The Universe versus Alex Wood” was a word- of- mouth success in 2013. He sets this novel in a very specific time and place. It is the height of the “Occupy” movement in the City, in London. St Paul’s cathedral grounds have been taken over by the Occupy movement which swept the world, briefly, in response to the economic collapse of the noughties. The protesters were in St Paul’s from October 2011-February 2012.

Against the backdrop of this, Extence gives us the story of Gabriel, a City trader, ruthless and aloof, completely lacking in human connection or empathy. He exists in a bubble of his own design, without friends or relationships. He is estranged from his father and uses escorts for sex but drops them when he feels any closeness developing. In short, Gabriel is a stereotype of all bankers and traders, and totally unlikeable.

However, in a plot development that gives the novel a parable-like structure, Gabriel is faced with his own mortality and he changes radically, and not quite believably, into a feeling compassionate human being, much to his own bewilderment and discomfort. The fairy-tale nature of the story gathers pace, as Gabriel comes to some life changing decisions, which affect him, but also those around him and the world he inhabits.

I enjoyed this book very much. Extance’s style is readable and descriptive. His portrayal of London is instantly recognisable to anyone who has been there. The language is pared back and precise, however, I struggled with the unfolding of the plot, as it was hard to believe the transformation taking place. The ending was particularly difficult, as it had the feel of a Disney movie. In spite of this I would recommend this novel, as fresh, original and thought-provoking.

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You can reserve a copy online at South Dublin Libraries’ catalogue here.

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