The Boy Who Could See Demons by Carolyn Jess-Cooke

The Boy Who Could See DemonsTitle: The Boy Who Could See Demons
Author: Carolyn Jess-Cooke
Published: First published 10 May 2012; this edition published 13 August 2013
Publisher: Delacorte Press
Genre: psychological thriller, fantasy
Rating: 7/10

People look at me funny when I tell them I have a demon. “Don’t you mean, you have demons?” they ask. “Like a drug problem or an urge to stab your dad?” I tell them no. My demon is called Ruen, he’s about five foot three, and his favorite things are Mozart, table tennis, and rice pudding.

That’s Alex, a highly intelligent, totally charming but very troubled ten-year-old boy. And as he mentioned, he has a demon named Ruen, although Ruen is not quite as nice as Mozart, table tennis or rice pudding. He always takes one of four horrific forms, and while he claims to be Alex’s best friend, he often harasses and terrifies him too. But as a gifted, eccentric child living in an Irish ghetto with a severely depressed and neglectful mother, Alex has no other friends or companions.

When Alex’s mother Cindy is hospitalised after her fourth suicide attempt, child psychiatrist Anya Molokova is tasked with treating Alex. She believes that he may have early-onset schizophrenia and that Ruen is a clear indicator of this. While Alex’s social worker wants to improve his home-life and keep the family together, Anya wants Cindy declared an unfit mother so that she can medicate Alex.

Anya, however, can’t help but drag her own issues into the case. Her daughter Polly suffered from schizophrenia and died as a result. Anya has never gotten over the loss and knows that she needs to be very careful about projecting her daughter onto Alex as an attempt to make up for what happened in the past.

For the reader, the story is a different sort of conundrum, with the primary question being – is Ruen real or not? For the most part, the answer seems to be a definitive yes. Half of the narrative is composed of Alex’s diary, and he gives us a sense of what a serious presence Ruen is in his life, not to mention all the other demons he sees wandering around all the time. Obviously, his POV is deeply subjective and therefore unreliable, but Alex tells us things that about Ruen that suggest he’s real. For example, Ruen takes nightmarish forms that go beyond the mind of a ten-year-old. None of them are pleasant, and even the more benign ones make Alex uncomfortable at the very least. Ruen also tells Alex things that he couldn’t know otherwise, and this frequently comes out in Anya’s portion of the narrative, forcing her to consider the possibility that Alex can really see demons. It might have been more intriguing, perhaps, if Ruen’s reality were more uncertain, but personally I like the element of horror he brings to the novel.

Then there are little details that make you doubt Ruen’s existence, at least briefly. For example, two of Ruen’s forms resemble Alex. As ‘Ghost Boy’, Ruen looks exactly like Alex “only in a funny kind of way: He has my exact same brown hair and is as tall as me and even has the same knobbly fingers and fat nose and sticky-out ears, but he has eyes that are completely black and sometimes his whole body is see-through like a balloon.” When he takes the ‘Old Man form’, he looks frighteningly ancient but he dresses like Alex, in old tweed suits (Alex’s wears the too-big suits he found in a wardrobe in their house; his mother can’t afford normal children’s clothing and Alex seems to like his bizarre outfits). Things like this imply that Ruen is in some ways a reflection of Alex, raising the possibility that he’s just a product of Alex’s imagination.

And Alex is clearly not your average ten-year-old. He’s an amazing kid and a wonderful character. He’s lived a poverty-stricken life in an Irish ghetto, been neglected by his depressed mother, and witnessed her four attempted suicides. He doesn’t hold any of it against her though – he cares about her, and wants to make a better life for her (although this in itself is quite sad, given that he’s only ten). He’s a sweet, independent child with a lively mind. He’s involved in a modern production of Hamlet featuring child actors and he plays Horatio with flair and dedication. I loved reading the diary entries that made up his half of the narrative. The fantasy side of the novel is couched in his POV, which is quirky, funny, tragic, disturbing – all good things to me.

