A stunning multi-layered book that works as both a fine slow-burning psychological thriller and more deeply as a metaphor for the troubled American psyche in the post-9/11, post economic collapse world. Great language, great characterisation, great story – not just the book of the year but quite possibly the book of the decade. Really, what more could you want?
“Anyone who doesn’t believe in freedom at eighteen is a fascist. Anyone who doesn’t believe in security at forty is a criminal.”
In this extraordinary book, Flanery delves deep into the troubled American psyche in the post 9/11, post global crash world where the tectonic plates of certainty and complacency have shifted with volcanic and destructive results.
When the economic collapse strikes, Paul Krovik loses everything, including his family and the house that he built for them. He had planned to build a whole development but now the few completed houses stand, already decaying, on swampy land in the middle of an unfinished building site. Louise’s family had owned the land for generations until she was forced to sell to Paul and now Louise lives in her old house at the edge of the site. And now Nathaniel and Julie Noailles, with their young son Copley, are moving from their urban, socially liberal life in Boston to live in this suburban house in an unnamed town in the South. Unknown to them, Paul is living in the concealed basement, determined to get the house back…
Flanery’s prose is wonderful and the characters he has crafted are complex and compelling, each damaged by history and experience and each inspiring empathy in the reader. He develops them slowly, letting us see the influences, both personal and political, that have made them what they are: Paul, whose father brought him up on quotations from Emerson, believes in individualism and apocalypse; Louise, descendant of slaves, guilty at losing the land they treasured, and hating Paul for destroying it; and the Noailles, a family whose veneer of liberalism hides dark secrets and is gradually eroded by fear and mistrust. Through their stories, Flanery shows us the stresses and tensions in a nation still dealing with the aftermath of terror and economic meltdown. The society he depicts is one where trust has broken down; where ultimate security is the goal regardless of the cost to personal freedom; where privacy is seen as an unaffordable luxury; and where the state is in the process of passing responsibility for social control into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable and profit-driven private sector.
The descriptions of the decaying house and the swampy land as the rain beats interminably down add to the air of oppressive menace and threat that builds throughout the book. And as events spiral, Flanery’s depiction of the psychological effects on each character is both convincing and disturbing, as love and trust turn gradually into suspicion and paranoia. This is a masterly, multi-layered book, which works on both levels – as a fine, slow-burning psychological thriller, and as a persuasive metaphor for a society in turmoil in response to huge events.
“If we are not in the final chapters of our history then we are at the end of a particular volume, unable to predict how further instalments may unfold.”
Is this the Great American Novel for this decade? As a Brit, I wouldn’t presume to decide that question but I’d certainly nominate it strongly for the shortlist. And, as a Brit, I feel I understand far more clearly where the American psyche is positioned after reading this, and it scares me. I wait with real interest for the reaction of American reviewers. Highly recommended.
NB This review is of a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher, Atlantic Books.