Stephen King (www.stephenking.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
It’s a daunting thing, sitting down to write a review of a full-length Stephen King novel, for someone who hangs on every word the man has ever written. The problem is that remaining objective – reviewing the work at a remove, as it were – is next to impossible. Regular reader(s) of the blog will know that that isn’t the type of blog I run and will, I hope, forgive me a little hyperbole here and there as I work through the monster that is King’s latest novel, 11.22.63.
The title of King’s latest novel is a reference to one of those dates that lives in the global consciousness as a day that defined the world in which we live. It may take a person a moment or two to parse the significance (especially since it appears in the US format of month, day, year), but it will come to them eventually. It is, of course, the date of the assassination of John F Kennedy, the 35th President of the USA. King’s premise is simple, a question that most people have pondered at some point: if you could go back and change it (save Kennedy, assassinate Hitler, etc.), would you?
Jake Epping is an English teacher in a small Maine town. When the owner of the local diner – a man Jake knows only from eating regularly in his establishment – calls him and invites him to the diner, he reluctantly goes. Al has aged overnight, a process exacerbated by the cancer that is killing him, cancer that he did not have the previous evening, when Jake last saw him. Al spins a tale – a hole in time in the pantry of his diner that will take Jake back to September 1958, a visit that, no matter how long Jake spends there, will only take 2 minutes of 2011 time – and asks Jake for his help: go back to 1958 under an assumed identity, get a job, kill time for five years, and be in Dallas in 1963 to stay the hand that slew Jack Kennedy.
11.22.63 is pure King, from that familiar Down East accent, to the cast of characters that will become your friends during the course of the novel’s 700 pages, to that slightly off-kilter world that always leaves this Constant Reader slightly uneasy. No-one can tell a story like King can. In effect, this is a novel of three parts. The first section deals with Derry in late 1958. It took me a while to realise – even the tell-tale “There was something wrong with that town, and I think I knew it from the first” bypassed me initially – what King was up to here, and why Al’s “rabbit-hole” came out in September 1958, rather than sometime closer to the date of Kennedy’s assassination. It was the name Norbert Keene that did it for me, the owner and manager of Derry’s drugstore; this is a city in the aftermath of the events of King’s earlier novel, It, and King uses this to his advantage, infecting a key character with the evil in which the city is drenched, and giving Jake a reason to be there for Hallowe’en 1958. King introduces some of the key players from It into the events of this novel, cementing the history of that fictional town in place. Jake’s description of the city is spot on:
On that grey street, with the smell of industrial smokes in the air and the afternoon bleeding away to evening, downtown Derry looked only marginally more charming than a dead hooker in a church pew.”
When Jake finishes his work in Derry, he moves ultimately to the small town of Jodie, Texas where he becomes a part of the community and falls in love with one of his colleagues, the new school librarian, Sadie Dunhill. It is here that Jake first decides that he might not want to return to 2011. It is, in his own words, when he “stopped living in the past and started living.” This love affair, of course, is fraught with peril for the man from the future, and King proves once more that no other writer puts their characters through the mill with quite as much élan as he does.
The final section of the book deals with the run up to November 1963, and follows Jake as he watches Lee Harvey Oswald, attempting to close what he calls the “window of uncertainty” on whether Oswald was a lone shooter. As we move toward the event itself, King has a decision to make as to whether this was the case, or whether one of the many conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s death provides a better version of the truth, and it is interesting to see which road he chooses. Here, King is firmly in James Ellroy territory, and it shows in the tone of the narrative, even though 11.22.63 contains a more complete form of prose, a language that is unmistakably King. This section of the novel is littered with real people, and King does his best to make them his own, a sometimes difficult proposition with people as infamous as these.
King has been very clever with his method of time travel, building some important rules into the process: the rabbit-hole always takes the traveller to the same time on the same date, so there can be no jumping back and forward through time when things get hairy. Time passes as normal in 1958 but, regardless of the duration, the traveller will only be gone from 2011 for two minutes. The most important, perhaps, is that each visit affects a reset, and any changes made during a previous visit will be lost. These three key rules play important – and sometimes devastating – roles throughout the novel.
