And it struck him instantly as the most obvious, possibly even the most important question you could ever ask anyone – How were you formed? What forged you? – but no one had ever asked him that before, and for a second he found himself flailing in the dark. It was corrupt. It was beautiful. My parents were the best parents anyone could hope for, and also they were dealers in stolen goods. I was in love with my cousin. I was raised by thieves. I was often happy, but I always wanted something different. – from The Singer’s Gun, page 47 –
Anton Waker, raised by thieves and working for his corrupt cousin Aria selling forged passports and Social Security numbers to illegal aliens, one day decides he no longer wants to live an immoral life. He finds himself a legitimate job and decides to marry his squeaky clean girlfriend, Sophie. But when he agrees to one final job on the island of Ischia, events quickly spin out of control.
Emily St. John Mandel’s second novel begins at the end with State Department investigator Alexandra Broden investigating Anton Waker’s disappearance. The facts are blurry, the characters unformed – the reader feels as confused as Broden. From here, Mandel tells her story in a mostly non-linear style – moving back and forth from past to present to uncover the complicated layers of Anton’s life, and finally bringing into focus the mystery of what happens on the island of Ischia.
At its core, The Singer’s Gun is a mystery, but through the skill of the author, it also becomes a meditation on how the choices we make can define our lives. Mandel’s exploration of the illegal immigration problem through the eyes of the mostly sympathetic character of Anton reveals not only the very human side to the issue, but also the gritty criminal element which preys on those who are most desperate. At first Anton does not see the negative side to his criminal activity.
The business was a success from the first month and Anton loved his job for years. There was no career he could possibly have been better suited to, he thought at first, than the sale of fraudulent Social Security cards to illegal aliens in the city of New York. – from The Singer’s Gun, page 86 –
But later, as he becomes more uncomfortable with his narcissistic cousin Aria and her shady contacts, Anton’s conscience begins to bother him. He begins to examine his life and his moral upbringing, and despite his ongoing affair with a young Canadian girl named Elena, Anton longs for a normal corporate life with a wife and possibly children.
Sophie and the new job together formed the foundation of his new life; between the straight clean lines of a Midtown tower he rose through the ranks, from junior researcher to senior researcher to VP of a research division. His dedication to the company was mentioned in his performance reviews. He directed his team and came home every night to a woman he loved in an apartment filled with music in his favorite neighborhood, until it all came apart at once and he found himself in Dead File Storage Four lying naked on the floor next to his former secretary in the summer heat. – from The Singer’s Gun, page 109 –
Mandel’s writing has both an elegance and a simplicity to it. Her prose is understated yet absorbing. She builds her characters slowly. They are all flawed human beings and none of them are all good or all bad. In short, they are believable and complex – and the reader finds herself deeply immersed in their lives.
The Singer’s Gun explores the idea of identity – Who are we? How are we formed? How do we separate ourselves from our biological bonds and stay true to those we love? Through the character of Anton, the reader sees how one seemingly simple decision can have repercussions which will impact the rest of one’s life.
If there is a flaw in the book it is perhaps with the character of Broden – a woman who neglects her husband and daughter to pursue the truth, and yet at the end seems to lose steam in the pursuit of her prey. I felt Broden could have been more deeply constructed as a character. She seems to play a central role in the book at the beginning, but then becomes almost a minor character at the end.
Despite this minor criticism, The Singer’s Gun is a haunting novel about love, loss, and betrayal which kept my interest from beginning to end.
Recommended for those readers who enjoy literary fiction and mysteries.
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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me from the publisher for review.