At a slim 135 pages (Kindle version, in Amazon’s sexy new Bookerly font), Helen Phillips’s book reads more like a novella than a fully-fledged novel. Indeed, I also think it would have worked far better as a novel if she had focused more on the relationship between Joseph and Josephine, which implodes so suddenly and so dramatically that I was caught rather unawares.
Also, one is able to guess the big Plot Twist well before the end, which deprives the denouement of much of its power. A good description of this would be part existentialist conundrum and part Kafka nightmare.
The book’s focus on the minutiae of a typical suburban couple’s life sits uncomfortably with the broader weirdness which Phillips tries to inject into her story (people without faces, mysterious strangers following her, a mysterious concrete building with staircases and rows of doors that seem to go on forever).
I was also unable to conclude if the writing was deliberately deflective. Early on Josephine sees a door down the hallway from their sublet open, with “a huge dog there, straining and snarling as though it had three heads.”
Every time the dog is referenced thereafter, it is referred to as being three-headed. Which is not the same thing … so did the bloody dog have three heads or not? (And why does it have its own apartment, I kept on thinking? You can see why I ended up being quite frustrated by this).
I think the book’s biggest failure is the character of Joseph, who remains pretty much a cipher throughout (larger because his masculinity is reserved for a rather unpalatable deus ex machina at the end).
The depiction of sexual tension between the couple, and the (d)evolution of their relationship into a rape-like territorial battle, is too broadly played to be as dreadful as similar gender dynamics in an Ian McEwan novel, for example.
And then there is the bloody pomegranate, which features prominently on the cover. Again this is an instance of symbolism being bent to perform the dual role of foreshadowing and psychological nuance.
I think this book would serve best as an introduction to a general reader not overly familiar with such related genres as the New Weird. My response to it was muted, to the point of actively not liking it by the end, as I was expecting so much more.