Book Review: Like Fado

Like Fado and other stories, by Graham Mort, is a collection of thirteen short stories, the final one of which would pass as a novella in structure and length. Each tale rides on an undercurrent of melancholy. The lives explored are tinged not so much with regret as with an understanding of their transience. Histories are revealed through day to day activity, decisions made coloured by reaction and memory more than ambition. What is conveyed is told as much through the silences as conversation.

“So little time between now and then. Between one moment and the next. Between this moment and the future.”

The collection opens with Emporium, a understated yet powerful evocation of grief and its inevitability due to aging. An elderly widower walks through the small town he and his wife retired to, uncomfortable in an expensive coat that is a tad too small for his girth. The place is as much a character as those he encounters. The life he is living resonates with poignancy.

Each of the stories focuses on people and place more than plot. What is happening is used to deepen understanding of those involved. This is strong and emotive writing, presented in an engaging if often wistful tone.

Tempestade de Fogo hit hard given our current enforced inertia. It explores the pointlessness of existence when days are filled with little of note. A widow living alone in Portugal reflects on how her life as a professional musician could not continue, and the changes this brought. She is accepting of her fate, recognising the hand she had in where she is now.

Via Urbano features a younger cast of characters, yet is another story that portrays how the continuance of life cannot be taken for granted. It is also one of several tales that explores the chasms that exist between friends, however close.

There are stories exploring prejudices in many forms, including racism in Africa and homophobia in Cumbria. These are never polemic. Much else goes on alongside these attitudes. Settings are important and impressively redolent.

The final story, Whitehorn, has a distressing opening that effectively sets the scene but did not appear entirely necessary to what follows. This is a story of a son returning to confront his past following the death of his father. There is more tension in this tale, its length enabling a drawing out before the denouement.

Life and how it changes, including dealing with deaths, are recurrent themes. Each are presented as inevitable rather than something to be fought. Choices made when young have repercussions. Situations drifted into cannot be undone.

The writing is fluid and impressive, conveying thoughts with honesty, although not always the physical pain of certain moments. At times there was an almost nihilistic feel to characters’ reactions. Beauty is found in place and music with people flawed and accepting of this – any worth they may have ephemeral.

While I could appreciate the literary quality, this was a collection that left me dispirited. Perhaps it was just not the right read for a time of lockdown when it can be hard to find a point to the existence we are being forced to endure.

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

Book Review: Astral Travel

Astral Travel, by Elizabeth Baines, tells the story of a family raised in fear of the patriarch’s violence and unpredictable behaviour. It opens with his grown daughters, Jo and Cathy, together in a hospital following their own health scares. This reminds Jo of an episode during childhood. She has been digging into their past, into her interpretation of the memories that scar her, for a novel she is putting together about her wider family. The book centres on her father, Patrick Jackson, dead for ten years when she started writing about him. His actions still cast a long shadow over Jo’s existence.

“Patrick Jackson, my volatile, contradictory and entirely unfathomable father, around whom we’d always had to tiptoe”

Told from Jo’s perspective, the memories still perplex her. Patrick was an abusive misogynist – a popular charmer to those outside the family but a terror within. He would spend money freely in his bids to impress others while his wife struggled to feed and clothe herself and their children. Patrick regularly accepted work away from the ever changing homes they lived in, appearing not to enjoy spending time with his offspring.

Patrick was born and raised in poverty, in a small village in Ireland that he left aged sixteen. He met his wife, Gwen, when stationed near her family home in Wales during the Second World War. Gwen knew only the bare bones of her husband’s history – he relished the power of keeping secrets from her. He took the money she saved or borrowed from her parents and squandered it. Gwen was beautiful, hard-working and intelligent but cowed by Patrick’s deliberately cruel and controlling nature.

Such a family story could make for difficult reading but the writing focuses on the mystery behind why Patrick acted as he did. It acknowledges that a child’s memories may be flawed or incomplete. While always afraid of her father, Jo still longed for his love and understanding – to know him better. In writing her novel she seeks answers to the conundrum of his behaviour.

