Fold – Tom Campbell

“Five friends. One year. All bets are off. Reading, 2009. It may not be Vegas, but for Nick, Doug, Vijay, Alan and Simon, it’s as good as they’re going to get. Each in their forties, and beset by anxieties, flaws and frustrations, they meet monthly in each other’s houses for a ‘friendly’ game of poker, enabling Doug to show off his new-minted wealth, Simon to insist on serving only red wine and goats’ cheese and Nick – swimming in a cocktail of envy, fear, bravado and disappointment – to make increasingly desperate attempts to bring an end to his interminable losing streak. While Vijay meticulously records every win and loss on his spreadsheet, and Alan frets about his propensity to break into sweat and his inability to get his wife pregnant, Nick becomes obsessed with the idea of engineering Doug’s downfall: Doug, who with his big house, his successful business and his appalling taste is both everything that Nick aspires to and resents. Convinced of the heroic nature of his task, he aims to triumph over Doug in poker, as well as in life, and in doing so he comes into troubling proximity to Sophia, Doug’s clever and beautiful wife…”

When I started reading this book, I expected a more grandiose setting for the poker games these 5 regularly embark upon in an attempt to win some money and assert their masculinity at the same time. However, it was quite refreshing to see the author keep them grounded in the slightly dismal setting of Reading – rather than leading them on some far-fetched tour or trip to Vegas to bag a ridiculous amount of money for something.

Campbell creates his characters well, building them up from the start, and although we get to see the games from each person’s point of view and see how they change and improve over time, I found it hard to sympathise with them or truly understand them – perhaps because I’m not a forty year old man, or because I have utterly no grasp of how to play poker (someone attempted to teach me one, but I returned to Blackjack – far simpler). This may be the reason that I struggled to get to grips with the novel, but nevertheless, I found the shameless baseness of these characters – how flippant Nick seemed about drugging Doug to win a large amount of money, and seducing his wife – honest and grounded.

Half novel and half multiple Bildungsroman, Fold is a gritty, realistic novel that embraces normalcy – the fact that you might have ended up in a job that you didn’t want, with a partner you didn’t entirely love, in a place that you never thought you’d be – and encourages you to makes the best out of things. It inspires hope about ordinary, real life and the belief that it can be OK, even if it leads you far away from the path that you intended to tread without you even noticing. It does so without fancy tricks, get-out clauses or requiring you to pull a minor miracle out of your sleeve – just stick with it, try to be a slightly better person, and learn when to fold.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury for the review copy.

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