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Friday, July 4, 2014

Silent Voices by Gary McMahon -- a review

Silent Voices (Concrete Grove part 2) by Gary McMahon            

A review by Gary Fry

The first entry in the Concrete Grove series is a pretty strong book, including one multi-strand set-piece that’s among the best things I’ve read in the genre for a long time. So I came to the next of the trilogy with high hopes for more of the harrowingly real stuff.

Silent Voices is, however, quite a different novel from the first. It’s quieter, more restrained, and takes its time to yield its qualities. We’re familiar with the set-up, reminiscent of King’s It. Adults (three guys) revisiting a childhood grief; it’s as much about biographical detail and character development as horror events, of which, in the early stages, there are few. But the three leads are so well-drawn, you won’t worry about that, even if you are a plot-seeker.

I sense McMahon exploring some biographical material in this book, particularly in the character of Marty; his “incandescent” rage has a whiff of lived experience about it, a no-bullshit tone it’s probably impossible to fake. That’s always been the strength of McMahon’s work at its best; it bleeds passionate involvement in life, the powerful and often violent frustration that arises when what should be good times (being rich, dating a model, being a family man, etc) are blighted by corrosive memories which “get in the way”.

That’s basically what this book is about. The story leads back to the concrete grove, including an episode in the Needle (a venue at the heart of the area) in which lots of metaphysical episodes occur, instinctive depictions of character rendered metaphorical and delineated in tangible symbolism. These are complex intuitions, and I’m not sure a reviewer can rationally unpick them when the author himself seems to be relying on nous, gut feeling, a “feels right” chain of imagery and turns of phrase. All I can say is that it all works well and is memorable, so there’s certainly more to this book than mere horror-y frights. Captain Clickety (those many masks) and the Underthing gain power from such thematic resonance and strong characterisation. It’s all damned good gear.

On a more prosaic level, the book possesses richness in terms of sense of place and minor character. McMahon isn’t content with just sketching in a pencil background for his folk to move through; he adds copious detail, making venues come alive. Although a ruthless, market-oriented editor might have asked him to cut a sequence involving a guy (Simon) going to a café (“Why do we need to know what’s on the table, for God’s sake? Cut those lines about the fucking sugar bowl, for Christ’s sake!”), that editor is a fool. It’s stuff like this which give the book its lived dimension, contributing accumulatively and inexorably to those effective final scenes. Similarly the little observations of people in their daily milieu – the barmaid singing along to a jukebox, the bored-looking waitress with vacant eyes, et al. This is, like, verisimilitude, man, and sets the author apart from those who care merely and more about event.

Event is important, of course, and Silent Voices doesn’t welsh on that. While some may think a lot of the book is set-up (and in a way, it is), it’s the quality of character delineation that shines through, keeps you reading. I had an issue with one character – Brendan’s wife – late on in the book. !!!SPOILER HERE!!! She’d been sending Simon loads of info about the grove, and yet in hospital with her sick son, she wishes he’d never come back there. Well, you know, she was partly responsible for that. !!!SPOILER OVER!!! But on the whole, the people in the novel were its finest quality, especially Marty, whose soul positively stains the book’s paper.

All in all, this is a fine second entry in an ambitious trilogy and I certainly look forward to the third. When McMahon parties in his native north, he’s hard to beat.

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