Peter Brnett

A Sinister Cabaret

simpsonc05pic1.jpg For most of us the dreaded mid-life crisis amounts to little more than a convoluted hiccup on a rapidly receding horizon. To others the word ‘crisis’ only serves to demean the experience. For the protagonist in John Herdman’s latest novel, Sinister Cabaret (Black Ace Books PBK £9.95), it’s a full blown vortical trauma.

Douglas Humbie, leaving behind his career and his wife in Edinburgh, heads north to familiar places for a short break. Unfortunately, the familiar places have become unfamiliar and even hostile. Each setting, each character, each event is an unsettling side-step away from normality in a dark, brooding surreal landscape that has Douglas fleeing manically around the country and the reader deeply uneasy. Fearing that his wife has been abducted, he seeks out MacNucator, a private detective, to find her.

Meanwhile the sinister cabaret of the title, led by the strange and unfathomable Mr Motion, pursues him relentlessly. On the edge of reason, Humbie’s voice is ambiguous and incisive – decide which at any given moment. As ever, Herdman’s characters inhabit a dark universe illuminated by his profoundly laconic wit.

simpsonc05pic3.jpg Jonathan Falla’s beautifully written Blue Poppies (11:9 PBK £9.99) is set in Tibet in the 1940s, Falla tells the story of Jamie sent out from Inverkeithing to man a radio post on the Chinese border. Puton, a young Tibetan woman, crippled in a dreadful accident which left her husband dead, is ostracised by the villagers who fear she will bestow her bad luck on them. Out of their individual loneliness and isolation, these two outsiders to the village forge a bond with the fragility of fundamentally divergent outlooks at its heart. When the Chinese communist army invades, Jamie, together with a local monk, Khenpo Nima, decides to lead the villagers out of the village and across the mountains. The villagers will not go if Puton goes too and so Jamie is faced with a terrible choice. Glacial and elegantly understated, Falla’s prose has an almost mythical quality. Beautifully evocative and utterly engrossing, Blue Poppies conveys intense emotions and appalling hardship while Falla holds us in thrall with his wonderful storytelling.

simpsonc05pic2.jpg Ruaridh Nicoll somehow manages to create a claustrophobic setting out of the sprawling vastness of the Highlands for the two central characters of his first novel, White Male Heart (Doubleday HBK £9.99). Aaron and Hugh have grown up together, thrust together and alienated from their community. Into this situation steps Becky, up from London to find solace in the peace of the countryside. As Hugh is drawn to Becky and the prospect of escape, the friendship of the two men splinters with shattering consequences. The raw energy and violence of the land finds an echo in the dark psyches of the men. While Nicoll creates a dark and brooding landscape and two convincingly drawn central characters, the characters outside of that frame, and in particular the women, are little more than glossy magazine ciphers.

A world run and dominated by computers – it’s all been done before, hasn’t it? But not with Aberdeen as the centre of a spider’s web of networking that provides the world’s first people’s computer democracy, and not with Vivien as the not entirely random force who screws up the experiment with her own particular brand of viruses. Peter Burnett’s The Machine Doctor (Thirsty Books PBK £9.99) provides an entertaining and amusing read that explores issues of control and democracy in a virtual world that falls uneasily between reality and fantasy.

simpsonc05pic5.jpg Remind me not to go down to Glasgow’s George Square this Hogmanay. The hero of Drew Campbell’s Dead Letter House (11:9 pbk £7.99) starts there at midnight on Hogmanay and descends through a long night’s journey into death. Gatecrashed parties, psychopathic drug dealers, seduction scenes, a taxi with no driver and the long, cold walk in between times are interspersed with psychotropic exploration of what it means to be alive. In this bizarre trip into the surreal, Campbell’s hero clings on to the vestiges of his life, writing letters to his family explaining how he really was and choosing the Desert Island Discs that will finally define him. Exploring what defines where life starts and ends, Dead Letter House is a darkly funny and inventive roller-coaster of a ride – but I’m staying in Edinburgh this New Year.

Copyright Clare Simpson 2005.