To make matters more difficult for Jake, the past becomes almost a sentient being. It is, Jake tells us, obdurate, and it also harmonises with itself. What this means is that, as Jake starts to move through the Land of Ago, we start to see connections between otherwise unrelated characters or events – characters that share the same, or very similar names, or faces, or personalities. We also come to see quite early on that the real city of Dallas and the fictional Derry are almost one and the same, with the same underlying malice defining them both. The obduracy is something that Al warns Jake of before his first trip, but it is Jake who discovers that the bigger the change, the more difficult it is to make. The past, we come to see, does not want to be changed, and this fact leaves us worried – if not outright frightened – of what Jake will face when he tries to change one of the world’s most defining moments.
As with most of his novels, it seems that King finds it impossible not to drop self-references in to see who is paying attention, or to give Constant Reader a little thrill that they are getting more for their money than a King virgin (he has been doing it as far back as the early Castle Rock novels, seeding references to The Dead Zone into Cujo, for example). As always, it seems King is having immense fun with these “Easter eggs”. How about the late ‘50s red and white Plymouth Fury in the parking lot of the mill, the first car Jake sees when he steps back in time? The whole first section which seems, at first, to be a twenty-fifth anniversary tribute to one of King’s most divisive novels? There’s even a sly reference to The Dark Tower, when Jake sets eyes on a car called a Takuro Spirit, echoing Eddie’s observation in that alternate, Captain Trips-raddled version of Topeka, Kansas. And a tip of the hat to Ellroy’s own masterpiece in the form of a rogue FBI agent by the name of Dwight Holly.
As you would expect from a man known for his love of pop culture (he had a regular column in the American magazine, Entertainment Weekly, called “The Pop of King” which he used to talk about books, films, music, entertainment in general), the attention to detail he applies to late-‘50s/early-‘60s America is second-to-none. Everyone smokes, and it’s the first obvious sign that Jake is in a world of a long time ago: the smell of tobacco smoke is ever-present, and there are very few characters who don’t smoke during their interactions with him or, at the very least, have a pack of cigarettes close to hand. King is careful to avoid anachronisms, but the world he has created is made more real by what we see around us – the products for sale in the shops, the cars on the roads, the very pollution being pumped into the air. It’s obvious that 11.22.63 required a massive research effort, not just in getting the details of Oswald’s movements right, but also in reconstructing the pop culture of the era. King takes it in his stride and the result is a world that feels as real in 1958 as it does in 2011.
King, a native of Maine, has an obvious love for the place and one of the things he does well is ensure that the reader is there, breathing the air, eating the lobsters (or, in this case, the Fatburgers). He knows the people and their foibles, and he wants the reader to know them, too. The most important outward aspect of this is the accent, and as always, he takes some time to ensure that what you’re hearing in your head is the same as what’s coming out of the characters’ mouths:
‘Key’s inside the front door.’ Doe-ah.
And the ever-present
Reading a King novel is often like sitting on a park bench with an old-timer, listening as he spins his tales and spreads his gossip, and 11.22.63 is no exception. It’s a powerful novel, King’s considered answer to the question “if you could change it, would you?” What it boils down to, though, is that the events leading up to that fateful day play second fiddle to the more important personal relationship between Jake Epping, known in the Land of Ago as George Amberson, and Sadie Dunhill. But King is a man who enjoys unsettling his readers – it’s something he does very well, so why not? – so you can expect the course of this love to run not exactly true, as it comes up against the force of the obdurate past.
11.22.63 is the latest in a long line of masterpieces from a writer who, at the age of 63, is still at the top of his game, and still producing mammoth works at the rate of about one every year. It is a beautifully-imagined and wonderfully written story that will appeal to a wide range of readers. It’s easy to dismiss King as a “horror writer”, but horror is only a small fraction of what he has produced in a career spanning almost 40 years; it’s easy to forget that the man responsible for one of the masterpieces of modern vampire fiction – ‘Salem’s Lot – or the mother of all post-apocalyptic fiction – The Stand – is also the brains behind Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile. It’s also easy to forget, reading as much as I do, just how brilliant a writer he is when I’m not reading him. 11.22.63 is a solid reminder of the fact that no-one tells a story like Stephen King does. A perfect read, more than deserving of its place on my Top 10 of 2011.