Anya’s narrative is quite different – serious, analytical. It’s not quite as enjoyable, but it’s not bad, giving the reader the realist perspective on Alex’s story. Anya tells us a lot about child psychiatry and her theories about Alex’s behaviour and Ruen’s presence. She tends to dismiss or weakly rationalise what she can’t explain (like how Alex seems to know about Polly) but you can easily see how certain details about Ruen lead her to interpret him as a delusion. She also describes links between children’s mental illness in Ireland and the country’s turbulent history with terrorism. Her belief that Alex needs to be medicated for schizophrenia looks like a serious mistake to the reader – Alex seems perfectly sane and needs decent housing more than drugs – but I didn’t dislike her because she clearly cares about Alex. Her slowly-revealed backstory with Polly also lends emotional weight to her narrative, so that even when you don’t agree with Anya, you can empathise with her.

I like the psychological entanglements of plots like this, but the pace also picks up as Ruen becomes increasingly sinister and demanding. It was a great read… except for the ending.

Up until a certain point The Boy Who Could See Demons is complex and full of uncertainties. It’s a great clash between fantasy and the psychological thriller. I had no idea how it could be resolved, but as I read I kept thinking about possible solutions and twists, happy endings and devastating ones. And, admittedly, I was still quite surprised by the way it turned out. Sadly, my surprise was matched by my disappointment, because the ending takes an otherwise interesting and unusual book and turns it into a tired old cliché that I hadn’t expected to see. I wanted to send the book back and ask for a more daring and inventive rewrite of the last chapter, those few pages where it all went south.

But it is what it is. I think it’s worth reading if you like psychological thrillers, and Alex is a lovely character. You might be annoyed, as I was, that it suddenly fails to be as good as it could have been, but that doesn’t make it a bad book.

Review of The Cutting Room by Mary Watson

Cutting Room_2Title: The Cutting Room
Author: Mary Watson
Publisher: Penguin Books
Published: April 2013
Genre: psychological thriller
Source: Penguin Books SA
Rating: 8/10

Writing a plot summary for The Cutting Room is difficult – the novel doesn’t follow the chronology of its events. Putting them in chronological order for a plot summary feels disingenuous, because that’s not a proper reflection of how the novel feels to me. But all summaries and reviews are inaccurate in some way; keeping that in mind I might as well go ahead.

Lucinda is a cutter. She doesn’t cut herself with blades – she cuts and edits film – but the sense of menace and the hint at harm and self-harm are not to be ignored. For the second time in their marriage, Lucinda’s husband Amir has disappeared. The first time he went to do ‘research’, and left without saying a word to her, only sending an sms to say that he was ok. This time, Lucinda suspects that Amir has actually left her for good, although she has no way of knowing for sure because he hasn’t communicated with her at all. Their marriage had become strained, and Lucinda finds Amir too inscrutable to understand what exactly has gone wrong. Is it her fault, or is it something else?

Lonely and frustrated, she fills her days with work, dinner parties, and nights with trendy, pretty boys at bars in Long Street, Cape Town. Her nosy, paranoid neighbour keeps worrying about how vulnerable she and Lucinda are, as two women living alone in the crime-ridden Cape. Lucinda finds this annoying, but one night she is attacked with a knife in her bedroom.

Trying to get on with her life, Lucinda joins an old friend on his latest project – a documentary about a supposedly haunted house in the small town of Heuwelhoek. She doesn’t believe in ghosts, and yet the house draws parallels with the figurative ghosts in her own life, and the problems that continue to haunt her.

As I mentioned, the actual story isn’t as linear as this plot summary. To read it is not so much to read a story in the traditional sense but to view a collage of characters, relationships and themes. The narrative jumps back and forth between pasts and presents, Cape Town and Heuwelhoek. In the present, Lucinda tries to live a life where Amir – like her own safety – is an uncertainty. When it segues to the past, we see the before and during of their marriage. At times the narrative goes back even further, to Lucinda’s childhood. The haunted house in Heuwelhoek has its own narrative arc, with stories told about the various people who lived there.

In this way, this novel has multiple facets. It’s an intimate psychological study of Lucinda. It’s depicts her understanding of her relationship with Amir. It’s a supernatural mystery with a touch of horror. It’s a tapestry of life in Cape Town, a mixing pot of cultures and histories but also a “Janus-faced city” (17) with its combination of wealth and poverty. It’s a story about intruders, whether they’re criminals breaking and entering in the city of Cape Town, or ghosts disrupting homes and lives.

