Publisher: Bloomsbury, 2010
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
During the Christmas holidays, a man is found dead in his flat. It appears he has been there for quite some time. The flat is squalid, filthy, empty of most things you would expect. The man’s body is in bad shape. The police are unsure if there has been foul play and begin an investigation. Who is this man? How did he come to by lying here … dead and apparently neglected … in this seemingly abandoned apartment?
There are voices who could shed light on this mystery. They seem to know this man—Robert is his name. But they don’t know what happened to him either. So they follow along as the investigation into the man’s death continues … following the body to the morgue, through the autopsy and inquest and finally to his cremation. Along the way, the voices shed light on who they are and who Robert was. For these voices are the voices of addicts, alcoholics and the disenfranchised—the people who live at the fringes of society, who remember better days but can’t quite make their way out of the grip of drugs or drink. In their way, they attempt to give Robert a story. By doing so, they honor their friend in the only way that have left as they themselves are as dead and neglected as Robert.
I’m not going to lie to you; this isn’t an easy book. There were times when I was ready to quit as I was confused and getting a headache. But because I got a review copy, I persevered and I’m glad I did. In the end, I came to appreciate the book and found myself moved by it. Just because a book is a difficult read doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading. However, there are things you should know going in.
First, the book is not written in a straightforward narrative. Although the basic structure is the discovery of the body and its subsequent trip toward cremation, the book is written in a jumbled, fractured “stream of consciousness” style that takes some getting used to. The voices of the the dead man’s friends (who seem to be dead themselves) appear and disappear. Paragraphs go on and on only to end in a fragment. The collective voices of the dead talk about the progress of the body and then it switches to the thoughts of a specific person, such as Danny trying to score some heroin before he experiences the “rattles” (which I took to mean detox effects). Here is an example of three paragraphs that appear in a row:
Two of them laid out together on the narrow bed but it weren’t never going to be like that. And where was she now. What would she say when he told her. Would she
Mike would know what to do. Danny thought. Mike would be at the Parkside squats and would know what was going on, what had happened, what to do. Might even have some gear or know where to get some where to
Didn’t even need to be like that anyway sometimes with Laura. Sometimes just, it was like being mates, like they were ten or fifteen years younger and still bunking off school and having a laugh….
Did you ever see the movie Memento, which is told backwards and in fragments? This book is kind of like that. You get bits and pieces of information, here and there, and you need to put them together in some kind of order to get the story of Robert and his friends. By the end of the book, I was surprised how much I came to know these people. You don’t really get told about them as you do in a typical novel. Rather, you inhabit their heads for a brief time. This ended up being oddly effective, yet it requires participation and work by the reader.
The other thing you should know is that the book is set in England and includes a lot of terms that American readers might find unfamiliar. Eventually, I began to figure things out, but it made the book an even more difficult read for me. However, you don’t need to suffer the same fate as me as the author has thoughtfully provided a list of definitions for some of the terms to help you along. (I only wish I had found this information BEFORE reading the book!) This way, you don’t have to struggle along wondering if giro is indeed welfare money. (It is.)
Speaking of the author, I have to tell you that he contacted me after I wrote briefly about this book in my post yesterday. (A year into book blogging and I still find this amazing and wondrous!) He wrote:
I hope you don’t mind me emailing you like this, but I couldn’t help noticing you’d mentioned my new book on your blog. Just wanted to say thanks for that – and thanks for persevering even though, as I’ll freely admit, it’s not always an easy read. In case you’re interested, there’s some info on the background to the book and how I came to write it here – http://www.jonmcgregor.com/books/even-the-dogs/background/
All the best with the blogging – it looks like you have a lot of fun with it, and I’m impressed that you keep it up with a little one about the place!
Wasn’t that awfully kind and sweet? And you can bet I went right on over and checked out that link, and it was extremely helpful and informative.
So here is what I suggest if you decide to read this book (and I do think it is worth reading):
- Read the background information on the book.
- Review the list of slang terms before starting reading.
I think doing these two things will help immensely so you don’t have to struggle as much as I did. However, if you are the type of reader who doesn’t like to work a little bit sometimes, then I don’t think this book is for you anyway.
One final caveat: There is strong language in the book (words that rhyme with Puck and Punt are sprinkled liberally throughout.) In addition, there are graphic descriptions of an autopsy. Plus the book focuses on the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics, which is not everyone’s cup of tea.
My Final Recommendation
If I haven’t scared you off yet (and that isn’t my intent at all), I think you’ll find a worthwhile book that has something important to say about drug and alcohol addiction and what it might feel like to live on the fringes of society. I ended up being more affected by this book than I anticipated, and I encourage you to give a go.
In the end, I’m giving the book 3.5 stars. For me, this ranking is reserved for books that I don’t think have general appeal but are worthwhile. In other words, these are books that need a certain type of reader to fully appreciate them. Although I struggled with this book and wouldn’t categorize it as a “favorite,” I’m glad I read it. It took me to some uncomfortable places, but I suspect this book will stay with me for some time.
Why and Where I Got the Book
I received my Advance Reading Copy (ARC) from LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The book is scheduled to be released on February 16, 2010.