Seconds Out by Martin Kohan

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Seconds Out by Martin Kohan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Laura Bailey
Reviewed by Laura Bailey
Summary: Seconds Out is very much about individuals, about breaking down the barriers and boxes that define people, to find that if we are all different, then we are all the same. This is a novel that requires a lot of work from its reader, but it gives a lot in return.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 224 Date: August 2010
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846686375

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Seconds Out is a complex and somewhat confusing novel. It is made up of a series of very short scenes, which swap continually between narrator, time, person and place. This makes it a bit difficult to read, especially at the beginning as the reader works out which characters belong in which times and places. The various threads of the story are told from three different points in time.

The first of those points is 1923, where we follow the story of a boxing match, or more specifically, the point at which one of the boxers gets knocked out of the ring. This story is told a second at a time and lasts for the whole novel. We are also shown a number of other stories from this time, including that of the man photographing the boxing match, and the referee who allows it to continue.

The second point in time is the anniversary of the beginning of a newspaper, for which the editor had told his journalists to each rewrite a story from 1923. We follow these journalists as their research unearths an old news story that took place on the night of the boxing match, a mystery that colours the rest of their lives.

The third time point is told in first person, where the only surviving man from the original group of journalists makes one last attempt to solve the story, the mystery of the stranger found hanged in his hotel room.

I do wish that some of the scenes had lasted a little bit longer, in order to make it easier to get into the book. Because of the 'bitty' nature of this kind of constant scene swapping this is not the kind of book that I found hard to put down. I felt that had each scene been a bit longer then it would have done more to entice the reader.

The author's writing style is subtle and unobtrusive, yet carries the reader along, and gets into each character and situation completely. This means that after the first fifty pages or so, once the reader has got to know the characters, it becomes easy to differentiate between the times and narrators, despite a great deal of unattributed dialogue. The author's natural writing style also means that each story feels like a window into someone else's world, as opposed to a work of fiction, and is full of details that make the characters seem real. As each story unfolds, the significance it has to the rest of the plot is unclear, and most of the stories feel like an aside at first, which is also one of the reasons the novel is hard to get into. However, as the stories go on and the connections between these people's lives becomes clearer the tension in the novel builds until the novel's climax results in a moment of complete clarity.

The climax of the novel is unusually calm, which is perfectly in tune with the tone of the rest of it. It seems to be saying that life, entwined, and weird, is something that will go marching on whatever happens to all the tiny individuals that make up the big events of the world, and as the characters allow the results of their actions to wash over them, so must the reader allow the ending to do the same.

Although Seconds Out asks a lot from its reader, as it requires a lot of work on the readers' side, it rewards the reader with a new impression of their own place in the world, and that is the hallmark of a successful novel.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: It is difficult to think of anything that is a lot like this novel, however if you liked Seconds Out then you could perhaps try Rhyming Life and Death by Amos Oz, another literary exploration of how it is individuals that make up a world.

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