This book is excellent, and got me snapping up every Nicci French book I could find. Just please, please don't watch the movie! It's one of the worstThis book is excellent, and got me snapping up every Nicci French book I could find. Just please, please don't watch the movie! It's one of the worst movies I've ever seen! If I had seen the movie first I would never have read the book....more
I watched the film adaptation of this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it, and I've been meaning to read it for a while now. I have to say, desI watched the film adaptation of this book a few years ago and really enjoyed it, and I've been meaning to read it for a while now. I have to say, despite the different ending, I wasn't disappointed.
Joe Rose is having a picnic with his de facto wife Clarissa when a cry for help sends him running to assist, with four other men, a man struggling with a hot-air balloon. The man's grandson is inside, and he is battling the wind to keep the balloon from being tugged into the sky and the power lines.
The incident leaves one man dead and brings 28 year old Jed Parry into Joe's life. Jed develops an obsessive, non-sexual love for Joe, wants to bring him to God stalks him every day and threatens him.
Joe is a scientific freelance journalist, and his rational approach to the things and people in his life becomes frayed as Jed makes him feel more and more paranoid. The police won't listen to him, Clarissa thinks he's over-reacting, and their relationship suffers under the strain.
Throughout it all, Joe reflects with hindsight and a wealth of factual knowledge on all manners of things. At first his narrative voice is quite dry and long-winded, and the episode with the hot-air balloon - as important as it is - is dragged out a bit. Stick with it, though, because the second half of the book just whizzes by! He even gets quite philosophical and poetic. The letters from Jed are intriguing, and the strong feeling that there is absolutely nothing you could say to shake him from his obsession is what gives the novel that extra scary thrill.
Also notable is the trick McEwan pulled on shrinks, scientists and book reviewers in the UK and US with his phony scientific article in an appendix at the back, which posits the "real case study" of a patient suffering from "De Clerambault's Syndrome", or "erotomania", which matches that of Jed Parry and makes you think he used it as the basis for the novel. I didn't bother reading it all, I preferred the fictional account, but I did wonder about it.
I also recommend the movie, it's a solid adaptation and Rhys Ifans as Jed is perfect....more
I'm not a fan of this cover, I'll say that right off the bat. It's not too awful, but it's not great either. A bit tacky maybe? It doesn't do the bookI'm not a fan of this cover, I'll say that right off the bat. It's not too awful, but it's not great either. A bit tacky maybe? It doesn't do the book justice, anyway. The parallels to Shakespeare are too obvious, some excited editor's idea of a clever cover. The book doesn't deserve something so glaringly obvious.
Tobsha Learner is probably best well-known for her book of erotic short stories, Quiver, and her previous novel, The Witch of Cologne - neither of which I've read, but I'd sure like to. She comes from a background of screenplay writing, and I have to say this: she's meticulous in her research. There's even a bibliography at the back of Soul, not that you needed convincing of all the hard work she put into this book.
Soul is two parallel stories, linked by genetics and circumstance: that of Irishwoman Lavinia who married Englishman Colonel Huntington in 1859 at the age of eighteen, and murdered him in 1861; and her great-granddaughter Julia, an acclaimed geneticist reeling from the unexpected break-up of her decade-long marriage to Klaus, a struggling Hollywood scriptwriter who's been having an affair with her best friend Clara. Sounds torid and melodrammatic, I know, summed up like that. But - in flavour and style, not plot - it reminded me of a favourite book of mine, Beverley Swerling's City of Dreams: a novel of Nieuw Amsterdam that follows three generations of one family in the early years of a settlement now known as New York. Soul has the readability of general fiction and the epic scope of literature, along with a bit of psychological thriller and murder mystery.
Not that it's a mystery - you learn early on, through Julia, that Lavinia was tried and executed for the murder of her husband. What you don't know is the how and why's of it all. Why would she kill a man she loved and looked up to? A man she was dependent upon, having no home or wealth of her own, as well as being the father of her little boy? There's also the scientific angle: the Colonel is an intrepid explorer and anthropoligist, and Julia is working on genetic profiling for the Defense Force - a highly problematic but profitable venture, if she can find and map the gene that allows for a small percentage of soldiers to kill and not suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. The ethical implications are huge, and the jockeying for the knowledge (and profits) scary.
There's a lot going on in this book, but being carefully paced and plotted, you never get lost in the details. The emotions are intense and raw, and as much as I wanted Julia to stop pining for Klaus, the bastard, I could totally understand her feelings, actions and reactions. It felt horribly familiar. It's all so believable. Learner's portrayal of Victorian London is perhaps the scariest thing of all - honest, dark, somewhat cruel, definitely hypocritical. The period is extraordinarily fascinating - a period when advancing technology began to encroach on the natural world and the human body. The new sciences of phrenology (the study of the skull as a means for understanding and predicting human behaviour and character traits), for example, and the debates between the Church and Darwinists, the uproar at the suggestion that we might be related to apes - this is the background against which Lavinia struggles to be a proper wife and comes to understand that the expectations for men and women are vastly different.
Before writing this, I came across an old article in the Age from when this book first came out in Australia, which I found interesting. It certainly doesn't surprise me to learn she's a pretty intense woman. Divided into three parts reflecting Genesis: "The Apple", "The Serpent" and "The Fall", Soul is also an exploration of human behaviour, a beautifully written study of relationships and the difference between nurture and nature, and their impact on us. Can our environment, the way we were brought up, and our own free will trump our genetic predispositions? At times graphic, at times violent or sad, but always intense and determined, Soul is a gripping story of tragedy and love, anger and what drives us to commit crimes of passion, and what stops the majority of us from doing so....more
**spoiler alert** It's hard to know where to start with this book. On the one hand, I want to say it was amazing and highly original and extremely tho**spoiler alert** It's hard to know where to start with this book. On the one hand, I want to say it was amazing and highly original and extremely thought-provoking. On the other I want to say it was often confused, contradictory and obscure. Well, I guess I just did :)
After wars and then radioactive dust obliterated much of the planet, the majority of the human population fled to colonies on Mars and elsewhere, taking their own personal android servant. Some stayed behind, either because they had been contaminated by the dust or for whatever personal reason they have. With apartment buildings mostly empty and rubbish and dust everywhere, it's a bleak existence (and not actually terribly realistic - with hardly any vegetation left there shouldn't be any breathable air at all), yet life for the androids in the colonies must be worse if some are escaping and trying to have "normal" lives on Earth.
These androids have to be hunted down and "retired". Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter for the San Francisco Police Department, earning $1000 per andy. One of the other bounty hunters, Dave, retired two andys of a group of eight but was shot by the third, Roy Baty. Now Deckard has taken over the assignment and must track down and retire the remaining six, who are all masquerading as humans. The one test they have to distinguish these realistic machines is the Voight-Kampff test, an empathy test - because the one difference between humans and androids, they believe, is that the andys are incapable of feeling empathy.
