Nicky Gayle

Devon / London
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5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 17-10-19

With what is beginning to feel like teasing skill, the author Alex Callister has outgeneraled her reviewers, defying them to draw attention to the excellencies of this new addition to the developing legend of Winter without strewing the hungry churchyard with the bones of spoilers. ("Romeo and Juliet", in case you’re wondering.) I am champing at the bit to tell you about the fiendishly clever discrete chapters and their embedded relevance to the plot, the ducklings who waddle into the narrative and establish a welcome presence there, the increasingly dystopian near-future which suddenly seems to become all too close to realisation; but I can’t do so without the risk of the author’s putting into practice some of this new book’s more arcane and grisly ways to suffer. Possibly Ms Callister resembles a benign elderly maiden aunt residing in Bournemouth, sipping tea in the afternoons and delighting in the occasional foray into the world of crochet—and possibly not. This reviewer is certainly not going to chance it. Anyone who can dream up such a sinister and utterly terrifying figure as The Guardsman is assured of my silence as regards the twists and turns in this oh so clever narrative arc—not to mention as many stars as Audible will allow.

Even our greatest writers fail at the hurdle of delivering a second novel to match the admired qualities of their first offering—indeed, it is virtually a truism of literary criticism. But everything which garnered so much praise (not to mention a loyal fan base) in "Winter Dark" where Winter made her debut is there in this sequel—and to the same high standard. Its well-judged pace, its many moments of dark humour, its use of present tense narrative in a way that increases dramatic visualization for the reader are all there; and most of all what the author does best, small-scale interactions between her female characters on all levels, from the momentarily empathetic to the skeptically ironic—and occasionally overtly sexual. Alex Callister seems incapable of creating even a transient walk-on female character who does not immediately come completely alive before the ears, even if that character’s existence is confined to a mere couple of sentences. No contemporary thriller writer known to me does female-to-female interaction better. And talking of other writers, their imprint is there for the hungry literary detective to unearth, if so minded. A book like this does not emerge from a vacuum, but Alex Callister nods only to the crème de la crème: Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, John le Carré’s Smiley, and even dame Agtha—not to mention a host of action movie references for those in the know.

The performance—and it IS a performance, not a mere reading—is just as superlative as it was in "Winter Dark". Ell Potter, Audible’s "break-out narrator for 2019", as the present reviewer understands it, breathes a kind of passionate life into the whole that frankly makes one wonder why Audible does not use her more. For example, see the devilishly clever finale, where both performer and writer are at their finest. This is surely what Audible was invented for.

The word "finale" here is deliberately chosen, for there is a distinctly operatic feel to the climax. It falls in two distinct parts, the first being a small group ensemble and is quite the best scene in the book: doused in black humour, we are treated to the delicious spectacle of an increasingly bewildered Winter faced with her failure to predict correctly imminent events, not once, but three times in succession. From here we move into a grand large cast ensemble second scene for the finale proper, which brings everything to a Wagnerian conclusion. As the final chord dies away and the curtain comes down, before you applaud and head for the exit and the cold street air of quotidian life, you will certainly be asking yourself what this star composer is planning for you the next time you take your seat in the stalls. Whatever devilment it is, my advice is to book early and avoid disappointment.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful


5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 15-04-19

Books—and by extension, audiobooks—are like people. Most pass us by without imprint or meaning, while some effect a temporary impression before slipping away; a few remain in the memory, ensconced there like lost loves, kind friends or private dreams. It is this lodging in the memory that is key in our decision to accord value, be it to a desire, or person or book—and it is why a man whose day job is writing scholarly stuff about poetry is moved to step out of the comfort zone of his literary ivory tower to write what follows. The final cadence of this deceptively deep thriller in Ell Potter’s masterly reading has fallen; my ear buds lie forlornly on the table, now unused; and still I find myself turning over and over scenes from the book when I am idling or engaged in mundane tasks, or—heaven help me!—when I should be wrestling with great poetry with a scholar’s mind and eye.