Within the family, Jo has long been regarded as a troublemaker – her complaints and questions provoking Patrick. When she is beaten she screams and then cries – raising the risk that neighbours may hear. She learns never to talk of her father’s actions. When she leaves and marries, secrets shared cause further trouble, and not just for her.

Jo feels closer to her mother from whom she learns much of the family history through Gwen’s anecdotes and reminiscences. Nevertheless, when Jo complains of her father’s behavior, it is Gwen who implores her not to try to speak of it to him. Always Gwen would claim, ‘Your Daddy loves you really’. It was a refrain Jo and Cathy could not help but question.

Gwen is happy that Jo is writing about her father and answers her questions about their past, albeit glossing over salient details that Jo grows desperate to understand. It is only when Gwen realises how this is affecting her daughter that she relents and offers a more factual account of secrets long kept. History can be rewritten when perspectives change.

The final reveal section had a different feel, the writing style factual rather than emotive. It was strengthened by Cathy’s reaction to subsequent discussion and how to move on. Family members, it seems, often disagree on what may be openly acknowledged and shared – even amongst themselves.

The author is a skilled writer, structuring this story to draw the reader into Jo’s world before opening up to provide a wider point of view. Patrick remains both a horror and an enigma, a victim but one who punished with deliberate brutality those deserving his love. His treatment of his son and the impact this had was particularly disturbing.

The family history going back several generations remained fascinating – the exploration of inherited impact a particular interest. In this vein, I would have welcomed more on its effect on Jo’s children. This was the only thread I felt was not covered sufficiently.

A longer book than many I read but one that never felt drawn out with unnecessary detail. The device of a novel within a novel, of memoir presented as fiction, worked well. A study of family and the many cracks in shared memory. A lingering and recommended read.

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

Book Review: Sunny and the Wicked Lady

“‘Just because she’s a story in a book,’ said Herbert, ‘doesn’t mean she’s not real.”

Sunny and the Wicked Lady, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the third story in a delightful series of children’s books featuring the titular young boy and his cohort of friendly ghosts. Sunny lives in the flat above his parents’ antique, vintage and second-hand shop, where the ghosts mostly rest by day inside furniture or a store cupboard. They come out at night to socialise and pursue their hobbies, although will occasionally join Sunny on wider adventures. Adults cannot see ghosts so Sunny’s parents believe he has imaginary friends. They tolerate this as a phase he is expected to outgrow.

The tale opens with a daytrip to Okehampton Castle – a ruin that is rumoured to be haunted. In a delicious quirk we are reminded that it is not just people who can be afraid of ghosts. The long dead Herbert has been reading a book of ghost stories that left him decidedly nervous. He became convinced that a lady said to have murdered each of her husbands could now come after him.

It turns out that Okehampton Castle is where the lady lived. She tries to follow Herbert, who is subsequently terrified when she turns up outside the shop in her carriage made from human bones. Meanwhile, the proprietor of a new museum starts to buy the ghosts’ favoured furniture. She has nefarious plans linked to her proposed exhibits.

Just like people who are still alive, ghosts can get lonely if denied company. They value their friends and are willing to help them when necessary. First impressions can be wrong, and a willingness to accept what others find important is a strength that should not be mocked. Such awareness is equally valid for adults and children.

The language and structure of the story are perfectly pitched to engage young readers whilst avoiding condescension. Indeed, there is plenty to entertain readers of all ages. The adventures related are enhanced by the wonderful illustrations. Along with the previous books in the series, this is a story of bravery and friendship that I highly recommend.

“‘You only get one afterlife,’ said Walter. ‘You might as well make the most of it.'”

 

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

Book Review: Magnus

Magnus, by Mark Carew, is mostly set on a remote island in northern Norway. Five students are spending a week studying the mosses that grow there for a project that will enable them to complete their studies. The professor overseeing their work owns the island and is nearing retirement. It is he who agreed to accept the outsider, Magnus, despite the man’s infamy putting others off attending. The group is small for what is usually a popular placement.

Magnus is older than the other students as he has struggled to graduate. His many health and behavioural issues have led to the university extending the time he is allowed to continue at the institution. This week, however, is his final chance to attain a degree. Magnus’s contempt for other people verges on the dangerous but the professor considers himself capable of managing whatever situations develop.

