Campbell's 2008 debut The Semantics of Murder showcased her flair for depicting the grittier side of life. Her new novel The Loss Adjustor sees her hone her narrative skills while continuing to explore the daunting themes of loss and grief.
Caroline, or Caro to those who know her, is an oddball. She has no friends, pets or hobbies, and has pushed away any lovers that came too close. She works as a loss adjustor for a London-based insurance firm. Her days are spent assessing the damage done to the lives of her clients by calculating the financial worth of material possessions, while staunchly ignoring the emotional toll and, all too often, human loss of life inflicted by various disasters.
While not wholly unsympathetic, Caro has "learned to compartmentalise" and does not "over-identify", and for these reasons, she excels at her work. She is, by her own unnervingly accepting admission, "at best a reminder of an irritating or upsetting event, at worst a reminder of devastating loss". Although respected by her colleagues, she cultivates a personal distance and at times seems not only detached from those around her, but from the present itself.
Campbell's narrative jumps from the banality of the adult Caro's life to her emotionally charged youth, most of which was spent sandwiched between her childhood pals Cormac and Estelle. The three friends spent almost every waking minute together, growing up alongside each other in a dreary, nondescript cul-de-sac, an "unsustainable community that, according to planners, was not earmarked for growth but destined to shrivel up and die" -- a description that also fits the dynamic of their relationship.
Estelle (whose volatile nature and irrational cruelty only makes sense upon an upsetting disclosure late in the novel) becomes a third wheel to adolescent lovers Caro and Cormac. When her life is cut short at 15 years of age, Cormac processes his grief and eventually accepts Estelle's death. Caro, on the other hand, struggles; acceptance doesn't come so easy to her. Cormac becomes an international rock star, while Caro watches from the sidelines, her life marred by a 20-year-old tragedy.
For those years, Caro carries the weight of Estelle's death on her shoulders, daydreaming about her reunion with Cormac, predictably assuming it would bring the closure she so obviously (to the reader, if not herself) needs in order to leave the past behind and exit stage left from the "theatre of loss" she has been performing in ever since that fateful day.
Thankfully, Campbell veers off the predictable route and, instead, introduces elderly widower Tom Warren, an unlikely catalyst to conclude Caro's prolonged period of grieving. Each week, Caro drives for over an hour to sit on a bench in a graveyard, a weekly pilgrimage to honour the memory of her childhood friend. Surrounded by headstones and smothered by memories of the deceased, Tom and Caro strike up an awkward rapport.
Theirs is a peculiar and implausible relationship. Tom is haunted by his own ghosts; Campbell draws on the story of UK-based Canadian soldiers during the Second World War, adding an unexpected element to the tale and allowing her to expound on death and grief on a much larger scale. But Tom and Caro's relationship fails to convince and so weakens the impact of the story's conclusion.
Fittingly, given the thematic nature of the novel, there is a distinct lack of warmth in The Loss Adjustor. The language, characters, landscape (even the weather) are cold and dark. Any appearance of happiness is fleeting, and for the most part relegated to the past.
So thoroughly has Campbell evoked an all-consuming, borderline pathological grief that finishing the novel is almost a relief. This is not a bad thing, but rather a sign of a sad story well told, as it is not until you put down the book and walk away that, like the cold, hard thud of grief itself, it hits you: Campbell's skill. The flawless depiction of a life destroyed by the devastating loss of a loved one is testament to her skill as a writer.