I came to Snap as a bit of a fan of crime novels. They are escapist, often wildly improbable, but often quite good fun and when done well, offer some insight into quirky characters. Snap, despite the gushing comments on the cover, is a decent read but it is nothing terribly remarkable.
Bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Marie Wilks murder, Eileen Bright breaks down on the hard shoulder of a west-country motorway, leaves her young children in the car, and heads off to find an emergency telephone. An hour later, the kids set off in search of her and find the phone cord dangling.
There’s a bit of back and forth from 1998 – the year of the disappearance – and 2001 when Inspector Marvel, formerly a murder detective from London, rocks up in a provincial police station and is tasked with investigating a spate of burglaries.
Many coincidences later, Marvel finds himself on the hunt for Eileen Bright’s murderer.
On the plus side, there is a good mystery scene set up quite early on – we have the police investigations; Jack Bright, aged 14, trying to support himself and two younger sisters in a house full of mice and newspapers; and Catherine While, a pregnant woman who disturbs a burglar… The various strands of story interweave and one or two of the characters (well, Jack) shows some sign of developing complexity.
But on the minus side, the writing is a bit wooden, and the balance tips too much towards tell and away from show. Most characters are not given the space to develop any complexity; they are like characters in a Carry On film with their individual tic or prominent trait, but with nothing behind it. Apart from the murder three years before, nobody has any backstory.
The mystery is resolved at about the halfway point and the second half of the book is about collecting the evidence. There’s not much suspense. The whole thing relies on some police making very stupid calls, on coincidences of the highest order and a killer who operates with no apparent motivation. And just like so many killers in crime novels, this one uses a murder weapon that is unique and easily traceable – and the case is ultimately solved using information that was available to the police at the time of the murder.
None of which goes to make this a bad novel. It zips along. It is good fun. This reader, at least, was pleased to go along with the journey even when things got a bit preposterous. But billing it as something exceptional; putting it forward for literary prizes; dissecting its plot is unfair to both the author and the reader. It simply can’t live up to the hype, and was never intended to.
The Water Cure is set on an island in a post-apocalyptic near future. Three sisters, Grace, Lia and Sky live in a health spa hotel with their mother and King, their stepfather. Their guests are all damaged women, seeking cures from the sun and radiation and other horrors of the mainland. The radiation has not reached the island, offering the family a refuge from the horrors of the real world.
And one day King dies. And three men arrive from the mainland. And mother disappears.
This feels like a transposition of a 19th Century Irish manners novel into another era. The sisters might as well have been living in the big house, an Anglo-Irish family refusing to fraternise with the servants and sheltering from the growing rebellion outside the gates. The girls are expected to engage in all sorts of treatments and cures - the rituals and manners of the aristocracy - to protect them from the coarseness of the men in the fields. Then, in the season of their debut, they are expected to transform from children into wives.
And just like the manners novels, we find ourselves thrown into a maelstrom of sibling rivalry; we find the blend of excitement and terror at being cut loose into adulthood; we find power games between young women and red blooded men.
For the first section, before the men arrive, the narration switches often between Lia and Grace - with some sections narrated in third person - and it is intriguing. This, to be fair, is the time when it still seemed we were in a dystopian future and the novel was to be about the world that had been created rather than a character study supposed to reflect a universal and severe family. Then, when the men show up, the pace changes and the line between fantasy/dream and reality blurs. The narrative focus shifts only occasionally and the pace slows to a crawl - ironically since the characters seem to do a lot of running around for its own sake. There is a really repetitive feel; it is stated over and over again that the sisters must not touch the men for fear of contamination, yet still they are driven to touch. By the end of this section, it is no longer terribly clear what is happening at all; there are violent thoughts and violent acts but it feels pretty directionless. The ending is the pretty much inevitable conclusion that everything has been slowly working up to.
I am sure some people will like this book. Read at a simplistic level, it could be taken as a battle of the sexes. The isolation of the women could be seen as a uber-feminist kind of utopia - except that the women don't seem happy with it and still live under the shadow of King. And I am sure some readers will be able to find a climate change angle to fit with their world view. Maybe I wilfully read this to fit in with my fascination with Irish politics. So maybe it is a bit of a universal truth template just waiting for readers to overlay their own personal agenda.
The trouble is, as a template it is probably a bit of an imperfect, forced fit. And in its own rights, it is all a bit confusing and unevenly paced.
Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an unnamed young woman living in an unnamed part of Belfast (probably the Ardoyne), some time in the late 1970s.
