Tagpsychological thriller

Michael Stewart, Café Assassin (2015)

Cafe AssassinA few years ago, I enjoyed Michael Stewart’s debut novel, King Crow – so I was really pleased to discover that he had a new book out. Café Assassin is quite different in subject from its predecessor, but it has the same tension, rooted in a strong first-person voice that feels as though it could go anywhere.

The owner of that voice is Nick Smith, newly released from prison twenty-two years after being wrongly convicted of murder. His words are addressed to Andrew Honour, a childhood friend on whom Nick now seeks revenge. Nick looks at Andrew’s life – a successful job as a QC, happily married to his old girlfriend Liv, on whom Nick always had a crush – and wants what he sees. Over the course of the novel, Nick gets back on his feet, and gradually inveigles his way into Andrew’s and Liv’s lives – but to what end?

I found Café Assassin to have an enormous narrative pull, which comes from the ambivalent attitude we develop towards Nick: we know he has seriously been wronged, but we also learn what a violent individual he can be; we want Nick to have some sort of resolution, but not necessarily the kind of revenge it appears he’s working towards. Beyond the plot, there’s a mutable quality to Stewart’s prose, and the sense of identity Nick creates in his account. Nick has to remind himself that it’s not 1989 but 2011, and there a constant sense of dislocation as the gap of years is opened and bridged and opened again. Then there are the interstitial chapters in second-person, which describe Nick’s life in prison; these aren’t a straightforward contrast with the first-person text, but intersect with it at right-angles, adding a further layer of complexity. If we never quite know where Café Assassin will end up, perhaps it’s because we never quite have the measure of its protagonist – and the sense is that perhaps he doesn’t even have the full measure of himself.

Café Assassin is published by Bluemoose Books.

"Romance has no place in documentaries"

Ryu Murakami, Audition (1997)
Translated from the Japanese by Ralph McCarthy (2009)

AuditionI first read the ‘two Murakamis’ a couple of years ago. No doubt I’ll be trying Haruki once more at some point; but Ryu’s book was the one I preferred, so he was the author I was keen to read again sooner. Piercing, my first Ryu Murakami, was a welcome surprise: a novel smart and subtle enough to evade the pitfalls inherent in its premise. Audition promises to be something similar – both are short novels built around a violent confrontation between two damaged individuals. However, although it’s the later book of the two, Audition seems to fall into traps that Piercing managed to avoid.

Murakami’s protagonist is Aoyama, who built his fortune making documentaries, but is still haunted by the death of his wife Ryoko seven years previously. In the time since, Aoyama has been able to realise a professional dream of bringing a celebrated German musician to Japan, and made sure to spend quality time with his son Shige; but he’s given no thought to his romantic life – until Shige encourages him to find a new wife.

How to go about it, though? An old work colleague, Yoshikawa, has an idea: hold an audition. Yoshikawa invites potential actresses to audition for a film project (ostensibly based on one of Aoyama’s documentaries, giving him a pretext for being on the interview panel); the film probably won’t get made, but the lucky winner can always be let down gently on that score – and the real prized will, of course, be Aoyama’s hand in marriage. One woman in particular stands out to Aoyama in this process: the beautiful and mysterious Yamasaki Asami – but she may not be quite as innocent as she appears.

Audition spends a good deal of time foreshadowing what is to come, sometimes in very direct terms – for example: “[Aoyama] had no way of knowing the unspeakable horrors that awaited him.” (p. 26). The characterisation is similarly straightforward: Aoyama is fixated on his ideal image of Ryoko, which leads him to become similarly fixated on the vision of perfection that he perceives Asami to be; Asami, for her part, has a troubled past, which leads her to… well, that would be telling. The trouble is that Ralph McCarthy’s translation feels too plain-speaking for this directness to work; there’s not enough of the subtlety which would create the sense of foreboding that the novel is telling us to experience.

Well, okay, let’s leave the build-up to one side. I have no problem in principle with everything hinging on the novel’s final confrontation, as long as that works. It worked in Piercing, but the confrontation there was longer (better able to create tension), and more importantly felt like a contest of equals – two characters who both had the capacity (and the desperation) to do the worst to each other, and no way of guessing who would win out. In those circumstances, it would be quite all right for the characters to appear from thin air, because watching them interact in the moment was powerful enough in its own right.

