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The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee: Lush and memorable

This historical novel about a forgotten city planner is a moving tale of loss, hope, and accidental murder, writes Patrick Maxwell

Writing a historical novel about a forgotten city planner in the hope of creating a moving tale of loss, hope, and accidental murder would be a prospect to scare most novelists before they got to the plot. But Jonathan Lee is not a scared novelist, and he is certainly not a scared writer. His new work The Great Mistake manages to weave all of these qualities into its dense narrative, resembling both a fully formed biopic and a deeply personal account at the same time.

Throughout the whole tale he is haunted by the figures of two Samuels; one a childhood friend, with whom a first moment of intimacy strips away their bond instantly and for life. The other is Samuel Tilden, the arrogantly unworldly lawyer with dreams of the political office he will come so close to acquiring it will at times bring the two closer and at others drive Andrew into episodes of self-hatred.

Andrew’s desires for both Samuels are restricted by his position: financially, socially, spiritually. His father, whose mistrust he so wants to rebuke, at the same time holds immutable influence over his outlook. The lesson to show ‘restraint’ in everything he does leads Andrew to focus entirely on his work, on becoming a lawyer, on improving New York. Never on being free for doing or being what he wants with Samuel Tilden or anyone else.

Lee’s depiction of this supposedly grand but increasingly tragic character of Andrew Green drives this novel beyond the usual strictures of biographical mores; that it is written in the simultaneously unassuming but rich style Lee possesses only increases this. Such a style seems to have much of its base in the very period portrayed; in the polite mannerisms of the late 19th-century gentlemen, or the bland formalities of the newspaper reports of the day.

The Mistake, in case you were wondering, is clear from the start. Green is murdered, when the novel opens, outside his house in November 1903. His killer, later declared insane, had mistaken him for a supposed lover of a brothel owner. The luckless, deranged nature of his death shadows over the whole story, acting as a backdrop against the guilts, doubts and also uncomfortable certainties of Green’s life, cut short in so many ways. We have only the lush writing of Jonathan Lee to make it so memorable.

The Great Mistake by Jonathan Lee is out now (Granta, £14.99)

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