Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Book Review | Caraval by Stephanie Garber


Scarlett has never left the tiny isle of Trisda, pining from afar for the wonder of Caraval, a once-a-year week-long performance where the audience participates in the show.

Caraval is Magic. Mystery. Adventure. And for Scarlett and her beloved sister Tella it represents freedom and an escape from their ruthless, abusive father.

When the sisters' long-awaited invitations to Caraval finally arrive, it seems their dreams have come true. But no sooner have they arrived than Tella vanishes, kidnapped by the show's mastermind organiser, Legend.

Scarlett has been told that everything that happens during Caraval is only an elaborate performance. But nonetheless she quickly becomes enmeshed in a dangerous game of love, magic and heartbreak. And real or not, she must find Tella before the game is over, and her sister disappears forever.

***

The circus been the subject of some remarking writing in recent years, from the marvellously moving Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti to The Night Circus' unbridled delight, so I came to Caraval—a book about which there has much such buzz—with hope of happiness in my heart. Sadly, Stephanie Garber's debut is more like a watered-down Water For Elephants than either of the efforts aforementioned.

"It took seven years to get the letter right." (p.3) Seven years of begging and pleading. Seven years of congratulations and salutations. Scarlett tried asking the master of Caraval for tickets to the greatest show the world has known on her own behalf—alas, he didn't answer. She tried intimating that it would be her darling little sister's wish to play the planet's greatest game—but no dice were ever delivered. Perversely, then, it was only when Scarlett wrote to tell Legend that her imminent marriage meant she'd no longer be able to attend in any event that an invitation finally came in the mail.

Three invitations arrive, actually: one for her, one for her mysterious husband-to-be, and one for her no longer so little sister Tella. When that latter sees Legend's letter, she does her utmost to convince Scarlett to take him up on his offer:
Nothing we do is safe. But this is worth the risk. You've waited your whole life for this, wished on every fallen star, prayed as every ship came into port that it would be that magical one carrying the mysterious Caraval performers. You want this more than I do. (pp.18-19)
She does, to be sure. But Scarlett is deeply afraid of her father. She's afraid of what he would do, to her and to Tella too, if she leaves the conquered island of Trisda. You see, she's tried to, in the past. She's tried, and failed, and a good man died at her hateful father's hands because of the mistake she made. She's simply not willing to make another, especially because attending Caraval for the week it takes to complete would mean missing the wedding ceremony her father has gone out of his way to arrange. It might be to a man Scarlett has not yet met, and he might also be a monster, but at least she and her sister will be out of harm's way after her big day.

So it's a no. A no Tella disregards entirely. She has her own suitor, a sultry sailor name Julian, subdue Scarlett and spirit her off to la Isla de los SueƱos—"the island of dreams" (p.46) where Caraval is poised to take place. When she comes to a couple of days later, Scarlett wants nothing more than to turn back to Trisda, but she can't countenance leaving her sister, and Tella has already traded in her ticket. To wit, to find her, Scarlett—and Julian as her fake fiance—have no choice but to follow in her footsteps. Thus the game begins!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Book Review | Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough


Since her husband walked out, Louise has made her son her world, supporting them both with her part-time job. But all that changes when she meets David.

Young, successful and charming—Louise cannot believe a man like him would look at her twice, let alone be attracted to her. But that all comes to a grinding halt when she meets his wife, Adele.

Beautiful, elegant and sweet, Louise's new friend seems perfect in every way. As she becomes obsessed by this flawless couple, entangled in the intricate web of their marriage, they each, in turn, reach out to her.

But only when she gets to know them both does she begin to see the cracks. Is David really is the man she thought she knew? Is Adele as vulnerable as she appears? Just what terrible secrets are they both hiding—and how far will they go to keep them?

***

"Whatever you do, don't give away that ending," demands the marketing materials attached to review copies of Sarah Pinborough's new book. And I won't—I wouldn't have even in lieu of the publisher's playful plea—but it won't be easy, because the best thing about Behind Her Eyes is that surprise.

A work of fiction twined around a twist that is, shall we say, entangled with something supernatural, Behind Her Eyes is likely to elicit a few screams of "Don't cross the streams!" And understandably so, I suppose. Early on, it gives every impression of being a harmless bit of grip-lit, and if you haven't read any Pinborough in the past, you'd be right to be wrong-footed by the surprisingly speculative turn her latest tale takes. That said, this—this willingness to futz with the formula of both genres—was precisely what made it such a satisfying read for me.

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl before it, Behind Her Eyes is a book that you don't so much read as ride. It's a little slow for a rollercoaster, though. The first act, in fact, is all superficial setup. We meet Louise, a thirtysomething who loves her little boy more than life itself; a lovely lady, but oh so lonely. As she says to her much more settled best friend, "Being a single mum in London eking out a living as a psychiatrist's part-time secretary doesn't exactly give me a huge number of opportunities to throw caution to the wind and go out every night in the hope of meeting anyone, let alone 'Mr Right.'" (pp.12-13) But then she does. She meets him, in a bar after a few beers, and makes out with him. His name is David, and—damn it all!—he's married.

Louise doesn't want to be a home-breaker, not least because her own ex-husband cheated on her with another woman, so she calls time on their potential affair. And it would have ended there—it would have, she's sure—if David, as she discovers the next day, didn't happen to be her new boss.