Donnie wants to be a screenwriter but actually writes fawning film reviews for the local paper, run by his wife, Sammy. They are rich, complacent, happy, but their son, Walt, is upset because their dog is lost. "We'll start with the dog," Donnie tells us, and we do: Herby is found in the snow, utterly eviscerated, and the tension ratchets up to screaming point from there, as snow and menace and murder gather outside their perfect home.
Donnie's first-person narrative is, rather obviously, scattered with literary asides: he has read Updike and Ballard, has learned – we are told in case we haven't got "the message" – about "ironic distance" and the "unreliable narrator". This is to make the contrast with the interspersed story of young Donnie, uneducated, dirt poor, and part, as a child growing up in Scotland, of something Very, Very Bad. Is the past he thought he'd left behind catching up with him? Well, yes, in the tradition of many a good thriller, it just might be. The Henry VI quote used as an epigraph – "if I digged up thy forefathers' graves, and hung their rotten coffins up in chains, it could not slake mine ire, nor ease my heart" – is very apt here.
Niven knows how to write a haunting, suspenseful and disturbing story. His big "reveal" is not the most surprising however, and his writing and metaphors are occasionally rather clunky (Walt's "mittens dangled on strings from his sleeves, hung men, ghost hands echoing the real ones").
Ultimately though, for me, the change of gear in Cold Hands – from psychological study in guilt and paranoia to all-out violence – is too abrupt; as if Niven got to a point where he’d exhausted the notions of past and reinvention, and so decided instead to go full-on bonkers with the second half of the novel.
There are wilfully sadistic scenes here, with Donnie’s desperation to protect his family against impossible odds reminiscent of the equally disturbing Austrian movie Funny Games… and it is here that the Canadian wilderness comes into its own, as the characters find themselves playing out the denouement in a remote cabin, in the middle of a night-time blizzard that even helicopters struggle to reach…
All in all an okay thriller if you like that sort of thing, that plays out as expected. Trainspotting author and fellow Scot Irvine Welsh, declared it to be the "most cleverly constructed and incendiary thriller" he's ever read in the publisher's blurb. Really? I think Welsh must have imbibed some of the substances his protagonists are so fond of when he wrote that…
Right now, I push on eastwards, to Toronto in the Ontario Province. This is a stark contract to the remote wilderness settings previously explored, being the most populous city in Canada at nearly three million (indeed it is often mistaken for Canada’s capital, which is actually Ottowa).
Rather than a pricey three days bus/train trip I get a direct flight from Regina straight to Toronto in just three hours. I shall spend my time in Toronto courtesy of the novel Six Metres of Pavement by Farzana Doctor, winner of the 2012 LAMBDA Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction and of the 2011 Rainbow Awards. A sense of the novel can be found in this Library Thing review:
“Six Metres of Pavement tells the story of divorced Ismail Boxwala, who continues to struggle with the role he played in his daughter's accidental death two decades ago. He drinks too much, and is largely isolated from his community. Slowly, he regains happiness through two women: Fatima, a young woman shunned by her family because of her sexual orientation, and Celia, a widow who moves in with her daughter across the street. This is a story about friendship and chosen families.”
It sounds like an interesting and poignant set of character studies. We shall see…