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Monday, September 2, 2013

THE SHIFTLING by STEVEN SAVILE

A review by Gary Fry

I acquired this novella after joining the DarkFuse Kindle book club, which is one helluva deal: 36 books a year, with 5 free upon joining, and a bunch of other stuff thrown in. All for $59. Anyway, advert over. The novella. It's a cracker.

It's a story set in my own heyday, the gaudy '80s. Naff music, fairgrounds, boys hanging out in gangs short of cash. The works. I really enjoyed all these prompts to nostalgia, but think they'll appeal to more folk than my own and Savile's generation. There's a gentle lyricism to the prose, an earnestness about the voice. The author obviously had a good time summoning all these playful details, providing a convincing backdrop to a story whose outrĂ© elements are decidedly ambiguous.

The tale swings back and forth, from the present day to the past. It's the story of boys up to their games, and then dealing with the consequences, often over decades. There's a villain of the piece, artfully kept largely off stage, and something else lurking belowground. That aspect put me in mind of a certain King novel, and in many places, this novella has something of the swagger of the master's fiction of reminiscence. Savile's is set in the northeast of England, but there are times when the choice of diction and literary rhythms evoke the US-through-the-lens-of-King. That's a hard thing to avoid, such is the man's prevalence in this genre. And I'd say it was unconvincing to say that the US textures here are symptomatic of American influence in latter-day UK culture, pretty much established back in the '80s. Savile just writes a bit trans-Atlantic here, but who the hell cares, goddammit? It's all great fun.

The story, jerking to and fro with intrigue, builds to a fine, gripping climax that has more than a hint of uncertainty about it. The narrator says that memory is uncertain, and there's a chance that all we, the readers, have witnessed what may well be an alternative interpretation, invented by a callow young mind to make sense of something we're seeing rather too much of lately in the UK. This lends the tale much more power than a straight narrative of boys and monsters.

Overall, I thought this was a fine piece: readable, thought-provoking, moving and scary. There are times when the prose lapses a little too much -- for my liking, anyway -- into stock phrases, the kind of zippy, well-trodden language that's served a million writers well down the centuries. I just think -- my hobbyhorse here -- that authors as good as Savile should be creative at every turn, making every linguistic turn shine. But that's only a minor niggle. There's enough fine prose, well-observed nuance, and character insight to satisfy all. And the story, it rocks, dudes; I'll probably read it again one day.

UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shiftling-ebook/dp/B00EDQQC4K/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1378149713&sr=8-1&keywords=savile+shiftling

US: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Shiftling-ebook/dp/B00EDQQC4K/ref=sr_1_9?ie=UTF8&qid=1378149660&sr=8-9&keywords=steven+savile

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