We never learn when the first scene of the novel takes place, but it sets the tone for what follows. In it, Lucinda sees a burglar on the wall between her house and her neighbour’s. He’s holding a DVD player and a brick. She calls out to him; he makes as if to throw the brick at her, but it’s just an act of mockery and he runs away laughing. In real time this scene would last about thirty seconds, but it takes up several pages as we’re plunged into Lucinda’s interior world. Some of her thoughts are random and a bit silly – she’s impressed that this man jumped onto this high, narrow wall and wonders how criminals train to master their craft; she compares her stereotypically sinister image of criminals with the ordinary person before her; she thinks of how he looks like the Oros man with his big belly and orange T-shirt; she thinks about how much she hates the Oros man “with that bloated rubber dominatrix suit. That sinister smile. His round dead eyes” (3). When her mind focuses on the reality of the situation, she is scared but also annoyed – this man intruded on her Sunday morning and now she’s a witness to his crime. She has been infected by someone else’s problem. It reminds her of a similar, haunting experience as a child. She is, to an extent, in danger, but the burglar uses her vulnerability to humiliate her.

What comes across here are the themes of crime and intrusion, the psychological narrative style in which the story is related, and a brief but illuminating idea of who Lucinda is as a person. The way you can be shamed by what other people’s sins. This kind of detailed interiority makes The Cutting Room a relatively dense, demanding read, but also a rewarding one. Watson’s writing is impeccable: her combination of choppy and run-on sentences mimics the nature of Lucinda’s thoughts, and the details with which she weaves her stories and characters are captivating.

Lucinda is a complex character who I empathised with, admired and disliked all at once. In some ways she’s similar to me – a coloured woman from Cape Town with her fair share of insecurities. Coming from a historically impoverished background and a troubled childhood, she is now sophisticated and financially comfortable, but deeply conscious of keeping up her desired appearances. If she seems cold at times, it could be because she prides herself on being able to be “aloof and unemotional”. When people ask about Amir’s absence, she tries to be nonchalant, never admitting how shamed and lonely she is. I particularly like this anecdote about her cravings for KFC and what it says about her character:

 Lucinda, then approaching thirty, wanted to be stylishly grown-up; she wanted to be sophisticatedly disaffected. The only thing was that every now and then she craved Kentucky Fried with the same intensity that Rapunzel’s mother wanted those radishes in the witch’s garden. She needed the deep grease and she wanted to lick the small bones clean. But she hated going down into the KFC wearing her little boutique dresses – the smell of refried oil absorbed into the expensive fabric and her hair. She felt stared at. Sturvy. So she would slip into an old tracksuit and head down to the Main Road as if in disguise. It became a secret; it just didn’t fit in with the deli and boutique culture she was working so hard at. (41)

“Sturvy”, by the way, is coloured Cape Town slang for “snooty” and its one of the scatterings of slang that Watson has woven into her depiction of the city. She doesn’t explain it, which might be a bit confusing for international readers, but which I thought was great, as explanations tend to distance you from the culture.

Anyway. Lucinda struggles with being alone, not only because Amir has disappeared but because she simply doesn’t know what to do with her time at home. Her work has made her hopelessly impatient:

Lucinda was getting used to manipulating time. She was becoming adept at making it lengthen and contract at will, at the click of a mouse. But it meant that she no longer knew how to wait. That she who had once waited and waited (for Cat to come home from school, for the princess, for her mother to get out of bed, her father to call) had lost the art of sitting something out. Lucinda’s sense of time no longer followed the wise circle of the clock. Instead, it had become a timeline that could be revisited. She could jump from the beginning to the end; she could sever anything that lingered unnecessarily. Except she couldn’t really. And later she realised that she, like software she knew so well, could also play a loop: have one small moment repeat endlessly. To see it relentlessly without reprieve. To know the details, each frame, but to be unable to change even a fraction of a second. (42)

She repeats those small moments by reliving happy memories of her relationship with Amir, to the point where those “comforting memories were worn thin from being taken out and lingered over on too many evenings in with a glass of wine” (14).

