I should have ended things with this book as soon as I grew irritated by our narrator’s navel-gazing. But, I persevered, hoping against hope that at some point, ideally before reaching the book’s finish line, I would find what I was reading to be even remotely intriguing.
At the beginning we have a young woman who is in a car with her relatively new boyfriend. She’s thinking of ending things—by ‘things’ we are led to assume that she’s referring to said relationship with bf—and in doing so she finds herself looking back on her first meeting with Jake. Flashbacks inform us of the kind of person Jake is, their early days together, and their overall ‘dynamic’. Our protagonist—who is so remarkable that I have forgotten her name and I am too lazy to look it up—likes Jake but sometimes she doesn’t. The thoughts that pass through her head are just like ours: she’s worried about sharing her life with him, of having to commit herself to this one person, of being stuck with someone who has quirks that annoy her…as she’s weighing the pros and cons of her relationship with Jake he keeps driving. Their destination is his parents’ place. She pities him for not knowing that she’s thinking of ending things while seeming to want to take things to the next ‘level’. She inundates him with questions, and sometimes he seems weirdly unresponsive.
Relationship dilemma aside, weighing on her mind is the Caller. This person keeps calling her during the night, leaving sinister messages. What truly rattles our MC is that this person is calling from her own number (cue creepy music).
When this couple finally reachers Jake’s parents’ farm, things get ‘spookier’. The parents are odd, the house is ominous, and Jake is acting strange. MC doesn’t mind her business or the warnings that are thrown her way. She goes where she shouldn’t, listens in to other people’s conversations. Mystery Caller keeps calling. MC tells us she’s anxious about the whole situation yet she doesn’t even bother switching off her phone.
We then have a scene in a Dairy Queen, followed by a drawn-out sequence in a high school, and, at long last, an exceedingly unsatisfying end.
The protagonist’s narration is occasionally interrupted by segments focusing on people gossiping about some violently horrific crime. Readers are meant to wonder or care who is the person these people are discussing, what they did, how they are connected to Jake and GF.
As you can tell by the tone of my review, I was not very taken by this novel. The car-drive was boring. Here we have two people having a very ‘normal’ and ‘realistically’ choppy conversation about nothing in particular. Here we have a woman who is rethinking her relationship with her boyfriend, for no reason in particular. Which, yeah, as relatable as these things are, the author seemed so intent on creating this ‘eerie’ atmosphere that I just never got into the story. That conversation that appears now and again about this unknown person who did something bad sounded so stilted and unbelievable that it had the opposite effect of scaring me. That the narrative itself smugly proclaims that what truly is terrifying is the not knowing what’s real and what isn’t did not make me realise that ‘wow, that must be why I feel so afraid! Genius!’ Reid relies on creepy figures and descriptions about maggots feasting on pigs in order to unsettle his readers. To me that isn’t the same thing as blurring the line between ‘real/unreal’.
The ending made little sense but then again that fits with the rest of the novel. Maybe I’m to blame (for keeping my nerve when reading allegedly unnerving books) but even leaving aside the ‘horror’ storyline…what are we left with? An unremarkable narrator whose mediations on the highs and love of dating & love had a deeply soporific effect on me? Not only did the ‘realness’ of her inner-monologue seemed contrived, but her reflections or assertions never truly conveyed any actual feelings on her part. Which maybe it was intentional, given the novel’s supposed twist but I still had to put up with her. And, my god, was she annoying. She kept asking Jake inane questions about his childhood. And of course, when we get to the farm, she receives a Bluebeard kind of warning…and what does she do? Se la va a cercà!
I probably would have ended things with novel sooner if it hadn’t been for the fact that I listened to the audiobook version and the narrator was really good.
I should have ended things with this book as soon as I grew irritated by our narrator’s navel-gazing. But, I persevered, hoping against hope that at some point, ideally before reaching the book’s finish line, I would find what I was reading to be even remotely intriguing.
“They could only stitch themselves back together if they did something irreversible.”
Heavenly Creatures by way of Patricia Highsmith, plus a sprinkle of Like Minds, and with the kind of teenage morbidity one could find in Hangsaman or Stoker.
Adroit and gripping, These Violent Delights is a superlative debut novel. Being the self-proclaimed connoisseur of academia fiction, I was drawn by the comparisons to The Secret History and I was amazed to discover that unlike other releases (not naming any names) These Violent Delights definitely had some TSH vibes. But whereas most academia books focus on a ‘clique’, Micah Nemerever’s novel is very much centred on the obsessive relationship between two seventeen-year olds.
If you’ve read or watched anything that revolves around a toxic relationship, you know what to expect from These Violent Delights. The prologue itself reveals to us that all will not be well for these two boys, and that at some point will embark on a path of no return.
“He couldn’t remember ever being the person he’d decided to become.”
