Review published on July 20, 2017.
Whilst working in Karachi, as a mid-level executive for the Pepsi Corporation, Marc has been kidnapped by terrorists. As those responsible for his capture decide what will happen to him, two local men take it in turns to guard him. Every night he is blindfolded prior to visits from his mysterious, female interrogator. Initially reluctant to tell him her name, when pressed she tells him that he can call her Josephine, although this is not her real name. However, in spite his protests, she continues to insist that he cannot be allowed to see her face. Initially her questions focus on who in America will pay a ten million dollar ransom for his release – his employer, his ex-wife, family, friends? However, when it becomes clear that such a large sum is unlikely to be forthcoming from any source – because he is not important enough in the organisation and, on a personal level, is estranged from everyone he has ever been close to – she suddenly confronts him with why he didn’t return home for the funeral of his nineteen-year-old daughter Claire, who had been murdered a month earlier. She then wants to know what Claire was like and why his relationship with her had become severed prior to her death. Although shocked and upset by this unexpected line of questioning, Marc gradually begins to reveal details about his memories of his daughter, wife and family. Josephine then begins to tell him stories about what the future might have held had Claire not been murdered; this then enables Marc to begin to invent his own stories in which his daughter is still alive.
So begins an almost Scheherazade-like nightly ritual of story-telling, in which Claire, having survived the murderous attack, is 34 years old, married, has a young daughter and is running a hotel in California with her husband. On hearing that her father is in hospital, possibly dying, she sets out on the long journey across America to Michigan. On the way she picks up a hitch-hiker, Genevieve, who begins to create an alternative story for her about the life Marc has led during their fifteen-year estrangement.
I found this a compelling and powerful story and loved the way in which the author allowed his characters to manage their feelings about the various losses they had endured and to find comfort in the imagined alternative lives they could have led. The lines between what was fact and what was fiction very quickly became blurred in this imaginative story-telling, something which was sometimes disturbing but also strangely comforting because it opened up the possibility of alternative scenarios and of resolution, redemption and forgiveness. Marc’s sense of reality was distorted by his blindfold, the strangeness of his captivity and not knowing exactly where he was being held, so being able to escape into the realms of fantasy felt like a distraction as well as a comfort. As a reader I could identify with this, especially on those occasions when the reality of his captivity became too painful and disturbing for him, leading to an almost overwhelming need to move away from it, to believe that there could be hope and to experience a better place. This was a wonderful example of how important it is to be able to use fiction to find a way to resolve traumas and to explore a different way of living and relating.
This is a story not only of loss, fear and pain, but also of hope and empathy and there were moments when I felt profoundly moved by it. I became so involved in the parallel stories that I experienced each one as having its own valid truth and ceased to wonder about what was and wasn’t true, that just didn’t seem to be important – perhaps a reflection of the author’s impressive skill as a communicator. There was an almost viscerally sensual thread which ran through the stories, adding an extra dimension to the lives, real and imagined, of the characters; I thought that the author’s handling of this was, for the most part, subtle and sensitive. His writing style is elegant and I often found myself admiring his beautifully constructed sentences and lyrical language almost as much as his story-telling gift! The epilogue provided a not altogether unsurprising ending and yet in no way did this undermine the power and comfort of the alternative story-telling which had preceded it. I am left feeling haunted by this book and know that it will continue to resonate with me for a long time.
This would be a perfect book for reading groups because of the wide range of themes it encompasses and the author’s approach to the power of story-telling – I’m looking forward to introducing it to my group!
Linda Hepworth 5/5
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Picador 9781509810550 hbk May 2017
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