Monday, 27 October 2014

Book Review | The Voices by F. R. Tallis

In the scorching summer of 1976—the hottest since records began—Christopher Norton, his wife Laura and their young daughter Faye settle into their new home in north London. The faded glory of the Victorian house is the perfect place for Norton, a composer of film soundtracks, to build a recording studio of his own.

But soon in the long, oppressively hot nights, Laura begins to hear something through the crackle of the baby monitor. First, a knocking sound. Then come the voices...


Maybe you haven't heard of it—maybe you weren't born yet; maybe you're based elsewhere—but in Great Britain, the summer of 1976 went down in history. It was the hottest single season since records began some 400 years ago, and people in these parts weren't prepared. There were droughts. Deaths.

It was an indescribably violent time, all told. Hate crimes were a daily affair many commentators attributed to the incredible temperatures. "What a world to bring a child into," (p.1) as our couple comments on the first page of F. R. Tallis' haunting new novel. But that's exactly what Christopher and Laura Norton plan to do. Indeed, on the day they decide to spend their once-substantial savings on "a substantial Victorian edifice [...] concealed in a pocket of London's complex topography," (pp.1-2) their infant daughter is born. They name her Faye, meaning belief—which, though they have in her, they lack, alas, in one another.

A year later, the Nortons have settled into their new property nicely, but things between Faye's parents have gone to pot in short order, and a terror more malignant than the recent uptick in temperature is about to make its malevolent presence felt.

After The Sleep Room's success, it's a smart move on Tallis' part to focus in his new novel on another pseudo-scientific subject—in this instance Electronic Voice Phenomena. "It seemed a ludicrous idea, the dead communicating with the living through the medium of magnetic tape, but at the same time Christopher's mind was not entirely closed to extraordinary possibilities." (p.83) As an explanation for the voices he's been hearing recently—voices accidentally recorded in the course of composing the score for a forthcoming science fiction film—EVP isn't ideal, but it's the best of a bad lot... and rather that than face the fact that he might be losing his mind.

The more Christopher reads about EVP, the more convinced he becomes that there could be an opportunity here. In the midst of a mid-life crisis, he worries that he has wasted his substantial talents working for the highest bidder. Selling out, essentially; thus the idea of reclaiming his reputation—by composing a piece of serious music incorporating the aforementioned voices from beyond—is appealing.

But what Christopher has only heard, Laura has been feeling:
The threat that she sensed was not merely physical: any pain that she was forced to endure would be a mere preamble to something far worse, a violation so profound that it would leave an indelible stain on her soul. Already she felt breached, undone, from the trespass of another mind probing her own. (pp.107-108)
Eventually, Laura asks her husband to leave the ghosts alone. "She wanted him to stop," (p.188) in short. He isn't having it, however. Insidiously, he insists her issues are "completely unrelated to his activities. To Laura, this constituted the ultimate proof of her marginalisation. Chris had demonstrated a growing tendency to dismiss her concerns and underplay to potential risks of dabbling with spirit communication." (p.292)

But when Faye disappears one day, her parents must put aside their personal problems to find the light of their lives—and it is here that The Voices succeeds: in its exploration of a relationship under great strain. Refreshingly, Laura is as active a participant in Tallis' narrative as her husband, and a markedly more sympathetic character in the main. "The deadly monotony of [her] day-to-day existence" (p.147) has driven her into a bone-deep depression that Christopher, having "consigned her 'hormonal problem' to a category of female biological mysteries traditionally ignored by men," (p.266) simply isn't interested in:
When Laura had given up modelling, she had assumed that the mainstays of conventionality—a big house, a loving husband and a baby—would bring her contentment. But she had all of those things now and she was still unfulfilled and dissatisfied. She felt trapped by the necessities of her daily routine—preparing food, changing nappies, doing the washing-up—and even more so by the truly inescapable necessities of the body—eating, sleeping, expelling waste. Endlessly repeating cycles. The atmosphere became thinner just thinking about it. She seemed to have exchanged one bell jar for another. And more importantly, she still felt horribly alone. (pp.133-134)
The thing is, she isn't alone in her new home. But the company she's keeping has dark designs on her foundering family...

As insightful as it is exciting, The Voices is very impressive. That said, there are a number of problems with the novel. The acceleration of the pace is interrupted at one point by a trip to Paris that hardly factors into the fiction. Similarly, certain elements of the setting seem superficial. Ghost story devotees will recall that the scorching summer of 1976 also provided the backdrop for The Year of the Ladybird—a comparison which doesn't do The Voices any favours, I'm afraid. Graham Joyce weaved the heat wave into the fabric of his narrative, whereas here it feels nearly needless.

These drawbacks do detract from The Voices' overall impact, yet Tallis' text still stands apart, in large part because of its author's determination to show both sides of the story. This twofold focus allows him to develop his excellent central characters independently, making The Voices much more than another haunted house novel. Call it horror if you want, but do so knowing that its portrayal of a relationship on the rocks is at least as potent as its very vocal ghosts.


The Voices
by F. R. Tallis

UK Publication: May 2014, Pan

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