The narrative takes us back to their first meeting. Paul, our protagonist, is a university freshman in Pittsburgh during the early 1970s. His father has recently committed suicide and his mother has yet to recover. Paul suffers from an almost debilitating insecurity, and shows a propensity for virulent self-recriminations. His inward-looking nature brings him no joy, as his mind is often consumed by his many ‘shortcomings’, and those of others. He feels misunderstood by his working-class family, and without his father, his grandfather, a man whose good-natured attempts to connect with Paul inevitably miss the mark, has become his closest male figure. His family fails to accept that Paul isn’t the type to ‘loosen’ up with his peers or have ‘fun’ with some girl.
When a discussion on experimental ethics in class gets Paul hot under the collar, Julian Fromme comes to his defence. On the surface Julian is the antithesis of Paul: he comes from wealth, he’s self-assured, easy-going, and charismatic. Yet, Paul is enthralled by him, especially when he realises that Julian carries within him a darkness not unlike his own. Their mutual understanding and their interest in one another results in instantaneous connection. They can have erudite talks, challenging each other’s stance on subjects related to ethics and morals, and revel in the superiority they feel towards their classmates. Within hours of their meeting their bond has solidified, becoming something impenetrable to outsiders. It soon becomes apparent that neither of them is in control in their relationship, and things are further complicated when their platonic friendship gives way to a more sexual one.
Their symbiotic bond is of concern to others (to be queer—in both senses—is no walk in the park, especially in the 70s), and attempts are made to separate the two. But Paul and Julian are determined to stay together, and more than once they tell each other that the idea of life without the other would be unbearable.
“[H]e wasn’t afraid anymore. After a lifetime of yearning and trying not to yearn, he imagined the relief of surrendering.”
Even if we suspect that Paul and Julian’s intoxicating liaison will have internecine consequences, we are desperate for a moment of reprieve. But Nemerever’s narrative does not let up, not once. Readers will read with increasing anxiety as Paul and Julian embark on an ‘irreversible’ path, alienating those around them. Dread and anguish became my constant companions while I was reading this novel and I’m glad that I choose to read this when I was off work (I devoured this novel in less than 24h) since These Violent Delights is a riveting edge-of-your-seat kind of read.
A sense of unease pervades this story as even the early stages of Paul and Julian’s relationship are fraught. Julian is almost secretive when it comes to his family, and disapproves of the contempt Paul harbours towards his own mother. Their love for each other often veers into dislike, if not hatred, and they are quite capable of being extremely cruel to each other. Even so we can see why they have become so entangled together, and why they oppose anyone who threatens to separate them. But as they enable one other, their teenage angst morphs into a more perturbing sort of behaviour. Time and again we are left wondering who, if anyone, is in control.
“All they were—all they had ever been—was a pair of sunflowers who each believed the other was the sun.”
My summary of this novel won’t do it justice as I fear I’m making it sound like any other ‘dark’ tale of obsessive friendships (in this case a romantic one but still). It is Nemerever’s writing that elevates his story from ‘interesting’ to exhilarating (and downright distressing). He evokes the claustrophobic and oppressive nature of Paul and Julian’s bond, making us feel as if we too are caught in their all-consuming relationship. Nemerever’s also acutely renders Paul’s discomforts, the intensity of his love for Julian, of his self-loathing, and of his conflicting desires (to be known, to be unknowable). He wants his family to understand him, but in those instances when they prove that they may understand him more than he thinks, he does not hear them out.
“All I want to do is make you happy, and you’re the unhappiest person I’ve ever met.”
Similarly to The Secret History, the narrative is very much examining the way we can fail to truly see the people closest to us. Paul’s low self-esteem makes him constantly doubt everyone around, Julian included. He perceives slights where there are none, and even seems to find a sort of twisted pleasure (or as Lacan would have it, jouissance) in second-guessing Julian’s feelings towards him or in assuming the worst of others. He projects a preconceived image of Julian onto him (someone who is cruel and deceitful, someone who, unlike Paul himself, can easily adapt or pretend to be normal), and this prevents him from seeing him as he truly is.
The love Paul feels for Julian is almost fanatical, doomed to be destructive. This is the type of relationship that would not be out of place in a Magda Szabó (The Door), Joyce Carol Oates (Solstice) or a Barbara Vine novel (The House of Stairs, No Night is Too Long, A Fatal Inversion) or as the subject of a song by Placebo (I’m thinking of ‘Without You I’m Nothing’).
“They were wild and delirious and invincible, and it was strange that no one else could see it.”
