Tuesday, 10 June 2008

every breath you take

The Cottagers
by Marshall N Klimasewiski

In a fascinating article in The Guardian a while back various writers were asked to recommend a novel they felt had been unfairly overlooked. The list was gloriously eclectic with works from 1759 right up to last year. Peter Ho Davies recommended this début novel from the writer he felt was the best member of a creative writing programme he had shared with Ha Jin and Jhumpa Lahiri amongst others, august company and quite a recommendation from a writer who earned critical and commercial success (with a little help from Richard and Judy) with his own début, The Welsh Girl (next on my list).

On the South-Western tip of Vancouver Island is East Sooke, a rural retreat with rocky beaches and summer cottages. Year round resident Cyrus Collingwood has a close eye on the titular vacationers, stalking outside their homes like a voyeur.

Oh it was such a simple native pleasure to sit here and watch the inside world, just to look into lit windows and be with people there when they were alone.

Occasionally he breaks in to scare them.

He never knew what he would scream--- or he tried not to plan in advance, at any rate. Once he heard himself scream, "Who loves you, baby!" but it had had about the same effect.

At the age of nineteen he has reached the stage where he feels his genius is not fulfilled, it is frustrated in fact by where he lives, his relationship with his father and his growing feelings for his friend Ginny.

He intended to have a future out of spite, as a matter of fact. With a family like his, coming from a place like this, no one would expect it of him, but maybe that was reason enough to keep a vague faith.

The yearly visits of wealthy Americans in happy families throw his discontentment into sharp focus and when he spots the arrival of Nicholas, Samina and their young daughter Hilda his voyeurism begins a chain of events. From his spot in the adjoining woods he is immediately taken by the exotic looking Samina and in a startling moment as she carries her daughter inside she seems to see him too, returning his gaze calmly before walking inside. Cyrus becomes obsessed with the young family and their friends Greg and Laurel, ingratiating himself into their company and becoming almost a playmate to the young girl Hilda, seeing perhaps in all this a way out for himself.

A woman like her---the foreign cottager, Samina was a future in and of herself, with all there'd be to learn about her and to tell her.

The relationships between the four friends are complex too. Greg and Laurel's relationship is in dangerous water and the fact that Nicholas has ostensibly invited Laurel in order to probe his wife to see if anything is wrong in his own relationship only adds to the layers of subterfuge. But then a single event occurs which alters everything. Greg and Nicholas go off for a walk together and when Greg strikes out on his own for an hour or so he returns to the beach to find Nicholas has inexplicably disappeared. The rest of the book deals with the fallout as each of the characters examines the others and themselves as blame and culpability fly around.

This book succeeds on so many levels. It is a complex and psychologically rigorous account of love, friendship and loss. Klimasewiski shows extraordinary skill in creating characters that are flawed in uniquely human ways, not even particularly likeable and yet always intriguing, the slow moving plot compelling. With subtle changes in style he shows each character in relief, each of them convincing, with the female characters perhaps lacking the same detail and development as their partners but there is an unwavering attention to detail which means his supporting cast are well drawn too. The imposing landscape of the island is created with similar skill, the cold and dangerously tidal waters that surround it feeling like a character themselves.

It's difficult to know how to categorize such a novel, which is surely a good thing. It would be unfair and limiting to describe it as a thriller, character study or meditation on the nature of biography or even as all of those things. I've barely scratched the surface of the detail and nuance it contains and can only agree with Peter Ho Davies that this is a novel which shouldn't slip you by.


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