Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Book Review: Nocturnal Animals by Austin Wright

I'm always a sucker for a good front cover and title. Austin Wright's 1993 novel was originally called Tony and Susan, which isn't quite as exotic and dangerous as Nocturnal Animals

The current cover has a glimpse of blurry Americana freeway on it. As I hovered at the 2 for £7 book deal in Tesco, I was intrigued. Into the basket it went.

And Nocturnal Animals does motor along pretty quickly, due in part to its structure. Susan Morrow, late '40s, has been married for years with children, dog and cat. She lectures in English. 

Her husband is clearly having affairs - and that's actually how they originally got together all those years ago. Susan used to be married to Edward, but ended up leaving him for husband number two when Edward spent all his free time locked away in a cabin somewhere, trying to be a writer.

Susan's life is plodding along in fairly standard fashion when a first draft of Edward's novel lands in her lap. He wants feedback. So we follow Susan as she starts reading her ex's novel - actually reading what Susan reads and pausing when she does. It's all very postmodern. But Edward's novel turns out to be a violent, disturbing thriller.

It follows Tony and Laura driving to their summer house in Maine with daughter Helen. Things take a dark turn when they're run off the road by three men in a truck who manage to kidnap the women, separating them from Tony. 

Their bodies are found in the woods the following day. It's a story of revenge, as Tony tries to come to terms with his loss. When the law fails him, he becomes mixed up with the investigating officer's plan to take justice into his own hands.

There's a strange fusion of genres - Susan's musings about her past with Edward and the nature of narrative frame her reading progress, where we get short bursts of thriller. But there's still something literary and cerebral about Edward's writing (plus he's a maths professor). Susan's hooked and so are we. 

Each chapter of Edward's book read by Susan (and us) also allows us to hear Susan's thoughts about the plot and writing. Is it going in the right direction? Does this part of characterisation work? Has the writer based them on those he knows? Will the ending pay out?

In the end, Nocturnal Animals leaves more questions unanswered than answered, and that's part of its appeal. It's a metafictional thriller which draws you in, provoking you to think about the nature of storytelling and memory. A dark, uncomfortable puzzle which you just can't quite solve.

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