Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

"Akin" by Emma Donoghue

An audio book. Noah, 79, a retired science prof, and widower for several years, has Joan (ex-wife) as an inner voice. He lives in New York and is about to visit Nice where he was born. Out of the blue he's asked to temporarily look after the 11 y.o. son of his nephew, a boy he's never met. His nephew Victor died of a drug overdose after a troubled life. The boy's mother is in prison. Not wanting to change his holiday plans, Noah takes the boy, Michael, along. The first hour or so of the book justifies that scenario. My concept of pacing is more tuned to the short story. I think the novel could have begun with the journey to the prison, interleaving the back-story.

In Nice (where the coast "curves like the arm of a dancer" twice, I think), Michael is street-wise and foul-mouthed, not impressed with non-USA culture, full of bravado. Noah's trying to work out the meaning of some recently found old photos. Was his mother Margot an informer? Did she have a further child after Noah had been sent to join his father in the States? Noah's grandfather was quite a famous art-photograper. His skills are compared with Michael's on his mobile. Michael's observant, noticing clues.

Noah deduces (with the help of Michael, museum visits, etc) that Margot was a forger for the resistance, helping Jewish children to escape. Victor, he deduces, had become an informer for the police to avoid a prison sentence, but his drug associates had found out.

Noah and Michael get on each other's nerves though gain a grudging respect for each other. At the end Noah's ready to house Michael for a while. He considers moving house.

Some of the plot is telegraphed (I never thought Victor's death was suicide, nor that Margot was an informer). Noah keeps trying to teach Michael things, which would be ok were the book shorter. I don't know why some scenes are there.

Other reviews

  • Sarah Crown (Michael – clearer-eyed, less nostalgic – is able to make the leaps that Noah can’t, leading Noah to a deeper understanding of the mother and grandfather he revered. At the same time, the older man is forced to question his assumptions about the nephew he’d loved and then written off, and the slice of society to which Michael himself belongs. Each obliges the other to recognise the limits of his experience – and the possibility that there might be something worth learning, worth having, on the far side.)
  • ClĂ©mence Michallon
  • Goodreads (too much Googling, predictable storylines; overuse of "Dude")

Saturday, 16 January 2021

"The Temple House Vanishing" by Rachel Donohue

An audio book. In the prologue Victoria commits suicide after there's a story about her in the press about events 25 years before.

Then we're in Louisa's PoV, 1990. She's 16, from a poor family whose parents are separating. She's won a scholarship to Temple House, a Catholic school by the sea, run by nuns. We follow her first day, the narrative full of colours. They are shown a nun laid to rest - like an initiation. The art lesson with Mr Lavelle, 25, is in a summer house beyond a dishevelled garden, the vine around the door growing inside. She meets Victoria, who seems to have a thing going with the teacher. He sees Victoria and Louisa after lessons of Friday. Victoria, from a rich family, beautiful, wants to be a writer or muse. She's into the Bloomsbury set. Louisa with striking looks and clever, thinks about her identity too. She says she prefers Beckett.

So far the prose doesn't impress, and the art lesson setting seems too predictable.

On the 25th anniversary of Louisa and Lavelle's disappearance, we change PoV to a female journalist who grew up opposite Louisa's house. She's told to write some articles. Lavelle was a fraud. The school closed a year after the incident. The ex-head girl Helen tells her not to pester ex-schoolgirls any more. The detective tells her that the nuns seemed more interested in preserving their reputation than providing information. The journalist is at pains to claim that she has worthy reason to investigate.

We return to Louisa's PoV. I like when she thinks about religion, belief in love, and Victoria. Her section uses the past tense and "Mr Lavelle" rather than "Edward" so we presume she's still alive and that she was never close to the teacher. At the end of her first term, Victoria tells her she's leaving with Mr Lavelle next term. She says that they've not had sex yet. He's done a nude sketch of Helen.

