Archives for posts with tag: psychological drama

A Common LossI’m in two minds about A Common Loss, which is probably the worst position to be in when I’m trying to get my opinion across, at least somewhat, coherently.

The plot is vaguely reminiscent of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. College friends, chilling secrets. If you want to read A Common Loss because of the surface similarity – don’t. You’ll just be disappointed. There are five college friends – Dylan, Elliot (our narrator), Cameron, Brian and Tallis – who each year reunite for a trip to Las Vegas. Over the years they’ve grown apart, Cameron and Brian don’t even speak to each other anymore, but they still go to Vegas every year. This year’s trip is different. It’s the first since Dylan’s tragic death. He was the charismatic one, the mediator, the fixer. But Dylan was also manipulative, collecting and cataloguing his four friends’ darkest secrets. And now someone is using those secrets to blackmail them.

There’s plenty to admire in Sydney-based Kirsten Tranter’s second novel, the rest I didn’t hate, just didn’t love. A Common Loss is an interesting exploration of grief and the complexities of adult friendships (and the dark side of them). It falls into the psychological drama category; it’s not quite a thriller. It’s this quality that could tip it into boring but, while it is intellectual and contemplative, it held my attention. For a lot of the novel the balance between drama and thriller was handled quite well. There were chunks where I couldn’t put it down because I felt that something big was coming, it was building to a revelation, but at times the tension flagged.

As a main character, Elliot generally worked well. He’s a bit timid, introverted and unsure but he’s intelligent. I thought his feelings about his college friends, his choice of work, how he handles relationships, were insightful and relatable. He’s the observer of the group, detached from the infighting. It makes sense for him to be our guide to the group’s dynamic. Sometimes he’s too contemplative though, over-thinking everything.

Tranter is a fairly astute chronicler of human behaviour, and much of what she had to say resonated with me, while some things missed the mark. Elliot sort of, almost, has romances with two women – Natasha, a work colleague, and Cynthia, Brian’s girlfriend who accompanies them on their trip. The interaction between Elliot and Cynthia could easily have been overplayed but it was well judged. Same goes with the scenes with Natasha and him. Both women are strong, and not prone to overanalysing, perfect foils for Elliot. The romantic tension is palpable but isn’t overdone, and it so easily could have gone into cringe territory.

I thought Elliot’s female relationships were handled better than the male friendships. You can’t avoid seeing the gay undertones that accompany their intimacy. And given that it’s openly acknowledged that the other characters thought Dylan and Elliot were having a sexual relationship simply because of their closeness (and that’s not the only combination of partners suspected) I guess that must have been what Kirsten Tranter was aiming for. It’s a real pity, I would’ve liked her to take a less obvious path in her portrayal of male closeness.

I liked the Las Vegas setting a lot. Its slick, trashiness was a character in itself. Cynthia’s graduate work looking at fake versus authentic in culture is interesting but it’s a bit of a blunt way to push the idea that the tacky glitz of Vegas hiding its seedy, dirty underbelly is the perfect metaphor for the larger story – charismatic, showy Dylan was the perfect friend but beneath that sheen he dealt in blackmail and grubby secrets.

Every now and then the plot felt secondary to Tranter’s thematic exploration. It seems to me like they should have just gone to the police. All four of them had secrets that would be damaging to their reputation (lost jobs, wives and girlfriends that might never forgive them) but wouldn’t get them arrested. Being blackmailed is obviously a stressful and problematic situation but I couldn’t shake the feeling that sometimes the group were being overly dramatic.

Then there’s the car crash that happened when they were in college. Yes, undoubtedly a traumatic event at the time, but no one had more than a cut and some whiplash. To continue to be haunted by the memory, to have nightmares about it, a decade later seems silly. This car crash is mentioned over and over, imbued with gratuitous meaning.

In college Elliot tries to write an essay on Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Now I’m as baffled by poetry as most people, and apparently so was Elliot. He’s struggling to write the essay, spending a week as a hermit reading book after book about Tennyson and related topics to no avail. Elliot’s clearly a smart, and generally level-headed, guy; he goes on to become a professor at a prestigious college (English drama being his specialty). To have such a freak out about one undergraduate essay seems melodramatic (speaking as someone who’s written several literature essays that I was underprepared for). What transpires becomes the basis for the secret that Dylan could hold over him, so it’s relevant to the plot, but it didn’t quite feel believable.

