Archive for the ‘Thriller’ Category

his-bloody-project

Authenticity is often what we look for in a book. Is the setting authentic? Are my characters authentic? Is my voice authentic? Is my lexis authentic? It doesn’t take much sometimes to pull a reader from a novel and inauthenticity can do it. I’ve still got concerns about the use of the f-word in Hilary Mantel’s glorious Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies. Some writers embrace otherness and the inauthentic to create something lyrical and beautiful. Others like Jim Crace’s Harvest and Gift Of Stones are credible and authentic but we never lose track of the fact that these are novels.

Gramme Macrae Burnet goes the other way: His Bloody Project drips with authenticity to the point where it blurs the boundaries of fiction and history. Purporting to be a collection of found historical documents, found when 

“In the spring of 2014 I embarked on a project to find out a little about my grandfather, Donald ‘Trump’ Macrae, who was born in 1890 in Applecross…”

In addition to this preface, Burnet embeds his novel in reality: the villages of Applecross and Culduie are real; the criminologist James Bruce Thomson is real; the grim and ungenerous land is real; the daily trials and hard work required to eke a living from that land is utterly credible and authentic. The temptation is to accept the historical authenticity as fact, to turn to Google or Wikipedia to discover which characters are actually real!

On 12th April 1869, Roderick Macrae – inhabitant of Culduie in the far reaches of Scotland – killed Lachlan Mackenzie – known as Lachlan Broad. Murdered him and his sister and his infant son. Bludgeoned them with a croman and flaughter. Don’t worry, a glossary is provided in the novel.

No spoilers here: we learn that in the opening pages of this Man Booker shortlisted novel. Unlike most crime fiction (and that – along with other things – is what this is), there is never any doubt as to who committed the crime: Macrae is discovered covered in blood and admitting the deed. It is not so much a whodunit as a whydunit. And perhaps an exploration of how impossible a task it is to know the contents of another man’s heart or mind. Because Macrae’s only defence is his own insanity.

And I’m not sure we ever receive any answer: the witness statements and testimony and expert opinion and especially Macrae’s own purportedly personal account all testify to the impossibility of knowing. They confuse and contradict and complement each other throughout.

There is so much to admire here: the wealth of narrative voices, all of which are again authentic; it’s a compelling exploration of the deprivation of the crofters’ life; it’s an examination of the misery that an abuse of power can create. It is comical in the second half’s account of the trial, and absurd – especially when Macrae’s father visits the factor to discover and inspect the regulations under which his tenancy is governed, having been challenged for breaking them, and is told that

“a person wishing to consult the regulations could only wish to do so in order to test the limits of the misdemeanours he might commit.”

It is a fascinating, although ultimately bleak and harrowing glimpse into history and a thoughtful game between Burnet and the reader exploring that boundary between history and story. And also a cracklingly good read behind the literary mind games.

the-likeness-pb.jpg

I do enjoy Tana French. Her writing style is simultaneously lyrical and languid, full of synaethesia; and, at the same time, credible and realistic.

And this, her second novel in the Dublin Murder Squad series, is a delight!

I love the way that it follows seamlessly on the heels of In The Woods and Operation Vestal – the investigation into Katy Devlin’s death in thst debut novel – was a ghostly presence throughout. But French switched narrators from the unreliable and, for me, uncredited Rob Ryan to his erstwhile partner, Cassie Maddox. 

And a small detail dropped into In The Woods becomes a critical plot point here: Maddock had worked in Undercover before she had transferred to Murder. In this novel, she is brought back to being undercover when the corpse of a girl who looks exactly like her is discovered. It is improbable. It stretches our willingness to suspend disbelief a little – but then French’s books always have that touch of the otherworldly about them anyway. She’s not wedded to the purely credible and mundane, which sets her apart from many crime writers. And as the dead girl was using an identity – Lexie Maddison – which Cassie had invented to go undercover with, her old boss Frank Mackey was called in and, through him, Cassie was brought in to go undercover as the dead girl. It’s nice to see Mackey again: a slightly clichéd to-hell-with-the-rules detective who bulldozer his way into the investigation, just as he does in The Secret Place.

The dead are often a very visceral lyn solid ground point in a detective novel: they are static, they are probed and opened up and explored. Here, Lexie Maddison is as ephemeral as the wind and as fluid as water: we only see her once before Cassie steps into her shoes and we unravel hints of an intriguing mercurial – and probably damaged – character. Impossible to grasp or to capture, flowing through the fingers of each character who tries.

