We are all fractured. We all have secrets. We all carry other selves, other times and places. The present is never unbroken and never all that there is.
In this stunning novel, newly translated into English, the great, glorious, Bob van Laerhoven (better known in the rest of Europe than he is in the English speaking world) explores the fracturing of minds in its limit case.
It is set, compellingly, in the French front in World War I, trench warfare, tunnel warfare, hunger, death, mutilation. It has two central characters. The first, Denis, is a military doctor, who wants to specialize in psychiatry. The other is his patient, The Mole, a unknown man found unconscious and near to death in a freshly dug tunnel.
Nobody knows who he is. He doesn’t know who he is. The military authorities are ready to write him off as a deserter or an enemy but Denis is convinced that his story is deeper than that, and for reasons of his own becomes obsessed with uncovering this. Who is the Mole? Why is he here? What is his story?
The working out of this question takes the reader through stories within stories. The Mole does not speak but he writes. He writes of other times, other lives, other sorts of conflict in a time decades previously, inhabited by historical figures in the history of psychiatry. He writes also of other planes of existence. He believes that he is dead, and that another being inhabits his corpse. His story is fantastical and yet full of real secrets.
Everything is broken in this story. Through world war I, the old world which figures in some of the Mole’s writing is crumbling and never to return. The present is an explosion of nightmare. Bob van Laerhoven, who has written as a travel writer from many modern conflict zones, is unflinching in his description of the horrors of this time. Human beings are being torn apart. Those who survive will never be quite whole again. Loyalty, morality, aspiration: all are being stretched until they shatter.
And the two central figures are themselves embodiment of the fracturing of human beings. Both men are broken and mutilated by war, both physically and mentally. Both are also split apart for older, more personal reasons, buried nightmares, buried secrets. As they confront each other through the meticulous working out of the many twists of this story, the reader is also confronted by their own fragmentation.
It is an almost overwhelming read. It closes but cannot heal the wounds that it uncovers.
Thank you Coffee and Thorn Book Tours for both an electronic book and an audio version of this extraordinary book.
I have to be clear to you, but please don’t stop when you’ve read this sentence: this is a book about a ghost who doesn’t know he’s dead, who wakes up and rekindles a relationship with a green eyed ex-girlfriend.
I’ve recently turned down several requests to review ghost stories because of the tired old cliches that they tend to summon up. I particularly dislike “romance across the barrier of death” stories – love, yes, oh yes, inescapably, heartbreakingly. Whoever lost someone dear and didn’t know THAT? But romance? Something about it makes me queasy: cheap sentimentality. And I have a general veto on any book which has a heroine with green eyes. In my experience it almost always indicates lazy writing, and I can’t be doing with it.
So this book had an awful lot of obstacles to get past before I seriously considered it.
It overcame them.
And then it romped through my head and my heart until I felt overwhelmed.
I’m pride myself on being quite a hard nut. I find cynicism much more comfortable than sentiment. I’m not given to being overwhelmed. But this is a quite remarkable book. The writing is exceptional. The premise – which seems so simple at the start – is complex and intricate. Where I expected cliches I found extraordinary insights and novel constructions of an almost possible world.
Despite the girl with green eyes (other colours are available, authors, and please, you can tell us your heroine is interesting/mysterious/feisty without this trope) this isn’t at its heart a romance. It’s a book about the love of an older brother for a younger one, a love that cannot be crushed by anyone’s death. It’s a book about what it means to make terrible choices, terrible mistakes, and to live on after them, or not. There are moments in this book that made me shudder, moments that made me clench my heart because they were almost unbearable. Other moments that were lyrical and made me smile.
Seriously, this is a beautiful book.
Thank you Black Coffee Book Tours for introducing me to a book which I will treasure.
OK, 4 stars for a good story, well put together, compellingly written and some great characters. Lets get that over with. Well done Eliot Parker, nice book.
This wasn’t what really intrigued me though.
This dark and twisty police procedural goes to some unexpected places. I don’t mean the succession of murders, the possible witnesses disappearing, their mutilated bodies to be found later in suitcases – that’s stuff one expects in a story like this, and the author does it just fine.
Likewise the hardbitten “good cop” whose personal life is on the skids and who isn’t too bothered about breaking some rules along the way – that’s quite a cliché of police procedurals of too.
