Review: The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson
The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson (William Morrow, 2014, 304 pages)
I have to admit, I was first drawn to this book partly because of the cover and partly because of the title. Just one of those times, I suppose, when my aesthetic sense took over and said, "ooooooo pretttttyyyy cover, hope the book is good."
Well, I'm happy to report, this novel was good. Very good, in fact.
By the end, you feel like you started off sitting on a small snowball and rode it down a long hill until you were trapped in the center of a huge, dense snowball that was bigger than a house. And a fun ride it is: a man finds himself face-to-face with a former college girlfriend twenty years after she disappeared and it's all a tangled web of lies, money, and murder after that. And yet, these lies and the stolen money and the multiple bodies don't account for the sense of creeping, dark foreboding that haunts each page. Rather, it's the third-person omniscient narrative voice that makes you want to read TGwaCfaH with one eye on the page and one eye on the door. This voice is at once jaded and hopeful, deadpan and ironic. You trust this voice immediately, only to then recoil in horror at the thought that you just placed your trust in this man without even thinking twice.
I see you raising a skeptical eyebrow. But let me explain. George, whose mind we inhabit here, has become trapped in a very deep rut: his work-life, love-life, and everything else seem to be going nowhere. And then, just as he feels like life can't get any more boring, the woman he fell in love with at college, whom he's never gotten over, shows up with a story straight out of a classic crime novel. She asks for his help, and basically George is faced with two choices: say no and go on with his stilted existence, or return stolen money to a corrupt businessman so said businessman will call off the hit-man who's been stalking George's ex. Clearly, it isn't a choice at all.
The novel moves back and forth between George's relationship with Liana/Audrey/Jane (yes, the woman has many aliases) during college and the present time, each switch leaving us hanging in painful suspense, which will definitely give you a bad case of staying-up-till-the-wee-hours-of-the-morning-reading-cause-you-really-need-to-find-out-what-happens-itis. But what really pulled me in was the horrified thought halfway through that, based on George's terribly naive choices and the novel's own obsession with the malleability of truth and identity, I probably couldn't trust anything anyone said in this novel.
And perhaps this is why I was expecting a completely wacky, outrageously crazy ending that didn't happen. Which is fine, because it didn't need to end on an outrageous note. But the suspense and anxiety that the novel cultivates leads you to expect something akin to a Fight Club ending, something out of left-field that was actually staring you in the face all along. The ending aside, TGwaCfaH is fast-paced and addictive. It raises interesting questions about identity and the process of crafting the life you want, rather than living the life you've inherited. Reminded me a lot of Bob Dylan's statement that he never felt like he was born in the right place or the right family. He had to construct "Bob Dylan" from the ground up.
But, of course, we can never escape our past, either...right? Well....go read the book and let me know what you think.