Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Culprits

The Culprits by Robert Hough (Random House Canada 2007)

I want to say that this book was entertaining, because I could hardly set it down – but I fear that this description might only belittle Hough’s accomplishment. A book can be measured in many ways: its craft (how the story is told), and its purpose (what is being told), are chief among them. But sometimes there is also an unidentifiable quality derived from the perfect combination of these other elements. This is the case with The Culprits.

Hank Wallins, a former merchant sailor cum lonely computer operator, lives through a near-death experience. Does his life flash before his eyes? Does he realize the futility of his existence? Does this realization send him packing to the Himalayas to tackle Everest? To the Amazon? No. But he does begin searching hoping against all odds to find that certain special someone to fill the perceived hole in his life gaping.

When he discovers Anna Verkoskova née Mikhailovna, a near-pretty student from St. Petersburg with a wandering eye, Hank is hooked. The resulting story draws both he and "Anya" into a baffling and complicated tale of love, loss, and ... international terrorism.

Woven by one of the most ingenious and fascinating narrators in recent history, this novel juggles the madcap with the sober, the tragic with the comic. It flirts with the melodramatic as often as it plays with the improbable, without ever actually crossing either line. Its humour and wit give weight to its eventual calamity, and its voice – full of the sing-song qualities of Slavic constructions – is as endearing as a Dr. Seuss fable. In short, it is a fine balance.

"Life is a deception," we are told in the novel’s opening paragraph. "If we could scrub away the lichen and peer at life with clear vision ...its entirety would overwhelm us." Indeed, we are almost overwhelmed by the lives and events in The Culprits. However, with Hough, we are in good hands. After leading us through the fray by the nose, he delivers us safely on the other side where "there are watermelons, everywhere....juicy and sweet and through black soil sprouting."