The Blackhouse, by Peter May

>> Thursday, March 09, 2017

TITLE: The Blackhouse
AUTHOR: Peter May

COPYRIGHT: 2009
PAGES: 386
PUBLISHER: Quercus

SETTING: Isle of Lewis, Scotland
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in the Lewis Trilogy

A brutal killing takes place on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland: a land of harsh beauty and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith.

A MURDER

Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is sent from Edinburgh to investigate. For Lewis-born Macleod, the case represents a journey both home and into his past.

A SECRET

Something lurks within the close-knit island community. Something sinister.

A TRAP

As Fin investigates, old skeletons begin to surface, and soon he, the hunter, becomes the hunted.
Fin MacLeod grew up on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides. It was a small, oppressive community for a boy who wanted much more from life, so he left as soon as he turned 18. A futher 18 years later, he's a police detective in Edinburgh and recovering from a tragedy in his personal life.

When a murder takes place in Lewis that has quite similar characteristics to one that took place in Edinburgh not long before, Fin is sent to investigate by his superiors. He is not keen. There are memories and people in Lewis that he does not want to face, but his investigation requires him to do just that.

The Blackhouse is as much about Fin's life growing up in Lewis as it is about his investigation of the murder. May alternates chapters in the first person narrating Fin's life, first as a child and then a teenager, right up till the a traumatic event we know is coming and his leaving the island, and chapters in the third person covering the present-day investigation. It works beautifully, mainly because the sections in the past are not just about getting us to understand Fin as a character, but are also completely relevant to the present-day sections. It was also one of those rare books structured this way where I always wanted more of each section before switching, rather than being annoyed because I preferred one to the other.

That said, much as the sections dealing with the crime investigation were really good, the sections set in the past were just fascinating. May creates an incredibly vivid sense of place, and you get an excellent view of what it must have been like to grow up there at the time. The challenging landscape and climate, the importance of tradition, the pressure to conform... it all coalesces around a tradition that has a key place in the story. Every year a small group of specially selected men from the island travel to a nearby rock to spend a couple of weeks harvesting the small number of gannets (or guga, as they call them) that they're allowed to hunt, since it's a protected species. It's an incredibly grim and difficult task, not just because of the wildness of the environment, but because of what the bloody task entails. It's also clearly the way the young men of the island prove their manhood, and even though in theory men have to volunteer to go, in reality the pressure to do so is immense. This tradition resonates all through the book, in both the timelines.

If this had been all, the book would have been coming onto an A grade for me. However, there was an aspect I found extremely problematic. I've had a look at several reviews on goodreads and it's not something people even note, but it really bothered me. So get ready for a bit of a rant!

Basically, the treatment of women in this book is terrible. They're not developed and are nothing but objects who only matter for the effect they have on the male characters. For instance, there's this character who was Fin's first love and who's now married to the man who used to be Fin's best friend growing up. We know she left for the mainland with Fin, but something happened, and she ended up back on Lewis, living what is clearly a crappy life. She was interesting, or rather, she should have been. The book doesn't really care about her as a character, beyond how she affects Fin. That's the case for pretty much every woman in the book.

I also had massive issues with how mysogynistic the book sometimes felt. There were certain sections in the flashbacks where the young Fin engages in actions I found reprehensible. It starts when he and his friend decide to have a joke on some girls who are sunbathing topless on a beach (lying face down) and drop some crabs on them from a cliff, hoping to have them scatter and see their breasts. It's portrayed as something that's just a bit of fun, who cares how the girls feel about it, and well, boys will be boys. It annoyed me, but ok. But then there was yet another scene of non-consensual voyeurism, and that one was particularly offensive. This happens when Fin and his friends are 17-18. One of them has a crush on a girl who seems to be flirting with him to make someone else jealous. And of course, the boys consider her a prick-tease. That's the word they use. When the town's bully shares that the girl has a bath every Sunday at 10, and that there's a bit of roof outside where he and his mates have been going to watch her, Fin's friend decides he will be going to watch. Because of course, he's entitled to her attention and she deserves to be punished for not giving him what he wants. Fin has misgivings, but he accompanies his friend. But his misgivings are absolutely not about whether it's right to do this to a woman who's really done nothing wrong; that's fine and dandy by Fin! All he's worried about is that the bully must be planning something, and that his friend doesn't know what he's getting into.

Turns out he's right. It's not the beautiful girl who's having the bath. It's an older woman, and she sees the boys standing on the roof outside her window. She's about 60, and she's fat and wearing a shower cap. Oh, the horror! Euww! The way this woman, this completely innocent, blameless woman, who's just trying to have a bath, is described is horrible and painful to read. There's a lot about her "folds of pink flesh" and the narration makes her sound almost obscene. And the cherry on this utter pile of shit: when confronted with strangers spying on her she screams for help. "Rape!" she screams. And Fin thinks that's "wishful thinking". The whole incident is completely repulsive and vile.

Now, I know very well that the fact that a character does something reprehensible doesn't mean that the author condones it. But I'm sorry, you can tell perfectly well when the narrative is trying to say that something is A-OK, and that's the case here. The narrative (which in this sections is basically the older Fin thinking back, not a hormone-addled teenager -not that that's an excuse!) at no point considers the impact of these pranks on the women they're aimed at. It's all about the boys. At no point is it acknowledged that spying on a naked woman is a violation of her. Who cares about that! And that is what I found so offensive.

So much as I enjoyed the plot and the setting, I'm not sure I want to read further in this series, or in May's backlist. Things like pacing and characterisation and plotting are problems that can be fixed with experience, but not this sort of attitude towards women that can just permeate a book. We'll see. I might yet feel in the mood for Lewis again and choose to grit my teeth through the problematic bits.

MY GRADE: A C+, one that's very much balancing the aspects I loved and those I hated.

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