Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Review: 'The Cricket' by Simon Habegger

This is a self-published ebook by a debut author. I have to say, it is rather a strange book, and I'm not at all sure what to make of it. The basic premise is that some kind of immortal, Corus (we never quite find out exactly what he is) enters the mortal world through sheer boredom, where he is rescued from apparent drowning by Hana. The background is some type of near future post apocalypse, post war setting, where so-called civilisation is retreating (for some reason, this is not very clear), leaving numbers of people living and scavenging on the margins.

The first half of the book is rather charming, focusing on their simple life beside the ocean. Corus is an innocent at large, and Hana protects and shelters him. But about half way through, they take off to find Hana's father, and later her brother, and here the tone of the book changes. As they move into the cities, we discover something (although not enough for me) of what has gone wrong with civilisation, and the light touch of the earlier writing becomes a little heavy-handed. So people are much the same, equally cruel and evil, throughout the ages - we get it. And the political grandstanding - the Gulf War, the oil dependence, the way war changes people, the religious undertone - is too dominant.

This is not a story grounded in the real world, it's mythological after all, but the obvious connections to the present day grate with the feyness of Corus, and the simple lifestyle Hana wraps around him. When they collect driftwood for the fire or Corus makes his hammock, the story is utterly absorbing. When they go to the library or soup kitchen or a party, it feels a little odd but I can go with the flow. But the trip to the Heart to rescue the brother just rocks me out of any suspension of disbelief. Suddenly all these alienated, barely surviving outsiders can rustle up fake IDs and money? Really? People go as tourists to this place? Really? And despite all the warnings of how difficult it is to leave, we skip blithely over that part.

I find it difficult to comment sensibly on this section of the book. With most fantasy, I have some idea what the author is trying to achieve, and even when there's an obvious 'point', it's possible to read simply for the story. But I found that impossible here. I wasn't bothered by the strange visions and experiences that Corus and Hana suffered, and felt no need to have these explained, either as science or magic. This is fantasy, after all, and if they're intended to be metaphorical or allegorical (or something), that's fine, it can whizz over my head all it likes. But the Heart is portrayed as a real place, populated with real people suffering from real problems, protected by armed guards, which gives it a deeply authentic menacing feel, which some of the other characters display very well. On the other hand, the bucolic journey with the eccentric doctor is almost whimsical. Then there's the seam of religion running through the whole book, which becomes dominant here. I have no idea if this is all deeply clever, and I just didn't get it, but it really didn't work for me. Fortunately, the book eventually returns to the initial simplicity and charm. The ending is totally predictable (even I saw it coming) but enjoyable, nevertheless.

Overall, this is a strong attempt at something out of the ordinary, which I applaud, but I do have reservations, namely: the unsubtle commentary on modern issues, which is intrusive; the heavy religious theme, which I didn't quite see the point of; and finally, the rather stylised, fey tone of dialogue, which works brilliantly for Corus, but is odd in the other, supposedly modern, characters. I found this a frustrating book - parts of it are hauntingly beautiful and well-written, and Corus is a wonderful character, but some parts simply don't work for me. On the grounds that this is a failure of my imagination, rather than the author's, I've rated this as a good 3 star effort. [First written August 2011]

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