The island has no phone or internet connection. Power comes from a generator. Food and drinking water must be brought in. The residents are all but cut off from the world for the week they stay.

Parallel to the story of the island group is a tale of a young, English tourist, Alexander Clearly, who is travelling through Norway is search of adventure. He buys a wolf skin that he wears as a cloak and carries few other possessions. There are hints as to his relevance to the main plot and this is eventually revealed.

The arrogance of these two characters puts their lives in danger as they are determined to survive alone, on their wits, by whatever means. Along the way they encounter kindnesses that are rarely appreciated as most would expect. They are loners who only seem to regard their mothers with any sort of fondness. They wish to mate with women but lack social skills.

The dormitory accommodation on the island leads to issues when Magnus goes out of his way to be unpleasant. The group rejects him and he plots his revenge.

The writing is raw in places, which suits the animalistic behaviour of the protagonists. There is much dialogue but once the pace picks up the tale becomes compelling. I was reminded of Scandinavian Noir in translation despite this being an English work. The sense of place is strong throughout. The rituals described are evocative with the undercurrent of unease building well.

The denouement is tightly woven if disturbing. Magnus is really quite a terrifying creation when considered clearly. The reader, like the professor, will be challenged by the desire to give even dysfunctional people a chance, and the dangers this can lead to. A thought-provoking story that is well worth reading.

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

Book Review: Beautiful Place

“Luck didn’t make you feel lucky. Being saved didn’t make you feel safe.”

This book just didn’t do it for me. It happens. No reader is going to enjoy every title they pick up. Beautiful Place is big – well over five hundred pages – so it was disappointing that my personal reading experience was largely one of frustration. I will try to explain.

The story opens by introducing the protagonist, Padma, a young woman who has returned to the luxurious villa she grew up in with her adoptive father, Gerhardt. In many ways Padma’s upbringing has been typical of the children of wealthy Sri Lankans. She is well educated, although repeatedly failed her university exams. Where Padma differs from her peers is her beginnings. Her birth father, Sunny, sold her to Gerhardt when she was nine years old, fully expecting him to use her in heinous ways. Instead, Gerhardt legally adopted the frightened young girl and treated her as a good father should. He bribed Sunny to stay away.

Gerhardt is an Austrian architect who has built a solid and respected international reputation for his work over many years. He designed the villa in rural Sri Lanka that became Padma’s haven. When she returned from Columbo – where she had been living with Ruth, a long time friend of Gerhardt’s, while attending university – she asked Gerhardt, now living in a nearby property, if she could open rooms within their villa to up-market paying guests. Ever eager to support his beloved daughter, Gerhardt arranged for two small bungalows to be built in the grounds of the villa and offered them to Padma as the basis for her fledgling hospitality business.

Padma’s first guest is a young man named Rohan who is escaping the fallout from a distressing court case. He arrives with a heavy suitcase and an air of guilt and suspicion. From this inauspicious start the pair are drawn together. The villa’s chef, Soma, is unimpressed by Rohan but remains loyal to Gerhardt’s wish that Padma be protected and supported in her venture.

Sunny remains a local hoodlum. His success and influence appear to have increased over the years. He wishes to continue to profit from Padma. Despite her knowledge of his twisted hatred and ingrained greed, she believes herself strong and clever enough to resist his machinations. She agrees to visit her birth parents when told her mother, Leela, is ill.

The setting, Sri Lanka, is key. There are many rich descriptions of its natural beauty. The people, however, are largely grasping and resentful. Parents remain determined to control their offspring and arrange marriages that will not just be socially acceptable but also lucrative for the family. Small business owners take every opportunity to fleece tourists and damage competitors. The lane leading from Padma’s villa is lined by bars and brothels – and the pay by the hour guest houses their clientele frequent. All residents must buy protection in cash or favours. Connections to powerful leaders bring with them impunity.

“Sri Lankans had always fought each other, she argued; peace was not in the Sri Lankan’s nature and the social inclusion he strove for was a Western liberal fantasy.”