Photograph © Kate Eshelby
Name: SIMON LELIC
On the web: www.simonlelic.com
On Twitter: @simon_lelic
Simon Lelic burst onto the crime fiction scene in early 2010 with his, frankly, stunning novel, Rupture, the story of a police officer’s investigation into a horrific school shooting. At the beginning of 2011, he followed up with The Facility, the timely tale of a secret government facility used to house suspected terrorists, people arrested with no apparent justification and spirited away without the benefit of a trial. His third novel, The Child Who, published in January 2012, is perhaps his best yet, and deals with the aftermath of the brutal murder of an eleven year-old girl by one of her classmates, as seen through the eyes of the solicitor hired to defend the murderer.
Simon comes from a journalism background, and currently runs his own business. I’m very happy to welcome Simon to Reader Dad for our inaugural interview, especially since Simon’s The Facility was the first book reviewed on this blog.
Thanks for joining us Simon. I’d like to start by exploring how much your background in journalism has helped/shaped your writing. Your books are all ripped from the headlines – school shooting; the war on terror; murdered schoolchildren – and I would be interested to know what the decision process is around what to write next, and how much influence current affairs has on the process.
Thanks for inviting me, Matt. In answer to your question, it’s certainly true that I have a drawer stuffed with newspaper clippings. Also, that a newspaper article – about a US college professor who shot one of his colleagues – was what gave me the nudge to start writing Rupture. The Facility, on the other hand, had its roots in a dissertation I wrote at university: the war-on-terror link evolved in the writing. With The Child Who, I had for a long time been pondering a novel on the subject of a child who kills, but could not, until I heard an interview with Jon Venables’s former solicitor on the radio, see a route in. So the ideas for each of my novels came to me from different directions. I don’t consciously scour the headlines – but any idea that does settle is far more likely to engage me if it chimes thematically with current affairs.
Your writing is lean and gripping, similar in tone (if not necessarily content) to James Ellroy or David Peace. I imagine it’s a difficult style to work with and maintain. How does it affect from what angle you approach a story?
Thank you, first of all, for drawing such flattering comparisons. I suppose the ‘leanness’ of my prose stems from my experience in journalism: where the onus is on brevity, on getting your point across succinctly, on not using two words where one will do. But it is also the style of writing that comes most naturally to me. And, so far at least, I’ve felt it suited the type of stories I’ve told. The project I’m working on at the moment is slightly different. It’s very early days in terms of the writing, but I know already that a shift in style will be necessary.
Your books all, at some point, hold up a mirror to British society and show us for the gore-hungry fiends that we can – collectively – sometimes be. I’m thinking particularly of the News of the World headlines from The Facility or the repeated phrase – "He goddamn nearly raped her" – and the discussion of that phrase early in The Child Who. Was this a conscious decision, and do you feel that it’s a fair representation?
I suppose what all of my novels so far have in common is an approach that asks readers to question what are often instinctive reactions. The gore-hungry headlines are what grab our attention, and they often represent the point of view that’s easiest (least uncomfortable) to accept. Reality, of course, is far more nuanced. We all know this; yet still, in spite of ourselves, we indulge our baser instincts and buy in to what the moral ‘majority’ would have us believe.
For your latest novel, you have moved into somewhat darker realms than before, dealing directly with the murder of one child by another and the aftermath of this terrible crime. You’re the father of two boys. Did you find this had any effect on the writing of the story: any parts where it particularly helped, or particularly hindered with the writing process/story?
