Tag Archives: thriller

Review: Before I Go to Sleep by SJ Watson

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So having read Gone Girl, I thought I might have stumbled onto a whole new love of popular crime fiction. Brilliant, I cried to myself from the rainy little caravan I’ve been holed up in all week. I finally get Holiday Reading! I can finally finish an episode of Miss Marple! And buoyed up with all this enthusiasm, I dived into Before I Go to Sleep, whose cover with the creepy eye has been staring at me from every WH Smith kiosk for the last year, promising me an intelligent, deeply disturbing thriller. Plus now every other thriller writer is being touted as the new SJ Watson, so there must be something in it, I thought.

Nu-uh. Friends, you might pretend to agree with him, but the Emperor is parading around with no clothes on, and he’s reading one shitty novel.

Christine awakes every morning with no memory of the last 20 years, the house she wakes up in, or her husband Ben. All she has is her journal as a link through her days. But it seems as through Ben might be lying to her and her secretive doctor is also shaky on the facts. So who can she believe?

Great, right? Clever! Read the ‘Book Group Questions’ at the back and you think ‘Yes! This is a book with some THEMES!’ Memory: check. Identity: check. Sexual power and control: check. Writing our experiences: check.

But spectacularly, it doesn’t actually deliver any of these. The idea that you could have the very experiences that make you You taken away from you, manipulated and moulded, is a highly disturbing one. For the reader to have to trace the ‘real’ narrative through her diary each day is an exciting possibility. But this bloody woman (and it turns out she wanted to be a writer, conveniently, why does nobody ever run a successful plumbing business or work in data entry?) is writing her own personal journal – the lifeline to her identity – as though it were some kind of novel already. It doesn’t read like a journal in even the most basic way. There is no immediacy to the narration of her days. And for a crime novel, which hinges on the detail, there was a lot left unsolved or unattended to.

At the time of writing, I have no way of checking whether the ebook I downloaded was inadvertently an early draft that somebody uploaded by mistake. She remembers a party where she sees some guy called Keith whom she one kissed. When she comes to, she can still taste his saliva. A. Gross, that saliva is 27 years old. B. you weren’t even kissing him. A half decent copyedit would surely have picked that up? Many of the sentences are flabby and stupid for a novelist never mind a women trying to cram as much urgent information onto the page as possible before she loses it. How much of the following sentence was really necessary?

Instead, as if fearing that any movement at all might result in my limbs betraying me, I stood perfectly still in front of the mirror, every muscle in my body tensed.

If you answered ZERO, well done, I guess nobody stumbles across your secret amnesiac journal!

There are sealed envelopes and hidden photographs galore, which would be fine except so much she discovers is put down to some ill-defined impulse. Memories and flashbacks come to her fully formed, exactly like a flashback in a TV drama but nothing like memory is actually experienced.

A memory flashed through me, tearing me suddenly back into the past. Everything was slightly out of focus and had a haze around it, and the images were so bright I almost wanted to look away. I saw myself, walking through these same corridors…

AAARGH! You haven’t described a memory, you’ve described a flashback from a straight to TV memory trauma movie! In fact the only part that rings true is the diary her old doctor shows her from her most severe period of amnesia,where she could only retain a memory of a few seconds and repeatedly writes ‘I am awake for the first time’. Sadly, this is directly lifted from the real life case of Clive Wearing, and I saw that documentary where they read from his diary too.

It is this total disregard for how memory actually operates, despite being a book that hinges on it, that so deeply disappointed me in this novel. Maybe I’m being a bit harsh. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read, for example. The end is predictable after a point, but you still want to get to it (NOTE: I slightly changed my assessment of this when i got to the end and found it was the worst and most unbelievable bit of this terrible improbable dirge of a thriller). But being a good idea poorly executed in some ways makes it worse. And it almost put me off me whole crime genre. For a book this mediocre to have had so many prizes thrown at it – how shit do the rest of them have to be?

