Sunday, November 01, 2015

Book Review: Karen Campbell's RISE

Scottish police – officer turned novelist, Karen Campbell’s Rise opens with the protagonist, Justine on the run from her psychopathic pimp/lover, Charlie Boy, with a big chunk of his money stuffed down her pants. It is a cracking opener, packed with tension and evocative detail. Shortly after, Justine blunders into Kilmacarra and straight into the heart of domestic turmoil and political unrest.
Campbell is a talented writer with a gift for creating characters that are honest, flawed and likeable. Justine witnesses a hit and run and she is sucked into the troubled marriage of the Andersons, whose elder son is the victim, when she is roped in to babysit their younger son, Ross having passed herself off as a certified nanny. Thanks to the peculiar circumstances in which she finds herself, Justine is in a place where she can either be the guardian angel who delivers them from evil or a satanic figure who is the harbinger of doom.
The drama plays out very well set as it is in the 2014 campaign for Scottish Independence and is chock full of narrative tension and emotional high notes. Till the bitter end, Hannah Anderson is convinced, Justine is nothing but trouble, come to tear her family apart. She and her husband, Michael have a typically troubled marriage. He is a former clergyman who currently serves as the local councillor. She is the writer who cuckolded him. They have two young sons and the duo are trying desperately to put together the pieces of their marriage not suspecting that the upheaval in their lives has only just begun.
Michael is being pestered by a ghost and Campbell lifts this conceit out of the morass of all things ludicrous with consummate skill and pathos. For instance when he finds out about his wife’s infidelity, he winds up swallowing his outrage: “Her grief melting him. Making him take his own and fold it smaller and smaller until he could tell himself that it was unimportant. Selfish even.”

 A particularly poignant theme in Rise, involves the tendency of overprotective parents and caregivers both to encumber their charges with the baggage from their lives, thereby inadvertently putting them in harm’s way. Little Ross is a child who has the love of his parents and Justine both, yet he is the one who is pummelled when the parents are fighting tooth and nail and it is his life which is endangered when retribution catches up with Justine. His plight is moving, heart – stopping and entirely hopeful.
Charlie Boy is a terrifying antagonist and seems to have been modelled along the lines of a rabid dog – all infected fury and savage brutality: “If he finds her…if he starts kicking, he won’t be able to stop.” His presence in the course of the narrative is fleeting and yet, packs a wallop in terms of sheer, unadulterated menace.
However, despite the fact that Rise has so much that works in its favour it fails to really soar, especially after the glorious opening and engaging middle portions. Inexplicably running out of steam, it sputters weakly over the finish line. The plotlines are resolved with varying degrees of success but it is all rather disappointingly pat. This, despite the fact that Campbell rises above literary cliché and refuses to settle for easy solutions.

Rise can be counted on to get a rise, all the way to the fag end, when it falters and leaves the reader, inexplicably deflated and unsatisfied. 
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express and can be seen here.

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