Nemerever’s writing style is exquisite and mature. I was struck by the confidence of his prose (it does read like a debut novel). Not one word is wasted, every sentence demands your attention (which is difficult when the story has you flipping pages like no tomorrow). Nemerever brings to life every scene and character he writes of, capturing, for example, with painful precision the crushing disquiet Paul feels (24/7), his loneliness (exacerbated by his queerness and intelligence) and his deep-seated insecurity. Nemerever doesn’t always explicitly states what Paul is feeling, or thinking, and the ambiguity this creates reminded me very much of Shirley Jackson, in particular of Hangsaman (a scene towards the end was particularly reminiscent of that novel). Readers will have to fill the gaps or try to read the subtext of certain scenes or exchanges between P and J.
Not only did this book leave me with a huge book-hangover but it also left me emotionally exhausted (when I tried picking up other books my mind kept going back to Paul and Julian). Paul is one of the most miserable characters I’ve ever read of. And while he is no angel, I found myself, alongside his family, wanting to help him. But I could also understand him as he strongly reminded of my own teenage experiences, and of how ‘wretched’ and alone I felt (woe is me), as well as the fierce, and at times detrimental, friendships I formed during those vulnerable years.
In spite of what Paul and Julian do, I cared deeply for them. I wanted to ‘shake’ them, but I also desperately wanted them to be happy.
I’m sure I could blather on some more, but I will try and stop myself here. Reading These Violent Delights is akin to watching a slow-motion video of a car accident or some other disaster. You know what will happen but you cannot tear your eyes away. Read this at your own peril!
MY RATING: 5 / 5 stars
The Devotion of Suspect X is an unusual detective novel. By the end of the first chapter readers witness the murder that is at the centre of this novel. We know the identity and motivations of the perpetrator. What follows is a compulsive game of cat-and-mouse between ‘detective Galileo’ and Suspect X. At times this felt like a chess game, in which two highly intelligent individuals try to outmanoeuvre each other.
The final chapters of this novel took me by surprise and answered some of my niggling questions regarding the actions of a certain character. Still, [SPOILERS] I’m not quite certain why he just didn’t leave the ex-husband in the river or whatever it was…why let the police find a body in the first place? The ex-wife would have been questioned but if they had no proof of the guy being dead, surely they would have soon moved to more urgent cases…especially considering that this guy wasn’t exactly a model citizen and his disappearance could have been chalked up to loansharks or something…but then we wouldn’t have a novel so…[END SPOILERS].
I think this is a novel that to best appreciated this novel one should know very little about its plot and characters before picking it up. If you like tales of suspense, police procedural, and clever mysteries, you should definitely give The Devotion of Suspect X.
The only thing that kept me from giving this book a higher rating were the characters themselves. I found some of them to be a bit wooden, and I also wasn’t particularly keen on that ending.
My rating: 3 ¼ stars
“There is no time in our lives when we are so conspicuously without mercy as in adolescence.”
I don’t think I would ever picked up this ‘obscure’ and forgotten novel if it hadn’t been for the ‘crime fiction’ module I took during my second year of uni. Thanks to that module, which was in every other respect a huge waste of time (lecturer on Tom Ripley: “he does bad things because he wants more stuff”…truly illuminating), I was able to ‘discover’ Barbara Vine’s work.
Since then I’ve read a few other novels by Vine (which happens to Ruth Rendell’s nom de plume) and while I can safely say that she is an excellent writer, The House of Stairs remains my favourite of hers. Perhaps it is because of its sapphic undertones, or maybe I’m just a sucker for unrequited love stories.
“It felt like a passion, it felt like being in love, it was being in love, it was the kind of thing you delude yourself that, if all goes well, will last a lifetime. Things, of course, didn’t go well. When do they?”
The House of Stairs tells a dizzying tale of tale of psychological suspense. Like other novels by Vine it employ two timelines and explores the haunting effects of the past on the present. ‘The present’ features characters whose lives have been altered by an often unspecified accident and or crime. The second timeline, narrated from the retrospective, focuses on their past, and in particular on the events leading to that ‘one big event’. Vine does not limit herself to recounting past occurrences, instead she allows her characters to re-examine their own actions, as well as attempting to understand the motivations behind those of others. The past and present flow into each other, and throughout her narratives Vine traces both a crime’s roots and its subsequent ramifications.
Set in London The House of Stairs London opens in 1980s when Elizabeth—protagonist and narrator—glimpses Bell, a woman who has been recently released from prison. Seeing Bell is the catalyst that makes Elizabeth recount her story (transporting us to the late 60s and early 70s) but even if she knows the identity of Bell’s victim she does not share the details of this fateful event with the readers, preferring instead to play her cards close to her chest. This dual storyline creates an apparent juxtaposition of past and present. We can hazard guesses through brief glimpses of her present, her ambiguous remarks, such as ‘Bell’s motive for asking those questions was outside the bounds of my imagings’ and ‘[A]s they wished me to do, I was seeing everything inside-out’, and through her carefully paced recounting of those events.
