Monday, October 20, 2014

The Kills, by Richard House

War is hell. And worse, war is a dirty, corrupt hell.

As the U.S. and its allies prepare to abandon post-war Iraq to its fate, civilian defense contractors hire down-on-their-luck Americans to burn toxic waste in remote desert pits. These men return home sick, dying or dead. All the while, mid and upper level managers of these multi-national corporations skim off whatever they can, padding expenses or stealing construction funds outright. Naturally, there’s got to be a fall guy. And his name is Sutler. Or is it?

In a windowless basement beneath a Naples tenement, a room is discovered lined in blood-spattered plastic. No body is ever found and no one reported missing. Moreover, the entire crime scene eerily resembles one described in an international best-selling crime novel, now being made into a major motion picture. Has a crime actually been committed? Is Sutler dead?

On the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, the sister-in-law of a German diplomat is hired by a mysterious Norwegian to teach him English. Why, she wonders, does he need to learn English when he already speaks it flawlessly? Is she being used to access information on the illusive Mr. Sutler, who may have been found wandering half-dead in the desert?

How these seemingly disparate story lines weave together (or not), is the literary conceit of Richard House’s ambitious and exasperating novel, The Kills. Longlisted for the prestigious UK Man Booker Prize in 2013, The Kills takes 1002 pages to tell us what exactly? That we only think we know what the truth is? That life is a series of overlapping but ultimately unconnected threads? That a writer can sadistically toy with a reader’s time and emotional involvement in a book and its characters only to leave her scratching her head in the end?

I bitched and moaned continually as I read The Kills. But you know what? I read every word. Minor spoiler alert: In the end, the disparate threads that make up this tapestry of a novel never really come together. And maybe that’s the point: we can never know the whole story. I have no idea.

Take the murky plunge, read The Kills, and let me know what you think. Maybe I missed a thread somewhere. 

You can reserve Richard House’s The Kills here.

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