Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Art imitates life in Jennifer duBois' Cartwheel

Cartwheel by Jennifer duBois Cartwheel (24 September 2013) by Jennifer duBois

First up, and as you may already know, Cartwheel is a novel based on the Meredith Kercher/Amanda Knox case. The initial set-up is exactly the same as the real-life case, except the setting is Argentina, not Italy, and the Kercher character, Katy Kellers, is American, not British. The details of the murder (what is known about it, at least) and crime scene are identical. The behaviour of the characters after the murder is, if not exactly the same as the real case, then certainly the same in spirit. (The title refers to the controversial fact that the alleged murderer performed a cartwheel while in custody, an action used as 'proof' of her dismissive and unemotional attitude towards her friend's death.) The subject of the story is the Amanda Knox figure, here a student named Lily Hayes, and the narrative switches between Lily, her father Andrew, her former boyfriend Sebastien, and the prosecutor, Eduardo.

I am not predisposed to like books of this type, which fictionalise real events. I think they can easily be exploitative, and the use of such events to 'inspire' them is more often than not a cheap way to publicise the book itself. I can, therefore, understand why some readers might reject or dislike Cartwheel for these reasons; they are among the reasons I couldn't stand Emma Donoghue's Room - which Cartwheel has inevitably been compared to. It is, however, a hundred times better than that overrated trash. Simply put, Cartwheel broke my fucking heart.

Quite aside from the sensationalism of the premise, this book is an outstanding example of brilliant, careful, expert characterisation. The author's portrayal of Lily in particular is exceptional. In many ways she is not a particularly likeable person, and yet I loved her, simply because she seemed so real. Perhaps I loved her because she is so believably unlikeable, so recognisable as a certain type of young person filled with a naive, ignorant confidence that is both infuriating and endearing. For every unattractive personality trait there is a justification, an explanation, a snippet of history to illustrate her reasoning. The narrative gets under her skin so effectively that you understand her entirely, even though some of her actions are not, ultimately, described or explained. Such is the power of Lily's character that I found myself disliking Katy, even though Katy is outwardly more likeable, and even though, if these were real people, I would undoubtedly get on better with her, and wouldn't like Lily at all. The other characters, too, are beautifully drawn. Andrew's grief and doubt are laid bare - his soul-searching and hand-wringing over how Lily will survive and how the family can ever recover. Sebastien, who could so easily have been an empty love interest, or a plot device to prop up the more important characters of Lily and Katy, is fleshed out in the most interesting, unexpected way - as an irony-laden eccentric, as a person with his own sprawling, complicated backstory, as a boy whose own experience (or lack of experience) and insecurity colours his every interaction with others.

At the risk of sounding like I'm reviewing a YA romance... Sebastien's love for Lily made me want to weep. The awkwardness of it. All the things unsaid; the way we get to see inside the characters' heads and how their emotions never translate into the right words or actions - it's tragic. Lily's misunderstanding about Sebastien and Katy, and how it's never actually set right, because neither of them can articulate how they really feel or bring themselves to just talk about the situation. I think it's one of the most realistic depictions of a young relationship I've ever come across. This is all the more remarkable given that it takes place between an arrogant, shallow girl and a boy/man who is described at one point as a person 'left alone for his entire childhood in this collapsing house with nothing but Evelyn Waugh books to read', and at another, even more amusingly, as 'a post-apocalyptic butler'.

In the end, the murder is by far the least important thing in the book. The outcome remains uncertain, there is no definitive answer about exactly how Katy died, and no attempt to leave this as anything other than open-ended. Even if you have formed a strong opinion (like I did), there is no way to even guess how right, or wrong, you might be. And it doesn't matter, because the characters are the thing. In fact, I am tempted to say it's a pity duBois chose to base her plot on a real crime: the controversial setup may have drawn more attention to the book, but in some ways it works to obscure the beauty of this character-driven novel, an accomplishment a writer of such talent could surely have managed without the need for such a device. It also means the book is generally bracketed as crime fiction, when it actually has little in common with any typical crime novel.

The more I think about this book the more I like it. It's such a great character study. If you don't find the idea offputting, then it is absolutely, definitely recommended.

I received an advance review copy of Cartwheel from the publisher through NetGalley.

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Paperback

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