Monday, April 17, 2017

Under the Harrow

Although the popularity of books like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train have flooded the market with twisty psychological thrillers featuring one of my favorite literary devices--the unreliable narrator--this popularity also floods the market with ho-hum or even oh-no novels attempting to create another flash in the pan.


That's my rather polite way of saying that Under the Harrow was not a good book, and certainly doesn't deserve the comparisons being slung around. Psychological thrillers aren't exactly spring chickens when it comes to their identity as a sub-genre, but they have received a fun, clever, and well-written makeover in the past few years. Unfortunately, James Patterson continues to word-vomit thrillers all over the New York Times Best-Seller List every two months, but this new(ish) crop of writers like Gillian Flynn, Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware, and pretty much every Scandinavian writer out there present well-written books that have a distinctive style and memorable characters. Riding their coattails are books with good ideas but lackluster execution. Under the Harrow is one of the latter.


Let's take a look at the plot first. Not to beat a dead horse, but let's take Gone Girl as an example. It starts with a basic premise:

wife missing + distraught husband + mistress = murder? 

and then the writer proceeds to rip your metaphorical feet out from under you with several plot twists and a hefty dose of cynicism. Under the Harrow goes like this:

woman killed + depressed sister + mysterious attacker = premeditated murder?

but never quite moves beyond that formula. That's the plot, and despite some clumsy sleight-of-hand tricks to make us think that the narrator is unreliable, she's never quite believably unreliable, if that makes sense.

Nora, a professional-ish type person who lives in London, boards a train to visit her sister, Rachel, in the countryside. She does this as often as possible, and when they are apart, muses to the point of obsession on what they will do together on her next visit. What will they eat? What will they drink? Will she cook? Will they go out? Will they stay in? It's rather exhausting. But when Nora arrives at Rachel's house, she discovers a gruesome tableau: her German Shepherd has been hanged, and Rachel stabbed to death.

Convinced that the police will miss something, Nora stays on in the little town and attempts to solve her sister's murder. She is sure that the person who severely beat her sister when they were leaving a party as teenagers is connected to the murder. Nora's investigation is hampered, however, by her blackouts and predilection for consuming large amounts of alcohol. As she learns what her sister has hidden from her, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain her own innocence. Did she do it, and just not remember?

It's not a bad premise as far as plots go, but the book lacked in execution, not ideas. From the beginning, I felt that something was off. Set in the UK, the author interchanged the American "the hospital" for the more UK "hospital" sans article relatively often. I know it's a small thing, but it motivated me to look up the author: she is American, but the meat of the story hinges on the atmospheric claustrophobia of a tiny English town. When so much setting is wrapped up in the story, it has to be really well written, and this was rather ordinary. Additionally, the author's inability to properly use a semicolon nearly drove me mad. I suppose you could argue that tacking two independent clauses together with a comma, which creates a sort of meandering prose, reflects the indecisive, foggy mind of the narrator. However, there are better ways to do that.

*infomercial voice*

*Sarah McLachlan singing*

*sad puppy pictures*

Comma abuse is an epidemic. With no way to speak for themselves, commas are being overused nearly at the level of apostrophe abuse. Simply by using a semicolon, you can help save a comma today. Please, won't you help the commas?

*music swells*

*puppy montage*

I know, I know. It's pedantic. But it also pulled me out of the story every time I stumbled over excess commas, and then I would get distracted and grumpy. And I sorely dislike being grumpy while reading.

Finally, the pacing of the novel was off. The first two-thirds or so was rather good, with a sort of slow burn going on. A simmering plot is rather delightful in these situations. However, the mystery unraveled in almost the last chapter, and the reader had very little to go on to guess that that person had been the murderer. I read several reviews where the reader stated that she was able to guess the murderer early on, and I felt it came out of left field. I found myself deeply unsatisfied with how everything played out. The police revealed that Rachel had secretly purchased a house in another part of the country, and that her loyal dog was specifically trained as a guard dog. Nora claims to have known none of this. I thought it would have been interesting if Rachel had been protecting herself from her obsessive sister, but alas, no.

Something about these psychological thrillers makes me want to read heaps of them, one right after the other. Under the Harrow, however, is eminently skippable. It created an unfortunate hiccup in my run of excellent books.

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