Amongst my longer reviews, I’m going to start posting brief notes on some of the other books I’ve read. Here is the first round-up:
William Coles, The Well-Tempered Clavier (2007)
Kim, Coles’s narrator, looks back on his Eton days in the early 1980s. At the age of seventeen, Kim fell for India James, his beautiful young piano teacher — and, somewhat to his surprise, found his affection reciprocated. Of course, these are difficult circumstances in which to conduct a relationship anyway, but Kim’s eagerness to think the worst does nothing to help. The Well-Tempered Clavier is a neat portrait of a teenage crush as a whirlwind of uncertainty and possibility, a rush of love (or lust, or both) mixed up with doubt. I think the level of foreshadowing in the narration dilutes the novel’s impact somewhat, but, in general, this is a worthwhile debut.
Simon Lelic, The Facility (2011)
Lelic’s debut, Rupture, played about with the conventions of the police procedural to produce an interesting examination of bullying, and the issue of where our sympathies should lie if someone who is bullied takes extreme measures. The author’s follow-up novel, The Facility, looked set to do a similar thing with a different subgenre and moral issue, namely the near-future political thriller, and the issue of government responses to security threats – but it’s not quite as successful.
Several years hence, a ‘Unified Security Act’ has been passed in the UK, which essentially allows the government to go to any length in the name of maintaining security. A secret hospital/prison has been established, and a number of people detained there without explanation. We follow three protagonists: Arthur Priestley, one of the imprisoned; Henry Graves, governor of the facility; and Tom Clarke, the journalist approached by Priestley’s wife, Julia, who believes her husband has been detained under false pretences.
Thinking back to Rupture’s brilliant handling of multiple first-person voices, I couldn’t help feeling a twinge of disappointment that The Facility’s third-person narrative voices weren’t as sharply delineated. But Lelic has a knack for creating a sparse atmosphere that reflects the austere nature of the facility.
The novel could be seen as inverting the stereotypical trajectory of this kind of story, in that it’s less concerned with revealing the great conspiracy of silence at its heart than with keeping things hidden – for example, it’s not until a third of the way through that we learn why the facility was established (to quarantine people with some unspecified disease), and there’s a general sense of murkiness to proceedings throughout. This is an interesting approach, one that closes off the possibility of easy answers to the problems it raises; but I think it also makes it difficult for the novel to really examine those problems. Though there are some moments that reveal moral complexity, overall I feel that this novel doesn’t treat its issues in the same depth that Rupture did its. The Facility is good as far as it goes; I just wish it went a bit further.
Catherine O’Flynn, What Was Lost (2007)
I was looking forward to reading this, as it sounded just the sort of quirky book that I enjoy. And parts of it were just that — but the whole didn’t quite hang together.
In 1984, ten-year-old Kate Meaney decides to set up her own detective agency, covering her Birmingham neighbourhood and nearby Green Oaks. After 68 pages following Kate, the action shifts to 2003, where we spend the bulk of the novel’s remainder, in the company of Kurt, a security guard at the Green Oaks Shopping Centre, and Lisa, assistant manager of a record shop. We learn that Kate Meaney went missing back in 1984; by novel’s end, we find out what happened to her.
I find O’Flynn’s control of voice good: she really captures the mixture of precocity and naivety that makes up Kate’s character in the first section; and there are some striking vignettes of people in and around the shopping centre in 2003. Kurt and Lisa don’t come across quite as strongly, but there’s still a sense of the monotony and frustration they feel in their working lives.
Yet I’m not sure that What Was Lost quite works at the broader structural level. There are themes running through the book concerning the limitations of consumerism and the decline of traditional industry, but I don’t see that the main plot fully reflects those themes. It’s tempting to see Kate’s disappearance as representing a loss of innocence; but that reading doesn’t quite hold up for me, because there wasn’t really innocence there to begin with — for example, the 1984 depicted in the book does not appear to be a substantially safer time and place for playing games of girl detective than the 2003. I liked What Was Lost particularly at the beginning, but the rest didn’t live up to that early promise.