When it was first published in 1968, it was set in 1991. Later editions changed that to 2021 - this edition is set in 2021. I expect they'll probably change it again in a few years. It's interesting that Dick had such little faith in us - that we would ruin the planet so quickly and absolutely - and such enormous faith - that we would be advanced enough, technologically, to escape it. Having given it such a short time frame, and no doubt excited by the advent of space exploration and television in the 60s, I get the impression Dick, and everyone else, had high expectations of human achievement.
The book is very different from the movie, so I'm not going to bring up Blade Runner except to say that if you've watched it, it won't have spoiled the book for you. Although it did lead me to expect some kind of revelation or focus on the possibility of Deckard being an android, which isn't the case. He's not an andy. The possibility looms because of the callous indifference the bounty hunters have towards the androids, their ability not to be taken in by their human appearance and to kill them. Ironically, Deckard suffers from too much empathy and starts feeling sorry for the andys. Briefly.
The post-apocalyptic aspects of this story interest me perhaps the most, but they're not all that satisfying. It's a horrible, horrible world, highly polluted and littered. There's a lot here that's unanswered, and doesn't always make sense. That closed-in feel of the movie is here - it has such a narrow geographical scope, with little world-building structure to hold it up. Who is running things? Some kind of government, but not the same kind as now. Why are abandoned suburbs still getting electricity and clean water? Where does the food come from if nothing can be grown? What kind of fuel do they use? How does the Mood Organ work and why do they need it? (perhaps to counter the bleakness.) There's mention of the Soviet Union and the UN, but nothing about any other country, giving the feeling that the United States is a lone land floating in a big empty sea with nothing to anchor it.
And what of Mercer? The empathy box? Grip the handles and you are drawn into a shared existence with everyone else who's gripping the handles of the box at the same time, bodily transported (it feels like) to a desolate desert where you climb along with old man Mercer up a hill, toiling and being hit by rocks which make you bleed in real life, only to suffer greater torment at the top and be sent to the tomb world to start again. Sounds like a complicated computer game but it's more like a religion. Empathy is the only thing that separates humans from androids, and the only way the humans left on Earth can dispel the utter lonliness of their existences. There are no children here.
There were too many contradictions here for my liking. When Rick tests Rachael Rosen and finds out she's a Nexus-6 android, he asks her "father" if she knows and he says "no", and it's evident from Rachael's reaction that she doesn't. But then later she's sent to seduce Rick (not a difficult task) to help the escaped Nexus-6 andys escape, again, or make it hard for him to retire them, especially Pris who looks the same as Rachael - and Rachael, when he realises and confronts her, tells him she's done it before, with other bounty hunters, and shares her knowledge and philosophy about being an andy. Which means that she's known she was an android all along, and that, what, she cares what happens to the others? But they're incapable of caring, that's the whole point. And she feels enough to kill Deckard's goat, because he loves it more than his own wife, and certainly more than her. That's vindictive. That's jealousy. That's feeling.
There are other things that bugged me, obscure things mostly, and I don't have the time or energy to read it over and over again until I got it. If it's possible to get. I still think it's an amazing book, and raises a lot of questions about what it means to be human and so on. It's also a quick read and, set in one single day and night, quite fast-paced. It's structured well, and, for a science fiction book, relatively easy to read. There are some very surreal scenes, like when Mercer "manifests", and some tense ones - the worse scene in the entire book, I found, was when Pris was cutting the legs off the spider. There's not a whole lot of violence and the ending wraps up quickly - there's no drawn-out fight scene, the andys aren't very confrontational or aggressive, unlike in the movie. They have superior intelligence but weren't designed to be killing machines.
Which begs the question: why do they need to be retired? They only have four years of life anyway, because their cells can't regenerate, and they just want to live their own lives. And if this is unacceptable then why create them that way? It doesn't make sense. I can understand the human need to kill any rogue andys, and the need to feel superior over another being etc., but why make them so realistic? And surely the need these rogue andys have to escape their servitude is a clear indication that they have dreams and aspirations like humans do, and therefore some amount of feeling?
"Do androids dream of electric sheep?" is a very good title, and meant literally. The humans aren't aspiring to make the world a better place or have children or anything like that, only to make enough money to buy an animal, or at the very least, an electric one, like Deckard's electric sheep. If he were an android, would he still have that desire? The humans measure empathy by how much they feel towards animals - the questions in the test measure reactions to bear-skin rugs and mounted deer's heads and meat for food. Yet despite this "empathy" they do nothing about making the few surviving animals' situations better; the empathy equates more to a possessiveness than to a genuine concern for the animal as another living being.
I'm just talking out my cluttered thoughts here, sorry to ramble on. You can go round and round with this book and never arrive at a satisfactory conclusion, but it's still worth the ride (if I were to use a cheesy line, which I just did, and won't change, because this has exhausted me and I'm falling back on cliches just to wrap it up).
Dexter is a serial killer, a killer who just can't help himself. He doesn't even see himself as human. But he does have something of a conscience andDexter is a serial killer, a killer who just can't help himself. He doesn't even see himself as human. But he does have something of a conscience and lives by the Code of Harry, his cop foster father, who understood his nature and sought to help Dexter control it somewhat when he was a teenager. Now a blood spatter analyst for Miami police, he's brought in on gruesome murder cases and a new serial killer in the city has Dexter feeling inspired, flattered and awestruck - and frightened that it's really him, doing the killings in his sleep.
His sister Deborah is a cop trying to move her way up but reduced to posing as a hooker to catch curb crawlers, and what with Dexter's "hunches" about murderers, gets him to help her on the case. Yet he's ambivalent - he so admires this killer's work, does he really want to see it end? He'd rather play, and since the killer has been sending him messages through the way the dead bodies are displayed, he's drawn into a fascinating game with deadly consequences.
I have to say, Dexter is one of the most engaging and interesting - and understandable, perverse as it may be - anti-heroes I've ever read. He's not right in the head and he knows it, he spends a great deal of effort pretending to be human, and ordinary, yet because he only goes after sick bastards like child-molesting priests and the like, you can't help but appreciate his vigilante efforts - though what he does to his victims is far from a quick and easy death.
It's a combination of his macabre humour - this book is really quite funny - the characters and his observations of them, and his narrative voice: so effortless, so calm, seeing a perspective and an angle to people that non-sociopaths (is that the right word?) would not see so well. He thinks like a killer, yet still comes across as somewhat naive and innocent. He's not at all interested in sex or women, so his disguise as "boyfriend" shows this "innocence" well:
And if her uncertain, limping tone of voice, unlike any I had ever heard her use before, was a surprise, imagine how astonished I was by her costume. I believe the thing was called a peignoir; or possibly it was a negligee, since it certainly was negligible as far as the amount of fabric used in its construction was concerned. Whatever the correct name, she was certainly wearing it. And as bizarre as the idea was, I believe the costume was aimed at me. (p.154)
His childlike wonder and appreciation for the way the other killer is slicing up bodies and arranging them also gives him some kind of ... childlike quality. It's hard to find the right adjective for Dexter: he's a complicated character, because he's all grey, despite being very clearly a serial killer. There's no attempt to gloss over that, or excuse him. Yet was there ever a more fascinating and affable murderer? He's not even creepy - now that's an achievement! And because it's not in the least sexual, he's not creepy in that way either. On the contrary, even though you know he can't really function normally, you want him to be happy. He's a bit Batman-ish, in a nerdy way, the dark avenger or something silly like that. Regardless, he's likeable and even sympathetic; but more necessary to the reading experience: he's a wonderful narrator with a thing for alliteration - namely with the letter D; truly, he's very inventive.
