Monday 6 July 2009

hurting distance

This was the reading group's book for July and to tell the truth I was not particularly looking forward to the read. The jacket of the book describes the novel as a creepy, twisty thriller about psychological torture. Now I'm not much into torture and even less into psychological torture. As it turned out what it said on the tin was not what was inside, bearing out the old adage of not judging a book by it's cover. Hurting distance by Sophie Hannah is an enjoyable read and a well crafted tale.

It is a thriller of sorts and as it deals with rape, the main women characters have suffered quite brutally and traumatically. It starts off with an account by the central character, Naomi Jenkins of her visit to the house of her married lover, Robert, who failed to turn up for their usual weekly tryst. Told in the first person, Naomi is clearly very worried that something bad has happened. She wanders by the house and falls into a panic attack on seeing something inside the house. As she leaves she is accosted by her lover's wife who calls her by her name and aggressively warns Naomi off. Worried by what she has seen – we do not know what this is – she decides to go to the police with her worries. We are thus straight into the mystery – what if anything has happened to Robert? Naomi also gives glimpses into her unusual relationship with Robert, one in which she is clearly in awe of the man.

Thereafter we gradually learn more about Naomi and the other characters – Robert, his wife Juliet and the woman police detective, Charlie. We also find out what did happen to Robert and what Naomi did see in his living room. As all this emerges we are led into a pretty horrific and sordid world of men's violence, both physical and psychological, to women. The novel builds up a fairly thrilling and violent climax as the guilty people are revealed. All the main action takes place over eight days, though there are frequent references to action earlier on.

However this is no edge of the seat chiller. In fact it is very funny at times and could almost be a black comedy, though it is not really black enough, despite the subject matter, for this accolade. A lot of bad and nasty things happen to the main women characters, but they all seem to be or to become if not in control at least not merely subservient oppressed victims.

An interesting feature of the novel is the use of the first person for Naomi. Every alternate chapter is Naomi's own story in her own words. It is never clear what this is meant to be – a diary, a tape recording, or what? The other chapters are all straightforward third person narrative. I am not sure what the purpose of this bifocal approach is. I've come across it before, in Stef Penney's the Tenderness of Wolves, and I didn't understand its use there either. While the first person does give an intimacy to the accounts, why only for one character? While she is the central character it still doesn't explain why only her. It is quite common for novels to use different perspectives, but I am still not convinced of this use of one character in the first person and the rest as the author's narrative. Still, all in all this is a good read.

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