Impassioned and compelling, Carole Morin’s fourth novel, Spying On Strange Men (Dragon Ink Ltd) bears a prefatory quote by Zelda Fitzgerald that sets a leitmotif for the narrator and central character:
‘I’m really only myself when I am somebody else.’
In many ways this novel is about the roles people play and those hidden parts of themselves they access when the rules are broken. And the novel is about so much more.
This sentence in the novel sums up the paradox of the protagonist succinctly:
‘Vivien Lash is a girl with a future but not a past.’
Vivian Lash is a woman who has murderous intent. She has been betrayed and she wants to kill her husband. She operates in a shadowy, surreal world of watchfulness that is punctuated by her regularly humorous observations about the characters in her drama. Morin is able to summon up so much of a character’s past in the tightest sentences:
‘Once I’d decided to murder him, he was allowed to touch me again.’
We are drawn into the plot through Vivian Lash’s perceptions that open up vistas of her personal history. Morin has written a complex, ambiguous character, a woman who is acerbic and alienated, aware and duped. Sharp, beautifully executed scenes draw the reader into a world that at first seems humorous, to one that is quite Noir.
At times surreal, always elegant, the prose offer a series of snapshots on a covert world as Vivian tries to make sense of what she is seeing. And the theme of espionage is integral, as the novel questions how much of what we take to be real can be trusted.
Vivian divides herself between husband and lover, juggling personas while confessing to the reader the things she does not say in her private life. The intimate narrative voice serves the author’s purposes extremely well, since it incorporates the voyeurism prevalent in the novel into its delivery. Vivian enlists the help of Elvis, the night porter to watch her creepy neighbour, her latest installation, as she refers to him.
Morin is skilled at balancing the factual with the fictional, a contemporary explorer of the blurred line between the two. As such her fictions are subversive since they challenge the complacencies inherent in straight genre fiction, and the idea that we know certain things.
‘Lies are easy to believe in but the truth sounds false.’
The novel is built on such axiomatic observations, and they build up layers of a questionable reality, one we are seduced by because Morin’s prose style is so compelling.
The reality of Morin’s latest protagonist is she may ultimately be unable to know the things she needs to, despite her sharp mind and sharper tongue. The novel is a Noir hybrid, a cross between a classic take on the genre and far more, a surreal, headlong descent into a character’s predicament. It evokes the modern era through its realisation of the fact that we live in an age of surveillance and that inasmuch as we may watch we are all watched.
Morin manages to paint a complex character with a few brush strokes, honing in on jealousies, betrayals, passions and lies with sharp physical details. The tense atmosphere is punctuated by the narrative humour, short staccato mockeries in a drama of a domestic espionage. There is a sense that Vivian’s need for murder is an attempt to hold onto her dignity and identity:
‘If I don’t kill him, I might be tempted to forgive him.’
And yet the nature of identity is something Morin’s fictions question and play with. The refrain ‘I will have to kill him’ runs throughout the narrative. Much of the tension is built on anticipation, while we see her character unfold. Yet in the end it may be as much about a struggle to understand, since the novel refuses to let you settle on a clear picture until the end, and even then calls the events into doubt. Obsessive need, identity tied up in the roles people play in their private dramas, the uncertain nature of reality when trust is shattered, these themes run throughout. This is an important and compelling novel since it engages themes that are so relevant they make you wince with recognition of the extent to which our lives may be the subject of scrutiny and the extent to which a clear picture of events may ultimately lie beyond our understanding. There is also much passion here, amid the nightmare, a self-lacerating awareness of the intricacies of deceit and the toxic undercurrent in some relationships, and there are passages in which Morin writes like Emily Bronte’s double, the one who says all the things she didn’t dare.
The author is famously non pc. And as such she is salutary presence in an era of sanitised taste. Literature never ought to pander to a political agenda, nor should it seek to appease an arbitrary set of moral judgements. We have in Morin a talent that cuts through contemporary pretence like a glaswegian kiss.
This is also an extremely funny novel. And the ending is nothing short of brilliant. Morin is a highly literary writer who lacks all literary pretension. This is a novel that will keep you reading and thinking, it is a literary work stripped of all pretension, a homage to a genre that exists beyond the boundaries of genre, a psychological dig into a private drama, and a radical narrative subversion.