Even the corrupt cops, the bad apples in the barrel, who our good cop must root out – that’s a situation familiar from the genre, and there are some of these – shockingly inserted in the narrative sometimes – driving the plot of this novel.
But in this novel I’m seeing something darker.
From a sissy European perspective, the problem in this force isn’t just the presence of a couple of singular psychopaths or fallen angels to drive the plot. No, the apple barrel here is pretty rotten all the way through. (I’ve definitely read that storyline before, but only in newspapers, not in fiction. It happens, in Europe too, though it’s not the stuff that police procedurals tend to go for.)
And here our “good cop” – the one we’re supposed to be rooting for, seems troublingly corrupt herself. She’s also rather too broken to be working in that role. She is on the edge of being invalided from the force because of work-related damage; she realistically isn’t up to the job physically and she’s putting herself and others at risk because of it. She’s not really up to it emotionally either, feisty though she is. Her judgment is self-evidently clouded and as she stumbles through other cases, preoccupied with a personal one about her missing delinquent brother, which she isn’t even supposed to be investigating, her mistakes are dangeous ones.
Sometimes she’s in trouble for it, like when she tries to cut an illegal deal with an imprisoned suspect in exchange for some information about her brother – wrecking the underlying case for the cops who are supposed to be dealing with it. Other times it doesn’t even put her in trouble – she beats up a shackled suspect to get information from him, while another cop looks on – and reading this account I didn’t even pick up a sense of raised eyebrow. It’s done pretty dead-pan, no sense of judgment. I was pretty much left thinking – and I’ll be relieved if the author corrects me – that this was all supposed to be vaguely all right. The guy had her brother’s credit card after all. He probably deserved it. All in a day’s work.
It’s America of course.
It’s Cleveland, Ohio. So what if a suspect gets beaten up? That’s small fry in a city famous for killings by police. Real people I mean.
Tamir Rice, 12 years old, 2014
Antonio Levison 33 years old 2017
Jeffrey Findlay, 30 years old 2017
Bret Luengo, 33 years old 2018
Thomas Yatsko, 21 years old 2018
Mark Shepperd, 27 years old, 2019
Arthur Keith, 19 years old, 2020
Desmond Franklin, 22 years old,2020
Trayvon Johnson, 20 years old, 2021
Innes Lee Cooper, 25 years old, 21
That’s the same Cleveland police force as our feisty and fictional heroine here. But the list above isn’t fiction. And none of the cops who killed them went to jail. Almost none were even charged. Most of them are still working in the force.
You know what I think about America. I may have to stop reading American novels. Guess we have to be grateful that our good cop just beat the suspect up, and didn’t shoot him. Or kneel on his neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds. She’s not all bad, after all.
“a man should die not too early or too late. A man who dies early never reaches his potential, while a man who dies late will become a mockery of himself.”
“Even our gods can die”.
Despite my love of Dark Books (wherein death or the possibility of it is always a privileged McGuffin), I live in a culture where my own future death is a rather remote, hypothetical thing. I know I will die, just as I know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the square of the other two sides, but I know it with about as much immediacy or interest. It’s ineluctable and I do believe it, but it’s not something of any relevance to my life. ‘Life’ is all there is, and I’m living mine as if death weren’t at the end of it – almost as if it’s not happening to anyone I care about, either.
I only thought about the above, because this is a book where the opposite is true. It is historical fiction about people living in a conflict-ravaged island off ancient Britain, where death – frequently violent – is everywhere. This is one of the few realities that can be detected with some confidence from the archaeological record of this time (I gather there are plenty of weapons and rather a lot of violently damaged skeletons) and it is foundational to the fictitious world that this archaeologist author has created. It is a remarkable book. In a sense, the whole story is an exploration of what it must be to live in such a world, with so much death. JTT Ryder describes a world in which tribes vie with each other for the scant necessities of life, resulting in a great deal of slaughter, amplified by a parallel vying for revenge, for a glorious memory, for honor, leading (in turn and tragically) to yet more slaughter…
Our lives in the world are short – their philosophy seems to say – but our lives in memory can be long. Let death be welcomed if it comes with honour. And since death is always imminent, let it be something as much to be managed and worked towards as one’s next meal or cattle raid. Let it be a currency whose value accrues to the capital of one’s tribe , whose endurance is significant in a way that one’s own life isn’t.