It’s quietly tragic, but this isn’t actually a particularly sad book. Lucinda’s narratives – and the book as a whole, in fact – are laced with a sense of menace that elevates the novel from dreary domestic drama to psychological thriller. There are countless details and stories that involve or suggest violence and cruelty or carry the threat of the supernatural – ghosts, witches, the tragedies of the past claiming victims in the present. It’s not something I can properly articulate in the space of a review – the effect is subtle and cumulative, so a few quotes won’t really convey the unsettling tone of the whole.

It’s interesting to note though, that crime isn’t the primary source of menace. Yes, the novel tackles the issue of crime in South Africa, but it doesn’t resort to the relatively simplistic depiction of fearful citizens preyed upon by vile criminals. Rather, crime is one aspect of a more complex consideration of fear in general.

One depressingly memorable moment is when, as a child, Lucinda is walking home with her sister Cat and they hear a woman screaming:

Lucinda thought, rape. Because that was the scariest thing. That’s what they were always warned about. Be careful when you walk home because you might get raped. Don’t go to the caravan park because you might get raped. (44)

Almost as scary as rape itself is the idea that a child would immediately think of rape when she hears a woman screaming. That says a lot about the kind of society that Lucinda and Cat grew up in. But the incident quickly becomes very different: when the woman emerges it’s revealed that she’s screaming for hep for her drowning brother. Lucinda and Cat only stare at the woman in shock, until she runs off looking for someone more capable. Then the two girls just walk on, and Cat immediately starts talking about their library books. Lucinda is more disturbed – was there really a drowning man? Has it got anything to do with the legend of a dead Princess who drowns children in the vlei? She never finds out what really happened and the incident haunts her for years. The unknown is just as threatening as regular crime, at least for Lucinda: ” While she minded gangsters very much, she was more frightened by things she couldn’t see, things that touched a nerve” (54).

The ghosts, whether real, imagined or figurative, cut deeper than any incidents of crime. They are born of intimate, unsettling secrets, they bring personal insecurities into sharp relief, they kindle obsessions. I particularly enjoyed the ghost stories of the house in Heuwelhoek. They raise more questions than they answer, but they get under your skin. As a genre fan I was hoping Watson would make the supernatural horror story a bigger part of the novel. I wasn’t unhappy with what she did, I just wanted more of it, with a more satisfying resolution.

But the book is primarily and Lucinda’s relationship with Amir and the mystery of his disappearance. This is probably not a good choice if you’re looking for sheer story – the book is packed with stories within stories, but the main arc of narrative moves quite slowly and isn’t especially exciting. The appeal lies in everything around the core narrative – the characters, their histories, the writing.

I was captivated, but if I have an any complaints, it’s that yes, the novel does drag in parts. As Watson mentioned in a Q&A with Penguin, The Cutting Room is a very reflective book rather than a typically fast-paced thriller. The challenge was to balance reflection and action. For the most part, I think Watson balanced it very well, not with guns-and-chases sort of action but with gripping stories and intriguing encounters. Nevertheless, Lucinda’s problems start to become tedious in the last third or so and I really wanted to hear more about the Heuwelhoek house instead.

Niggling aside – The Cutting Room is good. Very good. It’s one of the most sophisticated South African novels I’ve read and a classily macabre work in its own right. Recommended.

Best Reads of 2012

This was meant to be a “Top Ten” post, but it turned out to be too difficult to pick ten books. Or rather, there were six books that absolutely had to be on the list, but I couldn’t make up my mind about the other four. My simple solution was to list the six that stood out so clearly. They all made a strong impact on me this year, and when I think of them, the first thing I recall is the wonderful feeling of reading them, closely followed by thoughts of all the things that made them so great.

They aren’t all 2012 publications, but the oldest is still very recent (published in 2010). I’ve listed them in the order I read them, and you can click on the title or the cover to see my review, if I’ve written one.

Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt

Ragnarok by AS Byatt Grove Press

Rich, exquisite writing relating Norse myths and a young child’s experience of reading them.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley
The Rook by Daniel OMalley

This is one of those wonderful books that has everything – humour, mystery, action, weirdness, loads of people and creatures with supernatural powers, and a touch of tragedy. If I was listing these books according to sheer entertainment, The Rook would undoubtedly be at the top.

