I do not use the word ‘literary’ lightly. If one is expecting car chases and rock-’em-sock’-’em action, one will be highly disappointed. No, this is a psychological book full of quiet terrors, surrounded by incidents so mundane that the average person can’t help but identify. This is of course the point. Your life? Mine? Opened up and spread across the cold metal dissection table? What would one find, if one looked closely enough? In this world of six-degrees-of-separation, who can say they have not met someone at a party, sat next to someone on a bus, bought cheese from someone, had their hair styled by someone, even perhaps been friendly to, even perhaps loved, a person with whom the shadowy offices of global surveillance would take exception. A file would be started. I shouldn’t be at all surprised if there’s one on me.
Consider the irony if one had dedicated one’s life to the research of East Germany’s Stasi as has Jeremy, our narrator. It’s that sort of a puzzle-book.
The narrator’s first person voice is perfect (I’m quite baffled by reviews here that say otherwise) — in part because it has exactly the right tone for an academic who’s spent a long time in Britain, but also because Jeremy is someone a tad bland, and deeply flawed. He’s also prone to long moments of introspection, passages I adored for their thoughtfulness and Jamesian interiority. It’s a risky choice in a world where readers are accustomed to narrators more prone to action, and written with a high ‘likability factor’ in order to please their publishing house’s sales team. I applaud Flanery for making it.
There is a great review in the Guardian of this book, which in part reads: “One of the pleasures of reading Flanery is the tussle between ways of understanding the shapes of stories and language. He mixes, to quote an interview he gave, “expressionism, symbolism, surrealism” into what he calls “critical realism” – he writes realist novels which show their awareness that realism is a self-conscious form like others. Reviewers have described his novels as thrillers, which is never quite right – but there are parts of the story that stand out as thrilling, next to other parts that are meditative, and others that are psychologically baffling. Readers are constantly seeking to work out what sort of writing they are reading. For instance, many of the chapters end with the kind of statement – ‘As you will see, I had things to find out … ‘ – that suggests the construction of a thriller and doesn’t quite fit with what has gone on before.”
Approach this book not as a thriller, although as the Guardian says, there are certainly thrilling moments, but as a compelling psychological exploration of privacy and the imposed lack of it, might mean to a life. Any life. Even yours.
I received this book from Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.