Occasionally, reading this, I thought it was preposterous. “Yes”, I thought, “the powerful in any society can treat other people’s lives as cheap – human sacrifices in this story are made as pragmatically as a libation of wine – but no one can see their own life that way. Is not human consciousness universal and is not its core the urgent materiality of surviving, being alive, sharing that experience with loved ones, relishing their presence? Isn’t that the survival instinct? No culture could ever so obliterate this, that personal death or the deaths of friends would become trivial. This is absolute.”
Then I stopped. I thought of how, within a generation of my own tribe, that material centre of identity and relationship has been progressively displaced by a quest for an immaterial Instagram or Facebook life, a curated narrative only loosely linked to physical reality. Real experiences – never perfect – can be sacrificed for the sake of getting the perfect image of an experience. Real friendships may pale beside an implausibly heroic tally of ‘facebook friends’ or ‘twitter followers’. And my physical self is definitely inferior to my photoshopped selfie: she’s the real me, I tell you, she’s the one that matters. So as I tick the boxes to determine what will happen to my digital identity after my physical death, I should remind myself that human identity is a response to the circumstances in which we live, is molded by changing technology, is an artifice.
Who knows what the people of 200BC really thought, really felt? The subjectivity that the author creates may be entirely incorrect, but in the face of everything we can deduce about the period, it is at least plausible. I found it intriguing to let this author lead me into the imagined mindset of this. He has clearly researched it with great meticulousness, and I was convinced by it. If you love history, you will love this story for the authenticity of its research; if you love anthropology, you will relish this portrayal of a mindset and a social order.
To be fair, I was less engrossed by the story – or rather, I felt it rambled rather formlessly, and since it wasn’t to be structured by much depth of developing relationships, then it needed more structure in its plotting from ‘coming of age’ to ‘old soldier telling his story’. I itched to give it some more brutal editing, (oh for goodness sake, cut down those repetitive battle scenes! I get it: they had a grizzly fight and lots of people died. Couldn’t he just tell us who won, what significant characters karked it, and get on with the story…?) But my preferences are eccentric so I won’t punish the author by taking away a star. I am the cynic who has yawned and checked my watch through the fight scenes of all the best action movies, while the rest of the audience was so transfixed that they didn’t even notice me stealing their popcorn. No doubt plenty of readers will love the battle scenes in this book. If battles are your thing and you like them ‘vivid’, you will be deeply rewarded.
Dead No More, by Pete Adams and Alejandro’s Lie by Bob van Laerhoven
Both of the books I have read this week feature disfigured women. They are – let me make clear at the outset – very different books. Dead No More, by British author Pete Adams, is an eccentric and fanciful crime story, cut through with family drama and surreal comedy. Alejandro’s Lie, by Flemish author Bob van Laerhoven, is a serious, heavyweight political thriller. I would struggle to make any comparison between them, except in this one feature. Perhaps it was this that brought the parallel to such sharpness in my mind. Juliet and Beatriz – sharing nothing in narrative style or genre or personality, but both beautiful, disfigured women at the beating heart of the novels they inhabit.
Juliet is already disfigured at the start of Dead No More – the victim of historic injury, sustained in an horrendous accident which has killed her parents. We are told that this disfigurement “troubled others when they first met Juliet, and she was mercilessly ribbed by her school friends, not that she had many of those; scarred people were convenient pariahs, still, even in these politically correct times.”
What is unusual is that this the novel does not stop there. It does not render this disfigured young woman as a tragic victim. Her disfigurement does not exclude her from an active part in the drama, does not condemn her to sacrifice. “Juliet had developed a strength that was her armour; a thick skin would be too cruel a description… but her superior intelligence defied the appearance of the crushed and repaired skull; there was strength in this girl”. And she is not only strong and a survivor: she is also tender and feminine. She has a lover who appreciates her in an uncomplicated way, she is a major player in the drama and gets through the book rather triumphantly and without major mishap.
All credit to you, Pete Adams. Juliet is by no means the only powerful woman in Dead No More, but even in a strong ensemble, she remains impressive. You have done well with Juliet.
Alejandro’s Lie, by Bob van Laerhoven is an altogether more challenging book but it takes a more conventional line with its disfigured female. Like Juliet, Beatriz is a major player in the book though not quite its lead. This is a book full of men, in which Beatriz is the only woman of any significance – unless one counts a teenage girl who is something of a pawn in the story.
