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AMBERVILE
by Tim Davys and Paul Norlen, trans.
Harper, February 2010
343 pages
$19.99
ISBN: 0061625124


Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Near the beginning of the 20th century rebellious poets and artists chose as their mission statement "épater les bourgeois" – shock the middle class. It was fun while it lasted, but once outrageousness became predictable, the shock factor lost its punch. I have a feeling Tim Davys (a pseudonym for a Swedish writer) decided to thumb his nose at readers who enjoy crime fiction, or at readers who like serious literature, or at people who like whimsical stories, or perhaps all three by writing a hardboiled story about a small-time con artist who has to gather friends together for a high-stakes heist. With stuffed animals as the characters. And philosophical pretensions.

Most of its energy goes into the caper story, which involves identical twins, a femme fatale in distress, and a "death list" that has to be tracked down and altered. Once you get over the strangeness of having the characters be stuffed bears, snakes, and camels, it's a fairly straightforward caper. Most of it is told from the point of view of identical twin bears, one a con artist, the other a neurotic aesthete. Some of the passages, labeled Twilight, are from the point of view of a violent and powerful being who moves through society in a cuddly guise that conceals a heart of darkness; withholding which animal actually is this evil-doer is a bog-standard device for suspense. There are scrapes to get out of and twists and turns at the end, when the lead character faces a terrible choice. In short, the only thing original about this story is that humans have been replaced by toys and the whimsy you might expect as a result is stripped in favor of earnest metaphysics.

While Amberville strives to be both absurd and profound, it has no more profundity than any competent work of crime fiction. It's not unusual, after all, for this genre to explore questions of right and wrong. In an afterward, the author says he found it "liberating" to write because "I could use the clichés and pop cultural references that we all share to make the epic more effective and the storytelling faster." In other words, it sure beats writing novels. Unfortunately, it ends up being simultaneously run-of-the-mill, quirky, and heavy-handed.

But if you like that sort of thing, there are three more volumes in the series on the way.

Reviewed by Barbara Fister, March 2010

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)


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