Tree Of Life: Mat Osman’s Debut Novel, The Ruins

In the first novel by Suede founder member Mat Osman, Aug Stone finds something magical, beating with strange desires

There are certain expectations of a release by an artist who is known for their work in another medium. Most of these should be dismissed of course, for the only things that matter when discussing literature are – is it a good story? is it well-written? Let me assure you that Suede bassist Mat Osman’s debut novel The Ruins succeeds on both counts. Some will be curious as to how much of this is real life in fictional drag, but such is the moving power of these characters that the question can be immediately rejected as irrelevant. That said, when the word ‘suede’ does appear – twice by my count, late in the book, its initial use teasingly capitalised at the beginning of a sentence – one does get a slight shiver of delight, especially as, further down the page, a line of a lyric also appears in the text.

There’s music, murder, and magic. The real kind of John Dee, think that pic of Bowie drawing the Kabbalistic Tree Of Life on the ground. And there’s twins and twists. For the novel centers on two identical twin brothers, Adam and Brandon, who embody the opposites in which the book deals. Adam the reclusive model-maker, Brandon the self-centered wannabe rock star still gunning for glory. With Adam in grey London and Brandon until recently inhabiting the sun-drenched haunts of Los Angeles and Vegas, the two have not seen each other, barely been in touch, the past fifteen years. But as we move through the novel, with Adam investigating his twin’s murder just as Brandon was making the album he hoped would bring him his longed-for immortality, like the yin yang symbol where each half contains a part of its opposite as they flow into each other, so the siblings’ polarities begin to meld. The chapters alternate between the brothers’ voices as Adam receives a phone call from Brandon’s girlfriend Rae, and the two set out, via Skype, to fill in the details of Brandon’s death. The two happen upon clues through a variety of different texts, liner notes found in intriguing places, written by Brandon whilst recording his swan song.

The action is set in April 2010, with the tumult of the Icelandic volcano eruption and worldwide financial collapse providing the backdrop for Adam to enter into the turbulence of his brother’s life. But chaos brings change. And as the world is transforming itself yet again, Adam is drawn into orbit with the abandoned family, contemptuous ex-bandmates, and angry underworld figures topping the list of those Brandon’s screwed over. Each twin’s writing speaks of manifold change, and amongst the personal we also see how London’s physical structure has morphed and what’s been lost in the process. Twinned here with Los Angeles, seemingly polar opposites as far as outward appearances – weather and space – go, we’re shown, sometimes in explosive detail, how the soul of each city shakes with the same narcissistic disease. While he pours gasoline on the embers of his dreams, Brandon’s perception of these expanses offers commentary, occasionally caustic, on the stylistic flow or stubborn stagnation of each city’s music scene over the decades.

The novel isn’t about music per se, more the dark side of emotion and ego gratification, of which the music business is just one bloated tendril. Though of course it is music that expresses the whole spectrum of our feelings, so often better than we can put into words. While Osman poetically points this out in the novel, we never get the sense that this is a musician writing about music. The tone is just right, the flow so well, that the spot-on-ness simply resonates. Which is as it should be. There’s plenty of musical references however, and the fact that Adam has led a hermit-like existence allows for explanations both to him and the reader who might not be aware of their importance to the plot. Details both cool and funny – a healthy dose of both – pepper the prose. A Clan Of Xymox-clad youth makes a comment about Buffy. At Claridge’s, Brandon meets a rapper called New Money. And speaking of Bowie, the way in which the book’s denouement is brought about will be appreciated by any music fan.

The Ruins is a book you’ll want to savor even as you can’t help but be rushed along through its surprises, its settings both sumptuous and sordid. The story has heart, beating to a tune of dark desires, an enchanting tune you’ll pick up quickly and keep singing after the last page is turned.

The Ruins by Mat Osman is published by Repeater

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today