The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall

When I first got a review copy of Steven Hall’s debut novel The Raw Shark Texts back in 2007 there was one thing that put me off, I heard it had a conceptual shark in it and at that time in my life I just thought ‘nah!’ Well more fool me because after having read it as one of Rob’s choices on Hear Read This! I have to admit is one of the most entertaining and thought provoking books I have read in some time, one that also takes you on an adventure and feels like a ripping good yarn too. If you are still worried/put off by the conceptual shark leave thoughts of it to one side (those who have read the book will see what I did there) and let me expand on it…

Canongate Books, paperback, 2007, fiction, 448 pages, bought especially for Hear Read This!

As The Raw Shark Texts opens we join a man who has no memories of where he is or why he came to be there. We soon learn, as he does, that he is Eric Sanderson and that the Eric Sanderson he was before (bear with me) has left him some hints and clues as to figure out what has happened, the first being to see Dr Randle both Eric’s therapist. As we may have guessed it appears that Eric has been through a terrible trauma of the death of his girlfriend Clio on a holiday, is this what has caused Eric’s memory loss? It turns out no, it is part of it, but actually what has taken Eric’s memory is something much, much worse.

Slowly, slowly-slowly, the world began to reappear in sickly greens and thumping purples and after maybe a minute, it steadied itself into a shaky-solid kind of balance. I wiped my eyes on my jeans and gave into a last scratchy cough before rubbing out the rest of the tears. Okay. Just breathe, we’re okay. I had no idea who or where I was.

Now if you are thinking that the ‘old amnesiac at the start of a book routine’ has become a little tired or obvious then you might be right, many authors do it. However this amnesia, in the hands of Hall, is a way of creating the start of a much deeper, more intricate and clever mystery which lies at the depths of the book, oh along with a monstrous shark which lives in the ether and is made out of words but if catches you steals all your memories before killing you. Nothing to fear then Eric… From here we follow Eric, and his cat Ian (more of him later because he is brilliant) and through a random meeting the beautiful Scout, as they go in search of the Un-Space Exploration Committee and Dr Trey Fidorous who Eric Sanderson 1.0 thinks will be able to help Eric Sanderson 2.0. Seriously bear with this guys, it feels like you are on a real adventure whilst also making your mind do a work out with the puzzles Eric must solve and the themes the book brings up.

The animal hunting you is a Ludovician. It is an example of one of the many species of purely conceptual fish which swim in the flows of human interaction and the tides of cause and effect. This may sound like madness, but it isn’t. Life is tenacious and determined. The streams, currents and rivers of human knowledge, experience and communication which have grown throughout our short history are now a vast, rich and bountiful environment. Why should we expect these flows to be sterile?

I have to admit initially I struggled with this concept, so I completely understand if you are thinking all this is barking mad. However I was already intrigued enough (and so smitten with Ian the cat) that I couldn’t resist carrying on and then I saw the genius behind this monster that Hall has created. Ludovician’s are one of many such sharks which are created by the throwaway comments, thoughts, texts etc that we humans have on a daily basis. To confuse it you must surround yourself with words be they written or spoken and in a brilliant moment we also learn that the worst ones died out when Latin stopped being spoken. There is also the nod it gives, and ‘back story if you will, to dementia and Alzheimer’s. So clever, such a geek out on the power of words. Yes, this is a book about books and languages at its heart as well as being one about love and loss – the Ludovician also seemed to me a metaphor for grief a feeling that chases you and gets you when you least expect it.

It is also a huge homage to some of the pop culture of the 80’s and 90’s. We have the obvious link to Jaws and I have seen someone somewhere describe it as The Matrix with books. It was this and the adventure element that reminded me very much of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, another book I wasn’t expecting to be completely engrossed in and compelled by, but I was. Shows I should leave my pre-‘conceptual’-conceptions at the door doesn’t it?

What makes it different from other intelligent literary thrillers (sounds like I am creating a new genre but you know what I mean) I hear you ask, and you would be right to because there are some of them about. In part it is the themes I mentioned which add layers to the book and also it is Hall’s sense of humour and fun which, whilst some of the characters occasionally feel slightly two dimensional, transpires at its best with Ian the cat. I haven’t read such a realistic and scene stealing (yet – thankfully – never talking) creature for quite some time. For me it was Ian the themes of loss, the thoughts on the power of words, and, once I got my head around it, the idea of a conceptual thought shark that makes this a thriller with heart and multi-layered concepts.

I knew at some point I’d have to make it up to the cat after our incident earlier in the day. I also knew that when Ian saw we had a new travelling companion he was unlikely to be in a happy or forgiving mood. I could already picture the thundery disgust and disappointment all over his big flat ginger face.

Thinking about it The Raw Shark Texts is also a book about making every word you use matter, and the Steven Hall does just that. He also makes one of those tricky books which once you have read it you find really difficult to explain. If you love books and words and are prepared to let an author take you completely outside your comfort zone (so basically a ‘reader’) then I highly recommend you give this a try. It is an intelligent ‘conceptual’ thriller if ever there was one, and brilliantly written, crafted and plotted at that. Who knew that a 50-page flipbook section of an approaching shark could genuinely scare me?

If you would like to hear more thoughts on The Raw Shark Texts then do head to this episode of Hear Read This! where Rob, Kate, Gavin and I discuss it. Also, as always, if you have read it then let me know your thoughts on how you found it, if you loved it, what you made of the concept and how on earth they are going to make a movie of it?

1 Comment

Filed under Books of 2014, Canongate Publishing, Review, Steven Hall

One response to “The Raw Shark Texts – Steven Hall

  1. I’m positively thrilled you enjoyed this one! I read this book back in 2009, one of those impulse buys that turned out to be far better than I had expected.

    Clearly I’m long overdue for a reread – your review brought back to mind so many details I had forgotten, and I’m wondering if a revisit five years later would prove to be even better than when I first read it. I remember feeling as though I wasn’t anywhere near clever enough to fully get it and I’m itching to see if there are pop cultures references that hadn’t stuck out before.

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