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

The Habitation of the Blessed by Cat Valente

The only novel that could possibly compete with Ragnarok in terms of writing is this beauty. In fact, I think Valente would win.

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Lies Knives and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge

Gorgeous retellings of fairy tales in the form of prose poems. They’re dark and twisted, full of violence, sensuality, and taboo desire. The writing is both elegant and snarky, and the whole is utterly lovely.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I’ve heaped praise on this ever since I read it. One of the best psychological thrillers ever.

The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth
The Etymologicon by mark Forsyth

Subtitled “A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language”, The Etymologicon leaps delightfully from one word to another, exploring their connections and etymologies. Anyone who likes trivia will love this, and if a friend or family membe or other victim is sitting beside you when you’re reading, you will frequently turn to them with the words, “Hey! Did you know…”

Honourable Mentions…

The following books didn’t have as much of an impact as the top six, but I really wanted to give them a mention in this post because they were great books nevertheless.

Enormity by W.G. Marshall – Marshall takes a weird, silly, and often gross premise of a small, lonely man turned into a 6000-foot tall colossus and crafts a surprisingly engaging story out of it. Great, quirky sf.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – the romance made me wary of this book, but it turned out to be as delightfully magical as all its fans said it was. One of the few occasions  when popular fiction lives up to the hype.

God’s War by Kameron Hurley – unique sf set in the midst of an Islamic war between two far-future post-Earth societies. Excellent writing, an unforgettable main character, an Islamic society  where women rule, and bug-tech.

Railsea by China Miéville I wish this kind of adventure – rather than romance – was the face of contemporary YA. Miéville’s latest is one of his msot entertaining novels, with lots of his characteristic weirdness and wordplay.

John Saturnall’s Feast by Lawrence Norfolk  gorgeous historical fiction for foodies and  myth-lovers

vN by Madeline Ashby – this sf novel has the perfect balance of character, action and ideas, musing on the possibilities and problems of AI as a part of human society.


And that’s that! Here’s to more brilliant books in 2013!

May Round-Up

Considering the fact that I spent most of month either away on holiday or preparing for it, I think I did quite well with my reading – 6 books and one short story.

Things started off badly with the dreadfully dull Strindberg’s Star by Jan Wallentin. Avoid.

Edie Investigates” was a charming eShort from Nick Harkaway. It introduces Edie Banister, a major character from Harkaway’s novel Angelmaker.  She’s a retired spy, now in her eighties, but totally defying all your expectations of little old ladies.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn was perhaps by best read this month, and undoubtedly one of the best new books I’ve read this year. It’s a dark, demented psychological thriller about a marriage, a missing wife, and the husband who’s soon suspected of killing her. A very smart, surprising read, and utterly compelling.

The only thing that could rival Gone Girl as my best read this month is one of my favourite books – Perfume by Patrick Süskind. I re-read it to complete two different reading challenge tasks, and because I’ve been meaning to re-read it for a long time. It’s as brilliant as ever. I’ve seen the movie a few times since last I read the novel, so it was also interesting to note the differences. I also thought it would be a good holiday read for my Paris trip, since part of the novel is set in Paris (albeit a much older and stinkier version). I read the last few pages sitting on the Trocadero, waiting for the light show to start on the Eiffel Tower.

I finished Amped by Daniel H. Wilson last night. I jumped at the chance to review it after hearing all the hype about Robocalypse, Wilson’s first novel. Unfortunately, there’s nothing new or particularly exciting about Amped,  where American society turns against people who have ‘amplified’ abilities thanks to cybernetic implants. Conservatives fear and hate the amps and deem them non-human, leading to terrible oppression and civil conflict. It’s a familiar story, and Wilson does nothing innovative, so it’s average at best. Review to follow.

