I first heard about Bernard Beckett’s first novel for adults (though some debate this is also a young adult novel I would disagree), he has written very successful young adult novels in Australia, ‘August’ on that wonderful TV show ‘The First Tuesday Book Club’ where Jennifer Byrne was enthusing about it as ‘one of the other books I have been reading this month’. I liked the sound of the plot, a very unusual thriller of two strangers ending up in a crashed car together, and by the cover. Yes, those two things made it sound like just the read for me and so I begged to review it for We Love This Book.
The premise of ‘August’ sounds an unlikely one. How on earth might two strangers, Tristan and Grace, end up in a car that has crashed together if they didn’t know each other before hand? Well really to give too much away would be to spoil ‘August’ for anyone who is thinking of reading it, and that is part of the joy of this novel. I can say that as the story line develops it seems these two might not be quite the strangers to each other as we the reader, and indeed them as characters, believe.
You might not think that two people stuck in a car, in agony battered and broken, would make for a thrilling read. This is where Beckett excels. Not only do we have the cleverly plotted slow reveal of their back stories as they try and keep each other awake, in case of death, as they await help, Beckett’s writing has a real pace to it and I was hooked from the opening paragraph as Tristan and Grace’s crash is described to us.
“For a moment the balance was uncertain. The headlights stabbed at the thick night. A rock loomed, smooth and impassive, then swung out of the frame. A stunted tree rushed at him, gnarled and prickly. The seat pushed hard, resisting his momentum. Road, rock again, grass, gravel. The forces resolved their differences and he was gliding, a dance of sorts, but he was deaf to its rhythm, just as he was deaf to her screams. Instinct fought the wheel, but the future drew them in.”
There is a slight ‘but’ coming though. Again it’s hard not to give anything away but I became slightly disinterested in their past stories as I realised this was going to be one of those slightly philosophical and almost theological novels. Tristan is from ‘The City’ and a closed religious group where ‘The Rector’ has decided he is the perfect person to test his theories on, a human guinea pig if you will. Only these theories are all about things from guessing which direction a ball will roll, and if it as an inanimate object can choose where it goes, to being able to predict how all humans think, do we really have free will?
Initially this was quite interesting but about a third in, after two pages discussing which way a ball might roll and why, I started to loose interest. The same applied when Tristan becomes embroiled in a real live test of wills the rector has set with two ‘children of the night’ to win their freedom with no rules. It should have been exciting, but it wasn’t quite. Bizarre then that I should say I wished this book was longer, though maybe with less of ‘life’s big questions’ in it. I would have loved to know much more about ‘The City’ and those who inhabited it, where it was and get deeper into the foreboding atmosphere it had that only remained on the periphery.
Beckett makes ‘August’ something more than a ‘self help/deep thought through fiction’ novel with its two protagonists in the car, these moments of fear trapped in their metal wreckage are interspersed between the back stories and add a huge amount of tension. As the novel progresses there are twists and turns in Tristan and Grace’s story which will have you hooked, including one or two shocks. You think you know why and how they got there and what might happen next only to have Beckett twists and turns the plot and you too are thrown off course yourself. It has certainly left me wanting to read much more of Beckett’s work.