Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Black Boxes

As this blog is meant to be about books in general and not just mine, I thought it was time for a review. I've just finished Black Boxes by Caroline Smailes and found it so powerful and unputdownable, it seemed the perfect place to start.

I have to say that It was not my usual kind of book. Far from it. I tend to go for implausible legal thrillers and sporting autobiographies. But I'd heard a lot about it and was in the mood for something different.

The story is Ana's, a woman who has retreated into a world of (unreliable?) memories. She has given up on her children and, by the end of the book, we know that she will be dead through an overdose of sleeping pills. The story is told from Ana's point of view, then from her daughter, Pippa's, diary and her son, Davie, who communicates with sign language, before going back to Ana. It's less complicated than I've made it sound.

It's as though the reader is eavesdropping on a one-way conversation in Ana's head as she retraces the path that took her to where she now finds herself. You know how it's going to end. But, and this is testimony to the author's skill, you keep hoping that her abusive ex will come along and rescue her.

Pippa's segment is heartbreaking. Smailes perfectly captures the voice of a neglected, unpopular 14 year old girl, who is used and abused by just about everyone in her life. The revelation of who wrote PIP IS AN UGLY FAT COW on a fence she passed on the way to school was so unexpected, I had to read it twice.

And if you can get through Davie's final message without being moved, you're doing better than me. An exquisite touch.

Given that I knew how it was going to end I was surprised when I realised, about an hour after finishing, that it was actually a happy ending of sorts. I recommend Black Boxes highly. It's intelligent, moving, uncomfortable and a real page-turner. Caroline Smailes is a seriously good writer.

The only complaint I have is that the cover, which shows a glamorous twenty-something model delicately swallowing a handful of pills, jars with the book's ultra-realistic tone.

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