This book is about discovering truths. It poses as a mystery, but I believe it is more about relationships.
The central mystery should be more than enough to keep readers turning pages. This is my second N. A. read, and I will likely read the rest of her work now.
There were only a few places in the novel where the writing style slipped or pulled a 180. The first was in a good way. During the short story of the creef, which employs prose that resembles that of her ‘partner,’ Christopher Priest. It is a chilling scientific examination of a nightmare-inducing parasitic being. It injected a pervasive sense of dread into an otherwise tense scenario.
The book explores how narrative blends with life, how living is telling ourselves stories and how this tendency can lead to a communicable madness. In a sense, many of us are living what we want to believe. Yet, every person must deal with the transformation of the self through time, whether singularly, or in relation to others.
Nina Allan’s style is consummately readable, if not pristine. If she’d introduced the supernatural elements sooner, would it all have been harder to swallow? Did our suspension of disbelief necessitate that it begin as a realist novel? I think the beginning is immersive and effective, though a little generic. She loves to add news articles, journal entries, and extracts from books within the book. She did the same thing with the Dollmaker, and as in that case, one of the short stories here is shoehorned in – maybe a red herring, but it came off as rather forced. The others add good texture and enlarge upon a few side characters, nearly all of whom have some dimension and definition.
I was highly intrigued by the observation that dead bodies seem like empty soul vessels, hollow chrysalides from which the living person’s essence has dissolved. How this reminds us of the creef is something I will never forget.
The narrative operates via an X-files vibe and sustains cognitive dissonance like a pro. The layers of symbols were well distributed – time capsules, koi fish, jewelry. The motifs contain a creative component, engaging with the characters’ occupation or obsession (as in The Dollmaker). I am fine with this recurring technique. It reminds me of Murakami’s quirky abstract symbolism. But with Nina Allan you always get a sturdy skeleton of emotion, conflict, character development, and imaginative metaphorical splicing.
I found the underlying unsettling aspect of a chaotic universe of unknowns richly meaningful. Through extended internal monologues, her characters’ outlooks and relationships are crystalline, but also latticed through with the demands of plot and structure.
Other pieces of this literary mosaic include: memories, the sinister secrets we stow next to our hearts, pop references, the unsolved missing pieces of our internal puzzle, the mysteries we must live with, the burden of life itself, of loss, grief, and delusion. The main character for most of the book is Selena, who plays out cutscenes of daydream in her head, rehearsing scenarios. While the sentence structure could be more varied, it reads fast, contains corny humor, and makes for extreme memorability. The persistence of childhood beliefs into adulthood is a lingering theme. To be honest I cared for the extraterrestrial sections far less than the realist sections, but they added a needed layer of mystery to the plot, allowing the reader to speculate on which version of the events described was true. It is the good kind of ambiguity where you can choose to interpret the events in your own fashion, but the pieces are all there for both readings. It is skillfully done.
We are left to ponder the living’s duty to the dead and the absent, and the nature of forgiveness, if true forgiveness is possible. At its heart, it is a masterful exploration of relationships. I am most chilled by the sense of childhood games tapping into a haunting sub-reality, by the knowledge that some mystery must persist throughout our lives, especially where our own comprehension and memories fail.