Take the Train – ‘After the Crash’ by Michel Bussi

afterthecrashI wasn’t going to review After the Crash. It’s not very good and life’s too short. Then, in my (otherwise wonderful) local Waterstone’s I found it prominently displayed at the front of the shop. It had a card under it that said something like ‘Set to be the must-read thriller of the year.’ This was like red rag to a bull. There is no godly reason why this should be a ‘must-read’. I then remembered that the most read review on Robins Books is my non-complimentary analysis of I am Pilgrim, a novel I’ll never understand why people like.

If I came down with a bad case of diarrhoea, then I might see that After the Crash is an essential book to have by my side, though the paper wouldn’t be anywhere near as porous as the plot.  When the book arrived on my doorstep its premise sounded delicious. A plane has crashed in the French Alps, killing everybody on board. By the time I took the book down to read, the premise was creepily prescient. Life had overtaken art. More disturbing, on top of After the Crash on my to-be-read pile was How to Stay Alive, Matt Haig’s excellent memoir on dealing with depression. Cruel cosmic coincidence.

The opening of After the Crash is chilling. The recent tragedy in France made the description of a plane full of passengers crashing into a mountainside even more evocative. Possibly I should have stopped there. The rescue operation finds a baby girl. There were two babies on board the flight, one from a rich, one poor. Which one survived? The courts have to decide.

We pick up the action eighteen years later. A private investigator was hired to try to determine the true identity of the girl. To find hard evidence, where the court only found the balance of probability. He failed, and now feels the need to kill himself. As he places the gun against his head, he notices something on the newspaper report from the day of the crash, and the puzzle is solved. He puts the gun down, then sets out to tell his employers. Shortly after he is murdered.

That’s a damn intriguing set-up and I was very much looking forward to finding out what happened.

I shouldn’t have bothered. The book moves from intriguing, through improbable, to ridiculous as it progresses. A major problem with After the Crash is that its central device is a memoir written by the private investigator. Whilst it’s convenient that one of the main players in the book wrote out everything in the style of a modern thriller, it isn’t very believable. Another central player, Mark, is handed the book to read. He has the holy grail, the key to finding out everything the investigator knew, in his possession but at no point does he skip to the end to find out what happens. The memoir contains a DNA result that pretty much would give him the answer he’s desperate for. It’s there in bold type, but he never feels the need to flick through and take a look; scared of spoilers I suppose.

The question he wants answered – Have I been sleeping with my sister?

This is a strange state of affairs. It seems to be the contention of the book, that it’s fine to have sex with the girl you grew up with, if it turns out you don’t have the same parents after all. Dude, it’s not OK, and despite what Bussi might have us believe, your grandmother isn’t going to think it is. Neither is the tight-knit community that you both grew up in. This veneer thin level of characterisation is endemic in the book. Characters behave as they need to in order to advance the plot. The rich are portrayed as sociopathic baddies, whilst the hard-working, hard-up socialists, glow like the saints they don’t believe in.

Shallow characters aside, there’s still the kernel of an interesting plot, especially when characters obliquely connected with the investigation start being killed off. As the possibilities pare down though the plot becomes shakier and shakier, until at the point of the final reveal I was left wondering why I bothered at all. The culmination of the book requires too great a suspension of belief. With some of the twists removed, the conclusion could have been satisfying. It’s hard to explain why I felt the novel failed without giving spoilers, but essentially, whilst each step in plot progression follows on logically from the previous one, the overall journey from A – Z makes little sense when looked at as a whole.

It’s possible the whole book is meant to be metaphor for a plane crash. You begin the journey, expectant about what lies ahead. The story takes off, climbing upwards as tension and excitement mounts, then you cruise comfortably towards your destination. Before long  you start looking at your watch, wondering what time you arrive. You start to notice something is wrong, the narrative turns downwards, heading out of control, faster and faster, before smashing into the mountainside, a total wreck. I wish I’d bailed earlier. I carried on to the end in the hope that Bussi could pull the plane back up, but he never does. Bump yourself on to your next book; this is one flight best avoided.

Many Thanks to the team at W&N for sending me a copy of this book

 

 

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Rerecord, Not Fade Away – The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

Harry AugustJust about everybody I’ve spoken to about this book has loved it. Harry August had been on my to-be-read pile for quite some time and finally clawed his way to the top, when I went on holiday at the beginning of the month. I was very excited at the prospect of reading about his fifteen lives. So much so, I worried that my hyped-up expectations might spoil the book for me. Need I have worried?

Maybe…

The premise and structure of The First Fifteen Lives… are immaculate. The writing is superb. The time-travel aspects work wonderfully well, and are irresistibly mind-bending. This was a book I didn’t want to end, I loved reading every page. Until the end. Then I wished the book hadn’t finished like it had. This is where, I think, heightened expectations played a part. Such was the praise for the book, I expected a seamless perfect whole. The ending jarred. It certainly wasn’t what I envisaged and considering the painstaking construction of the rest of the book, it felt far too convenient. Almost as though the author had no idea how to dismount from the convoluted literary routine she had just performed. Would I have felt like this had I not been told be lots of people that the book was absolutely brilliant? Possibly not.

The premise is simple, yet stacks up to be complicated. Harry August repeats his life, over and over. Groundhog Life, if you will. At the moment of his death, he is reborn back where he started -on the toilet floor of a railway station in the North East of England. After each rebirth, he can remember what came before. The story is then told, in a more or less linear fashion, through Harry’s lives. The first fifteen on them. I say more or less linear, the story does jump backwards and forwards between Harry’s lives. This is a memoir, and Harry tells it in the order he feels best. Even so, the overriding direction of the narrative is from life 1 to life 15.

It turns out Harry is not alone. There are a number of ‘kalachakrans’ in the world; people who are reborn over and over. More uniquely Harry has perfect recall of every moment of every life he spends. So called mnemonics are far less common, even among the incredibly rare kalachakrans. Each of Harry’s lives are essentially parallel universes. Each life is mostly filled with ordinary people, who go about their ordinary lives. Harry’s fellow kalachakrans, however, can find and meet one another, and do so, across multiple existences. That’s where the mind-bending bit comes in. The myriad meetings and messages across lifetimes and timeframes  started to hurt my brain if I thought too long about them.

Towards the end of one of his lives, Harry gets a message from the future. The world is ending. All worlds are ending and the arrival of the apocalypse is growing ever faster. A pretty compelling reason to find out what’s going on.

The layering of plot in this book is excellent. With multiple lives to play with, the novel’s heroes and villains have scope to play the long game. This in turn gives North a broad canvas on which to paint her story. She has afforded herself the opportunity to tell personal stories over a timescale normally reserved for the rise and fall of empires. This allows her to generate great depth of feeling for characters on both sides of the divide. It’s fair to say I’ve never read anything quite like it. On several occasions I had to put the book down to think through what had happened; how the multiple universes might interact. I wanted to work out how what was happening, and, in turn, what might happen. The mark of a great book.

Of course having invested so much brain-power and sheer pleasure into reading the first 350 pages of the book, it was always a risk that the denouement was going to disappoint. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, but it whatever it was, it certainly wasn’t what North delivered. I think the ending is fitting, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. So, having spent most of the time reading, thinking I would be telling everybody that The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is one of the best books I’ve ever read, I find myself wanting to say, ‘This is a truly remarkable book, but I wasn’t 100% convinced.’

But then who cares about what I think? – Without a shadow of doubt, you should read this book, take in its glory and decide for yourself.