Untouchable Things, by Tara Guha, is one of the most chillingly perfect works of fiction I have read. The prose is impassioned. The characters brim with a raw honesty that is almost painful to explore. The plot grabs the reader with the intensity of a drug: alluring, dangerous and addictive.
The protagonist, Seth, is a Machiavellian character: wealthy, handsome and enigmatic. He tries to make sense of what he sees as the senselessness of life by filling it with sensation, sensuous pleasure, the power of a successfully orchestrated seduction. He feeds off other people.
To this end, Seth seeks out
“waifs and strays, artists lost in a world of commerce”
Before meeting him, his followers
“walked briskly, London style, towards the empty weekend ahead”
He invites his chosen ones to join him at soirées, gatherings that add glitter and excitement to lives that had previously been grey. Certain members of the group recognise the danger but all are enticed by Seth’s charisma. The reader is left to wonder if they were chosen for the damage they have suffered, or for their potential to be damaged further still.
The book is written in scenes, divided up into acts as in a play. It opens at a performance of Hamlet. Rebecca is playing Ophelia and Seth is watching, drinking in her performance, a connoisseur.
Interspersed with the prose is the text of police interviews. The reader knows early on that something is amiss, but what exactly this is requires a slow reveal.
Rebecca is invited to join Seth’s Friday Folly, an existing set of disparate individuals who, at some point in their lives, harboured dreams of artistic accomplishment. They meet fortnightly in Seth’s opulent home. Each gathering is assigned a theme and the players are required to perform. Seth exercises control, pushing beyond comfort zones and forcing each to reveal aspects of their history or character along the way.
The group become friends but how well do they really know each other? Seth is a master manipulator. He takes the natural, human desire to be accepted and admired and uses it, sometimes cruelly. He teases and flirts, encouraging and then rejecting. The friends struggle with their growing need for this damaging stimulation.
“they torture and depend on each other in equal measure”
As the tension in the group mounts towards the chilling denouement the destruction Seth is wreaking becomes tangible.
“She knew she needed to let him go […] as if he were a butterfly between her hands, as if she had caught him rather than the other way round. A more accurate term for what she needed was exorcism.”
Seth offers extremes of pleasure and then pain. As the group try to work out what he is, and why he acts as he does, they uncover terrible truths. Some struggle to comprehend that their valued bond with this man could be an illusion.
The story is a stunning display of artistry. There are layers of potential meaning alongside each allusion. It is clever and intoxicating, dangerous and gratifying with an ending that leaves the reader shaken and sated. I cannot recommend it enough.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Legend Press.