I don't like mass market crime books, I loathe Patricia Cornwall, John Grisham is exceedingly dull, and I couldn't even finish P.D. James' The Lighthouse because I was so bored - the problem with your typical crime book is the lack of characterisation. There's plenty of that here, in fact, it's all about the characters. There's still plot, though, and a mystery, which you can figure out somewhat before Dexter does, but it all hinges on the characters. I thought the Epilogue was too rushed, and the relationship resolution between Dexter and Deborah too pat, but they're minor quibbles. I'm keen to read the next book, Dearly Devoted Dexter, and there's a third coming out in September....more
Every day Christine wakes up not knowing where she is or, really, who she is. Sometimes she wakes thinking she's a little girl, sometimes that she's aEvery day Christine wakes up not knowing where she is or, really, who she is. Sometimes she wakes thinking she's a little girl, sometimes that she's a single twenty-something. Never does she wake up knowing the truth: that she's forty-seven, is married to a man called Ben, and suffers from amnesia. She doesn't recognise the man sleeping in the bed beside her. In the bathroom are photos taped up and labelled, to give her some context. Every morning Ben goes through the same routine, more or less: explaining who she is, explaining who he is, showing her around the house, and making breakfast before he goes off to work - a high school teacher, he says he is. Christine has no way of knowing if any of it is true, but then there are the photos. Not many - Ben tells her there was a fire and many of them were destroyed. She can't remember it, of course.
But today is different - supposedly. Today she meets a doctor, Dr Nash, who tells her she has been seeing him in secret for weeks, working on a new treatment that her husband doesn't know about, that she keeps a journal hidden in the closet upstairs, and that they have an appointment to meet later that day (in fact, on this day Dr Nash has her journal and the appointment is to give it back to her). She meets with him, he explains a little more, and gives her her journal back. On the inside she's written, at some point, DON'T TRUST BEN. She spends the rest of the day reading about her life, about another Christine on another day who, using the journal as a way to build a picture, an understanding, of her life, is learning more and discovering more and piecing things together.
As Christine reads, she learns many truths about herself, about what she's been through. The accident that was no accident. The child. The best friend, Claire. The years of having a memory only minutes long, of lashing out in a panic at those who love her, the years of being locked up, in care. And her interactions with her husband, Ben. And as the days of recording her life and her discoveries add up, the story that she's told about her life starts to look less and less real. But what is truth? And will she ever get her memory back, and remember who she is when she wakes?
Set aside a day or two of no distractions to read this: you'll need it and want it, first because it's a hard book to put down, and also because if you can keep the momentum and the flow going, it'll be much easier to keep track of the little details - what's not said as much as what is.
It was a bit odd, reading this straight after reading the YA novel, Forgotten by Cat Patrick, but the two don't have a lot in common. What they do have in common is what all stories about amnesiacs have in common: fear, uncertainty, distrust. It would be terrifying, waking up and thinking you are one thing, only to find out that years have gone by that you can't remember, and nothing is as you do remember it. Or waking up and having no memory, of anything at all. Christine is now "stable" and calm - almost too calm really, she comes across as rather apathetic, like she's in a perpetual state of shell-shock. Like she's recovering from a stroke and relearning how to walk and talk and how to think. It makes her seem wooden and slow but really she's paralysed by fear, uncertainty, caution.
Other readers have found her hard to connect with but I found her hesitancy, her uncertainty, rang true for her situation. I tried to think, how would I react if I woke up one morning and didn't recognise the man in bed with me - and then didn't recognise my own face when I looked in the mirror? Or rather, finding that I was some twenty-odd years older and having no recollection of how I got there. I'd scream, first of all. You would wouldn't you, the shock would be huge. And the stranger in the bed? A voice of reason, of calm, of answers, as thinly supplied as they might be. Torn between needing someone to trust and rely on to give you context and firm ground to stand on, and feeling nothing toward them, none of the emotions you would expect to feel towards the man you married, regardless of the state of your memories.
I don't try hard to figure a mystery out, I like to sink into a book and let everything play out - if it's well written and absorbing, of course I start thinking, trying to piece things together and get at the truth. I came pretty close with this one, too. It was my first gut instinct, though I kept switching between possibilities (such is the fun of a psychological thriller!). I started thinking about Ben from the perspective of being married to someone who couldn't remember who you were, who woke up terrified every morning and who had to be treated something like a child, every day. Someone you loved and married and yet couldn't have a normal relationship with, couldn't even touch them really. How hard that must be. I felt sympathy for him. Truth is a slippery, or maybe "ephemeral" is a better word, in this story, and the characters wear many different faces.
He hesitated, and again I sensed a calculation, an adjustment. I realized that, of course, Ben knows what will upset me. He has had years to learn what I will find acceptable and what is dangerous ground to treat. After all, this is not the first time he has had this conversation. He has had the opportunity to practice, to learn how to navigate routes that will not rip through the landscape of my life and send me tumbling somewhere else. [pp. 121-2]
And that's the thing about this book, what makes it so psychologically thrilling, so mysterious for all its day-to-day mundanity, what makes you think and think again: there are so many layers, and possibilities, and all of them plausible. Christine remains mostly calm and tentative throughout it all - it's either that or go a bit mad I think. Keeping your emotions at the forefront of your day would be exhausting. The majority of us like, and seek, a sense of normalcy, routine, structure - for security and peace of mind, and to minimise stress. So the sense of distance you feel between Christine and the world in which she lives, makes a lot of sense.
There were some things in this book that made me cry - that alone indicates how strongly I got emotionally invested in this. In particular, the issue of a baby for Christine and Ben. Having a baby of my own, ten months old at the time I read this, her feelings were ones I felt keenly. Some readers found that a female narrator was a stretch for this new male author, but actually I found him to be pretty spot-on most of the time - nothing really stuck out at me as odd or disjointed in the way she was rendered. Same with her book, the novel she had written. And everything else that comes out in the course of the story (plus, I'm a person who doesn't believe in there being only a prescribed way of being. There is such a thing as a person different from yourself!). If Christine doesn't feel real to you, you'll have trouble investing in the story and caring enough to get through it - the same is true of any book I'd say.
