THE SINGER’S GUN by Emily St. John Mandel
“It isnâ€™t black-and-white, what we do, or what anyone else does in this worldâ€¦Most things you have to do in life are at least a little bit questionable.”
Review by Poornima Apte (MAY 5, 2010)
Emily St. John Mandel, the author of the taut and well-written novel, The Singerâ€™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 difficultâ€”especially because one doesnâ€™t have ready access to their insights. This is why St. John Mandelâ€™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 Singerâ€™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 fortunesâ€”except maybe he does.
A few weeks ago the engineering company had won a lucrative government assignmentâ€”one that required thorough background checks. It turns out Antonâ€™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 Antonâ€™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.
Antonâ€™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 inâ€”he sets off to become an executive, someone who walks on the straight-and-narrow. Of course noble intentions are not readily achieved. Antonâ€™s shady past returns to haunt him and there are no easy solutions to the quandary he finds himself in.
Worse, Antonâ€™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 islandâ€”why doesnâ€™t she just go ahead back to the United States without him. If all this sounds unreal, Anton has legitimate reasons to stay behindâ€”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 Antonâ€™s stay on the island and the true dealings that cousin Aria is up to. An agent from the State Departmentâ€™s Diplomatic Security Service Division, Alexandra Broden, is hot on Antonâ€™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 renderedâ€”you can absolutely feel youâ€™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, everyoneâ€™s life is full of moral ambiguities. All told, The Singerâ€™s Gun is a crisp, taut novel and will work really well as a beach read this summer.
Back to St. John Mandelâ€™s essay in The Millions, she writes: â€śIt seems to me that a good novel, one that holds a readerâ€™s attention for three hundred pages, requires a kind of sustained enchantment.â€ť The Singerâ€™s Gun definitely meets this criterion. There is a very surreal, atmospheric, â€śsustained enchantmentâ€ť quality to the novel that makes it all work effectively.
In a particularly snide review of the book, The Publisherâ€™s Weekly complained that â€śthe sex isnâ€™t sexy and the violence isnâ€™t especially violent.â€ť But that is precisely the point. The Singerâ€™s Gun doesnâ€™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:||from 17 readers|
|PUBLISHER:||Unbridled Books; 1 edition (May 4, 2010)|
|AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK?||YES! Start Reading Now!|
|AUTHOR WEBSITE:||Emily St. John Mandel and on FaceBook|
Poornima’s review of Lola Quartet
|MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION:||We discovered this publisher when we attended BEA a couple years ago. Â Here are some other Unbridled Books that we’ve enjoyed in the past:|