I have no idea where to begin in reviewing this book. It was both a delight and a disappointment to read. One of those books you love and hate at the same time.
I expected, from the title “Surveillance” and from the comments of reviewers on the cover of the book…..such as “The finest, most human, most chilling novel to have emerged in response to these desperate times”…and “Security, preparedness, identity and truthfulness are cleverly dissected in Raban’s disturbing story”…..and “Post 9/11, everyone watches and is being watched….In Raban’s black and brilliant portrait of this adopted city, all kinds of sinister forces filter and manipulate the truth. A wonderfully ironic, disturbing take on the un-privacy of modern life” – that it would be more about surveillance, about both government and individuals prying secretly into the lives of others – as they do do in real life. That it would be about how, post 9/11, the government – of not just America but of other western nations – imposed “security measures” on their citizens in the guise of public safety, but were actually restricting their liberty and freedom of thought, movement and privacy. AND in small measures it was. But very small measures.
In general, I enjoyed the way that the story and characters developed. By the end of the book I really did care about the characters and wanted to know more about how their lives progressed…..IF their lives progressed. But it was a story with more questions than answers and the further into the book I went, the more questions were left unanswered. I kept looking at the thickness of the book, and how much I had read, and thinking that the author wasn’t leaving much space to round off the story and bring it to a reasonable conclusion…..and then it ended very abruptly. Whether this was his plan all the time, or if he had just received a call from his publisher telling him his deadline had been brought forward, I have no idea – BUT it was a very disappointing ending and I felt cheated.
The story begins with a “terrorist threat practice drill” in which an aging bit part actor (Tad) plays one of the victims walks us through the scene. The smoke and booms and confusion – but obviously not a real situation. Tad is gay – his partner of many years has died from aids a few years earlier and to fill that void he frequents the conspiracy pages of the internet and has become a very angry and distrusting person. He has become paranoid about the governments secret agenda and takes very little at face value – so in this respect the title of the book IS valid and I thought that the story would concentrate on this aspect. He goes home at the end of the day to his apartment in Seattle where we are introduced to his neighbour – our main character Lucy a journalist who is about to do a piece on a reclusive author who survived the Nazi death camps of world war 2.
Lucy lives with her daughter who is now 11 years old and who was conceived during a one night stand a motel after meeting a stranger in a bar. They live across the hall from Tad….who has become a sort of stand in father/grandfatherly figure for the daughter. Enter the mysterious Mr Lee, a Chinese immigrant who has just become their new landlord. and who soon becomes “interested” in Lucy and her daughter. Meantime Tad is trying to find out more about Mr Lee.
So, we have several story lines on the go. There’s Tad’s paranoia, Lucy’s story on the reclusive author, Mr Lee and his mysterious background, the relationship between mother and daughter, the unknown identity of the girls father……all the characters relationships with one another. Raban weaves a multiple relationship story and poses many questions about truths and falsehoods which, as a reader – and having been dragged through these relationships and side stories – I expected to have some answers to at the end.
The ending comes suddenly but not altogether completely unexpected as it is hinted at along the way. But it does leave multiple questions unanswered and leaves the reader feeling cheated. I don’t want to give away any actual spoilers – just in case anyone still wants to read the book. It is a good story – to a point – and as I said I did feel a connection to the characters and had become concerned about them and what was going to happen to them…..and then that fucking ending. Excuse my language but that’s exactly what I thought as I turned the final page. Definitely a WTF moment!
I’ve had a quick look on Goodreads to see what others thought of the book and it looks like I am not on my own. One reviewer who gave it one star said “Passed onto me by two friends, both of them gave up after the first two chapters, but I thought, oh it can not be that bad. Yes, it was. Should have listened, I wasted my time reading this, no ending, no final, a book you pick up and throw against the wall with frustration that time, was wasted.”
Another one – this time giving 3 stars said “I was all set to give this four stars–the characterization was tight, the plot moved quickly, and the social commentary on living in a surveillance society was timely and non-hysterical. “‘We are all spooks'”, says one of the characters, and it is an apt statement. The daughter tracks her mother’s alcohol intake, the mother investigates the autobiographical story of a writer she’s doing a profile on, the next door neighbor runs down information on the new owner of their apartment building, and of course the government investigates us all. But then the ending just….struck.“
Yet another one star rater said “Opens with a bang, literally, as Homeland Security films an attack video in near-future Seattle for a public safety film (uh huh, we believe that right away). Lucy, single mom and freelancer, is tasked to score an interview witha professor who is enjoying critical success for his memoir as an orphan in post-WWII Europe. Lucy lies to get the interview, winds up befriending the guy, and then discovers he might have made it all up. Meanwhile, lucy’s neighbor may be dying of AIDS while developers attempt to purchase the building they live in.
And that is as far as I got, sorry. The sense of menace and paranoia–helped along by car wrecks that may or may not happened–was minimal (but maybe ratchets up later), but I was just bored to tears. The reviews say the end is surprising and will “outrage” many, but i just didn’t care enough to get there.”
The author Jonathan Raban’s usual fare is travel writing – fact rather than fiction. It may be best if he sticks to that in the future…..or learns how not to let down his audience.