Like Emma Donoghue's Room, when I finished this I just had to sit quietly for a bit, feeling somewhat shell-shocked myself. The ending is a bit of a let-down from the slow build-up of tension and mystery and unlocking the puzzle: it was overly dramatic and had the feel of a cheap telly-movie. [What's next is a bit spoilery] Not only that, but it didn't seem at all realistic that her attacker should die in the fire in that small room, while she - tied up and immobile - should survive basically unscathed (from the fire, at least). Also, why on earth did he keep the pages he'd cut out of her journal? In an envelope marked "confidential"? I didn't get it and so it seemed a weak way for her to find out the truth. [/spoiler] It needed a big ending I think, it was all building up to it, but it wasn't unpredictable in the slightest once you got close enough to see the truth, and it lacked ... realism? Sincerity? Plausibility? Not the reason for the attack, but the way it was carried out. The things said.
Ugh, sometimes I wish I were one of those people who like to give everything away, just so I could speak clearly about the things that made an impact on me, but I do believe in everyone having the chance to read a book with the fresh, uncluttered eyes that I had, not with a lot of noise, expectations and pre-conceived ideas buzzing in your ears.
While it is written in present tense, for the present-day sections, the journal itself is written in past tense. Not an uncommon use of tenses. And most of the time, Watson has a steady hold on the present tense - it's a difficult tense to write in and a lot of writers just don't know how to use it properly, "accurately" or to good effect. There was one little slip at the end that was like someone banging a cymbal in my ear - it may have been a little line but it was so off it completely upset the rhythm of the scene: "Later, I will think how I should have hit him again." [p.342] Ah, no. Not in present tense my dear. You can't have a reflective thought like that in the heat of the moment. That's the downside of using present tense: it's very limiting, very constricting. You can't move outside of the present. That's the whole point.
Overall, it was a powerful novel for all its minor flaws, especially considering this is a debut for Watson. It's a deceptively quiet, quietly stirring story of a woman lost in her world and in herself, struggling to find her identity as much as her memories - for without the memories of her life to build a person on, who the hell is she? It's a story about motherhood, about loss and about facing hard truths. It's a story that'll get you thinking and empathising, and it'll probably creep you out too. Like with most books that were overhyped on release, it suffers from too much attention and a guarded, highly critical readership - it's nice when you can shut all the hype out and read a book because you want to, not because it's suddenly all everyone's talking about. In a way, that's why I waited nearly a year (a full year? not sure) before reading this, and I'm mighty glad I did. I'm already looking forward to whatever he writes next....more
Belgian author Stefan Brijs brings to life a modern-day mad scientist and his greater-than-God ambitions in this utterly compelling, slightly terrifyiBelgian author Stefan Brijs brings to life a modern-day mad scientist and his greater-than-God ambitions in this utterly compelling, slightly terrifying novel of the lengths one man will go to to achieve his goal.
On the 13th of October, 1984, Dr Victor Hoppe returns to his birthplace, a village called Wolfheim situated near the three borders of Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany, after a twenty-year absence. The villagers, nosy and gossipy and superstitious, remember the day clearly, as Dr Hoppe did not return alone. In the back of the taxi are three screaming babies, newborns, who are rushed into the doctor's family home and not seen again for some time - except by one young lad, who snuck up to the taxi's window and peered in, and got the shock of his life. He tells everyone that the babies had giant holes in their faces and he could see all the way to their insides.
The truth of Dr Hoppe and the triplets is both simple and horrific. Victor himself was born with a cleft palate - a hairlip - that he inherited from his father, a GP in Wolfheim. Even after having it sewn up, he's never been able to talk clearly. He's also a bit odd, and no one in Wolfheim really understands him - just as no one understood him when he was born in the 40s. The triplets were born with the same disfigurement, but that's not all. When Dr Hoppe hires retired school teacher Charlotte Maenhout to raise them and teach them for several hours a day, she too wonders about the children. Named after the Archangels Raphael, Michael and Gabriel, the identical boys are exceedingly smart but not physically strong. Their heads are too large, their eyes enormous, and when their sparse ginger hair falls out she can see big ropey veins running around their heads. But all Charlotte wants is to give the boys a chance to experience the world, and experience love, for it's clear they don't get any from their father, who views them mostly as patients.
What is the secret about the triplets? Where is their mother? Why are the boys dying? And can anyone stop Dr Hoppe on his trajectory to becoming a figure of sheer terror?
This book quickly became a new favourite of mine. Anyone who follows my reading patterns to any degree will know I'm drawn to slightly off stories, weird and quirky and psychologically thrilling, stories that keep you on your toes, that make you think, that make you uncomfortable. Not just any stories though: they have to be well told too, be interesting, and draw me in. Brijs - and his translator, Hester Velmans - succeeded on all counts. The style of this story brought to mind old village tales, local legends, a slightly fantastical quality. It's one of those stories far removed from you the reader/viewer's everyday life, and yet it takes on a larger-than-life reality.
There's certainly something prophetic about scientists called Victor, it seems. Victor Frankenstein showed us his utter determination to create life - and then his complete fear of his creation, and his realisation that he had severely transgressed in playing God. Victor Hoppe is a different kind of man entirely. The middle section of the book takes us back in time to Victor's birth, alternating telling the very sad story of his childhood with his time as a university student and genetics researcher, and the beginnings of his obsession with creating life - or immortality. Victor was born not just with a cleft palate (if you're not sure what it is, feel free to Google Image search it, just be prepared that it's not an easy thing to see prior to surgery); he also has a fairly extreme case of Asperger's Syndrome. Since no one really understood what that was or took it seriously for many decades after his birth, the kind of mistreatment and even abuse he received at the hands of his parents, the local priest, and almost all the nuns, is utterly tragic. You can see how easily he was set on the path that later took over his whole life.
Understanding Victor Hoppe's life renders him a more sympathetic character, but also, in understanding where he's coming from and what's motivating him, we also feel a greater sense of fear towards him. He becomes unhinged, irrational - or locked up within his own sense of what's rational - and unpredictable, or rather, predictable but in ways that terrify us. He is the perfect mad scientist, and with his Asperger's he's unable to relate to other people or understand why they might be upset about the triplets. He's brilliant yet severely lacking. The novel understatedly points the finger at the dean of the university where he worked, who failed to grasp the reality of Victor Hoppe and instead enabled him in his endeavours. It also opens its astute eye on Victor's father, who wanted to do right by his son but always reverted to more emotional response to the boy who barely talks, won't look him in the eye, and is noticeably odd. Society itself takes on some of the responsibility, but really all of this is more like a soft shadow resting, quiescent, under the lines; it's not the point of the story to lay blame for where individuals go off the rails, it's more that I am scornful of stories that simply label people as insane criminals, nefarious characters that no one should feel responsible for because they "were born that way" (yes I'm looking at you, Patricia Cornwell: this is my look of scorn being levelled on you).
