The first thing that struck me about this book was the title. Initially I thought, the Abrupt What? But, of course, it piqued my curiosity as I wanted to know what it referred to. Having seen the author talk about the novel on a CrimeFest panel this year, he explained that the title refers to descent into chaos. Ah, yes. That’s my kind of book.
But then when I read the blurb I had other barriers to overcome: I’m not mad about terrorism-related plots or secret service ones and I know nothing about oil, water or Yemen. But – I like to read outside my genre comfort zones. The Abrupt Physics of Dying had one key theme which hooked me in: how the environment is being affected by industry and, in turn, politics and economics. This was enough to make me kick my prejudices into touch, and after the very first page I was pleased I had given the novel a chance because it is so much more than a story about a bloke in Yemen who’s concerned about what his employer is up to.
The Abrupt Physics of Dying is a tense, gritty eco-thriller set in Yemen in 1994 which has a gripping plot based on fictionalised versions of real events which the author experienced over many years. It opens with Claymore Straker (Clay) looking down the barrel of a Kalashnikov into the eyes of a ‘kid’ terrorist who has hijacked him. Clay is an engineer for an oil company and by the end of the first page the reader knows some key information about him: something BIG happened thirteen years ago, and Clay has killed. So many questions arise from this first page. Clever hooks.
Clay’s kidnappers give him a ‘choice.’ He either has to discover the source of the illness which is affecting a local village close to the oil company’s site or watch his friend, Abdulkader, die. They want him to spell out to his employers how their activities are affecting the land and the people. This is such a great thriller set-up because we have the protagonist in danger and put in a situation where he either has to circumvent tribal loyalties and grass up his employers (whose activities may be contributing to the local sickness) or watch his friend die. Of course it’s not a real choice, and, Clay, a man of integrity and conviction is compelled to do what his kidnappers ask.
Clay meets journalist, Rania, who helps him investigate what is going on. She is a dodgy character with a past. Through their relationship, we see Clay in a different light and it adds tension to the main plot as he isn’t sure how reliable she is. I thought this sub-plot worked really well and there are many genuinely tender and poignant moments which are beautifully portrayed.
With civil war breaking out and murders occurring, conspiracy theories abound, and Yemen’s secret service rears its head. The story which unfolds is one of ruthlessness, exploitation, corruption and greed. But it definitely isn’t all doom and gloom, I can promise you. The twists and revelations are as shocking as they are dynamic, and the ending? See what you think.
Clay’s character is interesting. Originally from South Africa, events in Angola in the military have left him pretty screwed up. Yet he is immediately likeable. He has a steady nerve, a dry sense of humour and, most importantly, a conscience. His ‘voice’ is distinctive and I found him funny, sometimes frustrating and full of courage. Accused of a murder he did not commit, and put on the CIA’s most-wanted list, he is capable of looking after himself but he is also vulnerable to those who want him dead.
I think it’s fair to say that this isn’t a novel to be rushed or skim-read. Hardisty’s writing is wonderfully descriptive. I particularly enjoyed the often lyrical way in which he describes Clay’s thought processes and imaginings, and the varied landscape. The imagery and symbolism are vivid; both pull the reader into the setting and the story in a highly enjoyable way, like watching a film. To me it felt like sipping a long cocktail with bite rather than necking a shot of tequila. By this I don’t mean to imply that the book dilutes or shies away from the seriousness of the issues; it certainly does not. It is action-packed, often shocking and is full of graphic fight scenes. There are a lot of technical details and I have to confess that some of these went over my head. However, with Hardisty’s experience and credentials, you know that you are in knowledgeable hands.
The Abrupt Physics of Dying has a number of interesting psychological and sociological themes. Other than corruption and greed, fear and faith/trust are juxtaposed throughout the novel. Clay repeatedly finds that he doesn’t know who he can trust. As a narrative technique this ratchets up the tension but it is also highly believable: in situations where there is exploitation, stakes are high and people will do anything to keep secrets secret. Another theme is control: how much do we have over our lives and the events which occur in them? Other issues which the narrative raises are: are technical developments necessarily beneficial and does human need justify resource depletion? What I found fascinating about these questions was that one prompted another and another, until basically it’s all about the values people hold. Except that doesn’t help because values vary between individuals and cultures and are context-dependent. So, a bit like life, the rights and wrongs of the events are all a maze.
The story can be taken at the level of the oil company but this, in turn, can also be seen as a metaphor for industry around the world and how it is affecting the environment, including our climate. There are a number of messages which the reader can take from the novel, including a warning about the dangers of chasing dollars at the expense of the environment and human life. At CrimeFest, Hardisty said that his novels have a clear message, and mentioned tolerance, religion and choice as some of his favourite themes.
Given Hardisty’s background as an environmental scientist, engineer and an academic, he has clearly made the transition from technical to creative writing with ease. In a radio interview with Talk Radio Europe here, he said that he first started writing The Abrupt Physics of Dying over ten years ago, and that it’s gone through a number of iterations and pauses. He said that he enjoys the freedom that fiction gives him and that it enables him to ‘tell the truth’ more than non-fiction. This suggests that he is a writer who enjoys using stories to explore and externalise issues which interest him. The point about non-fiction being constraining is an interesting one.
The Abrupt Physics of Dying is a tense, gritty thriller with a gripping plot and wonderful descriptive writing. It is shocking and raw, and exposes the worst and best of what it is to be a human being. I can quite see why this book has been longlisted for the CWA John Creasy (new blood) Dagger. Highly recommended reading.
With thanks to Karen Sullivan from Orenda Books for sending me the review copy.
Vicky Newham © 2015