Journalist's PoV - At Victoria's suggestion they visit the school together. Victoria holidays in Africa each year - Morocco etc. I'm beginning to think that Louisa and Lavelle left together, that they soon separated (Lavelle died in an accident?) and that Louisa became a nun.

Louisa's PoV - Helen tells Louisa that she thinks Louisa or Victoria has framed her. Louisa decides to cover for Victoria because she loves her. There's going to be a governer's meeting. At this stage I think Helen loves Lavelle, that Victoria attracts lesbian crushes. There are overlong discussions between Louisa and Helen, Louisa and Lavelle, Louisa and Victoria. Louisa feels that she can't be loved and that Lavelle is loved too easily.

Journalist's PoV - Victoria admits to killing Louisa by the cliff. Earlier, I'd briefly considered the possibility of Louisa being a ghost. In the prologue Louisa says that after her death she followed the lives of Lavelle (a little) and Victoria, not caring about others.

It would be easy to adapt it to the small screen.

Other reviews

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

"Elizabeth Costello" by JM Coetzee

An audio book. Several of the chapters have already been published in magazines. A son, late thirties, is accompanying his novelist mother to a prize-giving where she'll give a talk on "What is Realism". The narrator tells us that in Realism one has to embody Ideas, one has to invent situations. The narrator tells us when and why scenes are skipped. I presume this book is an example of how Realism has to be manipulation to embody ideas. We get the text of her talks. The book starts with the beginning of a draft. It's slow - "Realism: There is first of all the problem of the opening, namely how to get us from where we are, which is as yet nowhere, to the far bank. It is a simple bridging problem, a problem of knocking together a bridge. People solve such problems every day. They solve them and having solved them, push on. Let us assume that however it may have been done, it is done. Let us take it that the bridge is built and crossed, that we can put it out of our mind. We have left behind the territory in which we were. We are in the far territory, where we want to be."

Then she talks on a cruise, meets a fellow lecturer, an old friend whose talking about the African novel. Her subject The Future Novel.

She stays with her son and philosopher wife. She gives a talk at the university. Given a free choice of subject she talks about vegetarianism, the Holocaust, empathy. Q+A sessions and talks are 2 different things. The Q+A sessions make her and her son nervous. Her answers tend to be mini-talks. I can't assess the quality of the thoughts. I think my thoughts are best expressed by the first questions she receives, or the first afterthought she has. So I assume that the author wants Costello's thoughts to be easily challenged.

Her nun sister, Blanche, is getting an honorary degree in Jo'burg so Elizabeth goes over. Blanche's talk is about how Humanities have lost vital spirit since branching off from theology. The 2 of them bicker about ideas. Actually, they don't get on. She decides not to tell Blanche how, at 40, she gave an old, dying man oral sex as a favour.

She's invited to Amsterdam to talk about the problem of evil. When she realises that the author whose book she plans to criticise is at the conference, she only has hours to change her talk. She remembers at incident from her past that she's revealed to nobody. In the end she shortens the talk, its message being that not only can reading certain books harm the reader, but they can harm the author too.

There's a knowingly Kafka-esque section, where to cross a border she has a convince a tribunal that she has a belief. She first claims that beliefs are a hindrance to writers. Then she wonders about people, bodies and identities, and how belief might be necessary to connect them up - maybe she believes in something after all. But it's very long-winded.

She speculates on the connection between sex and death, on what it's like to have sex with an immortal, and on the practical problems of sex with a swan or bull.

I don't understand the final chapter.

