In Praise of Significance by Jo Mazelis

Bethany W. Pope


Significance by Jo Mazelis. Seren Books, £9.99

Significance, by Jo Mazelis, is a fascinating fusion of genre and high literature; it is a thriller, with a focus on psychology and character. It is this skilful joining of heart and mind, of the emotional thrust of genre and the muscular intellect of literature, that gives this story such great power. Although it is woefully underrated as an art, genre is useful for exploring more allegorical modes of thought; mental scenarios that, like dreams, are a real, vital part of life but which cannot comfortably be set in unbloodied middle-class living rooms. Using action descriptions and characterisations reminiscent of Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Mazelis explores the darkness that lurks behind our civilized fronts. Bankers attend Bizet’s operas in order to relive the passion of a vital early love affair that felt splendid at the time, despite the fact that it took place in a squalid student flat. Carmen reminds them of mental and emotional landscapes not necessarily reflected in visible fact. A skilfully-executed murder mystery reminds the reader of something else; this genre is good for exorcizing demons.

The back-cover synopsis states:

Lucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but she’s only got as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his handsome assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.

Although Lucy’s murder lies in the centre of the book, the real mysteries are embodied in the people surrounding her. Each character is psychologically complex, vividly drawn, and bursting with a fully-realised interior life so believable that the characters nearly throb on the pages. While living, Lucy brims with self-doubt and an insatiable appetite for love; a thwarted poet simmers with the anxiety of pregnancy; two inspectors form a fascinating bond; a pair of old hippies see, and fail to see, what lies before them, and an irritable Canadian carries guilt over the possible maiming of his brother, memories which surface, again and again, in his vivid, uneasy dreams:

And here’s what it was. A crib in a darkened room. His parents’ bedroom, but strangely they aren’t there. He has no idea where his parents are. In the crib he sees Aaron, snivelling in his sleep and beginning to whimper. And there is this bad smell. A really bad smell of shit, pungent and stale and lightly cheesy. And in Scott’s hands is a pillow – the pillow from his own bed which has repeat motifs of the Lone Ranger astride his rearing-stallion. These specific details are the worst part of it because they make him think that it’s real, that it actually happened and is no dream at all. Scott lifts the pillow in two hands and carefully, deliberately he pushes it down onto Aaron’s sleeping face.

The writing is exquisite, engrossing, filled with cinematic details (the glint of light on skin, the texture of a bead) that draw readers into what feels like a whole and working world. This novel is a pleasure and a joy to read, even (and especially) when the narrative shunts you down dark, dingy corridors. The essential mystery of character is why we are the way we are. If we don’t have our very specific histories, if time and pain left us unwounded, our surfaces unmarked, then our futures would be random, undifferentiated. This novel understands that in order to solve a mystery in the external world we must first unravel the twisted secrets of the heart and brain. There is a reason that this novel won the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. It deserves much more acclaim.


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White Cliffs © Jo Mazelis, 2015