I did not enjoy writing The Child Who – not, at least, in the way I enjoyed writing my first two novels. The Child Who deals with subjects no parent wants to have to think about. The loss of a child, for one thing. Also, what can happen when we, as fathers and mothers, fail. But it worked both ways. Being a parent was what made it hard, but it was also what made the subject feel so important. And that’s crucial, for any writer. The axiom is to write about what you know – which is right, I think, so long as you recognise that ‘knowing’ about something essentially means whether you can feel it.
Bookshops seem to have some difficulty categorising your novels, and I have seen them shelved under General Fiction, Crime, Horror. How would you best describe your work?
I had the good fortune and immense pleasure recently of talking to David Mitchell (a literary hero of mine, who gave me a great review of The Facility), and he wondered whether my publishers were attempting to brand me as a ‘dark, genre-bending’ writer. He mentioned it as a warning, in that branding can be something of a one-way street, but I decided I quite liked this description of what I do. If a bookseller is kind enough to stock my books, I’m happy for them to shelve them wherever they like!
What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?
I’m not sure I’m best placed to answer this question, but I can certainly tell you the contemporary writers I most admire. David Mitchell, for one – see above. Also, Don DeLillo, Hilary Mantel, Rupert Thomson and, a recent rediscovery for me (about whom you and I have exchanged quite a few tweets recently), Stephen King. Above all, though, it has to be Cormac McCarthy. I find his style so compelling that I have to ban myself from reading (re-reading) his novels until I’m between drafts.
And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Devastatingly simple, but dazzling in so many ways.
What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Simon Lelic look like?
It’s a bit of a mess, unfortunately. We have two boys, as you say, and another baby on the way. I also run my own business, so writing for me is squeezed in between emails, phone calls, school/nursery runs, more phone calls . . . you get the picture. I was asked in a recent interview how my ideal writing day would be structured and I got slightly carried away in the word count answering. It involved several naps, I think, and a beach-side walk. Also, lunchtime drinking . . . so perhaps, for my publisher’s sake, I’m better off sticking with the phone calls.
And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?
Be disciplined. Be patient. Be your own harshest critic. Be a better reader. Be persistent. Be lucky. Be nice to your wife/husband/partner/dog. Be wary of what advice you follow.
What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?
As ever, I have several books on the go. Some are research for my next novel, but for pleasure I’m reading Patrick Ness’s The Knife of Never Letting Go. I’ve just finished his A Monster Calls, and was completely blown away by its beauty (of the book itself, in fact, as well as the tale). The Knife. . . is a slightly different prospect, but so far equally compelling.
Would you like to see any of your novels make the jump from page to screen? If so, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?
The rights to Rupture have in fact already been optioned. The latest draft of the script is terrific, and as far as I know there is now a hugely talented director on board, so I have everything crossed. But my agent is a former film producer and has fully prepared me for the length of time these things tend to take. I’m not counting any chickens.
And finally, on a lighter note…
If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?
I’d tip a whisky or two into Cormac McCarthy’s pint glass, in the hope he might let slip a few of his secrets. If he was particularly careless, I might even be tempted to nick few sheets from that manuscript just sitting there in his saddlebag . . .
Thank you once again, Simon, for taking time out to share your thoughts. Best of luck with The Child Who, and the forthcoming addition to the family.
As the end of the year approaches, I have decided to break from the straightforward review posts that have populated Reader Dad to date, to do a brief round-up of the year’s reading, including my Top 10 of 2011 and my Most Disappointing of 2011.
If you have checked out my newly-added Reading List section, you will know that I have been recording everything I’ve read since 2003. My reading year runs from Christmas Day to Christmas Eve, because I like to have the decks cleared in time to enjoy the influx of new books that Christmas typically brings for the avid reader. By the end of this reading year, I will have read 62 books, which is my best year “since records began” (my current read, Stephen King’s 11.22.63 is likely to take me the rest of the week to complete). Of those, eight are 2011 debut novels for the authors in question. A further two are the first novels by established foreign authors to be translated into English. Twenty-two others are the first books I have read by their respective authors, and the rest are a mixture of favourites both old and new.