In fact, Brijs touches on many different themes in bringing this brilliant story together; it's almost crowded with them in fact, except that the writing is so good that it all comes together so naturally. My brain was a-whir the whole way through, and so were my emotions. I hardly knew what to think or feel half the time, it's so complex and rich. The characters are full of grey: no one is perfect, no one is wholly sympathetic, all are flawed to some degree, just as in life. Here it is as if their flaws were magnetic, drawing them together then trying to pull them apart. The level of knowledge and understanding Brijs has of genetics research, infertility treatments and the medical history of cloning is impressive; the former teacher knows how to research a novel! I would love to read more of Brijs' work but I'm not sure that any of his other books have been translated into English yet.
The Angel Maker scores big on all the elements of classic storytelling that matter the most to me. Gripping story. Smooth, steady yet fast pacing. Realistic characters who yet manage that element of exaggeration that Northrop Frye isolated as the ingredient that makes for great storytelling and compelling characters (something Charles Dickens excelled at). A fully realised setting, a solid backstory, a climactic ending. In fact, the ending was almost melodramatic or over-the-top, but in the best possible way. More importantly, it worked for the trajectory the story - and Victor Hoppe - was on. With his obsession and possibly-warped understanding of Catholicism, it was the only ending that could have made sense. And by casting its intelligent gaze at the ethics of modern science and human ambition, the story manages to reach deep into the broader issues behind one man's warped and increasingly insane obsession. Also, I absolutely love this cover! There, I've told you more than I'd planned to about this book; now you must read it for yourself and see the magic at work!...more
Imagine a typical day in your life. You get up, get dressed, go to work or school. You take your kids to the park, make dinner, visit friends, learn sImagine a typical day in your life. You get up, get dressed, go to work or school. You take your kids to the park, make dinner, visit friends, learn salsa dancing. Now imagine that all around you, hidden beneath the ordinariness of life, is a War, an invisible War but a War nonetheless. You have no idea, but all those unexplained deaths? Assumed suicides? Shootings, stabbings, car accidents - they're not accidental, nor are they mindless. They're certainly not unexplained, just not to you.
There is a War being raged across the globe, and Joshua is a Soldier in this War. At twenty-five, he's already had so many kills he's stopped counting them. Sent wherever he's needed by Intelligence, given a file on his next target, he kills and then moves on. And why? Because it's a War. It's been going on for as long as anyone involved knows about. Everyone born into the War - and those who married into it - have lost numerous family members, on both sides. But it's not chaos. It's very deliberate and controlled, and everyone follows three main rules: no killing civilians; no killing anyone under the age of eighteen; and if you have a baby before you're eighteen, it's to be handed to the other side. It becomes the enemy.
Joshua has never questioned the War. He's lost everyone in his family except for his mother: his father, killed in a supposed car accident that was no accident; his beloved uncle, whisked away by men at the mall when he looked away (he was only eight); and his sister Jessica was killed when men came to the house as she was babysitting him. They weren't killed because they were Soldiers as Joshua is now. They were killed because they were part of the War, and as everyone knows, the War can only be won by beating the other side.
Who is the other side? They are the enemy. They are evil. They must be evil, because if they aren't than Joshua's side is, and no one thinks they're evil. How did it start? No one knows, though there are stories. All they know is that they must keep fighting or the other side will win.
It is while on a mission in Montreal to take out a pharmaceutical businessman that Joshua meets Maria, a student at McGill University, and falls in love. It changes everything, gives him something other than the War to live for - and Maria isn't part of it. She's a civilian, and as Joshua discovers after learning that she's pregnant, she's also only seventeen, fast-tracked through the school system. Now they're on the run, hunted by both sides: his because baby, if born, has to be turned over to the other side, and the enemy because Joshua has been given up to them, all the information on his kills released. Everyone is after them, these people could be anyone, where can they go? You can't just leave the War. You can't say you don't want to be a part of it anymore. Protecting Maria and their unborn child now becomes Joshua's whole life, but trying to leave the War turns out to be more dangerous than living within it.
This book floored me, it's so good. It's just my kind of book: speculative, chilling, thought-provoking, psychological, tense, gripping, climactic, tragic. Written as a kind of journal of his life - or his life from a certain, recent point - Joshua writes his story directly to Maria, for her to read. I don't think that revealing the baby part of the plot is a spoiler because there is an epigraph at the very beginning that reveals it - for myself, I had already read the blurb for the second book and knew what happens at the end of this one, and that knowledge only added to the incredible layer of tension and tangible threat that rests heavily over the story, making it feel very real. I wanted to share some of that with you, though not all of it - if you want to know, then just read about the sequel, Children of the Underground.
The novel, Joshua's story as told in his own words, opens with a murder. He details his assassination of a woman, a mother of two young children, right outside her house after she returns from work. This whole scene damn near broke my heart. One of the chilling lines is how she doesn't fight him, because she knows she has to die. But these people, all of them, are stuck in their own self-inflicted bubble: there is no reason, no justification, for any of these deaths, but if they admit the truth to themselves then they also have to face the fact that they've been gleefully killing innocent people. Aside from the Soldiers, there are people in Intelligence who gather information and tell the Soldiers who to kill, and manage all the money and weapons and so on (they are not just incredibly well organised but also scarily well funded); the rest live normal lives, going about their business, working regular jobs, having children - the only difference is that they can be killed at any time, once they're over the age of eighteen.
You'd think that the plausibility of it all would sink the novel, that your skepticism and disbelief as a reader would make it fall apart. But the truly scary thing about it is just how plausible it really is. You don't know the inner workings, and you certainly don't know the Why of it anymore than they do, which puts you exactly in Joshua's perspective. The difference is that we are thinkers, critics, analysts, questioners, debaters. We like to think that if we were to learn about this at sixteen, as they do, that we wouldn't just buy into it, that we would demand answers and demand the right to opt out. Except that, for these kids, the War is already personal. They've grown up suspicious. They've already lost so many family members that they're simmering with anger and all it takes is a prod in the right direction, a face to aim their hatred at. The justification that "they are the enemy, they're evil, if we don't keep fighting then they'll win" is flimsy at best, and yet it becomes rhetoric, propaganda, and to question it is to question all the pain, all the loss, all the sacrifices people have already endured. You would be a traitor, a betrayer. They do question it, of course they do, especially because they've never been given a real reason for the War, but in the way of human minds, they talk themselves into a justification that they can live with.