At the opening of the book Beatriz is still beautiful – a questing, independent woman who has escaped from a sterile, crushing marriage. Her ex-husband is a powerful figure in the brutal corrupt Junta in which the book is set, and Beatriz is now toying – perhaps as something of a privileged dilettante – with the resistance movement that is challenging it. Through that engagement, she falls in with Alejandro – a musician who has recently been released from ten years of political imprisonment in a notorious jail. He is a character positioned in a role that requires him to be courageous, loyal, strong – but actually he is none of these. One knows throughout the book, and with growing clarity, that Beatriz is the stronger character, and that Alejandro is somehow not worthy of her. And Beatriz – though she does not want to – knows this too.
Yet Alejandro loves her. He is attracted to her beauty.
Feminine beauty is essentially fragile, ephemeral, like a flower. To belong to ‘the fair sex’ is to be on a trajectory where one’s value diminishes every day as the finite currency of youth is spent. For most women the loss of beauty is less abrupt than it proves to be for Beatriz, and the crash course towards extinction that this triggers is less dramatic. But the journey is familiar. Even at the start of the book, before her disfigurement, Beatriz is on the cusp of this disaster. She senses this, as she first contemplates the possibility of a sexual liaison with Alejandro, worrying that she may already be too old to be valued by him. She reminds herself that “she was thirty-two, past it by Terreno’s macho-standards, and shouldn’t want to spoil the contact with the man in her living room, whom she found interesting”. And Alejandro, too, can sense it. Even at the very moment of desire, he notices her “girlish suppleness matured poignantly by small imperfections here and there”. Yes. Poignant.
Her more radical disfigurement, towards the end of the book, arises from an act of torture that a more courageous man could perhaps have halted. “On the floor, Beatriz turned her head and looked straight at Alejandro. It took a few seconds before Alejandro realized that she was not looking at him. He followed her gaze to the counter where Ricardo had carelessly left his rifle. Alejandro only had to take two steps to get it. Her head turned with short jerks on the stone floor. Now she looked at him, with eyes telling everything: please, grab the gun, shoot…” In one of the most excruciating scenes I have ever read in any novel, Alejandro does not do so. He runs away.
Beatriz is left damaged and no longer beautiful, confronting a different life from the one she took for granted. She still has the uneasy love of Alejandro, for what little it is worth, but her disfigurement destroys her as a woman. Throughout the story she has been strong, but now she is stronger. What one suspects however, is that this is not the strength that comes – as it has with Juliet – from the survival of adversity. It is the tragic strength that comes from having nothing to lose. Without beauty, she is devalued. She becomes expendable, to the story, to the reader, even to herself. Perhaps she is even a bit of an embarrassment. Perhaps, just perhaps, the heroic conclusion which the author offers is a bit of a conventional cop out?
Why, meneer van Laerhoven, why? Are you not an author who problematizes conventions rather than bows to them? Did you not notice what you were doing?
You protest. I hear you protest. Not fair! Did I not make Beatriz, at the end, the true hero of the novel? Was her sacrifice not brave, admirable, honorable? Of course it was. In rather the same way, through all my growing up, the lot of the sympathetic lesbian character (a woman as much an afront to femininity as an ugly one) was to be tragic, heroic and ultimately sacrificed. In that role – dead by the end of the novel – she could be rendered acceptable. So it is, perhaps, with the woman no longer beautiful.
But forgive me. This whole meditation is an outrageous abuse of two interesting books. I take one tiny bone out of the skeleton of each of them, and I run around like an excited spaniel, shaking these two bones and tossing them up in the air and catching them again, as if nothing else mattered. Forget the above.
Both books, in their very different ways, were impressive and moving. Dead No More did not make me think very hard – indeed the reading of it required me, I felt, to suspend most critical thought processes. The plot is very silly. The characters, although beautifully drawn, are mostly a bit preposterous. In a few weeks I will probably have forgotten how the narrative worked out, I will simply remember the eccentric feel of the book, its wanton celebration of diversity, some tender sentiments, and a handful of glorious surreal moments when I laughed out loud. Amnesic or otherwise, I will probably recall some pleasure.
