Fiction – paperback; Vintage Contemporaries; 194 pages; 2011.
Jesse Ball is a young American writer. His unusual website might give some indication as to the experimental nature of his work.
The Curfew, his third novel, is certainly not your average, run-of-the-mill American story. Indeed, the prose is so sparse and dreamlike, and the subject matter so Orwellian, it has the feel of translated fiction.
A nameless city
The story is set in a nameless city in what could be almost any point in the twentieth — or early twenty-first — century.
The government is running covert operations to “disappear” people and there’s a supposed night-time curfew that means people stay inside as soon as it becomes dark for their own safety. Murdered bodies are often found on the street. The police don’t wear uniforms, so no one quite knows who is enforcing law and order.
In this strange, oppressive world, we meet William Drysdale, a former virtuoso violinist, who is raising his young daughter, Molly, who communicates via sign language. It turns out that William’s wife, Louisa, has gone missing and if William does not watch what he says and does he could easily join the ranks of the disappeared.
Divided into three parts
The book is divided into three parts. The first is so eloquent and strangely moving that I found myself lulled into a false sense of security. Here we follow William as he goes from job to job, meeting the families of the dead in order to write the epitaphs for their gravestones.
who could skin a pig in the dark
In the second part, William goes to meet a long-lost friend — who may have news about his missing wife — after curfew, and leaves Molly in the care of some neighbours, the elderly Mr and Mrs Gibbons. The tension is ratcheted up a notch as you begin to fear for William’s safety.
And in the third, and final, part we get to follow a puppet show written by Molly and Mr Gibbons which explores William and Louisa’s relationship. It is ultimately the story of their killings at the hand of the government. But I found it slightly confusing, because it is difficult to tell what is “fact” and what is “fiction” — although I suppose that might be Ball’s point.
On the whole, The Curfew‘s disarming narrative, with its nod to dystopian literature, feels a bit like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four — it throws up many questions about totalitarian societies, surveillance and repression.
Yet you could easily consume this book in a few hours; the mesmirising language slips down like silky ice-cream. And while it’s easy to believe you are reading a tender fairytale, this is a story that brims with violence and terror. It’s not a cheery read, but it is filled with so many “universal truths” it is a compassionate one.