In Search of Solace by Emily Mackie, book review: No comfort to be found here

 

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The Independent Culture

I’ll admit that my heart sank a little when I read on the inside jacket of this novel that the “solace” of the title is in fact a girl called Solace. Really? It’s a particularly heavy-handed faux-playfulness that runs through this second novel by the young author, and to my mind it only served to distract from a narrative that showed some skilful characterisation, but seemed to lack confidence in its own voice throughout.

The book focuses on Jacob Little, an annoyingly self-absorbed man who has spent a number of years changing his identity and his obsessions in an effort to find his real self (if such a thing exists). At some point, he realises that he has let the love of his life slip through his fingers years ago, and so he pitches up in a non-descript Scottish town looking for the girl, who told him that her name was Solace.

The story is told from the point of view of an incredibly irritating omniscient narrator. Mackie is clearly trying to flag up the constrictions of conventional narrative here, with constant asides where the narrator steps out of the story to muck around with the storytelling, but personally I found that conceit condescending and puerile.

“Please, reader, allow me some time to play. After all, narration can be such a dry business at times, full of old rules and expectations,” we’re told early on. Then a few pages later: “Forgive me my playfulness, dear reader. I am only dramatising what is really there.” And then: “But where is the story here? This family is happy, this family works, they love each other. Someone write in a murder or a scandalous love affair! Quick, oh Lord, before our reader loses interest!” I’m afraid it was exactly these frustrating interjections that made this reader lose interest. Thankfully, Mackie drops most of this stuff towards the end and allows her characters room to breathe.

Effectively this is a book of character snapshots, interspersed with some undeveloped ideas about the philosophy of identity. We see how Jacob’s life has influenced those around him, from the ten-year-old girl, Max, to his former landlord Mr Benson. The most convincing of these is 16-year-old Lucy, a beautifully drawn character in the throes of young womanhood, desperate to grow up and feel real love.

It’s proof that Mackie can write well and with conviction, when she’s not deliberately throwing a spanner into her own narrative works. In Search of Solace isn’t that bad, but it could have been a lot better.

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