And when Cassie does pick up Lexie’s life, we are introduced to another of French’s trademarks: an impenetrably close group of friends with whom the dead girl had been living and who Cassie has to infiltrate. Just like the cliques of girls in The Secret Place, the depiction of Lexie’s friends – Abby, Rafe, Daniel and Justin – is thrilling and enticing and unreal and so tempting. Living with each other in Daniel’s inherited manorial house, distant from both the local village and other students at Trinity College, they are impossibly and intimidatingly close. 

The other vast character in the novel – perhaps the biggest and most significant character – is Whitethorn House itself. The house in which Lexie and her friends live. It breathes and moves and speaks just as much as any other character. And its fate is perhaps more tragic than those of any of the others. The house is part-commune, part-home, part-sylvan fantasy, part-fairy tale castle and part-fortress and it looms over the whole novel carrying it’s own tragic and toxic history.

And when a writer like French has a character tell us that he heard a dead girl’s voice coming from the house, I’m less likely to dismiss it than with other writers.

hagseed-by-margaret-atwood-wide

Once again, a deliciously striking cover for Margaret Atwood’s most recent novel, and the most recent entry into the Hogarth Shakespeare Project… and the first in the project that I’ve read.

Now, I have a confession to make before going much further: I’ve never really got Margaret Atwood. I’ve wanted to; I’ve tried to. I really have. The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Blind Assassin, The Heart Goes Last… I’ve found them all daunting and I’m not usually daunted by books. Maybe daunting isn’t the right work. I’ve just never got into them however hard I’ve tried.

But this one, I actually really loved!

A re-invention of The Tempest, Hag-Seed is set in Makeshiweg, Canada where Prospero is re-imagined as Felix, the director of a local theatre festival, usurped by the Machiavellian machinations of a deliciously corporate Tony, an act which similarly de-rails his plans for a production of The Tempest. And within that circularity is encapsulated a taste of the delightful self-referentiality of the novel: theatres and productions and prisons and revisions and re-versions of the play multiply dizzyingly. Felix seemed perpetually with one-foot in the play: even before the villainous firing, he had lost his wife and named his daughter Miranda.

And Miranda is the heart of this novel: unlike Prospero’s daughter, Felix lost his own child and conjures her up as a memory which elides into an hallucination and slips into ghostliness through the novel. Simultaneously present and absent. Desperately clung to by Felix. Student and teacher.

Despite the ridiculous over-the-top caricature which Felix can become

His Ariel, he’d decided, would be played by a transvestite on stilts who’d transform into a giant firefly at significant moments. His Caliban would be a scabby street person – black or maybe Native – and a paraplegic as well, pushing himself around the stage on an oversized skateboard.

Atwood truly creates empathy and real pain in his oh-too-real experience of his grief as a father. At times, it feels touched by Hamlet rather than just The Tempest.

Felix slinks into a self-imposed exile following his firing and spends twelve years following the evil Tony’s rise to government and slowly plotting his revenge, a revenge which requires the Fletcher Correctional Facility to achieve via a Shakespeare Literacy Programme in which the inmates perform a Shakespeare play each year. As Tony and his cronies circulate and plan to visit Fletcher, Felix uses The Tempest as a tool with which to exact his revenge in a dark and drug-fuelled finale.

Personally, I preferred the build-up and rehearsal to the actual performance of the play and the enactment of the revenge. I loved the way that the inmates who were Felix’s cast toned down the self-indulgent theatricality of his original ideas and added rap, cynicism, kitsch and machismo to his re-invented re-invention. The actress Anne-Marie – a feisty and cool kick-ass dancer who can hold her own in the prison – becomes his Miranda; his Miranda becomes his Ariel.

At heart, the novel is an achingly painful and beautiful farewell from a father to his memories of his daughter and an ownership of grief. The final farewell genuinely brought tears to the eyes.

Other entries to the Hogarth Shakespeare Project include Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (The Winter’s Tale), Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name (The Merchant of Venice) and Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl (The Taming of the Shrew). I look forward to picking these up and, when they’re released, Tracy Chevalier’s Othello, Gillian Flynn’s Hamlet, Jo Nesbo’s Macbeth and Edward St Aubyn’s King Lear to come.

 

 

cover-nutshell_ian-mcewan

Some books need more of an exercise in imagination than others. A bigger suspension of disbelief.

