Michael J Malone has plenty in common with Danny Morrison, the unseen character in Quicksand of Memory whose actions guide those of the rest of the cast. Unlike Morrison, Malone seems to use his powers for good. Throughout this helter-skelter of a novel, Malone has us completely where he wants us. He takes us through all manner of emotions, from shock through sadness, to an edgy but real peace. Morrison, whose idea of peace for himself involves coercion and control over others, would none the less admire this real master of the craft.
The statue on the cover of this novel reminds me of the tank chase scene through St Petersburg in Goldeneye and in some shallow ways this is mainstream entertainment: there is pace, there is relatable detail, there is great care taken to ensure that you are able to think sympathetically towards almost all the characters. (Fans of Graham Greene and Lisa Jewell will be at home here.) But entertainment is not quite the right word. There is cruelty, unimaginable cruelty, and we are challenged to respond. Malone holds our attention, and we cannot turn away, even as our hands cover our eyes.
The point is this: Danny Morrison is dead. But his death has had consequences: for his family, for his friends, for those who once loved him, for those who once feared him. Fifteen years later, at least five people’s lives are being determined by what happened at the time, what is happening now, what happened in the meantime.
None of the lead characters has led the life they might have picked. What they all want to know is what they have to do to set themselves free. Each of them has a different idea about that. Some of these ideas are benign. Some are not. As the novel continues, new truths emerge, long concealed or previously mistold. We are never sure who is lying – to themselves or to us. We may not be sure of the truth – at least not until the final pages – and it’s only at the end that we discover who if anyone will be granted the redemption (or peace) that they all crave.
Now redemption tales are ten a penny but Malone wants to go further. He wants us to confront two issues. The first is our ability to break free. Do we have free will? Does the child betrayed by parents, foster carers and siblings, ever have a chance to heal, and how the hell should they go about doing so, unless it is with the support of others around them? (It’s telling that in Malone’s Glasgow it is the characters who have positive support around them – whether a spouse, real friend, parent or child – who are able to function. The one active character who has no positive features does not have that support.) And, second, do we understand just how important it is that support travels between the generations, not just from adults to children but between different generations of adults? Malone does spell this out very overtly for us, but by the time he does it we are such emotional wrecks (thanks to him) that a bit of hand holding is fair enough. The final page could be saccharine in the hands of a different author. Malone, who by this point can do or say anything to the reader, simply reminds us that the trauma in our society belongs to all of us and not only to those who carry it.
This writer, as usual, speaks in an unignorable way on behalf of those too easily ignored. Quicksand of Memory is another masterclass in storytelling from an author with a sadly necessary agenda.
Thanks to Anne Cater for the blog tour invitation and to Orenda Books for the review copy.