Tag Archives: Thriller

Based on a True Story by Delphine de Vigan (transl. by George Miller): Fact or fiction? Truth or lies?

I’m not a thriller fan, although I have been known to read one or two. Metafiction on the other hand fascinates me which is what attracted me to Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story whose narrator, Delphine, finds her life entirely taken over by a woman she meets at a party. Hard to avoid all the clichés associated with the genre when talking about this one  – ‘gripping’, ‘riveting’, ‘unputdownable’ – take your pick. All apply to this shockingly accomplished novel which has at its heart a debate about fiction and truth.

Exhausted after a lengthy author tour publicising her latest book, Delphine finds herself uncharacteristically accepting an invitation to a party. She’s approached by a chic, assured woman who engages her in easy conversation, following it up a few days later with an invitation to coffee. Delphine is preparing to say goodbye to her twins, off out into the world to start their lives. Her lover is often away but like most writers, solitude comes naturally to her and she is just at the point where she is ready to begin her next book. L. quickly becomes the centre around which her world revolves. They have so much in common – experiences, books read, films considered formative. When Delphine talks to L. about her writing plans, a debate about fiction and truth is sparked in which Delphine sees a new, angry side of L. Pure fiction is not what readers want insists L, demanding that Delphine write the ’hidden book’ she mentioned when discussing her last novel, a piece of intimate autofiction. As the year proceeds, Delphine becomes increasingly isolated until L. is her only contact with the outside world. Who is this woman who seems to know so much about Delphine’s life, who turns up unexpectedly and seems to be watching Delphine’s every move?

Combining elements of a blockbuster thriller with a sophisticated literary debate, Based on a True Story is a fiendishly smart piece of writing. De Vigan narrates her novel through Delphine’s voice as she looks back over the year L. insinuated herself into her life. We know from the beginning that L. has had a sinister influence on Delphine, creating a psychological state in which she is unable even to send an email let alone begin her next book. The result is a constant feeling of claustrophobia, persistent doubts and questions. L. is chillingly convincing – manipulative, plausible and ultimately terrifying. This is the hook on which de Vigan hangs a debate about fiction and truth – how much veracity do we as readers expect from our novelists, what do we want in terms of authenticity and to what extent do novelists blur the line between fact and fiction whether consciously or unconsciously. Even now I can’t quite classify this book – thriller, literary novel, autofiction? It requires more than one pigeonhole. Given that it’s a piece of suspense I’ve no intention of revealing the resolution, although that’s to assume there is one which I’m not entirely sure there is. I do have my own theory, though, and I will say that the last two words are breathtakingly, diabolically clever.

Do Not Become Alarmed by Maile Meloy: A literary thriller with a social conscience

Cover imageI was delighted when I spotted Maile Meloy’s name in the publishing schedules. I’d enjoyed her previous novels, even going so far as to read her short stories – this was long before my conversion. Her writing is quite subtle, nuanced explorations of relationships and their dynamics. On closer inspection, it turned out her new novel might be a thriller, quite a few steps away from my usual literary territory but worth a try given how long it’s been since Meloy published anything for adults. The premise is reminiscent of those yuppie nightmare novels published back in the ‘80s: two families take themselves off on a cruise at Christmas, seduced by the idea of free time together while their kids are entertained but things go horribly wrong.

Nora and Liv are more like sisters than cousins. Liv even introduced Nora to her husband, recognisable to many from his movie performance as an astronaut. Nora has been hit hard by the death of her mother prompting Liv to suggest the cruise. At first all goes well. The kids take to life aboard ship, soon developing crushes on the teenage children of a glamorous Argentinean couple. All three families have avoided excursions until ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’ hoves into view, a country not only regarded as safe but comparatively liberal, satisfying the sensibilities of the Americans. Gunther invites the American husbands to a swanky golf club he knows while their wives take the children off on an excursion. When their guide’s car suffers a blow-out he proposes waiting for a replacement at a nearby beach. Liv and Camilla fall asleep, lulled by the soporific heat, while Nora disappears with the guide leaving the children busy building a raft. Soon they’re caught by a tide that washes them up quite some distance from the beach. Hector decides to swim back, telling the younger children and his sister to wait for him but when a jeep turns up driven by a woman they decide to take their chances and ask for a lift.

