They say that Freddie Forsyth is happy to review any new written work. The caveat being that, if after half an hour he is bored or confused, the soft bits (that’s your or my great work set to ink and paper) will go on the fire. Likewise, the chewy bits (the immaculately and expensively designed cover flying off the shelves) will be thrown to the Labradors warming themselves beside those burning logs, catching their breath between stout walks across the Chiltern countryside surrounding Freddie’s cottage.
The gods of literature dictate that, no matter what you or I think of our prosaic writing, clever metaphors and voluminous description, all that confusion and boredom mean is bad writing.
A book is a story well told, made up of well explained events involving characters that are interesting, feel real and are transformed by what happens to them in the narrative.
They say that you should ‘show not tell’. This reviewer will illustrate the point by asking you to put my nonsense to one side and get your hands on a copy of the ‘Unseen Path’, by JD de Pavilly. In fact, buy two, find an excuse to drop in on Freddie, tell him to clear his diary, pull up his favourite chair, stop obsessing about assassinating de Gaulle and read some excellent new competition. You might want to strap him into that chair, as page one of chapter one starts at a cracking pace and, long before the half hour is over, both Freddie and yourself will be as hooked as this reviewer was.
At work, counter terrorism police officer Andy Rawson and his team stalk out an Islamist terror cell in the West Midlands. However, the police and terrorists are not the only ones with skin in the game. A number of different hands are being played simultaneously. The usual suspects that you will all have heard of are present; MI5, MI6, GCHQ, the Home Secretary and an army of politicians and their hangers-on. Thickening the plot, there are others on stage that you may not have heard of and at least one apparently new organisation, emerging from nowhere, who are acting with a refreshing directness that causes consternation amongst the powers that be in London.
Did I say ‘London’? Yes, the capital rightly features where necessary but refreshingly and convincingly much of the action takes place in the West Midlands and the West of England.
Meanwhile away from work, Bowson’s wife, Sally, struggling both with their marriage and with parts of her Anglican faith, bolts with her son, Josey, to the West Country to stay with her parents. En route, after its electrics misbehave, her car breaks down and Sally finds herself and Josey stranded as a guest in a sizeable rural enclave, called the ‘Packet’, where times are a bit different. The locals persist with God, a near feudal social order, good manners and even pounds, shillings and pence.
There’s a temptation for ‘State of the Nation’ thrillers to be about politics with one main social issue attached. Think ‘Defence of the Realm’ and the rights crushing secrecy of the cold war nuclear state, or contemporary drama and its obsession with ‘diversity’.
De Pavilly draws much more out of the genre through the alternative and entirely convincing reality that Sally is experiencing in that enclave. Spirituality, history, superstition and cold-hearted realities walk effortlessly side by side in a style, in this reviewer’s opinion, more convincing than the similarly themed parts of Ishiguro’s ‘Buried Giant’. For nearly all of human history, reality was understood by a pre-enlightenment collective memory, rather than by a nominally provable sequence of rational events. This provides a refreshing ambiguity in the dialogue within the Packet as the residents, as well as Sally, understand their own situation.
Less ambiguous is the description of tradecraft, forensics and action in the police procedural part of the story line. Description and explanation are straightforward and convincing without wallowing in the minutest detail or trying too hard to explain away every single possible combination of evidence and action. Violence is described concisely rather than pornographically, there is no excessive profanity and intimacy between people is properly described. It is a book for anyone aged between the early teens and a hundred plus.
Description of place is pleasantly restrained, far from over blown, think of the skeletal description of some Fleming with just enough extra detail added. Characters are at first presented sparingly as nicely drawn thumbnails. For instance, as a ‘plumpish bespectacled middle-aged man’ or a ‘slim teenaged daughter, who would be pretty if she could be bothered’. They will then grow on you through the chapters. You will put the book down wondering what happened to them next.
All of which allows the lion’s share of the book to be plot driven, as a thumping good tale well told.
‘The Unseen Path’ has been published in book form by popular demand after originally being published episodically on one of the webs more popular outlets, renowned for it’s stable of top class writers and commenters. Therefore, the narrative progresses in a punchy, pacy style, peppered with cliff hangers.
Story telling is complex but nicely woven, avoiding the trap of always doing one chapter ‘here’ and then the next chapter ‘there’. Rather, as many or as few words as required are used to progress each of the story lines in each of the chapters.
The book gives the impression with, from this reviewer, a nod of admiration rather than a note of deprecation, as having largely written itself. The characters feel as though they came to life early in the process and told the author what they would say or do next.
It’s always worth reiterating that publishing is very commercial (and rightly so), very competitive (and so it should be) and prone to a bubble type self–referencing introspection (fatal in changing times).
Today, both within and without the written page, a particular type of politics, economics and social theory isn’t working. In fluid times there’s a temptation for mainstream, published (largely Metropolitan) authors to persist with more of the same, running over the cliff like a cartoon character treading on fresh air, while telling the voters and readers that they’re the ones who are wrong. No so de Pavilly, unafraid to challenge political correctness (especially regarding Islam), he replaces it with common sense and an honest telling of modern realities, conveyed with restraint and compassion.
And before you think that old-fashioned Packet is nothing but a detached utopia to yearn for, read on, all is not what it seems.
In summary ‘The Unseen Path’ is a page turning state of the nation political thriller, cleverly constructed and well written which seamlessly crosses-over to a relevant modern-day parable and manifesto for better times. It deserves and (judging by the reviews so far) it will earn a place close to the top shelf of contemporary writing, well away from that fire and Freddie’s hungry dogs.
Highly recommended, five stars.
© Always Worth Saying 2019
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