Other reviews

  • Hermione Lee (In this fragmentary and inconclusive book, more like a collection of propositions about belief, writing and humanity than a novel, it is clear that animal rights is not the only issue. The creature in the zoo is also the novelist herself, and part of the book's driving force is an impatience with the way famous writers are required to perform like rock-stars, or to provide confessions or state their beliefs)
  • Adam Mars-Jones (She has a son who is an assistant professor of physics and astronomy, so as to dramatise the divide between arts and sciences. Her daughter-in-law is an academic philosopher, who defends her patch at the appropriate juncture. Elizabeth's sister, Bridget, is a nun who has devoted herself to looking after Aids patients in Zululand - cue intimate confrontation between humanist and religious positions)
  • Adam Eaker (tantalizing but ultimately frustrating ... The novel’s academic settings give Coetzee the opportunity for some rather cheap shots at feminist and post-colonial criticism, but the novel’s initially intriguing structure soon leaves both Costello and the book mired in pedantry. ... By the time of the novel’s labored conclusion, when Costello finds herself trapped in a sort of Kafkaesque purgatory, the reader has lost all patience with this unpleasant woman and her compulsive lecturing. It’s a pity, because one senses Elizabeth Costello could have been a very powerful character study. )

Saturday, 9 January 2021

"Grand Union" by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2019)

Short stories - 5 in New Yorker, 2 in Paris Review and 1 from Granta. The rest unpublished.

  • Dialectic - A fatherless family is on holiday. A daughter who's not yet a woman says "I dislike this place. It makes no sense to build a resort town around such a filthy and unwelcoming sea". At the end I think it's the mother who imagines millions of male chicks being killed on an assembly line. The husband had left to work on a car assembly line.
  • Sentimental Eduction - Far better. "In a matriarchy, you'd hear women boasting to their mates: "I subsumed him in my anus. I really made his penis disappear. I just stole it away and hid it deep inside myself until he didn't even exist." said Monica to student boyfriend Darryl, whose non-student mate and drug-dealer Leon sleeps on his floor. At the end, a flash-forward - "Could it be? Had she really slept with three people in twelve hours? The things we put young bodies through? And because you can't remember forward, she would have to wait a long. long time to find a faint future echo of this extremity: breastfeeding one child, then a few hours later, lying next to another till it slept; then waking in a third room - all of this within one night - and pressing backwards into the beloved, to nullify his flesh in hers and vice versa". Pretty good.
  • The Lazy River - An all-in hotel's water course with a flow is explicitly used by a mother as an analogy for life - "they will climb back into the metaphor with the rest, back into this watery Ouroboros, which, unlike the river of Heraclitus, is always the same no matter where you happen to step in". She thinks that "southern Spain has the highest ratio of metaphor to reality of any place I've ever known". At the end she sits on the balcony catching up with social media. She sees others doing the same. She watches a man in the water "clean whatever scum we have left of ourselves off of the sides". I'd have liked to have known more about her family life - her husband and little kids are with her.
  • Words and Music - Wendy, a old woman (70 plus, twice married), moves into a house left by her mad sister. She finds the postcard and photos she'd sent. She sees some (mad? homeless?) people regularly on the streets.
  • Just Right - Donovan, 8, with a slight speech impediment and arty parents, is paired up to do a classroom show-and-tell with Cassie. They end up talking about the Guggenheim, which is being built. They kiss and explore bodies. She attends his family puppet show. Her mother advises him not to get involved with her - not because he's white and she's black, but because she lacks imagination. Interesting details. Too minor a story.
