More than a mystery

Rachel Trezise reviews ‘Significance’ by Jo Mazelis.

Some of the press for Jo Mazelis’ long-awaited debut novel describes it as a ‘literary murder mystery’ which is to do the book a great disservice as it’s actually so much more. Yes, the novel opens in a thriller-esque manner, pursuing London university lecturer Lucy Swann across the Channel on an impulsive holiday to a small town in Northern France, stalking her while she tests out a new guise: peroxide in place of natural dark hair and floaty and feminine dresses in place of moss green pullovers. As with traditional murder mysteries it effortlessly coerces the reader to the point of Swann’s violent but unexplained death, proposing a scattering of pregnant clues as to how, why and at whose hand she may have perished. Then, almost imperceptibly, the novel transforms into something else entirely, the reader slowly becoming aware that the clues are not in fact leads to the killer’s identity, but windows on which to observe the lives of the (perhaps) innocent people who surrounded Swann at the time of her death, most of whom she’d never even met, but who, having made the particular set of decisions she did, she has irreparably impacted. Significance is a novel that toys with and interrogates the mystery fiction genre itself, often reproaching the stereotypes created there.

This festive season on Click on Wales

Over the next couple of weeks on Click on Wales a host of critics will be reviewing some of 2014′s new literary releases.

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One of the side effects of this unusual machination is the extraordinary number of characters for an individual novel. No sooner are we introduced to a couple, a detective inspector and his beautiful assistant, for example, than we’re introduced to a lone and ageing woman with a penchant for badly-applied mascara and astrology, for example. In fact the introduction of new characters continues almost to the end of the novel, way past the point any creative writing tutor or manual would advise an aspiring writer to stop. Yet Mazelis makes each and every one of them seem vital and engaging, weaving easily between the finer specifics of each of their fortunes and predicaments, adept particularly at locating and voicing what could easily be our own commonplace wisps of inner monologue, but which become critical in these character’s thoughts, at this particular time: ‘How does one forget? Is there, in truth, no forgetting? Only the work of the subconscious artfully spinning reality into the form it desires?’ ‘She began to consider these … algebraic sums; lust plus time equals love, lust plus sex plus talking multiplied by habit minus fear and distrust equals love.’ Also she has some striking analogies. Worrying about whether her brother-in-law’s condition will somehow affect her unborn child, Marilyn reflects: ‘Unless whatever was wrong with Aaron was genetic, could skip over individuals and generations like a girl’s feet skipping over hopscotch tiles, landing here, missing there, and then?’

The result is a profusion of virtually microscopic details knitted to make a vast patchwork whole, reminiscent in some ways of Jon McGregor’s quiet masterstroke If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, but with entirely its own agenda and rationale, Swann’s death a skimming stone pitched and posting surges into the unlikeliest of corners, or at least the places the media never ask us to dwell on. Despite its swift change of course a quarter of the way through, (deliberate of course), the prose retains its stride throughout the entire four-hundred-and-seventy-odd pages, keeping the reader lured. While it does not relinquish the traditional happy, all-encompassing ending, (the quiddity of murder mysteries and what the novel initially seemed to promise), what it does offer in conclusion is far more interesting; a bold, unceasing truth. With Significance, Mazelis has set her novel-writing bar at a breathtaking height.

Rachel Trezise is a novelist, short-story writer and playwright. Her work has won the Orange Futures Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Edge Hill short story Reader’s Award and the Theatre Critics of Wales Best Production Award

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