Sunday, June 5, 2016

61 Books: #28

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–27 are below this post.

28. Sharon Bolton, Little Black Lies (2015) (6/5/16)
Every year or two or three, my brother-in-law, a mystery fan, writes me out of the blue to inquire whether I've read a particular book. Two days ago, another such inquiry came. Although I am actively reading a clutch of (mostly nonfiction) books right now, none of them is proceeding quickly, and I've been feeling a bit of pressure over this project because here it is already June, and I still have 34 books to read by December. So when the "suggestion" (which I suppose the inquiries amount to) of a new book arrived, I dashed to the library, then planted myself on the couch for the duration.

This book, winningly, is set in the Falkland Islands, with its unusual recent history (the war of 1982), landscape (hilly, windswept, boggy, mostly treeless), and wildlife (especially birds and cetaceans), not to mention its close-knit society, which begins to unravel as, over the course of a few years, children, periodically, go missing.

The story is told sequentially from three points of view: Catrin, who three years earlier lost her two young sons in a freak accident caused by her best friend, Rachel—who is the third narrator; and the middle narrator, Callum, a Scotsman who remained on the islands after the war, and Catrin's lover at the time of the accident. In the intervening years, Catrin has withdrawn from those she once was close to, including her now ex-husband. She functions mainly through her job, working for Falklands Conservation as a marine biologist.

As the third anniversary of her boys' death approaches, another boy goes missing: making for three mysterious disappearances in as many years. And then, yet another follows: this time, it's Rachel's youngest.

Events are recounted from each point of view in a day-by-day narration. Masterfully, Bolton does not repeat—or if she does, it's deliberate. She relies on the reader to be soaking in the relevant details and adding new ones in as each narrator steps up.

Woven through the tale are snippets of Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," with its albatross (a Falklands resident), the symbol of guilt and grief.

As I reached the end, the story was twisting and turning like a writhing rattler, and I prepared myself for disappointment. But happily, Bolton came through. It's all not necessarily believable: I doubt any such tale could happen in reality. But this is a mystery, genre fiction, and the story is crafted beautifully. Right up until the last page.

More than the mystery itself, however, I was taken by the elegant descriptions of the land and people, human history and natural history, of the Falklands. For example:

"As I drive across the stone run some small, grey birds that have been sheltering among the rocks fly up and, for a few seconds, I am surrounded by them. It's as though the rocks themselves have taken flight.
"The stone runs are strange, almost unearthly rock formations. Barely known in other parts of the world, they are common here, snaking across the landscape like rivers. I like to think of them as ancient pathways, built for travellers as distinct from man as we are from the thousands of other creatures we share these islands with. There is a purpose to these stone runs, I'm convinced, a reason why ribbons of boulders should snake across the countryside.
"There have been times when I've driven this way and sworn the stone run has come to life, started flowing again as scientists believe it once did. It happens when the light is playing a peculiar trick, when the clouds are low and both the wind and the sun are strong. Then, shadows are cast, millions of small absences of light that race across the ground, and the stones, which are anchored as firmly as any rock could possibly be, seem to slide, tumble, roll on down the hill. Blink hard and they stop. Glance back from the corner of your eye and they resume their crazy, imaginary flow."

Google "Falklands stone runs" to see. They do look beautiful.

There's a brilliant, brave description of the euthanization of close to two hundred beached pilot whales, as well as flashbacks to battles during the Falklands War. Even such mundane things as the colored roofs of the town of Stanley are vividly described.

Three things rubbed me wrong: a talking horse (not really, but the character's imagination didn't need to let the horse have the last word); too much reliance on a PTSD blackout; and use of the phrase "clinging to her like cheap perfume." Noooo, not a cliché! Otherwise: okay, maybe not perfect, but pretty darn good. And not even just for a mystery.

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