My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Brooke Magnanti has written a number of books as the more salaciously autobiographical (and until recently, private) Belle de Jour. The Turning Tide is the first fiction work published under her own name (The Sex Myth, a non-fiction work, was released in 2012.)
If you’re familiar with the author’s earlier work, this outing without an alter ego will surprise: it’s a thriller which begins with the discovery of a body in a bag on the remote Scottish coast, and ends somewhere completely different. Along the way you’ll run into philosophic thugs, new and old media, headbanger mortuary attendants and a distinctly Cicely, Alaska-if-it-were-in-the-Hebrides oddness.
(You can find out if there’s shagging in it for yourself, mind.)
The writing in the Belle de Jour series was always clean and tight, but there’s extra focus here. There’s a strong streak of science through the text, and it’s fitting that mathematical proofs and problems make an appearance, as the elegance of a proof seems to inform how the novel is constructed. Everything slides together just so, and the reveals (expected or second-guessed) are never as obvious as one would expect for the genre. Indeed, the work is slippery as far as genre goes: it begins as a murder mystery but soon veers off into some very different territories. Constructionwise, it proves Magnanti has an excellent sense of orchestration for fictional worlds.
What The Turning Tide has in common with the Belle de Jour works is that its author is present throughout. Parts of Magnanti’s life – her Florida upbringing, her knowledge of rowing, her familiarity with the island and the amber products of Scotland – are farmed out to characters in the work, so that their backstories, their predilections have a strong ring of truth about them. Especially poignant is the examination of the secret life, of the necessity of concealment, and the toll it takes on an individual.
It’s difficult to review a thriller without giving away the manifold twists which form the story. But what pleases most about this work is that it provides a platform for the investigation of strong female characters. There’s a bunch of them here, and – like the rest of the figures in the book, save a couple of stereotypes – are drawn very strongly. Men are not the overwhelming concern here, nor are they usually calling the shots. Instead, through the lens of the novel’s determined core, Erykah, we’re told a story and asked to reflect on matters as diverse as poverty, relationships, power, money, the media, and whether we can truly ever escape our pasts.
There’s a lot to chew over, for sure. But it doesn’t affect the speed of consumption. This is a work which heads towards its resolution at a fair clip, with cinematic vigour. It’s thrilling in a surprising way, and I hope is the first of more from Magnanti in the genre.
Grab something peaty and settle in.