Book Review: Headhunters by Jo Nesbo

I adore the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo and, from the first books I read in translation have been struck by his slick prose, tight plotting and wonderful characterization, characterization that is so skilled it allows the reader to both experience and understand the hero’s strengths and weaknesses and thus forgive and support his actions. Headhunters, a one-off book set in corporate Oslo, did not impress nor captivate me nearly as much.

While theHeadhunters first person narrative contains the usual Nesbo flair for thrilling plots populated by ghastly villains and miscellaneous others who exit and enter, the characters in Headhunters failed to leave an impression. Part of the reason for this, I think, is because from the outset, they are quite superficial. The lead character and POV of the novel, headhunter and part-time art thief, Roger Brown, is a narcissistic prat (and unattractive  – in the psychological and emotional sense – anti-hero) who boasts about not only the way he can read people, but practically every other element of his life: his outstanding reputation in his main gig as a corporate headhunter, his grasp of FBI interrogation techniques and perfection of them, his beautiful art-gallery owner wife, his hair, his manner of dress etc. etc. While he tries to suggest he is comfortable with his relatively short stature, there is also a sense in which he does protest too much and the reader cannot help but think that Roger works hard to overcompensate. This is something that, in many ways, holds true when he meets the more than capable former executive and soldier Clas Greve, and decides he might be a suitable candidate for a top job. But when Roger learns that this man also owns an original Rubens, the cocky Roger decides to risk another job on the side; only, he ends up risking more than he ever bargained for and a deadly cat and mouse game, a head-hunting of a different and very final kind, ensues.

As mentioned above, I didn’t like any of the characters in this book. While I wondered if this was social commentary on Nesbo’s part, a sort of satire about how shallow and egotistic we’ve become, and the reader wasn’t meant to like anyone, I am now, on reflection, not so sure. After all, in Nesbo’s later books – the Hole ones – one of the great strengths is the marvellous shades of grey in which characters are painted, revealing the rich canvas of what passes for morality and how even ethics have a context. In Headhunters, no such complexity exists and rather than a three-dimensional picture of human foibles and choices, we are given a very superficial portrayal indeed.

Furthermore, the plot was clichéd in parts, too far-fetched in others (the scene in the outdoor toilet was just silly) and above all, predictable. Mind you, that didn’t mean I wanted to stop reading, Nesbo is a very good storyteller after all. It just meant I didn’t really care. I didn’t care who lived, who died or what the outcome was. I didn’t invest. That made me feel a little sad.

Reading that Hollywood is making a film out of this book surprised me. It’s not that original – I would have thought the Hole stories would have offered much more complex fare – maybe that’s the rub. Still, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination and made for a quick summer read. It’s just not the Nesbo I have come to admire and look forward to so much.

 

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Book Review, Pure by Julianna Baggott

Pure, by Julianna Baggott, is one of the most disturbing dystopian fictions I’ve read in a while. Set in post-apocalyptic America, after the ‘Detonations’, society (if you can call it that) is basically divided. There are those who live within the shelter of the Dome, unsullied and mostly ignorant of the suffering of the ‘wretches’ outside, and those who survived the initial blasts, subsequent radiation poisoning and the release of nano-technology which has caused their flesh to fuse with whatever object or person they were near, holding or with when the bombs detonated. Called collectively, by those in the Dome, ‘wretches’, there are also those who survive against all odds, less human and more part of the deformed fauna of blasted landscape: the Dusts and Groupies etc. Scrabbling to simply exist, the wretches live among the ruins of civilization, eking out a life and establishing suspicious communities, surrendering to rules and the hierarchy of those who keep them in order. It’s not a brave new world so much as a crazed one.

This world is not for the faint-hearted and there is a Mad Max sensibility to the writing of the early pages as we’re introduced to one of the main protagonists, Pressia Belze, on the cusp of turning 16, and therefore vulnerable to being taken from her grandfather, the only surviving member of her family, the rest of whom were lost in the initial fallout. Like the other survivors, Pressia is scarred and fused – with, of all things, a doll’s head. The changes wrought on her body are brutal, as are the descriptions of all survivors. Initially following Pressia’s point of view, the story then switches to Partridge, a Pure living in the Dome and the two ways of life, ideologies, hopes for the future and dim memories of the past are contrasted.

What slowly unfurls is the inevitable meeting of these two different ways of being and at least two additional points of view. Stark, hard and difficult to read at times, the story is about the human capacity for cruelty, desire for power, the clinging on to hope and determination to survive against what seem to be insurmountable odds and the role memory of the past plays in the present – how it shapes, forms and twists identity (like the fusings). Plot wise, the novel builds well. It then, towards the end, packs a great deal of information and sudden character development into the final pages before leaving the reader hanging. As the first book of a trilogy, this is to be expected, but I couldn’t help but feel that some of the information could have been left for the next installment. After being starved of information (like Pressia, Bradwell, Partridge and Lyda), it came thick, fast and sometimes illogically. The was a scattergun approach that, when you pause to think about it, didn’t always gel with the careful world and character building that had already occurred. Not that it’s a deal-breaker.

Harrowing, bleak and sad, I can’t say I ‘enjoyed’ this book… It seems wrong and the schadenfreude feels staged and uncomfortable. That it’s been optioned for film rights does not surprise me, as there is something cinematic about it – as if Terry Gillam, Benito del Toro or Tim Burton might bring this awful reality to life. The mothers with their children fused to their bodies, the grandfather with a little personal fan in his throat, El Capitano who literally bears the burden of his younger brother. The novel is almost pornographic in its unrelenting aesthetic violence and you grow virtually immune to it by the end, which is quite problematic in terms of engagement. Nonetheless, I think it’s telling that I am not convinced, despite the terrible beauty and tragedy of this world and what’s occurred, that I care enough about the characters to continue with the trilogy and discover their fate. The losses are too great, the emptiness (in the characters as well) too vast… And, I guess, the staging too overt to really draw you into their lives and make you invest in them. Now I feel shallow and awful that I have declared I don’t care about the characters – especially when they’ve endured so much and clearly have a great deal more to go through. How can I not care? I think because the nullity at the core of this book is too overt – there’s a sense in which it lacks heart. Not sure why and am looking forward to reading other’s opinions, but I feel, as it always does in these kind of books, it lies with the characters. They are too two-dimensional and their development happens in huge and predictable increments and so, like the world, feels manufactured and your response to them highly manipulated. There is an irony to this in terms of the story… Perhaps this is what the author intended. If so, she’s done a stellar job. But I still feel, despite my misgivings, that the book deserves a four out of five. The imagery and ideas underpinning the book remain with you long after the last page… What a pity the characters don’t.

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