  • Parents' Morning Epiphany - A dud. Not even good of its type.
  • Downtown - A mother/painter experiences life in NY. "My son asked me if the young man was 'sick in the head' which is our downtown euphemism for batshit crazy, but my daughter who is very, very savvy said 'No way - look at his clothes!' "
  • Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets - Miss Adele is 46. "Whenever her disappointing twin brother, Devin, deigned to call her from his three-kids-and-a-labradoodle, don't-panic-it's-organic, liberal-negro-wet-dream-of-a-Marin-Country fantasy existence, Miss Adele made a point of gathering up all her hard-won opinions and giving them to him good". But the main part of the piece concerns her dissatisfaction with the service in a corset shop - the loud radio and the argument between the staff. I don't get why Devin's mentioned.
  • Mood - It may be excellent. I don't get it.
  • Escape from New York - Michael tries to get his friends fat Marlon and bejeweled Elizabeth out of New York. They can't fly because of ash, so he hires a cheap car. Only by reading other reviews did I learn that the characters are Jackson, Brando, and Taylor. Still not much of a story.
  • Big Week - We see McRae in various situations, talking. He has 3 grown sons and is about to move out - an amicable separation. The dialogs are lively
    'So, he's gone to see some kind of a rapper - I'm blanking on his name. Real famous, this guy.'
    Urvashi threw out the names she knew, doing her best to describe each man physically. For a while it seemed like she would be doing this for the rest of her life.
    'You know what? Now I think about it, I believe this person was a white gentleman.'
    And in this far smaller pond, it proved to be the second fish.
    At the end we get the wife's point-of-view. She'd never been happy.
  • Meet the President! - SF, set in East Anglia. Lowestoft has a population of 850 - the only people left are those who can't leave. Bill Peek, 14, is augmented. He talks with a local. I think he's playing an immersive computer game while guiding the local to her sister's wake.
  • Two Men Arrive in a Village - "Sometimes on horseback, sometimes by foot, in a car or astride motorbikes, occasionally in a tank [...] Sunset has, historically, been a good time for the two men, wherever they have arrived" the style switches between general and particular. I've done this sort of thing, so it's not at all a new idea. Is it well done? Well enough.
  • Kelso Deconstructed - Unbeknown to him, it's Kelso's last day of life. He's hurt his thumb. He and his girlfriend pop to Speaker's Corner - "a newspaper boy was changing the hoarding poster from today's headline: 'SIGNS AND SYMBOLS!' to tomorrow's: 'FORESHADOWING!'". He goes late to hospital and is given a prescription which is a print-out of an e-mail post about "show and tell". On the way home he's knifed and dies. We're shown the muderer's witness statement formatted as a poem. A marxist comes to the funeral. The ending is "I am curious about the young Marxist, and stop to take a copy of his paper when he hands it to me, and stand for a moment in the street, admiring the brazen headline: ALL THE WORLD IS TEXT."
  • .
  • Blocked - About depression, writers block and getting a dog. Would have been better as a straight essay.
  • The Canker - Ursula Le Guin. Featuring, as several of these pieces do, a storyteller
  • For the king - Reported speech. 2 middle-aged intellectuals chatting about intellectuals, how things have changed, gay society, sex clubs, daytime sex, etc. "we could watch several pairs of picturesque lovers go by, two bodies on a single scooter, helmetless, holding each other, as they had previously done on Vespas and on bikes, in 2CVs and horse-drawn carriages, or on the back of a farmer's trailer, snug upon bales of hay"
  • Now more than ever - more pensees disguised as reported speech
  • Grand Union - A mother angry with her 6 year-old goes out to talk with her dead mother. 3 pages.

