Saturday, November 4, 2000

Andrew Pyper

In the morgue of the imagination

Fish, Blood & Bone
By Leslie Forbes
Weidenfeld & Nicolson,
432 pages

What do Kathy Reichs, Michael Ondaatje, Patricia Cornwell and Leslie Forbes have in common? They have all published novels within the last year in which the protagonists are women forensics specialists. Reichs and Cornwell write crime novels; Ondaatje, Booker-winning novel-poems; and Forbes something else again, but there must be something in the air of the moment that has brought each of these writers into their imagined morgues. Whether it's Anil of Anil's Ghost or Claire Fleetwood of Forbes's second novel, Fish, Blood & Bone, this is fiction about women literally digging into their own pasts.

Perhaps what has drawn such diverse writers to share an interest in this grim science is the way it offers some of the main thematic elements of great fiction, conveniently bundled up in a single profession: history, body, mystery and death.

Claire Fleetwood is a young American forensic photographer who has moved to London to live in Eden Dwellings, an old house she has unexpectedly inherited. The house, it turns out, is located in the middle of an East End council project, a battlefield occupied by vandals and hookers and junkies. The place also comes with a young girl, Sally, whose passion is to tend to the back garden and whose only wish is to avoid the drunken, violent attentions of her father. Claire describes herself as an ordinary person, but abruptly encounters an overwhelming onslaught of not-at-all-ordinary complications.

First, Sally is brutally murdered on the other side of the garden wall. Then a distant cousin appears and invites Claire on an expedition to a valley somewhere between Bhutan and Tibet in order to bring back a rare poppy that may hold the cure for cancer. Before she departs, however, Claire uncovers an entire human skeleton under the yew tree in the backyard. Meanwhile, one of the men she thinks killed Sally tries to grab her on the tube, and may also be the one who breaks into her house. Oh, and she falls in love with a one-armed East Indian conceptual artist who creates sculptures made entirely of grass.

If you read Forbes's first novel, Bombay Ice, you won't be surprised by the piling on of such unlikely plot lines. (Bombay Ice in part concerned murder, eunuchs, the Bollywood film industry and transsexual prostitutes.) But where that book ultimately rewarded the hardworking reader who kept all the story's balls in the air, Fish, Blood & Bone feels merely scrambled.

Fish, Blood & Bone is less an unsatisfying novel than two or three novels that have been assembled in an unsatisfying way. The opening scenes of Sally's death and Claire's reluctant investigations into who might have committed the crime suggest a potentially crisp, intelligent murder mystery. The middle section, which traces Claire's journey into the poppy fields of Asia, has moments of pure exotic adrenaline, and the final portions offer the physical veracity of a first-rate adventure novel. Put together, all of these strengths somehow cancel each other out, and instead of a coherent hybrid, we are left with the cut-and-pasted impression of a writerly scrapbook.

What is especially frustrating is that Forbes is, on a line-by-line level, such a skilled writer, unafraid of tackling ruminations on the meaning of history, explanations of botanical science and descriptions of terrible violence all in the same chapter, and talented enough to pull it off. Forbes is equally deft with her characters. Her secondary villains and clowns are never overly determined, and her primary players are never quite what they seem, simultaneously real and shifty.

With all of this working for her, Forbes undoubtedly has a literary thriller — or something else — even better than Bombay Ice in her, one so tightly wound and sure-footed it will seem that the overreaching of Fish, Blood & Bone was only a valuable lesson learned.

Andrew Pyper is the author of Kiss Me, a collection of stories, as well as Lost Girls, winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for best first novel.

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Created: November 9, 2000
Last modified: January 19, 2001
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