THE TURNGLASS by Gareth Rubin is a modern tête-bêche novel, a design that incorporates two stories: one beginning from the front cover and the other from the back, each inverted relative to the other. Upon completing one story, the reader flips the book to embark on the next. This is effectively two books in one, each with its distinct cover and conclusion yet sharing a central juncture. The structure is exploited to weave together multiple mysteries.
Whether you start reading from the blue and gold cover, finding yourself in England during the 1880s, or the red and gold cover (1930s America) does not matter; there is no “correct" entry point. I began with the English tale, where we meet Dr Simeon Lee. To finance his cholera research, he accepts a position in Mersea, a lonely island next to a quaint Essex fishing village, to tend to his ailing cousin, Parson Oliver Hawes. What begins as a routine health check quickly spirals into a morass of poisoning allegations and the resurrection of long-buried secrets. Adding to the intrigue, a woman named Florence resides in a glass-like cell within Hawes's mansion. Convicted of murdering her husband, Hawes's older brother, she now lives under his supervision, spared from the infamous Bedlam mental institution.
The complexities deepen as the tête-bêche format links the two tales, becoming crucial to deciphering the overarching enigma. The narrative shifts in the other half to 1930s California, where Ken Kourian, a journalist with movie star aspirations, encounters then investigates the mysterious death of Oliver Tooke, a celebrated author, unravelling a sinister family legacy.
Generally, I try to avoid revealing too much about a book's contents, preferring to focus on its literary merit. In this case, however, a few plot details may be justified. The Turnglass relies heavily on the novelty of its dual narrative structure and intricate plot devices. Indeed, it seems much time was devoted to interweaving the two sides of the story in complimentary and contradictory ways. The book is overtly a meta-narrative, with the author intricately connecting the strands into a seamless whole. Reading one half leaves the reader with questions that only the other half can answer. Yet both halves make you question the truth of the one already read.
Numerous mysteries are hidden within these pages, making it as much a puzzle as a book. In the 1880s timeline, we find Simeon Lee reading a novel called The Golden Fields by O Tooke, which contains the journal of Oliver Hawes in tête-bêche format. In the 1930s, meanwhile, we have another tête-bêche novel, The Turnglass by Oliver Tooke, featuring Dr Simeon Lee. Admittedly this sounds more confusing when summarised than how Rubin executes it in the novel. He keeps readers guessing but ultimately answers the many questions posed. The reading experience is somewhat like learning the rules of a new game — after a few rounds, it starts to come together.
This book will captivate those who appreciate intricate narratives such as Christopher Nolan's Inception and Memento. My reading preferences lean towards rich character development and eloquent prose, areas where The Turnglass somewhat falters. The 1930s setting is notably more vivid, reminiscent of an intriguing fusion between Donna Tartt and JD Salinger's styles, whereas the 1880s segments are less convincing, evocative of a Netflix period drama.
The dialogue often seems forced, serving more to underscore the characters' backgrounds than to foster authentic interaction. The fishermen who populate Mersea merely drop a few letters when they speak, and occasionally say things like, “No’ a good sign, lame foal," to remind the reader these are superstitious, simple folk. In the same paragraph, Lee asks Cain, the shady caretaker, “Are you from Mersea?” To which Cain responds without irony, “Born ’n’ bred. Never been more ’n ten miles away." He also grunts while he’s saying this. Moreover, the scene-setting appears conveniently aligned for a screen adaptation, which does a disservice to the narrative's potential complexity.
The dynamic between Simeon and Florence was particularly grating for me. Their conversations struck me as contrived, lacking the organic flow of genuine interaction. Florence's dialogue is especially baffling; she communicates in enigmatic phrases that seem designed to tease the plot along rather than convey realistic discourse. She drops subtle hints meant to steer Simeon — a doctor rather improbably thrust into the role of an amateur sleuth — towards the next clue in his unexpected foray into detective work.
This approach to storytelling, where the characters serve more as plot devices than as believable people, detaches the narrative from the nuanced complexities of real-life interactions. It feels as though their exchanges were crafted for a visual medium, where dramatic tension often trumps character development, rather than being rooted in the authenticity of lived experiences. The result is a disconnect that renders their relationship more exasperating than engaging, undermining the credibility of their shared journey through the story.
That isn’t to say Rubin is a bad writer; far from it. The American sections, while reminiscent of pastiche, have an unmistakable rhythm and humour. Rubin imbues even mundane scenes with verve and buoyancy. For example, a simple scene of a character hailing a cab comes alive through his writing:
Outside the studio, a streetcar was rolling along the road and Ken jumped aboard hoping it was heading for the beach. Even after months in the city, his understanding of Los Angeles and Hollywoodland could have been drawn on a playing card.
And certainly, I would suggest that if you give yourself over to the world the book spins, you'll find a wealth of enjoyment. It's the kind of book that its fans will keep coming back to, finding new treasures with every read. It is a puzzle that succeeds in its primary ambition: it puzzles.
Who, what, where and how much?
The Turnglass by Gareth Rubin was published by Simon & Schuster and costs R390 at Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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