There are already scores of reviews of this debut novel drawing attention to the book’s striking outward characteristics, and beyond doubt there will be many more: its pace, its sexiness, its gripping contemporary plot set in a slightly dystopian but easily realisable future, its clever culling of thriller elements old and new (‘Killing Eve’, Lizbeth Salander, James Bond, et al.) its glossy sheen of all-round kick-assiness—it is redundant to elaborate on such a litany here, especially as there are certainly many reviewers better qualified to do so than I. Take all these as a given. Instead, I want to draw the reflective reader’s attention to the book’s hidden qualities which seem to me to be impressive, for, like the very different thrillers of Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and John le Carré, this is a book that conceals more than it reveals.

The eponymous heroine Winter—whose first name we do not and must not ever know—shares certain mythical qualities with the greatest adventurer of them all, Odysseus: both are endlessly resourceful and full of lies and tricks, both engage with monsters and are over-confident and are alluring to women, each is capable of huge violence, and both are on a journey—though only Odysseus knows that he wants to go home. Winter has no Ithaca and her rootlessness, the result of psychic damage as a child, is the engine of her soul. There is a lot of physical screaming and crying aloud in this book, but none carries more unmistakably than the unvoiced crying of a frightened little girl as she shivers under a blanket in an unspeakable Russian orphanage, trying to get through the night. With one necessary exception, Winter is very good at keeping this little girl from the purview of those whom she engages with, but she does not deceive us, and neither should she; we must perceive her as through a glass darkly, for the child locked in the lumber-room of her heart points to the one little patch of humanity on which Winter makes her stand.

It is odd that no reviewer at the time of writing has pointed to the emotional core of the book, which carries a strong resonance of John Fowles’ ‘The Magus’, for Winter’s captivity on the island and her duel for subjection and dominance that plays out with her own Prince of Darkness is a fine example of a creative reworking of influence. Let no one think there is an implied criticism here, for what is Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ but a massively, superbly reworked ‘Jane Eyre’? Be that as it may, the placing of this long episode of Winter’s island captivity is the first (and I would argue, the best) of the book’s two climaxes, with the background presence of the sea framing both: the first here on the island, the second inside a sea-bound freight container. It is a tribute to Callister’s assured sense of architecture that she does not place this earlier, quieter, yet most powerful interaction at the end of the book, as the unwritten rule of thrillers and commercial fiction demands; she dutifully gets around this by offering a very sexual ‘climax’ of submission that will satisfy nearly everyone. Nor is this all: reader/listeners interested in unearthing other reworked influences will revisit with profit Angela Carter’s ‘The Bloody Chamber’ which, despite the lack of a piano tuner or mother figure, finds many playful resonances and echoes in Callister’s novel.

This is not a book for the undemanding reader who likes every dangler snipped and tied as the story comes to its end; because of the personae, the masks Winter assumes, her biography remains misty and uncertain, forcing us back on our own efforts to fill in the gaps. How exactly did a frightened abandoned child evolve into an anti-social teenager of extraordinary technical and physical capabilities? Note also that this is a book disturbingly devoid of father-figures; the child—Snow White—Winter— Bluebeard’s victim—the lover and destroyer of the Prince of Darkness—in all her incarnations no paternal image is sought or seemingly required. Fertile ground indeed for future developments, and which cry out to be explored.

To reduce the focus to the sexual side of the book is inevitable, given that it carries such a distinct erotic charge throughout, but from the many reviews this seems to have divided reader/listeners sharply. Sexual activity is famously difficult to describe in a way that doesn’t make one want to laugh, snort or cry—even the greatest authors fall at this hurdle, either aiming too low or too high at the bar—so I shall only say this: Winter exhibits a vulpine sexuality as she careens through the trajectory plotted for her, but she is often most sexually interesting when she responds suddenly rather than after consideration. The backward-glancing appreciation she shows a pretty maid in Paris, for example—an appreciation never to be consummated—is much more effective than the full kit and caboodle offered in the final scene with her Prince of Darkness. Her non-discriminatory omnisexual nature—young women, teenage boys, dirty punters in a brothel, the Prince of Darkness that she should never have had sex with—are all grist to her omnivorous mill, but it is not what is important about her. What matters are her twin sides, the Odyssean and the abandoned little girl, both who compete within her for something that remains forever out of reach and for which her sexual appetite provides the only compensation. A poor one, we might suspect.