Padma brings down trouble on herself by acting foolishly. She is described as attractive in looks and demeanour. Her behaviour too often made little sense. The device of her guest house allows for a rolling cast of characters whose actions and reactions demonstrate the malignancy of control – the desire for power over others – both within families and throughout the country. Parents sow seeds of mistrust and hatred in the younger generation who have been raised to cede to demands made of them – thus secrecy is endemic. The parents, even loving ones, are wary of any signs of independent thinking.

This beautiful country is populated by natives who are riven by their history but joined in their desire to make money from the visiting foreigners whose habits they service yet bitterly resent. Women in particular are depicted as powerless – although they find ways to exert influence amongst family and friends. Each of the characters desires what they regard as others’ freedoms. Love is portrayed as restricting.

I struggled through the first half of the book before momentum finally picked up and the story became more compelling. The final hundred or so pages again lost my interest. For supposedly clever people, the main characters appear to court obvious and avoidable dangers. The denouement was tidy and without schmaltz but felt a long time getting there.

The narrative is lecturing in style as opinions are dissected. Plot threads felt thin and lacking depth – there to enable discourse rather than provide entertainment. As well as frustrating I found the story depressing and will now add Sri Lanka to the list of countries I have no wish to ever visit.

I am perplexed as to why those with the means to leave would choose to stay in such a place. Of course, controlling families who try to guilt trip their offspring exist the world over – while their wishes are tolerated this will not change. Beautiful Place is not a novel that engenders feelings of hope in human attitude or behaviour. My hope is that other readers glean more from this book than I managed.

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

Book Review: The Faculty of Indifference

The Faculty of Indifference, by Guy Ware, drew me in from the start but couldn’t always hold my full attention. The story has various strands, as stories do, and some were more compelling than others. I persevered and was glad I did despite particular sections failing to engage.

The protagonist of the story, Robert Exley, does not work for an insurance company, although this is what his employer instructs him to say if asked by outsiders. Instead he jokes that if he answered the question he would have to kill the inquirer. He has also been known to say this to his seventeen year old son, Stephen, who asks him each evening, “How was it today?” This started as a joke because Stephen felt he had taken on the role of wife in their household of two, cooking dinner and deciding what shopping would be needed. Robert’s wife – Stephen’s mother – died when the boy was a toddler. Robert has never sought to replace her.

People die, this is inevitable. When Robert was twenty his father killed himself, although by then the older man had been living away from his wife and son for many years. Like Robert, his father worked for the Faculty – Robert’s wife, Mary, had worked there as well. Robert had recruited her and she had become a rising star despite her frowned upon choice to have children.

Mary had spoken to Robert about the importance of cultivating indifference. On a bad day at work – as a result, perhaps, of failing to instigate action – many people could be killed. Such incidents must be lived with.

Robert’s role is to ensure that nothing happens. He is given files on suspects and may order surveillance and intervention. In a city the size of London it is not possible to watch every potential terrorist. Those working for the Faculty must make choices based on disparate facts and occasional observation. They must never talk about what they do.

The story covers the years just before and after Stephen attends university. Like his mother, he is interested in philosophy. He keeps a journal that he writes in code and that his father takes to work to be deciphered. They never mention this strange form of communication. They rarely talk about anything of import.

As well as the events that make up Robert’s days, chapters detail the contents of Stephen’s journal. Working for the government intelligence services brings with it suspicion and a need for secrecy. The interlinked webs of truth and fiction can be a challenge to differentiate.

Stephen is interested in his paternal grandfather and writes about the man’s life, even though the details he has been told are limited. I found these sections of the story slow to read although they prove notable later.

Robert’s days are of more interest until he is assigned a task dealing with a prisoner and a game of Go commences. The convoluted threads then slowly come together. The reader must decide which moves have been feints.

Key elements in the story are the importance of past and future to the present. Death hovers in the background and Robert appears to almost look forward to his. Stephen has also shown an interest yet Robert refuses to confront how his son is feeling.

“His argument concerned only the prolongation of an intolerable present for fear of – in the certainty of – an even more intolerable future. When you reduced life to that dilemma, was it possible to remain indifferent? Was one forced to live as if life might not be intolerable, forced to hope that it might even be improved?”

