Friday, 3 January 2014

Book review: "The Whole World", by Emily Winslow

"The Whole World", by Emily Winslow

"The Whole World" is Ms Winslow's first book. The book is firmly based in Cambridge, with the recent building of the massive Grand Arcade development taking centre stage.

The book is written from five viewpoints, each in the first-person. The first is narrated by Polly, a young woman with a dark past who has fled the US to attend Peterhouse College. She is keen on Nick, a graduate student, but her reaction when he attempts to kiss her kicks off a chain of events that leads to his disappearance.

I have read such multiple-viewpoint books before, where each view adds a different perspective onto events. I tend to find them boring, as it is hard to create unique voices or new angles on events. Ms Winslow avoids this by having each narrator progress the story, so they not only give a fresh perspective on known events, but also add extra layers of events. This means that Nick's disappearance is a catalyst for the story rather than the main crime. The becomes obvious when the author skilfully makes him the second narrator, giving the story of his disappearance from his perspective.

Ms Winslow captures Cambridge well in her writing; she has the view of an outsider who has come to love her adopted home. In this way her writing is a little like Ian Rankin's, although Cambridge is a quiescent place that lacks Edinburgh's natural buzz. Despite this, she captures the city's atmosphere well.

The characters are also well-drawn and were, for me at least, believable, if somewhat eccentric in some cases. The story revolves around a love triangle involving Nick, his embryonic relationship with Amy, and her best friend Liv, another American student. Add in Morris, the detective investigating Nick's disappearance, and Gretchen, a blind university professor who is trying to decipher her past, and you have an interesting collection of misfits.

I would award this book three out of five stars; it is certainly a good attempt at a first novel. It would have been at least four stars, except for an issue which I describe below. Warning: this is a slight plot spoiler.

*** Plot spoiler ***
There was one area in which this book failed spectacularly for me. After Nick and Polly argue, a series of events unfold. These end with him walking to visit an old friend who lives in a ramshackle old farmhouse. She is not in, and when he lets himself in using a key, he falls down the cellar stairs, twisting or breaking his ankle and trapping him in the farm.

He manages to stay there for nearly two weeks, whilst his disappearance triggers a series of other events. Eventually his friend returns from a foreign trip and finds him. This is where suspension of disbelief flies out the window like a prize canary.

The friend makes him comfortable, but because there is no mobile phone signal in the house, nor a land line due to the renovations, they decide to drive him to hospital. However, instead of her driving, or making him comfortable at her home whilst she goes, she thinks he should drive. Despite the fact that it is night, he is weakened after two weeks in the house, has a badly-injured ankle that prevented him from escaping, and he does not know how to drive.

It was such an improbably stupid decision to make. Worse, the author than has Nick getting lost and running over another major character by accident. If his ankle was bad enough to stop him escaping the farm, it would hardly allow him to learn to drive, especially at night.

Sadly, this spoiled a large section of the book for me.

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