I have been to one too many weddings where, sat over dinner, the conversation turns all too surely to, “So what do you do?” I admit it: I turn to the Ford Mondeo of chats. Before you know it, the poor individual who only wishes to get drunk is dutifully talking about the work they are thrilled not to be at, and I’m murmuring, “How interesting.” This is entirely my own fault as a dire conversationalist.
However about 18 months ago I hit on a new strategy when sat next to a stranger. I now ask, “What do you love?” This advice is free, but readers, it’s genius. Now before you know it, the person is talking excitedly about something they adore. And while the subject may not light your fire – on first outing I had a supper-long conversation about fishing – the fact is if you’re talking about something that someone loves, you’re not worrying anxiously about the next thing you’re going to say. And at the very least it gives a warm and happy base for the conversation to branch off from.
So far not many people have asked me in return, the rude bastards, but of course, my go-to answer is reading. Because if I like anything more than reading books, it’s TALKING about reading books. I LOVE it! Back at work this week I had an hour long meeting with the Managing Director to discuss a new project; we spent 25 minutes of it discussing books – what he’d been given [Purity], our shared ‘meh’ at Freedom and yen for The Corrections, voyages into the graphic novel form and section of the bookshop, how Ian McEwan just shouldn’t try to write so many books and Sweet Tooth fails to deliver on a promising idea. I emerged with a fistful of recommendations I’m not at all sure I’ll enjoy, but that’s not the point. The very rare times anyone dares to recommend my anything without me grovelling and begging, I rarely end up enjoying them. But who cares! The conversation is worth it! And it’s good to be pried out of one’s usual groove.
All of which is a roundabout way to say that Disclaimer is a rare book, that was not only recommended to me but recommended to me by a phone call for that purpose only. Otherwise I wouldn’t have read it, as it’s a thriller, a genre I tend to avoid. The bookseller continued the good tidings by pressing it on me with the murmur: “I hear it’s better than Girl on the Train” – no higher praise possible in Waterstone’s, surely?
Disclaimer opens with the protagonist, Catherine, being sick. She’s realised that the novel which she’s been reading has been written about her – and the big secret which she’s been hiding for twenty years. Now, someone’s out to expose her. The book, when she looks, has had the usual disclaimer – “this book is not related to any persons living or deceased” sort of thing – crossed out.
It’s an interesting premise and my inner metafictional siren started blaring. I checked the disclaimer in the front of the novel I was reading, already with great expectations of mind-games and breaking the safety of the reader/book relationship – but there it was, as usual. And this was the trouble. I wanted this conceit to go in a more tricksy direction, drawing Disclaimer, the author and you, the reader, into the trust/secrecy theme. Not into If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller lengths, but a little. This premise seems BORN for this. And it doesn’t have to be done in a high-falutin way. Gone Girl, the thriller which all others thrillers want to be, did this fantastically with its untrustworthy narrators and never ending twists. It marked a new way to do a thriller. But Disclaimer is a thriller in the older model – gradual plot revelations which are really waiting until the one big ‘aha’ twist at the end.
Don’t get me wrong – this is a good thriller in the old model. The story alternates between Catherine and the shady chap behind this suspicious novel, his dark plans for her gradually becoming clear. Some increasing insanity, some family-doubts – there’s some good stuff in there. But I’m fussy. If I do read a thriller, I like a big, game-changing twist every fifty pages to keep me going. Waiting until a late twist means you’ve essentially read 80% of a twistless novel so that needs to be strong enough in its own right. And without my usual loves to keep me going – symbolism, theming, social and political commentary – any book will struggle to do it for me.
So no, it wasn’t the book to convert me to thrillers. But I love a recommendation as much as ever and a varied literary diet can only be good for me. Keep them coming, and save the world from bad conversation.