The focus of my reading this year has been on crime fiction, with over half of the books read falling into that genre, or one of its many sub-genres (including those books I have been categorising as “thrillers” for want of a better description). Holocaust/war fiction, science fiction, horror and westerns have all featured, and the list even includes a non-fiction title.
There is only one criteria for the lists below: for the book to be on the list, its first official publication date must have been between 1 January and 31 December 2011. For this reason, a couple of my favourite books of the year haven’t made it on to the list, but deserve honourable mentions nonetheless. Stephen King’s Full Dark, No Stars is a collection of four beautiful novellas to rival his earlier Different Seasons, which gave us “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption” (source of Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption), “Apt Pupil” (and the film of the same name) and “The Body” (upon which Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me is based). Thaisa Frank’s beautiful Heidegger’s Glasses tells the tale of an underground compound filled with scribes whose sole purpose is to respond to letters addressed to people who have been killed in the Third Reich’s concentration camps. Using original letters, and with a cast of sympathetic characters, it’s an excellent and extremely touching novel. Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, which was reissued by Hesperus late in 2010 is a must-read for anyone that enjoys to read. Simon Lelic’s third novel, The Child Who, won’t be published until early January, so you can expect to see it on my 2012 list.
The following lists are in reading order, as I can’t imagine how I would be able to rate them against each other. And, chances are, an extra one or two have snuck in. Hyperlinks will take you directly to my review (where it exists).
MATT’S TOP 10 OF 2011
SANCTUS by Simon Toyne (HarperCollins)
Once you start, you’ll just have to keep going until you reach the end, and this book gave me more late nights than I care to remember, always with the mantra “just one more chapter” on my lips.
A stunning debut, a dark and terrifying crime/horror/dark fantasy novel that will appeal to a broad spectrum of readers, and a book that cements Simon Toyne firmly in my own personal must-read list. On April 14th, make sure you get your hands on a copy; you won’t regret it.
THE DEMI-MONDE: WINTER by Rod Rees (Quercus)
The Demi-Monde is a well thought-out and fully realised steampunk universe, with echoes of Neal Stephenson’s THE DIAMOND AGE and Tad Williams’ OTHERLAND series. The novel, like most of Stephenson’s work, is huge in scope and contains a vast cast of characters, many of whom are plucked directly from the history books.
If author and publisher can maintain this standard for the rest of the series, THE DEMI-MONDE should become the cornerstone of a steampunk revival.
PLUGGED by Eoin Colfer (Headline)
Colfer has produced the perfect rollicking mystery. In tone, it’s probably closest to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels or Scott Phillips’ The Ice Harvest, and I would recommend it to fans of both. There is comedy gold here – and Irish readers in particular will find more than their fair share of inside jokes – but the book is also plenty dark, and you’re never quite sure what’s waiting around the next corner.
It strikes me as a brave move for a man famous for his young adult fiction to branch out in a direction that is completely inappropriate for his usual audience, but with Plugged that move has paid off for Eoin Colfer.
OUTPOST by Adam Baker (Hodder & Stoughton)
In all, Outpost is an assured debut, and a welcome addition to a fine sub-genre of horror. Fast-paced, dark and unpredictable – Baker’s not afraid to put his characters through the mill, or kill them off for that matter – it’s exactly what I expect from a good horror novel. There is plenty of stiff competition in this area of fiction – Stephen King’s The Stand and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song being two of the best – but Outpost is a worthy comer that will have no trouble standing up with such fine company.
BEAUTY AND THE INFERNO by Roberto Saviano (MacLehose Press)
Let’s not forget: this is a man who has given up any chance of a normal life – he is surrounded by bodyguards twenty-four hours a day – to let people know what is happening to his country. Anger is the most prevalent emotion here, but this is far from the rant that it could well have been.
Beauty and the Inferno is a tough read, but an important book that deserves an audience; Saviano has sacrificed too much for this book not to be read. It’s a good thing for him, and for the English-speaking world, that publishers like MacLehose Press exist and thrive, and bring such important literature to a wider audience.