Alejandro’s Lie I will remember forever and possibly wish that I didn’t. It’s a perfectly crafted story and I will remember, I fear, its exquisitely uncompromising detail. It is a book that – Bob van Laerhoven’s trademark – worms itself into the reader’s mind and robs one of compromise. It never made me laugh. It never gave me that sense of triumph that I wanted. There was the moment by moment, page-turning distraction of the thriller plot – What would happen next? How would it end up? But ultimately, behind all that excitement, it was like looking into a well, searching for water at the bottom, wanting a glint of reflected sky, my own face even. Were you teasing me, meneer van Laerhoven, when you ended the book thus: “For an eternity, the lightning clarified everything”? I did not see lightning reflected in any water. As I peered into the well, I never found the bottom of the darkness.
I gave this book to an elderly friend (I’m great on birthday presents – book about assisted dying? Just the ticket, happy birthday!) She told me off. She said it was a very depressing gift, this book about death. Whatever was I thinking of?
I felt aggrieved. Hadn’t she been giving me books about death for the last thirty years? Many of them are celebrated on these pages even! I thought we liked books about death! We do dark fiction – dancing with death is our trademark party trick …. And don’t we love to dance?
Certainly the dark-fiction genres that this blog works to celebrate are choc-a-bloc with death. The inevitable murdered woman at the core of the detective thriller (sexy; if only I could look that sexy!) the many victims of war and crime, (bang bang bang, how exciting and instantly forgetable!), the heroic guy giving up his life to save someone else (shed a little tear), death at the hands of dragons or wizards (way to go!!!), dystopian fiction with its global deaths from war or climate change or pandemic (oops…)
So why on earth should my friend get in a twist about this little novel about more ordinary deaths? It’s not as if we didn’t know, she and I. We’re going to die. We’re not likely to make it, either of us, into any of the thrilling kinds of death listed above, so no one will write novels about us, but we are cast iron certain to feature in a some other sort of death, from age or disease or absent-mindedly crashing our car while out buying groceries. Comes to us all, even, I assume, to the survivors who feature in the books I blog about. (I’ll draw a veil over Jesus – I did review the New Testament once, and his case is disputed, but anyway, all the rest of the people in the books I write about – they may survive till the end of the the narrative but they’re still going to end up dead. ) Even that heroically rescued maiden, all flowing locks and fresh complexion, she’s not going to end where the book ends, on that note of triumph, as she is snatched from the jaws of death by her hero. No. The jaws of death are still chomping in the background, and thanks to all your narrative heroism, she’s going to get wrinkles and a bad back and breast cancer and you’re going to be visiting her in a hospice one day while the drugs drip through and someone tries to deal with her constipation or incontinence…
Those other, uncelebrated deaths are what this book is about. It’s a book about ordinary people, not particularly heroic, entirely recognisable from anyone’s life experience, with lives as interesting as mine and my friend’s, (give or take a little bit), who are confronted with the thing they always knew but didn’t want to think about. I’m going to die. They just don’t want to risk it getting nasty – isn’t the avoidance of a nasty death a reasonable topic for dark fiction? They don’t want to die in pain, or lonely or frightened, too weak to make a decision about anything. They are feisty people, they want to die as they have lived, they want to take the matter in hand. That’s a great topic for a dark book. Dark books aren’t about people who just wait with their eyes closed.
I liked how they thought about it. I liked the business-like team that were working to make available what these characters might choose. I liked the pragmatisim. I liked the various, convoluted ways everyone reached their points of decision. Which might or might not be what we expect. But I do know what my own decision is. Please Mr Kregas, put me on the mailing list. When the time comes, I want to take a cruise. Me and my friend together maybe. That’s a death I could live with.
I’ve crossed paths with this delicious author a few times in my trek through the darker corners of storytelling. Racy pacey fighting books, realistic crime with a suspiciously transgressive sense of justice, some decidedly dodgy horror stories. So Ronin Cleans His Room Like a Ninja, hey? I was expecting to meet some relative of the cool kid sidekick from Her Name is Mercie, probably armed with a similarly oversized rifle-thingy and ready to ‘clean up’ his room the way Nicholas Angel cleans up Sandford in Hot Fuzz or Bart cleans up Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles. There will be broken furniture, I thought, and broken glass…. There will be a explosions…. There will probably be blood….
But no, my friends. Mr Roy has moved into yet darker more dangerous territory this time: the world of small boys’ bedrooms where they leave their clothes on the floor, don’t do their homework, and give a bit too much cheek to their despairing parents.