Meloy puts to good use the skills I found so appealing in her previous fiction, deftly exploring the tensions between her adult characters pulled tight by the disappearance of their children. The narrative’s perspective shifts smoothly from the parents to the children and back again, effectively cranking up the suspense. It’s as page-turning as a thriller should be but there’s an undercurrent of social conscience running through the novel. Meloy draws sharp contrasts between rich and poor – the North American children are horrified at what Central Americans take for granted. She uses the fallout from the children’s disappearance to demonstrate that no matter how much their wealth may cushion their families, fear cannot be escaped. It’s not a match for Meloy’s previous work for me but then I’m much more of an Anne Tyler kind of gal which is where I’d rank Liars and Saints, and Both Ways is the Only Way I Want it. That said, if you’re looking for an intelligent but easy read, this one’s well worth considering.

Siren by Annemarie Neary: The past is a foreign country

Cover imageI’m not a thriller kind of gal – well only the televised kind, usually with a Scandiland backdrop – but the setting of Annemarie Neary’s debut and the fact that I was still hauling myself out of my flu-induced reading slump before going on holiday made me reach for it. It’s the story of Róisín, brought face to face with the past she’s been trying to bury for more than twenty years when she sees the man who dragged her into the Troubles in Belfast looking set to become leader of his political party.

Siren opens with the incident that will set the seal on the rest of Róisín’s life: the murder of a soldier – a ‘legitimate target’ in Lonergan’s parlance – who she has unwittingly helped to lure into a trap. Mousey and shy, Róisín is flattered when she’s picked out by the brash, sophisticated new girl in her class who invites her on a night out, unaware that she’s being used. When Dolores’ face appears as a photofit on the front pages of the newspapers after the atrocity, Róisín is terrified that she’ll be identified too but no one remembers the nondescript friend dancing at the discotheque. Soon Lonergan comes calling, demanding another job but this time offering a way out once it’s done. Before she makes her escape, Róisín is witness to another atrocity and it is in the hope of doing justice for this that she takes herself off to Lamb Island, decades later, where Lonergan has a house from which he conducts his dodgy business dealings. An ill-judged, drunken email sent late one night before she left New York has alerted him to her plans and there’s a reception committee: Theo the Dutchman – all silky charm – and Boyle the creepy voyeur, only too willing to keep an eye on Róisín for Lonergan.

From its superbly dramatic opening, Siren had me in its grip. Neary takes her time revealing Róisín’s past, leaking small details into her narrative and occasionally bringing her readers up short. Róisín is cleverly drawn, her teenage naiveté making her the perfect prey for Lonergan, as is Boyle with his sinister references to the previous occupant of Róisín’s rented bungalow. Neary’s writing is sharp and clean, often vivid in its intensity, coupled with an astute psychological insight. When I was reading it I was reminded a little of Lionel Shriver’s Ordinary Decent Criminals, published long before We Need to Talk about Kevin brought her fame but, for me, a much better book. Obviously, Siren’s ending is out-of-bounds as far as this review’s concerned but it’s a satisfying one. Altogether a smart, stylish piece of writing – far pithier than either Attica Locke’s Pleasantville or S J Bolton’s Second Life, both recent ventures into thriller territory for me, and all the better for it. I’ll be interested to see what Neary comes up with next.

Tigerman: A thriller with a sense of humour and a heart of gold

Cover imageThere was a great deal of marketing hoo-ha around Nick Harkaway’s first novel which always makes me wary, so much so that I avoided it but when Angelmaker was published so many readers whose opinions I respect jumped up and down proclaiming it a masterpiece that I though I’d better take a dekko. It’s a science fiction thriller so regular readers of this blog will understand why I wasn’t so keen but more fool me for prejudging what turned out to be a riveting novel of startling invention. Tigerman isn’t quite in the same league for me – it was the sheer wackiness of Angelmaker that was so captivating and this one’s more conventional if that’s a word that could ever be applied to Harkaway’s work – but it still had me gripped, amazed at one point by its twistiness.

