Playing Possum by Kevin Davey





Playing Possum by Kevin Davey is an exuberant modernist reminder that T S Eliot was a fan of detective fiction, Charlie Chaplin and the music hall.

Fleeing from a violent incident in London in 1922, pursued by police, Tom spends a night in the Duke of Cumberland Hotel in Whitstable. Demobilised soldiers hold a meeting below his window and a silent movie is being shot on the seafront. Davey draws on local history and literature, songs, films and artwork from the period to produce a novel Eliot himself would have enjoyed.


‘This playful postmodern escapade, deservedly shortlisted for the Goldsmiths prize, is inspired by the life, ideas and work of T S Eliot. The poet is thinly disguised as “bankerbard” Tom Stern, who flees to Whitstable after murdering his wife in London – or so it would seem. Davey collapses “time future” into “time past” so that it is both 1922 when Tom goes to Whitstable and also 90 years later as the film-maker narrator follows him there. Tom “climbs into the saddle of an iron horse” and the narrator sits down opposite him “in a strew of coffee beakers, pungent snacks, backpacks, beer cans and mobile phones”. The 1922 world is brilliantly conjured by the snatches of dialogue that pepper the text, and numerous references to music hall, jazz, Charlie Chaplin and Agatha Christie, as well as an illicit copy of Ulysses. All this context, and a multitude of allusions, make Playing Possum fascinating for Eliot scholars, but it is also enthralling for anyone willing to take the plunge into such a refreshingly unusual text.’

‘Kevin Davey’s stupendous brain-teaser of a novel offers a stream of reflections on the life, work, thought, and mythology of T S Eliot… The novel is written with terrific fluency and tonal variety in a short-winded present tense, displaying a pronounced narrative emphasis on cinema, the art form that renders everything in a permanent now. He puts the mighty modernist back into his rowdy times, among the dancing and detective stories… Davey’s Eliot emerges as a creature and enabler of total fusion – an Anglo-American banker-poet desperate to conduct “the mind of Europe” in poems that eradicate the border between thought and feeling, plagiarism and originality, past and present, the classic and the new, populism and conservatism, high and low, rigour and impulse.’
LEO ROBSON New Statesman

‘This startlingly original debut novel has been shortlisted for this year’s Goldsmiths Prize alongside five other strong contenders – and deservedly so. In its formal daring and ludic complexity it aligns closely with the Goldsmiths’ remit “to reward fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form”… The book is an unalloyed pleasure, not merely for its myriad embedded references but for the light it throws on Eliots’s engagement with popular culture… Playing Possum is not just a spellbounding commentary on modernist writing but arguably a kind of apotheosis.’

‘I love the eddies and volutes of his anfractuous prose.’

‘A most stylish performance.’

‘Wonderful. What a joy to read a book like Playing Possum in the waste land of contemporary fiction writing in Britain. And how exhilarating to read a novel in English that is so serious it is not afraid to be comic and even at times absurd.’

Playing Possum is a vastly energetic and confident book, a narrative that races along, packed with references and cross references mingling literature, film, time travel and visual art. Ninety years after the first publication of The Waste Land – and perhaps far too late – a modern day protagonist seeks proof of a murder and flight. A fictional investigator pursues a fictionalised – and murderous – T S Eliot from London towards a perhaps fictitious night spent at a hotel in Whitstable in 1922. The aftermath of his deed may have been immortalised in a suitably shocking painting by possible accomplice Otto Dix. Davey’s plot begins to tangle and gambol from the outset. The text – filled with dialogue, asides and allusions – is rich enough to repay rereading. Its time jumps and linguistic experimentation, its mosaic plot and dark humour is a joyful exploration of the novel’s boundaries as a form.’

Playing Possum is hugely enjoyable and inventive. The precisely crafted prose crackles with exuberance, plays games with tones of voice, switches from po-faced parody to understated allusion. It is an exhilarating fairground big dipper of language and styles. I relished the energy of the writing and the inventiveness of the tale.’

‘The year is 1922, the same year The Waste Land was published. That poem is famously made up of snippets of overheard conversation and found quotations and there is a large slice of this in Playing Possum too. Part of the pleasure for students of Eliot will be in tracing the references. The novel is full of the most astonishing and vivid writing. It’s almost as if the author is channelling the spirit of 1922 directly on to the page, as if he’s fashioned a time telescope through which we can look in on the scene 90 years earlier.’

Playing Possum by Kevin Davey
ISBN 978-0-9573635-8-8