KILLER MOVE by Michael Marshall (Orion)
Killer Move is an unconventional thriller, like the rest of the Marshall back catalogue. Darkly funny at times and disturbing and graphic at others, it treads a fine line between straight crime and straight horror, while never actually fitting exactly into either genre. Bill Moore begins life as a despicable human being, self-centred and worried only about how everyone else views him. But as his story progresses, and we watch his life fall apart, we’re suddenly in his corner, fighting his fight. It’s because the scenario Marshall outlines is so plausible and so topical: what if someone got hold of your various ecommerce and social network passwords and started to change peoples’ perceptions of who you are? Would we even notice before it was too late to do anything about it? The Internet in general and social networking in particular has made the world a very small place. But it is arguably – in Marshall’s mind at least – a darker and much more dangerous place: we never really know exactly who it is we’re talking to or why they might be interested in us.
THE SISTERS BROTHERS by Patrick deWitt (Granta)
Hidden behind Dan Stiles’ beautiful and striking cover is a surprising and wonderful piece of fiction. At times hilarious, at others grim and noirish, The Sisters Brothers is the perfect novel for people who like great fiction, regardless of genre – don’t let the fact that this is a Western put you off, if your preconceptions of that genre are coloured badly by those old John Wayne films. Living, breathing characters and a razor-sharp plot make this an instant classic up there with Lonesome Dove and Deadwood. It’s also one of the best books I’ve read this year.
REAMDE by Neal Stephenson (Atlantic Books)
Thriller is certainly a good description, but it’s much more than that, and so much more intelligent than what immediately springs to most peoples’ minds when the word is mentioned. It’s surprisingly fact-paced for a book its size, and Stephenson manages to maintain the reader’s interest for the duration – an astounding feat in itself. My first thought was that a book about Islamic terrorists was a strange topic for Stephenson to tackle, but it’s no stranger than anything else he has chosen to write about in the past. His work is definitely an acquired taste but, in this reviewer’s humble opinion, it’s a taste worth acquiring. A thousand pages is a big commitment to make in this fast-moving world, but Reamde is worth every second. This one is, hands down, my book of the year.
THE HOUSE OF SILK by Anthony Horowitz (Orion)
Horowitz does a fantastic job of keeping all the proverbial balls in the air, creating a perfectly-plotted set of mysteries, and a more-than-satisfactory set of solutions, while all the time maintaining the spirit of the original stories.
The House of Silk is a must for all fans of Sherlock Holmes. Pitch-perfect characterisation combined with a complex and involving plot leave the reader in no doubt that Holmes – and the spirit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – are alive and well in the form of Anthony Horowitz. For anyone who has never read Holmes, this not a bad place to start; there is nothing here that requires previous knowledge of the characters, although those who have read the Holmes stories will surely come away with a much richer experience.
JULIA by Otto de Kat (MacLehose Press)
In the end, love does not conquer all and nobody lives happily ever after. Julia is a bleak and oppressive love story, mirroring the environment in which the love was born. It’s a beautifully-constructed mystery disguised as a literary novel which uses the oldest trick in the book – the unreliable voice – to catch the reader off-guard and take his breath away. In a wonderful translation by Ina Rilke and the usual high-quality packaging that we have come to expect from MacLehose Press, Julia is not to be missed.
IT may seem premature to include a book that I have yet to finish in my list of the best of the year but, at over halfway through I’m completely captivated by the story, and loving being transported once more into the world of Stephen King. The tips of the hat to King’s earlier classic, It, have only helped to cement this, for me, as a brilliant novel.
AND THE MOST DISAPPOINTING OF 2011
Because there was some talk on Twitter early in the month about balancing the “best of the year” with the “most disappointing” or “worst” of the year, I’ve decided to do just that. Anyone reading through the posts on Reader Dad will most likely spot immediately which book didn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’m being kind and calling it my “most disappointing”:
THE OBELISK by Howard Gordon (Simon & Schuster)
A great start leading to an ultimately poor debut for a man from whom I expected so much more. It’s an equally disappointing show from Simon & Schuster who could have improved it immensely if they’d only read it and provided feedback. If you’re tempted, save your money and pick up an 24 box set, where you’ll see Howard Gordon at his best.
