Sunday, September 16, 2007

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps - Michel Faber

First published 2001; cover shown is the 2002 Canongate Books (UK) paperback edition. Cover design by Jim Hutcheson. 116p.

90% of the fiction (mystery and otherwise) I read was first published pre-1980. I went through a stage in the late 1990s where I read a lot of more modern work - predominantly Minette Walters, Martha Grimes and Kerry Greenwood - but it wasn't long before I returned to Agatha Christie and her contemporaries, and moved on from there. When I pick up a post-1980 novel now, it has to hook me from the first few pages, or I won't keep reading. So far, Michel Faber has what it takes to ensure I always read to the end.

The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is set in modern day Whitby, England. Sian is a archaeology student working on a dig at Whitby Abbey. She's experienced much pain and heartbreak in her 34 years, and is now suffering from horrendous nightmares from which she awakens screaming, moments after she has been decapitated.

Her developing relationship with a local man, Mack, and his Finnish Lapphund dog leaves Sian undecided with how far to take it; after an experience in Bosnia she's no longer the woman she was, and her life is consumed with thoughts of death and disease.

Soon after their first meeting, Mack shows Sian a manuscript found by his father - written in 1788, and obviously a confession. As Sian works on transcribing the delicate manuscript late at night, fortified by alcohol, she uncovers details of what appears to be a shocking, heinous crime - one which eerily echoes her own dark nightmare.

Michel Faber (b. 1960) was born in Holland, grew up in Australia and now lives in the Scottish Highlands. An award-winning short story writer, Faber's first novel, Under the Skin, was published in 2000 and was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel of the Year.

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