The Lewis Man

//by Peter May//published 2012//

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Okay, I was UBER EXCITED to read the second book in this series.  The Blackhouse was a 100% win for me, my favorite read of February, and a book I added to my always-growing list of books I would like to actually own and add to my personal collection.  In case you don’t remember, it’s all FictionFan’s fault that I’m reading these books; here is the link to her review of The Lewis Man…  she’s always significantly better at writing coherent reviews!!  Mine seem to involve a lot of asdf;lkawer;l!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Overall, I absolutely loved The Lewis Man. The narration was brilliant; the story-from-the-past narrated by Marsaili’s father is absolutely gut-wrenchingly beautiful; and the story itself is so engaging that I could barely put this book down.  It was another easy 5/5, and so exciting to read a sequel that was every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor.

Our hero from The Blackhouse, Fin, has left his job and returned to his childhood home on Lewis.  Meanwhile, a body is found, perfectly preserved, in the peat bog.  The DNA test indicates that the murdered man is a close relative to Marsaili’s father…  except he doesn’t have any close relatives.  As Fin helps Marsaili search for the truth, May gives us access to Marsaili’s father’s thoughts.  Stricken with dementia, his narrative is at times garbled, especially when he is trying to understand the present.  But, as is the way with such disease, his memories of the past are hauntingly clear.

What if everything you thought you knew about your parents wasn’t true?  It’s really just a brilliantly simple idea, and May plays it perfectly.  As the reader, I actually knew much more about the murdered man and Marsaili’s father’s past than Fin or Marsaili did, but that does nothing to ease the tension and intensity of the book.

May also delves into the way we, as a society, tend to shrug off the elderly and their concerns, and he handles it exceptionally well.

“We walk into that nursing home, and all we see are a lot of old people sitting around.  Vacant eyes, sad smiles.  And we just dismiss them as…well, old.  Spent, hardly worth bothering about.  And yet behind those eyes every one of them has had a life, a story they could tell you.  Of pain, love, hope, despair.  All the things we feel, too. Getting old doesn’t make them any less valid, or any less real.  And it’ll be us one day.  Sitting there watching the young ones dismiss us as…well, old.”

I loved the way how, throughout this story, May really brought home the reminder that everyone we know, everyone we think we know, has a story.  Something inside of them that no one else knows about.  A secret that they keep safe, something deep and important and hidden.  We naturally judge people by what we see/understand of them, but how often do we even consider all the layers below what they’ve chosen to share?

And he realized that you can never tell, even when you think you know someone well, what they might have been through in their lives.

Another thing about May’s writing that I really appreciate is that even though the stories are grim and intense, there is still a spark of humor throughout.  It really keeps his characters feeling very human and real, the fact that they can laugh and tease a bit.  It’s an excellent balance to could otherwise come off as quite bleak.

So I may have used this example before, but I worked on a dairy farm for years, and every year the milk inspector would come and check the parlor and the equipment and give the farm a grade, which determines what the milk can be sold for.  And there is this saying among the dairy farmers that you can never get a perfect grade – the better and cleaner your farm is, the pickier the inspector gets.  This, I find, applies to a lot of life, and books are one of those areas – the better the book, the pickier I get.  :-D  So yes, below are some rather nit-picky issues I had with this read.

When I read The Blackhouse, I griped a bit about the portrayal of religion/Christianity in the story as being a grim, hypocritical, self-righteous lot, while all the “good” and likable people were, of course, the people who had shaken free of those terrible chains of religion.  FictionFan (who is from Scotland and probably knows more about the religion there than I do :-D) had some good thoughts in the comment section of The Blackhouse, reminding me that religion has developed differently and different regions of the world, and that the Scots’ version does, in fact, tend to be a bit more on the grimmer side than in other places.  And while I understand and agree, it still frustrates me that the development of Donald Murray’s character is that basically he has to not believe in God in order to become a decent person.

And Fin realized that Donna knew only the bible-thumping, God-fearing, self-righteous bully that Donald had become.  She had no idea of the real man who hid behind the religious shell he had grown to conceal his vulnerability.

I just…  yes, I understand what he’s saying, but I really just can’t get behind this concept that the only way someone can become a kind and thoughtful person is if they ditch God.  I guess that I just wish it was a bit more obvious that what Donald needs to ditch is his understanding of God, because that understanding is wrong, not God Himself, if that makes sense.

Anyway, another minor problem I had with this book was Marsaili’s mother.  Just, I don’t know.  She’s been married to this guy for a really, really long time, and “Oh he has dementia so I want him out of the house right now and I’m throwing away all his stuff and I’m going to pretend like not just that he’s dead but like he never existed.”  It felt weird to me.  Unnatural.  It was probably the only point in the book where I found myself going, “Wait, what?  That does not seem like what this character would do.  At all.”  I can see where May was going with it, and how he wanted to be able to tie Marsaili’s father to his past in the end, but still.  It really turned Marsaili’s mother into a rather dreadful, selfish person.  I think her desire to have her husband not live with her any more could have been handled in a way that wasn’t so harsh, especially since in the first book Marsaili’s mother is portrayed as such a kind and loving person.  It wasn’t the fact that she felt like his dementia was too much for her to handle and that she needed him to stay somewhere else that felt strange, it was the fact that it had to happen TODAY like I HAVE PUT HIM IN HIS COAT and then just a couple days later she already has his stuff completely boxed up and ready to go out with the trash??  Without even asking Marsaili if she wants any of it??  I don’t know, it just seemed unnecessarily harsh for an otherwise gentle character.