Audition falls between two stools in this regard: its climactic sequence is too short to generate much momentum on its own, and the characters don’t have enough emotional grounding from what has gone previously in order to substitute for that. Inevitably, there remains a certain amount of interest in finding out exactly how Aoyama’s story will resolve, and a wry ending which points up how absurd the situation has actually become (though it didn’t seem so to the characters involved). But it’s weak sauce, really – especially when I’ve seen much better from Murakami before.

Moving beyond the central narrative, there are some interesting observations elsewhere in Audition; for example, Aoyama watches a marathon, and reflects that his society seems to have become more atomised:

People were infected with the concept that happiness was something outside themselves, and a new and powerful loneliness was born. Mix loneliness with stress and enervation, and all sorts of madness can occur. Anxiety increases, and in order to obliterate the anxiety people turn to extreme sex, violence and even murder. Watching marathon runners on TV back in the day, you got the sense that everyone shared certain fundamental aspirations, but things were different now; it went without saying that each person was running for his or her own private reasons (p. 10).

Passages like this are of course feeding into the novel’s main themes; but they seem too few – and too under-explored – to give Audition the texture that they might. They end up as more of that heavy-handed foreshadowing – reminders of the book Audition could have been.

This review is part of January in Japan, a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List. Read my other January in Japan 2015 posts here.

January in Japan: Ryu Murakami and Natsuo Kirino

Ryu Murakami, Piercing (1994/2007)
Natsuo Kirino, Out (1997/2004)

Kawashima Masayuki, the protagonist of Ryu Murakami’s Piercing (translated by Ralph McCarthy), stands over his baby daughter’s crib with an ice pick, testing his resolve not to use it. The full darkness beneath Kawashima’s outwardly happy family life is soon revealed, as we learn that he once stabbed a woman with an ice pick, and he’s afraid he’ll do so again to the baby. He convinces himself that the only way to deal with these feelings is to stab a stranger instead. So he checks into a hotel, calls for a prostitute, and waits.

The young woman who arrives is Sanada Chiaki, who has had her own demons to face in life, and is perhaps more than anything just looking to feel once again. What follows, in a chapter taking up fully half of this short novel, is a tense and fascinating game of power-plays. Our perspective shifts back and forth between Kawashima and Chiaki, as does the upper hand in a battle they don’t (at first) even know they are fighting. Both characters have their strengths and weaknesses, their resources and defences, and one can never be sure how this game will end. Piercing is deeply uncomfortable reading, certainly; but, as a portrait of two deeply damaged individuals, it’s also compelling.

Where Piercing is short and tight, Natsuo Kirino’s Out (translated by Stephen Snyder) is long and (relatively) roomy, but it shares a focus on individuals at extremes of behaviour. Four women work nights on the production lines of a boxed-lunch factory. In the heat of the moment, one kills her husband, driven to her wit’s end by his abuse. One of her colleagues, Masako Katori, takes charge of disposing of the body, gradually drawing the other women into the secret. Then the pressure is on to keep the killing hidden, from the police and other prying eyes.

For me, the character of Masako is the great strength of Kirino’s novel: psychologically, she’s quite ‘blank’ – even she doesn’t really understand what drives her to do what she does – which gives the book a similar sense of uncertainty to that Murakami achieves in Piercing by coming from the opposite direction (his protagonists are ‘known quantities’, but he creates uncertainty by bringing them together). As a thriller, Out has the same narrative momentum, and is perhaps even more dynamic as it shows greater change in its characters’ lives. But I find myself leaning towards Piercing as the more intense reading experience, with a study of character that bit sharper.

January in Japan is a blog event hosted by Tony’s Reading List.

Book notes: Tarun J. Tejpal and Ryan David Jahn

Tarun J. Tejpal, The Story of My Assassins (2009)

The first that Tarun Tejpal’s protagonist, an unnamed investigative journalist, learns of the attempt on his life is when he hears that the Delhi police have captured his would-be assassins.

He is placed under police guard whilst still unsure of what exactly has been going on. Tejpal’s novel then alternates between the protagonist’s struggles with his magazine and relationships, and stories of the killers’ backgrounds. The panorama revealed is altogether broader and more impersonal than our man could have suspected. The tales of the assassins show the various ways they were drawn into crime by circumstance. One discovered as a boy that he was handy with a knife, and saw that as his means of getting on in the world. Another was a timid underachiever until he fought back against one of the padres at his English-language school, and then found his true talent among gangs rather than in the classroom. All have ultimately been moved around by forces beyond their control.

