Monday, 6 July 2009

Fear and loathing in the Arctic Circle

Review - Revolver, Marcus Sedgwick

Fear. Whether you’re fifteen or fifty-five, fear is one of those constants in life that we all experience. The passing years may change that which causes you fear, but when in the grip of it, age is taken out of the equation.

Fear lies at the heart of Revolver. It may have ‘Orion Children’s Books’ on the front cover when it’s released later this month, but Sedgwick’s latest novel will resonate as much with adults as it does teenagers.

The story centres around fifteen-year-old Sig Andersson who we meet, in the year 1910, in a remote cabin north of the Arctic Circle. He’s alone, or at least he would be if it wasn’t for the dead body of his father, Einar, lying on a table. Inexplicably, Einar had tried to take his dogs across the frozen lake by their home at a time of year when he knew it would be melting. While Sig’s waiting for the return of his sister and step-mother, who have gone for help, and trying to figure out why his father would have risked his life, there’s a knock on the front door. It’s a stranger, a monster of a man called Wolff, who carries a gun and tells tales of hidden gold... and who is calling in the debt that Einar owed him.

Having set the scene beautifully, teasing the reader with half-morsels of information on which to chew, including the existence of his father’s revolver – ‘a gun is not a weapon’, Einar had told a young Sig. ‘It’s an answer to the questions life throws at you when there’s no one else to help’ – Sedgwick rewinds eleven years to tell the story of how the Andersson family reached this point.

The book weaves between the two timelines, with each revelation in the earlier story increasing the tension in the cabin as the threat from Wolff grows with each passing hour. Sedgwick takes great care in detailing the back story and the development of the relationship between Sig and Einar, particularly in the case of the revolver, which lies hidden in the store room just yards from where Wolff is holding the boy, so much so that the gun becomes a major character in itself, almost calling to Sig, pleading with him to be used.

At a 170-odd pages, Revolver is a lean, mean exercise in menace. Few words are wasted as Sig searches deep within himself for the courage to make a play for the revolver, while trying to buy time from Wolff. The stand-off between the two is like a game of chess, each probing for weaknesses.

Sig is a superb creation, a boy who wants to be a man who finds himself thrust into a situation which offers him that opportunity, and Wolff is a fine sparring partner, although there is a feeling that perhaps Sedgwick held back a little, despite the brutality his antagonist exudes.

Revolver is dark, no question, and as the tension mounts the turning of its pages soon becomes a necessity rather than a desire. But more than that it’s a coming-of-age tale, and an example of how a family’s love can endure against the greatest of odds, including overcoming a fear that leaves you stricken, unable to act in the face of death.