‘Caught’ by Lisa Moore

Caught

Fiction – ePub edition; House of Anansi; 326 pages; 2013.

If Lisa Moore’s latest novel Caught was a film it would be described as a “road movie”.

Indeed, as I read it I couldn’t help thinking that it had all the right ingredients for a Hollywood blockbuster — a young prisoner on the run, a down-at-heel cop on his tail, a pretty girl (or two or three) and an ambitious pot-smuggling plan involving sail boats, hurricanes and all manner of dodgy drug runners — but as a novel I struggled to properly engage with it. Throughout its entire 326 pages, I felt as if I was an observer and not a participant.

On the run

The book has a dramatic opening. It is  June 14, 1975 — the eve of David Slaney’s 25th birthday.

He has just escaped prison and is heading to Guysborough, Nova Scotia, where a fellow prisoner has arranged a room for him. He hitches a ride with a trucker bringing a shipment of Lay’s potato chips to Newfoundland, and, keeping his head down, he slowly makes his way to Montreal and then Vancouver.

But his ultimate plan is to head to Colombia to finish the task that landed him in prison in the first place — smuggling two tons of marijuana into Canada.

His success is wholly reliant on meeting up with Brian Hearn, his childhood friend and partner-in-crime, who jumped bail last time round and has reinvented himself as a PhD student.

And it will also depend on evading capture, which is where a third character, Patterson, comes into the story. A jaded staff sergeant in the Toronto Drug Section, he has been passed over for promotion too many times but has been promised an advancement if he can nab Slaney.

This is not a crime novel

This might make Caught sound like a crime novel, but as someone who reads a fair deal of that genre I can assure you that this is nothing of the sort. The publisher describes it as “relentlessly suspenseful”, which suggests another sort of genre novel entirely. But again, this is not a suspense novel either. Or indeed, I did not feel caught up in the story or experience any anxiety on Slaney’s behalf.

More than anything else, this is a character-driven story, because as events unfold we learn about Slaney’s fears and dreams and every day worries, his upbringing and the love he feels for a woman  who has now gone and married someone else. He’s not a mean character, nor is he particularly ruthless. At times he seems incredibly young and naive, a bit lost and directionless, and overwhelmingly dislocated after four years in jail.

Moore does a good job of shattering the stereotypes of what we might expect a drug runner to be, and while I felt empathy, and sometimes pity, for Slaney, for the most part I felt nothing but ambivalence towards him:  I really did not care if he succeeded or failed in his mission.

Similarly, Patterson, who is less fleshed out as a character, failed to garner my full attention. And similarly, I didn’t care if he caught Slaney or not.

Lots of detail

This is not to say that Caught is a bad novel — it just didn’t engage me in the way I might have expected for a narrative that promised so much in terms of adventure and moral ambiguity. I wonder if it might have felt more immediate and suspenseful if the story had been told in the first person instead of the third?

Yet a first person narrator might have missed some of the extraordinary detail that Moore is so brilliant at capturing. She has a “cinematic eye” and creates vivid images — perhaps another reason why I thought this book would work well as a movie — and I lost count of the number of passages I underlined because I was so captivated by them. Here’s an example:

Out on the cobblestones, a hen was testing the pool of light under the street lamp, touching it once and then again with its claw, jerking the inert lump of its blazingly white body forward by the neck, taking teensy steps. The hen froze in the centre of the light, full of trembling.

While I don’t think Caught is worthy of winning the Giller Prize for which it has been shortlisted, I suspect there are other readers out there who will love its mix of character development and adventure-driven plot — but it simply did not work for me.

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2 thoughts on “‘Caught’ by Lisa Moore

  1. I agree with you, Kim, this is a character-based novel that simply borrows the plot and trappings of the crime genre. There’s definitely a bigger theme here too, about fate and the illusory nature of freedom and there are some very ‘literary’ little flourishes like the rooster crowing as a character is betrayed.
    I actually liked it quite a bit and – unlike Kevin in his review – I thought Moore struck the balance between character and plot well (only the bit in Colombia leaned too heavily towards plot for me, seeming like a slightly dull episode of 24).
    My reservation about the book is that it sometimes feels like a technical exercise. There are three books on the shortlist that use elements of the crime/thriller genre, but the difference for me is that in the other two those elements seem to have grown organically out of the needs of the story: Craig Davidson is telling a story about a run-down city and the pull it has on the characters and how lives can hinge on one or two moments that define a person, and putting his characters in extremis via crime is a way for him to tell that story; likewise, Dan Vyleta is exploring (or continuing to explore if you read ‘The Quiet Twin’ first) the tensions in a city where war has meant ordinary rules don’t apply in quite the same way, and crime is inevitably one aspect of that. Moore’s novel though felt like it had developed the other way around: I didn’t get the sense that she was desperate to tell a story about drug-smuggling (or even crime), more that she wanted to write the kind of book in which drug-smuggling is a standard plot, but to do it in a much more literary way, and the theme and characters were just there to service that exercise. Which is of course fine, but it all ends up being a tad slick and neat – it powers along like a well-oiled machine, but the result is that (as you note in your review) it’s hard to latch onto or care about the characters: as much as they are all pawns in some game of fate in the story, they are also Moore’s pawns and so never really come to life.
    I’m about 200 pages away from having read the whole shortlist now, and whilst I’ve liked the four books I’ve finished I wish there was one I loved. I seem to keep saying about all of them “I liked this one, BUT…”

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  2. Not long after I posted this review I saw another much more positive one (sadly, I can no longer find the link cos I found it on my laptop and Im now at work), which said the book explored betrayal/guilt and the notion of freedom, which I think is a fair summary of the themes.
    I hadnt picked up on the rooster crowing thing… but I do think the pecking chicken was a metaphor. In the same scene, Slaney orders pollo off the menu and a little later (the next day, I think) he notices the chicken is no longer around — nothing is said, its up to the reader to join the dots. I guess the chickens fate serves as a bit of a warning to Slaney that he, too, could be eaten by the people hes supposedly in collusion with. I suspect the book is littered with these kinds of metaphors and perhaps on a second reading they are more noticeable, which might suggest why it made the shortlist?
    Ive got two more books to go: Ive started The Crooked Maid and think Im going to like it a lot. Im yet to receive my copy of Cataract City though I believe it is in transit from Canada and will hopefully arrive in time for me to read before the winner is announced!

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