Friday, 27 December 2013

REVIEW Entry Island by Peter May

He crouches down to touch the earth, and in doing so feels a direct connection with history, communicating with ghosts, a ghost himself haunting his own past. And yet not his past.

Peter May's Lewis Trilogy has been tremendously successful, with sales for the series topping the million copies mark. ShadePoint reviewed the first in the sequence, The Black House, back in May 2012 and was greatly impressed by the emotional weight of that story - the way that police procedural formed one layer of the story, and the tortured life and history of the investigator another, even deeper one. This led to ShadePoint musing on the tonal similarity between the book, set in the Outer Hebrides, and those set in Scandinavia by some of our favourite writers. May's writing seemed to have that appeal a writer like Mankell has, where the human experiences forming the story are not neglected, but are often the element that sustains, long after the book is finished. This is always something that can set crime novelists apart from each other and a skill that Scandinavian crime fiction seems at times to have hardwired in.

In May's brilliant new book, Entry Island, Detective Sime Mackenzie flies out from Montreal's St Hubert airfield as part of an investigative team to Entry Island in the Magdalen Islands of the Gulf of St Lawrence. Two kilometres wide and three long, the island is home to only 130 people. Well, 129: Mackenzie and his team are off to investigate the murder of the island's wealthiest inhabitants. As Sime voyages out to the small island, uncertain about the task ahead, haunted by the life he leaves behind, ShadePoint couldn't help thinking of Stellan Skarsgård's unforgettable trip to the Arctic Circle in Insomnia, and the fact that May gives Sime chronic insomnia as a defining response to life events, was also deeply reminiscent of that film's appeal. The weightless, distorted sense of drifting out to the unknown, uncertain in one's companions (one of whom as it turns out, Sime knows very well) and the hallucinatory, exhausted quality of this journey, the symbolic sense of passing over into a different consciousness, is very well and succinctly handled by May, and makes a thrilling opening to the story. As if to intensify this sensibility, Sime and the team must then take a ferry, Styx-like, to reach their final destination:

"The island drew Sime's focus and held it there, almost trancelike, as the sun sent its reflection careening towards him, creating what was almost a halo effect around the island itself. There was something magical about it. Almost mystical."

Fans of The Lewis Trilogy need not despair that May has left behind the Outer Hebrides, such a compelling setting for that superb series. We learn quickly that Sime has Gaelic roots, and when he meets the murder suspect for the first time, Kirsty Cowell, he is at once thrillingly struck with a sense of having met her before - this, without giving too much away, will lead to a fascinating dual narrative: the solution of the crime, and the telling of Sime's family history, and a defining passage of time told through the diaries of an ancestor. Therefore, Lewis features heavily in Entry Island, a dark echo of clearances and exile, the dreadful events leading the Gàidhealtachd out to these remote places of Canada. As the parallel narrative builds, the stories begin to be carded steadily together until they seek in many ways the same solution.

May's depiction of the tiny island itself, from the villagers who turn out at the pier to meet the ferry, to the wild and desolate cliff-tops where a world of otherness seems to prevail, is superbly handled. Regular readers of this blog will know what a big deal it is to ShadePoint when I say this, but May's blending of the island setting, with the mystical elements of Sime's falling into the past, is reminiscent very much of the work of Johan Theorin, in particular Echoes of the Dead. So much so, that if this was not so defiantly and admirably a standalone work, one can easily imagine May being able to create a new series of novels in these haunting islands, not necessarily featuring Sime, but existing in the same universe. Not as chillingly "other" as some of Theorin's work (the eerie The Darkest Room was our Book of the Year in 2010) Entry Island is more clearly based in the real world - but the interplay of past and present and the inexplicable echoes and coincidences of destiny, is still very like Theorin's style. Like Theorin, what may seem casually to be coincidences in Entry Island, may well be nothing of the kind. There is a strong sense with both these exciting writers that this depth of storytelling comes in part from a deep fascination and identification with ancestry and heritage, and by extension the narrative of folk tale and superstition. In May's case, the accounts of the Clearances and subsequent exile of the people of Sime's Lewis origins are terribly moving, and reveal a very great deal about this experience that was certainly unknown here at the Point.

Emphasis on this mysteriousness and historical storytelling is not at all to suggest May neglects the thrust of the procedural investigation. Not a bit. This side of the narrative zips past with false trails, mysterious intruders and attacks, forensic and interrogative incident - not to mention the geography of the story shifting continuously as investigators island-hop in search of suspects and clues. There is a constant sense of threat throughout, and within the fragile dynamic that is the investigative team there is a great deal of tension - which in one scene, without hopefully giving any spoilers away, erupts with considerable force and bloodshed. It is an exciting detection tale deftly told, and works extremely well as counterpoint to the arguably much deeper and more complex story of Sime's own life, and by extension, his connection to times, emotions, loves long before his own birth. Where the two narratives cross over, what may seem unlikely or surprising to some readers, may in fact spring from a totally different understanding.

