BOOK REVIEWS

The Devil and the Dark Water by Stuart Turton

“That’s the problem with summoning demons, you see. Sooner or later somebody else raises them against you.”

Readers who enjoyed Stuart Turton’s previous novel will probably find The Devil and the Dark Water to be a far more captivating read than I did. While I personally was not enamoured by The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, I was willing to give Turton another try.
The first quarter of The Devil and the Dark Water had me intrigued. The narrative opens in Batavia (Jakarta) in 1634. Our protagonist, Arent Hayes, a former mercenary turner bodyguard, is accompanying his employer and friend, Samuel Pipps, on a voyage to Amsterdam. This trip is not for pleasure as Samuel, a famous detective, has been convicted of a ‘mysterious’ crime and is under arrest. Arent wants to prove his innocence, but not knowing the crime Samuel has been accused of obstructs his attempts to free him. Still, he’s determined to protect him and decides to go alongside him to Amsterdam. As the passengers and crew embark this ship however, they are intercepted by a leper who perishes after pronouncing an ominous threat.
Before Samuel is taken to his cell in the ship, he tasks Arent with finding out more about the leper, believing that his threat was not empty one, and that someone means harm to the ship.
There are quite a few characters, but the 3rd person narrative tends to focus on Arent, the Governor General Jan Haan, and his wife, Sara Wessel. Sara, who happens to be very forward-thinking and in possession of some fine detective skills, joins Arent, and the two try to question the less-than-friendly crew and investigate the ship in order to find out whether something is truly haunting it.
Sinister occurrences seem to confirm our characters’ fears: someone or something is set on stopping the ship from reaching its destination.

At first the story held my attention, and I did find the novel to be rather atmospheric. Turton has clearly done extensive research in the way ship’s operated (from its hierarchy to the mentality of those willing to lead such a life) giving plenty of specific details relating to its various parts and or levels. Now, sadly, I can’t say the same for the narrative’s historical accuracy. The characters spoke in a very modern way, with the occasional ‘mayhap’ to give some authenticity. While sometimes adding modern elements to historical films or books can work (such as with The Favourite), here it just took me out. Having Sara remind herself and be reminded by others, such as her maid, that she is a ‘noble-woman’ seemed odd. While I understand that Turton did so because he wanted to explain to his readers that because of her class Sara could and couldn’t do certain things (or should be addressed in a certain way by those belonging to a lower class) or , but surely he knows that his audience would be already aware of this? The interactions between the characters also struck me as modern, and it seemed weird that every woman on the ship was so ahead of her times (Sara’s daughter is a genius). Arent struck me as the typical ‘giant’ with a heart of gold, who may have done some bad things in his past, but has now turned a new leaf. Samuel plays a very minor role, and while it made sense given his imprisonment, as things escalate on the ship, I would have expected for Arent to seek his counsel more often.
The middle of his novel drags. Arent and Sara investigate by asking the same boring questions to the same people, they explore the ship some more, and that’s kind of that. The Governor, who is compared to a hawk and happens to have very sharp nails, acts like a Bad Guy, which is not a spoiler since within a few lines of being introduced to him we know that he beats his wife.
Arent and Sara were similarly ‘good’. Unlike most other people on the boat they do not approve of the United East Indian Company. Given their respective backgrounds their humanitarian awareness seemed a tad odd.
Also, the whole romantic subplot….puh-lease.
There were quite a few moments that were meant to ‘unnerve’ the reader but I personally found them comical.
When characters made a certain discovery or realised something (“It can’t be…” he said out loud, as the answers arrived in a dizzying rush. “It can’t be…”) we had these ‘cliff-hangers’ as the narrative would jump to another character and by the time we returned to that other character I no longer cared to learn of their discovery. The writing in general wasn’t to my taste : “she had so much life, it was bursting through the seams of her” / “he was coming apart at the seams” / “her daughter’s [eyes] glittered with life. Her husband’s were empty, like two dark holes his soul had long run out”.
Toward the ending things take a chaotic turn. There are a few twists, most of which I’d predicted (not bragging, I have merely read enough mystery novels to know how certain stories will unfold). The novel’s main twist was painfully clichéd and made very little sense (it was obsolete).
Long, boring, unconvincing, and with a vague ‘historicalness’ that is miles away from the likes of Sarah Dunant or Eleanor Catton.