By re-living that particular time of her life, Elizabeth—alongside the reader—acquires a better understanding of the circumstances that lead Bell to commit murder. Her narration is a far from passive relay of what happened for Elizabeth in the present seems actively involved in this scrutiny of past events.
“It is interesting how such reputations are built. They come about through confusing the two kinds of truth telling: the declaration of opinion and principle and the recounting of history.”
One of Vine’s motifs is in fact to include a house which is the locus of her story, functioning as a Gothic element within her storylines. In this novel the house (nicknamed—you guessed it—’the house of stairs’) is purchased by Cosette—a relation of Elizabeth’s—soon after the death of her husband, and becomes home to a group of bohemians, hippies, and outsiders of sorts. The house become an experimental ground: it is an escape from traditional social norms, a possibility for Cosette to make her own makeshift family.
The house creates an almost disquieting atmosphere: those who live there are exploiting Cosette, and tensions gradually emerge between its tenants. The house can be a place of secrecy—doors shut, people do not leave their rooms, stairs creak—and of jealousy, for Elizabeth comes to view the other guests as depriving her of Cosette’s affection.
Elizabeth, plagued by the possibility of having inherited a family disease, finds comfort in Bell, a beautiful and alluring woman. Elizabeth comes to idolize Bell (comparisons to the portrait of Lucrezia Panciatichi abound), and finds herself increasingly obsessed by her. Bell’s arrival into the house, however, will have violent consequences.
As Elizabeth is examining this time in her life, she, once again, finds herself falling under Bell’s spell.
“I found her exciting in a disturbing way, a soul-shacking way, without knowing in the least what I wanted of her.”
Like many other Vine novels The House of Stairs is a deeply intertextual work. Henry James, in particular, plays a significant role in Elizabeth’s narration.
Guilt, culpability, love, obsession, desire, greed, past tragedies, and family legacies are recurring themes in Elizabeth’s story. Vine, however, doesn’t offer an easy answer as she problematises notions of normalcy and evil.
There are many reasons why I love this novel so much: Vine’s elegantly discerning prose, her examination of class and gender roles in the 1960s-70s, the way she renders Elizabeth’s yearning for Bell…while I can see that some readers my age may find this novel to be a bit outdated, I would definitely recommend it to those who enjoy reading authors such as Donna Tartt, Sarah Waters, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Magda Szabó.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“The future was a dark corridor. And though she would grope her way through it, the door at the end would be locked tight.”
After reading that Hye-Young Pyun’s novel The Hole won the ‘Shirley Jackson Award’, I was intrigued to read her work. Thanks to NetGalley I was able to read The Law of Lines in exchange for a review.
Within its first few chapters The Law of Lines introduces us to two seemingly unconnected young women: there is Se-oh, a recluse whose indebted father attempts to take his own life by burning their house down, and Ki-jeong, an unenthusiastic teacher who receives a call informing her of the death of her younger half-sister. Confronted with such personal and sudden losses both women find their lives spiralling out of control.
“Those sounds and sentences were lost to her now. His unconditional love, his wordless yet tender gaze, his steely look of fatherly responsibility. All gone. They were each different, but to her they were all synonyms for a father.”
Se-oh begin to understand the depths of her father’s desperation and holds the debt collector who hounded him responsible. Seeking retribution Se-oh begins to stalk the collector and entertains increasingly violent fantasies. However her past, the reason why she became a recluse, catches up to her and Se-oh has to confront whether she herself is accountable for her father’s death.
“The whole time she had stayed locked up at home, she had imagined the outside world as a place that could swallow her whole at any moment. But in truth, it was a place that paid her no attention at all.”
Ki-jeong has led a rather restrained existence, ensuring that she always abided the rules of her society. Ki-jeong is aware of her faults. For example, she knows that she isn’t a very inspired or driven teacher. However, when one of her most privileged pupils plays a cruel trick on her and threatens both her career and her reputation, as well as calling into question her moral integrity, Ki-jeong looses control.
Reeling from their losses, both of these women feel let down by their country’s system of justice. Amidst a backdrop of violent and vengeful thoughts Se-oh and Ki-jeong embark on separate investigations, trying to uncover the causes that led to death of their relatives and it is by assigning blame to others they relieve their own guilt.
“Ki-jeong knew that, of all laws, this—the way one thing leads invariably to the next—was the only of life’s laws that she could not find fault with.”
The beginning of Pyun’s novel is incredibly absorbing. She immediately establishes an atmosphere of uneasiness and of moral degradation: the world she depicts is populated by spiteful, malevolent, or apathetic individuals. Those in authoritative positions abuse their powers. Greed, corruption, and cowardice seem to drive the majority of these characters. It is her characters’ malice perhaps that Pyun turns to the most. Malice seems to creep its way into her character’s thoughts, blurring the lines between right and wrong, good and evil.
