Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel

The recording began with a click: the sound of a woman picking up her telephone, which had been tapped the day before the call came in. A man's voice: It's done. There is a sound on the tape here -- the woman's sharp intake of breath -- but all she says in reply is Thank you. We'll speak again soon. He disconnects and she hangs up three seconds later. The woman's name was Aria Waker, and the call had taken place fifteen days earlier. The incoming call came from an Italian cell phone but proved otherwise untraceable. Police were at Aria's apartment forty minutes after the call went through, but she was already gone and she never came back again. [pg 1]

The Singer's Gun by Emily St. John Mandel
Unbridled Books, 2010
Fiction; 288 pgs

From the Publisher:
Everyone Anton Waker grew up with is corrupt. His parents deal in stolen goods and his first career is a partnership venture with his cousin Aria selling forged passports and social security cards to illegal aliens. Anton longs for a less questionable way of living in the world and by his late twenties has reinvented himself as a successful middle manager. Then a routine security check suggests that things are not quite what they appear. And Aria begins blackmailing him to do one last job for her. But the seemingly simple job proves to have profound and unexpected repercussions.

As Anton’s carefully constructed life begins to disintegrate around him, he’s forced to choose between loyalty to his family and his desires for a different kind of life. When everyone is willing to use someone else to escape the past, it is up to Anton, on the island of Ischia, to face the ghosts that travel close behind him.

I first was introduced to Emily St. John Mandel's writing in Last Night in Montreal, which nearly knocked my socks off. The writing was superb and the story was intriguing. Even so, I was not sure what to expect with her latest, The Singer's Gun. I was eager to give it a try though. Like with her first book, I hesitate to describe it (which is why you are presented with the publisher blurb above). There is so much to The Singer's Gun. On the surface it sounds like a crime fiction novel, but it really is more about the characters: about Anton Waker in particular, and his struggle to lead a law abiding life and also about Elena who is also struggling to form her own identity and live life as she desires.

I was struck by how similar Elena and Anton are and yet also how different. Both want different lives than they are born into. Both are going through the motions of life. Anton comes close to realizing his dream, only to have it disintegrate. Elena, in her effort to be free of normalcy and routine, ended up doing exactly what she didn't want to do in the first place; at least, until her own life, based in falsehood, was uprooted too.

Aria's appearance in the novel was sparse, but the reader gets a good idea of her background and importance in Anton's life. She is resourceful and clever. She is also greedy. I felt sorry for the young Aria, but even then there was something about her that warned me to keep my distance.

The story is revealed to the reader layer by layer, and not necessarily in chronological order. The novel opens as Alex Broden with the State Department's Security Service is in the middle of her investigation, searching for Anton Waker who has disappeared. From there we go back in time to the day Anton arrives at his office only to discover his secretary , Elena, has been reassigned and he no longer has any responsibilities. He suspects something is up, something related to a recent background check, but he isn't quite sure. And no one around him will give him any answers.

The novel raises questions about personal responsibility, about how one's upbringing influences the direction our lives take, and about the choices we make in life and the consequences that follow. It also touches on morality, both in its clarity as well as how ambiguous it can be. Nothing is quite as it seems.

Like with The Last Night in Montreal, the author caught me in her spell with her subtle style and simple yet lyrical prose in The Singer's Gun. I still find myself thinking about the book days later, wondering about the characters and where they might be now.

Rating: * (Very Good)

Be sure to check out this excerpt from the book on the author's website and learn more about the author and her books on her website.

Source: Review book provided by the publisher.

© 2010, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. I just bought this one on my Kindle, and will probably get tackled this summer on my travels. I didn't read Montreal, but decided that I couldn't sit by and listen to all the rave reviews again!

  2. I skimmed your review because I want to read it (soon). Nice to know you liked it. I haven't read her first book but I've heard good things about the author.

  3. I won a copy of this one recently and I'm looking forward to reading it. Your review makes me want to even more. I'll take a look about her first book too.

  4. I am going to be reading this one, and since I loved Last Night in Montreal, I think this will be an excellent read for me as well! So glad you liked it! It sounds like you really connected with the characters and that the story was really engrossing for you. Great review!!

  5. Sounds like an author and a book that I would like to check out.

  6. I read an excerpt from this through DearReader.com not too long ago, and that whetted my appetite for the rest of the story. Your review has just reinforced it - thanks, Wendy!

  7. Wendy,

    This one sounds intriguing. I'm not sure when I will get to it, but it has been on my list. Thanks 4 the great review, and making me want to edge it up :)

  8. I loved her first book too and am so eager to read this one. Glad you liked it.

  9. I really, really want to read this- great review, Wendy!

  10. Thanks very much for your review! I'm glad you enjoyed the book.

  11. I'm adding this author to my list and will look for her first book as well. Thanks, Wendy!

  12. Wow. The text from page 1 sucked me right in. I want to read this. Thanks for the review, Wendy!

  13. Sandy - I hope you enjoy it, Sandy. I think it's something you might like. :-)

    Mary - I really like Mandel's writing style. She's so creative both in writing style and story. I do hope you enjoy the book when you get to it!

    Kay - Congratulations on the win! I hope you enjoy this one as much as I did. And definitely do pick up Last Night in Montreal if you get the chance.

    Zibilee - I did feel a connection with the characters, especially Elena. Enjoy the book when you get to it!

    Kathleen - I hope you are able to, Kathleen!

    Florinda - I really like the author's style. It's unique. I hope you do enjoy this one when you read it.

  14. Diane - It was a good one. I'm glad I had the chance to read it!

    Violet - I hope you enjoy this one too!

    Carrie - I do recommend this one and hope you like it when you get to it!

    Emily - Thank you so much for stopping by. This review doesn't do the book justice, I'm afraid. I can't wait to see what you come up with next.

    Jenclair - I hope you enjoy her books when you get to them, Jenclair!

    Alice - It does, doesn't it? The book was good from the first page!

  15. I've added both Last Night in Montreal and The Singer's Gun to my list. Thanks for introducing me to them!

  16. I thought this was a terrific sophomore effort--I liked it better than Last Night in Montreal even. I couldn't put it down!

  17. I still haven't read Last Night in Montreal, so now I have two by her to read. :) Thanks for your encouraging thoughts.

  18. Charley - I hope you enjoy them when you get to them!

    Lisa - It was a great book, I agree. I think I did like her first book just a tad bit more, but just by half a centimeter. :-)

    Joy - I'll be interested to read your thoughts on either this or her first book, Joy.


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