| Hostage drama
Beneath the Diamond Sky
By Christopher Wakling,
Picador, £ 10.99
What can you expect from an author whose debut novel, On Cape Three Points, won accolades as 'a genuine literary thriller' At the very least a stimulating read, spiced with a dash of violence, given the basic plot of his latest book: the politically-motivated abduction of seven Western tourists by Kashmiri separatist militants. Abandon hope, all ye who entertain such illusions about Christopher Wakling's second novel. For Beneath the Diamond Sky is not a patch on the pulp-fiction bestsellers that are a pleasure to zip through on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Nor can it measure up to the spine-tingling psychological chiller that haunts you long after you're done with it. Given its exasperatingly sluggish pace and its film noir pretensions, you end up wondering how to get even with the publisher for conning you into looking forward to 'a terrifying read'.
That promise, one suspects, remains unfulfilled because Wakling sees himself as a cerebral writer and, despite the inherent potential of his storyline, refuses to accept the demands of action-drama as a priority. It's not that rape, torture and murder don't feature in his novel. They merely seem to take place miles away, as if observed under a weak dose of anaesthesia.
This writer's special gift, a razor-sharp insight into the intricate maze of the human mind, ought to have worked well for a narrative set within a captor-captive context, offering interesting possibilities for a psychological war of wits. Unfortunately, Wakling chooses to prioritize characterization and allows the plot to languish. It isn't difficult to figure out why, given the rare sensitivity he demonstrates in depicting the dark, subconscious impulses which complicate human relationships like the one shared by Rachel and her sister, Kate, one of the protagonists in the hostage drama. The flashbacks that gradually reveal the moves of the insidious game of one-upmanship they engage in, are far more compelling than the developments in the hostage crisis. This is a telling comment on Wakling's real focus of interest.
Caught between the two women and traumatized by his unresolved feelings about an abusive father is Ethan. His character comes alive when his response to the prospect of death at the hands of his abductors is interwoven with his memories of domestic violence. It also provides vital clues to why he ultimately breaks under pressure. These stark scenes, portrayed with cinematic immediacy, have an important bearing on the novel's denouement and are crucial to our understanding of the 'indoctrinated' victim's desperate need to identify with his tormentor. They also offer us a glimpse of Wakling's talent and the reason underlying the response to his novel: regret over unrealized potential.
Why doesn't this novel work' Is it because Wakling's troubled characters fail to engage our sympathies despite his attempt to flesh them out in obsessive detail' Or is it their endless introspection that cuts the pace of the build-up to the climax' Perhaps, the author ' whose career as a lawyer enabled him to write his first novel with conviction because he was operating on home turf ' is out of his depth in an area beyond his immediate sphere of experience' Or is there a possibility that between Wakling's higher ambitions for his novel and the publisher's commercial objectives in promoting it as a thriller lies a gulf of miscommunication' Finally, is anyone interested in the answer'