THE SINGER’S GUN by Emily St. John Mandel

Book Quote:

“It isn’t black-and-white, what we do, or what anyone else does in this world…Most things you have to do in life are at least a little bit questionable.”

Book Review:

Review by Poornima Apte (MAY 5, 2010)

Emily St. John Mandel, the author of the taut and well-written novel, The Singer’s Gun, is a regular on one of my favorite book blogs, The Millions. Understanding the reason for why authors write the way they do is often difficult—especially because one doesn’t have ready access to their insights. This is why St. John Mandel’s wonderful essay about writing, The Trojan Horse Problem: Thoughts on Structure, which was published by The Millions, is particularly valuable.

After reading the essay, you are convinced that her novel is going to do away with excess. This is going to be one lean, mean, plot-driven machine. And this is precisely what The Singer’s Gun is.

The central character is Anton Waker, a vanilla white-collar executive working at an engineering firm in Manhattan. After many days at the company doing seemingly thorough work, Anton suddenly finds himself unmoored. His secretary is missing; slowly none of the company workers report to him and eventually he finds himself shunted away to a basement office next to file storage. Anton himself is now in endless cold storage. Anton has no idea what happened to cause this sudden shift in his fortunes—except maybe he does.

A few weeks ago the engineering company had won a lucrative government assignment—one that required thorough background checks. It turns out Anton’s past has been less than stellar. In writing that seamlessly moves back and forth in time, St. John Mandel shows how in his early youth, Anton is roped into a shady business by his cousin, Aria. The orphaned Aria is adopted by Anton’s parents early on and she convinces Anton to join her in a scheme selling fake Social Security Cards and U.S. passports to illegal immigrants.

Anton’s parents, for their part, run a business selling refurbished stolen goods so the lines of morality for the young Anton are very blurred early on. It is his act of rebellion that he decides to break free of the dubious businesses his family works in—he sets off to become an executive, someone who walks on the straight-and-narrow. Of course noble intentions are not readily achieved. Anton’s shady past returns to haunt him and there are no easy solutions to the quandary he finds himself in.

Worse, Anton’s personal life is in shambles. His wedding to Sophie Waker took many starts and stops to finally happen but Anton soon realizes she is not the one for him. Part of the reason may be his affair with his secretary, Elena James, an illegal immigrant herself, whom Anton once helped with papers. Halfway through his honeymoon with Sophie, during their stay on the island of Ischia in Italy, Anton tells his new wife he wants to stay behind on the island—why doesn’t she just go ahead back to the United States without him. If all this sounds unreal, Anton has legitimate reasons to stay behind—it would be too much of a reveal to state the reasons here.

The element of suspense in the story revolves around the reasons for Anton’s stay on the island and the true dealings that cousin Aria is up to. An agent from the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service Division, Alexandra Broden, is hot on Anton’s trail to learn more.

The author does a wonderful job with the pacing and the dialog in the novel. The island of Ischia is just marvelously rendered—you can absolutely feel you’re there. St. John Mandel also beautifully shows the contradictions Anton has to grapple with. He desperately wants to walk away from a life of crime and shady dealings yet he finds it very hard to do. As his parents remind him, everyone’s life is full of moral ambiguities. All told, The Singer’s Gun is a crisp, taut novel and will work really well as a beach read this summer.

Back to St. John Mandel’s essay in The Millions, she writes: “It seems to me that a good novel, one that holds a reader’s attention for three hundred pages, requires a kind of sustained enchantment.” The Singer’s Gun definitely meets this criterion. There is a very surreal, atmospheric, “sustained enchantment” quality to the novel that makes it all work effectively.

In a particularly snide review of the book, The Publisher’s Weekly complained that “the sex isn’t sexy and the violence isn’t especially violent.” But that is precisely the point. The Singer’s Gun doesn’t conform to stereotypical expectations of what a book in the suspense genre should read like. And in this case, that is definitely a good thing.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-5from 17 readers
PUBLISHER: Unbridled Books; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)
REVIEWER: Poornima Apte
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Emily St. John Mandel and on FaceBook
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Poornima’s review of Lola Quartet

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: We discovered this publisher when we attended BEA a couple years ago.  Here are some other Unbridled Books that we’ve enjoyed in the past:


May 5, 2010 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  Â· Posted in: 2010 Favorites, Literary, New York City, Thriller/Spy/Caper

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