There are two other books I read this month. The first is Design as Art by Bruno Munari. I bought this and another book on art at the famous Shakespeare and Company in Paris (more on that in another post). This came after a visit to Centre Pompidou, a stunning modern art gallery that left me both awed and confused, hence the books on art. Design on Art has a series of easy-to-read essays that provided a few basic insights into modern art, which I really appreciated. On the downside, some of the essays are little more than lists of stuff rounded off with a minor point that Munari wanted to make about design. All in all, it balanced out to an average read.

I’ve had an eBook edition of The Beggars’ Signwriters by Louis Greenberg for a few months, but when I got the wonderful opportunity of meeting him for dinner in Paris, I wanted to read his book asap! (By the way – dinner with an author in Paris, how awesome is that! And Louis is a very nice guy.) It’s one of those books that’s almost impossible to properly sum up in a few words, and the blurb doesn’t do it justice. It follows the intertwined lives of South Africans living in Melville, Joburg, but also takes us to London, where two artists and a writer live and work for a few years. The novel explores personal relationships and modern art without binding itself to any definitive plot. I’m quite fond of novels that meander in this way, and although there were parts of The Beggars’ Signwriters that I didn’t like as much as others, I found the book as a whole to be a soothing, reflective read. I wanted to talk to Louis a bit more about the book than I did, but in person I’m dreadfully shy about that sort of thing, and I’m not sure if authors are always keen on those conversations… Anyway, no review for now because it was one of my leisure reads and I didn’t take notes, but maybe another time.

I couldn’t sleep last night, so after finishing Amped I jumped right in to what will be my first read for June – Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris. It’s a murder-mystery set in Saudi Arabia, where the extreme social restrictions inhibit the lives of the characters – especially women – and the investigation itself, when notions of honour and propriety come before police procedure. It’s very good so far. I’ve got other good things lined up for June, but more on that later.

What did you read this past month? Anything you’d recommend?

Review of Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Title: Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn 
Published: 5 June 2012
Publisher: Crown Trade, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group
Genre: psychological thriller, mystery
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 9/10

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife Amy disappears. In the lounge are signs of a struggle – broken glass and overturned furniture. Nick claims to have no idea of what may have happened to his wife, but the husband is often the guilty party in these cases, and soon suspicion is cast on him.

Nick and Amy certainly don’t have a happy marriage. Both feel that they’ve become different people since they married, and they’re not happy with the changes. In addition to that, they both lost their jobs, Amy lost her trust fund, and then Nick moved them both from New York to his small hometown so they could be close to his mother, who was dying of cancer. Amy – a New Yorker – was miserable there, so their marriage deteriorated even further. Her diary tells a story of a happy couple becoming dissatisfied, disillusioned, angry and unhappy, and of a woman who feels that the man she loves has begun to hate her.

But Amy is not simply the innocent victim of an insensitive husband – Nick’s side of the story reveals her tendencies to be extremely demanding, manipulative, and egotistical. Both of them have such interesting personalities and it makes their marriage complex, dark and endlessly fascinating. Thanks to this, Gone Girl was an unparalleled psychological thriller, a pitch-black gem that I couldn’t help but admire.

I can’t tell you too much about the plot, as is usually the case with mysteries, but I will say something about the two things I loved most about this novel – its incredible mind games and the brilliant portrayal of a marriage gone wrong.

Flynn does an absolutely superb job depicting the intricacies of a crumbling relationship in all its awkwardness and muted pain. Nick narrates in first-person, relating the current story, while Amy’s diary tells the couple’s story from when they met, up until the present. With these two perspectives you get a disturbing and intimate portrayal of Nick and Amy’s relationship: the tensions between them, the wounded or cruel ways they talk to each other, manipulate each other, or neglect the other person’s feelings in favour of their own ideals. Each feels like the victim in their marriage, and both feel like the other person has turned them into someone they don’t want to be. Amy complains about this in her diary:

You are turning me into what I never have been and never wanted to be, a nag, because you are not living up to your end of a very basic compact. Don’t do that, it’s not okay to do.

I think it’s the kind of story that anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can really appreciate. Nick and Amy are an extreme example, but many people will nevertheless recognise the little things people do to each other, their irrational expectations and inevitable disappointments.

