What’s interesting about each of these novels is that none fits a traditional model in the suspense genre. Shari Lapena’s The Couple Next Door is the closest to a conventional thriller. But even her novel spends more time on characterization and atmosphere than many loyal genre readers would tolerate.
Nonetheless, she does rely on tropes to some extent. At the heart of the novel is the stalwart detective, determined to unravel the story which lands in his lap all knotted and twisted. “Rasbach will figure it out. The truth is there. It is always there. It simply needs to be uncovered.”
One of the particularly satisfying elements of the tale is the sense of isolation, not only with the detective’s investigation, but within the couple’s marriage; their loneliness is exacerbated after the disappearance of their infant daughter, but it isn’t new either.
“Anne and Marco are at home alone. The house is empty but for the two of them and their horror and grief and dark imaginings. It would be hard to say who of the two is more damaged… not knowing what has happened to their baby. They each hope desperately that she’s still alive, but there is so little to sustain that hope. Each tries to pretend for the other.”
Ultimately, this novel is about breaking down, literally and metaphorically, as relationships and nervous systems crumble. “If s/he lied abou t this, what else has s/he lied about ? […] But they have reached an uneasy truce. They need each other. Maybe they even still care for each other, in spite of everything.” [I’ve made the pronouns ambiguous to avoid spoilers.] What are good characters to do when the “whole world is built on lies and deceit”?
The bonds of trust are also at the heart of David Bergen’s Giller-longlisted novel, Stranger. Although it is not a thriller, I read it just as quickly as each of the other books discussed here (in two reading sessions, sometimes the same day, other times two back-to-back days).
Íso’s story is undeniably compelling. It begins quietly, with discussion of her work in a clinic on Lake Atitlan in the highlands of Guatemala, where she attends to women who have travelled there in hopes of resolving concerns about their fertility.
“She had learned that desperation in a woman’s face and body was not a pretty sight. Desperation and sadness and false happiness and hope and wishful thinking and physical ache – all of this was mixed up and thrown into a tempest, and what survived, what fell to the earth, was disappointment.”
She distrusts (or discounts) the advice of family members, who witness the 17-year-old creeping towards her own kind of tempestuous disappointment, which leads to an unexpected journey and hardships. The language is almost painfully spare.
“She sat down. She folded her hands in her lap. The sun fell onto her head. It was very warm. She removed her jacket and laid it across her lap. She folded her hands again. And she wept.”
Between the lines, there is time for a character to fold and refold her hands, to smooth an article of clothing and, yes, to weep. There is an arc to Íso’s story, not one predictable from its beginning, but one which seems clear at the end. “Because if it isn’t finished, it isn’t a story.” But it’s not the events of the story which make you turn the pages, but the reader’s engagement with Íso. “Nothing happens. You are who you are,” her mother states. And this is true. Through her story, readers have the opportunity to play with intersecting incidents revolving around the concept of a “stranger”, but the author leaves the heavy lifting for the readers; the narrative does not provide ready-made insights.
This fits with the kind of engagement which Santiago explains is necessary for Íso to undertake. “Then he said that it was for her to remember who she was. He said that sometimes we forget. That sometimes we come face to face with an object that appears to be quite beautiful, and we are spellbound. And then we find out that the object is not so beautiful. Or it gets lost. Or it changes shape.”
Memory is at the core of M.G. Vassanji’s Nostalgia as well. Also set in the future (as is Stranger, but not glaringly so), the world is near-our-now, but just slightly askew from our contemporary existence.
“I arrived home and, as I often did when Joanie was not around, I headed for the media room to watch XBN News, and the analyses that followed in the program The Daily Goode. In my line of work, I needed to keep up with the world where my patients came from, and returned to, transformed. My work demanded knowledge of past and present, culture and science, and even occasionally esoterica like the classics and the trendy and obscure postmodern. But current news was my addiction. I was drawn to it for a fix, despite my fears of numbing by overexposure and my dislike of sensationalism.”
The prose is as direct as Bergen’s, but not quite as removed. The first-person narration pulls readers into the story and deliberately skews the perspective. Readers can only know what Frank (Dr. Sina) knows.
And what he knows is also deliberately shaped. In an effort to avoid Leaking Memory Syndrome (Nostalgia), medical science has adopted the responsibility of protecting people from their past lives. Untreated, nostalgia can be fatal.
“A thought leads to others, begins a chain reaction until the mind cannot control that other life surging in from the past. The result is an angry storm of mental activity, a total breakdown. I had once seen such a suffering a professional demonstration. The patient was raving, shouting all kinds of nonsense. The condition has been called possession, and has been likened to the superstition of possession by a malicious bodyless entity, a spirit.”
Frank observes this struggle in a patient who seeks his advice in the early stages of Leaking Memory Syndrome, but he, too, has his own questions and concerns. (There are some segments of the story which appear to be offered by a journalist and in the form of a notebook, which seem to offer other perspectives on events in the story, affording readers a peek at an alternate narrative.)
“We who have violated personal history and personal relationships in our bid to become immortal, can we now really know for certain who we are?” (At this, I couldn’t help but think of Laurence Scott’s The Four-Dimensional Human: I love it when books intersect!)
Personal relationships and history are at the heart of Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things, a slim literary novel designed to make you squirm.
Here, too, readers are rooted in one person’s perspective for the most part, with just enough extraneous material to raise another set of (largely unanswered) questions.
“How do we know when something is menacing? What cues us that something is not innocent? Instinct always trumps reason. At night, when I wake up alone, the memory still terrifies me. It scares me more the older I get. Each time I remember it, it seems worse, more sinister. Maybe each time I remember it, I make it worse than it was. I don’t know.”
This line of uncertainty is deliberate. “‘Maybe we’re not supposed to know all the answers. Questions are good. They’re better than answers. If you want to know more about life, how we work, how we progress, it’s questions that are important. That’s what pushes and stretches our intellect. I think questions make us feel less lonely and more connected. It’s not always about knowing. I appreciate not knowing. Not knowing is human. That’s how it should be, like space. It’s unsolvable, and it’s dark,’ I say, ‘but not entirely.'”
Reid’s novel also considers the importance of (and fragility of) memory. “A memory is its own thing each time it’s recalled. It’s not absolute. Stories based on actual events often share more with fiction than fact. Both fictions and memories are recalled and retold. They’re both forms of stories. Stories are the way we learn. Stories are how we understand each other. But reality happens only once.”
For the bulk of the novel, readers can only see what’s immediately in front of the speeding vehicle they’re strapped into; it’s deliberately disorienting and relies upon a certain amount of trust in the storyteller. Trust which is likely to be fractured, because the beams of light cast upon a limited view.
This statement from Iain Reid’s novel could actually have been pulled from any one of these four novels:
“It’s amazing that relationships can form and last under the constraints of never fully knowing. Never knowing for sure what the other person is thinking. Never knowing for sure who a person is.”
We readers might be all smug, thinking we can pin down the answers on a printed page, but those answers are just as slippery as any other, all that ink puddling into stories characterized by confusion and uncertainty.
And, yet, we continue to turn the pages: searching for answers. Have you turned the pages of any of these? Some other compelling story in your stack?