Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Review of Island Reich by Jack Grimwood

Jon Courtenay Grimwood, aka Jon Grimwood, aka Jack Grimwood, may be the best chameleon in fiction (that you’ve perhaps never seen but perhaps should check out). Publishing multiple novels in and among cyberpunk and fantasy, his full name is his fantastika skin. “Jon” is his skin for realist/historical fiction (at least to date), and “Jack” is the skin he has used for his past two LeCarre-esque novels of Cold War espionage. Through these different names Grimwood has proven himself capable of imagining his way through multiple genres in his own, quality way. The name Jack giving things away here, in 2021 he comes at readers with another subtle spy thriller, Island Reich.

While Island Reich moves like a school of minnows, the central story—the biggest minnow—is Bill O’Hagan. Convicted as a thief just as WWII knocks on Britain’s door, he’s given a choice: hang by the neck or put his skills as a safecracker to use for British intelligence. And so it is that as Hitler invades the Channel Islands, Bill is given the fastest agent training possible and airdropped onto the main island Andernay, there to pose as a British aristocrat while finding and cracking an important safe. To tell the rest is to spoil the story, suffice to say that with elements of the British monarchy, American intelligence, and a tight, tense, a detailed historical setting all coming into play, it’s a thrill. (That O’Hagan is not James Bond likewise lends the story a little realism.)

Island Reich is set in a myriad of places in historical space and time. Like said minnows, bits and pieces of the characters’ histories, as well as backstory framing the novel’s key points, flash through the book’s water. The majority does occur in 1940 on the Channel Islands, but certainly broader events on the European mainland involving various British lords, German generals, and spies feature in the narrative. In terms of pure story, it is very much a braided experience.

Complementing this experience is Island Reich’s relatively unique style. Each chapter is in essence flash fiction. It’s as though Grimwood challenged himself to get to the bone of each scene in a paucity of dialogue and exposition. Despite being slightly longer than the average novel in total (534 pages), most chapters are only two or three in length. Requiring good memory (who, what, when, where, and why), it makes for an extremely fast-paced reading experience, almost stroboscope in effect. A secondary effect this style has is that it does not allow the bits of real world history to become a burden for the reader. Unlike a lot of historical fiction, there are zero extended pieces of exposition passing along the author’s research in quasi-fictional form. If anything, Island Reich never allows itself to be stuck in one place for too long.

But where the shape and flow of Island Reich are atypical, the story certainly is not. A beaten, dead horse, it can be disappointing finishing out the climax and denouement, and saying to yourself: Is that all? I’ve read that story a million times. This is 2021. Where is the awareness of that fact, and subsequent cat-and-mouse games between reader and writer? I make you think this, but then I zag. I build up a scene, and it resolves as expected, but is still engaging for it given ho other such scenes have not been standard. For a book wholly dependent on its plotting and characterization, that’s one big cannonball through the sails.

And while I’m whingeing, the title. It’s inappropriate. “Reich” giving the reader the impression they are entering an epic setting, at no time does the novel make good—even with the variety of communication passing back and forth between world leaders. There is no establishment of Germany’s hold on the Channel Islands as massive and penetrating and intended to be permanent. While minor details do exist, the islands are treated more as a jumping off point for the British Isles. In fact, I don’t believe there was a moment in the story with more than 5-6 people “on screen” at one time. As such, it’s difficult to make the reader feel the import of its title. I personally prefer closer, tighter character driven novels, but I can still gripe about the dissonance of cover vs content here.

With the success of Moskva and Nightfall Berlin, I expected Grimwood to follow up with a third novel featuring Tom Fox. Instead, we have Island Reich, a novel that does not possess the intrigue and thrill of those two prior novels. Things shaking out in a-b-c fashion, it’s essentially quality style and structure which make the book interesting. Grimwood goes with a flash-fiction stroboscope, an approach which lightens the historical fiction load and makes story extremely fast-paced, but which tasks readers to be good at remembering details based on little input. Be careful with this one.

No comments:

Post a Comment