Sunday, July 14, 2013
*Tomorrow City, by Kirk Kjeldsen
Signal 8 Press, 2013
copy from publisher -- thank you!
My thanks to Pinky at Signal 8 Press for my copy, and apologies for waiting so long to get to it. I've been trying to get through the books that are shortlisted for this year's CWA International Dagger before tackling anything else, so a very heartfelt apology to you, Pinky (the same to Ben Winters and to the wonderful people at Soho -- I'll be reading all of your books before the month is out).
The past catches up to ex-con Brendan Lavin, who gets out of prison and tries to reinvent himself in order to avoid going back. Brendan owns a bakery which isn't doing too well, but still he hangs in there. He's come to a low point -- there's enough money to pay one bill out of many, and he has no money for fun things. While he's struggling, he receives a visit from his girlfriend's cousin, one of his old partners in crime. Brendan went down for the last job they pulled, kept his mouth shut and in return they took care of him. Once free, Brendan had no desire to be around them -- but now his past is looking at him in the face. The cousin, Tommy, offers him a job with his old crew, which Brendan turns down flat -- but when he can't pay the increased rent the landlord demands, he has second thoughts and goes back to the old life and his former cohorts in crime. The job gets botched pretty badly, with Tommy ending up dead and desperate, Brendan decides to make a clean getaway and start over somewhere else. China is about as remote as he can think of, so he steals a passport and makes his way to a new place and a new life. Things go well for several years -- he has started over with a new name, has a family and has built up a good business, but eventually, Brendan's past manages to catch up to him, threatening him and his new life.
Kjeldsen has written a good story with a main character you can't help but feel sorry for, even though he's done some pretty bad things in his time. Brendan's mom was a heroin addict, his dad bailed, he hooked up with the wrong people and went to prison for his crimes, but at the same time, he is determined to make something of himself and turn his life around. You can actively sense the frustration and the feeling of utter hopelessness that pressures him into becoming a criminal again; later, his conscience and his pulled-apart self often comes to him in the form of dead Tommy. Yet there's also the Brendan who's later become an active dad, and who will do anything for his family, especially when the situation gets pretty dire. Kjeldsen, who lives there, obviously loves Shanghai and has a great deal of insight into its character -- he evokes the city as a place of both past, present and future, a "disparate" city that all comes together "into one unified and dynamic system, inseparable, and complementary parts of a whole...". Here Shanghai hits all ends of the spectrum -- between migrants with their wooden carts on one hand and "rich Westerners and locals in gleaming new Maseratis and Bentleys," on the other; with gated communities and "luxury penthouses" juxtaposed against the "corrugated metal shacks" and shelters made of old shipping containers. There's also a lot of action in this book -- but here's the thing -- all of that action and emotional buildup throughout the novel comes to a really quick ending that reads more like a chronological account than a continuing story. It's like there's a series of events that buzz by so quickly that it's almost a "then this happened, then this happened, then this happened," kind of thing, with very little to flesh out events, not really keeping in line with the way the rest of the book read. Normally I get upset when authors use a lot of extraneous verbiage to pad out their stories; here I wanted more. I think if the author had added more of Brendan's post-Shanghai experiences into the mix, keeping in tune with his storytelling skills up to that point, it would have been much better, finishing off with more of a bang. One more thing -- the Chinese word "nai nai" (奶奶) refers to the paternal grandmother, and when Brendan talks about his daughter's Chinese grandmother, he uses that term. Just a little thing, really, but it grated.
Considering it's a first effort, it's a really good one but in this case, less is definitely not more. Recommended. I hope Mr. Kjeldsen does well and that he starts another book!