Books: In search of a life less ordinary - and more risky

Would you like to take a holiday from yourself? Mary Allen enjoys a couple of chilling trips across the frontiers of personality

Mapping the Edge

by Sarah Dunant

Virago, pounds 10.99, 332pp

Taking Lives

by Michael Pye

Phoenix House, pounds 9.99, 384pp

BOTH SARAH Dunant and Michael Pye examine themes of identity in their latest novels, looking at what happens when the constraints we take for granted - whether imposed by circumstances, relationships or our past - are removed to create what Dunant describes as "stories from the edge". When Anna, the central character in , fails to return from a brief and unexplained trip to Italy, her friends Estella and Paul begin to create fantasies about why she went and what might have happened to her. Both fear she might be dead, and their imaginations start to fill the void. As their anxieties grow, so does the relationship between Estella and Lily, Anna's six-year-old daughter, with Estella being driven back through her past to re-examine the death of her own mother and how she dealt with the subsequent pain.

Anna's experiences in Italy develop in two parallel scenarios, in which Anna alternates between being a kidnap victim and the willing collaborator in an adulterous affair. It is unclear whether these are her fantasies, or whether they are being created by those she has left behind. They could be two stories selected from a potentially infinite number, in all of which Anna would be forced to face a version of her fears and decide whether she is going to rule or be ruled by them.

Part of what makes so compulsive to read is that it functions with real confidence and assurance on several levels. Two thrillers are interwoven with the gradually accumulating tension of those left behind, arousing complementary anxieties and exploring the darkness at the heart of Dunant's characters. The formal structure of the novel gives a ritualistic sense to the action, as though - like a game - it is contained within a set of boundaries within which the more frightening aspects of the imagination can be explored. Dunant does not try to find easy answers, nor does she go for a tidy resolution: there is a sense of the novel continuing even though the characters might have left it.

Martin Arkenhout, in Taking Lives, has no problem in crossing the boundary between his and others' lives. He finds men who have a passport, good credit, no commitments and few connections - and kills them, assuming their identities until boredom or necessity requires him to move on. Eventually, he misjudges his victim, taking the life of someone with all too many connections, notably with the museum from which he has stolen paintings.

John Costa, sent by the museum to catch the thief, is experiencing the dissolution of his own life as his marriage breaks down and the burial of his father reveals an unexpected past. Once the two men come face to face, their struggle gradually becomes a question of which of their identities will survive.

For most of the book the plot is carried forward convincingly, but as the action moves towards its conclusion the choices facing the characters begin to feel slightly contrived. That apart, this is a well- constructed thriller, inspired by a real-life criminal who, the blurb notes, "is still at large".

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones