Sunday, July 27, 2014

Not what it seems

book review

Book: No Way Back 
Author: Matthew Klein

Matthew Klein may not be a massively popular name in literature but that is in no way indicative of his talent as a writer. No Way Back, Klein’s third book, is a gripping, first-person thriller that, for the most part, succeeds in keeping the reader hooked to the narrative.

Before we get to the actual story, we are met with a four-page prologue. A victim is being brutally tortured by an unidentified tormenter. The scene is gratuitously violent and uncomfortably gory, and it might leave many readers wondering if they’d be better off returning the book to the shelf from where it came.

But then we get to the first part of the novel; the tone shifts and a very interesting story begins. Our protagonist (and narrator) is Jim Thane, a man in his late 40s who is trying to put his troubled past behind and get his life back on track. Years of drinking, gambling and womanising have taken a toll on both his career and marriage, and the spectre of his son’s death still haunts him. But a new job has presented an opportunity to make things right.

Jim has been hired to helm the ailing Tao Software LLC, a firm with a product that doesn’t work and a former CEO who has gone missing. The restart assignment sees Jim take charge of the company as he tries to rescue the business and salvage some value for the investors. But Tao is burdened with incompetent personnel and riddled with financial problems, and the lack of resources leaves him with only seven weeks of cash to turn the company around.

That, however, isn’t the only snag. As Jim begins to dig into the disappearance of his predecessor and make sense of the discrepancies around him, he soon realises that things aren’t exactly how they seem. It appears that Tao might be a front for nefarious activities, and the motive of his employers might be more dubious than he first suspected. His personal life isn’t faring any better and his wife’s behaviour appears to be getting progressively stranger with each passing day.

So far, the book is well-plotted, competently written, and impossible to put down — but at this stage part one ends and it all goes downhill.

In an effort to lead the tale to an unexpected conclusion, Klein throws plausibility out of the window and goes for an ending that borders on nonsensical. It’s a twist that readers will either enjoy or find ridiculous, although in all probability their opinions are likely to be inclined more towards the latter. Yes, the wrap up isn’t predictable and you probably won’t be able to foresee what happens in the last few pages, but there’s a reason for that: it doesn’t entirely make sense. Aside from the many things that don’t quite add up and the questions that are left unanswered, you are also left wondering whether Matthew Klein genuinely thought this would be a clever twist or if he just wrote himself into a corner, didn’t know where to go from there, and opted for an outlandish conclusion. If this really was the ending he wanted to go with then it could have at least used some more explanation.

However, even though No Way Back falters towards the end, it doesn’t change the fact that, at least up until that point, it really is a well-written thriller. The first two-thirds of the book are very captivating. Klein succeeds in building tension and mostly gets the pacing right (although perhaps it’s a tad too easy for the reader to be a beat ahead of the protagonist who is often unnecessarily slow at putting two and two together). His voice is crisp and clear, and his ability to turn a slick phrase impressive. And you don’t have to look up the American author’s biography to figure out his background; Klein’s amusing observations on the corporate world and the details that colour his prose easily reveal that he is well-acquainted with the business arena.

The characters he creates are also intriguing. Be it the smart-alecky Jim with a chequered past or his wife Libby who is clearly hiding something, the people the writer has come up with are enigmatic, if not necessarily likeable (although that ambiguity usually works in the story’s favour).

In short, No Way Back is a fine blend of suspense and dark comedy which suffers because of its less than satisfying resolution. It is built on an interesting idea and written with an engaging, fluid tone that never lets the proceedings feel dry, but it can at times be too graphic; the eventual return of the violence that was foreshadowed in the prologue might prove to be too intense and distasteful for some readers. Still, the twists and turns of this thrilling yarn will keep you guessing; its witty take on the corporate world will offer many moments of amusement; and its unexpected ending will, if nothing else, leave you surprised.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 27th July, 2014 *

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