Filler content with six novels – Part 3

Following on from last Friday’s post, here is the final part of a feature on six novels by women writers that originally appeared in Black Static #59:-

SIX NOVELS (continued)

Alexandra Oliva’s debut novel THE LAST ONE (Penguin pb, 352pp, £7.99) follows in the footsteps of Dead Set, a 2008 British TV show written by Charlie Brooker that conflated reality TV and global apocalypse with its picture of the inmates of the Big Brother house besieged by zombies. Twelve contestants sign up for In the Dark, a reality TV show in which they are taken deep into the forest and assigned various survival tasks that test their endurance and ingenuity, complete with cameramen, a fading TV star as host, and an ex-army guy who is there to help them learn the tricks they will need to endure, a role that would normally be taken by Bear Grylls but I guess he was otherwise occupied that weekend. The characters are assigned names that encapsulate some quality or other identifier – Tracker, Waitress, Zoo, Rancher, etc. and we follow their adventures in alternate chapters told in the third person, pitched so that we have a sense of both watching through the eye of the camera and those of an omniscient author (there are interludes where the fates of certain characters are spelled out ahead of time). In the other chapters we get the first person story of Zoo (so called because she worked in one) during the individual endurance tests, as she moves through a landscape in which there are dead bodies and scenes of destruction and chaos, all the time marvelling at the budget and ingenuity of the show’s producers, in denial as to the real evidence set before her eyes, focused simply on winning the prize of $1m that was promised.

This is, quite simply put, an absolute corker of a novel, the best that I’ve read so far this year. Brooker and others (most obviously Brian Keene in 2009 novel Castaways) might have used the concept before her, but Oliva makes it her own and branches off into terra incognito with an enviable gusto. The group scenes are handled with a real zest for the material, the detached narrative helping reinforce the feeling that we really are bearing witness to the events on a reality television show. Identifying each of the characters primarily by their professions was a masterstroke, putting the reader in the position of conferring certain qualities and expectations on them, and then seeing how they measure up to or exceed those expectations. Tracker is, as you would expect the supremely competent one, the one who handles himself well in a wilderness situation, and is held back by the others, forced to restrain himself in teamwork. Waitress by and large is the dizzy blonde stereotype, but when she sticks up for herself has the ability to surprise. Similarly Banker is a far more substantial presence than his moneyed moniker might suggest, someone who in his element can outdo even Tracker. Exorcist is the loose cannon, the one who takes delight in upsetting the others, singling out the weak among them and then circling like a lion about his prey. He is the one who seems most obviously to be following a game plan. The interaction of these disparate people, the friendships and feuds that develop, make for riveting reading and capture on the page the appeal of the type of programme which they are intended to ape.

And then there is the first person account of Zoo, moving through a deserted landscape, marvelling at the great job the show’s production team have done in recreating the apocalypse. Almost as competent as Tracker in her ability to survive, with a back story revealed that highlights her as a caring and loving person, somebody who wants one last great adventure before settling down into domesticity (and with the suggestion that this show is simply a way of avoiding confronting the reality of her life with her husband and their desire to have children). Denial is the hallmark of the character, as she rejects all the evidence that something has gone seriously awry – an attack by a rabid coyote is dismissed as animatronic shenanigans, piles of corpses are simply stage dressing, a boy she meets up with is really a member of the camera crew, and the bleak urban landscape into which she wanders is only an indicator of the show’s sizable budget. In Zoo’s person we see the way in which IT, social media, and such things as 24 hour news help to shape the narrative in which we act out our lives, all the dramas. Zoo rejects reality and the evidence of her senses because she has been told it is all a lie, has in fact lived this lie for a number of days. Our reality is filtered through the eye of the media, even after the mechanisms that enable this are no longer in place.

The Last One was an exciting and engrossing novel, one that held my interest all the way, not least for the techniques adopted in its writing, but also for the subtext about how we conduct our lives in the years of fake news, so that reality itself becomes the pretence as we march in step like lemmings heading for the edge of the cliff. I simply adored this book.

ALETHEIA (Crystal Lake Publishing pb, 552pp, £15.99) by J. S. Breukelaar opens with the return of the Harpur clan to the Pennsylvania town of Little Ridge after ten years absence, ready to pick up where they left off, sailing close to the wind and over the line between legality and crime. Clan matriarch Thettie wants to make up with cousin Frank, who was left behind to carry the can when the Harpurs were run off by the law. Self-appointed patriarch Doc Murphy has somewhat less idealistic things on his mind; Frank is rumoured to have brewed a new drug with potential for black market profits. The trouble for both of them is that Frank is a recluse on Nose Island, a body of land in the heart of the local lake, but one that simply doesn’t want to be found or visited by anyone else. And then there is the legend of something terrible lurking in the waters of the lake. While the various parties go about their business, Thettie befriends local artist Lee, whose son was murdered and whose body is still missing. Lee is the owner of Vernon, a Gila monster he rescued from a laboratory and whose venom may hold the key to a powerful new memory drug, which may also be the drug Frank is working on. Certainly somebody believes so, enough to steal Vernon. And then things get really complicated, with a plot development close to the mid-point of the book that turns everything on its head.

This is a densely written, complicated and ambitious novel, touching on themes of memory and betrayal. There are many things that stand out, not least of which is the superb characterisation. We get the back story of each character, the tragic events that shaped both Thettie and Lee, and how they have tried to cope with the consequences, the way in which Doc Murphy cunningly insinuated himself into the life of the Harpur clan, making himself indispensable, but always with an eye on the main chance. We get cameos of his delightful henchmen, Homer and Lyle, who are as memorable as they are nasty, and we are introduced to Thettie’s two sons, Grif and Archy, with their different but complementary personalities, each of them larger than life. And of course there’s Vernon, who has a lot of chutzpah for a lizard. And let’s not forget the strange, enigmatic Bryce, a young girl who may be Frank’s agent or possibly an emissary of the lake itself. These few and a host of others, each with their own distinguishing idiosyncrasies and character traits, interact and play off against each other, adding twists and turns to the story, including one monumental one that I didn’t see coming and regarding which I can only salute the author’s audacity.

The vision of small town crime is brought to life on the page, with elements of the mystery tale and southern noir woven into the plot, and people dreaming of the payday that will never arrive, no matter how many ships come in. Juxtaposed with human evil and reckless ambition there is the supernatural side of things, with the strange island and the lake in which it is set, hints in the text of something numinous but always out of reach. And at the heart of the story is the ghost who flits in and out of events, facilitating the plot at certain crucial moments, an enigmatic deus ex machina gathering power and biding its moment to act directly, and when it does act the world is remade.

I am of course rambling here, as there is much more to this novel than I can convey in a review, and much that I almost certainly didn’t pick up on after the one reading. Beautifully written, with a magical evocation of place and keen awareness of how the borderlines between reality and the outré are so easily blurred, filled with engaging and memorable characters speaking dialogue that scintillates, and packed with enough ideas for a half dozen ordinary novels, this was an impressive performance from J. S. Breukelaar and a book that will almost certainly reward further readings.

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