Sunday, 11 January 2009

A book of interest

Finally finished the last of C's birthday book stash over the Christmas break. The last turned out to be the 2008 novel A Person of Interest by the American writer Susan Choi.

The novel begins with a deadly explosion in the office of a successful mathematics professor at a midwestern university. The neighbouring office houses Lee, a tenured but near-retirement professor who, until the bomb, is slowly drifting into career obscurity. Tired and solitary after two divorces, Lee suddenly finds himself in the public eye. This draws Lee to the attention of the bomber who reveals in a letter to Lee that he was once a colleague. Although not supplying his identity, events in Lee's early career at graduate school furnish an obvious candidate, and one that reopens unhealed wounds in Lee's life. His first marriage, to the now long-dead Aileen, was actually her second. An affair with Lee broke up Aileen's first marriage to the evangelical Christian Gaither, with the repercussion that Aileen never saw her son again. Lee's indifference to this lost son ultimately cost him his marriage to Aileen, the realisation of which gradually dawns on Lee as his thoughts return to Gaither after the bombing. However, embarrassed by these events in his life, Lee withholds the letter from the police and, now lost in reflections on his early life with Aileen, Lee becomes an increasingly isolated figure, suspiciously so to the authorities. Consequently, when Lee's failure to disclose the letter comes to light, they identify him as a "person of interest", a label that attracts the unwelcome attention of both the press and his suspicious neighbours. Forced by twitchy administrators into a leave of absence from his university, Lee is increasingly viewed, de facto, as the bomber, just waiting for his status to switch to "suspect". Backed into a corner in large part by his own actions, Lee decides to track down Gaither by himself, determined to unmask him as the bomber and to lay to rest his ghosts from the past.

Although the above may make this sound like a fairly conventional thriller novel, it's actually nothing of the sort. While its frame is that of a home-grown terrorism story based, it would seem, on the actions of the Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski, most of the novel would be characterised as belonging to literary fiction. Lee digs deep into his past, uncovering, and for the first time, understanding his mistakes. Though Aileen is long-dead he has unfinished business with her, the sort that can only be resolved by the realisation of his past passive cruelty to her. So though the novel is, in small part, a conventional journey to "unmask the murderer", much more importantly its central character must unmask, if only to himself, his own misdeeds from the past. And, as such, it's an interesting and enjoyable read.

There are moments where it's a bit of a trial to read though. Lee is not an especially likeable character, and his furtive activities are clearly going to attract the attention of the authorities. And, frustratingly for the reader, when he is finally labelled as a "person of interest", he just keeps digging. Making mistake after mistake in his dealings with otherwise supportive case officers, Lee becomes a character that you want to shake and say "how do you think this will look to everyone else?" to. But Lee isn't meant to an entirely sympathetic character, and I (latterly) read this "digging-in" as an important part of Choi's characterisation of him.

Oddly, while remaining well-observed and in-depth on its characters, the novel loses its footing slightly on what would seem the more trivial task of plotting. The introduction of someone who is clearly an important figure in Lee's backstory is held back until late on, with no apparent justification other than to raise the reader's suspicions. It might have made more sense to ease this character in gradually throughout the novel. Suspicion of them could be retained, but it wouldn't seem so much like a rushed introduction. Also, and more bizarrely, when Lee finally does confront the bomber, he's at first whisked immediately away by the authorities, almost literally in front of the eyes of the bomber. They then prime him for a second meeting the next day, but I was left thinking that the bomber would surely have totally done a runner by then. This key confrontation scene was handled extremely clumsily, and thus left completely unconvincing. A bit of editorial input might have easily fixed this up. Not having a second meeting at all would have been my suggestion; as the thriller aspect is entirely secondary to the novel, having the feds unexpectedly swoop in at the appropriate moment would have been satisfactory.

Anyway, notwithstanding the foregoing, this was a very enjoyable and "meaty" novel. Not at all the slender thriller that might be imagined from its ostensible subject matter. I don't know whether the novelist intended it as such, but it's a very successful marriage of wholesome literary fiction with mainstream thriller fiction. And much, much better than my last dip into Carole's birthday book pile.

Having now reviewed said book pile, I realise that this isn't the last title in it. I've still got The Jane Austen Book Club to make peace with.

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