Book Quote:

“Sometimes,” he told clients “what frightens us the most is that which is nameless.”

Book Review:

Review by Guy Savage  (JAN 7, 2010)

Special–>  Interview with Aifric Campbell

Therapists make fascinating fictional characters–just consider the raw material. They listen to the secrets of others all day long, but where do those secrets go? It’s assumed that therapists are rational, ethical, well-balanced individuals. But what if they’re not? These questions surface whenever I come across a fictional therapist. Hanif Kureishi’s Something to Tell You features a therapist with a very messy private life, while in Irvin Yalom’s novel, Lying on the Couch, the fictional therapists are both seduced and conned by patients.

This brings me to The Semantics of Murder, the first novel from Irish author Aifric Campbell, recently published by Serpent’s Tail Press. This engrossing tale is inspired by the 1971 unsolved murder of UCLA Professor Richard Montague. Montague was born in California and attended UC Berkeley where he earned degrees in Philosophy and Mathematics. As is often the case with truly brilliant people, Montague’s work crossed subject boundaries, and he pioneered a logical approach to semantics known as Montague Grammar. Montague was also a talented organist and a real estate investor. But Montague had a dark side, and it’s this dark side which led to his murder.

The Semantics of Murder begins with London-based therapist Jay Hamilton as he begins a session with another of his troubled clients. Jay is well-respected and has a practice full of affluent clients who can afford his services, and yet there’s something not quite right about him. He has no sustained relationships, no private life to speak of, and his professional manner is carefully prepared, studied and manufactured. In reality, Jay is an emotional vampire who unethically feeds his secret literary career with the private confidences of his clients:

“The air was thick with frantic secrets. Closing his eyes, Jay caught a fleeting glimpse of a red silk scarf flapping through a car window, heard the sound of swift, light footsteps receding in the night—it was the hurried press of Cora’s story unfolding just out of earshot, but when he listened, it fell silent. For five weeks now he had watched her scuttle round the fringes of her past while he sat in the armchair, a textbook arrangement of attentiveness in the fifty-minute hour. His body language had been successfully deflated years ago, during long sessions in front of the full-length mirror in his studio room, head swiveling between an oblique view of the bay—all he could afford in San Francisco in those early days—and a honey strip of afternoon light sliding across the back wall. He’d studied his reflection, monitoring the gradual erosion of his identity into a pared–down expression of alert neutrality that would reassure his clients that he could listen without judgement, without pity, shock or horror; that he could take the story of a life and help them to rewrite it, give it a sequence and consequence it didn’t have, make it a better story.”

In the dark, almost-forgotten recesses of Jay’s life are the memories of his elder brother, Robert, a mathematics professor at UCLA who was murdered decades earlier. Jay, now 51 years old, finds these memories somewhat unsettling, but he’s managed to minimize his past by moving to Britain and establishing his successful practice there. Jay is disturbed when contacted by writer Dana Flynn, a woman who intends to write a biography of Robert Hamilton, and he finds old, unwelcome memories resurfacing:

“Jay had found himself continually ambushed by reminiscence which presented as a sort of arrhythmia that disrupted the familiar beat of his days.”

Jay doesn’t quite approve of Dana’s last book, the biography of an eminent scientist and a secret homosexual, for while the book cannot be faulted, its author questioned the official verdict of death-by-suicide in a “rather dubiously presented closing chapter.” Jay is cautious at the prospect of the resurrection of old, painful memories, and concerned about the intrusion of a biographer, but at the same time, he isn’t averse to the idea that Robert should receive some recognition of his life’s work. So simultaneously curious and uneasy, Jay, as the “keeper” of Robert’s memory agrees to meet Dana.

The novel goes back and forth from Jay’s present to his past, and in these glittering, bitter-sweet memories, Jay emerges as the younger brother who lived in the shadow of his brilliant, favoured brother’s success. Robert never approved of Jay’s career choice, and thought he could do better. Robert, a dynamic, vibrant person comes alive in these pages through intense, painfully sharp moments which vacillate between an astonishing academic career and a dark “private underworld.” The duality of Robert’s nature, one half productive and the other seemingly unconnected half of secret, brutal sexual encounters haunt Jay–a man whose life is about control, order and presentation:

“It was as if a lid was creaking open on his vaporous past and old unwelcome phantoms were slipping out to invade the present. His resuscitated brother was gliding towards him, gathering up the years.”

The Semantics of Murder is difficult to define within the context of genre; the novel occupies the space where reality meets fiction, past blends into present, and genius merges into the dark recesses of sexual gratification. Part mystery, The Semantics of Murder explores the difficulties of biography, the fragility of the therapist-client relationship, and the unfathomable depths of motivation. Campbell shows a sharp understanding of the complex duality of human nature and this duality is explored and accepted unflinchingly within the pages of this excellent novel.

Aifric Campbell’s next novel The Lost Adjustor is due out in February 2010, and I’ll be first in line to read it.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Serpent’s Tail (September 1, 2009)
REVIEWER: Guy Savage
AMAZON PAGE: The Semantics of Murder
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Aifric Campbell
EXTRAS: Our interview with Aifric Campbell
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More books with shrinks:


January 7, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , ,  · Posted in: 2009 Favorites, California, Debut Novel, Facing History, Mystery/Suspense, United Kingdom

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