The Malta Independent 2 March 2024, Saturday
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Protean author Jon Courtenay Grimwood at the 2019 Malta Book Festival

Thursday, 10 October 2019, 13:33 Last update: about 5 years ago

Announcing the names of guest authors at the Malta Book Festival ought to be a straightforward affair. For a start we know for certain that Jon Courtenay Grimwood was born in Valletta, Maltese birth certificate and all, in 1953, and oddly christened in an upturned ship’s bell. Being part of a family employed within the armed forces meant a childhood of around the world travel, living in the Far East and Scandinavia, interrupted by occasional intervals in the UK where he attended boarding school.

It’s when we consider the multitude of the author's literary personae that things get even more curious and a bit more complex. At the Malta Book Festival this year he’ll be “appearing as the unholy trinity”, as he likes to put it, of sci-fi writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood, ‘serious novelist’ Jonathan Grimwood and spy thriller hack Jack Grimwood. Before writing novels he worked in publishing and then as a journalist for UK newspapers and magazines including The GuardianThe Times and The Independent. He published his debut novel, a cyberpunk adventure titled neoAddix, in 1997. Since then he has written fifteen more and is rather proud of the fact he’s been able to keep avoid working in an office for the past twenty years.

He’s arguably best known as Jon Courtenay Grimwood, the author of a string of sci-fi and fantasy novels. Among his best celebrated is the Arabesk trilogy, a sequence of suspenseful novels, starting with Pashazade (2001) and continuing with Effendi (2002) and Felaheen (2003), set in an alternate-history North Africa where the First World War never really spread outside of the Balkans and the Ottoman Empire is alive and well in the 21st century. For the titles in this trilogy and others, he won or was shortlisted for some of the biggest awards dedicated to science fiction including the British Science Fiction Association Award, the Arthur C. Clarke, and the Locus Award.

Grimwood has never been sniffy about sci-fi in the same way some of his peers still are, and under his pen genre literature is made no less fitting a means to drive an insightful search for the truth. And yet in 2013 he became Jonathan Grimwood for the publication of the literary endeavour The Last Banquet. The shift in persona is there to indicate that this novel does away with fantastical elements, but is no less imaginative. Set in pre-Revolutionary France and peppered with appearances by the likes of real life historical figures such as Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and the Marquis de Sade, the novel follows Jean-Marie d'Aumont, whom we first meet crunching beetles as a starving orphaned son of nobility in 1723. As he makes his way back into the aristocracy, Grimwood details d'Aumont's obsessive appetites for the perfect taste, the perfect meal, always just impossibly out of reach despite seeking to conjure it from the most exotic of ingredients. It all happens against the backdrop of the vast changes taking place in 18th century France and a growing hunger for change, where excess necessarily gives way to system change. Subtle moral undertones to the tale are palpable – is it a reminder of things to come under our current system? Has capitalist excess reached a tipping point?

The most recent phase of Grimwood’s evolution is as Jack Grimwood, the author of a series of espionage thrillers set in the 1980s surrounding the troubled British Intelligence officer Tom Fox. 2016’s spy drama Moskva and later Nightfall Berlin, published just last year, have been aptly praised for their pacing, narrative tension and for the manner in which cities of times gone by come alive. In the footsteps of his protagonist, Grimwood has spent days walking and researching the settings for these novels. Soon he’ll be revisiting Malta, his place of birth, where all Grimwood’s tales begin, and we’ll finally get a chance to hear the end of the peculiar christening story.


The Malta Book Festival 2019 will take place at the Mediterranean Conference Centre, Valletta, starting from Wednesday 6 November until Sunday 10 November. On the evening of Wednesday 6 November, all three Grimwoods will be joining other guest authors for the annual conference organised by the National Book Council, which this year will revolve around the theme of science fiction and fantasy writing. He will be interviewed about his works by Jon Grech on Thursday 7 November at Theatre Hall, MCC, where audiences will have the opportunity to ask questions and have their books signed.

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