Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Singer's Gun, Emily St. John Mandel

“Sometimes regular channels aren’t open to you, and then you have to improvise. Find your own way out. Think about it, Anton. What does it take to succeed in this world?”

“It’s never easy. You have to be creative sometimes. You have to make things happen for yourself.”

What does it mean to be a good person? Can you justify a tiny bit of crime, maybe by simply looking the other way, if your intent is good? Are you saving the world if you ignoring your own child? 

The Singer’s Gun is an incredible novel, one that has consumed me since I began reading it. Tension and suspense are mixed in with significant questions regarding morality and family honor in a world changed by 9/11. Anton is the protagonist, a man who wishes to wash his hands of his family’s criminal links, but finds that doing that requires its own sort of dishonesty. This novel discusses the complex links that connect us to our past and lead to our future. How desperate do we have to be to make a new beginning? 

The novel makes you consider all these things without ever getting preachy or dull. The stride is brisk, and the characters are all unique and compelling. As in real life, very few people are completely good or completely bad: this explores all the mysterious layers and inconsistencies of everyday life. Anton is appealing: after all, he adopts a one-eyed cat and shows up at his job reliably, long after he’s been quietly fired. Yet he’s lost, gripped by an inertia brought on by not wanting to do wrong but not having the courage to do “right”. 

What I really enjoyed, besides the completely unique characters, was that the plot continually rotates, changing viewpoints, so that you can observe scenes through another characters eyes and thus see their own justifications. It complicates the drama and adds tension. The author subtly weaves little threads of foreshadowing here and there to add another dimension. Some seemingly unrelated minor events appear that actually serve to rough up and texture the identities of the characters.  My only minor irritation was that the character Elena kept "looking at her reflection" in the window over and over...I don't know why I got hung up on that but in most of the scenes she appears in, there is some sort of comment on her looking at the glass.  I thought it was a nod to something about her character, something that would present itself later, but I don't think it did.  It was just a phrase that seemed to get overused in an otherwise perfectly written story.

I had heard raves about the author before:  now I know why!   I spent most of today’s unusual heat wave parked in front of a fan with The Singer’s Gun, and was sad to see it end. I should have savored it more! This one would be ripe for a sequel, because the moral ambiguities can never be completely resolved.

Special thanks to Caitlin at Unbridled Books for the Review Copy.

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