“She’d felt the unfamiliar thrill that comes only when you amplify your malice.”
Se-oh and Ki-jeong narratives interrogate the difference between victim and perpetrator. Is entertaining a violent fantasy really better than actual violence? Does vengeance condone one’s wrongdoings? Pyun traces the source and effects that malice and violence have on her characters’ minds.
“When does evil intent become evil itself? Is it evil simply to imagine and harbor an idea? Does it begin when a thought is put into action? And if that action fails, then did evil never exist to begin with?”
Throughout the story an air of squalor lingers over most scenes. These unpleasant characters have filthy habits (such as spitting) and grimy morals. Debt collectors torment those who are indebted, waging psychological wars against them. Young individuals are trapped into pyramid schemes and find themselves into nightmarish scenarios (a bit a la Sorry to Bother You).
Pyun emphasises humanity’s darkness by focusing on the seedy behaviour, physical appearances, or living conditions of her characters. She is almost unrelenting in the way in which she delves into the notion of evil.
“There’d been good, and there’d been bad. That was all. At the time, she’d thought that all of it was bad. Because happiness had flitted on by while bad things had a way of lingering.”
More than once I was reminded of Park Chan-wook’s The Vengeance Trilogy. Pyun’s novel is a bleak one. Yet, as gripping as the first half of The Law of Lines was, in the latter half the story looses its momentum. Ki-jeong sort of disappears and there we get a lengthy account of what drove Se-oh into hiding. When these characters paths finally cross, I found their interaction to be somewhat underwhelming. The ending too seemed rather ill-defined.
All in all, I am unsure whether I would recommend this book to other readers. There are some wickedly clever moments, plenty of interesting observations on Korean society as well as some fascinating discussions about justice. Once the storyline lost its initial edge however I didn’t care much for what I was reading. Perhaps certain things were lost in translation but I do think that the story could have been more complete.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars
At first I was intrigued by the prologue featuring young Garda Cormac Reilly who—after answering a call out—is faced with his first dead body and two neglected children. The rest of the book, which is set years later and follows a newly transferred to Galway Reilly, was markedly less engaging. Maybe readers who haven’t read a lot of crime fiction might be able to enjoy this one more than I did.
Reilly’s new department and colleagues do not provide the warmest of welcomes, and he finds himself being mostly assigned to cold cases (would a department really waste such a high-flying detective?). By ‘chance’ he has to look back into his own case (the one featuring at the beginning of this book) which happens to be connected to the death of Aisling Conroy’s boyfriend Jack. Although McTiernan emphasises how good Reilly is at his job, as the story progresses, I had the impression that he makes a really bad detective. In spite of his years of service he lets himself be intimidated by some of his greener colleagues (who are the typical chauvinist, possibly crook, police bullies), and repeatedly fails to pick up on the odd behaviour of another character.
The story also follows Aisling, as she tries to reconcile herself with the possibility that Jack was not as happy as he seemed, and her full-on job as a surgical resident. When Jack’s estranged sister appears out of the blue, Aisling begins to question wherever Jack’s death was a suicide.
The book tries to include many different topics and themes, but it does so in such a rushed manner that not one of them felt particularly well explored.
The storyline lacked interesting suspects or suspense, consisting instead in a monotone narrative featuring a bland, apparently good-at-his-job protagonist, his chauvinistic, lazy, possibly sadistic male colleagues, his no-nonsense ambitious young female colleagues (who I found incredibly unsympathetic), and conveniently evil characters…
Maybe if the plot had provided me with some more engaging material I could have looked past the thin-as-paper characters…towards the end there are two plot points which really annoyed me: one which seemed a cheap solution to what had until then been a genuine portrayal of the difficult reality of abortion in Ireland; the other was the classic—and obvious—reveal (view spoiler).
Rather than Tana French, this reminded me ofClose to Home : the type of detective stories that provide little insight in the human psyche, presenting us instead with a narrative chock full of unlikely—and unbelievable—coincides, a dichotomous depiction of good and bad, and a series of poorly explored discussions (on child abuse, abortion, pedophilia, extenuating working conditions for residents and social workers, police corruption, alcoholism, biological family vs. adoption, and the list goes on and on).
Cormac Reilly could have been an interesting character but he was forgettable and incompetent…which is why I won’t be picking up the next instalment of this series.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 just-about-stars
In spite of its flaws Platform Seven is a lot more thoughtful than one might expect from its murder mystery premise.
“There was a man on the station only two hours ago who will never go home again.”
One of the weakest aspects of this book is that it tries, and doesn’t really succeed, in combining two different genres and concepts together.