Other reviews

  • Kate Clanchy (There is autofiction, speculative fiction (including an enterprising riff on the urban myth that Michael Jackson took Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando out of town to escape 9/11), and some mixtures of speculative fiction and parable. There is one full-blown and terrifying Brechtian parable in “Two Men Arrive in a Village”, and an abundance of metafictions scratching away at the elements of narrative, some of which, such as the irritable and meandering “Parents’ Morning Epiphany”, feel a little underpowered. [...] The story “Blocked”, though, challenges us to cavil against this restless experimentation [...] Best of all, and pointing surely to Smith’s future, is “For the King”, a piece in the autobiographical manner of Karl Ove Knausgaard)
  • Johanna Thomas-Corr (The writing in Grand Union is most alive when Smith is channelling versions of herself, that is, the storyteller (The Canker; Blocked), the teacher (Now More Than Ever), the mother (The Lazy River) or the bookish swot (Kelso Deconstructed). We find a combination of the last two in her best story, Sentimental Education [...] At least eight of the 19 stories in Grand Union aren’t very good. Two dystopian efforts, Meet the President! (a post-apocalyptic ramble about a child’s virtual reality game) and Escape from New York (inspired by the urban myth that Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando fled the city together after 9/11), are cute ideas but on the page, both dawdle along. Her more conventional, naturalistic pieces, such as Big Week and Miss Adele Amidst the Corsets, are mannered and self-conscious)
  • Heller McAlpin (you could say it feels like an uneven grab bag of picked-up pieces and experiments — some of which, from an unknown or less-celebrated writer, might have stayed in a drawer. [...] Some of the slighter stories in Grand Union — "Blocked," "Mood," "The Dialectic" "Parents' Morning Epiphany" — feel not so much like footnotes as literary doodles, possible material for a future novel. But there are also reminders of what Smith is capable of at her best, and many of them involve characters trying to make sense of our times and the march of time in general as they advance beyond their youth)
  • Stuart Kelly (a wonderful piece, “The Lazy River”, about tourists, swimming pools, apathy and Brexit, that could have been by John Cheever [...] What binds this book? One feature which seems to me rather conspicuous is the regret, the melancholy in many of the pieces. [] The other noticeable thing is the number of religious references.)
  • Ross Jeffery (you’d think that this collection would be a banger of a book, but for me, unfortunately, it felt more like a wet squib – and needless to say I was hugely disappointed. [...] The story, which I found to be the standout in the collection and which I feel made this journey into Zadie Smith’s collection worthwhile after my initial disappointment was ‘Big Week‘.)
  • B.H.Lake (The stories of Grand Union are both new stories as well as previously published, are tied together by two shared threads: the problem of pain, and the knowledge that outside artificiality is the reminder of death [...] The protagonists of each story in Grand Union find themselves in struggles from which there are no escape. Each is forced to confront their pain and, as a result, discover who they really are. [...] “Escape From New York” [] is magnificently written and unexpectedly heartbreaking—it mourns what might have been while remaining rooted in acceptance of the present moment.)
  • Sam Webb (‘The Lazy River’, ‘Words and Music’, ‘Parents’ Morning Epiphany’ and ‘Mood’ are more like story-essays than traditional shorts. [...] As a self-confessed Smith-o-phile, it pains me to say that Grand Union lacks this imaginative freedom. The writer is fettered by the form—she approaches tough and pertinent subjects, yes, but everything is all too quickly wrapped up within a couple of pages.)

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

"We Begin at the End" by Chris Whitaker

An audio book. There's a search party for Cissy Radley, 7. The town's people are in a line. We jump 30 years to 2005. California. Walker, about 45, secretly on dopamine, is the policeman in a small town. He looks after Star (Cissy's sister) who's about his age and overdoses occasionally. She has two kids - Duchess, 13, whose eyes we see a lot of the action through, and her younger bother, Robin, 5, who she looks after devoted. She's tough. Vincent, an old friend of Walker, is coming out of prison after 30 years. He'd gone in for manslaughter of Cissy (he ran her over - an accident). When he returns, Dark offers to buy his house for a million. Dark is Star's landlord and sleeps with her instead of collecting rent. She sings and waits tables in his shady club. Milton, a creepy butcher, the "neighborhood watch", lives opposite Star.

One night Duchess wakes and realises Star is unconscious outside. Duchess drags her in. She's been drinking and hit. Duchess sneaks out and sets the club alight. Walker thinks she did it (she's shoplifted food before) and talks to her. Dark thinks she did it and talks to her.

Star is murdered in the night, shot. Vincent calls the police from the house. No gun's found.

Police from the big city come in. Walker drives the kids to Montana, the grandfather they never knew. Hal's a farmer. Robin likes the animals. Duchess is constantly rebelling. He teaches her to shoot and drive, makes them go to church. She tries to hurt him, says "I see the shell of a man that's made a decent mess of his own life. He's got no friends and no family, and no one to give a shit when he drops dead. Probably happen in his field, his special fucking land painted in God's colour, he'll lay there till his skin is green, till the oil tanker comes, and the delivery guy sees the crows". Later she begins to soften when she finds out that Hal had tried to contact them often, and Robin's happy.

