Friday, 20 September 2013

Graduating in grief

I knew this novel was about a fictionalised version of the Lockerbie bombing before I started it, but (as I was a two-year-old in America when this horrific event took place) I have only realised recently how closely it maps the details of Lockerbie and its aftermath. Finding this out has made me feel simultaneously less comfortable with, and less impressed by, the narrative.

Alan Tealing is, officially, a professor of English Literature, but as his on-and-off girlfriend Carol points out, it would be more accurate to call him 'a professor of Truth'. Alan's thesis concerns the origin of the bomb that killed his wife Emily and six-year-old daughter Alice when they were flying to New York eighteen years ago, and he has put far more effort than he ever put into his actual PhD pursuing the theory that the man who was publicly held accountable for this crime, Khalil Khazar, was in fact an innocent scapegoat. But if Alan has been working all these years to discover the truth, this novel could be seen as his viva; he has to defend his thesis to two examiners, first, the sympathetic Ted Nilsen, who has decided to admit his part in the cover-up, and second, Martin Parroulet, who was bribed to give the key evidence in Khazar's trial.

James Robertson skilfully deploys a fragmented backstory at the beginning of this novel, drip-feeding the reader the details of Alan's theory and his memories of his family life and the day of the bombing, which makes the first half of the narrative both gripping and interesting. However, I felt that this novel was one of the disappointing reads that delivers brilliantly at the start, but fails to deliver anything more by the end. The second half reads more like a straightforward thriller than the earlier focus on memory and truth, and although Robertson is always a generous writer, fleshing out his minor characters realistically, I had expected more from the excellent opening. The theme of Truth/truths becomes rather too laboured and obvious, and although Robertson matches his opening with a memorable ending, I found myself vacillating over whether I liked this novel or not. As I suggested at the beginning of this review, it was the close similarities to Lockerbie that pushed me towards 'not'. These both made Robertson's plotting less impressive and original - as he is largely cribbing details from a real-life and well-known case - and made me feel uncomfortable about the ethics of using a real event in this way, especially one that is relatively so recent.

I would recommend Robertson's earlier novel 'The Testament of Gideon Mack' over this (although steer clear of 'The Fanatic' and 'Joseph Knight') but, to be fair, this is still an enjoyable and engaging read. My expectations for it were simply rather higher than it deserved.

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