MY RATING: 2 ½ stars

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Crossings by Alex Landragin

Alex Landragin has written an ambitious tale, one that begins with the following line: “I didn’t write this book. I stole it.”
This prologue, written by a bookbinder, tells us of how this manuscript has come to be in his hands. The manuscript in question comprises three seemingly separate books: ‘The Education of a Monster’ written and narrated by Charles Baudelaire, ‘City of Ghosts’ which consists in diary entries from Walter Benjamin, and ‘Tales of the Albatross’ which follows Alula, who lives on Oaeetee, a remote island in the Pacific.

Crossings can be read in the conventional way or the Baroness way (which gives page particular page numbers one has to jump to at the end of a chapter). I read it the Baroness way, and I believe I made the ‘right’ choice. The Baroness sequence, unlike the traditional one, intertwines chapters from each section (Alula’s, Charles’, Benjamin’s), making the connection between these three narratives much more clear.
To give more information on the plot (or maybe, I should say, many plots) would risk giving the novel away. I will try to be as vague as possible: the novel will take readers across time and space, combing genres and playing with tone and style.

As much as I enjoyed the labyrinthine and story-within-story structure of this novel, I was ultimately disappointed by its characters and the ‘star-crossed lovers’ theme that unifies these seemingly disparate narratives. Alula, someone I wanted to root for, commits a particularly heinous act, one that she quickly absolves herself of, reassuring herself that she did what she did ‘for the greater good’.
The personality of the two supposed main characters never truly came across. While it made sort of sense, given the conditions they are in, I wanted some more interiority on their part. Additionally, Alula sounded very much like a Western woman. This could be excused away, given the direction that her story takes her in, but her voice still lacked authenticity.
While the author renders in minute detail aspects of the time he writes of, I wonder why he brought two real-life figures into the folds of his story. After all, Baudelaire’s work isn’t exestively discussed, nor does it actually play a significant role in the story (a Baudelaire society appears now and again but it seemed more a prop than anything else). It seemed that by making Baudelaire and Benjamin into his protagonists the author was trying to spruce up his otherwise boring narrators.
The villain, who comes out with things ‘we are not so different you and I’, was painfully clichéd and not at all intimidating.
This novel will definitely appeal to fans of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas or even Stuart Turton’s The 7½ Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. A novel that reads like a puzzle, one that combines different styles and genres.
While I did enjoy the adventure-aspect of this novel, and its structure is certainly impressive, I can’t say that it left an impression on me.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton — book review


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Whodunnits, Agatha Christie, mysteries, and puzzles are all favourites of mine…so I was pretty excited to read The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle as it promised to combine all of these things together.

“I suddenly have the sense of taking part in a play in which everybody knows their lines but me.”

With a fascinating premise and unique structure I was expecting The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle to be an amazing read…and while it certainly did succeeded in grabbing my attention, I was ultimately unconvinced by much of its narrative, which struck me as confusing for the sole sake of being confusing.35967101.jpg

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is the type of book that will make you want to scratch your head in confusion and start taking notes. The story maintains its momentum through a blend of action and detection. To start with, I enjoyed how complex the story seemed to be. It definitely kept me guessing and wondering what would happen next. After the half-way point however it seemed to me that all of the different threads were becoming knotted together in a rather tangled mess.

A few of my gripes

➜The Groundhog Day scenario would have been interesting enough…and yet Stuart Turton seems to have felt the need to make his story all the more convoluted by adding weird rules (view spoiler) or using the ‘time-loop’ excuse to make things go a certain way.

➜I know that this is the type of novel that requires one to suspend their disbelief…and I was willing to do so for the seven-days-in-one thing but I struggled to believe in the historical setting. The period was chosen as an homage to Agatha Christie…which is fair enough. There are certain 1930s aesthetics that lend themselves quite nicely to a whodunnit. In Turton’s novel however we have a murky image of this period…the dialogue felt gimmicky and the narrative never gave a clear impression of what year the party was actually taking place in. Just a vague ‘after the War’ sort of setting. The guests attending the party acted in a very impolite manner. Customs and conventions are often forgotten in favour of creating some drama between characters. Everybody seems ready to shoot one another (these type of people usually prefer to shoot pigeons and whatnot) and they are so openly aggressive and rude as to seem completely unconvincing. Turton’s portrayal of the class divide is frankly misleading (so that we will have servants act with open hostility towards the guests).
This cast of characters would have been better suited to a story in the Old Wild West.

➜The whodunnit should have been the heart of the novel. Yet, it is often obscured by a series of weird-for-the-sake-of-being-weird nonsense that is there only to confuse the reader. If I were to take the whodunnit out of this ‘context’ it would just seem over-the-top. If you’ve read a few novels by Christie—or any other Golden Age Detective novel—you are bound to find the whole thing derivative. The other mystery is rendered in such a backhanded sort of way as not to be all that compelling.

