GREAT READS FOR SEPTEMBER, 2015
Disclaimer, by Renee Knight
Catherine and her husband Robert have just downsized to a smaller house; the move has been fraught with the usual chaos – things lost, misplaced, and things mysteriously appearing without any logic at all, like the book on her bedside table, ‘The Perfect Stranger’. How did it get there? She doesn’t remember buying it or receiving it as a gift, but it is late and she is tired; she’ll read a few pages to relax.
Until she realises that the usual disclaimer ‘any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead etc, has a neat red line through it, and as Cath reads on it is clear that what she is reading is account of the disastrous (for her) holiday that she, Robert and their 5 year-old son Nick had in Spain twenty years before: the horrendous secret that she thought would never be revealed is now the plot of this mysterious book, and she is its main character – and the villain of the piece.
Ms Knight’s debut novel is a finely constructed story which expertly manipulates the reader’s sensibilities; for most of the novel we are suitably outraged at Catherine’s duplicity; we feel her husband’s shock and grief at her presumed betrayal – all orchestrated expertly by a man who has lost everything, and has laid the blame for his family’s ruin squarely on her shoulders. His revenge is intended to be all-encompassing and absolute: everything he loved is dead – by her actions. He will make her suffer as he does. Then he will drive her to her (self-inflicted) death: it is only what she deserves, but not until her husband, son, and reputation are lost to her, then there will be no way back. There will be no recovery from the grievous consequences of her selfishness, and it gives him enormous satisfaction to see every part of his vengeful plan unfolding without a hitch: finally, in its last stages, his life has some meaning.
Ms Knight’s characters are uniformly credible and well realised, from Cath herself who degenerates from a strong-minded 21st century woman used to calling the shots at work and in her family life to a floundering, near hysterical shadow of herself; Robert, the honourable lawyer and supportive husband, unmanned completely by his wife’s betrayal, then hating her for it; and Nick, their only child, an aimless drop-out with a drug problem: he reacts to his mother’s supposed sins by going on an enormous binge, ending up in hospital with a life-threatening stroke - and finally, that last terrible event gives Cath the impetus she needs: it is time to fight back.
There is a satisfying resolution, if not an entirely happy ending, to the story: Ms Knight prefers reality to hearts and flowers, and that’s as it should be, for her characters all live in the real world, with varying degrees of success. As do we. FIVE STARS.
Time and Time Again, by Ben Elton
Ben Elton has written many books on subjects we would all rather not think about, climate change and the end of the world being cases in point. He is not afraid to question and explore the consequences of man’s actions on earth, that beautiful planet that is his home, and expose through clever fiction mankind’s sorry blunders.
This time, he poses the question put to Hugh Stanton, a man who has lost everything worthwhile in his life: ‘if you had one chance to change history, where would you go? What would you do? WHO would you kill to make the world a better place?’
The year is 2025. Stanton is a retired SAS officer, an historian, and a shattered man, having lost his wife and two children to a hit-and-run driver six months previously. There is nothing left for him in life, and he doesn’t know why he accepted the invitation to spend Christmas with Professor Sally McCluskey, his old Cambridge history teacher at Trinity college in Cambridge. His enthusiasm for doing anything at all is so low that he hopes he will have a fatal accident on his motor bike on the way – he could never kill himself, but if there was an accident, he would welcome it. Sadly, he survives the journey. And finds that Christmas without his beloved family, whilst full of grief, is survivable, because Professor McCluskey has a mission for him, asking the big question: ‘If you had one chance to change history ….?’
The Companions of Chronos (the God of Time), a closed society of retired university Dons wish him to journey back to 1914 to alter history, thus preventing the Great War. They have a set of equations from the great Physicist Sir Isaac Newton proving that time alters its axis by a fraction every 111 years, making it possible for a person to travel back in time, enabling him to alter whatever major world event had influenced the world for the bad: the Companions have decided in advance that ‘The Shots Heard Around the World’, fired by Serbian Gavrilo Princip, killing ArchDuke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Grand Duchess Sophie, must be prevented. If Princip were killed instead, there would be no excuse for war to be declared.
As insurance, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany should be dispatched, too, simply because he wanted war. He had been building up his army and navy for years, and would eventually find a reason to start the conflict. So Stanton is tasked with a double murder to change the course of 20th century history, to save the lives of millions of young men in the flower of their youth, and to bring peace and plenty to those countries who would have been ruined and obliterated by war.
What an enterprise! What a task! Stanton is thrilled with his world-altering mission – until he finds that the New World springing from his actions is even worse than the Old: can he change destiny again so that the old order prevails?
As always, Mr Elton rockets the reader through the pages of his alternative history at a frantic pace. His prose, whilst not exactly purple, is very often highly coloured, but did I care? Of course not. No-one (with the exception of Stephen King and his ‘11.22.63’) could make time travel through turbulent historic events more gripping than Ben Elton; and no-one can make the reader agonise more about what we are doing to our planet than he. FOUR STARS.