Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Passenger by Peter Wild 

"To sleep: perchance to dream". What do you suppose would happen if you slept for fifteen years? What would you miss? What great events in the world would pass you by? What would happen to your coterie of friends? After all you wouldn’t be there to witness the many changes in their lives. How would your absence effect your family?

This is the premise for Peter Wild’s debut novel The Passenger, the story of Whitlow a man who falls asleep one night in Stockport city centre only to wake up fifteen years later to a world that has changed.

The Passenger begins with Whitlow waking up one morning surrounded by a bunch of teenagers one of whom throws a half eaten beef burger in his direction. He finds himself rescued by a woman, who unbeknownst to him, turns out to be his wife.

The woman, Ruth, with a baby in tow, bundles Whitlow into her car and takes him home where she feeds, washes and cares for him and re-introduces him once more to his family. She gives him a notebook, which is apparently written by Whitlow during periods when he was lucid and in the bosom of his family.

As he reads the notebook Whitlow learns that this is not the first time he has disappeared only to reappear disorientated and lost. Whitlow discovers that his disappearances began one night when he stormed out of the house he shared with his girlfriend Connie. In Stockport town centre he had an encounter with a bunch of drunken men and women one of whom flashed her breasts at Whitlow causing Whitlow to run in terror.

Council workers on a clean-up detail find him coiled up asleep beside a bridge. No matter how hard they try they are unable to wake him. A story about a sleeping man appears in the local newspaper about the sleeping man from where the story snowballs and endorsed by the local mayor Whitlow, for a while, become a tourist attraction.

Reading the notebook Whitlow discovers that he was part of a band called The Sleeping Men who, released three albums and were successful for a while. He discovers that he has a wife, children and a job at which he is successful.

One of the many strengths of The Passenger is that it is populated by believable characters. For example Stacy Shenanigan, she of the bared breasts, finds notoriety on the back of the story of Whitlow’s fame. She appears on page three, and later on for example, Celebrity Big Brother. Another character of note is Connie, Whitlow’s erstwhile girlfriend who launches a media career for herself and goes from regional reporter to presenter on just about every programme of note in America.

As the story unfolds Whitlow learns his history via the notebook and the novel is told in alternate chapters. We see Whitlow emerged from his most recent disappearance and in the following chapter the earlier Whitlow relating his story. This turns out to be a magical device and the reader can really relate to Whitlow as amidst his disorientation he slowly unearths his hidden story.

The Passenger by Peter Wild is flawless rock n roll of a novel, with references to The Smiths, The Fall and Talking Heads amongst others. Without doubt it will be the literary debut of the year.


Friday, January 06, 2012

Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel 

"Grey Souls" by Philippe Claudel opens in December 1917 with the discovery of the corpse of ten year old Belle de Jour just outside a small town in rural France. A swift investigation is undertaken resulting with the arrest and execution of two deserters from the French army. As far as everyone is concerned the perpetrators are caught and dealt with and the case is closed.

But nothing is as it seems, nothing is that cut and dry. The narrator of the story, a police investigator, who remains un-named relates the story of the murder from twenty years in the future when Europe is once more faced with conflict and death.

Slowly and subtly the story behind the murder and the characters involved is told. Central to the case is the Public Prosecutor Destinat. From the beginning the narrator suspects that Destinat is the murderer. The Public Prosecutor is a tragic figure. His wife Clelia died not long after their marriage, and widowed and without an heir he effectively withdrew from the world emerging only to go into the court or for Sunday mass. He is one of the many grey souls which populate the novel.

Lilia, the school teacher is another grey soul who wanders through the novel. She turned up in the town one afternoon without explanation and immediately took up the post of teacher. Lilia is charming and polite, smiling and sincere. But is also distant no one really comes close to her. Her life and subsequent death remain a mystery which is only solved at the conclusion.

It is the narrator himself who perhaps is the greatest mystery. At the start he comes across as being an innocent he is simply one of the crowd. Piece by piece his story is told till by the end the reader is perhaps less sympathetic than previously.
One of the novels strengths is the manner in which minor characters are vividly created. Characters such as Old Barbe, the caretaker who appear for only a few pages are given equal descriptive importance as Destinat and Lilia.

A melancholic atmosphere permeates through the novel, good turns to evil and daylight is driven from the land. Everything and everyone is cloaked in ambiguity. As the narrator is told,

"Nothing’s black or white. And it’s the same with souls. You’re a grey soul, like the rest of us."

Despite the bleak subject matter "Grey Souls" is a novel which is well told, lyrical and enjoyable. The twists at the end are totally unforeseen and will only add to, rather than detract from, its appeal.


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