Posted by Paul Samael on Wednesday, October 3, 2012 Under: Book reviews
Michael Graeme is something of a phenomenon on feedbooks, where he has published 20 books and had well over 200,000 downloads in total (which is pretty impressive by any standards - and certainly by comparison with my own relatively feeble download stats) [UPDATE 5.2019: sadly, Feedbooks has closed its self-publishing platform, but you can get all of Michael Graeme's work from his website here]. He’s also a firm advocate of self-publishing (see this post) - as opposed to banging your head against a brick wall trying to get a commercial publisher to take you on (from which you may deduce – correctly - that I wholeheartedly agree with him on that).
The first piece of his that I read was the short story, "The Man Who Talked to Machines" (also recommended, but probably only if you like sci-fi) [UPDATE 5.2019: it's the last story in this collection]. That was enough to convince me to try one of his novels. I chose "In Durleston Wood" [UPDATE 5.2019 - now available on Smashwords], which is not sci-fi – it’s contemporary literary fiction, with a strong psychological/mystery element. I’m pleased to report that it more than lived up to expectations:
Following the break-up of his marriage, Richard Hunter returns from the US to the English village of Durleston, where he grew up. He finds work as a teacher at the local primary school, although his heart doesn’t really seem to be in it – the main thing that seems to keep him going is his infatuation with the school’s aloof and career-focussed headmistress, Davinia. Estranged from his family, he has little contact with anyone outside of work. Recurrent anxiety attacks cause him seek out the isolation of Durleston Wood, where he takes long walks, reminiscing about his childhood and generally pondering how he has reached middle age with so little to show for it.
It is on these walks that he becomes aware of a woman who appears to be kept a prisoner in a remote cottage in the wood by a local criminal. Should he help her escape? But then again, does she really need his help? After all, she is not physically imprisoned there – it is more that she seems to consider herself unable to leave. I won’t reveal much more about the plot, except to say that it revolves around Richard’s relationships with the apparently submissive woman in the wood and the apparently unattainable Davinia – and their relationships with violent, abusive men.
Although he may sound like a hopeless case, Richard proves to be an engaging and sympathetic narrator, with a keen observational sense and a high degree of self-awareness. This prevents him from wallowing in self-pity and allows him to see the occasionally humorous side of his own predicament. Meanwhile, Durleston Wood itself is portrayed atmospherically and the novel has a general undercurrent of violence/threat combined with sexual tension, which reminded me of some of Ian McEwan’s work.
And then there is the question of how much of what we are reading is actually real. After all, here we have a central character who wanders around Durleston Wood, sometimes holding imaginary conversations with previous girlfriends from long ago - so who’s to say that certain parts of the novel presented as “reality” aren’t in fact an elaborate fantasy on his part? Come to that, who’s to say that the entire novel isn’t essentially a symbolic representation of competing impulses battling it out in Richard’s head ?
For me, this ambiguity made “In Durleston Wood” all the more complex and intriguing. But you can just as easily take it at face value and read it as a more straightforward mystery/romance. As for what it’s about, I think it’s concerned with how we’re peculiarly adept at constructing psychological prisons – sometimes for ourselves, sometimes for others – either because we like the security of them or we like the feeling of power it gives us over others. It’s also about the difference between desire and love – Richard in particular is acutely aware of how easy it is to feel the former and how difficult, even frightening, it can be to transform it into the latter. But that’s just what I took away from it. Why not read it for yourself (it's free) and see what you think.
In : Book reviews
Tags: "michael graeme" mystery psychology "love triangle"
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