One other thing. Why does she never, not once, SPOILER ALERT try not to fall asleep?

Rating:
In a tweet: You’ll wish YOU had terrible anterograde amnesia!

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Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

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When everybody else is raving about a book I do love to prove them wrong, but sometimes that’s just not possible. This was a genuinely enjoyable, thoughtful thriller that kept you guessing right up to the end and was highly original in its execution.

I suppose these questions stormcloud over our marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Nick Dunne awakes on the morning of his fifth wedding anniversary to find his wife has disappeared. He knows they haven’t been getting on. Her diary reveals that she was afraid of him. That he could be cruel. And Nick has secrets to hide. So what did happen to beautiful, amazing Amy?

The novel is beautifully paced and the voices of Nick and Amy are convincing and distinct. Extraneous details act as colour to their relationship and also excellent red herrings, and the narration chillingly paints a convincing picture of the very cruel, very legal things that two people in a relationship can do to one another (emotionally and psychologically, not in a 50 Shades way), before the mystery even occurs. But also, you end up rooting for some surprising people, for some surprising (and sometimes disturbing) reasons. Probably the best thing about it is the way we see two conflicting sides of the story, and knowing that we’re reading a crime novel, our efforts to figure out the twist, to see how or whether he did it, actually leaves us open to easy manipulation.

It’s impossible to discuss the book in too much detail without giving away the ending and the twists, which everybody bangs on so much you’d definitely feel short changed. However, I did feel that towards the end it got a bit too deus ex machina for my liking, especially when it had started off so insidious and domestic. But seasoned thriller readers are probably much happier with the old familiar improbable resolution, so I am willing to let that slide. And crucially, it didn’t get in the way of enjoying what was an excellent, chilling, intelligent read.

Rating:
In a tweet: Jonathan Franzen meets Donna Tartt. In a good way.

Review: Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton

It starts with a Click, and George Harvey Bone is walking with no idea of where he is or what he’s doing.

It was a noise inside his head, and yet it was not a noise. It was the sound which a noise makes when it abruptly ceases: it had a temporary deafening effect. It was as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had suddenly become dim and dead. And yet he was not physically deaf: it was merely that in this physical way alone could he think of what had happened in his head.

This confusion, disjunction and disorientation serves as a framework for the novel as a whole. George has fallen in with a bad crowd, and spends his days getting drunk in various Earl’s Court pubs with a variety of shady characters in an effort to impress the beautiful, cold-hearted, slatternly Netta. But Netta is only interested in George for his money (of which he has very little, but more than the rest), his tenuous connections to an acting agency, and the opportunity to use him as dogsbody. The novel’s action is a litany of tiny acts of humiliation, all at ‘poor Bone’s expense. Little does she know that in his ‘dumb moods’, as these fugue states are termed by the gang, George’s sole impulse is to free himself of Netta – by killing her.

Participating so closely in George’s consciousness, we can’t help but desire Netta’s death, too, sharing his desperate idea that if she could only be got rid of, George could leave and go to Maidenhead – the childhood town he holds up as a talisman of better times. Hangover Square toys with our ideas of a thriller, and of a villain. It is also held up as a classic ‘pre-WWII’ novel, capturing the essence of the tension and bleakness of the months leading up to war in 1939. Various characters flirt with fascism including Netta (who is aesthetically attracted to it more than anything else – and in that she has some interesting parallels with Jean Brodie) and her occasional lover Peter. But it is not a schematic metaphor for the failures of appeasement and the advent of war. Whatever George does, whether he follows the path of peacefulness and submission, or violence and anger, he is damned. Maidenhead is a lost idyll, an unattainable ideal, that George will never be able to return to.

