Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Book review: Every Contact Leaves a Trace by Elanor Dymott

Every Contact Leaves a Trace (2012) by Elanor Dymott

I've mentioned before - on numerous occasions, I think - that I'm not keen on love stories. This doesn't mean I'm a killjoy about romance: I like reading about love, but it has to be realistically portrayed. To enjoy a fictional romance, I have to believe in the characters, feel for them, root for them: get this right and it's one of the best things fiction can do. But too often I feel like authors think they can just tell their readers the relationship between two characters is a great love story, rather than doing anything to prove it. Too often books feature 'star-crossed' relationships that just wouldn't happen in real life. Too often these elements ruin or at least taint the rest of the story. Every Contact Leaves a Trace, a book I had sky-high hopes for, is, sadly, no exception.

Our protagonist and narrator is Alex, a successful lawyer who studied at Worcester College, Oxford. While there, he met a fellow student named Rachel, with whom he enjoyed a brief affair one summer. After graduating, Alex doesn't see Rachel again for over a decade, although he constantly thinks about her and hopes to see her on the streets of London, where he now lives. Then, at a friend's wedding, he finds himself seated across from Rachel. The next day, they decide to get married. Some months after their wedding, Rachel is brutally murdered during a visit to their old college. Devastated, Alex sets out to discover the truth behind how this came to happen to her, and in the process he discovers there was much he did not know about his wife.

I surely can't be alone in thinking that isn't romantic for a successful, wealthy, highly intelligent, cultured and presumably attractive man to remain fixated on a girl from university for so many years afterwards. It's weird, and kind of unbelievable. It isn't romantic that Rachel would want to marry him so suddenly and then appear to be so deeply in love with him immediately. Again, it's weird, and very unbelievable. And there's absolutely nothing strange or mysterious about Alex discovering that Rachel had a lot of secrets - it's a fact that he barely knew her. Aside from which, we're told that Rachel a) refused to ever discuss the past and b) snapped and shouted at Alex whenever he tried to ask her about the ONE family member that's a part of her life. All of which left me wondering what, exactly, it was that he expected? I found this 'romance' so odd and unbelievable that I could barely believe it was supposed to be taken seriously; adding to this negativity was the fact that neither Alex nor Rachel were portrayed as likeable people. Early in the story, I had several theories about Alex's reliability as a narrator, which turned out to be incorrect - I presume the reader is supposed to sympathise with him, more's the pity.

Enough of the bad points. I'm dwelling on them perhaps a little more than is necessary because I'm angry that they tarnished a story that might otherwise have become a genuine favourite. This is a rich, atmospheric book, filled with layers of intrigue and emotional turmoil, set against a meticulously detailed background which is a tantalising mixture of academia and debauchery. When Alex listens to the tale told by Harry, Rachel's former tutor, the author's style really comes into its own - I found this past narrative, in which we learn about Rachel's student days as part of an exceptionally close-knit group of three, far more engaging than the present-day narrative.

In spite of its one big flaw, this was absolutely my kind of book, and I really did savour reading it. This is a narrative that takes its time to unfold, lingering over small details and lengthy ruminations, but this is in no way a bad thing. The slower-than-average pace suits the twisting journey of the plot, told in suitably elegant prose. Every Contact Leaves a Trace is a great debut, and being a debut, I'm willing to forgive its imperfections. The main problem, in fact, is that the rest of it is so good, the problematic 'love story' stands out all the more. Despite the fact that this review has probably ended up sounding more negative than positive, I do thoroughly recommend this book.

Rating: 8/10

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