Paul Torday – The Girl on the Landing (2009)
Horror, psychological thriller, gothic murder mystery…what the heck is this, anyway? I kept feeling like I was reading a Victoria Holt novel, except Paul Torday’s characters have computers and cellphones and wear decidedly more modern clothing. Variously set in London, Ireland, and Scotland, Elizabeth and Michael Gascoigne co-exist in the dullest, most loveless marriage imaginable. You had better believe that if Michael hadn’t been born moneyed, Elizabeth would have never succumbed to his charms. Oh wait, Michael has no charms – he’s hardly a looker, plus he’s clinically emotionless and has been since the day Elizabeth met him, which makes her…well…selfish and greedy and completely unlikeable. She works a job she hates and doesn’t need, while Michael putters around at a gentleman’s club and plays an awful lot of golf and does an awful lot of hunting. They regularly entertain friends at Michael’s old family estate out in Beinn Caorrun, in Scotland, which Elizabeth thinks is the most horrible place on the planet – it’s rundown, dark, gloomy, cold, and set among hills and deep wilderness. Of course, Michael feels differently – Beinn Caorrun is his playground, his comfort zone. At any rate, things begin to heat up for the couple (thank God) when Michael sees a painting in an aquaintance’s house in Ireland. The painting features a strangely-dressed girl positioned on the landing of a stairwell, and it evokes a vivid memory for Michael. Bizarre events are set into motion, and Torday is a skilled enough writer that he drives the reader forward, straining to uncover what will happen next. Nothing wrong with the language or the tone, all is in perfect order. Other problems plague the novel, however: I hated the characters with a passion, which doesn’t often happen to me, and I somehow expect that Torday didn’t quite intend that. I think I was reading to see what horrible things might befall either one of them or both, secretly hoping that it was something really, REALLY nasty. (Well, that, and once I start a book I have a terrible habit of needing to finish it, regardless of my negative opinions). And I really didn’t like the way the novel switched point of view chapter-by-chapter – while that can work quite well, it doesn’t go over here. It ends up with a ton of redundancies, and it’s especially shabby given my dislike for the characters. And then there’s that whole subplot about racism which I can’t help but wonder about…is it necessary, or is it just a lot of wasted ink?
Still, The Girl on the Landing is a far cry from tedious – I gobbled it down quickly, seeking the brilliant illumination at the end. (I’ll leave it up to you to guess whether or not I found it). It’s an effective time-killer, suitable for airport lounges and long bus trips. ‘Nuff said.