Thursday, 22 May 2014

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

The remarks sheet on this library book had only one comment from a previous reader:  ‘weird’. 
And it is, in that the plot generates terrific momentum for a good two thirds of the story, then winds down to a conclusion that is hardly satisfying – at least for me.  The author’s intentions are clear (maybe!):  she has created her story as metaphor for the works of her shadowy and reclusive protagonist Stanislas Cordova, world famous film director, auteur and recluse, unseen since a 1977 Rolling Stone interview.  He specialises in the suspense and horror genre, maintaining that everyone should ‘travel to the edge of the end, for mortal fear is as crucial a thing to our lives as love.  It cuts to the core of our being and shows us what we are.  Will you step back and cover your eyes?  Or will you have the strength to walk to the precipice and look out?’
Needless to say, Mr Cordova has a cult following, strengthened by his secrecy and the fact that all his films are made on a huge Gothic estate he owns in upstate New York – he is the perfect subject for famed investigative reporter Scott McGrath to delve into after McGrath receives a mysterious phone call telling him that ‘Cordova does bad things to children’.  Unfortunately, his curiosity earns him a career-destroying lawsuit, the breakup of his marriage and a wish never to hear the director’s name again – until he reads of the death of Ashley Cordova, the director’s 24 year old daughter, a possible suicide.
Call him fatally curious after all the wrath Cordova has already visited upon him, but Ashley’s death excites Scott’s interest again in a way that nothing has since his disgrace:  he HAS to establish to his own satisfaction that her fall down a lift shaft in an abandoned building was an accident, suicide – or murder.
As his investigation progresses (aided by her ex boyfriend and a hat-check girl, one of the last people to see her alive) dark magic starts to surface:  it appears that Ashley has been marked by the devil and her death was owed to the Evil One for services rendered to her father.  Ms Pessl by this time has the reader by the throat – she can generate suspense and a lowering dread with the best of them, and as an added fillip the reproduction of notes and photographs from Scott’s comprehensive files bring the reader deep into the story.  As a literary device this is quite a novelty.  I have never been more intrigued by a plot after seeing various photos of Ashley and reading newspaper reports (mock-ups of the New York Times and TIME Magazine, no less!) of her prodigious musical gifts and the Police Report on her death:  it gives a great verisimilitude to the plot – until Scott’s investigations lead him into a maze of false starts, dead ends and trails that bring him inexorably back to the beginning.  He is a hamster on a wheel.
And so is the reader, snagged in an insoluble mystery of the fictional film director’s own making.  Each discovered revelation obscures something else, right up to the final page – where all should be explained, but isn’t.
We are forced to draw our own conclusions, as in a classic Cordova film.  The previous reader thought that Ms Pessl’s book was ‘weird’, and I can understand why:  I’ve never read anything like this before either, but I salute the writer’s many attempts to flummox and trick us, at the same  time wondering if it was really necessary – her overuse of italics, too, nearly drove me mad!
Neverthless, her powerful imagery and her creation of a protagonist in Stanislas Cordova who dominates in spite of his absence, every page of this book, must be commended.  But how many readers will last the distance?  I am sure Ms Pessl enjoyed writing this book.  I wish I could say I enjoyed reading it. 

Heartland, by Jenny Pattrick

Donny Mac is on his way home to Manawa, a tiny village at the foot of Mt. Ruapehu on the central plateau of the North Island of New Zealand.  He has just served a six-month sentence for grievous bodily harm, charges brought by the overprotective mother of an old ‘schoolmate’, someone who has taunted and bullied him since he was a child – but Donny Mac doesn’t care now:  he has completed an anger management course;  still has his job as a shelf-packer at Manawa’s New World supermarket;  a little home his late grandfather left him and a place in the local rugby team, possible future winners of the regional championship.  His life is on an even keel again and he is happy – childishly so, for Donny Mac is regarded as slow;  ‘ a few sandwiches short of a picnic’ and ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer’, but he dearly loves Manawa and everyone in it  - except for all the townies, who turn up during the ski season on Ruapehu, having bought up all the old mill houses for use as their holiday accommodation.  No local likes the townies who disrupt their quiet way of life with speeding SUV’s and raucous parties, but they accept them as a necessary evil, for Manawa is dying.  The timber mills are closed, there are no jobs and all the young folk have left to look for work in the big cities, as has happened in countless other once-thriving communities.  At least the townies spend money when they come to ski on Ruapehu, enabling the village to stutter along for another year.
Yes, Donny Mac can’t wait to get home – until he finds that his house has been appropriated in his absence by Nightshade, the local slut, drunk most of the time, and hugely pregnant – ‘ and the baby’s yours, you ##@$!!’  Which in all fairness, is drawing a very long bow:  given her non-existent reputation, the hapless baby could belong to any one of the local youths, but after being rejected by them all, she has settled on poor slow Donny Mac as a last desperate resort.  She has been abandoned by everyone.  He is her only chance of support.
And support her he does, much against the wishes and counselling of his true friends, people who love him and worry about him and wish that his life could be better, and that is the crux of this charming story:  the fellowship of a tight-knit community;  their heartfelt affection for each other regardless of blood-ties, and their wildly desperate solutions to frightening problems.

Jenny Pattrick is a firm favourite with New Zealand readers.  Her ‘Denniston Rose’ trilogy is fast becoming a classic of popular fiction, similarly the beautiful ‘Landings’ and while there are a couple of her titles that I thought weren’t up to her very high standard she has hit her mark once again with ‘Heartland’.  It is a heartwarmer of a tale in the very best sense of the word, and the only complaint I can make is that I finished it too quickly – I didn’t want to leave Donny Mac, Vera, Bull and the Misses Macaneny, finely drawn characters that will stay with the reader long after the story is finished.  Highly recommended.                

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