Friday, 10 February 2012

Book Review | The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

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When Elsa's father is killed in a tornado, all she wants is to escape - from New York, her job, her boyfriend - to somewhere new, anonymous, set apart.

For some years she has been haunted by a sight once seen from an aeroplane: a tiny, isolated settlement called Thunderstown. Thunderstown has received many a pilgrim, and young Elsa becomes its latest - drawn to this weather-ravaged backwater, this place rendered otherworldly by the superstitions of its denizens.

In Thunderstown, they say, the weather can come to life and when Elsa meets Finn Munro, an outcast living in the mountains above the town, she wonders whether she has witnessed just that. For Finn has an incredible secret: he has a thunderstorm inside of him. Not everyone in town wants happiness for Elsa and Finn. As events turn against them, can they weather the tempest - can they survive at all? 

The Man Who Rained is a work of lyrical, mercurial magic and imagination, a modern-day fable about the elements of love.


Have you ever wanted to just... get away from it all? To take a time out from life, the universe and everything?

Of course you have. We all have. Most of us dream of the day. But sometimes, when circumstances knock you for six - after the loss of a loved one, for instance - sometimes getting away from it all is all you can do. To get back to the business of living, you have to learn to let go of some large or small part of you. You have to let the past pass -- and how much harder it must be to find that peace in the midst of a life which only ever reminds you of what it once was.

That's the position young Elsa Beletti finds herself in, in any event. Once upon a time, not so very long ago at all, she was in her early 20s, with a steady boyfriend and a good job at a magazine in New York, New York. But that fairy-tale ended when her father was "found in the wreckage a tornado had made from his car - his lungs collapsed, his femurs shattered - a hundred miles west of the windswept little ranch on which he had raised his only child." (p.5) Elsa has been reeling from the loss ever since, a broken leaf on life's boundless breeze.

"Her dad had raised her to love the elements with a passion second only to his, but life in [the city] had weatherproofed her. Only at her dad's funeral, as the spring winds wiped her tears dry and carried his ashes away into the air, did it feel as if that passion had been uncovered again. It was her inheritance, but it had knocked a hole through her as if through a glass pane. All summer long she had been dealing with the cracks it had spread through the rest of her being." (p.6)

In quick succession Elsa has given up her job and abandoned her boyfriend - not to mention her mother and everything else she stands to leave behind - all to escape to a place she once saw from thirty thousand feet, on a plane-ride to nowhere she cares to recall. In Thunderstown she's arranged to rent a room from a man called Kenneth, also recently bereaved. They've only ever chatted on the internet, but he seems a decent sort; decent enough, at the very least, to drive her to her new home, "away from the airport complex into the frenetic urban traffic and parades of street lamps, lights from bars, illuminated billboards. Then, slowly, they left these things behind." (p.8) 

This last perfectly encapsulates the premise of The Man Who Rained, the second novel from British Fantasy Award-nominated author Ali Shaw: this desire - nay, this need - to leave life behind, if only for a little while. It's an intensely powerful notion, and alongside some impeccable, image-rich prose, it sets the first act of Shaw's story soaring. Thereafter, however, I'm afraid it falters.

In Thunderstown, Elsa meets a man who is not a man... not exactly. On her first sight of Finn, whilst exploring the ruins of a windmill on one of the four massive mountains that stand at each of the cardinal points around the town, she watches on in voyeuristic awe as he steps out of his clothes, and becomes one with the weather. When Elsa calls out to him, he comes back - as if from an abyss - and inevitably the two soon become inseparable.

But there's more to Finn than a neat trick, if only marginally more. Being half human, half thunderhead, he's hurt those he cared about before, and lived a life of seclusion in the hills since, for fear of doing any more irreparable damage. The townsfolk are terrified of him -- and with good reason, surely, as Elsa herself muses:

"Once upon a time, people had equated storms with gods. The first time she saw a town that had been sucked up and spat out by a tornado, it broke her heart and made her question the immense indifference of the universe, just as others might question the indifference of a deity. That was what storms were: they behaved with all the splendour and barbarity of ancient deities. Clouds were not just an ornament of godly imagery, clouds were the inspiration for pantheons, awesomely real and intangible at the same time. There were thousands of them swarming across the planet at any given moment, and yet under the shelters of roofs and ceilings it was so easy to forget their existence." (p.103)

In that sense, then, Finn is an interesting take on the archetypal bad boy character; considering that he's apt to explode into lightning at a moment's notice, there's a real sense of jeopardy to his scenes from the start. Alas, Elsa - and Elsa alone - seems stubbornly ignorant of this. Brash and impulsive, she refuses to listen to reason, whether well-meant or otherwise, and when she finally does realise that even good weather can go bad, she falls immediately to hysterics.

Truth be told, I was expecting a more sophisticated romance than this from the author of The Girl With The Glass Feet, an astonishing debut which rightly impressed a great many critics, and made a mark on the bestseller lists as well. But presumably your second novel is the first you have to write on a timetable, and in The Man Who Rained - specifically in its overlong and mostly meaningless middle act - it shows. Like candy from the skies, Shaw dangles an assortment of potentially interesting narrative threads that go all of nowhere in the end, which it bears saying is never far off in this short novel, and there's some truly meandering characterisation in the interim; as if the author doesn't know quite what to do with his storm-cross'd couple, now that they've gone and gotten it on. 

The Man Who Rained starts with all the promise and assurance of a worthy successor to The Girl With The Glass Feet, but sadly the sagging middle section is enough of a mess to put that kindly comparison to pasture. The conclusion does recover some of the elemental strength of the excellent outset, and the shift to a second perspective - that of Finn's caretaker, a culler of all things - proves particularly diverting when Elsa's is at its lowest ebb.

Ali Shaw is clearly tremendously talented, and even given its issues, you should certainly spend an evening with this, his second novel. Alas, by and large, The Man Who Rained does not resound with the almighty power of its predecessor so much as it fizzles, like a damp firecracker.


The Man Who Rained
by Ali Shaw

UK Publication: January 2012, Atlantic Books

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