Walker thinks Vincent is innocent. Vincent insists on an old mutual friend, Martha (Walker's serious girlfriend at school - she had an abortion at 15), to represent him. Out of ideas, Walker threatens a witness at gun-point which seems too far out of character. He discovers that Dark is in trouble with some heavies.

Duchess learns to ride a horse. A black classmate with a deformed hand keeps wanting to be friends. She goes to the school ball with him. When she returns, happy, to the farm that night, Hal's dying, shot. They stay with foster parents, then a children's home. Duchess keeps sabotaging adoption chances that Robin would love. She decides to leave.

Meanwhile Milton's found drowned. Walker fabricates evidence and Vincent goes free. From Robin we learn that Vincent was the killer. Walker shoots Dark in the shoulder as Dark attacks Duchess's school friend. Dark asks to be killed, admitting to Hal's murder. Walker oblidges.

We learn that Hal paid someone in jail to kill Vincent. Vincent killed his attacker.

At the end Duchess returns to kill Vincent, but he kills himself instead. Dark sends her a letter saying that Robin killed their mother while trying to kill Dark. Vincent wanted to take the blame. While he was in prison, their mother had been having conjugal visits for 20 years. He was the children's father, and they'd inherit his big house. At the end Duchess watches Robin for a few hours from a distance, happy that he's happy with his new parents, hoping that he'll manage to keep the truth suppressed.

The language is often figurative - "the sun crawling its arc", etc.

One accident has repercussions for 30 years. Many unlikely events, but a good read.

Other reviews

Saturday, 2 January 2021

"The Prince of Wails" by Stephen Knight (CB editions, 2012)

Poems from TLS, Poetry Review, Poetry London, Oxford Poetry, The North, LRB, etc.

Just about every page bewilders me. I can see the odd neat phrase or piece of observation. And there's no lack of variety in the presentation - rhyme, abcedarian, prose, bullet-marks, multiple choice, short-lines, gaps in fully aligned lines. When I think I do understand a piece (e.g. "A British Summer", "Album") it seems rather slight. "Butterfly" is 8 lines of tight rhyme, and the language is clear. I was ready for something about transience or transformation. I think I got a dream or a riddle. "A Tick-Box Life" includes this multiple choice question - "Is a purposeless existence making you sad? If nothing else presents itself, you can always ..." with only one option offered - "Teach".

In "The Smiles" the narrator sees smiles erupt until finally "a smile reverses in a space too small for smiles a calls back// a smile avoids the cracks a smile stooping for a penny finds a pound/ a smile agrees a smile is at the door and someone lets it in".

In "An ABC of Winter" "Perhaps the winter has/ Our future planned/ And means to cover/ Every scrap of land./ Unlike those sheep,/ My lad, I understand./ The wind is difficult:/ Its operatic moans/ A touch too grand" - which I understand at some level - perhaps because it's "for my son" - but it seems minor. I understand - even like - "Lost Things" about a dead father returning to a house, noticing changes. I suspect it's an idea that's been done before. In "Happly Ever After", some typos are corrected in the margin - but only one per line, e.g. - "lak of rithum no exgus we tuch sea      excuse"

Wednesday, 30 December 2020

"The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton

A man with amnesia wakes in a wood and witnesses a woman's murder. The male murderer gives him a compass and tells him to go east. He finds a stately house, Blackheath, with guests attending a weekend do. He reports the crime. Somehow he knows that the victim's name was Anna, but nobody's heard of her. It's the pre-mobile era. He discovers who he is (Sebastian Bell, a middle-aged doctor) and that he seems to have been attacked with a knife. He trusts no one. Evelyn Hardcastle, the daughter of the house owner, tells him how lucky he is to be able to choose who to be - he could assemble traits from several people to recreate his new self. She tells him that 19 years before, her brother Thomas was murdered by two person near the the lake, partly because of her negligence. Only one was caught. She's lived in Paris since, ordered back by her parents for this anniversary where the guests from 19 years before have been invited. She tells him he's a dope-dealer for the upper classes.

