Monday, 10 May 2010
Book Review: Ellipsis by Nikki Dudley
Read: May 2010
Ellipsis in one tweet-sized chunk:
Rewarding, psychologically complex, and disconcerting, Nikki Dudley's portrayal of everyday disconnect from life will delight readers looking for something different in the mystery genre.
“Right on time.”
These are the words that Daniel Mansen mouths to Alice as she pushes him to his death in front of a London underground train. She’s been stalking him for weeks: obsessed by the red of his scarf; drawn to him by a force she has followed blindly, without question or thought. But these strange words change everything. Did she know Daniel? Was this murder not an act of free, albeit pathologically imbalanced, will? Confused, Alice begins to investigate and as she does she discovers that there are gaps, not just in what she knows about Daniel, but what she knows about herself.
Across town, Daniel’s cousin Thom discovers a note in Daniel’s empty bedroom with the time and place of his death written on it. Fearing that it confirms that Daniel committed suicide, he too sets off to investigate, hoping that some sort of certainty will help fill the increasing and explained void in his own life.
Each a refugee from their past, Alice and Thom become knotted together in the search for answers. It is only as they unravel the mystery surrounding Daniel’s death that they see how many other ropes still bind them.
Revolving around the ellipses in each of their understanding, in all that has gone unsaid in the footnotes of their past, Ellipsis is a slippery, satisfying and unusual novel that never quite gives the reader what they want – and it’s all the better for it. They are the most unreliable of narrators, and with the reader placed in their shoes and never privilege to information they aren’t, it makes for a compulsive, page-turning read driven forwards by the increasingly blinkered obsession of its protagonists.
In many ways they are mirror-images of each other, with Alice gradually emerging from the wasteland of severe psychological distress while Thom descends rapidly toward it. They each have a separate narrative voice: Alice, lost and alone, commentates on her own adventures in first person, as if in conversation with her absent mum, where as Thom, investigating on behalf of his family, is referred to in the third person. This dichotomy is representative of a wider theme in Ellipsis, the encumbrance of family which can both liberate and constrain, often at the same time.
Ideas such as these are conveyed astutely, without unnecessary embellishment or hyperbole. The same can be said of the London they live in: dampened down, grim and self-contained. It is the cold concrete grey of a London winter without any technological or social distraction to bring it alive. Their London is a city without colour, and the monochrome atmosphere is broken only by the occasional flash of vivid red – Alice’s favourite colour – that provides a visceral injection of life into the proceedings, similar to that presented by the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. Alice has a deep, compulsive attraction to red, yet it is never really explained, just another ellipsis left flapping in the breeze of one of the most open-ended novels I’ve read in a long time.
Dudley is originally a poet and it shows: her descriptions are exact and visually evocative, particularly when it comes to character. At one point an old women is described as having a face like “a fruit gone bad, folding and collapsing into itself.” This is Dudley’s greatest strength, but at times the similes and metaphors are piled too high, with the result that they lose a little of their lustre. In between stunning description there is a tendency for the prose to become a little repetitive, particularly in the third person passages – “Thom walks…”, “Thom kneels…”, “Thom whispers…”. In this sense her style generally calls to mind that of Doris Lessing or Nadine Gordimer; it is prickly and no-nonsense, more concerned with substance than the niceties of smooth flowing prose. A good editor could perhaps have rounded the edges, and cut some of the more flabby passages, but this is largely a matter of personal preference.
What I love about Ellipsis is its opacity. Information is released gradually, and in a way that tends to provoke more questions than answers. For a debut novelist Dudley shows impressive authorial confidence to leave so much open-ended. At times this can be frustrating, particularly in relation to Thom, who remains aloof for much of the first half and doesn’t fully emerge from his shell until the closing pages. He is often used a blank slate against which to compare Alice, who is the real star of the novel. She is a wonderfully flawed hero, easy to identify with, whose development arc is both compelling and cathartic.
Ellipsis is rewarding, psychologically complex, and disconcerting; Dudley has an often startling eye for description, and her portrayal of everyday disconnect will delight readers looking for something slightly different in the mystery-thriller genre.
Sparkling Books, April 2010, 9781907230103, 304pp
7 out of 10