Sunday 19 November 2017

Fiction Review: The Return by Michael Gruber

The Return
The Return

The success of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl has demonstrated that the public has an appetite for smart thrillers with literary aspirations.

Though a galaxy-removed theme-wise, Michael Gruber's new novel shares many of the same qualities. The fast moving plot, populated with Vietnam veterans, elusive beauties and Mexican drug-lords, serves as lurid window dressing for a work that is, at heart, a meditation on life, family – the things that get us out of bed in the morning and keep us awake at night

'Nam vet turned respected New York book editor, Richard Marder is grieving for his recently passed wife when he discovers he has a brain tumour and that he will likely be dead within the year. Much like the impetus for visceral television show Breaking Bad's Walt, this revelation causes him to throw off the shackles of polite society. Quitting his job, he is determined to track down the Mexican drug baron he believes is ultimately responsible for his wife's suicide. Relocating to the Mexico coast, he strikes up an alliance with a local cocaine dealer and, accompanied by his trigger happy best friend (similarly scarred by Vietnam), sets about taking down his nemesis.

Alongside the warhorse male characters, the author sketches a number of vivid female protagonists. Marder's daughter is a force of nature, a woman unwilling to let the men in her life define her existence; the Mexican reporter with whom our anti-hero becomes romantically entangled is revealed to be a complex actor with motives far more profound than Marder's simple blood-lust.

There's lashings of action – by which we mean sex and violence – but the novel is more than an airport romp. Gruber evokes the ethereal strangeness of Mexico, a state struggling for coherence in the midst of its never-ending narco wars, and captures the ways in which grief, and the awareness of one's own mortality, can give the everyday a tinge of the surreal. It's page turner, with soul and a glittering intellect.

4 STARS

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent
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