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.