Book review: The Echo Chamber

James Walton 26 August 2021

John Boyne pokes fun at trigger happy tweeters and “cancel culture” with his latest effort 

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine where a novelist gets his inspiration from. Well, not in this case. Two years ago, John Boyne—best-known for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas—published a book for younger readers called My Brother’s Name is Jessica. Its impeccably virtuous aim was to provide a sympathetic portrait of a teenage boy transitioning to a girl. However, by using that word “brother” and referring to the pre-trans main character as “he”, Boyne found himself under attack on Twitter for being transphobic, with critics taking issue with him not realising that once someone identifies as a woman, that’s what they’ve always been. 

Of course, what normally happens next is that the person then issues an abject apology, explaining how much they’ve learned since. Well, not in this case. Instead, in his new book for adults, Boyne comes out all guns blazing for a full-scale satire on the idiocy of social media. Sixty-year-old George Cleverley is a popular TV interviewer and, in his own eyes, a good liberal. After all, he named one of his children after Nelson Mandela and he sponsors 18 goats in Somalia.

"Sixty-year-old George Cleverley is a popular TV interviewer and, in his own eyes, a good liberal"

Unfortunately, after discovering that his lawyer’s receptionist is transitioning from Aidan to Nadia, George posts a tweet wishing “him” well with “his” transition. Sure enough, he instantly becomes a Twitter hate figure, abused as old, fat, racist, fascist, misogynistic and lots more besides—often by people using the hashtag “#Be Kind”. And from there, Boyne’s attack on modern media life broadens out in pretty much every possible direction. 

Yet, while’s there’s no mistaking the book’s heartfelt nature, the experience of reading it is surprisingly joyous—largely, I’d suggest, because Boyne has such obvious fun getting in touch with his inner curmudgeon. Most of the comedy is broad to the point of irresistible farce. And, as it follows all five members of the Cleverley family through all manner of scrapes, The Echo Chamber turns out to be packed with great, rollicking story-telling—plenty of it not about social media. This is a terrific novel for our times—although, if I were Boyne, I would avoid Twitter when it’s published.

The Echo Chamber book cover

The Echo Chamber is available here.

Reader's Digest Recommended Read: Two Hitlers and a Marilyn: An Autograph Hunter’s Escape from Suburbia by Adam Andrusier

Two Hitlers and a Marilyn book cover

At this stage, Andrusier’s entire universe was the north London suburb of Pinner, where he grew up with his Jewish parents: a larger-than-life father and a mother it seems fair to call “long-suffering”. In fact, quite a lot of the book is a beautifully bittersweet memoir about Andrusier’s conflicted relationship with his father, from whom he learned the appeal of collecting—although his dad’s taste ran more towards postcards of Eastern European synagogues that were destroyed by the Nazis

Meanwhile, following his Big Daddy triumph, young Adam expanded into writing off for autographs. But he also continued as an “in-person collector”, waiting outside London hotels to accost the likes of Elizabeth Taylor (who said no) and Nelson and Winnie Mandela (who said yes, but seemed to Andrusier to be unhappily married). He also introduces us to the strange world of autograph conventions, where a winningly random assortment of celebs—from astronomer Patrick Moore to the bloke who played Jaws in James Bond—sign for money.

On a darker note, he sees a particularly long queue for the pilots who dropped the first atomic bomb cheerfully signing photos of the Hiroshima ruins. These days, Andrusier makes his living as an autograph dealer. But here he is as a boy, a couple of years after a family holiday in California, about to make his nascent collection more international: 

"One day, Dad had a thought. He disappeared into his study, and after a lot of groaning and throwing paper around he emerged clutching a brightly illustrated brochure. It was a ‘Beverly Hills Star Map’. 
‘I’d forgotten all about this,’ he gleamed. ‘Might be useful.’ 

That map was more than useful. It had little stars that showed you exactly where the old-timers lived. I remembered, now, how we’d used the map on our trip in California. We’d seen hedges trimmed at Gene Kelly’s residence and watched a man in overalls arriving at Spielberg’s place with a pot plant. Other than a torn, missing corner, they were all right there, and now I knew how to find them. I deluged Beverly Hills with letters of admiration. 

‘Who’s Fred Gwynne?’ I demanded of Dad. ‘Is he famous?’ 
‘Yes. The one from whatchamacallit—The Munsters.’ 
‘What about Dick Sargent? And Dom DeLuise?’ 
‘I don’t know those two. But have you thought about writing to James Cagney? A huge star! And Phil Silvers?’ 

A few weeks later, the first Hollywood autograph arrived: a large photo of James Cagney, showing him anciently old, and signed in a shaky hand, ‘To Adam, Jim Cagney.’ 
‘But is that actually him?’ Mum queried. ‘He looks like a prune.’

‘The man’s eighty-five years old,’ Dad reasoned. Other signed photos came in from James Stewart, Kirk Douglas and Gene Kelly; smiling, glamorous shots arrived from Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak and Hedy Lamarr. ‘Ooh, Lauren Bacall was lovely,’ said Dad. ‘And did you know Hedy Lamarr was the first actress to appear completely naked on screen?’ He pursed his lips and blinked a lot. 

The biggest success, though, was Frank Sinatra. He’d been missing from the map—presumably in the torn-off corner—so I’d addressed an envelope simply, ‘Frank Sinatra, U.S.A.’ Dad said I didn’t stand a chance in hell. Not only did Frank get my letter, but he sent a colour photo of himself singing, and in silver ink wrote, ‘Sincerely yours, Frank Sinatra’. My father was gobsmacked by this achievement, and even though I hadn’t seen any of Sinatra’s films or heard him sing a note, that one became my favourite. I separated it from the main collection and Blu-tacked it to my bedroom wall. When parents’ friends came over, Dad would say, ‘Go on, show them the Sinatra,’ as if that photo had become ‘ours’. 

While I was grateful for the autographs I got, I thought mostly about the ones that seemed unobtainable, like mean old Danny Kaye, who never replied, and stingy Charles Schulz, who was always too busy to draw a lousy Snoopy. Katharine Hepburn wasn’t playing ball, either. She had a smug secretary reply on her behalf: ‘I’m sorry, but Miss Hepburn doesn’t sign or send autographs.’ I’d write back, detailing the extent of my admiration. ‘I’m sorry,’ came the next reply, ‘but it’s Miss Hepburn’s policy not to sign autographs for people she doesn’t know.’ Miss Hepburn didn’t know me? I’d written nine times."

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