American Elsewhere – Robert Jackson Bennett
I love discovering new authors. Even more so when I discover their debut novels before they become mainstream. Robert Jackson Bennet’s first two novels, Mr Shivers and The Company Man were well regarded but broadly flew under the radar. His excellent third novel, The Troupe, garnered a bit more attention. With his newly released 5th novel City of Stairs, receiving a lot of buzz, it appears RJB is about to deservedly hit the big time.
I thought it was about time I read his 4th novel!!
Ex-cop Mona Bright has been living a hard couple of years on the road, but when her estranged father dies, she finds she's had a home all along: a little house her deceased mother once owned in Wink, New Mexico.
And though every map denies Wink exists, Mona finds they're wrong: not only is Wink real, it is the perfect American small town, somehow retaining all the Atomic Age optimism the rest of world has abandoned.
But the closer Mona gets to her mother's past, the more she understands that the people in Wink are very, very different - and what's more, Mona begins to recognize her own bond to this strange place, which feels more like home every day.
RJB writes stories with big ideas. Mr Shivers was a great read until the ending got a bit confusing. With The Troupe I was in love with the writing and the intimate relationships until it suddenly explored fantastical concepts that are almost too difficult to comprehend. That is not to say they are not written well or difficult to understand, it is just RJB takes conventional thinking and stretches it so it is hard to imagine.
You know those videos you see on YouTube where they show our planets and then they show how much bigger the sun is in comparison. Then the screen slides along and there is an even bigger star that makes the sun look tiny and so on and so forth. Every time I read an RJB book I feel like that. With American Elsewhere he amplifies that feeling.
Now before I put any of you off by saying that, let me stress this is a brilliant novel. Yes the ideas might require blue sky thinking but the writing is top notch. The science never blinds you and I always felt I had a good grasp of what is going on.
The novel focuses on Mona who inherits a house from her mother’s will. Mona has grown up believing her mum is crazy but is intrigued by the house and seeks to discover a more about her mother’s life before she had Mona.
Enter the secret town of Wink – the true star of the novel. Its inhabitants are odd to say the least. Everyone in the town are a little too perfect and a little too content to live the great American dream.
When Mona arrives she interrupts a funeral, an odd occurrence in Wink. As a result some of the neighbourhood are bitter towards her, whilst others avoid her altogether. Whatever the behaviour it is obvious they are all keeping one big secret.
Mona is a likeable character. As a former police officer, she can handle herself well and although inquisitive, she strikes the correct balance between arrogant and respectful to make you want to root for her.
The other characters are not as well fleshed out but with good reason. RJB keeps them deliberatively mysterious without ever infuriating the reader. The plot is revealed piece by careful piece and unfolds naturally. There is no big revelation but rather information is gleamed by events that occur the more Mona probes into the town’s history and secret.
The narrative is excellent. RJB has such an easy going writing style. There were times I had to remind myself that I was not reading a Stephen King book, as RJB effortlessly introduced characters and makes you interested in them.
The end of the book is about as hard science fiction as you can get. Normally this would be a massive turn off for me, but I loved it.
All in all, RJB hits another winner and I for one can’t wait to read City of Stairs.
My rating: 9.2