By way of context, the intensity of the killings in the early 1970s – especially the civilian deaths – had subsided; there had been population movement and people had retreated into small, “safe” pockets exclusively populated by people of the same political tradition (which was also generally correlated to people’s national identity and religion). Both unionists and nationalists still thought they could win the war through armed conflict, and the political voice of Sinn Féin had not yet come to the fore. The Hunger Strikes were still a couple of years into the future and most people could remember a time before the British Army was deployed to assist the civil power…
So the novel is almost a love story set in this quite specific time period. Our narrator lives in a Catholic enclave of North Belfast. She reads 19th century novels while walking, which marks her out as a bit odd. Her maybe-boyfriend is a car mechanic from another unspecified Catholic district of Belfast. She is from a large family, four-ish brothers and three sisters and Ma. Da is dead.
Our narrator talks to herself extensively in a colloquial Belfast voice that hinges on repetition and over-explanation. It is a sarcastic voice, cynical about the sectarian conflict and the motives of those who engaged in it. She narrates in euphemisms: the Sorrows, Renouncers of the State, Defenders of the State, the country across the water, the country across the border. People are second sister, the real milkman, chef, the tablets girl, Somebody McSomebody. Similarly places are not names and although most are recognisable – the reservoirs and the parks is Cavehill Road; the ten minute area is Carlisle Circus; the usual place is Milltown cemetery – the euphemisms allow liberties to be taken with the geography.
The resulting text is very dense, often circular (at the very least non-linear) and pretty intense. It is like Eimear McBride crossed with James Kelman.
The story is one of personal love and personal tragedy set within a dysfunctional society. Our narrator wants to be with maybe-boyfriend, but is admired by Milkman (a senior ranking paramilitary) and Somebody McSomebody (a wannabe paramilitary – was this a time before spides?). In a world where normal law and order does not operate, where law is made by the paramilitaries and is mutable, where whispers and innuendoes constitute evidence, this is a dangerous space. Our narrator knows the perils and even the most mundane activities – jogging by the reservoirs, buying chips, learning French, winning a scrap Blower Bentley supercharger – can be fraught with danger. Her quirky narration and eccentric world view manage to create deliciously black comedy from these dangers.
Milkman is a timely novel. This period of the late 1970s has been largely airbrushed out of both world and Northern Irish history. Nowadays the Republican movement has been rehabilitated. They are seen to champion human rights and to lead the equality agenda. Its history is seen to be the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other. Their community justice is seen to have been a viable – almost legitimate – alternative to the RUC and the state agencies. It is often almost assumed that those who lost their lives (apart from in the early 1970s) had been “involved”. But what we see is a violent society with kangaroo courts based on self-interest and hypocrisy, arbitrary expulsions, witch hunts, suspicion. Paramilitaries tyrannise their own communities but the communities seem to lap it up. Each fresh atrocity is just casually dropped into conversation.
More than anything, our narrator, her family and friends needed stability and predictability. What they got was the law of the jungle. And we know from history that they had 15 more years of this ahead of them before the first signs of the re-emergence of normality.
Of course all this is viewed from a nationalist vantage point but we can safely assume that the situation was mirrored in the loyalist community across the road.
And Milkman is also relevant to current developments as we start to see the emergence of an anti-political movement based on extreme and ill-planned actions. Brexit as a response to immigration and crime. Walls and travel bans and flip-flopping between nations and leaders being best friends and beyond the pale.
If Milkman has a failing, it is that the meandering narration can frustrate the reader. There are few natural pauses, there can be a feeling that we have already covered this ground, ideas and phrases repeat. But they do add up to a work that is strong enough to carry the frustration. Milkman is a mature work that does say something new (or at least say it in a new way) in a field that has been ploughed often before.
From a Low and Quiet Sea is a difficult book to categorise. Is it a novel? Is it stories? Does it matter?
In this case, I think it does.
Most novels have a clear narrative arc. There is a beginning where we are introduced to characters and situations, then there is a quest where someone is looking for something, and then there's the end - usually when that something has been found (a happy novel) or irredeemably lost (a tragic novel). There will be a major plot development at exactly half way through, and mini-changes at one and two thirds of the way through. It makes for a satisfying, if somewhat predictable pace.
Sometimes great novels depart from the formula in spectacular style. But attempting this is a gamble; it can make a novel feel tricksy and badly paced. Despite some brilliant writing at the sentence level, I fear that Low and Quiet Sea is a bit of a busted flush.
Basically, we have three stand-alone stories.