An unborn narrator, for example, is one such.

And not just unborn in a metaphorical sense but literally foetal.

The narrator of McEwan’s most recent book – recently serialised on Radio 4 – is a third-trimester Hamlet, set in modern London, recounting his mother’s and uncle’s attempts to usurp his father. And once you’ve created such an unconventional narrator, I suppose it makes complete sense – once your reader has abandoned that much disbelief – to make him very articulate, learned and astute. McEwan tosses in the occasional nod to Radio 4 podcasts as an explanation for the narrator’s knowledge, but – to be honest – who needs it? It’s a talking foetus; why not an articulate one?

It is a particularly intriguing notion for me at the moment. However indulgently and self-consciously artificially written, the concept of a vivid and thoughtful interiority of the foetus drives home to me: my own three-year old is smart, clever and manipulative but, for reasons so far unknown, not talking. I am, perhaps, therefore, already conditioned to see and cherish the interior life of the silent. To let the silent child speak to me in her own way.

And it is more than just a writerly frolic and unnecessarily facetious twist. It does shine a light on Hamlet’s twisted and fluid relationship with his own mother Gertrude in Shakespeare’s play – or Trudy in McEwan’s novel – and it shifts that relationship to the centre of the action, and makes her a knowing co-conspirator with the dullard Claude. And their relationship is brilliantly serpentine and mutually destructive, leaving the reader never quite sure who is taking advantage of whom.

Of course, McEwan’s Hamlet – like many of McEwan’s characters and stories and novels such as On Chesil Beach and In Between The Sheets – looks at the coarseness of sexuality in the face… quite literally in this case:

Not everyone knows what it is to have your father’s rival’s penis inches from your nose. By this late stage, they should be refraining on my behalf. Courtesy, if not clinical judgement, demands it. I close my eyes, I grit my gums, I brace myself against the uterine walls…. Wall of Death! On each occasion, on every piston stroke, I dread that he’ll break through and shaft my soft-boned skull and seed my thoughts with his essence….

Here I am, in the front stalls, awkwardly seated upside down. This is a minimal production, bleakly modern, a two-hander. The lights are full on and here comes Claude. It’s himself, not my mother, he intends to undress. He neatly folds his clothes across a chair. His nakedness is as unstartling as an accountant’s suit…. And my mother? On the bed, between the sheets, partly dressed, wholly attentive, with ready hums and sympathetic nods. Known only to me, under the bedclothes, a forefinger curls over her modest clitoral snood and rests a half-inch inside her. This finger she gently rocks as she conceded everything and offers up her soul.

Like those other novels, this coarseness is both repulsive and hilarious and poignant all at the same time. Deeply unsettling and thoroughly engaging at the same time.

The novel works on a range of levels: it is an intriguing thriller as well as an exploration of the death of love as well as a reimagining of Shakespeare.

And I enjoyed it immensely.

 

Girl-of-Ink-and-Stars.jpg

This certainly has a distinctive and gorgeous cover on it, which has graced the window front of local bookshops for weeks!

But they do say that you shouldn’t just a book etc etc etc …

The book is narrated by Isabella, a young girl on the island of Joya, who has been brought up on her father’s stories and myths in the years following her brother and mother’s deaths. The world Hargrave creates is intriguing: there is a nineteenth century feel to the world, and perhaps a colonial setting with the almost omnipotent Governor; yet familiar names are rendered differently with passing references to Amrica, Afrik and India. References which must, perforce, be passing as the island appears to be cut off and isolated from the rest of the world; and indeed Isabella’s town of Gromera cut off and isolated from the rest of the island. This isolation makes Isabella’s father’s occupation of cartographer particularly redundant, but the idea of maps and of creating charts and of knowing our place in the world is a redolent one.

Hargraves does move the plot along at a rattling pace and I wasn’t sure that it quite worked in the first half of the book: a girl, Cata, is found dead; a curfew imposed; a public act of violence; and Isabella’s best friend, Lupe, runs into the forbidden and forgotten rest of the island to seek the killer. Isabella, inevitably, gets included in the expedition mounted to rescue her and embarks on a voyage into the interior, somewhat unnecessarily dressing as a boy to do so.

Hints are dropped that there is something dark occurring on the island: songbirds have fled it; livestock run into the sea and drown; marks beside Cata’s body are apparently huge gouges in the earth, suggesting that those responsible for her death may not be human. But these hints are dropped in and undeveloped; the world is undeveloped; the characters and their relationships felt undeveloped and I wasn’t sure whether I was truly engaged or not.