To this scary landscape Mr Roy brings his usual fighting spirit, humor and energy. And also a coach, in the form of a comfortable looking uncle, not entirely unlike Eddie in the Razor Trilogy, (which this author or may not also have written). (OK, OK, not in the least bit like Eddie in the Razor Trilogy, but I’m scraping the barrel for some continuity here…)
Anyway, if you want continuity you will have to find it yourself, but rest assured that by the end of this little novel, the bedroom is tidy, the homework is done, the small Ninja has learnt a good few life lessons, and is well on the way to turning into just the same kind of self-directed, clean living, responsible MFER as his nice Uncle Razor. Oops, I mean his uncle Max.
This is a great book for boys of a certain age (four to forty-four maybe?) who don’t quite know what it is to grow up – to be their own person, to be strong, to be self reliant – and who might just imagine that it would be much more cool to turn into the local bad boy and trash their world, leaving someone else to clear up the mess. I must remember to give a copy of this book to my nephew. OK, so he already knows these lessons very well and got them the hard way, but I’m pretty sure he’d appreciate the uncle in this book.
Bob Van Laerhoven is a veritable Pied Piper, probably in the pay of the devil. His writing mesmerises. He takes us by the hand, dances around us, amuses us even – such sharp, clever, dialogue, such captivating sentences. Yet all the while, he is leading us away from safety, towards some destination that we did not have to visit, step by step, twisting us round, till our heads spin and we don’t know the way back.
And suddenly there we are, struggling for breath, drowning, like one of his characters, in a dark cold river after incalculable treachery.
These stories have a dizzying, disorienting quality. They are set in real cities, against a backdrop of real events – real wars, real atrocities, a probably-real ashram even – and the people feel real as well, too real for comfort. To that extent. these stories have solidity, a grip at the end of their handshake (yes, it might break your arm…) Yet they are surreal too: psychotic glimpes through a dark kaleidoscope, drug-addled sometimes, always at racing speed. Heart Fever. It’s not a reference to love, clearly, but something more literal – the delirious, feverish quality of a heart in the throes of disease.
So why, Mr Van Laerhoven, why? Did I ask to know what kind of soldier kills a baby? Did I volunteer to enter your nightmare, to roll in your mire of guilt, lust, revenge, drugs, violence, betrayal? Did you think I wanted to know about your sordid ashram, the miserable sexual troubles of your antihero, his inadequacy both as lover and as friend?
Harf harf harf! (That’s Flemish laughter, out of respect for the author). Of course I did. I’ve met this piper before; I know his tunes. I tell you: don’t worry, I can handle them, I can keep myself safe. So play, Pied Piper, play: no one makes music quite like yours. I’m listening, I’m following, I’m enjoying the headlong dance. What better company than all these other rats? What better town than Hamelin? What’s that? A river….?
A fulltime Belgian/Flemish author, Bob Van Laerhoven has published more than 40 books in Holland and Belgium. His literary work has been published in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Chinese… Heart Fever, discussed above, having already been translated into German, Spanish and Italian, has recently been translated into Brazilian Portuguese. Three times finalist of the Hercule Poirot Prize for best mystery novel of the year with the novels Djinn, The Finger of God, and Return to Hiroshima. Winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for Baudelaire’s Revenge, which also won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category “mystery/suspense.”
Well, one of my parents was a dragon, too, so I feel for Dahlia Nite: it is difficult living in the wrong dimension, and having to hide one’s scales and superpowers. One gets misunderstood. I also share her problem with compassion: it’s a curse. The need to save the world as well – another curse. I feel that occasionally too, but then I ask myself, why not leave extinction to take its course? It’s a trope of fantasy fiction that the human race needs to be rescued, but honestly, why? Dahlia seems to think they are worth it, but that’s the young for you – all high ideals and sense of possibility – when she’s my age (she’s not even a millennium yet) and she has to wear cardigans instead of sexy bustiers, and nothing can stop the scales showing through her human clothes, she may see things differently. (Though personally I kept my nerve, even in my youth. I never intervened when the dinosaurs expired – I didn’t lift a finger. If it had been her, she’d have probably have launched in and they’d be stomping around even now.)