And, as he learns more, the journalist learns that something similar has happened to him – that this is about something more than just a plot to kill him. Tejpal mirrors this theme in the structure of his novel: self-contained sections reveal more than one person could know. The Story of My Assassins adds up to a wide-ranging portrait of people trying to make something of life, if it doesn’t get made for them first.

(This review also appears at We Love This Book.)

Ryan David Jahn, Low Life (2010)

I don’t know quite why it took me so long to read another Ryan David Jahn novel after I so enjoyed his debut, 2009’s Acts of Violence (aka Good Neighbors). But now I have, and I won’t be leaving it so long again. Where Acts of Violence explored why a disparate group of people might refuse to help an attack victim (with the inevitable result), Jahn’s follow-up is almost the reverse. Low Life focuses tightly on one individual trying to puzzle out what’s happening to him, and the outcome is far from certain.

Simon Johnson is marking time at 34, with a dead-end job and no social life, when he’s attacked in his LA apartment. He fights back and kills the intruder, only to see that the man bears a striking resemblance to himself. Identification on the body reveals that this was one Jeremy Shackleford, who turns out to have been a mathematics lecturer. Why would he possibly have wanted to break into Simon’s home and kill him? To find out, Simon adopts Shackleford’s identity – and the lines between his two personae start to blur.

In Low Life’s early stages, Jahn skilfully evokes the bleakness of Simon’s existence. The novel then comes to focus more on its protagonist’s personality – the title refers to dark thoughts that a person may have but would never normally act upon; Simon finds himself becoming more and more consumed by this ‘low life’ of his. The reader’s journey with him is disturbing and thrilling by turns, as we wonder how far Simon will go, where this will all end up – and how much is even real.

Book notes: Lane, Hancock, Armstrong

This time I’m looking at three recent debut novels.

Harriet Lane, Alys, Always (2012)

Life is not particularly going anywhere for Frances Thorpe – a sub-editor on the literary desk of a London newspaper – until she’s driving home one day after visiting her parents, and comes across a crashed car. She calls the emergency services, but the woman in the car dies at the scene; Frances bears the incident no more mind until she discovers that the dead woman, Alys, was married to a celebrated novelist, Laurence Kyte. When the opportunity arises for Frances (as the last person to be with Alys) to meet the Kyte family, she grabs it eagerly – and she’ll happily twist the truth, if it gets her into their circles.

Alys, Always is a short, snappy read which gains much of its effect from the uncertainty over just how far Frances is prepared to go; even after finishing the book, I can’t decide how much she might have planned or anticipated what happens. In addition to the main thread concerning Frances’s relationship with the Kytes, the newspaper-set scenes are amusingly satirical; and the two come together satisfyingly in the way that Frances’s exaggerations and deceptions mirror (albeit on a larger scale and with more serious consequences) her experiences at work.

Harriet Lane’s website

Reviews elsewhere: Learn This Phrase; Sheena Joughin for the Telegraph.

Penny Hancock, Tideline (2012)

It starts with a knock on the door: forty-something Sonia welcomes in Jez, her friend Helen’s fifteen-year-old nephew; he’s come to borrow a CD, but Sonia has other ideas – she is infatuated with Jez, spikes his drink to make him pass out, then resolves to keep him hidden away for herself.

Tideline stands or falls first of all on its ability to convince that Sonia could realistically hold Jez captive for several days; and it does so – Jez is a trusting boy with a protected existence; Sonia repeatedly feeds him her mother’s sleeping pills – the situation is unlikely, but Sonia is able to get away with it for precisely that reason. Penny Hancock also constructs believable reasons for Sonia’s behaviour: we see that the protagonist views Jez as a replacement for both Seb (a boy with whom she was smitten as a teenager) and her grown-up daughter, Kit.

With the situation thus established, the tension ratchets up, as Sonia resorts to ever more desperate measures to retain control. The status quo can’t last, of course; but exactly how and when circumstances will change is uncertain, and the journey to that point (and beyond) is thrilling.

Reviews elsewhere: Milo’s Rambles; Books and Writers.

Terri Armstrong, Standing Water (2012)

When his mother dies, Dom Connor returns to Australia, where he faces an awkward reunion with his brother Neal (who stayed on the family farm, and whose physicality stands in sharp contrast to the more intellectual Dom), and Neal’s wife Hester (a city girl who seems to Dom an unlikely match for her husband, though she has her reasons for being and staying with him). Shortly after, along comes Dom’s childhood friend Andy Bohan, a junkie who has left the city determined to get clean – and so begins the transformation of their lives.