In hindsight, however, this is more of a fairy tale, myth or an allegory than a novel. And stories and myths of the family and community are told and retold throughout the novel, particularly the story of Arinta. The mythography – for wont of a better word – within it was much stronger than the characterisation or the psychology or the world building. In fact, Isabella is explicitly following in the steps of one of her father’s legends as she descends towards what may – or may not – be a fire demon at the heart of the island. And that light-touch characterisation actually helps to create the mythic and allegorical feel of the book.

The novel – or series – that I feel bears most comparison to this one is Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children. In both books, the main character is thrust into a fantastical world through the discovery of an horrific death; in both books, there are monsters. But Riggs’ hollows were described and clearly depicted and lost much of their power as a result; Hargraves’ tibicenas remained clothed in shadows and smoke even after we encountered them.

Hargraves created something more by giving us less. And I feel that the books will remain with me and I’ll reflect on it for longer than Riggs’.

In short, I am not surprised by the fact that it has been longlisted for the CILIP Carnegie Medal for 2017.

 

risk-of-darkness

This will be a fairly brief review for two reasons: firstly, I thought I’d already reviewed it and only realised when I tried to link my review of The Vows of Silence to it that I’d not; and secondly, it is very much a continuation of the second novel, The Pure In Heart.

Serrailler is summonsed to Yorkshire to help investigate a lead in the kidnapping and (presumed) murder of David Angus, leading him to effect the arrest of the kidnapper, Edwina Sleightholme, in a surprisingly and refreshingly thrillerish moment fleeing down a Yorkshire cliff face – a moment that was a tad reminiscent of The Woman in Black or of something Hitchcockian.

Hill is a writer who has gone on the record to say that she is less interested in the whodunit than the why-dunnit, so I was anticipating something thoughtful and interesting in the presentation of Sleightholme. And was slightly disappointed. There was no real exploration of the mind of a killer. She is portrayed pretty much as simply evil – a word I have trouble with – who just did because she wanted to. After the genuine emotional horror of The Pure in Heart in which the repercussions of the abduction are seen on the family, the explanation and the presentation of the killer were bland. And maybe that was entirely the point. That the monstrous wears the same banal face as the rest of us.

Other tragedies and crimes took place too and interweaved with new characters: Max Jameson lost his wife Lizzie to Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease – an unusual and odd disease to choose perhaps – and his grief led to increasingly bizarre confrontations including holding the new pastor Jane Fitzroy hostage in her own home. Serrailler eventually talked him round to releasing Fitzroy who quickly became a friend of his sister, Cat Deerbon, and lined up as a love interest for Serrailler. It was a nice breath of fresh air in the Deerbon household where some very tedious arguments about GP working conditions were held ad nauseam.

As often happens with the series, it is slow and gentle and meditative – with the exception of the scene on the Yorkshire cliffs – and I vacillated between enjoying that meditativeness and finding it slightly tedious. I didn’t find the Max Jameson plot line convincing as an exploration in either crime or grief, nor the presentation of Sleightholme. What I did like was the reaction of Sleightholme’s mother to her daughter’s arrest: the shock and denial and obsessive rejection of the truth.

image

This was … not what I expected.

A band of travellers in the England of 1348, travelling and telling tales to each other over the course of their journeys. The reviews and comments on it make an obvious but – to my mind – highly suspect assertion that this somehow a re-imagining of The Canterbury Tales. In fairness, I don’t think the author Karen Maitland makes that assertion. But many reviewers did and it is in no way a re-imagining of Chaucer.

What Maitland offers instead is a disreputable rabble – liars by profession or necessity or self-delusional – thrown together and roaming the cities, villages, forests and marshes of England. There is an aimlessness about the journey – which has no end point save to avoid the plague – which seems to reflect in the meandering structure of the novel. The opening hundred pages or so chronicle the coming together of an apparently random assortment of nine characters; the final hundred pages finally gets its teeth into becoming a psychological thriller; the middle three hundred pages … meanders.

Sure, we get to see a lot of Maitland’s historical research thrown back at us: details of a variety of cons and tricks and unpleasant menial tasks. But I never felt fully drawn into the world. It felt a little too much like Madame Tussaud’s or Warwick Castle for my liking: somehow it was as if those historical details were waxworks and contrived. As if the history was the end in itself rather than serving the needs of the plot.

