Tuesday 22 April 2008

A Wee Review - The Semantics of Murder by Aifric Campbell

Aifric Campbell’s biographical information on the first page of her debut novel, The Semantics of Murder, reveals more than a few interesting facts about her. “As a convent schoolgirl in Dublin, her greyhound won the Irish Derby and a hymn she co-wrote won a national TV song contest.” Other impressive facts include her completion of a Linguistics degree, lecturing in semantics at the University of Göteborg, a thirteen year career in investment banking and her decision to drop that in favour of studying psychotherapy and creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

An impressive CV, no?

And for this simple reader, a somewhat intimidating introduction to her novel. I expected a highbrow literary affair with lots of subtle nuances, subtext, dense prose, long-long paragraphs and a distinct lack of dialogue and action. And that’s what I got. But here’s the thing... I truly enjoyed it.

Campbell’s protagonist, Jay Hamilton, is on the surface, a confident, suave and impressive individual. Having moved from Los Angeles to Kensington in London, he has set up shop as a highly-regarded (at least, among his peers) psychoanalyst. His upper class clients unwittingly feed his muse as he moonlights as J Merritt, a successful author dealing in stories heavily steeped in mental analysis. And his literary career is not his only secret. Robert, Jay’s much older brother, was allegedly killed by rent boys and Jay was first on the scene. Much of Jay’s internal dialogue deals with how he coped with the trauma of his father-figure-brother’s death and a terrible relationship with his mother. His old pains are relived when an investigative biographer, Dana Flynn, tracks down Jay to question him about Robert, a mathematical genius and the subject of her work-in-progress.

Jay is a fascinating character, and though not entirely sympathetic, Campbell does a great job of building him up and then slowly revealing his flaws and insecurities. To a point she hides his real personality behind his unsavoury opinions of his clients as he relives memorable sessions with the oddest cases. But the real Jay is revealed through his thoughts of his dead brother as the story progresses. Campbell also has a mastery of descriptive language. The book is mostly set in London and LA and when Campbell takes us to either of these locations there is no mistaking her familiarity with them. The characters’ surroundings couldn’t have been better illustrated without the aid of cinematography and a popup book. And the supporting cast is vividly painted through Jay’s eyes, each one with their own physical quirks and characteristics. Lovely.

I felt that the big reveal in the third act was a bit predictable, but I don’t think Campbell’s intention was to shock us with a huge twist in the tale. Instead, and I phrase this vaguely to avoid spoilers, she eased the reader in to the big secret and made it easier to swallow.

The plot also concerns a short story inspired by one of Jay’s most interesting clients. Jay tries to nail Cora’s character and succeeds. But it is his expert prediction of Cora’s ultimate outcome that leads him to question his ethics as a psychoanalyst. And so, the reader can’t help but feel intrigued by J Merritt’s short story, Cora. Well, Campbell made the bold decision to include the actual story as an appendix to the novel. And it was a great read. Very different in style to the novel, employing omniscient POV and a much more pared down style of prose, I found it the perfect epilogue to the story of Jay Hamilton and his self-examination of sibling rivalry.

All in all, The Semantics of Murder is not exactly a light read for the beach, but an excellent novel if you fancy an intellectual workout.

One last thing, the official release date is the 24th of April, but I’ve seen copies on shelves in an Eason or two over the last few weeks. So, no need to wait. Go buy it.

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