Artis-Ann , Features Writer
‘Remember Who You Are’: The Look By Lee Coates
Never mind the Kubrick Stare, one look from my dad was enough to fill me with terror. I will say now, he never once touched me, never hit me in anger, nor touched a hair on my head even though when I was a child, a smack was not generally considered misplaced. He never needed to – the look was enough to stop me in my tracks, so the opening of this novel, describing as it does the ability of certain looks ‘to scorch their image onto the retina of a lifetime’ is one I can relate to. A look can certainly ‘convey more emotion that words ever could’.
There follows a description of an ideal life. Coates takes time to describe for the reader a very contented state of affairs. Jim is happy. Successful in business, he enjoys a solid relationship with a loving father, Callum, and shares a flat with his beautiful fiancée, Ffi. All the stars are aligned. What could possibly go wrong?
Seen through the eyes of the principal protagonist, Jim, the narrative follows an unusual course. A peculiar and gruesome image of two seagulls fighting plays a minor key in the score, if only briefly. A business proposal sounds a warning note even though it could prove very lucrative. On board a pleasure boat, an accident which sees a woman knocked overboard, darkens the mood, despite the fact it is Jim who saves her, rendering him a hero. The discord is highlighted when Ffi describes the incident to Jim’s father and that ‘look of abhorrence’ momentarily passes from father to son.
A rampaging elephant at the circus brings matters to a crescendo and Jim, in his injured state, realises that he is the only discernible common factor in each case.
Incomprehensible but unmissable. From that moment, the relationship is lost. Jim cannot understand what has happened or why, but knows something has occurred between them. Their comfortable banter is replaced by a forced energy and long periods of silence. After thirty years of sobriety, Callum seems to find solace once more, in beer. A tortuous interlude between father and son has the reader screaming ‘just talk to each other properly’, but in vain. Jim’s mood impacts his relationship with Ffi and the euphoria of the engagement is short lived.
Jim has a distinctive phobia about eyes which, given the title of the book, seems appropriate and which is mentioned more than just in passing. A particularly gruesome (that word again) terrorist attack at an optician’s when Jim is present for an appointment, seems bizarre but highly effective and there is localised graffiti on the lift call button in the block of flats where they live which is annoying but nothing more – or is it? However, the melody has definitely hit another discordant note and the reader cannot really discern the direction of the narrative. A rampaging elephant at the circus brings matters to a crescendo and Jim, in his injured state, realises that he is the only discernible common factor in each case. What his father eventually reveals to him is somewhat incredible and changes their dynamic forever.
I once marked a piece of creative writing coursework and genuinely couldn’t decide if it was complete rubbish, worthy of a grade E, or a particularly spectacular piece warranting at least an A. Lengthy discussions with colleagues eventually decided it was a piece of brilliance and the examiners must have agreed. This novel left me questioning myself in something of the same way: was it laborious and suspect or in fact, worthy of my time? When I realised with a start, just how far on I suddenly was, that the end was almost in sight, I felt the question had answered itself. I had actually become engrossed. I couldn’t predict the outcome and needed to see it through. Truths, talks of cults, drunken evenings, a suicide, self-absorption and self-analysis had all quickened the pace suddenly. I was hurtling towards the end, still uncertain of my final destination. Once you commit to this book, you have no choice but to read it to the end, despite the sometimes uncomfortable ride.
If I’m honest, I cannot tell you where we ended up exactly, nor can I say what will happen to Ffi, Jim and his dad Callum, in the future. Can they recover from the events which have assailed them or not? It is left for the reader to decide.
The Look is published by The Book Guild.