And the characters were all rather bleak. Our narrator is Camelot,  a peddlar of relics using his lies to sell ‘hope’. His company is swollen initially by Joffrey and Rodrigo, musicians, and then the travelling magician, Zofield; a pregnant woman and her husband, Adela and Osmund; a waif like child Narigorm, whose white hair and pale skin mark her out as strongly as Camelot’s missing eye, and her nurse Patience; and most bizarrely Cygnus, a boy whose arm is in fact a swan’s wing. I mean, what? A swan’s wing? And everyone just accepts that as a fact? Really?

Not many of the characters were actually all that likeable: Zofield in particular was abhorrent decrying Jews, vampires, women, children and homosexuals with equal vehemence and venom. I mean seriously, why did these people put up with him? Joffrey was a whiney little boy who needed a good slap. His story was possibly the most interesting but one of the least developed. Patience was no more than a silent two-dimensional character. In fact, did Maitland give any of her female characters the richness they deserve? The richness we deserve as a reader?

I could go on.

I did quite like Camelot but his easy acceptance of almost everything he encountered did jar. There was something very modern in his sensibilities which jarred with the setting. I fear that, however unpleasant Zofield was, his was a more typical depiction of attitudes in the fourteenth century.

Having said this, it did keep me engaged and interested through the whole novel although some of the chapter transitions were very abrupt and jarring. Part of the reason for this was the narration by David Thorpe, whose voice had a lovely authentic northernness to it which was wonderfully refreshing. But there were perhaps half a dozen moments when a chapter would end on a slow heavy ominous note and Thorpe would leap in with “Chapter X” in a jaunty voice, full of cheer.

There are two moments I want to highlight for you. The birth of Oswin and Adela’s baby was probably the strongest chapter in the novel – the claustrophobia of the incomplete chapel in which it occurs, the dire warnings and portents surrounding it, the sheer physicality of the task.

In contrast, the final chapter – with its heavily signposted revelation – was a terrible ending. I think Maitland was aiming for a cliffhanger of suspense – like the phone ringing at the end of An Inspector Calls, with which it actually bears many similarities – but it just falls completely flat.

So, in conclusion, I have reservations – mainly that it’s overlong and its characterisation- but I did get gripped and I did enjoy the more psychological thriller aspect. I’d probably read another by her. It was, after all, only her second novel.

     This was a pleasant enough way to round of my half term: decently written in the engaging and practical voice of Lady Trent, this book conjures up a Regency style world with echoes of Austen. With dragons. 

The opening sections of the novel are the most Austenesque – if that’s even a word. Isabella Hendemore, the only daughter in a brood of boys, is indulged by her often absent gentleman father in an interest or passion in dragons who appear to be common enough to encroach into her father’s lands occasionally. They are treated by most people as any other predator, albeit a particularly dangerous predator, to be hunted and driven away from farms. 

After a few minor dragon-based adventures, Isabella is introduced to Society where she meets Jacob Camherst. Their courtship is sped over – presumably due to an absence of dragons – and I’d have liked to have seen more of it. Brennan’s writing was actually quite effective in describing the tension and comedy between genuine affection and the conventions in which Isabella are forced to express it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it’s not Austen; it’s not social satire. But it was sweet and affecting. Especially as the narrative voice of Lady Trent is narrating the tale with the benefit of hindsight, status and a certain reputation for boldness. 

Following the wedding, Brennan has Isabella Camherst meet Lord Hilford, a peer of the realm with a naturalist’s interest in dragons. An expedition is planned to the village of Drustanev in Vystrana, a thinly veiled Russia. Isabella manoeuvres herself to be included in it. And from there, the heart of the novel begins as Brennan moves the memoir into the territory of a travelogue and then a mystery thriller. With dragons. 

The voice of Isabella, Lady Trent, was very well done. Self-deprecating, self-aware and honest. She – and in very real ways we’ve not seen her as neither Isabella Hendemore nor Isabella Camherst had yet become Isabella, Lady Trent, as she herself pointed out – was irascible and warm and engaging. A bit like an eccentric great-aunt. And the novel did indeed sound like what it claimed to be, a memoir, with occasional asides to the reader, references back to novels, travelogues and reference books within the world of the novel. 

