Today I bring you a pretty special reading experience. Follow down the rabbit hole if you dare!
The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce by Tom Gillespie
A spiralling obsession. A missing wife. A terrifying secret. Will he find her before it’s too late?
When Dr Jacob Boyce’s wife goes missing, the police put it down to a simple marital dispute. Jacob, however, fears something darker. Following her trail to Spain, he becomes convinced that Ella’s disappearance is tied to a mysterious painting whose hidden geometric and numerical riddles he’s been obsessively trying to solve for months. Obscure, hallucinogenic clues, and bizarre, larger-than-life characters, guide an increasingly unhinged Jacob through a nightmarish Spanish landscape to an art forger’s studio in Madrid, where he comes face-to-face with a centuries-old horror, and the terrifying, mind-bending, truth about his wife.
About the author:
Tom Gillespie grew up in a small town just outside Glasgow. After completing a Masters in English at Glasgow University, he spent the next ten years pursuing a musical career as a singer/songwriter, playing, recording and touring the UK and Europe with his band. He now lives in Bath with his wife, daughter and hyper-neurotic cat, where he works at the University as an academic English lecturer.
Tom writes long and short fiction. His stories have been published in a number of anthologies, magazines and e-zines, including Amazon Bestseller FEAR: A Modern Anthology Of Horror And Terror – Volume 2, Emdash Literary Magazine, and www.eastoftheweb.com He is also a regular contributor to fridayflash.org.
Tom’s writing has been described as terse, minimalist, hyper- realistic and ambiguous, where layers of meaning are conveyed using a concise and economical style.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel. By the way, congratulations again on the 6th anniversary of the team! Keep going strong! In this case, I was sent an early paperback ARC copy, and I must say the cover is fantastic and the texture of the book is amazing as well. An experience in its own right.
This is the first novel by the author I’ve read, and I haven’t read any of his stories either, although I intend to check them out in the near future.
This is one of those books where the title truly suits the content. Yes, this is a strange book, a mighty strange book, and it is about Jacob Boyce. I don’t want to discuss the plot in detail (especially because I’m still trying to recover from its effect but also because I don’t want to spoil for everybody else), and I am not sure which genre it fits in. I started reading it and, at first, I thought it would be a book in the style of many recent novels, where there is a current mystery that somehow is linked to either an artwork, a book or another object that sends the main character traipsing along half the world chasing clues that in many cases are linked to the past (and History, in capital letters). The main character, the Jacob Boyce of the title, is a professor in Earth Sciences at Glasgow University who is researching his own theory, which he thinks will help predict earthquakes with more accuracy. So far, not so weird. But as we read, we discover that he has become obsessed by a painting, a baroque Spanish painting of uncertain origin (who the painter is, being the subject of some debate), which he somehow feels is connected to his theory. He becomes convinced that there is something peculiar about this painting, and it is to do with the application of a mathematical formula, which nowadays would be described as related to quantum physics. He becomes so obsessed by trying to find the links and the evidence to support his theory that he neglects everything else in his life: his job at the university, his marriage… And that results in his wife’s disappearance. He ends up in Spain, chasing both his wife and the painting, and there things get more and more bizarre. And I won’t say anything else about the plot. I’ve read some reviews that mention Vanilla Sky (I much rather the original Spanish movie, Abre los ojos [Open Your Eyes] by Alejandro Amenábar), Sliding Doors, and Shutter Island. Yes, I quite agree, and, if I had to describe it, I’d say that some part of it felt almost surreal and hallucinatory, a bit like if I had found myself falling down the rabbit hole, while in some other parts, the sparse style and factual narrative made it seem perfectly grounded and realistic. An unsettling (even ‘uncanny’ at times) combination. Mindboggling.
If I had to talk about themes, I’d mention: obsession (I know many people who dedicate themselves to research can become sucked in, and suddenly everything starts looking or feeling as if it is related to the topic you are studying and you see connections everywhere), guilt, loss, grief, the permeable and tenuous frontier between sanity and madness, between dedication and obsession, between anxiety and paranoia… And also the tenuous separation between reality and imagination, between real life and our dreams and nightmares.
The main character, as mentioned, is Jacob. Although the book is narrated in the third person, we spend most of the novel inside the protagonist’s head, we see things from his perspective, and he’s a fantastic example of the unreliable narrator. I tend to read mostly ebooks these days, and because this was a paper copy and I couldn’t read it as often as I would an ebook, it took me longer to read than would be the norm, and I confess I had forgotten the brief chapter (a kind of prologue) called ‘Inhale…’ which was from another character’s perspective. I later realised this was Sylvia, the mother of Jacob’s wife, Ella, and she comes back at the end as well (yes, the title of that chapter is ‘Exhale…’). Therefore, Sylvia’s point of view and story somehow frames the whole of the narrative, (a rather long and rarefied breath of air) but, as I said, most of the book is from Jacob’s point of view, and Jacob is the only character we get to know, although how well is subject to debate, but I won’t go into that either. He is not a dislikeable character, but like many protagonists who have become obsessed with a particular topic or search (think of Ahab in Moby Dick), their obsession can make them difficult to fully connect with. You either get entrapped in it and can’t help but follow them down that hole, or you wonder what the fuss is about. In this case, I found myself totally caught in it, and it’s one of those books where you end up having no idea what place is up or down, what is real or not, and don’t know if you can trust or believe in anything at all. There are other characters, but because we see them only (or mostly) through Jacob’s eyes, I didn’t feel as if I had a grasp of what they were like, and sometimes, due to the way the story is told, we get different versions of the same character, so, which one is (or might be) the real one, if any?
I’ve mentioned the third person point of view and the frame around the story as well. There are brief fragments in italics, which seem to be told from an omniscient point of view, between the main parts of the book, but these are short. The book is divided up into three parts. Part 1 and 3 take place in Glasgow, and part 2 in Spain, first in Barcelona and later in Madrid. The chronological order of events appears clear at first (although some of Jacob’s memories intrude into the narration), but… Well, I’ll let you read it to find out by yourselves. I’ve talked about the writer’s style before, and although I’ve marked a lot of the text, as I’m aware the book was due to go through more revisions and corrections before its release, I won’t share any specific quotes. There are parts of the text in Spanish, and I know some readers have wondered about that, worried that they might miss important aspects of the book, but let me tell you that, being Spanish, knowledge of Spanish is not required to understand the book. In my case, it kept sending me down wrong paths and making me question everything, so don’t worry. I’ve also seen people complaining about the use of mathematics and talks of formulae and proportions. Don’t worry about that either. I found the ideas challenging and fascinating, but it’s not necessary to be an expert on the subject to follow the book.
The ending manages to pull everything together, and it left me with the feeling (not uncommon with certain books and films, and I’m sure you know what I mean) that if I read it again, many things I found puzzling at the time would fit into the right place now, and I would be nodding my head all through the second read.
So, would I recommend it? If you enjoy being taken for a wild ride and falling into the depths of a complex mind trying to make sense of his life, then you should read it. This is not a standard mystery, and it has more in common with a psychological puzzle or even one of Freud’s case stories, where what is at stake is not what we might think at first. If you don’t mind experimenting and trying something new and are not looking for a straight and comforting read, I recommend you to dare to try this book. It won’t leave you indifferent.
Thanks to Rosie and her team for their support, thanks to the author for this opportunity, and thanks to all of you for reading, sharing, commenting, clicking, reviewing, and remember to keep safe and always keep smiling!