by Robert Jackson Bennett
336 pages, Orbit
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
We’re barely three months into 2010 and already I think I’ve found my candidate for book of the year. Mr Shivers, Robert Jackson Bennett’s debut novel is both a dark, brutal journey through America during the Great Depression and an examination of what drives men to commit terrible deeds. Thought provoking and powerful, Mr Shivers is one of those books which stand head and shoulders above the standard horror / fantasy fare.
Following grief stricken Marcus Connelly on his quest to find the man who killed his daughter, Bennett takes his readers through train yards, sprawling tent cities and dust-blown ghost towns onto stranger, more surreal landscapes as the book draws to a close. Unremittingly dark in tone, Mr Shivers is not a cheerful novel, nor does it end with the slightest hint of optimism. Teetering on the brink of war, Bennett shows us that the post-depression world is not going to get any better. Naturally, this sort of book won’t be to everyone’s taste but those who can handle the novel’s oppressively gloomy tone will find themselves immersed in a thoroughly gripping tale of loss, revenge and a country in tatters.
Those who have read The Grapes of Wrath will be familiar with the depression-era American landscape but in the hands of Bennett it takes on a mythical, otherworldly quality which is original enough to prevent close comparisons with John Steinbeck’s masterpiece. The moral ambiguity of the central characters means that whilst we follow their quest for the mysterious, elusive figure known amongst hobos as Mr Shivers, we remain somewhat detached from them. The closer they come to finding Mr Shivers, the further they stray from the civilised world. In their relentless search for a monster, they lose their grip on what it means to be human and become monsters themselves.
Bennett shows a real skill at manipulating the emotions of his readers. He is able to switch between moments of heart-wrenching sadness and shocking brutality without missing a beat. Though a relatively short novel, by the time you reach the final pages you are left feeling completely drained. As already mentioned, there are no happy endings, there is no reprieve for the characters we have followed on their arduous journey. A bold move for a first time writer, but one that pays off... I can’t think of a book that has ended with such a crushing note of pessimism. It is audacious, merciless and bleak, but it works.
Robert Jackson Bennett has created a lean, mean novel that is deserving of far more publicity than it has hitherto received. The dark subject matter may put off a number of readers but those who persevere will find it chilling, intelligent and haunting. Don’t miss it.
Hereward L. M. Proops