The dragons’ presence was almost incidental: they were an integral feature of the landscape Brennan created and a key plot device but the story was really about the people. Some suspicious and fearful, some greedy, some venal, most generally decent, none exactly evil. It was quite refreshing for a fantasy novel not to have a dark lord figure brooding over the world pretending to be Sauron – and no doubt one whose name ends in -ex or -ix or some other suitably sinister suffix. Yes, Christopher Paolini, I’m referring to your King Galbatorix here! I’m sorry, but, well, the dragons make it an obvious comparison. 

So, all in all, I enjoyed this. It was pleasant and took me to a credible other world with some interesting characters. 

And there were dragons. 

And, doing the Reading Challenge which requires a trilogy, the remaining two books in the series (see here for covers, which are also very impressive) won’t be a bad way to spend the Summer. 

  

“Complexity should be your excuse for inaction.”

I was born in 1973 in a village in Kent. So far as I know, only once. I have to say, when I die, if I were to be reborn as myself in the same village in 1973 again, I’d be a tad surprised! I mean 1973. I’d have to live through the ’80s again. Did anything good happen in the 80s?

But how would that repetition affect your life? Your relationship with your parents? With the world? With history? Immortal, yet destined to only see the same lifetime. That’s the basic premise of The First Fifteen Lives Of Harry August. As a premise, it’s unusual and yet oddly familiar: The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell was very similar save that you were reborn as a new person and the next generation; Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. Even Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Harry is a kalachakra or ouroboran, one of many across the world, looping perpetually through their lives. We are never informed how or why these kalachakra exist and the question “What is the point of you?” echoes within the book. 

The cyclical nature of the protagonist’s life also affects the narrative structure a little in that occasional snippets and flashbacks occurred but the novel was generally chronological through Harry August’s lives. Certainly it lacked the complexity of structure which The Time Traveller’s Wife had. Nor does the book dwell on ethical questions, beyond the slightly unclear “Don’t bugger about with temporal events”. Harry decides to kill someone in almost every one of his lives because he murdered a friend in one. The lives of linears (normal un-re-born people… muggles I suppose) seem to be treated very poorly. As if their lives didn’t matter.

Philosophical ideas are thrown out: does each new life create its own alternative universe? 

None of it is really dwelt on.

The book which this reminded me of the most, however, was I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. It was, at heart, a thriller. Once you stripped out the reincarnation. Harry becomes part of The Cronus Club, an organisation generally aimed at self-preservation and support for themselves to avoid the ennui of repeated childhoods, as well as maintaining a temporal status quo. A shadowy figure emerges with a complex plan which threatens the world. Atrocities are committed. A confrontation occurs. 

It is a cracking thriller with a decent plot (the quantum mirror could be substituted for any weapon of mass destruction) and, despite developing over 400 years of linear time (give or take) a snappy pace. 

The relationship between Harry and Vincent, antagonists and comrades, loving and hating each other was played out well. With occasional moments of real tenderness and cruelty. Vincent, like Harry, is a kalachakra but rebels against the indolence and inaction perpetuated by the Cronus Clubs and he seeks to propagate the knowledge and science he discovers at the end of one life at the beginning of his next. In each lifetime, knowledge speeds up, discoveries are made sooner, boundaries are pushed further. The end of the world comes quicker. Harry and Vincent are two sides of the same coin, spinning together through their lives. Which reminds me of another Harry: young Mr Potter who carries around a portion of his nemesis’ soul with his own. 

The opening lines to the novel are addressed to Victor and encapsulate this:

I am writing this for you. 
      My enemy. 
      My friend. 
      You know, already, you must know. 
       You have lost. 

Time for a brief diversion. 

Books and authors and publishers are odd beasts, categorising each other and themselves… and then frequently deriding those categorisations. “What’s wrong with genre fiction?” is a frequent lament; “Literary fiction is so pretentious”. 

What is genre fiction anyway? Isn’t all fiction a genre? Isn’t fiction a genre? Well yes. My take on it though is this: if the author consciously adheres to the expectations of a genre then it feels like genre fiction; whereas, if the novel coincides with those expectations and conventions, it is not genre fiction just fiction. Within a genre but not for that genre. And then you get some clever buggers who write within a genre, consciously breaking the expectations, conventions and tropes. 
Me? I’m as guilty as anyone! I pigeonhole and categorise and shelve certain books together. I know I have a predilection for historical, crime and fantasy (especially with fairytale or Steampunk elements) and I enjoy that labelling process. Quite literally. When I moved house I enjoyed handing over my boxes labelled Gothic, Lesbian, Fantasy, Fairytale and the like!  Like many reviewers on WordPress, my list of categories demonstrates this rationalist love of classification! 