The denouement is something of a monkey puzzle with plenty to chew over but an undercurrent of melancholy. Stephen and Robert’s story may finish but the work of the intelligence services remains.

A story of grief and its many facets, of abandonment and strategies for self-preservation. This was a complex and not always comfortable read.

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

Book Review: The Lighthouse

“He turns, gazing back at the path of trampled grass along which he has come. Considering retracing his steps, he wonders about all the points along the way at which he might have made a mistake, missed a turning, lost in thought.”

The protagonist of The Lighthouse is a middle aged man named Futh who has recently separated from his wife, Angela. It is set over the course of a week during which he is taking what he hopes will be a restorative walking holiday in Germany. Opening on the ferry in which he travels from his home in England, the reader is quickly appraised of events that have shaped Futh’s life to date. His mother left him and his father when he was a child and he has not heard from her since. His father has always been bad tempered and Futh learned to tread carefully or keep his distance. After his mother left, Futh turned for comfort to a neighbour, Gloria, whose marriage had also broken down. Gloria’s son, Kenny, did not appreciate the attention his mother offered his classmate. The boys had little in common other than proximity and age.

Futh has booked into a different hotel each night along his planned walking route, arranging for his luggage to be transported ahead of him during each day. The first hotel is in the town of Hellhaus, run by a married couple, Ester and Bernard. Ester is a faded beauty who seeks attention through infidelity with guests. She accepts the punishments Bernard metes out for this behaviour.

As Futh travels he recalls the days just prior to his mother’s departure. He remembers the evenings spent with Gloria and his failed friendship with Kenny. Futh had a schoolboy crush on Angela but only later managed to attract her attention. She would grow irritated when he mentioned any aspect of her behaviour that reminded him of his mother. She berated Futh for what she regarded as his failings, wanting him to be more practical, like Kenny.

Futh works for a company that produces the chemical scents added to products to make them smell of the more natural essence they claim to contain – coffee bean scent added to instant coffee or flower scent added to perfume. He is attuned to smells and the memories they evoke, the people he has wanted to matter to. His mother smelled of violets, her clothes of camphor. Baked goods remind him of food she would make – of the time when she paid him attention.

The story winds itself around Futh as he stoically walks from hotel to hotel, the journey not always progressing as planned and anticipated. There are also threads exploring Ester’s background and her behaviour back at Hellhaus, where Futh will spend his final night. The reader knows that a crisis is brewing.

The author writes in taut, understated prose that is impressive in how much it conveys through brief scenes and fragmented memory. There are cracks in Futh’s life through which glimpses are offered of events he suppresses. There is a yearning for something lost that may never have existed.

I am impressed that such depth of plot and character development can be achieved in a novel of less than two hundred pages. This is a fantastic read and one that lingers well beyond the final page.

The Lighthouse is published by Salt.

Book Review: Sunny and the Hotel Splendid

Sunny and the Hotel Splendid, by Alison Moore (illustrated by Ross Collins), is the second book in the author’s series of fiction for children. As in the first book, Sunny and the Ghosts, a key character is a young boy named Sunny who lives with his mum and dad in the flat above their antique shop in Devon. In this latest book the family go on holiday where they meet Ana who is at the seaside for a week with her mother. They are all staying in the titular hotel where two of Sunny’s friends now live. Sunny’s friends are somewhat unusual as they are ghosts who arrive in his parent’s shop with furniture. The ghosts can only be seen by children so the adults will not believe that they exist.

“‘It’s funny’, she said, ‘how something can be right in front of you and you just don’t see it.'”

Despite its prime location, the Hotel Splendid is not doing well. Guests are disturbed by strange noises and bumps in the night which interrupt their sleep, leading to negative reviews on TripAdvisor. The proprietor is concerned that she may have to close if she cannot find a way to make the business pay.

Ana has always wanted to see a ghost so is delighted when Sunny introduces her to his friends. She suggests that others may choose to stay in a hotel with such residents and suggests they put on a play to highlight their existence. The adults agree to indulge what they regard as a childish fantasy. When word spreads about strange goings on, the ghosts’ settled existence is threatened.

