Into the Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes

I think it’s safe to say that I loved this book and hated it in equal measure. Loved in the sense that I was hooked from only a few pages in that is, not loved in the sense that it’s a book I’d want to read again anytime soon, or one that I’d ever consider giving as a gift to one of my friends.

Into the Darkest Corner is quite frankly a terrifying book, and it contains some truly horrific and disturbing scenes. But it’s also a necessary book, one that anyone who’s ever uttered the immortal line “But why doesn’t she just leave?” should be made to read, and read again, until they finally get it.

It’s a story about obsession; about stalking; domestic violence; rape and abuse. But it’s also a story about one woman’s determination to fight back, to not allow her history to define her or to determine her future.

Catherine’s story is split into two parts: there’s the part that begins in 2007, where Catherine is suffering from debilitating OCD and PTSD, to the extent that it can take her hours to get out of her flat in the morning and hours more to get back into it at night, thanks to all the checks she has to go through to ensure that all of her doors and windows are secure and that she is safe. And then there’s the part that begins in 2003, where Catherine  is a carefree fun-loving young woman who goes out clubbing with her friends on weekends, one who would never pass up the chance to go out partying with her mates.

As the chapters alternate between the two narratives and the two completely different versions of Catherine, we gradually come to learn what turned the 2003 Catherine into the even-scared-of-her-own-shadow one of 2007. We also get an insight into the life of an abuse victim/survivor, and a chilling glimpse into what it means to be not just physically abused, but mentally/psychologically tortured as well.

Into the Darkest Corner is a gripping read and an important and powerful book: I couldn’t put it down once I’d started it. It’s well written, and the author’s knowledge of the issues surrounding domestic violence shines through. But it’s not a book I’d recommend to anyone who might be triggered by graphic descriptions of abuse, or to anyone  looking for a light easy read: Into the Darkest Corner is anything but that.

Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas

Meg Carpenter is a writer living in a damp Dartmouth cottage with her useless partner Christopher. She once wrote the beginnings of a very promising literary novel, but she’s never got around to finishing it and instead earns her living by ghost-writing genre fiction and by reviewing popular science books. Oh, and she’s in love with an older man, the married director of the local maritime museum.

One day Meg reviews a book by the science writer Kelsey Newman: The Science of Living Forever, about the end of time and its never-ending afterlife, or something – cue lots of philosophical debate about the meaning of life and all that.

There’s also a lot of philosophical debate about the novel in this novel: debate about narrative and about the ‘story-less story‘. In fact there’s so much debate, and so many people sitting around contemplating all these big philosophical questions, that not a lot actually happens in the novel itself.

Don’t get me wrong, Meg is a sympathetic, likeable character; there is a plot of sorts, and some of the ideas and concepts put forward by Newman and other characters in the novel are really thought provoking. However, for me there was just too much ‘cleverness’ about the whole thing, there was too much navel gazing, to the extent that I quickly became bored and came close to giving up.

I’m glad that I didn’t though, because on the whole Our Tragic Universe was an enjoyable read. Thomas is a skilled writer, adept at conveying complex theories in an accessible way, and the descriptions of Dartmouth and the surrounding Devon countryside were an especial treat for me because this is an area I know really well. I just wish there’d been more story to this story-less story, and less philosophising over purgatory, heaven and narrative.

1222 by Anne Holt

The setting for this story is a hotel high up in the Norwegian mountains. The ‘guests,’ survivors from a nearby train crash, take shelter there and immediately become trapped by the appalling weather outside. Then, as the snow lashes the windows and the temperature starts to plummet, in typical locked-room mystery fashion the bodies start to pile up.

As luck would have it one of the hotel guests and survivor of the aforementioned train derailment is a retired police inspector, Hanne Wilhelmsen, who is paralysed from the waist down as the result of a previous shooting incident; she’s also incredibly grumpy and antisocial, but surprisingly likeable none the less. Anyway, before long our intrepid detective is tasked with solving the mystery of why people are being picked off, and more importantly, of who is doing the killing.

If that all sounds a bit too formulaic for your tastes then don’t worry, because that’s not how it comes across when you read it. Wilhelmson is an intriguing character, with enough depth and personality to make the reader want to stick with her. And the mystery of who or what was in the sealed last carriage of the train when it went off the rails adds another dimension to the story, one that kept me hooked to the end.

This is actually the eighth book in Anne Holt’s series about retired lesbian police inspector Hanne Wilhelmsen, but it’s the first, and so far the only one, to be translated into English. There’s obviously an interesting back-story to Wilhelmson, one that’s only touched on in this novel, and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series (which is due to be published in English over the next two years) to catch up on that.

Books read since my last review

I haven’t done very well in keeping up with this blog recently, but that’s not to say that I haven’t been reading.

So, since I reviewed Room back in August, I’ve read:

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, which I hated. Seriously, if you want me to enjoy a book at least write in one character I can identify with, not an entire cast of horrible, nasty people I couldn’t give a shit about.

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson, which I loved. Atkinson is fast becoming my favourite writer, and if she keeps it up may one day even come to replace Dickens in my affections.

