(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Winner of the Whitbread Award for best first novel, ALMA is an extraordinary, and extraordinarily disquieting, work. Building on his earlier nonfiction study of Peter Sutcliffe, the infamous Yorkshire Ripper, Gordon Burn bases ALMA on the life of the most popular English singer of the 1950’s. The real Alma Cogan serves Burn both as an interesting subject in her own right and, more important, as a point of departure for his wry yet strongly sympathetic look at a subject Freud might have called Fame and Its Discontents. Nathanael West in DAY OF THE LOCUST (1939) and Don DeLillo in MAO II (1990) have addressed the same subject but not nearly so well and certainly not to the same devastating effect as Burn. Although the real Alma died in 1966, several years after the Beatles drove her into obscurity, Burn, in a boldly tabloid “Elvis Lives!” move, has her telling her tale exactly twenty years later. Interesting as Alma’s account of her life and times is, Burn ups the ante by having Alma tell her tale just as mass murderer Myra Hindley breaks her own twenty-year silence to confess to additional murders that she and Ian Brady had committed twenty-odd years before.

Funny at first, Alma’s narrative grows progressively grimmer and more terrifying, comedy transmogrifying into compulsion, obscurity into obsessiveness. (Good as Anthony Hopkins was as Hannibal Lecter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Burn, a member of the British Crime Writers Association, is better as Alma.) Burn’s genius is evident in the way he deploys Alma’s voiceor of England — “but of the soul.”

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, September 15, 1992, p. 120.

Chicago Tribune. August 23, 1992, XIV, p. 5.

Library Journal. CXVII, August, 1992, p. 144.

London Review of Books. XIII, August 29, 1991, p. 19.

Los Angeles Times. September 10, 1992, p. E7.

New Statesman and Society. IV, August 23, 1991, p. 38.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, September 24, 1992, p. 25.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, August 30, 1992, p. 9.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, June 29, 1992, p. 51.

The Times Literary Supplement. August 23, 1991, p. 20.

The Washington Post. September 9, 1992, p. C2.