In Northern Ireland we have a word – thran. Thran is used to describe someone who is stubborn or awkward, a person who intentionally makes things difficult for others. As we would say here, Amelia Gray is a thran one alright.
If you are after plot, this book is not for you. Don’t get me wrong, there is a story of sorts here. David, a disgraced dentist is struggling to cope following the death of his wife Franny. Adding to his mental instability is the presence of tiny, threatening notes that he finds throughout his house. A detective is interested in Franny’s death, David is appearing in news bulletins as a person of interest, a psychiatrist has set up office in his wasp infested garage and Franny’s work colleague is seeing her everywhere. In an attempt to make sense of his situation, David wanders disjointedly among them, all the while reflecting on his own personal history.
Alternatively, everything I’ve just described could be untrue. What we have in Threats is not just an unreliable narrator, but an unreliable author. Reality and truth are merely lurking in the shadows of Threats. Is this whole thing a figment of David’s imagination? Is Franny dead? Did Franny leave the threats for David, or did David leave them for Franny? Is David even David? The reader doesn’t know. And won’t know.
David appears to be having a mental breakdown as he tries to find reason in his wife’s death. Taken as such, the book is a mood piece about grief and loss, death and decay. It balances delicately between reality and dream. The aim is to obfuscate. The death of his wife has opened up a fear and paranoia in David and the threats he keeps finding are a symbol of his inability to find a way through and out of his grief. For David, nothing is reliable and no one has his best interests at heart. The same could be said for the reader. Question is layered upon question without response. Scenes and characters are included seemingly to simply confuse matters more. There is a child who lives at the local police station. There is a man who looks and acts exactly like David. There is a box of socks buried in the garden and a raccoon in the grandfather clock.
The book is written in flat, almost robotic prose and in short choppy chapters. In parts it is more successful than others. At times the prose is heartbreaking and surreal at the same time, such as the passage when David’s father learns of the premature death of his only daughter. At other times it feels like it is trying a little too hard to shock and confound. The unremitting oddness of everyone and everything in David’s world became a little wearing, and while it worked for some aspects of the story, too much of any good thing renders it dull. Whilst there is an undoubted sense of unease, for me, it never translated into a convincing depiction of fear.
Threats is a book about death and decay, and the attempts we make to stay one step ahead. It’s about insecurity and isolation, and how we cope when we realise that the people we love are not always what they seem. But then again, it might not be. Gray is determined not to offer a clear message and that is her prerogative, but this wilfulness ultimately undermines the story. This is a shame, because Gray can write some unforgettable passages. She can locate poetry in the oddest of places; take this description of Franny’s dying moments,
There would be a moment when she would breathe for the last time…There would be that moment for him as well, for all, but it was her moment at that moment, her prize of air, her still lake, her sweet boat floating away away, her body warping wood, swale and heavy, a sinking thing.
When fire fighters come to take away Franny’s corpse, which David has been sitting beside for days, he experiences the scene from a female firefighter’s perspective; she weeps and tries to explain what has happened while David takes on her role as cold impartial observer. Dissociation has taken over and the confusion that occurs following death finds its perfect expression in the narrative form.
However, as it tries to come to a conclusion, the book falters. Because what conclusion can it come to? Atmosphere has been so consistently relied upon that it feels it may be the decoration that hides a lack of effective plot and character development. Some may find the ambiguous ending perfect given what has gone before, but to me it felt unfinished and ultimately unsatisfying. Gray is undoubtedly a writer to watch, if she can stop being so damn thran….
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