Overall, Entry Island is highly recommended. Fans of the Lewis Trilogy will be enthralled, and new fans will surely be found - Sime's journey and Gaelic heritage acting as a kind of bridge to a completely standalone world from the Trilogy, but one that will be by no means unfamiliar. Sime shares certain characteristics with Fin Macleod, and both are equally compelling characters. Entry Island succeeds in one of the most difficult writing challenges for any writer - maintaining parallel past and present stories without diminishing one at the expense of the other - and has a filmic, vivid quality to it that will endure.

An Interview with Peter May

Shade Point was lucky enough to have the chance to interview Peter May about Entry Island, and his work in general.

SP: From the Lewis Trilogy to Entry Island, you seem drawn to islands - can you say a bit about why you find them a compelling setting for your novels?

PM: People separated from others by water seem to develop a character and culture quite different from their mainland compatriots.  Islands are generally more exposed to and affected by the weather, and that tends to shape everything from architecture to agriculture, relationships to religion. But for the crime writer islands present a wonderfully closed setting, a breeding ground for feuds and jealousies where the smallest disagreements can become all out war.  The human condition is contained and placed under the microscope, providing the perfect setting for murder.

SP: In the Lewis Trilogy and Entry Island, we find a sense of kinship with Scandinavian crime fiction, in the tone, and in the emotional heart of the stories - do you feel there are things about the Hebrides and the islands of the Gulf of St Lawrence that have a Scandinavian aspect? The connected history is clearly there in the Hebrides, but something of the character and emotional sensibility too perhaps?

PM: I think that cold, dark northern settings breed a bleak and brooding fiction that the Scandinavians have capitalised on in recent years.  But culturally I think that the Hebrides that I know so well, and the islands in Quebec that I researched for Entry Island, possess their own very unique character that owes very little to the influence of the Scandinavians.  Of course, the Western Isles of Scotland were under Norse occupation for 200 years, so there is clearly a linguistic and cultural influence there.  But the islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it seems to me, have been shaped much more powerfully by the influence of France and the French language.

SP: Although Entry Island is a standalone - do you feel you might ever be tempted to return to this setting in a future book? What drew you in particular to this part of the world?

PM: Unlike The Blackhouse there is no chance that Entry Island will develop into a series or even a trilogy.  I was aware while working on its development that it would only ever provide a one-off story. Knowing how publishers (and readers) like series, it was with some trepidation that I told my editor that Entry Island would be a standalone. Fortunately, after he had read my synopsis, he gave it his 100 percent support, which was very gratifying.

To be honest, I would never have considered setting a story in Canada, since it was not a country with which I was particularly familiar.  But the nature of the subject of Entry Island - the Highland Clearances - led inexorably towards Canada, and more specifically Quebec, as a setting for the book.  It is where tens of thousands of displaced Scots ended up, if they survived the brutal Atlantic crossings. So it was a challenge for me to make myself sufficiently familiar with the country in order to be able to write about it.  But having already tackled China, I was undaunted, and found the Canadian people and police nothing but friendly and helpful.  The truth is, often I enjoy the research more than the writing!

SP: Entry Island and the Lewis Trilogy have a strong driving connection to past events, both long ago and relatively recent, and these events shape the stories. Do you feel drawn to this aspect of past and present intermingling in this way?

PM: The way the past shapes both the present and our future was very much a theme of the Lewis Trilogy, and one that I carried on into Entry Island.  It is something that fascinates me, both in my own life, and in observing the lives of others, how small decisions made often in the spur of the moment can have far reaching consequences years later.  It also gives me the chance to explore that all consuming human emotion of regret. We all have regrets, and very often they colour, and sometimes consume our lives.  So I have developed a style of storytelling that embraces both past and present as a way of examining these phenomena. In the trilogy that was relatively easy, since the gap between past and present was only two or three decades.  In Entry Island the gap was 150 years.  So that presented a major challenge all by itself.

SP: You have had a very successful career in TV drama - do you feel aspects of your work in that field and its techniques have transferred into your novels?

PM: There is no doubt that I have brought elements of the skills required both as a journalist and as a script writer into my novel writing.  Journalism taught me to write fast and economically, and how to research any subject quickly and in depth.  Script writing honed my abilities as a dialogue writer, and the techniques employed in advancing plot and character purely through the spoken word.  All these things have, I think, been positively beneficial as I have endeavoured to carve out a career as a writer of crime fiction.

SP: Can we ask, what's next up for Peter May?

PM: I would love to say retirement.  But no one will let me stop writing!  So I have already started work on the next book.  It is something completely different - not an island in sight - and is based on events that happened to me when I was a teenager.  More than that, at this stage, I cannot say.


Many thanks to Peter May, and Cecilia and Sophie at Midas PR. Entry Island by Peter May is just published by Quercus at £16.99. He will be doing a tour of the UK from 9th January. Please see Peter May's Facebook page or follow him on Twitter for information on all events.

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