Alligator by Lisa Moore

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Alligator by Lisa Moore

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A diverse mixture of characters wind up in remote Nova Scotia, all of them just trying to get ahead. None of them strictly on the side of morality and/or the law. As their lives converge a series of events slowly builds to a dramatic conclusion that will tie them all together.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: June 2007
Publisher: Virago Press Ltd
ISBN: 978-1844081301

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I try never to read the blurb of a novel, before I read the whole thing. Blurb-writing is a dying art... and too many give far too much away. Reading the blurb after reading the book isn't completely danger-free however... it can, as with Alligator, make you wonder if you simply weren't paying proper attention.

Lisa Moore's Alligator moves with the swiftness of a gator in attack mode... it says.

I didn't think so.

Thanks then to the Telegraph's reviewer for these words: Slow moving, tranquil, yet posed to attack violently...

Yes... that's how it is.

Set in Newfoundland - not as the first edition of this review had it Nova Scotia - but which is still not - so far as I know - prime alligator country, Moore's book has all the sultry languidity of the swamps. Life is slow... but inexorable. Effect follows cause with that slow dull inevitability that builds a tension somewhere off-stage, which sits heavy in the air like an approaching thunder storm that may never truly break.

I confess that I spent most of the book wondering if we'd ever get to the point and whether I'd care... but when we did (Moore saves the impact almost to the very end) I was brought up sharp. Of all the outcomes, I hadn't predicted what in a way is actually inevitable. Top marks for dénouement Ms Moore. Not something I often give.

To start with the negative: I'm beginning to weary of the multi-strand novel. Born of soap-opera and serial-drama television, we are increasingly expected to follow several stories in the written form as well. With no common starting point, we're pitched into the lives of the various characters whose paths will cross (or sometimes not) and have to keep all the story-boards aligned until the merge point at which we can establish that ah, yes, this is in a sense a single story. I know we do this all the time watching TV... so I'm not sure why it doesn't work quite so well on the page. Perhaps it's the lack of the visual clues... the having to very quickly form visual pictures to enable us to keep the various characters separate in our minds and fix their relationship (if any) to the others. In real life and on screen we have mannerisms and backdrops that help us to establish these wider, deeper, images of people without specific engagement... to construct the same depth on the page would require chapters of character study that would wreck any attempt at concise story-telling.

And in the visual media, the stories run concurrently, we slip from one to the next and back again in minutes or even seconds (as we do in the real world)... in print we have to focus for a time on one, and then on another, and another... time in which we are forgetting that which isn't being reinforced from before.

Be that as it may... Moore requires us to meet the cast.

Colleen: actually Colleen fails to introduce herself. She tells us about the Alligator man. Something about an industrial safety video and the man struggling with the alligator... the alligator won. She also introduces us to Madeleine, her aunt.

Madeleine: makes films. Any kind of films... it's all she's done, all she ever wanted to do. She's travelled the world doing wildlife and documentary, but also slummed with adverts, training videos... whatever... but now with age and heart failure threatening, she wants to finally construct her magnum opus "better than Bergman".

Frank is just trying to get by, until he has enough money to get on. He works hard. He has focus. But dreams and dangers can upset all of our plans.

Valentin has jumped ship from a marooned Russian cargo vessel and is the new breed of entrepreneur - the breed in which the 'taking' part of that noun has precedence. It's only business.

Beverley: Colleen's mother and Madeleine's sister... living in the shadow of both.

Isobel: barely middle-aged but with more of a past than a future, especially so far as her acting career is concerned... the talent lingers, the insight is strong, but... there are always buts in this life... but the echoes of Sunset Boulevard should not ring so loudly at such an age.

And then, again, there is Colleen. Disenchanted youth personified. She hasn't had the easiest of childhoods, but she hasn't really had it hard either. She has her Aunt Madeleine as a role model. Whatever road this child takes, she will do it with passion and commitment... all the passion and commitment that can lead you to be pouring sugar into the engines of the clear-felling bulldozers into an attempt to save the pine marten. Passion is the key. The need for excitement. To push the boundaries, just to see if you can. Contrite in the face of the law, she continues to yield to the urge to breach its bounds.

All are characters on the edge... and some are way beyond it. Moore manages the nigh-impossible in that she manages to redeem all of them in some measure. There are cores of honour even in the worst of them... hearts not entirely made of ice.

She takes their lives and weaves reasonable connections between them, and sets in train a series of events which can only end where it does... even though I couldn't see that until afterwards.

If that weren't enough...

... there is the take on modern society. Everything speaks of isolation. Not the geographical isolation of the Newfoundland coast or the swamplands... but the isolation of the individual. The self-containment which seems to be the modern disease, the disconnectedness... the passions and causes that seem to create barriers rather than breach them. Cover notes make comparisons with Holden Caulfield... L'étranger stalked the edge of my consciousness...

... then, ultimately, there is simply the imagery. Lisa Moore has such a way with words. She tells the story in something approaching idiom. It is clear universal modern English, with just a few tweaks of verb-position and missing preposition for you to create an accent around It starts off there's an alligator with its jaws open...

And can she paint a picture! ... the windshield made a fist of itself. A fist of glass lined with silver wrinkles and cracks, and the fist punched Colleen in the face. A slowness in those moments when time slows and smash! which is how such moments usually end. She describes the notes from a piano as though alive in their movement around a room... describes a man as smelling of snow and nighttime and childhood and lost love and she could smell the cold dripping wet titanium bicycle. In lyrical prose she imbues the ordinary with poetry and through plot strips the awesome to its vulgar conceptions.

Whatever my personal misgivings on structure, I suspect that this could become a minor classic.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending this book to The Bookbag.

If you've enjoyed this book you might also like Coastliners by Joanne Harris.

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Kristin (surname removed at writer's request) said:

I find it very hard to take this review seriously. The novel is set in St. John's, Newfoundland, not Nova Scotia as the reviewer would have us believe. If the reviewer can't even get the province straight, why should we believe anything else she writes. Perhaps the editors of this review should pay a little bit more attention too.

Lesley replied:

As a Brit not yet lucky enough to have travelled in Canada, I'm happy to have my geography corrected. Apologies to the author and to anyone in either Province who might have been offended by my confusion.

And yes, I should have paid more attention to the detail of the setting. I've duly asked that my error be corrected in the body of the review, which remains otherwise unchanged - because that detail does not change my over-all assessment of the book. My recommendation stands. As to why you should 'believe' it - you shouldn't, it is merely an opinion - an honest one, but not necessarily one that any given individual will agree with, even if had got my facts straight.