Every Last One by Anna Quindlen, which I enjoyed, but found truly harrowing.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, which I found to be over-rated and not the Great American Novel everyone was hyping it as (and it took me far too long to read, which is always an indication that I’m not enjoying a book).

Sister by Rosamund Lupton, which I found really moving, and again, pretty harrowing.

And that’s about it.

I aim to read a lot more in 2011. I should manage it; well, as long as I don’t get stuck in another boring tome like Freedom that is.

Room by Emma Donoghue

When I started this book I really thought I was going to hate it. In fact after only reading the first few pages I remarked to a friend that seriously, if I’d wanted to read a story written by a five year old I might just as well have popped down to the local primary school and taken a peek at the children’s exercise books.

But of course I was wrong, again, and once I’d got over my initial reaction to the narrative voice I really loved it.

Actually maybe “loved” is pushing it a bit. After all, a story about a young woman who has been abducted and imprisoned in a 12 foot square room for seven years, a room in which she has been repeatedly raped, and where she has given birth to her abuser’s child, five year old Jack, the aforementioned narrator of the novel, isn’t exactly a story to warm the cockles of anyone’s heart. But Donoghue’s skill as a writer is such that despite the macabre nature of the plot, I found myself completely absorbed in the story and unwilling to put the book down, even after I’d got to the end.

Room is a horrific tale, inspired, or “triggered” to quote the author, by the Josef Fritzl case; but far from being the exploitative, cynical money-spinner that some have pegged it as, I found it to be a compassionate and fascinating study into the mother-child bond, a bond that in this case prevails despite the deprivation and depravity of the child’s conception, and I also felt that it gave a compelling insight into a dark, nightmarish place that for most of us, thankfully, is usually well beyond our imaginings.

Because of the subject matter of Room and its parallels with the Fritzl case, there are those that have called this novel voyeuristic: and perhaps in the hands of a less talented writer that might well have been so. But I really didn’t feel that was a fair or accurate description of Room, and I’m pleased to see this challenging and wonderfully crafted novel on this year’s longlist for the Man Booker Prize.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I’ve tried to explain the plot-line of this novel to two different people now and failed dismally both times, so I’m not even going to attempt it here. All I will say is that it’s a pretty unbelievable plot, one that leaves people looking at you as though they think you’re slightly warped for even suggesting it might be a book they’d enjoy reading when you try and lay it out for them.

And yet. Somehow. Audrey Niggenegger has managed to pull it off again.

Niffenegger, as you’ll remember, is the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife (and yes, I do want to amend the spelling of ‘traveller’ every time I write that title!), another book with an outlandish plot. But just as I was completely sucked into TTTW and able to suspend all disbelief, so I was able to with Her Fearful Symmetry as well.

This is mainly because Niffenegger is such an accomplished writer: her style is as clear and accessible as it was with her first novel. So no matter how bizarre or preposterous the story, she manages to pull the reader along with her, rather than leaving them behind, shaking their head in disbelief while mumbling “now this is just getting ridiculous.”

Well, that’s how it worked for me anyway.

Here’s the official blurb from Random House to give you some idea of the plot:

Julia and Valentina Poole are normal American teenagers – normal, at least, for identical ‘mirror’ twins who have no interest in college or jobs or possibly anything outside their cozy suburban home. But everything changes when they receive notice that an aunt whom they didn’t know existed has died and left them her flat in an apartment block overlooking Highgate Cemetery in London. They feel that at last their own lives can begin … but have no idea that they’ve been summoned into a tangle of fraying lives, from the obsessive-compulsive crossword setter who lives above them to their aunt’s mysterious and elusive lover who lives below them, and even to their aunt herself, who never got over her estrangement from the twins’ mother – and who can’t even seem to quite leave her flat….
With Highgate Cemetery itself a character and echoes of Henry James and Charles Dickens, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY is a delicious and deadly twenty-first-century ghost story about Niffenegger’s familiar themes of love, loss and identity. It is certain to cement her standing as one of the most singular and remarkable novelists of our time.

Her Fearful Symmetry is a ghost story, but it’s a ghost story with a difference. The ghost here for example isn’t some kind of lurking malevolent presence, but instead is a fully developed character with a central role in the story. She’s also someone you can completely empathise with. Well, up to the end of the book that is, when things suddenly take a turn for the macabre and if you’re anything like me you find yourself exclaiming “Oh no, don’t, that’s horrible!”

That’s not to say that there aren’t any faults with this book, because there are. Some of the characters aren’t as well developed as they could have been for example, while others seem completely superfluous to the plot and you wonder why Niffenegger bothered including them. Similarly there are a couple of plot lines that I felt didn’t really go anywhere, where I came to the end and wondered what the point of them was.

Overall though Her Fearful Symmetry is a great read. It’s got ghosts, it’s got romance, it’s got humour, it’s got long-held family secrets, it’s got murder, and if that’s not enough for you, it’s even got The Little Kitten of Death.

What more could anyone want?