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Baffling and Frustrating!
on 12 October 2012
I bought this book having read good reviews of Jones's latest, 'When Nights Were Cold'. That may be excellent for all I know - but I found this book, which looked from the initial blurb as though it might be an interesting mystery story, incredibly frustrating.
The novel centres around the concept, used in recent years by such writers as Ian McEwan, of the unreliable narrator. We are introduced in the first chapters of the book first to Maggie, a writer (whose thoughts, in italic type, crop up every now and then throughout the novel) and then to the main first-person narrator, Isabel. Isabel is a journalist and shop-owner, living in Istanbul with her Turkish husband and toddler daughter. She has come back to the Yorkshire village in which she grew up for the funeral of Owen, once her close school friend. Soon after arriving, Isabel is besieged by memories, not only of Owen but of Julia, her best friend, once Owen's girlfriend, who disappeared when she was 15 never to be seen again. Increasingly feeling that she will only be able to fully live her own life once she's found out what happened to Julia, Isabel begins to make investigations. And as she does so, the story becomes increasingly surreal, and the reader less and less certain of how much to believe Isabel. Who is she really? Why does Owen's mother think that she died years ago? Why do some of her memories change, or not seem to make sense? Who are the strange Bernadette and Leila that she keeps talking about? And why does she keep repeating that she only has one night to solve the mystery of Julia's disappearance, but at the same time talk about returning to the village that she has never liked? And what is the role of her writer aunt, Maggie in all this?
I found the plot of this book difficult to follow - I was unsure for most of the time what was truth and what was imagined, dreamt or distorted. Even the bits of the plot which seemed to be definite facts seemed unlikely. For example (as Kokoshka's Cat notes in her review) would Isabel's parents, who seem perfectly normal, really abandon her and vanish for good while she was in prison? If Isabel is bright (as her sections of the book imply) why did she drop out of school to work in a supermarket? Why do John, Annie and Isabel suddenly start digging up Owen's garden in the hope of finding Julia's skeleton? Surely that was pretty unlikely? And why's Annie so keen to find evidence that Owen was a killer? If one of the characters was a ghost, why did they have a perfectly believable life, receive text messages, talk on the phone and be treated as normal by everyone round them? By the end, I was totally confused as to what was going on and who people were. I started to wonder if it was like 'The Red King's Dream' in Alice Through the Looking Glass and everyone was Maggie's dream. But while the device in 'Alice' is funny, here it merely seemed phony, and an excuse to hold together a very thin plot. Maggie herself was a really irritating character - an interfering, smug busybody, and few of the other characters were particularly sympathetic or interesting.
The pity is that I think Jones can write, and could write well with a better plot. Even in this meandering tale there were some lovely descriptions of the Yorkshire countryside, and some good sections describing one of the girls working in a secondhand bookshop, and Isabel and Julia's childhoods. For this, I'll give the book three stars. But for me, it just didn't hang together as a story and I'd be wary about buying any other Jones books without a very good recommendation from someone I trusted!