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THE RAVEN ON THE WATER
by Andrew Taylor
Penguin, April 2008
496 pages
7.99 GBP
ISBN: 0141027657


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

According to Val McDermid, Andrew Taylor is 'the most underrated crime fiction writer in Britain today'. That's an old quote and happily, one that is surely obsolete, as Taylor has in recent years moved firmly onto centre stage with the success of THE AMERICAN BOY and, more recently, BLEEDING HEART SQUARE.

Happily, too, Penguin has seen fit to re-issue some of the earlier (and presumably underappreciated) of Taylor's novels. RAVEN ON THE WATER, first published in 1991, is one of these, a standalone. In it, Peter Redburn tries to find out the truth about events that took place almost thirty years ago during a summer he spent in Somerset with his best friend, Richard Molland, and his family.

The boys are thirteen and poised unsteadily on the brink of adolescence. They are engaged in an elaborate game, Emor, grounded in classical Rome, of the kind that children of somewhat dysfunctional families used to invent before the advent of computer games put paid to that sort of imaginative exercise. In truth, however, Peter and Richard are not latter-day Brontės. Theirs is a rather pedestrian, and rather talky, enterprise.

All the same, this appears to be golden summer of the sort often remembered as marking the period before the onset of catastrophe. Unknown to Peter, catastrophe is in store - he has been bundled off to Somerset as his father is suffering from terminal cancer and will die before the year is out. But even before that, what is to Peter an even greater disaster, another death, will end his summer idyll prematurely and haunt him into adulthood.

The novel shifts effortlessly but swiftly back and forth among several time periods - the summer of 1964, 1970, and the novel's present time. It's a scheme that allows considerable scope for Taylor's characteristic ambiguity and for his real strong suit - the investigation of the interplay between social assumptions and individual character.

The year 1964 was a period of transition between the sexual repression of the first part of the twentieth century and the relaxation of behavioural norms that was just beginning to take hold. The boys get into enormous trouble when they are caught with a copy of a naturist magazine, delightfully entitled Health and Efficiency. Ignorant of female physiology, Peter misinterprets a blood stain on a girl's nightgown. Far more significantly, the female characters make and unmake disastrous marriages. Unlike the sad couple in Ian McEwan's recent ON CHESIL BEACH, sexual ignorance, inexperience, and incompetence may wound, but the wounds are not fatal.

On her honeymoon, Barbara Molland

"felt like a patient strapped to an operating table without the benefit of an anaesthetic; and the surgeon was not only blind but expected the patient to give him directions.

"'Left a bit,' She wriggled beneath the weight of Hubert's big, bony body. "No, not there. Actually it is hurting rather a lot. Try it from the other side. Yes, that's it. Oh dear, I think it's come out again. Never mind, try again.'"

True, the marriage never recovers from this inauspicious start, but Barbara does. When we first meet her, she is happily divorced and remarried to a Jewish merchant banker, thus fracturing a number of social taboos of her youth in a single stroke. The Chesil Beach couple are far less fortunate.

Generally speaking, Taylor's women are considerably more resilient than the men and, refreshingly, he does not appear to resent them for it. It is the male characters that freeze into place following a crisis and return to it compulsively thereafter, frequently with tragic results.

A perennial, if dull, debate concerns the relative claims of 'literary' over genre fiction, especially crime fiction. Andrew Taylor's work over almost twenty years should be sufficient to put an end to that particular discussion as he demonstrates that the genre is, in the hands of a gifted writer, sufficiently flexible to permit him to develop a very serious fiction that is at the same time richly entertaining.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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