It’s a thriller so to dwell too much on plot would be to ruin it. Suffice to say that there’s a flying superhero tiger and another who purrs like an avalanche; a sergeant, wise in the ways of war, longing for a child; a comic-book obsessed, internet-mad boy who seems not to have a family; a volcanic island poisoned by chemical waste on the verge of being blown up to purge it from bacteria; a bomb made of custard powder; good guys, bad guys and a few in between. Over it all looms the presence of the Fleet engaged in all sorts of dodgyness – floating brothels, slave ships, torture vessels – taking advantage of the international legal limbo in which Mancreu exists. It’s told from the point of view of Sergeant Lester Ferris, designated the British representative in this old colony after tours in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, part of whose brief is to keep an eye on law and order. Life ticks along in an unchallenging kind of way until a shootout in the café which Lester and the boy he’s befriended frequent sees the death of their dear friend. Not knowing where to start in his murder investigations, Lester begins with three seemingly unrelated mysteries – some stolen fish, a missing dog and the recurring appearance of a joyous ghost-woman. By the end of the novel all three will be solved in ways you never would have conceived.

There’s serious stuff wrapped up in all this albeit with a nicely satirical, comic edge. Harkaway swipes away at peace-keeping forces, international law and the language of diplomacy – ‘Hearts and minds, bollocks. It was amazing how often that expression was used to describe what had already gone and could not now be clawed back’ – to name but a few. Lester is an endearing reluctant hero, resourceful and used to the hair-raising experiences of war but with a great aching hole where a child should be. Harkaway is given to entertaining little digressions always neatly sewn into his narrative and has a nice line in throwaway rants. ‘Bugger Marathon. And then, irrelevantly: And they call them ‘Snickers’ now, anyway. Old anger. Chocolate bars should not take on new identities. They should be content with who they are’ seems like a heartfelt annoyance in the midst of Lester’s frantic chase. You also get the feeling that Mr Harkaway spends a good deal of his time looking up esoteric facts on the internet – how else would you know that custard powder is combustible – all put to good use, though. Altogether, it’s a virtuoso piece of entertainment which hurtles satisfyingly towards its conclusion after delivering a startling, didn’t-see-that-coming sucker-punch of a twist.

If you’d like to read about how Nick Harkaway sets about his writing, and what prompted him to write Tigerman, Annabel’s House of Books has a lovely account of an evening with him. He sounds like a jolly nice chap to me!

We are Here: which turns out to be far better than expected

Cover imagePoor H was afflicted with a nasty cold this weekend, sliding into a runny-nosed heap late Saturday afternoon fit only for sitting in front of the TV watching Gladiator. We have the kind of open plan house in which it’s difficult to get away if one wants to watch what the other doesn’t so I needed something easy but absorbing which would shut out the blood and noisy Roman guts. I pulled Michael Marshall’s We Are Here off the TBR pile. It’s billed as a ‘page-turning thriller’, not usually my style but it’s a legacy from my reviews editor days and I’m determinedly working my way through those. Several chapters in and it’s turning out to be much better than I expected. It has two narrative strands so far. In the first David has just signed a book deal, lunched sumptuously with his editor and is bumped into on his way to the subway by someone who whispers ‘remember me’ in his ear then disappears. In the second, a young woman enlists her boyfriend’s help when a friend becomes convinced she’s being stalked by an ex-lover. Mysterious figures in long coats loiter at street corners waiting to pass messages. Others are glimpsed then vanish. David’s loose change appears in a small, carefully arranged pile on his doorstep. I have a theory about all this but I suspect that I’m not far enough in yet for it to be correct. It’s not great literature but it’s intriguing – a pleasant surprise given that I picked it up fully expecting to stick it in the charity bag after twenty or so pages. Going back to dodging germs, now.