Castle by J Robert Lennon

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Castle by J Robert Lennon

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: But for the final denouement this eerie exposition of one man’s exploration of the mystery hidden in the depth of the forest, and in the depth of himself, would be perfect.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Graywolf Press
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1555975593

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In the late winter of 2006 Erich Loesch returns to Gerrysburg, NY (Pop 2310 and falling) and buys six hundred or so acres of undeveloped land on the edge of the county.

Loesch grew up in Gerrysburg, but he's been away a long time. The place hasn't changed much except through long, slow decline. There are vacant lots where he remembers homes, businesses, amenities. There are one or two people who remember him, or remember his family. They remember what happened to the family, or heard about what happened to him afterwards.

Small town America. For those of us on the other side of the pond it's a short hand for an idealised place long since gone if it ever existed, and a mentality shaped by old-world-values, a mixture of free-gossip and secret information, all leavened with a large measure of distrust: distrust of strangers naturally, but also of those who went away and think they can come back.

The land that Loesch buys is mostly forest – deep dark dank and every bit as nightmarish as the fairy-tales of childhood. In keeping with the theme, there is also at its heart a secret castle. The castle is not shown on the map, it lies hidden like Area 51 behind a blank on the survey, the only certain knowledge is that it is excluded from the deeds. The owner's name is redacted from all reports relating to the property.

There is a house though. A good solid redeemable house. A "fixer-upper" as the realtor points out, but then Loesch is nothing if not a fixer-upper. He lists his previous business as "logistics" and with a will and an attitude that antagonises just about everyone he comes across he acquires the necessary kit and sets about his renovations.

He makes remarkable headway in an unbelievably short time, but then suspension of disbelief is a pre-requisite for enjoyment this fantastical tale. Do it. It pays.

Having got the house into a semblance of habitability, our narrator has to tackle the mystery of the castle and off he sets into the disorientation of the deep dark. What he finds there is a horrific reminder of things past, long past, but also a trigger for acknowledging things much more recent. And all of it is personal.

In Loesch, Lennon has created a protagonist who is SO cocksure and who demonstrates every reason to be so, while at the same time coming across as a right pain in the proverbial. He is not a likeable person. Every encounter with the townsfolk has him self-justifying to the reader with an arrogance that at once hints at a history that gives him the right to think and feel the way he does, but also had me wanting to whap him round the skull with a piece of 2 by 4.

But then there is whatever it is that the townsfolk know, and the reader doesn't.

And there are also those moments when he is unbelievably vulnerable to his own imaginings.

The net effect is to have the story told from the viewpoint of someone who never really settles into the role of hero or anti-hero, which in turn unsettles the reader. In the context of the story and its structure this works surprisingly well.

Everything is uncertain.

Stylistically, "Castle" is a masterpiece of the classical, slow, psychological thriller. If (when) rendered in film "thriller" will, I have no doubt, be rendered as "horror" playing up the graphic violence that haunts the later chapters. That will do a disservice to the original, for here the violence is doled out in the precise measure of graphic restraint that gives the reader enough material to work with, whilst holding to Hitchcock's maxim that the audience can conjure up more horrors than the author can depict.

I loved this book. Up to a point. That point arrives very specifically at the beginning of Chapter 19 (of 20). I can well understand why the author wanted to pick up the events that he does in his final two chapters, and it is possible that he always foresaw everything that goes before simply as back-story to them, but for me it mars the whole. Up until this point we have something well on the "realism" side of "magical realism" with episodes that may or may not be real or memory or dream. Everything hangs together on the person of the narrator and is embedded in the place and the landscape and its very specific recent past. Then we're jolted out into another place, another concept which, while coherent, detracts rather than adds. I'd rather have been left hanging at the end of Chapter 18 – or had the rationale spread thinly and tantalising throughout the whole and a more concise denouement.

So, on balance, 90% brilliant – but so close to being perfect. Read it anyway!

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

Further reading suggestion: For more evil doings in backwoods America you might try Alison Buck’s Abiding Evil. You might also enjoy The Good Wife's Castle by Roland Vernon.

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