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Difficulties of genre
on 11 June 2013
What an interesting novel this is. But though a page-turner, as any thriller should be, with a high-octane literary style, it's difficult to know how to approach it. It appears to be a psychological thriller, but somehow, by the end, it becomes a ghost story. Or is it a species of magic realism as applied to the thriller? Or a modern take on the minotaur myth? Or science-fiction: Toby, the narrator, experiences mind-trips into icy landscapes, possibly through his computer; the central male figure, Roehm, is everywhere yet no where, apparently a scientist engaged in animal experiments yet with no ID trace at all. Or maybe it's a tricksy example of the unreliable narrator - most of it is told from 19 year old Toby's point of view, yet not in a language any teenager would be capable of using. This blurring of the genres may puzzle, but it does give an added layer of interest to the novel, making it more intriguing. On the other hand, it does risk confusing any reader expecting the standard realistic treatment. It creates narrative instability, an air of doubt and mystery; the reader skates on slippery ground.
Duncker uses the classic plot device of introducing a stranger into a tightly closed family circle, creating chaos: Roehm, the lover of Toby's mother, stirs up desire, fear, jealousy, violence, extreme anxiety; he comes between them all. The tension lies in two questions: who is Roehm and what does he want? Neither question is satisfactorily answered, leaving an uneasy space in which the reader is forced to speculate. On a literary-mythical level, Roehm is the minotaur; he is the devil in Faust (we have an opera scene to point this out); he is a sort of Frankenstein monster raised from the deep; he's a ghost. His menace is palpable, his disguise beguiling; he is an impressive creation, but a puzzling one.
One can, of course, take this as a psychological thriller and be satisfied with that. All the uncertainties can be ascribed to the imagination of Toby, a skilful narrator. Perhaps he is a gifted child, a precocious writer, reinventing himself; he is obsessed by his mother to the point of incest, and deeply troubled by the appearance of his mother's lover, who might be the father who abandoned him before birth - thus, no ordinary teenager. The one chapter written in the voice of his mother, giving us an account of his inception, is, on this reading, problematic - but did she write it, or did the boy? Who knows? The author certainly isn't letting on: no framing devices here to let you know how the text came to be written.
I suspect that when I was younger and a less experienced reader, I would find this genre-blurring, this literary teasing, annoying. Now I welcome it for the textual puzzles it throw up, the multiple interpretations it invites (which makes it a good choice for reading group discussions). But I have to say the surprise ending is hard to swallow and seems quite out of keeping with the rest of the story. It sounds a false note which reverberates back through the narrative - which, of course, may have been intentional; it certainly makes you rethink the whole thing.
The story grips you, though, and the language impresses: that's the important thing.