Filler content with desolation

Another review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #42:-

DESOLATION by TIM LEBBON

Leisure pb, 309pp, $6.99

As a child Cain was raised by his insane father, who subjected him to a regime of constant psychological and physical abuse as a means to unlocking a talent referred to simply as Pure Sight, conceived of as a unique and powerful way of connecting with the world. After his father’s death Cain was transferred to a care home of sorts, where he recovered from his ordeal under the supervision of two people referred to simply as the Voice and the Face. Finally, as a young man, he is ready to venture out on his own into the world, and a place is found for him at No. 13 Endless Crescent, a halfway house where Cain will have his own rooms and independence of a kind. But slowly Cain, his sanity always held by a thread, comes to realise that not everything at the house is what it seems, and as he investigates the other people staying there and the fate of the previous occupant of his room, it becomes clear that his mad father’s machinations are still reaching out to embrace him.

Lebbon invests considerable time and skill in capturing Cain’s fractured mental state, with the hints we receive of all his father subjected him to unsettling in the extreme. The devices he uses to bring this uniquely damaged individual to life – having him refer to people by their distinguishing characteristics (Voice, Face) and compartmentalise a vital part of his own personality by treating it as a separate entity locked away in a trunk – are original and extremely effective, causing the reader to both identify with and also draw slightly away from this disturbed young man, an uneasy dichotomy that’s polarised even further by the dilemma that confronts Cain.

The residents of the ironically named HEAVEN – Whistler, whose pipe playing can transfix both man and beast; Magenta, who can take on the appearance of other people; Sister Josephine, the flying nun; George, who can change at will into a murderous beast – are an intriguing dramatis personae, Lebbon taking obvious horror stereotypes, such as the witch and the werewolf, but depicting them as seen from an oblique angle, focusing not so much on their powers and the terror they evoke, though those are obviously part of the mix, but more on the essential strangeness of their lives. For Cain these people represent a chance of family, of acceptance for who and what he is, his last and best hope to be normal, but the price demanded may well prove more than he is prepared to pay.

Bottom line with this novel is that it’s Marvel’s X-Men given a horror twist and scrupulous avoidance of the M-word, a superhero team story without any heroes, but filled with all the old and familiar angst, where the battle must be fought not against some external foe but with Cain’s own nature, forcing him to choose between embracing his outsider status or find some other way that allows room for his humanity. And at its heart is a rich subtext about dealing with being different and learning to accommodate one’s essential nature in a meaningful, non-destructive way. Recommended.

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