"So, we kill them because they're evil, just like we were taught when we were kids? That's what you're getting at?" "Fuck, man. Do you doubt it?" Jared asked me the question and then he stared at me. If he could have found the doubt inside of me, he would have pulled it out and strangled it to death. "I don't know," I replied. "You really believe that they're evil?" Jared looked out over the waves breaking on the beach. "Well, it's either them or us." I was sick of hearing that, Maria. I was sick of hearing that it was either them or us. I was sick of hearing that it was kill or be killed. Even then, even before I met you, that didn't make sense to me anymore. That's not what Jared was saying, though. What Jared was saying, I had to believe. "So that's it? That's your purpose? Them or us? First to kill is the last to survive? I can't find any meaning in that." "That's not what I said, Joe," Jared replied. His eyes were tight. "Don't twist my words. You asked me if I still believed that they're evil. Yes. Yes, I do. I have no doubt and I have no doubt because there's just too much death for everyone to escape judgement. So it's either them or us, Joe. I'm not saying that it's kill or be killed. I'm saying that either they're evil or we are, because there ain't no way that everyone here is innocent. And I know for damn sure that I'm not evil, Joe. And I know that you're not evil either." He pointed his beer toward me. "I know you. I've known you since before you knew about this War. I'm certain that they're evil because I know that you're not." I had to believe it, Maria. I didn't have any choice. He had to be right. If he was wrong, I was lost. "There's not going to be peace until we win this." [pp.56-57]
That's a long quote to include here I know, but I felt the need to share it all to show the way their logic works. And this is where the truth of the novel shines: the fact is that on both sides of a conflict, everyone believes that they're in the right and the other side is wrong, evil even. Take any war. People don't fight unless they believe in what they're fighting for. The Nazis didn't see themselves as evil: they believed they were fighting evil and making their world a better place (I'm simplifying but work with me here). We just happened to strongly disagree in their vision. It's just that, in a war, innocence (or good and evil, if you believe in it) gets twisted, and the only way regular people can do things they would otherwise be repulsed by is by absolving themselves of responsibility. Jared's words speak to this ability humans have of convincing ourselves that when fighting for a "greater good", killing is necessary. And in war, it's not murder is it.
With a severely black-and-white set-up as this, the story fits well into its American setting, but I can see it working elsewhere too. What really had my brain ticking over - perhaps due to all those cheesy American movies I've seen that inspire thoughts of this - was putting up my own hypotheses. I've no idea what could start this - could be something quite simple and small, in the beginning - but it's almost irrelevant at this point. One thought that occurred to me, though it has holes, is that there aren't actually two sides, but one large group split in two by the Powers That Be (who are unknown), put to fighting each other. That would be devastating, but I don't think that would hold up. The truth is, that both sides are identical. Each is told that the other is the enemy, is evil. Each holds the other to blame, they just don't know it. It's sociopathic, this War. And no one seems to understand or realise that it just can't be won.
Joshua does start to question things a bit, but he's a product of his upbringing and training and the War is his whole life. When Maria tries to express her utter skepticism and disbelief over the whole thing, he reverts to type and just claims that she can't understand because she hasn't experienced it. And that is the way these things go. While reading the book, I kept thinking how analogous it is, representative of conflicts such as Israel and Palestine. When I described the story to my husband, he mentioned another one: Ireland and Northern Ireland. I've always struggled to really get into the headspace of people engaged in these kinds of conflicts because I can't help but see it as a bigger picture, but reading Joshua's story I was able to develop the empathy needed to see how it happens, and how hard - how impossible - it is to end it.
The ending, reading it as a mother of a toddler, was really hard on me. I knew it was coming but that didn't lessen the blow - or block out the details. I just can't imagine what Maria could possibly do next, because even though this War is underground and no one knows about it who isn't a part of it, they're everywhere and so well organised and so secretive, and Maria has nothing: no money, no allies, no leverage. I am so so glad I have the next book ready and waiting for me! I'm glad that she carries the story on in the next book, as we only get to see her through Joe's eyes in this first book and while I liked her a lot and she was well fleshed out, her thoughts remained silent.
For all the action and the violence - and there is graphic violence in this novel, just to warn you if you need it - it's a surprisingly quiet and very tense story. Hanging over it is this growing weight of paranoia - the characters have it, it keeps them alive they say, and you start to get it too. I didn't trust anyone, I expected the worst, and the weight of this endless suspicion wears you down. I love a book where you really live in the world as its described, as the characters live it, and that was very true of Children of Paranoia. I'm just amazed anyone in this War can sleep at night, knowing that after they turn eighteen, anyone can come from them at any time, always when they least expect it. How can you live with that? Ha, spoken by someone who's never lived in a war zone. People adapt. People continue to live as close to a normal life as they can, because what else can you do? And in this War, to give up would be the same as letting the other side win.
Children of Paranoia is intense and gripping and had me glued to the page. A new favourite....more
Ellen O'Farrell is a calm, rational woman in her mid-thirties who enjoys her life and loves her job as a hypnotherapist. She works out of her beachfroEllen O'Farrell is a calm, rational woman in her mid-thirties who enjoys her life and loves her job as a hypnotherapist. She works out of her beachfront home in Sydney, an old house last decorated in the 70s which she inherited from her grandparents. The one thing that hasn't worked out so well for her is her love life. With three serious ex-boyfriends littering her past and giving her secret insecurities, she has big hopes for the man she's currently seeing, a contractor called Patrick whom she met through an online dating site.
When, during a romantic dinner, Patrick says they should have a talk and then abruptly disappears into the men's bathroom for some time, Ellen fears the worst. So when he finally returns and tells her that he has a stalker, an ex-girlfriend whom he broke up with three years ago, Ellen isn't just surprised, she's actually quite pleased. Patrick suddenly becomes a whole lot more interesting to her. After all, it's not just anyone who has their own stalker.
But more than that, Ellen develops a burning curiosity and interest in Patrick's stalker, Saskia. What kind of woman becomes a stalker? What does it take to fall into that cycle and not be able to escape it? Ellen doesn't feel that Saskia is a personal threat to her, she just wants to understand her. She'd even like to meet her, talk to her. What Ellen doesn't realise is that she already has: Saskia is one of her own clients, and she already knows a lot more about Ellen than Ellen had ever realised.
This was a fantastic book, one of those wonderfully understated novels that's light on plot but heavy on understanding the psychology of its characters. It is not the "breezy summer read [that] will make you feel warm all over" that one of the cover endorsements (from USA Today) proclaims it as; I was rather surprised that anyone would describe this in that way. Yet it's not a dark psychological thriller either. It's more realistic than that, more familiar and more focused on ordinary people and their inner demons and insecurities. It's a character study of two very different yet connected women, as well as a study of life, love, loss, grief, insecurities, neuroses - everything, in short, that makes us human.
Moriarty is an astute social observer who understands people and what makes us tick. I've read a few books over the years whose authors have a knack for digging beneath the skin and teasing out those hidden thoughts and feelings that we have, and laying them bare: I love those kinds of books. Moriarty successfully and skilfully captures the neuroses of her characters, their inner turbulence, their self-doubts, their vanities and insecurities, making Ellen and Saskia vividly real: living, breathing people. Patrick, too, was a tangible, real character, caught between two women and seen only through their eyes - but Moriarty manages to both hide and reveal a great deal about Patrick's character, so that we recognise the obfuscation of the women's own perspectives and glimpse a more honest, less dramatic truth of him in the moments of clarity as when a fog clears.
