Sunday, April 10, 2016

Always - Nicola Griffith

Always is the third and final novel featuring the American-Norwegian ex-police officer Aud Torvingen. These novels are usually considered crime novels, which I don't read very often. Putting them in that genre might be a bit of a stretch though. There is a crime being investigated in the novel but large parts of it deal with other subjects entirely. Whatever you want to call them, the first two were very good reading so a copy of the third volume was under way before I finished the second book. Griffith takes a slightly different approach in this book (I don't think I've seen her do the same thing twice in  a novel) and I suspect it will divide readers. Personally I liked it a lot but some readers will probably feel it is a bit too long.

Aud is back on her feet again after the events in Stay. Right in time to face a new set of challenges. Her mother, whom she has a complicated relationship with, is coming to the US, Seattle to be exact, and she is bringing along her new husband. Aud could have done without that but she can't very well refuse. Since the inheritance of her father includes property in Seattle which appears to be mismanaged, she sets out for the west coast to sort things out while she is there. For moral support she brings along her friend Doran who, as usual turns out to be a blessing and a curse.

The novel is divided into two narrative strands. The first covers a class in self defence for women Aud is teaching and is set in Atlanta. The second takes place in Seattle. Griffith alternates the chapters but chronologically the self defence class takes place some time before the events in Seattle. They are loosely connected, Griffith only refers to the classes a few times in the Seattle chapters. She does so very cleverly though. With every class you feel the tension mounting, partly because of the hints in the Seattle strand of the story.

That being said, the Atlanta chapters are stuffed to overflowing with details on self defence, the statistics of violence against women (depressingly relevant despite being decades old in some cases) and detailed descriptions of techniques and exercises. There's a lot of discussion on the subject too. The plotline in these chapters is not too complicated. The observant reader will see early on where it is heading. It's a huge contrast with the more complex mystery, and intense pressure Aud faces in the Seattle chapters. Maybe that contrast is intentional and what Aud has to tell about violence against women certainly needs to be heard but I did feel the Atlanta chapters slowed down the book a bit beyond what was necessary.

In Seattle Aud has to deal with an attempt to drive her out of business, with putting a strain on her relationship with Doran by meeting a new woman, and with finding a new balance in her relationship with her mother. Over the space of a few weeks she pretty much needs to come to terms with every emotional scar she has gathered over the course of her life. Where in the Atlanta chapters we see a self-assured Aud, she is constantly confused, distressed or angry in the Seattle chapters, heading from one crisis to the next. In terms of character development there is a lot of interesting stuff going on in these chapters.

The most interesting part in my opinion is Aud's confrontation with her mother. She has appeared briefly in the first novel but most information we get about her is contained in what Aud thinks about her. Which, it turns out, is not always reliable. Aud is surprised by her mother in many ways. Although Aud doesn't appear to be particularly happy with her mother's marriage she has to admit to herself that her mother seems to be genuinely happy. The woman we meet appears milder than the image formed in the previous two books. Milder is clearly not the same as soft though. Like Aud, her mother knows how to get things done and she demonstrates it at several points in the novel. While she lets Aud sort out her own problems for the most part, she is not shy about letting her opinion on a few matters be known.

I'm not sure they would agree with me, but Aud and her mother are alike in many ways. They like being in control and they both have a keen insight into the human mind and use that knowledge to get things done. Aud's approach is often more physical, she relies on body language an awful lot, but the principle is the same. What her mother might be better at is judging at when to speak and when to act though. Aud has the tendency to notice something needs doing and then to take care of it without regard to anybody else's opinion on the matter. Even if you are right, and it has to be said she usually is, this is bound to piss people off. She doesn't discuss things and doesn't doubt her own judgement until later. Her reliance on her own judgement is a trap she falls into every once in a while.

The woman Aud meets in Seattle is the first potential long term relationship since the drama in The Blue Place. As usual it is complicated. First by Doran being interested in her as well and then by a series of misunderstandings and communication breakdowns. It takes Aud most of the book to become comfortable with the idea of being in a relationship again. To start taking someone's needs into account and be aware of their feelings is complicated for her. The risk of adding another scar to an already large collection looms over their romance. Aud, in other words, has some things to work through to make this relationship work. In the final pages her mother throws in a bit of painful relationship advice that makes me glad Aud retained her scepticism towards her mother in this respect at least.

After all that one would almost forget there was a crime to be solved in the novel as well. This time Aud gets to deal with a money crime and some modest local government corruption. In Atlanta she would probably have buried the responsible parties in under five minutes but Seattle is a strange city. Figuring out who to talk to and who can take care of what problem takes a bit of time. Although solving the matter is not without danger, the experience gives Aud a clear goal for the future too. Which makes this book a fitting end to the series.

With Always Griffith once again delivers a fascinating novel. It is an impressive bit of character development. The author pulls no punches when it comes to making her main character suffer. The crime element in the novel is not quite as present as in the first two volumes. If you approach this as a whodunit, the novel will probably not satisfy you. Personally I was much more interested in seeing if Aud would manage to find some stability in her life and heal some of the scars that are so prominently present in her story, and in that respect the novel absolutely delivers. If you enjoyed Griffith's science fiction and are not afraid to try a different genre don't hesitate to pick these up.

Book Details
Title: Always
Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Pages: 516
Year: 2008
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-59448-294-6
First published: 2007

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