Armstrong makes good use of setting in Standing Water, evoking the harshness of the landscape, and using the decline of Dom’s home town to reflect the state of the characters’ relationships. The author also observes clearly how her characters change: all three protagonists (Dom, Hester, and Andy) must reach beyond themselves to move their lives on.

Terri Armstrong’s website

The publisher, Pewter Rose Press

Reviews elsewhere: Louise Laurie for The Bookbag; BooksPlease.

Gabe Rotter, The Human Bobby (2010)

Bobby Flopkowski had few natural advantages – he’s average-looking and from a poor background – but he has been lucky in life, and arrived at age forty with a loving family, a lucrative career as a paediatrician, and a plush Beverly Hills house. It all unravels, though, when Bobby’s baby son Jack disappeared one night, after being left alone for just five minutes; Bobby’s wife, Ava, leaves him, and he spirals down into a drink- and drug-fuelled depression, frittering his money away on expensive hotel bills. He ends up living on the beach in a tent, with no regular companions save Eddie, a fellow homeless man, and Cecilia, a cafe owner. And then, one day, Bobby spots Katie Turner, his first girlfriend, who walked back into his life shortly before Jack’s disappearance. She doesn’t seem to recognise Bobby any more, and has apparently changed her name – could this be because she knows what has happened to Jack?

Gabe Rotter’s second novel is a marvellously elegant construction. On one level, it’s a sharp study of one man’s decline; Rotter is particularly good at showing how innocent and apparently small decisions might cause a chain of major repercussions: no harm in getting in touch with the old flame, Bobby thinks; but then she turns up at his party, and she needs a place to stay; well, Bobby and Ava have room, so why not invite her – and so on. Bobby’s descent into addiction has a similarly all-too-plausible momentum; he knows that he’s destroying himself, but, having lost everything, he is unable to stop; it’s powerful, and appropriately uncomfortable, reading.

But there’s another layer to The Human Bobby, which is all about perception: just what is going on with Katie Turner? Is Bobby right about her, or has he lost his grip on reality? In a brilliantly disorienting journey, Rotter leads us through several possible interpretations, before finally settling on one that seems just a little too neat – and then wryly undermines it at the last, in a way that could be seen as either opening up the possibilities once more, or showing the depths of Bobby’s desperation. It’s a fine ending to a very fine novel.

Elsewhere
Gabe Rotter’s blog

Nikki Dudley, Ellipsis (2010)

Well, how could I resist a novel that shares its name with the punctuation mark I overuse the most?

At 15.32 precisely, Daniel Mansen is pushed into the path of an oncoming train by Alice, the young woman who has been following him covertly for several weeks. As he falls from the platform, Daniel says one thing:  ‘Right on time’ – as though he were expecting it.  After the funeral, Thom Mansen begins to find out more about the cousin he never really knew, and uncovers evidence suggesting that Daniel somehow knew in advance that he was going to die. Alice enters Thom’s life under an assumed name, searching for answers of her own;  by novel’s end, both will uncover truths that they might wish had stayed hidden.

Ellipsis is an interesting debut from Nikki Dudley that (happily) never quite settles into the shape you might expect. It has its flaws:  for example, and particularly towards the beginning, the prose is can be weighed down with so many metaphors and similes that the impact of the imagery is diluted. But, once the novel hits its stride, we discover not only how fragile is Alice’s state of mind (her first-person voice is marvellously disconcerting), but also that Thom’s character isn’t as straightforward as it appears to be at first (I’d say that this becomes apparent a little too slowly, leading to a couple of moments where one thinks, ‘Why did he do that?’ – but that’s a minor problem).

Dudley also makes some neat observations about character; for example, here’s Thom reflecting on his choice of job (working in a call centre for an insurance firm), and his difficulty in talking about his parents’ death: ‘Perhaps that is why he has a job where he always knows what to say because there is a handbook.’ (27)

What’s particularly striking about the central mystery is less the actual events of the plot than the way Dudley plays with the reader’s perception; one is led to conceptualise the story in a particular way, then finds that it’s not the right way – but it’s hard to shake off the original interpretation, so strongly has it been established. And the ending produces a further twist that leaves us on shifting sands once again.

As its title suggests, Ellipsis revolves around gaps in knowledge – in the reader’s knowledge of what happens, and in the characters’ knowledge of events, people, and even of themselves. And those gaps add up to an intriguing, satisfying read.

Links
Nikki Dudley’s blog
Contrary Life interview with Dudley
Sparkling Books

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