The setting: a faded, lonely guesthouse on the Essex coast. Outside, it's dark, and very foggy. Inside there's no phone or internet reception, no connection with the outside world.
Enter Ariel Panek, a promising young academic en route from the USA to an important convention in Amsterdam. With his plane grounded by fog at Stanstead, he has been booked in for the night at the guesthouse. Discombobulated and jetlagged, he falls in with a family who appear to be commemorating an event.
But this is no ordinary celebration. And this is no ordinary family.
As evening becomes night, Panek realises that he has become caught in an insidious web of other people's secrets and lies, a Sartrian hell from which for him there may be no escape.
I haven't been so relieved to finish reading a novel in recent years than I was Breakfast with the Borgias.
This from someone who's had to review some utter rubbish: books which tested my patience from the first page. Here, however, we have a completely different beast. Coming as it does from the Man Booker Prize winning author of Vernon God Little, it's no surprise that Breakfast with the Borgias is brilliantly written; that its themes are thoughtful, its execution deft; that its gregarious cast of characters come alive even as its slight story excites.
The trouble? The tension. It's almost intolerable. Especially in the first section, DBC Pierre's inaugural Hammer Horror is intensely stressful, like a bad blind date you can't escape.
Despite the elegance evidenced elsewhere, the big breakfast's set-up is somewhat unwieldy. On the way to a conference concerned with artificial intelligence, applied scientist and "sophomore magnet" (p.8) Ariel Panek's flight from Boston to Amsterdam—where he means to meet Zeva, an undergrad with a bit of a thing for him—is diverted, instead, to Stanstead. To make matters worse, all the local hotels must be fully booked, because instead of installing him in a room somewhere near the airport, a taxi takes him to a guesthouse on the ghostly coast of Essex.
By the time he's checked himself in, it's late in the day, and the weather, already terrible, has taken a turn for the worse. The roads, in due course, are closed, and to top off this series of unfortunate events, he can't get a signal on his cell to tell Zeva that he may be late—a particular problem considering that "they were a couple of the future, of the mind alone, untethered to cumbersome flesh. After meeting in an online tutorial, the page of her life had merged with his. (p.8) This breakdown in communication, then, could very well be the end of them:
Daybreak was suddenly an alien thing, as occasional as Christmas, as rare as an eclipse. He couldn't shake a sense that familiar life was receding—Zeva, daybreak, Amsterdam, Wi-Fi—all growing distant and clouded. A beach might feel the same as it dried under the sludge of a thrashing tide. [...] All he really knew was that he had to get a message out; and then get out himself. (p.68)
To that end, Ari introduces himself to the host holding court in the hotel. The Borders are a larger-than-life family, complete with several stragglers, who've come together to commemorate some sort of loss. A private thing, you'd think... yet they welcome our man with open arms, and unfettered access to the bar:
He had never seen such a gusting display of humanity, where polarities flipped, weaknesses reversed, unity was forged from collapse—and all without a trace of logic. The party had spun its own orbit from nothing, and against all the odds. Ariel always thought in terms of systems, sums, algorithms, it was natural given his work. But he knew he'd seen an extraordinary thing when the maths of it escaped him. (p.75)
Not for long, luckily. Much more of the ensuing madness and I might have abandoned Breakfast with the Borgias, simply for the sake of my sanity.
But who am I kidding? I wouldn't have put this book down for all the G and Ts in town; it's as compelling as its title is telling—and the plot thickens quickly. As the night wears on, Leonard, the drunken uncle, admits that he may be able to sort Ari out with some kind of connection, but Gretchen, the teenage waif who has the family phone, stubbornly refuses to let him use it.
When she lets herself into Ari's room in the wee hours, however, he realises that where there's a will, there's a way. Moments later Gretchen disrobes before him, making it clear that she wants something from him that he isn't willing to give.
Like Sartre says, hell is other people. Clearly, he must have meant these people, because just as Ari is starting to get a handle on them, the game changes:
He finally began to sense the maths of his situation. The emerging model disturbed him. Because a bubble containing its own laws and outcomes was all very well—in a certain sense every family had one—as long as the outcomes stayed in the bubble. But with the arrival of police this morning, outcomes had leaked into the classical world and were at large. [...] He couldn't stop himself from glimpsing the night through a tabloid editor's eyes: disadvantaged young girl; hotel room; dead of night; gifts; nudity; blood; tears. (p.119)
Breakfast with the Borgias isn't a perfect novel. The set-up, as I said earlier, could be called convoluted, and no matter how Pierre gussies it up—in unlikely quantum finery—the eventual resolution is surprisingly predictable. As regards the characters: Ari is largely passive, but not entirely absent agency, and though none of the Borders are boring—they make an exemplary first impression, in fact—few of the five are developed to any extent, whilst several seem to serve no purpose whatsoever.
Be that as it may, Breakfast with the Borgias is short, and what it lacks in length and depth it makes up for in wit, energy, imagination and panache. The aforementioned tension is masterfully handled, with Pierre providing blessed relief when needed; the dialogue practically sparkles; and the tale, though it won't be to everyone's tastes—you'll either love Pierre's showy prose or loathe it—is impeccably paced.
Breakfast with the Borgias doesn't do what you expect it to as a Hammer Horror novel: I wasn't once scared by this tragicomic tale of entanglement. But nor was I ever anything less than thrilled.