YET MORE GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2013
The Son, by Philipp Meyer
What a privilege it was to read this book. It is a novel in the grand style, epic in every sense. Chris Cleave, a writer I much admire, stated in the jacket notes that it should come with its own soundtrack, and all who read this wonderful story will know exactly what he means, for this is a great family saga couched in the birth and tumultuous history of Texas, that wild land won from Mexico in a bloody war and proclaimed a State in 1836, the year Eli McCullough is born. He is the younger son of a settler who also doubles as a Ranger, protecting with his companions and neighbours their fledgling properties from rustlers and no-goods – mostly Mexican, or those bloodthirsty Comanche.
In 1849 when Eli is 13 and his father is away Rangering, Comanche attack the McCullough farm, raping and butchering Eli’s mother and elder sister and kidnapping Eli and his brother Martin. White captives are as good as money in the bank to the Comanche: when times are hard they can always ransom them back to the palefaces. Martin, scholarly and introspective, does not survive the arduous trip back to the tribal village, but Eli is made of something stronger; he not only survives but embraces all that is fair and good about his captors and stays with them until the smallpox kills those he most loves and starvation forces the rest of the band to ransom him back to the nearest white outpost.
Eli is the patriarch of this story. He narrates his own sections of the book with a verve and gusto missing from his son Peter, also a narrator through his journals. Peter sees himself as a man of lofty and noble principles when compared to his father – but he cannot help noticing that all their Mexican vaqueros would follow Eli through hellfire but never for Peter would they show the same devotion.
His principles are put to a terrible test and found wanting when his father and friends mount a punishment for cattle-rustling that turns into a massacre of his nearest neighbours, a family descended from Spanish nobility. This crime reverberates through succeeding generations, becoming the metaphor for the dog-eat-dog ruthlessness of the early founders of the Lone Star State, and the tipping point for Peter who is forced to realise several bitter truths about himself that he finds intolerable to live with. He becomes the Family Disgrace and is never mentioned by future descendants, most notably J.A. McCullough – Jeannie, a determined chip off the old Eli block, driven to succeed and thus earn the respect of her male counterparts in the Oil industry. Sadly, this seems to be an unattainable goal: her femininity will always bar her from that exclusive club of Good Ole Boys and she is fated to end her long life contemplating her many life regrets, chief among them being that she could never be A Son.
Mr Meyer has written a great novel; a story as austere and beautiful as the country itself, with colourful characters as flawed as the times - especially Eli, that small brave man who becomes a titan of Texas history, a ruthless murderer to his son Peter, but a man who would speak the truth at all times – and who knew the truth about himself and was not afraid to live with it.
And Chris Cleave is SO right: this is where great rolling, crashing musical chords by John Williams or Howard Shore should knock us off our feet: this epic demands nothing less. ‘The Son’ should become a contemporary American classic. Very highly recommended.
Let Me Go, by Chelsea Cain.
They’re back again – burnt-out but brilliant Detective Archie Sheridan, his nemesis the evil (but gorgeous) serial killer Gretchen Lowell, and Susan Ward, ex-reporter (she was sacked) and surly freeloader at her Hippie Mum’s house (just for a short time.) Ms Cain’s five previous books in the series have had all the successful ingredients for the perfect thriller: smart plotting, lashings of suspense, credible characters, and black humour to burn: it is a recipe that can’t fail – can it?
Well, this time I think Ms Cain has missed the bus. It’s not that this reader grew tired of Archie and Gretchen et al; it’s just that this time around it seems that there are no new ideas. There is a distressing sameness, a tired, here-we-go-again familiarity with plot twists and turns that in all other books (see December 2012 review below) seemed fresh and new; now the reader, instead of being pleasurably excited merely thinks ‘Oh, for Heaven’s sake: get on with it!’
And that’s a shame, for Ms Cain is a clever, witty writer; she can evoke atmosphere and dread with the best of them: sadly, in this story suspense takes a back seat.
Gretchen has escaped – again – from custody. No-one knows where she is and Archie is being kept out of the loop on any relevant developments by his friends and colleagues, who know what a destructive hold she has on him. It’s for his own good – at each meeting she keeps on removing important bits of his anatomy – there’s not much left! Archie’s marriage is over (now that’s a surprise) and he has embarked on a new affair, strictly physical with his neighbour downstairs. Who is a Gretchen lookalike. Right. Susan, who harbours strong feelings for Archie (and what woman does not, despite his lack of a spleen and multiple scars (one in the shape of a heart) compliments of Gretchen) has been invited to a very posh party given by her boyfriend’s hugely rich and powerful drug-dealer father, there to be kept against her will in spite of FBI surveillance. Archie also has an invitation and who should be there but Sex Bomb serial slasher Gretchen – oh, everyone turns up; it’s quite a party and the plot thickens at an alarming rate; in fact the plot moves so rapidly and so many new, minor characters are introduced that the story takes on a Keystone Cops quality. Suffice it to say that blood runs freely, bodies (mostly killed very messily by Gretchen) litter the landscape and the good guys escape by the skin of their teeth: predictably, so does Gretchen which naturally means that there will be book number seven. This could be a bridge too far for this reader; much as I have loved the previous stories I think Gretchen and Archie should settle their differences – kill each other or move on!
Kill you Twice, by Chelsea Cain.
This is the fifth novel in Ms Cain’s series of the battle of wills between Super Detective Archie Sheridan, brilliant but damaged White Knight in the fight against evil, personified by gorgeous serial killer Gretchen Lowell.
Not much has changed in Ms Cain’s plotting armoury: yet another crazed killer is on the loose in Portland Oregon, despatching victims in new and hideous ways, and this time leaving not a single clue for Archie and his dedicated task force. It becomes increasingly clear (especially as Gretchen sends him tantalising messages from the mental hospital where she is now incarcerated) that he will have to consult the fiendish Ms Lowell in a bid to find out more about the killer: it takes one to know one, as they say.
Archie survives the meeting – just; as the awful Gretchen was heavily drugged and restrained his physical health was not endangered, but oh, what about his head: it was nearly done in! Talk about fatal attraction – the old, dreadful chemistry is at work as always, and Archie must contend not only with that but also the determined advances of Susan Ward, irritating girl reporter, and a new and sizzlingly sexy occupant of his apartment building. His problems with women appear to be endless – and baffling to the reader, because Ms Cain’s description of his physical appearance is less than kind: one can only conclude, then, that his aftershave is irresistible.
Regardless, Gretchen’s information, supported by determined sleuthing from Ms Ward, moves the action along at a hectic rate. Although she has unkindly characterised Portland as having more than its fair share of crazies, Ms Cain knows its topography well and is masterly at evoking atmosphere and suspense. I defy anyone not to keep reading until they reach the end of this great page-turner, especially when Gretchen breaks out of the hospital, leaving a trail of corpses behind her (oh, she’s so resourceful!) and has one last, revealing meeting with Archie. It has to be said that Ms Cain’s plotting is getting a little wild, but roll on, Book Six - I’ll be waiting!