Jonathan Cape (Aug 2006)
Hardback (368 pages)
* To avoid confusion the US version (tpb) is called Benighted.
A debut novel by an unknown author about werewolves, doesn’t sound promising does it? However if you have any sense keep reading because Bareback is a book you’ll very much want to become acquainted with.
Written by debut novelist Kit Whitfield, Bareback is set in a world in which lycanthropy (the ability of an individual to assume the characteristics of a wolf) is not only a regular occurrence but the norm. Those born without the ability to ‘fur up’ at the time of a full moon are referred to by the titular insult, Bareback. In a highly conceived and developed world we are introduced to Lola May Galley, a ‘non’ or bareback and thus member of DORLA, the Department for the Ongoing Regulation of Lycanthropic Activity. It is through Galley’s eyes that we are given our view of this fully realised world. Every non has to become a member of DORLA because they are so few and the work of making sure such a large percentage of the population is locked up one night a month is so great. All this intriguing information is slowly drip-fed to us in an intelligent manner that another author may have rushed to fit in and in doing so spoilt the story. It is to Whitfield’s credit that as we first encounter Lola, who prefers to be called May, it is any other day for the character. No huge info dumps to get the reader safely settled so they know what’s going on, no hand-holding through the initial uncertainties, like Lola’s trainee Marty we learn as we go.
Due to the small workforce DORLA operates, all their employees have to do several jobs when called upon. Lola Galley is predominantly a lawyer and as the novel begins she is forced to defend a vicious lyco who has bitten off her partner's hand and whose story doesn't ring true. Before the incident can go to court Galley's partner is found dead, shot from behind at close range by a silver bullet - only used by DORLA operatives. Like the tip of the iceberg though there is a lot more going on below the surface, events that go to the very heart of what DORLA is. Although the story is a relatively clever take on the familiar ‘whodunit’ it is the world in which the event takes place that is so engrossing. The lycanthrope-dominated world is real and deep in a way few fantasy novels are able to achieve, blending the mundane and recognisable with a concept that is fantastical and an execution that is never anything but convincing.
This is in no small part due to Whitfield’s grasp of human nature, each and every character is well-rounded, complex and believable. Conversations are not the easy story-telling tools to move the plot forward but a more realised jumble of inanities, uncertainties and general nonsense that clutters over our everyday unease at long silences.This is particularly evident in the awkward, confused relationship Lola shares with her lyco sister, who had to suffer the humility of her younger sister being a bareback. It is very easy to see the characters in three dimensions as if they’ve been taken off the street and poured into the book, subject matter aside this is everyday life with just enough of a fantastical twist to make us stop and wonder. There is a real sense of experience and learning as new details emerge about how quickly lycos change or the early childhood of a non, it is enjoyable merely to put the pieces of everyday life together like a puzzle.
There is also no clear definition of right and wrong to clutter the, at times, dark ambiguity that surrounds many of the events in Bareback, which is something that surprises the further into the story you get. The narrative is bleak and unrelenting, but it is the human darkness that is so avidly consuming. It is the monster within each of the characters that is far more frightening than the furred up atavistic ferocity of a lyco, pushed to the toughest and, indeed, most sinister of choices the characters reactions are often unexpected and shocking. Thematically there are several layers to Bareback that touch on many of the important issues society faces at present: racism and prejudice, policing problems, even housing problems and all because the world within which Bareback exists is so intelligently constructed that it must be emphasised. As an idea it sounds a bit suspect, in execution it works so much better than expected. It is a book you will want to go back to for no other reason than to see what tidbits you missed and how that fleshes out the story and world still further.
For a debut novel it’s right up there amongst the best; entertaining, surprising, rich, intelligent and thoroughly enjoyable with a style that speaks of a veteran author in their pomp – I can only wonder at what she’ll be able to achieve with some practice under her belt. One of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time and easily one of the best novels of the year to date.
Owen Jones © 2006
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