Book Review: Jeffrey Archer – Heads You Win

I have the utmost respect for Jeffrey Archer’s writing. It is a shame that I feel like I have to open the review of his latest drama with this statement, as it can only be the prelude to something negative.

Jeffrey Archer has a unique style, and his writing is instantly recognisable. Indeed, the sagas he writes are made for his abilities: the Clifton Chronicles, for example, provide an entertaining look at the world throughout the twentieth century, while still being filled with lots of plot twists and dramatic plotlines to keep you reading for around 3000 pages. I know that it is hard to expect someone after such a long and distinguished career (following one which was less so distinguished) to change…. but still…

The premise for ‘Heads You Win’ intrigued me from the moment I saw it as a hardback at some point last year. The first moment I saw it in paperback form, I bought it (this is mainly to do with my belief that fiction should only be in paperback form- weird, I know). And I do appreciate the actual premise. It takes a lot for me to want to read a book which is nearly 600 pages in length.

In 1968, Alexander has to escape from the Soviet Union after his father is murdered by the KGB for trying to set up a trade union. He and his mother, Elena, are at a dockyard, where they must choose whether they climb into the crate headed for New York, or the one for Southampton. They leave it to the toss of a coin: of which, we never know the outcome, for we follow both of the parallel universes.

Functionally, this has been done very well. Both characters have followed realistic (if, somewhat, idealistic) paths through their lives. The character interactions between Alex (New York) and Sasha (London) and their respective webs were created very well, and at the most part, it is compelling. The occasional amusing crossover between the two is worth it, although it does feel predictable.

That’s not the only thing that was run-of-the-mill about this novel, though. Having read the earlier Clifton novels, I felt like I was reading the same book a second time: a young woman, having to bring up a son alone, encourages him to stay at school; he goes to Oxbridge, where he then heads into politics. And when it came to Alex in New York, apart from moments where it threatened to turn into a spy thriller, I really was not interested in the slightest. Endless discussions between shareholders and art dealing might be entertaining to some people, but it seemed to serve purely just to flesh out the novel. I also disliked the seemingly endless name-dropping of various celebrities (but there is a part where Sasha walks away from Piers Morgan, noting that ‘he wasn’t one of the people I wanted to speak to’ which made me laugh out loud).

This book promised so much, but delivered very little. I was never shocked, and by the time the two universes came together (about page 570), I couldn’t have cared less what was happening to them. And as for the huge twist which the Daily Mail promised was coming at the end? I knew what was happening within 10 pages… as would anyone who knows anything about Russia and can add numbers together.

Predictable and overblown. But if you enjoyed Archer’s previous novels, you’ll probably like this one. That is, if you don’t mind having an overwhelming sense of deja vu when you’re reading it.

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