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This review is from: Beneath the Diamond Sky (Paperback)
Genre, huh? What is it good for?
Beneath the Diamond Sky has only been out a couple of months and the so far brief snippets on Amazon, Picador and Wakling's own site describe it as being 'in the vein of Alex Garland'.
Dunk! I go: and dunk! again. Forehead firmly and with a satisfying slapping sound into one of those low beams that tend to delineate my routes through any bookshop of note. So, rather like his first - saddled with a 'corporate thriller' tag in some circles (though not according to me or Arena (who rightly big-upped its genuine literary merit)) - that initial piece of info did not light my candle. I mean, Alex Garland? I'd long ago decided - admittedly with no real evidence other than that everybody at some point seemed to be reading The Beach and/or The Tesseract - that he was firmly in the Not For Me category. Maybe I didn't like cover, I don't know, but I did feel rather smug when movie turned out to be so poor. Shallow? Heck, yeah.
Still, sod it, time to stuff flimsy prejudice right up where it belongs. OCTP* turned out to be a rollicking good read and a stylish turn too, so away with assumption.
In Beneath the Diamond Sky a group of Western backpackers (a mix of Brits, Americans, Israeli and Dutch) is kidnapped by Kashmiri militants while trekking through the Himalayan foothills. The political forces, the motives for their capture, are only ever really hinted at (stuff here for the bigger picture and a chillingly similar factual multi-national hostage story) because what we're interested in here is the fate of the hostages' minds and characters and how they deal with the situation they've had thrust upon them. Not just them, in fact. Cut into the kidnapping narrative we also bounce back to the UK for insights into their families and how they're doing.
The main protagonists are a couple, Ethan and Kate, whose already troubled relationship is simply thrown over the edge as they're cast into a desperate nightmare they can barely comprehend. At home, Kate's sister Rachel struggles with her guilt over their dishonest relationship; Ethan's father battles with his own uncompromising political and personal dogma; and pointlessly, ponderously, government diplomacy fritters in the background.
Wakling juggles the component parts of his story very well. Think about it: this could easily become a static stagy one-set piece, half a dozen prisoners in one room, slowly unravelling (and they do unravel). But what you get instead is a distinctly smart and unsettling novel about the effects of adversity on everyone, not just the unlucky - and boy do they get unlucky - few kept in tiny room. Rachel's and Kate's and Ethan's stories overlap cleverly, usually held together by neat little segues (Kate's pilot motif for instance, as she aims to keep sane by reliving her recent flying lessons), phrases or symbols.
And then - like a sort of literary salmon, kinda - Wakling rises free from the 'thriller' mainstream - as he did with OCTP - by a) being able to throw in poetic gems at will:
"Somebody flipped a switch and the sound of a string quartet threaded through the small talk"
b) keeping so much of the terrorists' motivation a mystery, and c) daring to give us the ending he does.
It's an intense and, yes I'm going to have to use it, claustrophobic journey through shifting alliances and crumbling mindsets where the only thing that really holds firm - although it makes no sense at all to us - is the unspoken ideology of the militants. In a way it reminded me of Iain Banks's Canal Dreams, that sense of a foreign experience, unknowable and cruel, accessible only via extreme sensations (survival, mostly) but always distinctly alien. As Kate tries to hang on to her mind I kept thinking about Onada Hisako and the things she has to do to keep going in similarly grim circumstances.
Bright future ahead, I'd say.
*Oh, and for those of us who've read On Cape Three Points there's a smart little easter egg tucked away in the text; very enjoyable.