Colin, the blackmailer, was excellently strange, a disturbing mix of courteous and psychotic. The scenes with him were fascinating. He has a way of talking to the group like he really admires them and they’re just doing him a favour:

I’m talking about opportunities. College, and beyond. Tallis, you could really help me with opportunities in the business sector. And Brian – I have some great ideas for scripts. For films. I’d really like to get your feedback.

Colin threatens them all with ruin, yet he needs them to like him, he wants them to be tied to him. But then the end fizzled. They dealt with Colin in a fairly uninspiring way. And ultimately nothing had really changed. In the closing moments Tallis says to Elliot, ‘Flash place, this. Nice enough. What do you think about staying here next year?’, as if the whole blackmail thing had never happened. So the lack of change was thematically purposeful, but I almost never like endings like that. I felt the same way after watching the ending of the movie Up in the Air – deflated.

SnowdropsNicholas is a thirty-eight year old English lawyer working in Moscow in the mid-noughties. After a chance encounter he gets caught up in the lives of young, sexy Masha, her sister Katya, and their elderly aunt Tatiana Vladimirovna. Nick falls in love (lust really) with Masha but it becomes clear that the sisters have other motives, involving him in their corruption and deceit. Meanwhile, Nick is also working on a business deal for a menacing man known only as the Cossack.

I was disappointed with Snowdrops, especially given its place on the Man Booker shortlist last year. If you still want to read it yourself then maybe don’t read this first, there are spoilers ahead. Snowdrops is billed as a literary psychological drama, not a crime novel but Miller puts such an emphasis on crime and corruption but then didn’t really deliver. The novel opens with the discovery of a dead body, a murder victim, after the snow has thawed, a ‘snowdrop’. In his retelling of his life in Russia Nick links his memory of the body to the shameful reason he left Moscow. I thought the opening felt risky and dangerous but the plot did little to support my first impression.

The whole time you’re reading you know that Masha and Katya are not who they seem, that Nick is becoming embroiled in their scheme. Miller drops hints in an effort to keep the tension up but what happens ends up being far less dramatic when you can see it from the start. Even if the plot warranted the ominous tone, Miller leads the reader to every conclusion and revelation forcibly, like you’re a child, heavy-handedly hinting at the morally reprehensible acts Nick will commit. Right after they all visit the apartment outside the city the aunt, Tatiana, is swapping for her own, Nick writes, ‘I hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of, had I? Anything you could hold against me? Not really. Not yet.’ It felt like Miller was screaming at me, ‘But he definitely does do something to be ashamed of! And it has to do with selling Tatiana’s apartment!’ Snowdrops tries to portray a moral grey area, a place and time where regular guys can be seduced and beguiled by the promise of debauchery, power and money (I’m not buying that it had anything to do with love). But there was no subtlety in the portrayal.

Nick’s story takes the form of a confessional. Several years later he is writing a letter to his fiancée, coming clean about what happened to him in Russia. Nick is trying so hard to make his fiancée believe that as events unfolded nothing was as it seemed, only in hindsight could he finally see clearly. Unfortunately in his retelling, with the benefit of hindsight, everything is exactly as it seems – the helpless victims really turn out to be helpless victims, the con-artists really are just con-artists. Nick has neatly sorted everything out for the reader. I wanted more ambiguity. I wanted to doubt everything I thought I knew. But the whole time I never had cause to doubt that Masha was definitely a calculating bitch and Nicholas was so stupid (and shallow) to fall for it. First person narrative looking back at past events can be a great way of giving a story insight and understanding, but Nick hasn’t learned anything except to stay away from Russia.

I get that Snowdrops isn’t supposed to exactly be a thriller. So maybe I shouldn’t judge it for not being thrilling enough. But then again, don’t try to be thrilling and fail. It was all kind of shallow, by the end I didn’t understand Nick any better, and I can judge it for that. And Miller’s Russia seemed fairly stereotypical. It isn’t all bad though, it’s well-paced enough that I kept reading, hoping for something more, but it ultimately fell flat. I just really wish Miller would’ve delved deeper into the characters’ psychology.