This feels more like a collection of short stories than it does a novel, each linked – often very loosely – by way of a shared character. It’s an impression heightened by the fact that the episodes jump around in time and, although there is a circularity to the narrative, provided by the first and last stories, plot driven readers like me might be left wanting something more. That said, each story is captivating, each individual voice distinctive and Jennifer Egan’s prose is wonderful. Throughout there’s also an impressively conjured vibrant cultural context that acts as both a backdrop and takes centre stage, without ever eclipsing the characters we meet. Whether it’s the 1970s punk scene or a future marked by text talk, Egan takes us on a journey where every place we stop feels like home. There’s a darkness to each installment too, tinged as they are with regret, disappointment and moral ambiguity, yet the overall effect is oddly life affirming, as if Egan wants us to know that it’s memories, the perspective afforded by time, and the way our individual stories all connect that give meaning to our existence. Technology plays a central role in the book and one of the chapters towards the end is a series of Powerpoint slides. I skipped it – not something I make a habit of doing but the layout just didn’t fit with my dozing off to sleep state of mind and, in a book built like this one, not too problematic. But it irritated me and I don’t think I’ve got over it. I suspect, therefore, that A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD deserves far more credit than I am giving it and one day I will return.
Monthly Archives: March 2013
Just what are you supposed to do when your son is accused of assassinating a Presidential candidate? When all the evidence, including his own testimony, points to the fact that he is guilty? When you need answers and reasons yet none are forthcoming? And when the man he has killed is the embodiment of a hope that you need desperately to keep alive? If you are Dr Paul Allen, who specialises in diagnosing illnesses that confound identification, you fight to prove your son’s innocence and find another explanation, be it conspiracy, brainwashing or madness. And in doing so, you try to right whatever mistakes you have made as a father in the past, whatever you did that meant your son has grown up into a murderer. Shot through with references to previous real life assassins, THE GOOD FATHER, is undoubtedly written by a man – as one reviewer notes “Hawley doesn’t so much spin a yarn as download them”. It worked best for me as an exploration of the inner lives of Paul and his son, Daniel. We never fully understand Daniel’s motives but we do get some insight, especially what happens when there is an absence of hope, when it feels impossible to bear that the future is so lacking. Both men face these challenges and, despite what Daniel has done, we are left with a sense that his response might be the more honest – especially as the father’s denial of the facts is ultimately selfish, denying his son the acceptance and help he most needs. It didn’t quite live up to its billing as a literary thriller and the promised big moment didn’t really deliver, but it’s a good story and, in the age of Obama, strikes a real chord.
As is so often the case, when I first read this a few years ago – after a visitor who had picked it up at Manchester train station to read on the journey left it at my flat because she wasn’t gripped enough to continue – I rattled through it to find out what happens as soon as possible. As a result, I missed a lot of the detail and what’s some really beautiful writing, as I discovered on this re-reading. Most of the thrillers I read are either current day or futuristic, so this is unusual as it’s set in 1867 in Canada, at a time when settlements are isolated and the country is in the iron grip of ice and snow. As the main protagonists converge on the township of Caulfield to investigate the brutal murder of man named Laurent Jammet, one resident is leaving on a journey to clear her son’s name. Her trek, and the difficult conditions she endures, prompt all kinds of questions about her present, as well as uncovering a trail of secrets from the past. As the different threads of the story come together, we realise she and others who are close to the truth are in grave danger and just how many lives have already been lost as a result of one man’s greed. There’s a very raw sense of menace that permeates this novel, and the denouement when it comes is subtle, well paced and shocking. In vividly conveying the hardship of life at that time, Stef Penney provides a backdrop for her theme of endurance – of the climate, of social norms and of the restraints imposed by our own weaknesses of character. However, as the title signals, it’s possible to confound expectation and in THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES we find a call from the wild urging us to have the courage to strike out on a different path.