Vicky Newham


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SIRENS by Joseph Knox – a review

I’ve read this book twice now and both times it’s made me feel very strange for a while afterwards, the way a dream can possess and linger. I love books which do this. In the main, I don’t read for escapism or entertainment; I like books which make me think about life in a different way, books which make me feel. And I guarantee you will never feel the same again once you’ve read Sirens.

What drew me to the novel was the setting. I am fascinated by contemporary urban life and psycho-geography, and Manchester isn’t a city I’ve been to or know anything about. Once I was into the first page, though, it was the novel’s characters which intrigued me. It might be easy to think their lifestyles aren’t common but, having lived in London for years, and worked at night while I was studying, I know how realistic the author’s depiction is. I wonder whether cities necessarily create nocturnal characters who creep around in the shadows; perhaps it’s the complexity of modern life which so often results in the alienation and sense of being adrift which Sirens evokes? Large cities then attract and enable people to slide into a faceless cloak of anonymity, and lurk. ‘In spite of social media, CCTV and the state,’ DC Aidan Waits observes at the start of the book, ‘we still live in a world where you can disappear if you want to. Or even if you don’t.’ And Waits’ adopted world is one of seedy nightclubs and trafficked sex workers, gangs and drugs, canals and underground car parks. It’s a world of power, corruption and exploitation, where derelict building sites cosy up to penthouse apartment blocks and Hilton hotels.

With three strikes against him, Waits is sent undercover to check up on the seventeen-year-old daughter of local MP, David Rossiter. The girl, Isabelle, like her mother, has a history of depression and has run away and hooked up with drug dealer, Zain Carver. Waits’ boss wants to know which police officers are on Carver’s payroll. Waits observes and infiltrates Carver’s entourage. Rather than eat and sleep, he takes speed. The secrets which you know are there, gradually reveal themselves. It’s not a cheery world. It’s a powerful story of human alienation and suffering, and of the things people do to numb their pain and escape what they cannot face.

To me, the sirens of the title aren’t just the girls who collect Carver’s drug money. They’re our own self-destructiveness; the dangerous allure of the drugs and the lifestyle, of the lights which seem brighter at night. They’re a reminder of the rocks of Greek mythology, which can smash us all to death regardless of any vigilance we may possess.

The story in Sirens is devastating, but it isn’t all dark. I cared about Waits. His life trajectory – from the glimpses we get – shows how easy it is to take a wrong turn, then another, and find yourself completely lost. But he’s not a bastard or a psychopath. He cares about others, especially Isabelle and Catherine, perhaps more than he does himself, and genuinely wants to help them.

I see the author spent around ten years on the book. It’s difficult to believe that it’s a debut novel, mainly because the writing is so vivid and affecting. At times it’s staccato and sparse, at others it’s brutal and graphic and detailed. The whole narrative is steeped in ‘noir’ and many of the characteristics of US crime novels. Perfect.

Intense, visceral and raw, Sirens is a stand-out novel for me.

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Vicky Newham ©2016