The Singer’s Gun – Book Review

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.

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    • Aarti on May 7, 2010 at 11:52

    This book got a lot of coverage during the first Spotlight series (well, not this book only- but the author, in general) and it sounded so good from that! I’m glad Mandel is getting lots of attention 🙂

  1. Sounds like the book for me since I love literary fiction and mysteries. Great review, as always.

  2. Awesome review! Very insightful and thought provoking. I have read St. John Mandel’s first book, and thought she did an excellent job with it, so I am really eager to try this one as well. It sounds as though she gives a very in-depth account of her character’s lives and conundrums and I bet it will be a favorite with me. Thanks for sharing this great review!

  3. Thanks for linking to my review – I really did like THE SINGER’S GUN, and found it interesting that the themes of’disappearing’ and ‘identity’ were also in her debut.

    Yes, we didn’t get to know Broden very well, and I also wanted to know more about Gary and David. That may be part of what she (Mandel) was telling us, though, that we might never truly know all about a person. (? I’m guessing here)

  4. Thank you for your lovely review. I appreciate you taking the time to read the book, and I’m glad you liked it!

    You know, there actually used to be much more about David in the book, and a little more about Broden too, but a great deal got cut during the revision process… it’s always tricky to draw a line between on the one hand keeping the plot moving, and on the other hand, not shortchanging any interesting characters. I really liked both David and Broden as characters — perhaps I’ll use them in other stories or books someday.

    • Wendy on May 9, 2010 at 08:35

    Aarti: I love Unbridled Books and Mandel is one of their authors that really shines for me.

    Kathy: Sounds like this one is right up your alley!

    Zibilee: Thanks and you’re quite welcome! I hope you’ll enjoy reading the book – and if you liked her first book, I think you will find The Singer’s Gun a good read 🙂

    Dawn: *nods* there was a sense that we can never really know someone, wasn’t there? Although – check out Emily’s comment below…sounds like she would have liked to share more with her readers!

    Emily: THANK YOU for stopping by and also for answering the question as to the development of certain characters. I was really interested in Broden and wanted to know more…she’d be a great protagonist, I think, in another book 😉 It must be frustrating to go through revisions and have to let go of certain things and characters in your novels. But I found the lack of development of Broden to be a really minor thing in the overall scheme of the book. Can’t wait to read your next book…whenever that might be!!!

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