The Shifting Pools by Zoe Duncan

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The Shifting Pools by Zoe Duncan

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 2.5/5
Reviewer: Phil Lewis
Reviewed by Phil Lewis
Summary: A valiant but ultimately confused attempt at mixing literary and fantasy fiction in an exploration of grief and the subconscious.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 352 Date: July 2017
Publisher: Lightning Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1785630361

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Perhaps the most overused phrase in fiction publishing is life-affirming, closely followed by human condition. The Shifting Pools takes this to a whole new level. Its blurb boasts that it is charged throughout with the beautiful urgency of life, whatever that means. It isn't. And that's the problem. This isn't a bad book, but it sets itself up to fail. A cardinal rule of writing is focus on the small stuff. If you set out to write a life affirming novel that answers all the big questions, you'll struggle. And it is this trap that Zoe Duncan falls into. In her quest for profundity she loses her way.

The Shifting Pools tells the story of Eve, a mid/late 20s woman living in London struggling to keep her traumatic past beneath the surface. The novel flits between Eve's desolate London life, filled with soulless nightclubs and anonymous sex; fragments of her dreams, and an imaginary world called Enanti which Eve seems to accidentally enter whilst out for her morning swim. We discover fairly early on that the trauma in her past is indeed fairly traumatic - the loss of her whole family in an unnamed war. The rest of the novel explores how the past effects the present, how a person can carry on after such trauma, and how our subconscious arises in everyday life.

It's a daring structure, with elements of fantasy mixed with the stark bleakness of Eve's London life. I thought the best of the novel lay in the descriptions of the mechanical routine that Eve has built to avoid confronting her past. For me, this would have been enough. But this is a book steeped in Jungian psychology, so before long we're in Enanti, Eve's imaginary world filled with annoyingly derivative concepts like the shadow beast and the craven. This is where I started to lose interest.

The problem is that we're not given enough decent character development to really care about this imaginary world. It's populated with lifelessly benevolent figures who give vague eulogies about Eve's supposed path. The metaphors take the term extended to a new level, and become increasingly obvious and strained. You don't have to be a therapist to work out that the wounds that Eve sees on the backs of her new Enanti-dwelling friends will later become wings, or that Eve will eventually develop her own pair and soar over the land, rising above the shadow beast and so on and so forth. You get the idea.

The other big problem I have with this book is that the writing just isn't engaging enough to carry off what is an extremely difficult premise. To set a novel partly in the protagonist's subconscious is tough. You need a deftness of touch that Zoe Duncan just doesn't have. Fiction is littered with books that bring a character's subconscious out through their actions, and there's a very good reason for that. It drives the plot forward; it's engaging and illuminating. Zoe Duncan's approach of having characters literally explain that the subconscious exists, that it drives people in ways they don't fully understand, makes for dry reading. Worse still, the dialogue is often wooden, and at times feels like a half-baked self-help manual favoured by the woman in the office prone to loud proclamations of spirituality.

Maybe I'm not the target reader. Yet even for me, there are glimpses of something promising here. The greyness and never-ending banality of grief and depression is captured extremely well. I was genuinely disappointed when this merged into a deluge of imagery and abstraction. I wanted this book to impart a desire to dash to the library and pull a primer on Jung off the shelf. Instead, I'm left with the impression that Jung makes Freud look like an exact clinical science. I doubt that this was the author's intention.

I'm sure some people will love this book. Unfortunately, I am not and never will be one of them.

Further reading: This book owes a huge debt to Kazuo Ishiguro, particularly his 2015 novel The Buried Giant. Readers may also enjoy Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro

Buy The Shifting Pools by Zoe Duncan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Shifting Pools by Zoe Duncan at

Buy The Shifting Pools by Zoe Duncan at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Shifting Pools by Zoe Duncan at


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