Book review: Reconstruction by Mick Herron

Does life change what one reads or does what one reads change one’s life? A big question which I am not even going to try and answer – but here’s an interesting thing. I’ve started doing a new kind of workout (okay, that’s not particularly interesting – unless you, like me, have become a Crossfit fiend, in which case it’s fascinating) and the very fact that I am no longer going to the gym three times a week and bumbling through my standard weights and cardio appears to have altered my responses to literature.

Evidence: when I ran three times a week I read crime novels a lot and science fiction a bit and literary fiction steadily. When I got injured and couldn’t run I somehow slid into reading magical realism and cookbooks. Now I am a Crossfit beginner and my workouts terrify me in advance, horrify me in the doing and leave me with bruises, contusions and nights of dreamless restorative sleep in the aftermath, I am back to reading crime novels - a lot.

I’m a big follower of certain kinds of popular fiction but I also read a lot of literary fiction. A.L. Kennedy and James Lee Burke both have my attention. Hilary Mantel and Eric Ambler feature equally strongly on my bookshelf. I consider myself well-read, not elitist. When I see a book with ‘tight, literary and cliché free’ on the cover, my heart sinks like a failed Victoria sponge because it implies nerveless, thoughtless prose, plot driving depth before it like a rabbit running from the headlights and characters propped up by events, rather than underpinned by verisimilitude.

So … Reconstruction has that tagline and I am glad I got past it. This novel is tight indeed, but has exactly the kind of metafiction approach that gives the reader thought at the time, pause afterwards and much to recall long after the strict narrative has been digested. There’s even a tiny deus ex machina, beautifully handled, that tells the reader that this is what it says on the tin – a reconstruction, from the partial, variable and deeply unreliable memories of others, of a series of events that are complex in themselves and utterly labyrinthine once motivations are added to ‘factual’ evidence of events.

On the surface the story is simple – a hostage situation in which a nursery school teacher, the nursery cleaner, a parent and his twin sons are held in a room by a gunman. Below that surface are a range of stories: the spy, the police marksman, the police officer, the wife, the lover, the landlady, the … it goes on and on – a heavy event distorting the local universe so that everybody’s lives are impacted by the happenings in a small room dominated by an accidentally acquired gun.

There’s some of that wonderful stuff that the British do best: world-weary espionage conducted by cynical men who aren’t paid enough to believe in what they are doing, but do it anyway. Le Carre and Ambler have a worthy successor here.

There’s also some nicely handled police procedural material: close to John Harvey in gritty realism but definitely downplayed to perfection.

Above all there are believable ‘ordinary people’. The wonderful, doughty Louise whose life is dominated by the arrival of a sick mother whose presence has taken over Louise’s home. The un-wonderful inglorious but utterly believable Judy who has been betrayed by life and who is definitely keeping score. And there is Eliot, a man whose life is getting away from him on multiple levels … all three of them, in a room with a panicked young gunman.

I can’t say too much, because it gives away the multi-layered complexity of a plot that relies on partial reconstructions of an apparent reality to keep its many balls in play – and it does, very successfully. If you like pace with character, if you enjoy being puzzled and the world of British spy culture interests you, this is a fantastic read. It’s the fourth of Herron’s six novels, apparently, and I think I will be reading them all.

Labels: , ,