Saskia narrates her portions of the story in first-person, while Ellen's side of the story is told in the third-person. This works effectively to not only ensure you never get confused or lost in whose story you're currently reading, but it enables us to get right inside Saskia's head as well as showcase Moriarty's enviable talent for creating distinct voices and personalities that clearly delineate the two women. Saskia slowly comes together for us in a visual way but it's not until Ellen sees her and knows her for who she really is (which client of hers she is, coming to therapy sessions under a false name) that we get to really see her. What's interesting about this is how clearly it shows how fragmented we are when it's just the inside of our own heads, as opposed to how solid we become when seen by other people. As if Saskia were just shards of a person, a broken mirror swept into a pile, a collection of troubled thoughts and old hurts with no real form of her own, until Ellen sees her - then she has form, substance, a body, an identity outside of herself.
I came to genuinely love Saskia, precisely because she is so human and so raw and honest with herself. She drifts between knowing what she's doing is wrong, feeling like she's become crazy and completely disengaged from reality, and obsessing over her unhealed hurts. She lost her mother, her only family member, and then just months later she loses Patrick - but not just him, she loses his son, Jack, too. Patrick's wife, Colleen, died only a year after having Jack, and it wasn't all that long after that that Saskia came into their lives. From Saskia's point of view, she and Patrick had been deeply in love and committed to each other. She lived with him and Jack and she was Jack's mother - she made him lunch, read to him, taught him games, and loved him. Saskia never saw the break-up coming, she had had no inkling that there was anything wrong, and she went into shock when it happened. When that passed days later, she found herself completely cut out of Patrick - and Jack's, lives. What really hurts her, as much if not more as losing Patrick, is losing Jack. How could she go from being his mother one day, to being pushed out of his life the next?
I remember waking up in Tammy's room five days [after the breakup] and realising it was Friday morning and that Jack had swimming lessons straight after school, and I always had to remember to pack his things the night before, and who would take him? [...] I had more flexibility than Patrick and I loved picking him up. I was Jack's mother. I didn't mind when I missed out on a promotion because I wasn't working full hours. That's what mothers do; they put their careers on hold for their children.
So I called Patrick, to remind him about swimming lessons, and that's when all this started: my habit. My "stalking" of my old life.
Because Patrick treated me like a stranger. As if Jack's swimming lessons were nothing to do with me, when just the week before, I'd been at swimming, helping Jack adjust his goggles, talking to his teacher about maybe moving him up a class, making arrangements with one of the other mothers for a play date with her son. "It's fine," Patrick had said. All irritable and put out. As if I was interfering. As if I'd never had anything to do with Jack. "We've got it all under control." The rage that swept through me was like nothing I'd ever felt before. I hated him. I still loved him. But I hated him. And ever since then it's been hard to tell the difference between the two. If I didn't hate him so intensely, maybe I would have been able to stop loving him. [p.252]
I found myself, like Ellen, yearning to understand Saskia, and the more I learned about her and what led to her stalking behaviour, her obsession, the more I felt sympathy for her. I couldn't condone it, and like many of the supporting cast in this story, my initial thought was "God, why can't she just move on?" But since when have humans ever been so straight forward? Moriarty probes deeply into Saskia's psyche, rendering her human and thus, understandable. What Saskia can't get over is being cut out of Patrick and Jack's lives, just because she was a girlfriend, not a wife. And Patrick never really understood that either, never considered letting her see Jack or spend time with him; never considered that Jack had now lost two mothers. Because he was a grieving widower, a man in mourning who hadn't worked through his own grief, his own loss, and he was a loving father who wanted to look after his son. It all makes perfect sense, and it's all so messy, and it's almost all a product of miscommunication or misunderstandings or no communication at all, as these things often are. You couldn't find more human characters than these.
I remember thinking that it wasn't fair. If Patrick had been killed in a car accident, I would have been allowed to grieve for him for years. People would have sent me flowers and sympathy cards; they would have dropped off casseroles. I would have been allowed to keep his photos up, to talk about him, to remember the good times. But because he dumped me, because he was still alive, my sadness was considered undignified and pathetic. I wasn't being a proper feminist when I talked about how much I loved him. He stopped loving me, so therefore I had to stop loving him. Immediately. Chop, chop. Turn those silly feelings off right now. Your love is no longer reciprocated, so it is now foolish. [p.317]
There are so many psychological layers to this story. The hypnotherapy sessions were fascinating and gave me great insight into what hypnotherapy is and how it works; I loved reading those scenes. And I loved reading about Ellen. She was completely laid bare, but not in that way where you feel like the author is shoving everything at you with no subtlety. It went so well with Ellen's character, her personality, that her thoughts were open to us readers. I could recognise many of her thoughts, having had similar ones myself, or at least could recognise the realism and frankness in them. She was captured so perfectly, and it was fascinating watching her shift from this neat woman into someone who floundered trying to figure out who she really was.
It was true that she wasn't unhappy about Patrick being a widower. She quite liked the fact that it made things more complicated. It made her feel like she was part of the rich tapestry of life (and death). Also, it gave her a chance to demonstrate her professional skills. She imagined people saying to her, "Do you worry about his feelings for his wife?" and she'd say serenely, "No, actually, I don't." She would understand completely if he still had feelings for his wife. She would know instinctively when to draw back, when to let him grieve for her. [p.46]
She wasn't imagining it. Patrick was definitely talking more about Colleen since their engagement. In fact, she'd started keeping a tally in her head, and there had been at least one reference to Colleen every single day for the last week. [...] If Colleen had been an ordinary living ex-wife or ex-girlfriend, Ellen could have banned all further mentions of her, but as she was dead, and as it was perfectly understandable that having another child would be bringing back memories for Patrick of Jack's birth, and as Colleen was Jack's mother and he loved hearing stories about when his mother was pregnant with him, Ellen felt she not only had to listen politely, but she even had to encourage further revelations about the seemingly perfect Colleen by asking Patrick interested questions with a bright, loving, empathetic expression on her face.
Frankly, it was driving her bananas. [pp.242-3]
Watching Ellen unravel and lose her grip on the kind of person she thought she was, or wanted to be, wasn't exactly satisfying but it was rather riveting. She never came across as superior or uptight in the beginning, but she did seem to be a little too in control, in that way some people are that leaves you thinking that any little rock of the boat could be their undoing, emotionally.
While the story is focused on the characters, there are some plot developments, both in terms of Saskia-the-stalker, Ellen and Patrick's relationship, and Ellen's business. It's just enough to give it forward momentum, but it doesn't suffer from that problem some books have, of starting strong with an interesting premise only to snow-dive towards the end when it seems like the author didn't know where to take it and so threw in a big action climax like an abduction or a car accident or something of that nature, as if the lack of plot suddenly became something to renege on. There is a climax here, a culmination of events that coincides with that freakish, giant dust storm Sydney and other parts of the north-east coast experienced several years ago, but it's not melodramatic, and the ending is satisfying and rather beautiful.