Third and final personal dislike – this story was all about the past.  Like, a decently distant past.  Thus, the tie-in to the present-day danger felt a bit contrived and quite a lot rushed at the end.  It was plausible, but not likely in my mind.  Still, May manages to pull it off, and guess who stayed up late to finish the last several chapters?!??!  (Who needs sleep??  Not like I can sleep with all those loose ends hanging over me anyway!)

Overall, though, The Lewis Man was brilliant and gripping writing.  I came away loving pretty much all of the characters even more than I loved them in the first book.  May has created a community of characters who are, despite their many flaws, still striving to be good, decent, hardworking people – people you root for, people you want to see win in life.

5/5 and highly recommended…  getting read to start The Chessmen next and I can hardly wait!!

The Blackhouse

//by Peter May//published 2012//

BlackhouseCoverOh, wow, I don’t even know where to start!!  I picked up this book because of FictionFan’s review of the third in the trilogy, and her review of The Blackhouse can be found here.  I am super glad that her enthusiasm won me over, because The Blackhouse was a thoroughly gripping tale, and I can hardly wait to read the other two in the series.  Also, you should totally read her review either way, since she has a knack of being significantly more coherent than I am when I’m reviewing books I really liked.  :-D

Our protagonist is Fin Macleod, a detective in Edinburgh whose personal life is going through a bit of a rough patch.  When a murder occurs on the Isle of Lewis, where Fin grew up, his superiors send him off to see if there is any connection between the Lewis murder and one that occurred in Edinburgh a few months earlier, as the initial MO seems to be the same.  Fin is reluctant to return to Lewis, but as he reconnects with the people and places of his childhood, he begins to see that this murder and his life may be more entwined than he first believed.

First things first:  I really, really like Fin.  He’s just a solid, steady sort of fellow, with a quietly snarky sense of humor and a strong sense of justice.  While he has a lot of problems, he’s working through them like a man, not wallowing in them like a whiny baby.  Fin isn’t afraid to admit when he’s done something wrong (although he doesn’t mind taking the credit when he’s right, either :-D).  I just really, really liked Fin, and that made this whole story work for me.  I wanted to know more about him and his childhood and his life.  I really wanted things to work out for Fin.

Okay, so, this story starts out in third person, but then, chapter two, suddenly switches to first person – Fin, recalling an episode from his childhood.  At first, I was a bit confused.  It seemed weird.  But it only took a few pages of the first person narrative to make me realize that I liked Fin even more, and I found myself flipping through the rest of the book to see if the narrative alternated back and forth – and was pleased when I found that it did.  Present day events in third person, past events from Fin’s POV.  It sounds like it ought to be disjointed and choppy, but it’s actually brilliant.  May manages to insert Fin’s recollections at very natural points in the present-day narrative.  The first time occurs when Fin is on the plane getting ready to land on Lewis.  I felt that I was reading Fin’s thoughts/memories from that exact moment – the memories that would naturally come to him as he returned to the island for the first time in nearly twenty years.  And it stays that way throughout.  May never makes a stated connection (e.g., “As Fin drove across the countryside, his thoughts drifted to the day  he first met her….  I met her on a rainy day…”), but every time Fin’s recollections take place, it’s at a natural gap in the present-day narrative, at a point where learning more about Fin’s past is exactly what ought to happen.

The secondary characters in this book are very well drawn, as well.  As we meet people from Fin’s past, May does an excellent job of contrasting them, via Fin’s memories, with their youth and where they are now.  Somehow, this made the present-day narrative much more emotional and engaging, as we slowly see what events shaped the people into who they are now.

In a weird way, the mystery is almost to the story of Fin as a person.  It’s almost as though the mystery is here simply as a catalyst for Fin to discover things about himself.  I felt the story was far more about Fin than it was about who murdered the victim.

One thing, however, I did not like about this book was a rather unnecessarily lengthy and detailed explanation of the autopsy of the murdered victim.  It was bad enough to have to listen to descriptions of this brutal death (I especially found the continued emphasis on how fat the victim was, and how his rolls of fat where hanging down, etc. to be quite off-putting, simply because they didn’t feel particularly necessary??)  But ten pages of chopping this guy up seemed a bit much (maybe especially because I happened to be trying to eat dinner during that chapter??).  However, I resorted to an old trick of mine – I skimmed through and only read where there was conversation.  In third-person narratives of this sort, most important information will be imparted through conversation, not the description.  Worked like a charm.  ;-)

Of course, I also wasn’t a huge fan of the way in which May presents religion:  a dark, dank, dated drug that sucks the joy out of everyone’s lives and forces them into a slavery of tradition, judgment, and gloom.  The only even somewhat-happy people are the ones who are, either secretly or opening, defying the church and living life free of those horribly shackling rules.  Anyone who is a “genuine” believer is a hypocritical, angry grouch.  I guess I wouldn’t mind so much if it wasn’t (per usual) that 100% of church people are horrid, and the only way they can be not-horrid is by leaving behind that ridiculous fairy tale of a religion that they know, deep inside, really isn’t true.  It is frankly insulting.  (Imagine if I wrote a book in which an entire group – take your pick – a certain race or gender or virtually any religion other than Christianity – was 100% portrayed as confused, cruel, ignorant, arrogant, angry fools??  How well would that go over? Yet it seems to be expected of any time the Christian church is involved in a story.)  Ah well.

In many ways, this story is a bleak one.  The whole story felt like it was written in black and white.  It is a book of stark contrasts, of people who have survived, but who have survived at a cost.  Life on the Outer Hebrides is not for the weak of heart.  May does a masterful job of writing of Fin’s slow realization that as much as he wanted to escape from Lewis, he still feels that pull toward home – even though he has no family left there – that calls us all back to the place we were born, the place that somehow helped to make us.

This book was definitely a 5/5 read and highly recommended.  It is gritty, intense, and thoroughly engaging.