Book Review: Signal

Nightjar Press is an independent publisher specialising in limited edition single short-story chapbooks by individual authors. Having checked their website, these books sell out quickly.

I am familiar with the author of Signal from his recent novel, The Complex, published by Salt in 2019. Like his longer work, Signal has a dark underbelly. Framed by a contemporary town on the eve of Christmas Eve, the glittering fa├žade of partying nightlife contrasts with the loneliness behind the invisible masks people don on such occasions.

The story opens with a young woman, Kate, walking home after work. As she passes an apartment block on her familiar route she is looking for recognisable faces at lit windows – a kind of distant companionship. A glitch in her personal electronic device distracts her, after which she notices a naked man looking out from one of the top floor residences. He is not the only disturbance in her periphery. The narrative pulls cankers from a variety of encounters – perturbing imagery abounds.

We learn that Kate is estranged from her parents and that her sister died while at university. The grief from this latter event is still raw, invading Kate’s dreams. Unable to face her housemate’s plans for the evening, Kate embarks on a moonlit walk. The sense of foreboding is masterfully deployed.

“Town had a circus vibe.”

Throughout the unfolding tale the reader is kept guessing as to what is illusory and what real. Kate takes what some may consider to be risks, seeking closure on a period of her life denuded of prospects. It is not the darkness or shadows she fears but rather the relentless reality of her day to day existence. Her sense of loss pervades.

The reader is drawn into the tale, its unsettling developments rising like smoke to mingle with the vestiges of sense Kate tries to cling to. The writing is liminal, so much on the edges distracting from actions and reasoning. The denouement leaves much to ponder – vestiges of a storm in which Kate’s evening was the eye.

A study of grief and loneliness set around the season of glitter and hollow cheer. A broodingly atmospheric and memorable read.

My copy of this story was provided gratis by the publisher, Nightjar Press.

Book Review: The Complex

The Complex, by Michael Walters, is set in the near future. Technology has being harnessed to carry out many tasks. AI that we already know of has been further developed. There has been a war although few details of this are provided. What is clear is that the structure of the world portrayed has subtly changed.

Two couples and their teenage children are to spend a week together at a luxurious if remote retreat. Awe at the beautiful location and scale of the place is soon overtaken by concern over an occasional malevolence. Although it is still spring, the fruit and vegetables in the extensive gardens are ripening. The place is off grid and appears to harbour its own climate.

The story opens in a self driving car as Gabrielle and Leo Hunter leave the Areas accompanied by their son, Stefan, for a week’s holiday. The family have been under stress since the death of Gabrielle’s father. One of her clients, Art Fisher, has invited the family to join him, along with his wife and daughter, at a place he has access to in the mountains. Although wary, Gabrielle has agreed. As all will soon find out, Art can be persuasive.

Stefan and Art’s daughter, Fleur, are both preparing for their Finals after which they must decide on their future careers. Art has plans for Fleur to join him at the influential Fisher Industries. She has other ideas that she is pursuing in secret. Stefan is considering harnessing his tennis skills to turn professional. He has little interest in the studying his parents wish him to engage in during their week away.

Despite the glorious views and sunshine, the house in which the two families stay is a shadowy presence that increasingly gets inside the residents’ heads. Vivid dreams are recounted in which their backstories merge with the present. Gabrielle is taking medication and regularly needs to sleep, something Art encourages. Leo is disturbed by his faltering short term memory, struggling to differentiate between the fantasies he indulges in featuring Art’s wife, Polly, and the reality of their interactions. While the adults struggle to navigate a situation that is turning to quicksand, the children explore a virtual reality game. There is a need to interpret what is happening in the physical world and how this is affected by episodes playing out in each of their heads.

As the pernicious house gives up its secrets certain answers are provided. Readers must also immerse themselves in the labyrinth of connections and speculations. Control is being fought for in a game where the objectives and conditions of participation are unclear.

There are shades in the writing of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, although The Complex is much more accessible and compelling. The questioning of developments brought to mind the first season of Dark which I have recently been watching on Netflix.

Well paced and skilfully constructed this twisty and disturbing story had me questioning the virulence of technology we all too easily accept. It is a layered and deliciously unsettling read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.