It tells the story of an ex-marine who fought in Iraq and later accumulated a large amount of money working as a freelance intelligence operative for both the US government and the Iraqi police. He left his old life, not wanting to return to America, and chose instead to relocate to Europe and put his complicated past behind him – although there is reason to believe he may be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder given his lethargic disaffection towards life. His main aim though is to blend in with his new surroundings and be as anonymous as possible.
The story takes place over a single December day in an unnamed European city. I believe the city is a conjured up image of several European cities rolled into one, with some aspects of Berlin, Prague and perhaps a Russian city combined, based on the freezing temperatures described in the novel. The 41 year old narrator, who never reveals his name, meets a 25 year-old girl named Saskia at a museum. She works as an economist, loves to party and hardly surprisingly is his only friend – he is very much a loner and comes across as not being very humorous. The narrator lives in a small hotel but is anxious to find an apartment and readily accepts Saskia’s help to find one. There is no hint of romance between them, which makes the friendship difficult to fathom. It can sometimes feel that nothing terribly exciting happens between the characters. They drink coffee, smoke cigarettes, play pool, travel on buses, he meets some of Saskia’s friends, he buys a new coat (are you yawning reading this?). What captures the reader’s attention though are the narrator’s reminiscences, in-depth recollections and anecdotes from his previous life in the form of flashbacks. Here he tells some unique stories, often resembling a Chinese box. You know there is going to be another layer to what you are unwrapping but you never quite know what it’s going to be.
This is an unusual novel – mainly because it doesn’t have a straightforward plot -(some might say it doesn’t have a plot) but there was something about it that drew me into reading it. The story is written as a continuous passage as opposed to having chapters. It’s short, well written and does not require a terrible amount of concentration. It could easily be read on a long train journey or flight. Although it’s somewhat an oblique story, it is written in quite an easygoing style that is interspersed with some great moments of descriptive prose and beauty that makes it stand out.
© Declan Henry