One of the problems (in many relationships I imagine) is expecting the other person to be someone they’re not, compounded by the fact that people behave differently at the beginning of relationships when they’re on their best behaviour, so to speak. The novel explores the idea that people are constantly playing roles they’ve learned from characters in all the forms of media we live with. Nick ponders this as he becomes the object of people’s suspicions, and when considering the fact that his reactions to Amy’s disappearance often don’t fit the typical image of a devastated husband. He often seems bored instead of concerned, and sometimes he smiles when he should be solemn. Everybody has expectations about his behaviour for this situation, as people do for most situations:

I don’t know that we are actually human at this point, those of us who are like most of us, who grew up with TV and movies and now the Internet. If we are betrayed, we know the words to say. If we want to play the stud or the smart-ass or the fool, we know the words to say. We are all working from the same dog-eared script.
It’s a very difficult era in which to be a person, just a real, actual person instead of a collection of personality selected from an endless automat of characters.
And if all of us are play-acting, there can be no such thing as a soul-mate, because we don’t have genuine souls.

This theme is strong throughout the novel. So often we see people playing roles to get what they want, to be treated or viewed in a certain way.  Nick has the opposite problem in that he’s getting caught in a role he doesn’t want to be seen to play – the husband who killed his wife. In these kinds of stories, it’s always the husband who did it. The police are increasingly suspicious of him, and the media eagerly pounce on the sensational conclusion that he’s a murderer. Nick claims to be innocent, and his first-person narration tells us nothing about what happened to Amy that morning. And yet we still have reason to suspect him. He keeps lying to the police, for example. Even though he’s a first-person narrator, he keeps secrets from the reader too, narrating in vague terms or simply avoiding certain topics. When he thinks of Amy, he often thinks of her head – the back of her head, her skull, and even of opening her head up and “unspooling her brain and sifting through it, trying to catch and pin down her thoughts”. Even when Nick speaks affectionately, the recurring image of Amy’s head evokes the idea of him sneaking up behind her and hitting her, and in fact he dreams of his wife, bloody and wounded on the kitchen floor, calling his name.

The novel is packed with details like this, some more subtle than others. Many things suggest that Nick is guilty, but other details imply that he’s innocent, so that you’re constantly forced to ask questions and ponder the evidence. Did Nick do it (whatever “it” is)? Or is that too much of a cliché? Or is Nick – and the author – using that cliché to deflect suspicion, so that it’s assumed it can’t be Nick because that’s just too obvious? And what the hell actually happened to Amy?

This makes for my favourite kind of mystery – the one that gets you really entangled in all the little details until you’re obsessing over a character’s gestures and choice of words. And Flynn is magnificently skilled at ensnaring the reader and never letting go and until the final page. She deceives you, surprises you, and shocks you, even in a genre that often seems to have exhausted its bag of tricks. The novel gets much darker and demented than I’d expected and Flynn pulls you into its insanity with unflinchingly graphic style. This is undoubtedly one of the best psychological thrillers I have ever read, and I have to have more.

Buy a copy of Gone Girl from The Book Depository. I’m serious. You have to read this book.

Up for Review: Gone Girl

I just read this one. It was fucking awesome. I’m going to review it, of course, but don’t wait around for my essay-length opinion on the matter – if you like psychological thrillers, pre-order this NOW.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (Crown Trade)

Marketing copy from NetGalley:

From New York Times bestselling author Gillian Flynn, a twisted novel of literary suspense, and her most ambitious to date.

On the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, Nick’s wife, Amy, has disappeared. Nick is weak, Nick is a liar, and maybe he’s not the very best of husbands–but is he a killer? Amy’s diary reveals turmoil over their marriage, strange sicknesses, and her deep wish to be a mother–but is she telling the whole story? As the evidence slowly mounts, and the cops’ investigation deepens, Nick is incriminated in horrible ways. Nick swears he didn’t murder his beautiful wife and goes on the offensive to clear his name…only to learn that something may have happened more disturbing than death.

The terrifying masterpiece of a marriage gone wrong, Gillian Flynn’s fast-paced, dark, and ingeniously plotted Gone Girl confirms her status as one of the hottest thriller novelists around.

Gone Girl will be released on 5 June 2012 by Crown Trade, an imprint of Crown Publishing Group