Star rating – 6/10
This promising thriller by Simon Lelic starts off with what seems to be a Guantanamo style plot. Arthur Priestley – a dentist from Ealing – is not the most likely person to have been captured by security forces under repressive new terror legislation – the Unified Security Act – but he nevertheless finds himself in some sort of captivity and he is not quite sure why. It transpires that this is not about politics, but a new and deadly disease that is starting to affect certain groups of people such as gay men, so that the right wing Government feel they have to take draconian, if not Orwellian, measures to combat it. The parallels with HIV are obvious but this disease is much deadlier and quicker to kill than any other. And Arthur cannot see why he should have been rounded up.
Cue Priestley’s separated wife Julia, who won’t simply sit back and accept her husband’s disappearance, so she goes to young left wing investigative journalist Tom Clarke to see if he will help her. She is attractive and her story compelling, so Tom can’t resist either. The book is a real page turner as they try to track down the top secret place where they think Arthur and others are being held. They embark on a romance in the process of their search, which feels slightly clichéd but is not a major criticism.
The issue for me is that Lelic makes his story hover half way between a frightening dystopian nightmare, and an everyday reality that could very well happen anywhere today. And it is slightly less powerful for that. His use of characterisation is also a bit erratic. For example another main character, Harry Graves, who is really a prison governor but shipped into run the secret facility and to ask no questions, starts off as a man guilty because of his very sporadic communications with his daughter, and his failure to let her know where he is at the moment. We then only get a heartless, faceless bureaucrat for another 200 pages or so before his personal life encroaches again when he goes to visit his daughter. That feels a bit unconvincing.
Which is also the problem with the plot – it just fails to convince enough to grip the reader all the way through the book in the way a thriller such as this should do. It is very well written, but just maybe needs to nail its colours to the mast of being a modern Orwellian nightmare a little more than it does. But Lelic shows in this, his second novel, that he is certainly a very good writer, who can twist a plot and thrill along the way. Definitely one to watch.