The first 30% or so of this novel proposes a slow and atmospheric take on the ghost story. Louise Doughty’s use of the supernatural, although patchy, allows her to create a mosaic of the lives and troubles of the people working at Peterborough Railway Station. Forgotten and largely overlooked, they are forced to deal with horrific situations such as suicides. Through Lisa Evans, the ghost of a suicide victim, we follow some of the night staff in their everyday lives. Lisa is somehow able to tell what these people feel and think, and there is a sense of quiet resignation in the people she observes. Although depressive, very much so, it was interesting to glimpse the fears and desires of the people observed by ghost-Lisa. I found Dalmar, Tom, Melissa, and Andrew’s lives interesting and affecting.
“What is the point where a human being stops being a human being and becomes a thing? Most people think it happens with death but Dalmar knows it can happen a long time before then if it needs to, so that other people can bear what they are seeing. ”
At times being reminded that we were seeing their lives through ghost-Lisa seemed to offset how realistic these characters were. Ghost-Lisa herself seems to fluctuated between being “a ghost, invisible and silent, nothing but consciousness” who doesn’t have memories of her past, a body, or a sense of her own humanity (“When you don’t have a body, time is no longer even or consistent: it stretches and bends, folds in on itself. ”) little more than an impassive and intangible observer, and yet, she also comes across as the cliché of a ghost, one that wouldn’t be out of place in A Christmas Carol.
As the narrative slowly progresses ghost-Lisa seems increasingly incongruous. Although she initially stresses that she is a mere consciousness with no links to her past, she can also ‘see’, ‘float’, and move her human-shaped-ghost-body.
Because of this I was never able to immerse myself in what she was narrating, and part of me wishes that it had all been narrated from a third perspective as it would have made ghost-Lisa slightly less off-key and more convincing.
As ghost-Lisa becomes preoccupied with the latest suicide on ‘her’ platform she somehow becomes able to remember her own past. The switch between ghost-story to a tale of an abusive-relationship is quite jarring.
Rather than presenting us with Lisa’s whole life, Louise Doughty focuses on the last few years before her death, depicting a detailed, occasionally frustratingly so, portrait of the relationship between Lisa and her boyfriend. We follow them through nerve-racking dinners to conversations and fights that draw attention to the secret and concealed violence that dictates her boyfriend’s behaviour towards her. Lisa recounts how time and again she glossed over his increasingly manipulative behaviour towards her. The realisation that her beloved boyfriend Matty is a toxic little sh*t is a slow one and first we are forced to watch as Lisa becomes increasingly alienated from her life and daily existence because of him.
While I could sort of emphasise with Lisa’s difficultly in reconciling herself with her abusive relationship it a bit weird that this came to her as a ‘surprise’…from their very first meeting he acts in a perturbing way towards her. Other people think that he is charming-golden-boy…but I never saw that either. Late in the novel he sings her song during her birthday party but I’m not sure that singing one song would make her friends and family believe that he is the perfect boyfriend. As ghost-Lisa sort of pre-warns us about Matty’s true character, my perception of him never changed: from his first appearance to his last one he struck me as a horrible manipulator.
The scenes which feature their deteriorating relationship could at times be very repetitive and part of me wishes that we could have been properly introduced to Lisa before her relationship with Matty. At times her role seems to be confined to that of ‘victim’ (not that she isn’t a victim but her roles seemed to be restricted to that of Matty’s girlfriend) . I wish more of her personality had come through rather than having such a large part of the narrative focus on how paranoid and anxious she became during her relationship with Matty. More could have been made of her relationship with her family and best friend, so we could have at least seen Lisa ‘without’ Matty.
The pacing of the story was rather uneven. Occasionally the slow and ambiguous narrative could create and build tension. For example, Doughty emphasises Lisa’s unease during a fight with Matty at their favourite restaurant by dragging out the description of a pepper mill:
“As he turned it over our plates, coal-black chunks of pepper fell from the end and the grinding blades made a squeaking sound like the iron wheels of a very old train creaking slowly into motion. I felt plunged into seriousness, all at once, as if I had been missing something important in the debate we had just had, as if I should have known what it was but was too dim to work it out. The squeaking of the pepper mill set my teeth on edge. I realised the waiter was going to keep going until I told him to stop, so I lifted my hand.”
In other instances however Doughty seems to loose herself in detailed and irrelevant descriptions. A few pages are wasted on ghost-Lisa taking a gander through a Waitrose where she is repeatedly amazed by the items they sell:
“Since when did doughnuts come in so many flavours; lemon icing, raspberry icing, salted caramel icing? It isn’t just the doughnuts. I traverse the aisles. Ice cream sauce comes in creamy fudge flavour, Belgian chocolate flavour, raspberry coulis flavour and – my favourite – Alphonso mango, passion fruit and yuzu. What is a yuzu? Is an Alphonso mango significantly different from any other kind of mango […] then I go and confirm my suspicions about carrots: they are, of course, even more orange than I remember […] on my way out, I drift along the salad bar, glancing into the tubs of salad one by one, wondering why so many of them contain kidney beans.”
