Thursday, May 24, 2012
The Faceless - wonderfully crafted, gritty novel
Reviewed today by The Bookman on Radio NZ National's Nine to Noon Show
Vanda Symon is Dunedin-based crime fiction writer with four admired and successful novels to her credit all featuring the sassy and ambitious female detective Sam Shephard, of whom I am very fond. The four books were published by Penguin Books in NZ between 2007 and 2011, all have been well-reviewed, she’s been called the NZ Queen of crime fiction writing, she has been shortlisted for the Dame Ngaio Marsh Crime Fiction Award, and two of her novels have been published in Germany.
She is also the Chair of the Otago/Southland branch of the Society of Authors, is a regular book reviewer in the local Otago media, is the mother of two primary school age boys, and is foiung a post-graduate degree at Otago University. Whew! Clearly a busy and focussed woman.
I had been warned in advance of reading this latest book, The Faceless, that it was not crime fiction and that it did not feature Sam Shephard. It was in fact that it was a stand-alone thriller,
I wasn’t warned though that I would find the book an uncomfortable, disturbing, even frightening read. This is the stunningly-well written but truly awful story of white middle class Bradley who works for an insurance company in a job that he hates, working day after day to support his domineering wife and two children. One day after work when it all gets too much, instead of going to the gym as he has told his wife he is doing he cruises Karangahape Road and picks up a teenage hooker. Because of his guilt he can't perform and when he thinks she is laughing at him he beats her, ties her up and takes her to an abandoned warehouse that he and his wife own. There he imprisons her in a concrete basement room that has no light and treats her appallingly on his regular subsequent visits.
It is also the story of that young woman, Billy, who is a talented artist, but she has been abandoned by her religious Fijian parents and is living on the streets, turning the odd trick as needed to get money to survive.
The third major character is Max, a self-imposed homeless man who always watches out for his friend Billy as she does him, they have a like father and daughter sort of relationship. But when Billy goes missing, the only way to find her is for Max to face up to his past life that he had formerly fled. He is going to have to call on people from that past life which will inevitably lead to the re-opening of old wounds. I can’t say too much here without spoiling the story but this does become a major part of the story
This is dark and evil stuff which the author has set in the back streets of Auckland, it is the story of the homeless – the grubby day to day living, the constant vulnerability to violence to which they are constantly exposed. It is about family abandonment, but it is also about human love and decency, it is about the breakdown of a formerly decent man who becomes enslaved with his evil side and carries out some appalling incidents, and it is about another man displaying courage and fortitude and rediscovering purpose in his life and of course it is about his friend, a brave and talented young woman.
This is probably the most powerful and ambitious writing the author has achieved but believe me it is evil stuff – something of a cross between the gritty crime fiction of Christchurch author Paul Cleave and the horror of Stephen King. I found myself so disturbed by it that after each chapter I resorted to reading a much lighter story so I was reading two books in tandem.
The Faceless is a wonderful achievement and I salute the author for it but readers be warned this is not a book to be read at night if you home alone.