In the coming weeks, look out for my review of Stephen King’s 11.22.63 to see if it warrants its position on the Top 10 *ahem*. Reader Dad’s first interview will also be appearing around the turn of the New Year, so check back to see my chat with one of my favourite authors. I will also be posting reviews for a slew of novels due for publication early in the New Year, so will be kept busy reading over the Christmas break.
It just remains for me to thank my regular reader, and everyone that pops in from time to time, for your support over the past ten months. I’d like to thank the wonderful publishers and publicists who have taken a punt on a newbie and provided me with some excellent review material. And I’d like to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Prosperous 2012.
|THE CHILD WHO
Simon Lelic (www.simonlelic.com)
Released: 5 January 2012
Earlier this year, in the inaugural post on Reader Dad, I noted that Simon Lelic, after only two novels, is an absolute must-read author. His third novel, the tense and ultimately heart-breaking The Child Who is released in January, and is, to my mind at least, his best work to date, and surely one of the top books of 2012.
Leo Curtice is a solicitor who spends his days dealing with drunk and disorderlies, an unchanging, soul-destroying routine that ends when he takes a phone call and finds himself defending a twelve-year-old boy, Daniel Blake, who has been accused of murdering a schoolmate, the eleven-year-old Felicity Forbes. Leo jumps at the chance, seeing it as a career-making move, ignoring the advice of everyone around him, not seeming to grasp the fact that the tabloids will paint him as a villain, a man willing to defend the murderer of a child. As the case proceeds, and Leo develops a rapport with the young boy, he fails to acknowledge the strain his actions are placing on his family. His daughter, Ellie, is attacked in school and quickly becomes an outcast, her friends deserting her because of what her father is doing. When Leo and his family are threatened, he tells himself it comes with the job, nothing to worry about. But Leo is heading towards disaster, an event that will change his life, and the lives of everyone around him.
As with Lelic’s previous two novels, the strength of The Child Who is in the characters, solid chunks of humanity that evoke real reactions from the reader. The story is told from the point of view of Leo, and it is through this means that Lelic builds suspense. There is no omniscient narrator here, despite the third person narrative, so we learn things as Leo does, and we only ever know what he knows. Each of the characters with whom he interacts – his wife and daughter, Daniel Blake and his parents, the head of the detention facility where Daniel is being kept, his colleagues, friends – comes fully-formed and in three dimensions, real people that we come to like, or to hate, or to meet briefly in passing, as we do during the day-to-day course of our own lives.
Lelic has his finger on the pulse of how Britain thinks, the tabloid mentality that grips the common man when these horrific events occur:
He goddamn nearly raped her. This is what they all kept coming back to, as though rape were as bad as it could get.
The second chapter of the book repeats the phrase “he goddamn nearly raped her” and the reader, like Leo, is stunned that this is almost bigger news than the fact that he killed her, as if the fact that this young boy took this young girl’s life is not enough to satisfy the bloodlust of the nation.
The Child Who deals with a shocking subject matter, and does so head-on. This is a story grabbed from so many newspaper headlines over the course of the past decade and beyond. Lelic adds a human element through an examination of the impact this terrible crime has on everyone involved: the family of the victim; the young murderer who cannot quite comprehend what he has done despite what the law says of his culpability, and his family; and, unusually, the family of the solicitor hired to defend this murderer, a man who will do everything he can for his client, because that is his job.
Lelic displays a keen mastery of language, his turns of phrase unusual, but immediately evocative, much more effective at planting images in the mind of the reader than verbose descriptive passages:
[…] pupils were beginning to appear in the playground below. There was a boy, alone, rummaging in his rucksack and weaving towards the entrance. In his wake whirled a gossip of girls.
