The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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It is difficult to put Michel Faber’s novella into a neat category. There are elements of the thriller and the romance in it, as there are aspects of the historical novel and the ghost story. The deliberate blurring of genre boundaries makes for compelling reading.

The setting is stunning: Whitby, with its medieval abbey and graveyard and the 199 steps that lead to them. The writing is close to perfect and the play of Faber’s imagination often breathtaking.

Sian, the principal character in the story, is haunted by nightmares ever since she lost her boyfriend and one of her own legs in a freak accident in Bosnia. The nightmares always end with her throat being slit. Sleep has become an impossibility. She joins an archaeological dig at Whitby abbey hoping the nightmares will disappear. But they continue.

Unable to sleep and out early by the seaside, “She stood at the very end of the west pier and cupped her hand across her brow to look over at the east one. The two piers were like outstretched arms curving into the ocean, to gather boats from the wild waters of the North Sea into the safety of Whitby harbour. Sian was standing on a giant fingertip.’’

That same morning, on the steps to the abbey, Sian meets Magnus and his beautiful Finnish Lapphund, with the very unlikely name, Hadrian. The rapport between the dog and Sian is almost instantaneous. Magnus grew up in Whitney and is now in the final year of medicine in London.

Sian and Magnus become friends. There is the hint of attraction between them. But the author leaves it hazy and ambiguous. Magnus gives Sian a surprise present: “A glass liquor bottle without any label, discoloured and dull, clearly antique. Inside the bottle was a large candle — no, not a candle, a tight scroll of papers. Water damage, evidently followed by ill-managed drying, had fused the layers of the scroll together into a puckered cylinder.” As a trained conservator, Sian rescues the paper and manages slowly to separate the sheets and to read the writing.

It turns out to be a confession written in 1788 and it tells the story of a grisly death in Whitby. Carefully reading the document, Sian pieces the story together and the end turns out to be a real surprise.

Faber makes the two narratives run side by side: the developing friendship between Sian and Magnus, and the unfolding of the mystery, parts of which only serve to raise some of Sian’s inner demons.

The ending of the novella is poignant. Magnus has to go back to London. He had returned to Whitby to bury his father and to settle the ancestral property. He says his farewell but he doesn’t leave without a parting gift. He gives her Hadrian to keep, much to Sian’s joy. His reasons for the precious gift are simple: “I just don’t want you to be left with the wrong impression of me.”

It’s a simple story that meditates on the different levels of sincerity and affection, between man and woman, and between man, woman and dog. Hadrian is in many ways Sian’s deliverance from her nightmares. The text is illustrated by pictures of Whitby. A small, delightful and thoughtful book.

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