Farouk is a man fleeing an unnamed war-torn country by boat in the Mediterranean. Probably Syria, but possibly Libya. This is written in a highly stylised manner, conveying an exotic culture and working as a proxy for a different values system to the anticipated reader. It feels quite like Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, but dealing with the journey as much as the before and after.
Lampy is a man who might be quite bright, but his ambition exceeds his prospects and right now he is driving a bus for an aged care facility in the West of Ireland. He lives at home with his mother and (possibly senile) grandfather and spends his time trying to find the woman of his dreams.
John is a wealthy accountant who speaks in religious tones but who seems to have had a pretty earthly life.
In each of the stories, the focus is on the character with details unfolding slowly to create a ruler picture. Each is written in a quite distinctive voice with perfect tone and a poet's attention to detail. Truly these are gems. And they represent about 80% of the book.
Then, there's a final section that follows three women - the breaks between these three sub-narratives is intentionally un-signposted. From these narratives, we see how the three male characters fit together (and they don't fit together terribly much, if the truth be told) and we see enough external perspective to make us reassess (although not completely revise) our estimation of the three male characters. This section is terribly hard to follow; the reader has to have pretty close recall of the earlier sections and hold a lot of oblique references together to really create a map of how everyone fits into the somewhat scant story.
The conclusion, at least for this reader, is that this is a work of technical brilliance and innovation, but one where the pace and balance feel all wrong. Yes it is enjoyable, but it's not that satisfying. So how do you score a book that has probably achieved the author's objectives completely, but where the author's ambition does not quite coincide with the product the reader desires? If ever there were a case for three and a half stars, this is it.
When we first meet George Washington Black, he is a field slave at the Faith Plantation, Barbados. The Plantation is taken over by Erasmus Wilde, a cruel and vindictive master who treats his animals with more respect than his slaves. Thus begins a well-told but fairly routine slavery+cruelty story. Then Washington’s fortunes change when Erasmus’s brother Christopher comes to stay. He is an idealist and inventor; he needs an assistant to help him build a giant balloon in which he hoped to cross the Atlantic. He is invited to live with Christopher, to call him Titch, to eat fine food and speak his mind. Wash struggles to accept these freedoms, perhaps mindful that they only exist as long as Titch is prepared to let them exist. Then a paradigm shift and we are with Titch and Wash aboard a trading ship plying its way to Virginia. The captain and medic seem somewhat nonplussed to have given refuge to an obvious runaway slave. We have a historic maritime novella, reminiscent of Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea or Ian Maguire’s The North Water. It is well done and there is a sense of menace and tension. Then we have a stay in Arctic Canada looking at marine life. Then on to Nova Scotia where Wash finds romance but lives in fear of recapture. Then to London, trying to engage with Titch’s aristocratic family. Then to Amsterdam. Then to Morocco. [BEWARE - POTENTIAL SPOILERS] This is a plot driven novel with vivid detail. Esi Edugyan evokes four different worlds in vivid colours. But, the story never quite convinces. The characters don’t have a great deal of depth despite having plenty of action. Even Wash, the narrator, really just feels like an everyman. The main characters all do things for no obvious reason. Why does Cousin Philip shoot himself? Why does he visit Erasmus at all when he has such an unhappy history with the man? Why does Mr Wilde pretend to be dead? Why did Titch walk away from Wash? Why did John Willard keep trying to track Wash when there was no longer a bounty to be had? Why would Erasmus place such a large bounty on a slave in the first place when he thought them no more and no less than livestock? The shifting across different worlds also produced what felt like several different stories with several different atmospheres – almost like David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with only the slenderest of threads to hold them together. And given the issues of character motivation, each subsequent section became slightly diminished. The final section, England (although much of it was in Morocco) felt confusing and didn’t really provide the resolutions it set out to achieve. This doesn’t make Washington Black a bad book. Much of it is compelling, visceral. It is never less than readable and the progression from Barbados to the sea to Canada to England to Morocco is innovative for a 19th Century historical novel. There is something steampunk about the ballooning; the slave section is as good a slave narrative as any; the journey at sea is rollicking. There is an air of menace and tension through much of the novel - although this starts to dissipate in Nova Scotia and is gone by London. There is a sense of how a black person might have fitted in to various different communities. There are questions about the nature of freedom, particularly when bound by societal expectations, station of birth, and the threat that freedom might be taken away. But there is an abiding sense that this has fizzled after a really stunning first half. How does that all stack up? Being generous, perhaps four stars.