This week Evie Woolmore flies the flag by reviewing books by three British (or British-born) indie authors.
Dogtooth Chronicals by Kirsty Fox
Despite its stark quasi-apocalyptic backdrop, Dogtooth Chronicals is in many ways a love letter. It is a saga, a fantasy/nightmare, an epic multi-dimensional, multi-narrative prophecy, and it is long. But – and perhaps this is where being a British reader reviewing a British novel really shows – it is truly a love letter to the cities, landscape and weather of Britain.
The novel is woven together from the first person narratives of a diverse and distinctive cast of characters whose lives individually and together are chronicled before, during and after a dramatic and world-changing weather event. That is to over-simplify the plot, for if it is a dramatically compelling portrait of how people survive in the most desperate circumstances, it is also an analysis of what parts of themselves are preserved and what parts are given up when people’s lives change beyond anticipation. Each of the characters is bearing the complexities of their past in some way, which will propel some forward and which others will finally be able to surrender.
It is far too complex a novel to discuss in a short review, and certainly some readers may be put off by the novel’s sheer length. For this reviewer, the opening section before The Weathers was too long: the essential fluidity of the interconnecting narrative moving from character to character is interesting in itself, but there is less conventional narrative propulsion here, and the reader must rely more on the intrinsic fascination of the characters to keep reading. In that sense, I found the middle and later sections of the book more enjoyable, because we witness how the characters bend and resist the impact of their new and unrelentingly harsh circumstances.
The book has a strongly philosophical aspect to it: while the dialogue is extremely well written, there are tracts of introspection and some beautifully crafted metaphor and description, although at times I felt that it was not as fitting to all the characters equally. Despite the starkly distinguished characters – Fox has done well to ‘write’ strong accents and dialect – there is a faint homogeneity of thoughtfulness each character shares. There are many references to the canon of a cultural studies/art school education, from Barthes to Heidegger, and that thread of objectivity and intellectual reflection runs quite strongly through the book and all the voices.
That, for this reviewer, is just one aspect of this novel as love letter, joined by a litany of references to British popular culture which might be lost on the non-British reader, but it is in the physical settings that this deep-seated tribute to the urban and social landscape truly emerges. Fox paints the cities of Derby, Nottingham and Sheffield – and later the barren, weather-sculpted countryside of the Midlands and Northumbria – in such vivid colours that one can only guess at how strongly these places impact on the author’s own life. Yes, it is a dark underbelly we visit, there is little picturesque romance in the settings, the characters or their fates, but this is certainly an absorbing, atmospheric and extremely well-crafted novel which will linger in the mind.
The Kiss by Adrienne Silcock
From a casual, coincidental meeting at a tourist site in Menorca, two couples find their lives entwined in the most complex dramatic fashion. It sounds like the plot of a thriller and in many ways this novel is one, if more emotional than criminal. A crime has however allegedly been committed and the journey of the accused to court is certainly part of the tale. But like all traditional thrillers, this is also a tale of power – power assumed, abused, manipulated – and as Ms Silcock rotates the progress of the narrative through the four key points of view, the two men and two women of the central couples, we see how that power ebbs and flows as each tries to regain control of the situation.
The pacing is appropriate too: the ‘no quote’ style blurs the distinction between dialogue and description, and consequently the agonies, anxieties and internal dialogues of the characters swirl up around the reader, perpetuating the sense of claustrophobia the characters experience as events spiral out of control. This is very much a character-driven novel too, for though the plot is clear – Tom is accused of a crime and Rick is his lawyer – the twists and turns of the story are not provided by the crime but by the emotional and sexual entanglement of Tom and Rick, and the collateral damage to their pre-existing relationships with their girlfriends, Rita and Simeon. (In the opinion of this reviewer, the naming of Simeon is problematic: though it may be significant and deliberate, giving a female character a generally male name is a bit of a confusion for the reader, especially at the beginning.)
One might sense a slightly simplistic touch to the characterisation: the most manipulative character uses sexual behaviour to control the other three characters to varying degrees, and an unsophisticated reading would deduce that gay equals bad or morally ambiguous. By contrast, the monogamous, strictly heterosexual women are portrayed as upright and morally strong, but they don’t seem particularly professionally independent as contemporary women of this class and background would perhaps be in real life. Are they really defined first and foremost by the men in their lives? Furthermore, Rick’s vacillation about his sexual identity mirrors his vacillation about his position as Tom’s lawyer, and the thoughts of Rick’s parents seem a little simplistic too.
There is a hint of contrivance about the opening but it plays well to the thriller trope and the reader will know from the outset that this is a tautly paced story with a readable flow to it.
A Paris Haunting by Janet Doolaege
In many ways, A Paris Haunting is a book populated entirely by unsettled spirits, not merely the ghost of the person who has passed over but those among the living left behind, haunted by their own actions. Kay, a translator based in Paris, becomes entangled in the lives of three people — the remnants of two couples whose interconnected relationships have perhaps caused the death of the fourth person — first through a good deed, then by curiosity, and then by her own emotional and psychological involvement. To begin with, Kay does not realize that she has the capacity to help them in more than just practical ways, to help them find peace, albeit through more earthly means than might be suggested by some of the more esoteric themes covered in the book: energy healing, mediumship, psychic ability, synaesthesia.
The Paris setting is thoroughly authentic and will appeal to Francophile readers, and the book has clearly been written by someone who knows the city and France well, and loves it. There is a strong sense of the quirks of the French that might be noticed by an outsider, though despite the characters mostly being French (or half French), there is a slightly English feel to them at times and in the narrative styling too, not least in Kay’s love of drinking tea and the English bookshop owned by one of the characters.
The descriptive writing is very atmospheric though, rather like the characters’ experiences of the ghost, we get only a suggestion of the spiritual dimension of the haunting. The main experiences of the ghost are mediated through the descriptions by the most haunted character, and Kay herself (as the principal though not only p.o.v. character) only senses the presence of the ghost rather than actually seeing it. This has the effect of distancing the haunting, like a story within a story, or grounding it rather strongly in reality as characters keep asking themselves whether they really believe in ghosts. It is as though there is a strongly rational voice somewhere in the background of the novel, as perhaps even the author herself is reluctant to embrace fully the possibilities that the ghost brings, and the character’s echoes left behind in life are at times more tangible than their presence in death. Kay does become a strong advocate for the ghost’s presence, and the key to the resolution of the story, but overall this reviewer felt that there was scope to delve more deeply and engagingly in the esoteric issues covered.
There are one or two themes that also don’t quite reach their full potential in the story – the mysterious illness, the symbolic role of the cat, Kay’s psychic gift – but overall this is an engaging and readable book, which will definitely appeal to anyone who likes a ghost story.