Much like the guards tacked to the common room walls, the boys all wore smart shirts and trousers […]
The Child Who starts slow, the tension building as the story moves forwards and Leo loses himself in the case at the cost of his family relationships. When disaster strikes, it does not come as much of a surprise to the reader, because we have a little bit more distance than Leo. From there Lelic works his way towards the book’s final paragraph, a masterstroke that, I’m not ashamed to admit, brought tears to my eyes and a lump to my throat, the most effective and impactful ending to a novel I have read in a long time.
I have said it before, but I’ll say it again: Simon Lelic is a man to watch, a must-read author, the real deal. The Child Who is a powerful and heart-wrenching thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat and drag you, emotionally, into the thick of the plot. This is, without doubt, Lelic’s finest work to date. It is a showcase for a man who is the master of his art, a skilful plotter, and a writer who proves that, when it comes to language, spare can be beautiful. A stunning novel from one of the finest writers working today. Not to be missed.
|THE CLUMSY GHOST AND OTHER SPOOKY TALES
Alastair Jessiman, Anna Britten, David Blake, Roy McMillan, Edward Ferrie, Margaret Ferrie, David Angus
Read by Sean Barrett, Harry Somerville, Anne-Marie Piazza, Roy McMillan, Thomas Eyre
Naxos Audiobooks (www.naxosaudiobooks.com)
(Available as a CD audiobook or digital download)
I have, for a long time, been a fan of horror, cutting my teeth back in the ‘80s on anthologies edited together especially for younger readers by the likes of Alfred Hitchcock, and the novels of Christopher Pike. From there, I graduated to the novels of Stephen King and the rest, as they say, is history. I still have a fondness for those old novels and anthologies and like to revisit them when I have the chance. I was offered a copy of Naxos Audiobooks’ The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales for review and jumped at the offer, seeing a chance to relive those parts of my childhood that cemented in place my love for reading.
The Clumsy Ghost is a collection of seven specially-commissioned short spooky tales written specifically for audio presentation, and to appeal to an audience of 8-13 year-olds. According to publisher Nicholas Soames, the plan was to recreate a genre of ghost stories that appealed to the whole family, in the vein of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost or Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
What they have produced is something of a mixed bag; as with all anthologies, some entries are stronger than others. Some of the entries will appeal specifically to the younger members of the family, while others are aimed at the higher end of the 8-13 year-old range, and one or two appealing to the whole family group – mum and dad included. The title story is a comedic tale about a ghost who decides to haunt a local mansion whose owners have fallen upon hard times. The ghost, a clumsy man in life, discovers that he is no less clumsy in death, and ends up causing trouble for the family, rather than helping them. “Unable to Connect” puts a very modern spin on an old-fashioned tale. A teenage girl hears her mobile phone ringing, even though she has left it at home, and discovers shortly afterwards that her mother has died at around the same time.
The strongest stories in the collection are “The Weeping Tree” and “The Book of Imhotep”. Margaret Ferrie’s “The Weeping Tree” is good old-fashioned horror story, with one scene in particular that will send a shiver up the spine of even the most hardened reader of horror. “The Book of Imhotep” takes us back to Egypt and a battle of wits between a cocky young prince and a long-dead sorcerer.
Overall, the stories are good, if not always excellent. With some, it is clear that they have been written specifically for audio presentation, while others have been written with a more traditional slant, and would not be out of place between the covers of a physical book. These stories provide chills aplenty, but are not designed to give nightmares, and in that they should succeed admirably (admittedly, I’m 36 years old, so the intended audience may see things slightly differently).
The two-disc set provides around two and a half hours of family entertainment the old-fashioned way, with nary a television set in sight. The readers are consistently wonderful – Sean Barrett is the stand-out here – and all well-suited to the stories they read. Naxos are best-known for their wonderful recordings of some of the finest classical music out there, and they have managed to incorporate some of this into the production, so expect to hear music from Debussy, Elgar and Rimsky-Korsakov, amongst others. The Clumsy Ghost and Other Spooky Tales should be essential Hallowe’en or Christmas listening for families who like to spend time reading together, and should provide children with an introduction to the much wider world of horror fiction.