That scene lasted way longer than it should have and it didn’t really serve any purpose other than a weak reassertion that ghost-Lisa has few memories of her life.
Overall I think that the idea was better than the execution. There were scenes which were both powerful and horrific, but more often than not these were lost in a painstakingly redundant narrative which repeatedly looses itself in digressions that added very little to the overarching story.
Platform Seven seemed to contain two different books. A not entirely convincing supernatural ghost-story (where much is made of the coincidence of two suicides at the same platform) in which ghost-Lisa follows others around, making occasionally thought-provoking deliberations but frequently resorts cookie-like musing. The other narrative is an uncomfortably close look at how vicious and insidious an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship can be. We see how Matty uses his job as a doctor to guilt-trip Lisa, how he deliberately works to erase her sense of self, her self-esteem, and her happiness.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that I ‘enjoyed’ reading this (given that the novel deals with many different forms of abuse) Doughty’s approach to this subject was interesting and refreshing.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars
This was an unexpectedly silly thriller.
While the story’s premise was compelling enough, the characters and various plot-lines are tawdry rehashes of other novels in this genre…
The plot seems to focus on uninteresting encounters and two unrelated ‘mysteries’, one around Evie Cormac’s identity and past, and the other one is the case forensic psychologist Cyrus Haven is working on. Cyrus ends up fostering Evie and the two have a hard time adapting to their new circumstances. Evie has the ability to detect from someone’s face wherever that person is lying or not. Deeply alienated from her society, she seems both unable and unwilling to act in accordance to social norms. Yet, behind her unbrazen front, Evie is deeply insecure and prone to self-loathing. Sadly, her character was often reduced to a silly caricature of the ‘broken’ girl.
Cyrus is a less compelling protagonist. His voice often sounded far too similar to Evie’s…which wasn’t ideal given that the two have radically different upbringings…he is as interesting as a piece of sidewalk…in other words, not at all. His role in the investigation isn’t very clear cut and it is extremely unlikely that they would let him foster Evie…(conflict of interest anyone?)
Anyhow, the story isn’t all that interested in creating a layered or realistic murder investigation but rather it focuses on how ‘different‘ Evie is. At times it seemed that she was either being sexualized unnecessarily or with the intent of making her appear ‘edgy‘. She said a lot of stock angsty-teen phrases…she wasn’t likeable nor believable. Her involvement in Cyrus’ case is due to a series of extremely unlikely coincidences which came across as lazy shortcuts to have her help him out.
With the exception of Cyrus all the men in this novel were lacking in intelligence, completely misogynistic, and with no self-control, either shouting or grumbling poorly articulated comments at our two MCs or making sleazy passes at Evie. The women were either ‘promiscuous’, ‘aggressive’, or ‘wet blankets’….
Overall, I found this novel to be a bit of a cheap read…the writing was flat, the characters were stereotypes, and the plot never truly seemed to pick up speed.
My rating: ★★✰✰✰ 2.5 stars
Dennis Lehane has written many superb novels, and while Since We Fell demonstrates many of his strengths, the story seems a lot less focused than his usual ones.
The intriguing prologue leads into a story which follows Rachel Childs. In the first 1/4 of the novel we follow her quest for her father. I found this part interesting and I believed that it would relate somehow to the prologue or to later events…it did not. This whole section seems to belong to a different novel altogether, and this ‘disjointed’ impression became stronger as the story ends up becoming close to an action-film.
There are many things that I enjoyed. Lehane’s writing style is propelling enough so that even in the the slower chapters I remained interested in the storyline. He can create nuanced and memorable characters with just a few sentences, and his ability to capture different personalities is, as per usual, amazing. Rachel’s character arch was compulsive and Lehane manages to trace and contextualise many of her weakness and traumas back to her childhood and to one fateful trip she took as a news reporter to Haiti.
What didn’t ‘grab’ me was the romance. The relationship between Rachel and her husband…so much remains unexplained that I found the ending to be hugely underwhelming. So many pages are wasted on things that have little to no bearing to the story and then in the last act of the novel things just ‘kick-off’ in a mad series of action and chase scenes.
Overall, this novel was less than the sum of its part. There were some brilliant moments that brimmed with suspense, but there were also many scenes which felt silly and over the top.
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3.25 stars
“People lie to cover their tracks all the time but in the aftermath of true horror, there is a window – minutes, even seconds long – where shock drives out dissemblance and there is only room for a kind of devastated honesty.”
This a novel that never quite reaches its full potential.
First, on what I liked.
I found the discourse on class and money (the way it can change you in ways that you might not be aware) to be very compelling. We see how money can distance you from your own family, your hometown, and even your younger self.
