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This is a really tricky one to review. Colleagues will have seen some of the expressions my face whilst I was reading it in the staffroom at lunchtime, so will have formed an impression from that, but it’s a complex novel that didn’t make for easy reading. Try this for size:

“After all there I was walking all slow and solemn then in a box being gradually interred and when the box hit bottom there had gathered there that day a slew of people, who if not grieving sure didn’t look thrilled, to hear atonal dirges and accusatory liturgical phrases fill the air creating a quasi-commerce that I walked through to stand on yellow bumps meant to warn of danger where man-made wind screeched into and past my face until I was in another box this one moving horizontally within which I breathed on many and was breathed on in return before the box spit us all out still under Earth’s crust but this time flowing from inside a mass towards stairs that led back to life.”

The more you read this, the more oddly beautiful and satisfying the imagery is. But so many times I found myself having to stop and re-read to get the meaning, that it was language as a barrier – style taking precedence over story. And I think maybe that’s the whole point – the heart of this novel is about language; how it is used, and controlled by the powerful, and how the unarticulate are defeated by it. The story – I call it story loosely – is narrated by Casi, a public defender in New York, and his experience of the clash of culture between the courtroom and the drugs war being waged on the streets. It is frequently funny – the attorney with a bowel problem; and sad – the learning-disabled prisoner on death row and his longing for candy. How Casi explores the twin worlds he inhabits, and how their boundaries become so blurred, is the loose connecting thread between the meandering, stream-of-consciousness vignettes that fill a massive 864 pages. It’s not for the faint-hearted.

I haven’t decided yet if I actually enjoyed this novel. The pre-publicity states “this book is unlike any other you will read this year” and I certainly have to agree. Its emphasis on style is perhaps not to my taste, and I longed for more commas and full stops, and a tighter sense of plot. I couldn’t engage fully with Casi because of it; it seemed self-indulgent, and it seemed pages went by without meaning. But I found myself moved by the fate of Jalen Kingg, and frequently smiling at the absurdity of the court process, and the language occasionally shone; I feel that there is a good writer at work here, one to watch. While this story will not be to everyone’s taste, it does have much to commend it. Ultimately de la Pava depicts the web of words that constitutes the law as a massive machine that oppresses the weak and vulnerable; words can be weapons, as much as guns and knives. It is a brave book, both in its content and its form, and I’m glad I read it.

Maclehose Press, 2013, ISBN 9780857052803

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for review