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Sutler by Richard House
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I bought this book as it was recommended in The Guardian alongside two other books I had enjoyed: Crace’s ‘Harvest’ and Wyld’s ‘All the birds, singing’. ‘The Kills’, otherwise, probably wouldn’t have been on my reading list, especially if I had known that it was extended into something interactive via a website, this sort of activity not being my cup of tea.

Still, I liked the contemporary, Middle Eastern setting and the way it dealt with this area’s issues without being overt. I also think House was effective in the way he let events gradually explain themselves rather than ‘setting the scene’. I did, though, initially think he needed a better editor as there are a number of run-on sentences which force a second reading from the reader and interrupt the flow of the book. These are awkward run-on sentences too, such as ‘Parson focused on the view, unsettled by the craft’s sideways pitch he picked out a single Humvee as it cut through the compound in the early light’ and, some pages on, ‘If he wanted Turkish lire he could change money at one of the banks, although it might be expensive it might be sensible’. There are also missing words here and there. I was then surprised to find, on contacting Picador, that House chose to express himself this way – or employ ‘light punctuation’. How odd! You don’t want ‘fussy’ punctuation (e.g. semi-colons) perhaps in a fast moving tale but removing punctuation which helps the reader to follow what the author is saying seems to be a counter-productive move.

Still, what I enjoyed was House’s style. Following the unfolding plot from the point of view of a few different characters could have been disjointed but in fact helped to increase my interest as House often left one person’s point of view at a stage when you want to know more. So, he keeps up the tension in the plot and attracts still more interest through his wording or little, almost incidental observations. I liked the way he took an ordinary phrase ‘a fork in the road’ and then went on ‘one tine leading to a small market, the other to a rough track’ extending the metaphor in an original way. A page or two on, when he’s in a mess-hall, Ford, we learn, ‘disliked the smell of fried food, which seemed to thicken and add heat to the air, stick to the floor and tables: fat that reeked of sick’. Talking of a smell thickening and adding heat seemed just right, if unusual, when referring to fried food. Later still, we have Parson, sceptical about what he’s being told and uncomfortable with the situation, turning to his drink: ‘Parson lifted up the last of the whisky and squinted through the bottle to the horizon, warping the boats and pleasure craft’. That use of the word ‘warped’ seems to transpose his feeling about the way others are twisting the situation to what he sees through the glass – effective!

What I increasingly didn’t like was the characterisation. I think the reader wants to get into the mind of at least one character and understand what drives them. In this book we have Ford as perhaps the main character but really know very little about him as all he’s doing all the time is responding to a situation, trying to get his money and avoid the authorities – i.e. we learn nothing about the inner man. Worse still, at times I feel the way characters act is there to fit in with the plot rather than be consistent with what little we do know about their personalities. Why, for example, does Parson, suspecting corruption in HOSCO and the way they’re using Sutler/Ford as a scapegoat, still go on to reveal to them that Sutler’s in Malta?

I’m also a bit sceptical about this being released initially as a separate book – okay, Book 1 of ‘The Kills’ – but it doesn’t finish at the end, there’s only suspense there, no resolution at all. And by the time I’d got to the end I felt it was all about what happens and found my interest diminishing, a bit as I felt, if I remember correctly, about Donna Tartt’s ‘The Secret History’. ( )
  evening | Feb 13, 2014 |
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