As much as these stories focus on solitary characters who observe, from the margins, they long for something else; Walt and Mr. Jones are ultimately preoccupied with relationships.
Margaret Sweatman’s Mr. Jones openly confronts duplicity.
“His life had been contrary, a series of duplications: two homes; a father who’d dominated and also abandoned him; heroic war service that was also the shame of his nation. He had no words for himself. He felt like an empty room without light, but for the borrowed light from his friends and the radiance of their ideals.”
“It took Emmett three days to fall asleep. All in one blow: Suzanne McCallum’s shoulders, John Norfield’s clavicle. Falling in love, loyal forever to that one glimpse of purity you see in somebody, that kind of love, he thought, is a question of instinct, a move you make before thinking, and it changes everything in a split second.”
But although Mr.Jones is about espionage, it’s set in the Cold War; the action can be sudden and dramatic, but it is couched in the solidity of everyday life, given time to reflect upon what is contained in a series of sleepless nights or a fleeting glimpse.
How to spot things changing in a single instant and what things to keep secret: these things can be learned. One can also learn how to see, how to look, how to be seen, and how not to be seen.
“‘And was anyone there? Besides me?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know how to look for those things.’
Suzanne didn’t really know either. But she would learn. Looking had become her domain. She had nowhere else to live.”
Just as Suzanne is searching, the setting is of little consequence in this novel, for the action is more often interior, the exterior providing a shell in which secrets can simmer.
“’You and I, we have a bond,’ Kimura said. ‘A friendship. Our origins are in secrecy.’”
This is not a Robert Ludlum thriller, but a slow-burning story. Readers feel the characters’ desire to connect through prose which leaves them on the margins; we read about love and passion, heightened conflict, but we feel isolated, solitary observers holding a bound tale in our hands.
“Sunlight struck their complicated faces, revealed them in their aloneness.”
But although alone, this is not an entirey painful state; the novel presents a meditative study of life as solitary refinement, rather than an overwhelmingly sad tale of marginal existence.
“Time was created to ease our pain. The cormorant suddenly opens and spreads its slate black wings, and lake water sprays like shattered crystals in the sun. Here is perfection.”
Unlike Margaret Sweatman’s quiet, measured style, Russell Wangersky grabs readers by the scruff and yanks them into Walt’s character, somehow transforming the character-soaked novel into a page-turner.
Despite a stylistic contrast, however, Walt is as much of a solitary figure as Margaret Sweatman’s characters, and the duplicity in this novel feels more deliberate.
“I swear I’m not going to become one of those people who goes around talking to myself, dazzling my own constantly appreciative audience of one. I may do strange things, but I do them deliberately.”
The details really do matter to Walt; he is very attentive to detail and a skilled observer. He has learned to look in a way which some of the characters in Mr.Jones might envy. But, ironically, readers learn as much about Walt from his acts of observation as we learn about his subjects.
“Her name is Elizabeth, and she has a particular way of talking to you, every word distinct and placed down sharply with a click like Scrabble tiles, her hair piled up grey and precise, and she always looks at your chest, high up toward your shoulder and slightly off to one side, the left side, as if she’d been told that this was exactly the spot where your heart was, and if she looked at it hard enough, she’d be able to divine your true intentions right through the wall of your chest, right inside that lub-dubbing lump of muscle in there. Eyes staring straight through flesh and bone and muscle. Or something like that.”
For instance, the description of Elizabeth is revealing, but primarily for what his degree of attentiveness — and the details he values enough to share — relays to us.
But it is not always about the details we can see which matter, but the details which might go unseen. Walt’s awareness includes his observations of his own behaviour, but that doesn’t mean that question readers might have will be answered.
“There’s a spot, right near one end, where someone smacked a beer bottle down hard enough on the wood to leave a little half-circle of dents. That probably would have been me.”
The violence in these two novels simmers beneath the surface of their narratives (more often than not). Often times, readers are left to intuit the significance of marks are left behind on various surfaces. In this matter, perspective is key.
“There’s a little shift that happens, and it happens all the time, in all kinds of circumstances. Like your eyes suddenly are working a different way, and you size everything up differently.”
How Walt sizes things up is directly related to how readers will size them up. “It’s smart to be as honest as you can — the best lies are packed full of truth.” Walt is packed full of truth.
Readers might use one of Walt’s observations to describe the pacing of the novel: “Momentum is powerful and cruel, and there’s not one single thing that can change it.” There is a sense of inevitability to the story as readers turn the pages.
There is some grimacing, some lip-curling: these are not comfortable places to inhabit. But once readers have begun to “watch” with Walt, it is hard to look away.
“You get addicted to the things you do really well. That’s just the way it is. Addicted to the things that have become second nature. Addicted to doing them in the same order, addicted to doing them right, especially if it just happens that you can do them easily, too.”
What contributes to the sense of being unsettled, however, are the relationships, fractured and broken, which litter these narratives.
Mr.Jones and Walt leave readers feeling simultaneously too-much-alone and too-much-in-company. It’s not entirely pleasant. But the skill in Margaret Sweatman’s and Russell Wangersky’s novels is remarkable.