But I also like to think I am using those categories knowingly, with a half turned smirk. Post-modernly. Ironically. Because I also know that what makes a story work is utterly independent from its genre (literary or otherwise): characters, voice, language. Fun. Inventiveness. There is great genre fiction out there with all those features; there is also some very poor literary fiction.  I think that the reason genre fiction has come to be seen as a perjorative is that some writers adhere to the conventions as if they were rules. 

Now this has been a bit of a lengthy sidetrack. But it is because of a review I read of this book claiming that it was a crossover or breakout piece between science fiction genre fiction and literary fiction. I’m sorry if that was you and I’ve not credited you (let me know and I will if you want!)

I’m not sure I agree. I’m not even sure I’d agree it was science fiction. Sure, it’s sort of time travelling in a way but the science is pretty low impact. As I have said, it is a thriller more than anything else. A pretty damn good and different and unusual thriller but a thriller nonetheless.  

 

  Oh dear. 

I fear I’m going to be unpopular here because I’ve heard so much good about this book. People have raved about it. A friend, whose book recommendations I’ve often been steered well by, re-reads it. Monthly. 

So I apologise in advance. 

I found it to be… okay. 

It was standard zombie post-apocalyptic horror fare with a fairly interesting twist.  

Let’s look at the world building first … World building? World destruction? Whatever. It is set in the UK which makes a nice change from the almost ubiquitous American settings. This is, perhaps, not hugely surprising as M. R. Carey hails from Liverpool but the occasional  reference (like the one to David Attenborough) gives it, momentarily, a very British feel. The setting, however, quickly became fairly generic: generic Army base; generic devastated countryside; generic infected cities. 

But one of the pleasures of zombie novels, for me, is the imagined mechanics of it all. Mira Grant’s Feed books had a credible virus-origin; World War Z felt credible enough; Justin Cronin’s The Passage was a little convenient and vague. The infection here, however, is fungal rather than viral and rooted in real science: the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis  fungus apparently does infect and change the behaviours of ants which actually is genuinely amazing! And it must be true: it’s on Wikipedia here! It is one of those facts that does shift your perception of the natural world. These are fungi, pretty much the most basic organism in the world. Taking control of an insect. In the world of the novel, a mutated form of this fungus does the same in people, destroying the higher functions of the brain and exaggerating the hunger. 

So far, so good: a pretty solid creation. The twist comes in the form of the ten-year old protagonist Melanie: infected but somehow retaining her higher processes: language, memory, intelligence, which we are told repeatedly is at genius-level, emotion and empathy. We first meet her along with nearly two dozen other children, housed in a cell, strapped into a wheelchair and transported back and forth to have classes with a variety of teachers, her favourite being Miss Justineau. Occasionally, children are removed by Doctor Caldwell to be dissected. As a reader, we catch on fairly quickly, and Melanie’s partial understanding and her almost wilful refusal to confront it is managed well enough. 

Although not first person, the point of view is generally Melanie’s and the language seems to match it with a simplicity and clarity and naivety which is pretty effective. But the voice doesn’t change when our point of view does which don’t seem terribly well managed. Equally clumsily done are the various infodumps about the infection: even Justineau asks Caldwell why she’s telling her how the infection began. 

In terms of structure and plot, it progresses in the only real way it could: the security of the base is compromised; a small band of survivors flee, heading for Beacon, some safe holdfast south of London. On the way, Carey tries to develop the back stories of his characters before the inevitable occurs. 

And that was where the novel faltered, for me. The characters never emerged from two-dimensionality: Parks was always the gruff but well-meaning Sargeant; Gallagher, always the immature innocent soldier caught up in a war he did not understand; Caldwell never became more than a female Dr Mengele; Justineau the compassionate. And they were so incredibly stupid! Heading for cities where the concentration of zombies was at its highest; approaching a zombie in the street. Even Melanie, who was the most intriguing of them all, didn’t really engage me. I’d seen it done before in Cronin’s The Passage and between Melanie and Amy Harper Bellafonte, there is no contest.

I mean, don’t get me wrong… This is not a bad book; it’s a decent read and a good example of the genre; it’s not lyrical or beautiful in its language but it is well written and well paced. It’s a decent book. I just don’t get the huge praise I’ve heard about it. 

Maybe it’s me. 

Maybe I’m missing something. 

Related