Critically esteemed British novelist Duncan (The Bloodstone Papers, 2007, etc.) mixes memory and desire, Kafkaesque surrealism and straightforward narrative in a nightmarish story of love, terror and torture.
At the center of the novel is the grim, violent and paradoxically elegant interrogation of Augustus, a terrorist who’s being leaned on to reveal the members of his cell. The smooth interrogator is Harper, a Gap-casuals-wearing, mid-30s American with Robert Redford good looks who specializes in torture, both physical and psychological. Harper is glib, smooth and terrifying. Constantly exerting pressure on Augustus, he wants “names, places, the infrastructure, the how. There’s no hurry.” Reluctant to speak, Augustus takes refuge in memory. He recalls growing up in Harlem, being recruited by political radical Elise Merkete and sharing a few last moments of tenderness with Inez, a Spanish prostitute. Most of all, however, Augustus recalls his lifelong love affair with and brief marriage to Selina, who comes from a family of privilege and whose sexual fire matches his. Selina is volatile and emotionally vulnerable, a condition exacerbated by the incestuous relationship she had with her brother when she was 15. But the premature loss of her child with Augustus unhinges her, and they part ways for 32 years. In the meantime, Augustus works as a reporter, a restaurateur and a terrorist—a most unusual résumé. Throughout his agonizing interrogation, he looks for ways to counter and overcome Harper’s insistent cynicism that “the world’s not what we thought it was, the world’s what it’s always been.” Given the bleakness of Duncan’s philosophical exploration of the role of violence and decadence in Western culture, readers will desperately hope this is not true.
The prose is as merciless as the ghastly figure of Harper, whose shadow looms over the book.