The writing is pitched perfectly at children but the quick witted humour makes this tale enjoyable for every reader. The detailed illustrations scattered throughout the text add to the pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed the ghosts’ reaction when it appeared the hotel really was haunted. Sunny and Ana are fabulous with their calm reactions, particularly to adult disbelief.

A warm and witty story of friendship and acceptance. A plot and protagonists that will fire the imagination of readers whatever their age.

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

Book Review: Lanyards

Lanyards, by Neil Campbell, is the third book in the author’s Manchester Trilogy. I have not read the previous two works, Sky Hooks and Zero Hours, also published by Salt. From what I can quickly glean online, this current story is narrated by a man who could be around the same age as the author. Their background, work experiences and publication history appear similar. The narrator enjoys reading Knausgaard among many other male writers lauded within certain literary circles. I pondered if Lanyards could be a work of autofiction.

Campbell is a graduate of the Manchester Writing School. On their website his biography is as follows.

“Neil Campbell was born in Audenshaw, Manchester in 1973. While working variously as a warehouseman, bookseller and teacher, he had poems and stories published in small press magazines, and edited the literary magazine Lamport Court from 2003-2008. In 1999 he completed an MA dissertation on the short stories of Raymond Carver at the University of Manchester, and went on to graduate from MMU’s MA Creative Writing programme in July 2006. His short story collection Broken Doll was published by Salt in March 2007 followed by a second, Pictures from Hopper, 2011, and an e-novella, Sky Hooks, in 2014. He has also had two poetry chapbooks, Birds and Bugsworth Diary, and a story collection Ekphrasis, published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press and had a story in the Best British Short Stories 2012.”

Although much of this matches details shared by our protagonist, the narrator expresses disdain for Creative Writing courses – not least because the working class cannot afford them.

“I wanted to read great literature and try to write great literature and the further away I could get from Creative Writing the better.”

The story being told jumps around in time offering snapshots of the narrator’s life. Opening in childhood he describes: the gift of a BMX bike, hanging out with his friends, stealing from sweet shops. He writes of later when he had a job in a warehouse. This work follows a brief football career cut short by injury. Football remains important but as a spectator sport.

The narrator’s friends include local poets who meet up in pubs. Here they offer advice to upcoming writers along with the opportunity to read their work in public. At one spoken word night he meets the woman who will become his wife, an Asian born British woman who opens his eyes to casual racism.

The bones of the book are the jobs the narrator must accept to earn a living. The agency he signs up with finds him temporary work supporting SEN students and at a call centre – zero hour contracts. Wrapped around this precarious working life are the narrator’s social hours, spent mainly in pubs imbibing copious quantities of alcohol. His partner tries to interest him in theatre but he remains unimpressed, falling asleep during one show he regarded as tedious.

The narrator harbours disdain for many habits of the middle classes while nurturing his personal preferences and grievances. For example, he hankers after the old kind of pubs finding too many are now

“All too clean, somehow, too family friendly.”

The style of writing is conversational, like catching up with an old acquaintance. There are lengthy sections of dialogue interspersed with descriptions of the narrator’s day to day experiences. He recounts: days at work on his various jobs, nights out with friends, outings with his partner, football matches. The reader gains a feel for the life he is living, including his resentments and ambition as a writer.

Despite the interesting style and substance of the prose I did not become emotionally invested in the characters. Travels around Manchester painted a vivid picture of recent changes in the city, with frequent mentions of bypasses and supermarkets, but did not convey if these are more widely regarded as an improvement. At times there are sparks of anger over government policy or as a result of nostalgia. Given the choices the narrator makes I was unclear what it was he expected.

Clearly stated is a desire to emulate the authors he admires alongside derision for writers who hawk their wares on social media. All of this is conveyed within a commonplace existence where jobs are offered and lost with little regard for the worker – sadly, it has always been thus.

And yet, there is something within the tale that burrows into the mind of the reader – a spark of malcontent that demands attention. Within the ordinary life portrayed is a vibrancy, an insistence that good writing is worth pursuing. As readers we can be thankful that such attitudes persist amongst those whose voices should be heard.

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

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.