Next day he wakes to the ringing bell of the front door. He's in a different room. He opens the door to Sebastian Bell, who's reliving the events of the day before. The narrator's now Mr Collins, the butler.

Next day he's Donald Davis. He tries to leave the place, but not before the Plague Doctor explains the rules. He's going to experience 8 days in 8 hosts. At the ball there will be a murder that doesn't look like a murder. He can only leave if he solves the mystery. There are 3 competitors (but maybe there's a 4th?), and a footman who's trying to kill him.

Next day he's old Lord Ravencourt. He tries to contact the other 2 to assemble clues. We learn that Evelyn's parents have arranged that she'll marry Ravencourt for his money. That evening Evelyn shoots herself dead. Ravencourt's valet is Cunningham, allegedly Lord Peter Hardcastle's bastard son. We jump back to continue the unfinished days of earlier characters.

He's really Aiden Bishop. He wants to know more about himself. All he knows is that he remembers the name "Anna". The hosts aren't empty vessels. Sometimes Aiden is cunning, sometimes he's impulsive, depending on who his host is. When they meet, the contestants compare hosts.

Next day (day 5) he's Jonathan Derby. There's an inner voice that interjects from time to time (we're told later that the voice is all that remains of Aiden).

The gamesmaster (masked plague doctor) says that he does't know who the murderer is, hence the game. Aiden has asked to come - his 2 rivals (one of them Anna) haven't. It's far from Aiden's first visit (he's in the 1000s). Anna keeps written notes about what happens and when, but doesn't show them to Aiden.

We meet other characters - Gold (the family portraitist), Stanwin (an ex-servant, now upper-class blackmailer).

On day 6 he's old Mr Dance, the Hardcastle's solicitor. We learn that Helena, Peter Hardcastle's wife, was having an affair with his son's co-murderer, Carver. Charles Cunningham is actually Helena and Carver's son. Helena is becoming a suspect. This section's rather long and slow.

Miller is the stable-master - "His elderly face is a mass of wrinkles and overhanging flesh, more than enough material for his emotions to build a stage from. Every frown is a tragedy, every smile a farce. A lie, sitting as it does somewhere between both, is enough to collapse the entire performance"

When he's Jim Rushdon, a sharp-minded policeman, the pace quickens. Hosts are being murdered, and Aiden realises that in a past loop he murdered Anna. This section is the most like a whodunnit - the plot of the Evelyn's fake suicide pulls together many clues. My guess is that someone sometimes pretends to be the plague doctor.

On day 8 he's Gold, the artist. There's another games-master, Silver Tear, who's in dispute with the Plague Doctor. We learn that Blackheath is one of 1000s of assessment centres, where prisoners are tested to see if they're ready to be released. The situations are unsolved crimes. Blackheath is for the worst cases - Anna[belle] was a global terrorist who tortured Aiden's sister 30 years before. Aiden first went in to gain revenge, but over the years he's changed, and so has Anna. He thinks that Anna deserves to be released. The Plague Doctor tells her at the end about the other characters - "they were never anything more than a trick of the light, Anna. Now you get to walk away with the flame that casts them.". The loose ends are tidied up as there's a twist.

I suppose the book could be described as a collection of linked short stories - or nested stories.

Other reviews

  • Carrie O'Grady (The price Turton pays for this is a loss of emotional engagement on the reader’s part. But as an intellectual thriller, the book can’t be faulted, and in the end, it’s the story that triumphs, with a series of last-minute revelations as dazzling as the finale of a fireworks show. I’m not sure it entirely makes sense, when all’s said and done – but who cares?)
  • goodreads