A debut novel and a first for this blog. I was contacted by Lisa Glass and asked if I would like to review her book. Sum total of the following equation could only be yes: title (surely one of the intriguing of the year) + the cover (hints at some mysterious sadness) + the spiel on the back cover
Mary undresses and wades into the boating lake. She dives and opens her eyes. In the blue, she perceives, the outline of a head – she reaches … a dead bird. But she will keep searching. Because Mary’s mother, Meghranoush – a 94 year-old survivor of the genocide of Armenians by the Turkish army early in the twentieth century- has vanished.
Mary is already known to the police: a serial telephoner, a report of wrongdoing, a nuisance. Her doctor talks of mental illness. But what has happened is not just inside her head. A trail of glass birds mocks her. A silver thimble shines on the riverbed – a thimble that belonged to her mother. A glassblower burns a body in a furnace and uses the ash to colour the vase. Rumours circulate of a monster stalking the women of Plymouth. A serial killer who specialises in the elderly.
Has Mary’s mother simply left -trying to escape the ghosts of genocide in her mind – or has she been abducted? It is left to this most unreliable and unpredictable of daughters to try to find her, in this moving, lyrical and very powerful work.
I’ve quoted the back cover because it defines the layers of intrigue in this ambitious and unconventional literary crime novel – whose only detective is the unreliable and ostensibly mad Mary Sibley. It’s hard to sympathise with her. In chapter one we are told “Mary is faintly repulsed by her mother at the best of times, for a number of reasons that begin and end with the fact that her mother eats Crackerbreads, which she spreads with margarine and Marmite using her bare fingers”. The mother/daughter relationship is difficult. In chapter 3, “lifting her arm, the back of her hand finds her mother’s cold cheek and there is the crack of slap. Mary is sick that her arms aren’t stronger …. she is sick that she can’t hurt her more than she has”. So by page 27 I am completely alienated from the anti-heroine and yet Glass manages to turn things around so completely that by the end of the novel I am more in tune with mad Mary’s head than anything else.
Mary’s insanity is counterbalanced by that of the male serial killer and in an account which weaves between that of Mary’s search for her mother, Glass charts the damage leading to his pathological state and his taking of Meghranoush, a fact confirmed on the first page of chapter 2 – this chapter, incidentally, one that I wish had been edited out for a number of reasons. A goodly deal of mystery disperses with the confirmation of Meghranoush’s whereabouts. There is also a graphic scene of a wrong done to the killer in youth. This scene feels gratuitous for it is not the prime trigger of his future actions. Glass depicts this later in the novel – much more subtly and, for me, with greater success.
Chapter 4 is an outstanding piece of writing – one in which Meghranoush remembers the Armenian genocide. It should come with a health warning for it is extremely graphic and vivid. It’s obviously a tale Glass wishes to tell, based as it is on her own grandmother’s experience. It’s a set piece and the faint-hearted could easily skip to chapter 5, without losing much of the plot.
I have to admit that by the end of chapter 4 I was contemplating putting the novel back on the shelf. But, thankfully, both plot and themes start to develop in a much more controlled and, therefore, chilling way. Mary’s search becomes more frantic as she finally realises her emotional need. By contrast the psychopath becomes more controlled even as Mary begins to register on his radar. The mindgames played between the two are sometimes exquisite and I found the twist contained in the final sentence extremely satisfying.
Not always so the prose, described in the blurb as a demonstration of “dazzling linguistic exuberance”. While I admire the skills on display, I oftentimes found the vocabulary unnecessarily complex, a hurdle interfering with the pleasure of the read. (Plus I’m now far too lazy to read with the OED by my side.) Sometimes less is more.
The beautiful and intriguing title originates from the world of glassmaking. A teardrop with a long trailing stem is formed when hot molten glass is dripped into cold water. The bulbous end is capable of withstanding a hammer blow. Yet the whole structure disintegrates into powder if the stem is damaged. Watch the process here:
Part of the intrigue is identifying the teardrops in this novel. Not something for this entry because, despite my reservations and (hopefully constructive) criticisms, I want others to read this book for themselves. It is an original, powerful and disturbing work. A firecracker in fact – with a very appropriate release date of 5th November.
P.P.S I delayed this entry until the publishing date. In the meantime it has been pointed out that there is a completely different interpretation to my literal take on things. Thus has Prince Rupert’s Teardrop been placed on the to-be-reread in 2008 pile.