Kevan is a witty and observant writer, skills he's honed at his formerly-anonymous blog. While many other blogs have had decidedly mixed results in translating what worked online into dead-tree success, Kevan shows a keen appreciation of his online audience's tastes. He keeps his pacing brisk without being too choppy; he adds to the roles played by secondary and incidental characters without losing focus on BabyBarista and his circle of friends and rivals; he offers insight into the arcane and insular world of the barrister without playing-down dark satire.
BabyBarista and The Art of War focuses on BabyBarista's death march through his year-long pupillage, a final-stage apprenticeship during which law graduates gain work experience with practicing barristers and compete with other pupils to for a position as a barrister in an established chambers. He describes the process in his diary of his first day:
[T]he ordeal through which the Bar Council continues to force its brightest and best.... A sort of upper-class reality show in microcosm every one of your foibles will be analysed and where a blackball system exists so that if you annoy one person, you're out. [Y]ou're playing to the lowest common denominator. Attempting to be as inoffensive as possible in the sound knowledge that it won't be the votes in favour that get you in but the lack of votes against.
The novel's principal characters come to life without intrusive exposition. BabyBarista is spare with details of his own situation, but what he provides to his friend, Claire, to his mentor, OldRuin, or directly to us serves to illuminate the financial desperation which drives him to succeed in his pupillage both by displaying his own merits and by subtly destroying his fellow pupils' chances. His three (later four) co-pupils seem at first to be mere caricatures of familiar personalities — Worrier is details-obsessed to the point she's unable to function professionally; BusyBody's instinct to be everywhere, to have her hand in every project, and to be all things to all people makes her a whirl of unproductive but frenzied activity; TopFirst's stellar academic achievements and social connections mask a wicked soul. As time goes by, however, these characters acquire greater depth and by the time a fourth pupil-competitor joins the fray, all of their behaviors become understandable. This is not to say that they, or BabyBarista necessarily, become invariably sympathetic characters, but they become real, something mere caricatures cannot be.
BabyBarista's pupillage experiences provide some startling criticisms of the practice of law generally and the pupillage system particularly. BabyBarista and his mother have essentially locked themselves into a high-stakes wager that, against exceptionally-long odds, BabyB can complete his climb from modest origins to lucrative barristers' chambers. As he nears that objective, the added (often unreasonable) financial pressures of the pupillage year heighten his sense of desperation and drive him to trade what he knows to be right for expedient gains or short-term personal or professional advantage. He laments that "[I]t's no different to bear baiting or cock fighting. They plunge us into debt before we get here and then leave us to fight it out, Deathmatch style." Later, after a particularly appalling incident, he warns that "[W]hatever you do, don't let the lawyers start worrying about getting paid. However much they protest otherwise, it's there in their mind. Not even at the back of their mind." His experiences highlight a system which seems designed in part to focus pupils' and barristers' minds on their own finances rather than clients' best interests and to effectively filter out those without independent means from the practice of law.
The practicing barristers who mentor BabyBarista illustrate both the best and worst aspects of legal practice. OldRuin provides an aspirational view of the lawyer as a professional, held by others and himself to a higher standard of conduct; he is at times unrealistic about the realities of modern legal practice and unwilling to challenge its more base practitioners, but he also offers some insights which should make clear to all of us who practice law that ours is a profession and not merely a business. TheBoss is a cautionary tale from start to end; he behaves unethically and cowardly, but even he becomes more real as we come to understand that he is like a Ghost of BabyBarista Yet to Come (apologies to Dickens). TheBoss is in many ways the product and victim of the finance-obsessed side of legal practice which afflicts BabyBarista; whereas BabyB sees the riches of practice, rightly or wrongly, as his and his mother's salvations, for TheBoss it has become a damnation, trapping him into an increasingly-desperate cycle of misdeeds to perpetuate his lifestyle and social position. In lesser hands, characters like OldRuin and TheBoss would be like the stereotypical angel and devil perched on the protagonist's shoulders, whispering in his ear, but Kevan writes his secondary players far less clichéed.
As I've said, though, BabyBarista is not a flawless novel. Structurally, the ending is a bit too abrupt and convenient; considering how effectively Kevan paced and plotted his novel to that point, he could have arrived at his destination with greater style and less haste. More broadly, while Kevan ventures beyond the constraints of his successful blog, he doesn't venture very far beyond. It seems that BabyBarista's chambers are meant to be at least somewhat representative of other chambers and of the larger bar. Nonetheless, the exclusive focus on the misfeasance, malfeasance, and nonfeasance within BabyBarista's chambers without even passing looks at others' (despite his extensive interaction with Claire and other pupils in the shared library and elsewhere) creates an impression that BabyB's chambers are an aberration. This tends to undercut the universality of his struggles and experiences, diminishing them as broader commentaries on pupillage and legal practice. Those on the inside of the profession, barristers particularly, will relish the satirical elements but may find it somewhat too easy to dismiss Kevan's deeper criticisms when his satire strays a bit too far in places into broad comedy. If readers find Kevan's insights into the practice of law easier to dismiss for these reasons, that's an opportunity lost; these issues deserve to be considered and discussed seriously.
It's churlish of me to note that what Kevan's done, he's done very well, but to then mark him down a bit for expanding on an excellent blog but not transcending it. Please understand, however, that this is the criticism of someone who greatly enjoyed BabyBarista and The Art of War and recommends it highly, but who can still imagine how much more it might have been.
BabyBarista and The Art of War
By Tim Kevan
Bloomsbury Publishing PLC (2009)
Paperback (288 pages)