If my reading of Winter is correct, it will be obvious why the attempt to film her (especially in standard glossy Hollywood format) will require a heightened degree of sensitivity if the contrapuntal nature of the narrative is to be preserved. If all that the camera and adapted script picks up are sleek tanned bodies, impressively explosive hardware and incrementally jaw-dropping special effects, then this will reduce the whole to just another turbo-charged super-hero thriller, like an extraordinarily tasty pizza for a Saturday night, forgotten as soon as the packaging is cast into the bin. What Winter requires to bring her into the light of the imagination is the filmic equivalent of Ell Potter’s wonderful voice whispering in one’s ear. ‘Winter Dark’ succeeds in a way that other novels of its kind do not quite manage to do because their larger-than-life heroes eat up the whole world, leaving nothing over to blossom in the spring. But as Shelley wrote, ‘If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?’ Everyone knows this famous line of course, and it might seem like a cheap poetic shot; but it is not, because in the same poem there is a couplet that reminds of Winter’s Janus face:

‘Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere;
Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!’

We are left to ask, which will she be?

10 of 14 people found this review helpful

The Message to the Commissioning Editor

3 out of 5 stars
1 out of 5 stars
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 21-07-13

Iris Murdoch created a mythic upper-class English world as recognisable and idiosyncratic as Graham Greene’s ‘Greeneland’, but its essential feature for the purpose of this review is its irredeemable Englishness, with all that that connotes. When we listen to an audio book – pace its many advantages – the aural playing-space of our imagination has to surrender to the domination of another’s voice so that we are, to a particular extent, at his or her mercy. The reader in this case is the highly versatile and gifted Carrington MacDuffie who hails from North America and who clearly delights in trying out a variety of British accents to ‘bring the book to life’; the results however are – with the curious exception of Irina’s – lamentable and verging on the pantomimic. Honesty is demanded here, not least because the unwary buyer may be forking out the full price of £31.59 for the download and deserves to be forewarned; but also because the eyes of the editor may fall on what I record here and who knows: this may start a ball rolling wherecommissioning policies and practices are reviewed.

We all have opinions, but they are of no account here: let us stay with the facts. Throughout the entire book Ms MacDuffie’s spirited attempt at English intonations is sabotaged byher relentlessly pronouncing words with an American stress accent rather than English: that is, privileging final vowels over penultimates (viz., ‘garAGE’ for ‘GARage’.). In Murdoch’s Oxford English world this creates the aural equivalent of someone in a performance of Julius Caesar going on stage arraigned in traditional costume but wearing glasses. Ms MacDuffie clearly has the correct idea that Scots’ voices and Irish voices sound different from Oxford English, but assuredly no Scot or Irishman ever sounded like these, not even in the days of Music Hall entertainment. Some words are so bizarrely mispronounced that I cannot believe that any type of American accent would treat them so: ‘docile’ – a favoured word of Murdoch’s – regularly comes out as 'dossill', rhyming with ‘fossil’, to give but one instance, whilst short vowels are sometimes lengthened, to disconcerting effect. (‘Cosmos’ becomes 'cosmose', rhyming with ‘morose’, ‘veranda’ mutates into 'verarnda', to rhyme with ‘demand a’.)

If that were the worst of it, we would let it go; but unfortunately Ms MacDuffie extends her vocal characterisations beyond the Celtic, so that we are treated to the central character of Marcus, whose ‘voice’ is achieved by sinking her own into her boots as a woman might in imitation of an embarrassing uncle, whilst the ‘Scottish’ Alison, whose voice she sends in the other direction makes her sound about ten years old. Ms MacDuffie has a good stab at Patrick, the Irishman, though unfortunately it is the accent more of an Englishman in the pub trying to add verisimilitude to a joke beginning, ‘there was this Irishman…’ But the nadir is reached with the introduction of the Stone People, whose vocalisation crossed the line between the ridiculous and just anger-making: I say this because when Murdoch invites the outside world into the carefully constructed arena of her novels, it is a moment always pregnant with significance, and one needs to concentrate. What happens here? One can almost imagine Ms MacDuffie’s thinking, now what voice shall I give them? The answer is readily apprehended by anyone who has sat through Dick van Dyke’s ‘Cockney’ accent in Mary Poppins.

I hope I have not been unduly harsh, but presumably Ms MacDuffie did not do this reading for love and was paid for it; and this is an expensive download for anyone not using a credit. Audible should not be allowed to produce such results at such a price and go unchallenged: I hope someone in the corporation will take note.

22 of 23 people found this review helpful