The novel also does a brilliant job in evoking this small English community and of how unemployment can damage a family not only financially but emotionally (there is anger, shame, guilt, and pain).
I also found it incredibly realistic the way in which Marianne’s mother vascular dementia affected her loved ones. She only appeared in a few scenes but these were some of the few moments in which I felt emotionally involved by the story.
Nazareth is a building which emanates unease. It is oppressing and labyrinthine, yet I was fascinated by it. Kelly give this place a horrifying history, one that shapes the protagonist(s). Nazareth seems almost a character, if not the focus of the story. We are often given small details that consolidate this building’s presence:
“When I was at school, we wouldn’t say anyone behaving eccentrically was going round the bend but ‘getting the number six’. Back in the day, the number six bus was the one that, after they closed the railway, ferried workers and patients alike from Nusstead and beyond to Nazareth. I’d assumed it was a universal idiom. It was only when I went to Cromer Hall that I understood that the phrase was something I’d have to censor, along with my history, and my guilt, and the accent I shed like a shell.”
Now on the things that didn’t quite work for me…
Like many other reviewers, I found this book incredibly slow. I don’t think that dividing it into four sections worked in the story’s favour. It just created distance between each narrative (the first one is from Marianne ‘now’, the second is from Marianne as a teenager, the third is from a patient staying at Nazareth in 1958, and the last one is from another character). They seemed like these self-contained condensed stories that didn’t merge well with one another.
The first section stresses this ‘big bad thing’ that Marianne did…and when we actually get the details I felt underwhelmed. Other things happen but they never seem ‘thrilling’ to me. The suspense felt a bit forced (especially the final section when there is this unnecessary vagueness that seemed to exist merely to prolong the narrative).
The characters…they occasionally seemed a bit clichéd but they did have ‘moments’ of credibility.
Marianne was just plain awful. I disliked her not because of the ‘big bad thing’ but because she often sounded like a martyr.She is supposedly ‘clever’ and ‘smart’ (something which other characters, her degree, and her career, seem to imply) but to me she seemed anything but intelligent. She didn’t even convince me in terms of her age. She is supposed to be in her later forties, she has managed to leave her small town behind, made her a new life for herself, etc. etc., and yet, she sounds exactly as experienced and self-aware as her teenage self. She was so naive, so irritatingly self-dramatizing, that she would been a more appropriate protagonist in an 18th cent. novel. I’m thinking something on the lines of Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady.
She spends nearly 60% of the book reproaching herself, bemoaning that ‘big bad thing’, her ‘evil’ deed seeps into her vision so that no matter her surroundings she will see a reflection her sins staring back at her (“The eels are back, and this time they’re sliding all over the sky”). Or she gives this dramatic descriptions: “His lips are white, like they’ve got bones in them.”. Jeez. When she spoke she did it with lots of exclamations marks (‘You saw her!’) and italics abounded, so that she often comes across as both juvenile and unrealistic. To begin with I thought that she was being sarcastic or disingenuous but she was turns out…she is just dense.
The other two narrators were less irritating but I did find that one point of view sort of ‘ruined’ what could have been an interesting individual. I was hoping to read from the point of view of a calculating, ruthless, possibly psychopathic woman…but what we get is a sort of vindication where we learn that she isn’t bad but simply (view spoiler). The last point of view is from a character who seemed an odd choice as she only appeared way back when in the first section. I think the book would have been more effective without this last section.
The main male characters fell in one of the following categories: stupid, dull, w*nker. There were two male characters who were decent-ish but had brief inconsequential appearances.
Marianne’s relationship with her husband was one of the least convincing things in the story. They acted like they just met each other and I kept thinking that he was her second husband or something. They have no real history, their interactions kept making me question if they really had just met or something (when they have been supposedly married for 20 years or so).
Lastly, I wasn’t a fun of the way in which people experiencing or suffering a mental illness or disorder were presented in such a patronising way. They look ‘broken’ and just feel everything ‘too much’: “she lives life so deeply but everything hurts her, it’s like – she’s got splinters in all of her fingertips and glass in her feet.”
There is this vagueness that tries to make scenes more ‘suspenseful’ by making things appear more sinister than they are…
The storyline is so slow and uneventful that I was temped to abandon it once or twice. There were few moments that I found enjoyable and or entertaining…still, there were some nice descriptions and although I think this would have worked better if all of the narratives had been from the first point of view, I think that Kelly’s writing has the potential to create a much more interesting story.
“My mind trips to doublethink: theories I believe in even as I know they can’t be true. Something was uncovered, something was found during the development of Nazareth. Or someone has spotted me and knows. Someone has seen old records, old names, and put two and two together to make the four that implicates the three – me, Jesse and Helen Greenlaw.”