I’m letting myself ramble on, to defer the moment when I have to admit that I liked this documentary. I liked it a lot in fact. I found it refreshing – so well observed, so honest. I liked the way one could smell everything – human authors who are just making it up about dragon half-breeds often forget about that, because humans smell almost nothing and when they smell anything at all they tend to dislike it or (worse) feel embarrassed. (That’s probably why they hate sex so much). I also liked the meticulous documentation of the conflict we feel – yes we are lonely sometimes, we long for home, we search for connection. But we’re not averse to ripping out a heart. We also have fierce dreams and we’re not sentimental. And now you come to mention it (oh no, that was me…. Dragons aren’t good listeners) we don’t make very good parents. Though of course the truth is (don’t mention this to humans, they are mysteriously gooey about their immature offspring) we just don’t have very good children. (It’s the way they seem determined to eat us alive. It isn’t nice.)
So Ms Schneider does good PR for the dragon half-breed type. (I’m trying not to mention the name she gives us, because – confession time – I only borrowed the audiobook so I have no idea how she spelt it. Lyrekin? Lirricken? The name we’re really called can’t be spelt with a human alphabet, so I guess she had to think of something). And maybe our time is about to come: have you noticed how ‘feisty’ has become a term of admiration for a woman, and badass L…n are getting everywhere? Books, films, adverts even. Slick clothes, sexy manners… It’s not like the other day, when the L..n in Mr Shakespeare’s play got very nastily put down. (Don’t worry, it was all a show: Kate ate Petruccio after the final curtain. I’m not telling you how she killed him, but she let me have a bit of his skin.)
It would be pretty much impossible I think, for anyone, human or dragon, male or female, to read this book and not lust after Dahlia. Which is only natural, and I don’t think Ms Schneider would mind. I’m definitely not Dahlia’s type so there wouldn’t be any awkwardness about her lusting back. And the glorious murders – no spoilers here, but there are several good ones. You’d think it was inventive if it weren’t a documentary. Ms Schneider wants us to enjoy those too, and I have to say I did.
Good book, Ms Schneider. Well observed. Well put together. I’m glad this exposition has several volumes – just like an old fashioned encyclopaedia, I always liked those and they burnt so well. I shall look forward to the others when they find their way to me.
OK, read it as a horror story if you like and thrill at that: it works well. Bassoff writes beautifully. He’s good at atmospherics. Read it as magical realism, as bizarro fantasy. The eerily perfect surface of the town of Angels and Hope sends the invisible fingers that creep up your spine. The descent into horror territory is surreal, explicit, unforgiving and remorseless. Great dark book.
But none of that is as dark as its subtext – the underbelly beneath the grinning plastic surface of contemporary America. About evangelical communities in love with a pussy-grabbing leader defending police brutality with a lie on his lips and a bible in his pudgy hands. About nice patriotic educated people whose version of Jesus doesn’t suffer little children to come unto him, but bombs them or puts them in cages. It’s a book about capitalism – wealth that turns a blind eye to its origin. About corruption. A book about the glorification of the shiny and superficial. The lie of Walt Disney.
Yes. It’s a book about the pus and poison that lies beneath middle-class America.
The heart of the book is in this passage:
The screaming continued, and they weren’t roller coaster screams. Some of the bystanders covered their ears with their hands. Others turned and walked away. “Somebody is in trouble!” Hardy shouted. “How the hell do I get in?” “There’s no sense in trying.” “Better to walk away, I think.” “These things can’t be prevented.” “We should get back to the rides. What if more paying customers arrive?”
I’m interested in the criminal justice system in America. I write to Senators and Representatives a lot. The people who make laws that imprison the poor for twenty, forty, sixty years, stealing their lives. Rich people in big white houses, who feel it is their smug Christian duty to throw away forgiveness, condemn their brothers, and demonstrate their own superiority by protecting the death sentence. I write sometimes to one charismatically ‘liberalising’ Commissioner of the Department of Corrections of a southern state, a man who goes all dewy eyed about how he accompanies each death row prisoner on his final walk and offers to pray with him, as the white-coated state officials inject him with lethal fluid. That Commissioner clearly wants you to feel that this sanctimonious participation in a dance of death shows what a great guy he is, what a pure, brave, high thinking Christian fellow. (You know who you are, Commissioner. You should read this book.)
“Do you think God watches? Hardy had asked. Do you think he cares? I hope not, she’d said. I hope that, after all of these centuries, God is tired. I hope that he’s given up.”
Bassoff clearly thinks so.
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This review was undertaken as part of a Blackthorn Book Tour. The views expressed in it are entirely my own. (You can share them if you like).