I can't recommend this book highly enough, especially if you enjoy character-driven stories that really lay bare the human soul and all our frailties, our neuroses and the twisted ways our minds work sometimes. Ellen and Saskia are two strong protagonists, vastly different from each other and yet with several things in common, representing something older than this story, something intrinsic about women, about female friendships and the bonds women make, about how women deal with things emotionally and mentally, and how unforgiving we can be of each other. It was hard to say goodbye to them, at the end of this book, after sharing such a momentous chapter in their lives and coming to know them so deeply, like real people revealing their secret thoughts. A thoroughly compelling and beautifully told novel.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book. ...more
Paris, 1929. Harris Stuyvesant, a big blonde American with a crooked nose and a messy history, has spent the last three years moving around Europe, doing odd jobs and working intermittently as a private investigator. Hired by the uncle and mother of a young American woman who's gone missing, he moves to Paris to begin the search.
Philippa - Pip - Crosby is twenty-two and hasn't been seen or heard from since March; it's now September. She went to France like many of her countrymen, to have a good time away from the family influence and the watchful eyes of her own society back home, and had slid into the Parisian art world as so many do. Working as a model and aspiring actress, Pip Crosby's name comes up in connection to some important and distinguished figures in Surrealist art - like photographer and painter, Man Ray (from America); little mole-like Hyacinthe "Didi" Moreau who makes display boxes of carefully-placed odds and ends, many of them disturbing; and Le Comte Dominic Charmentier, an aristocratic war hero who lost his entire family and now puts his energies into patronising Surrealist artists and managing the Theatre Grand-Guignol, which puts on intensely disturbing, graphic and violent plays with intervals of slapstick comedy in-between.
Stuyvesant finds a surprising ally in a French police inspector, Doucet, who is working on a much larger case of missing people from various countries - mostly women, but some men - who date back to the year before. The deeper Stuyvesant delves into the murky world of gory, shock art, the more the truth slowly seeps in: Pip hasn't flitted off to holiday on some rich guy's yacht. She's dead. With the certainty comes a growing suspicion, encouraged by the finding of some photographs that show women in a state of abject terror. But who took them, and what happened to the women after? The closer Stuyvesant comes to figuring it out, the more his own life is at risk - and those of people he cares deeply about.
I don't often read detective fiction, crime fiction, mystery-suspense novels - I'm never sure what to call them exactly, but all of the above. The generic kind (popular fiction) are too simplistic for me, and I get bored with them very quickly. Not enough character development, or the kind of description that aids in building atmosphere, tension and suspense. My in-laws read them constantly, so I'm always seeing books by writers like Harlan Corben, Karin Slaughter, Lee Child, John Sandford, Tess Gerritsen, John Grisham, Vince Flynn, Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs, and so on, lying around their house, but I've never been tempted to pick one up and start reading. I've read one Cornwell book and one Grisham book (for a course at uni, years ago), and wasn't impressed - they're just not for me. But The Bones of Paris is not cast of the same mould, not at all. This is historical fiction, for a start, and it is an atmospheric, highly detailed, very involved and intelligent mystery, one that connects with the repercussions of war, like post-traumatic stress disorder and amputations, and the therapeutic affects (or hypothesis of) shock art. This is brain food, not a by-the-numbers stock thriller or suspense story.
This was my first time reading anything by King, who is the author of the Mary Russell mysteries and many others. The first Harris Stuyvesant book is called Touchstone, set in London, and while The Bones of Paris makes connections with that earlier book - in particular Harris's lover, Sarah Grey, and her brother Captain Bennett Grey - it explains enough that their relationship in 1929 makes sense and continues to evolve, without giving everything away and spoiling the plot of Touchstone. Likewise with Harris himself: we learn a fair bit about him, and yet - in true mystery fashion - you know there's a great deal more that still lies hidden. His character comes through clearly: his pugnacity, or stubbornness, his sense of loyalty, even honour, his conscience and his somewhat clumsy empathetic skills. When we see him through the eyes of Le Comte, or Sarah Grey, or Bennett, we see a man you could dismiss as oafish: too big for slight, genteel Paris, too lumbering to be delicate or subtle, and yet Harris seems perfectly aware of his true state of being, and uses it to his advantage. He has that American quality - it comes through - of not caring what the locals think and just doing his thing regardless of how many feathers he ruffles in the process. He's reliable, determined, but knows when to back down and be a bit more flexible. He's an interesting character, not complex but not as obvious as he seems at first, either. Realistic, and human, and a convincing product of his time and personal history.
The setting is rich and tangible. Paris, fully recovered from World War I - or so it would seem: the scars and cracks of sanity are well hidden. The city is awash in foreigners, artists and writers and the rich making the most of the strong dollar to make the city their own. Stuyvesant predicts a market crash, and thinks Paris would be better off without all the ex-pats, who have altered the city in noticeable ways. Historical figures like Ernest Hemingway, Coco Chanel, Cole Porter, Josephine Baker, Sylvia Beach, Man Ray - they litter the narrative, giving the period it's set in solidity and presence, authenticity and that touch of glam. The period details are well researched, right down to Stuyvesant's throwaway thought regarding halitosis - a "condition" that was invented, so to speak, in the 1920s as a way of selling Listerine as something other than a liquid for sterilising surgical implements (prior to this highly successful marketing campaign, no one had any concept of good vs. bad breath - hard to imagine now, I know).
And of course there's Paris itself, a city built of limestone quarried from right underneath it, so that parts of it caved in in the 18th century, leading to an inventive solution. The city took the many bones from an overflowing cemetery that had already been closed (bodies would be thrown into pits and not covered over until full, when a new one would start, rotting freely in the open), and moved them to the mines, using them to make solid walls and foundations for the city. I've been to Paris once before but didn't even know about it; it would be quite the thing to see!
But this visual, of a city practically made of bones, of the beautiful bones of Paris and the empire of Death - it all resounds throughout the story, creating or adding to the growing tension and suspense, and making of the City of Light a city of darkness, of dark alleys and late nights falling down drunk, a city of murder and madness. A city with some complex truths hiding under its pretty surface façade. This idea complements, or is juxtaposed to, the women in Stuyvesant's life, the women who go missing and turn up dead. He spent five nights with Pip Crosby in Nice when she was passing through (he was working at a bar as a bouncer), and never thought to look beneath the surface of her pretty face and bright eyes. Same with Lulu, an amateur night walker with two little kids under the care of their grandmother, who he sleeps with when he first arrives in Paris and who later turns up dead. He never knew she had children, didn't know anything about her. Just saw her face and heard her laugh and thought, Why not? Such is the way the ex-pats treat Paris itself, like a sparkling lady who has much to give but goes no deeper than the stones under one's feet.
That's what I meant by calling this "brain food": a novel that engages and works with your many senses and your mind, and while it is quite a long novel and might be too rich in detail for some readers, it never felt bogged down or slow. It kept its pacing steady until the end, when it becomes nice and taut, and doesn't ever feel monotonous or tedious by the simple delight that there is so much to learn here. I felt like I'd just sat through the most fascinating art history lecture ever. What better way to learn about such things than in the hands of a skilled storyteller? None for my money.