It is a hard read, often unpleasant, but it is not the hopeless dirge a novel with this kind of story could so easily have become. The writing is fantastic, atmospheric and encourages you to keep working at the character: one chapter ends ‘He felt his way down the stairs – slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.’ I’ve heard varied accounts of how realistic a portrayal of schizophrenia or split personality disorder Hamilton manages, but I found it singularly realistic in its warped logic and fixation.

What also struck me about is how relevant (is that a horrible turn of phrase?) this book remains to the London of today? Earl’s Court is perhaps not the den of iniquity it once was, thanks mostly to its notorious conference centre that just means that lost-looking tourists are constantly clogging up its incredibly confusing tube station, but this vision of a no-man’s land of a lost, unemployed underclass trying to get on with their lives in the shadow of an impending war certainly rings true in 2012. With the UK’s shocking levels of unemployment, its withdrawal of state support (particularly in areas of mental health) under the guise of Big Society, and the government’s struggle to create a coherent identity for Britain – Olympic good-time city, financial capital, cracking-down on corruption with Leveson while turning a blind eye to the never-ending banking crisis – it seems to have plenty of say about the country’s split personality 70 years on, and the pressures it places on a still unacknowledged, downtrodden section of society.

Earl's Court: still kind of a shithole.

Rating: 
In a tweet:
 Slowly, staggeringly, blackly, cleverly.

Death Kit by Susan Sontag

Not an enjoyable novel, perhaps, but a thought-provoking one. Sontag is known for her criticism and philosophy, and it would probably be fair to say that she has a certain cult appeal among adolescent literature students that’s based more on a love of precocious grey-bestreaked intellectuals with exciting love lives as it is an interest in her actual criticism. I guess that probably includes me. Until picking this up in a charity shop over New Year I didn’t even realise she had written novels, and the idea of something as potentially pulpy as a thriller (as this edition was classifying itself) was pretty intriguing. Unsurprisingly, this isn’t your average high-octane Michael Crichton.

Dalton  ‘Diddy’ Harron is your average 33-year-old American bachelor, with a reasonably good job promoting microscopes, an apartment in the city, and an innocuous charm that means he gets on with everybody without really knowing anybody. Or, in Sontag’s words, ‘Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives.’ For he is also barely recovered from a deep depression culminating in a suicide attempt. Taking the train to New York for work, he strikes up a flirtation with a blind girl in his carriage, and while they are stopped in a tunnel, he goes out to investigate and kills a railway worker. These two bizarre events become the points around which Diddy’s world rotates, as he tries to unpick why he killed the railway worker, whether he will fall under suspicion, and whether it even happened – Hester, being blind, can neither confirm nor assuage his fears. The writing is, as has often been described in reviews, very Kafka-esque – Diddy veers between perplexity at his own actions and paranoia at being discovered. Similarly, the difference between dream and reality becomes increasingly blurred as he shuts himself and Hester into a suffocating apartment in which vision becomes increasingly unreliable and is certainly no guarantee of truth.

I’m in two minds about this novel. It’s a thriller without any real thrills. The murder occurs relatively early on, and we’re not so much worried about whether Diddy should have done it, or whether he gets caught, as what the point is supposed to be. That seems to me to be the driving force behind the novel – what are we getting at? The ‘visual’ imagery – Diddy’s job working with microscopes, Hester’s blindness, the constant juxtaposition of vision and insight – sometimes seems to be heavy-handed but does feed into this constant question. It is more a rumination on philosophical issues, conveyed through a novel, and I think approached from that attitude, it’s much more successful than if you try to approach it as an entertaining or diverting read. As a narrative, it becomes rather tedious, but Sontag has loftier ambitions. However, it does mean that it’s quite hard to argue with more frustrated reviews like this one on Goodreads, or this from a contemporary New York Times reviewer, who complains that the novel ‘skips, shuffles and snoozes’ over philosophical notions of reality and perception. The revelation at the end isn’t much of a surprise, and if I’m being honest, was something of a relief.

Rating: 
In a tweet: Diddy is tired. Diddy is tiring.