John Boyne sneaks up on the reader with this wickedly funny new satire

  • The Echo Chamber, by John Boyne. Doubleday, $32.99.

John Boyne writes serious novels. He sets his stories in Tsarist Russia and Hitler's Germany, on the Bounty and in the American civil war.

Serious, thought-provoking stories with little room for frivolity or lightness; big books too, though his most successful was The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, a mere 200 pages. Now, with his latest book, Boyne has written the Funniest Book of the Year.

It takes a while to realise what the author is doing - after all, this is someone who writes serious books. Even after you meet a character named Beverly Cleverley, you are not sure. Beverly's husband is George, "the fourth-highest paid presenter on the BBC. One of the few television presenters over the age of 50 without a criminal record."

Their three children are Nelson (named after Mandela), Elizabeth (named after Elizabeth Taylor - the writer, not the actor) and Achilles. All three are thoroughly modern, too young to have heard of the Berlin Wall or John Lennon or Bobby Sands.

Each of the two parents is carrying on an extramarital affair, Beverly with a Ukrainian dancer, her partner on Strictly Come Dancing. George's bedmate is a psychiatrist who will in time take on Nelson as her how-did-that-make-you-feel patient.

All, parents and offspring, are hooked on modern technology, Twitter and Facebook and video games. Elizabeth is determined to be what is called an influencer, the kind of thing that helped the Kardashians become obscenely rich.

Meanwhile, young Achilles is making lots of money befriending middle-aged men whom he will accuse of sexual misconduct if they don't pay him a number of thousands of pounds.

The book is structured in chapters, each of which deals with one of the five Cleverleys in turn. It is almost as if there are five individual stories, with some cross-pollination, leading to the final chapters when the author manages to have all five arrested by the police for different offences.

To describe this book as a satire would be to do it a disservice. You have to imagine the author as a kind of malevolent genie, looking down with great glee on a world which has gone crazy, mainly as a result of the proliferation of mobile phones and their various applications, marvelling at "the obsession of narcissistic morons with too much time on their hands".

There are some technical references which were over the head of this pensioner, grateful that he is too stupid to know the difference between Twitter and Tik Tok, Facebook and Instagram.

Genuinely funny, fiendishly clever, this is the kind of book that would make a wonderful text for senior English classes in our schools.

This story This clever satire should be taught in schools first appeared on The Canberra Times.