Sunday, August 20, 2006
Belonging - Ron Butlin
I don’t often write about fiction in this blog, mainly because I don’t read a lot, but I did think that Ron Butlin’s latest novel, Belonging was worth saying something about. Butlin lives in Edinburgh, but I’ve never met him or had any contact with him – in other words, this review isn’t just to do someone a personal favour.
The book begins with Jack and his partner Anna in the Swiss alps. They are supposed to look after the holiday houses on the resort, but instead they help themselves from the wine cellars and make out in the luxury rooms. Until a man falls from an apartment balcony and dies, and only one person sees what happened, a young French girl Thérèse.
Right from the start, I felt uneasy about Anna. On one hand, she was all new age, touchy-feely, always analysing every aspect of her relationship with Jack. On the other hand, she seemed to have deep-rooted problems, which she didn’t seem to recognise. And Jack is happier to run away from problems rather than confront them. The relationship. though passionate, always looks rocky.
So it is that he ends up with Thérèse in Paris, with her weird parents in Spain, and then in a hippie camp in the Spanish scrubland. In the sweltering heat, Jack enters a nightmare and must confront everything he’s previously avoided, and the ghost of Anna is never far away from him.
The plot races forward at a cracking pace, but you never forget that Butlin is a poet as well as a novelist. His descriptions of the landscapes his characters inhabit are more than just physical, but become symbols of Jack’s inner journey through an inferno. The images are multi-layered and work with poetic compression and power.
The book is also an interesting study of inner drives. Jack meditates towards the end of the book:
All my life: I’ve put one foot in front of the other as if there’s been nothing to stand on but this imaginary road – solid ground only when it criss-crossed someone else’s, especially a woman’s. Every step of the way has seemed the next step, the only step. So effortless and so inevitable…Is this how the damned recognise each other? By whatever’s driving them mercilessly onwards? By the ease with which they can explain away everything – even to themselves?
Ron Butlin does a sterling job of revealing the inner life of his characters through outward action for most of the novel. In the last few chapters I felt as though there was a little too much explaining going on, as if he felt the need to justify the motivations of Jack and particularly Anna.
I wondered about this because, even though Anna was a complex character, wholly at ease with her psychobabble in one way, but greatly disturbed in many others, and obviously capable of bizarre excess, I wasn’t totally convinced by her motivation for certain actions, particularly her sense that she and Jack belonged together, had been destined together. I don’t want to give away the plot by getting into too much of this. It didn’t really mar the book for me, which is exciting and luridly fascinating, but it strikes me that motivation sufficient to cause the reader to believe a character will act differently from what the reader suspects she should is one of the most difficult things for a fiction writer to achieve.
In any case, if you want a brisk, hard-boiled, disturbing story, with strong three-dimensional characters and a poetic sensibility for description, this could be what you’re after.