➜The twists were mildly annoying. (view spoiler)

With so much focus on the structure of his story Turton ends up neglecting the characterisations of his characters so that most of them appear as little more than thinly rendered caricatures. Some of Aiden’s hosts possessed similarly unpleasant and interchangeable personalities while a lot of the men at this party acted in the same blustering way. None of the characters affected me on an emotional level as they seemed closer to cardboard cutouts than real people. The footman is such a laughably one-dimensional villain (seriously, he hunts Aiden singing “Run, rabbit, run”) and so is the main culprit.

➜Turton’s writing could occasionally resort to eye-roll worthy descriptions such as “Blakheath shrinks around me, shrivelling like a spider touched to the flame” and “our entire future’s written in the creases around her eyes; that pale white face is a crystal ball with only horrors in the fog”. Phrases such as these made Aiden’s narration seem rather theatrical.

Overall
The story is so focused on eluding its readers as to leave a lot to be desired. From the poorly rendered time period to the cartoonish characters…this novel was a bit of mess. Still, I did stick to it so it was obviously doing at least something right.

My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars

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The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

“If I had been a man, I would have knocked him down on the threshold of his own door, and have left his house, never on any earthly consideration to enter it again. But I was only a woman – and I loved his wife so dearly!”

A thoroughly entertaining novel that is intriguing from the very start. One of the most famous works of what is now called ‘sensation fiction’, it combines gothic elements with romantic ones voicing anxieties of the Victorian era in an almost inconspicuous manner.Serious issues are shadowed by highly dramatic moments charged with an almost surreal quality. This novel is a brilliant example of melodrama that is brimming with Collins’ sharp sense of humor. His characters are vivid and interesting. Marian, well, I loved her. On the surface she confirms the idea of a resolute strong woman is either ‘manly or unattractive’, yet, if you look beyond that, you see that she is a much more encompassing portrayal of a resilient woman living in a society that seeks to diminish her sense of self: she believes Victorian gendered ideals for she is a Victorian woman. Still, Marian remains aware of wanting to behave in a way that wasn’t deemed appropriate; she scorns most members of her own sex because they are made to fit notions of femininity that she abhors. Her sister Laura embodies conventional ideas of a woman, an ethereal fragile beauty, yet, when the situation demands it, she showcases a wilful mind. The bond between these two sisters is one of the strengths of this novel.

“Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.”

Then we have Count Fosco…well, he is an engaging ‘villain’. I sort of loved-to-hate-him. His appreciation for Marian was priceless.
Walter Hartright wasn’t as interesting as the other characters, however, I did enjoy reading about his deep friendship and loyalty to Marian, who he had initially judged based on her appearance. His love for Laura is somewhat ‘instant’, but, I believe that it fits with the overall story.

“The woman who first gives life, light, and form to our shadowy conceptions of beauty, fills a void in our spiritual nature that has remained unknown to us till she appeared.”

The story slowly unravels the mystery of this ‘woman white’, with Marian and Walter acting as sleuths. I did find the last part a tad drawn out. Marian seems to fade into the background which seemed odd given her pivotal role in a major section of the novel.

“The only mystery that remains, is the mystery of his motive

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

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The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins

A surprisingly entertaining novel that brims with a polite sort of humor that is nevertheless appealing to the modern reader. Various characters give their account in regards of a missing diamond worn by Rachel Verinder on her eighteenth birthday. This yellow diamond, also known as ‘moonstone’, we are told has been stolen from India by Rachel’s uncle who upon his death left it to his niece. On the morning after her birthday Rachel discovers the diamond missing and her household is soon thrown off balance: police question the servant and houseguest with little avail. Sergeant Cuff is brought to investigate but the diamond remains missing. An acquaintance of Rachel wanting to ‘solve’ the case asks a few of the people involved to recall the events surrounding the disappearance of the diamond, the first account, for example is given by Gabriel Betteredge, faithful servant of Lady Verinder. I loved his bit. He often recalls things that are not strictly pertinent to the diamond but he is also very aware of this and apologizes in advance. His account creates two vivid pictures: a before and after the diamond. In the light of the following events, the Betteredge’s initial account becomes incredibly nostalgic. He gives a great sense of place, of the household and the servants within the house. Betterdge is an amiable character and whose depth is given by his habits and mannerism.
The following threads were not as enjoyable, they were shorter and less encompassing: Drusilla Clack, an ardent Evangelical, gives us nothing of too much importance, Dr. Candy and Jennings were forgettable despite the vital information given by their accounts.

My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

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