Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Prophet, by Michael Koryta

High school football Coach Kent Austin has no contact with his big brother Adam, though they both live in the same small town of Chambers, Ohio.  Chambers has little to recommend it;  its once-prosperous steel mills have closed, people have left, and those who have stayed are there mainly because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.  Adam makes a living as a Bail Bondsman, not his first choice of occupations, but it pays the bills and he’s good at it.  Having a steady income also allows him to indulge in his alcoholism, the perfect medication for the huge guilt that plagues him, for nearly twenty years before, Adam and Kent’s younger sister was cruelly raped and murdered and he holds himself responsible.
In the meantime, Kent has found the Lord, inherited the football Coach’s job, and married his daughter:  he has successfully ‘moved on’, so much so that he feels it in his heart that it’s time to visit the prison and bestow his forgiveness on his sister’s killer (who laughed in his face), thereby earning Adam’s undying hatred.  Far from ‘forgiving’ the murderer, Adam wants to kill him himself and as slowly and painfully as possible.  In Adam’s eyes, Kent has committed the ultimate betrayal, a desecration of their sister’s memory and one awful, drunken night he uses his fists on his brother to emphasise his point.
There things stand until another brutal murder takes place.  This time the victim is the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of the high School’s star quarterback and her death occurs during a make-or-break game for the Cardinals, Kent’s highly successful team;  they are on the way to the State Championship for the first time in twenty years and they have the support of the entire town, not least because it’s great to have something to be proud of again in Chambers.
The girl’s murder casts a pall over everything, but it forces the brothers into the same orbit once more:  the parallels between the latest murder and their sister’s 20 years ago have a familiarity that they can hardly bear to endure – but they must, for the latest killer has intimated that he can murder with impunity – and he is coming for Kent, and Kent’s family.
This is the first time I have read any of Michael Koryta’s books but it won’t be the last:  here is the white-knuckle ride I was promised in ‘The Boyfriend’. After reading that plodder of a book, it was pure pleasure to read a thriller worthy of the name.   That’s not to say that it doesn’t have flaws – I was genuinely surprised when Mr WhoDunIt was revealed, but the reasons for his actions I felt were less than convincing.  That said, Mr Koryta portrays familial love and sibling rivalry in pure, real terms, and it was satisfying to know that Kent, that staunch, respected, holier-than-everyone high school and town leader finally faced the consequences of actions to which he gave no thought many years before.
One last comment:  (I know I should stop here, but I can’t.  It’s the reviewer’s version of verbal diarrhoea.)  For those familiar with gridiron football, this book will be a football fan’s delight.  For those who aren’t, like myself, its rules and plays etc. shall ever remain a mystery.  I watched all the seasons of ‘Friday Night Lights’ and loved it to bits, but was no closer to understanding gridiron at the end of the series than I was at the beginning.  In my defence I have to say that in this part of the world Rugby in its various forms is King, and the All Blacks are its princely warriors.  I have tried to look for similarities between the two games but there are none that I can see, so I’ll just have to sit on my fist and lean back on my thumb, and hope that American readers will forgive my ignorance.

Gold, by Chris Cleave.
A few years ago I read a book by Chris Cleave called ‘The Other Hand’ (‘Little Bee’ in the U.S.A.), a story that has stayed with me because of its unforgettable characters (especially little Bee);  the horror and brutality of the circumstances that turn people, particularly children, into refugees; and how they fare afterwards in a supposedly caring world. 
I have been waiting patiently for Mr Cleave to produce his next opus, and here it is:  he pursues a completely different path this time, but as before commands the reader’s full attention and doesn’t relinquish it until the last page.
The London Olympics of 2012 are fast approaching, and three of Britain’s top cyclists are training hard for what will be their last big competition;  they are into their 30’s now, and despite huge former success and gold medals in previous Olympic competition, they know that this meeting will be their Swansong.
Zoë Castle is Miss Photo Op, the rock star of the trio, the athlete everyone wants to be – but no man wants to really know, unless it is to boast on FaceBook that they have worn her medals while they serviced her.  She is obsessively, destructively competitive and has no friends except her long-suffering rival Kate Argall, who through a superhuman feat of selflessness – or martyrdom, remains her steadfast ally, in spite of Zoë’s constant insults, backstabbing and, at one earlier point, her attempt to steal Kate’s man – just because he was Kate’s.
And that man, Jack Argall, is the third cyclist, brilliant, committed to his sport, to Kate, who is now his wife, and utterly committed and devoted to their daughter Sophie, 8 years old and battling leukaemia.
They all want to win gold for the last time, though in Kate’s case, it would be the only time;  she was looking after baby Sophie for the Athens Olympics, then opted out of Beijing when Sophie was diagnosed with her terrible disease.  She is now in the form of her life and knows full well this will be her last chance.
Zoë wants to win, yearns to win, needs to win again, because without victory she has nothing;  her life is meaningless without competition and victory by fair means or intimidation.  She cannot contemplate a future without being a winner:  a future down amongst the earthlings instead of soaring among the stars is unthinkable.
Mr Cleave handles his trio’s relationships, secrets and dilemmas with skill and insight;  he avoids the obvious tear-jerker element when writing of Sophie’s illness and her parents’ suffering;  instead he produces that welcome and increasingly rare phenomenon:  a novel that makes us think, a story that reflects momentous decisions that we all must make at various times in our lives, and the consequences of those choices. And when all’s said and done, that should be the objective of any writer worth his salt:  to engage his audience completely – not by literary artifice, but with a credible story, beautifully told.  Mr Cleave does so effortlessly.  Highly recommended.      

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