:: Article

Shock and Circumstance

By Max Dunbar.

Killing Daniel, Sarah Dobbs, Unthank 2012

This is a very dark and frightening novel, told in short chapters and brief sentences, that pass like the shivers of bad dreams. Protagonist Fleur is living in an abusive relationship in Manchester: she manages to escape her scumfuck boyfriend, only to fall into a series of nasty and inconclusive one-nighters with various men picked up in Oxford Road bars. (One memorable opening gambit: ‘Have you ever fucked in a meat freezer? My kid brother’s a butcher. I’ve the keys to his shop.’) She has a counterpart in her old Japanese penpal Chinatsu, locked in an arranged marriage to the sociopathic Yugi, a businessman who is terrified of intimacy with his wife and gets his real satisfaction from the sadomasochistic domination of prostitutes. The novel follows the expected convergence and parallels.

Many young Western authors write about Japan. The results aren’t great, and offer mainly a gap-year digest of the country. But Sarah Dobbs obviously knows the place and takes it seriously; Yugi, tracking down his wayward wife, complaints to himself that ‘The pace of [Manchester] is so slow. Nothing like the flashing, spasmodic revolutions of Tokyo.’ Dobbs not only knows cities but can see them through strange fresh eyes. Here she is on Manchester itself:

Manchester is a city of angles and anonymity. More personal than London, it’s like a Cubist painting. As though Braques has emerged from his twentieth century resting place, spat on his charcoal and sketched the cityscape on a Starbucks serviette. And then he has torn up the serviette, thumbed the fragments about like a paper Rubik’s cube, and created Manchester. Its buildings are all mixed up, the old with new, modern with traditional, run down slums with elite offic complexes. It was not like this at home, with Tokyo’s uniform geometry.

The tone of Killing Daniel is a pavement shining with northern rain, late night in a totalising comfortable darkness where you become very conscious of your breathing and the texture of the back of your throat. There are a few moments of hope, and positivity – Fleur’s relationship with her grandmother, and her romantic encounter with a gentle off-duty cop – but they don’t detract from the pace, which is unremitting, and sepulchral. Apart from some of the habitual glitches that all writers commit (Yugi’s character is a bit stock anime villain for me, and you don’t need to italicise the names of fast food outlets and retail chains) the prose is fine and measured. The foulness of abuse, exploitation of women and children, resonates without hectoring. No misery-memoir descriptions are more frightening and damning that Fleur’s admission that her father simply watches her.

Running through it all is a sense of the loss of possibilities and connections that could have been. In a recent interview, Dobbs said, ‘I think people seek happiness in misguided places (pointless relationships being a major one) so the rest of the novel comes from trying to find an alternative to that.’ It’s a piercing tale of personal circumstance in what can be a doubtful and scary world.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 13th, 2012.