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Geoff Nicholson: The Miranda
I have read all of Geoff Nicholson’s novels and have enjoyed them all. They are quirky, funny (usually black humour) and very English, which, in least in part, explains why he has had limited success in the United States. This novel is not quirky, not funny and not English. Moreover, it is dark in tone. The book is set in the United States. The characters are American, as is the language. So if you are expecting the standard Geoff Nicholson, as I was, you will be in for something of a surprise.
Our narrator (I hesitate to call him a hero) is the blandly named Joe Johnson. We learn early on that he had been a torturer. His father had been in the military and father and son did not get on. Joe was interested in psychology and became a successful psychotherapist. He started to see and treat former military men, those suffering from post-traumatic stress order and then those who had been captured and tortured. Gradually, through word of mouth, he saw and treated more torture victims, though claiming no special expertise in that area.
He saw one man twice. The man barely spoke and, after the second visit, Joe learned that he had killed himself. He then got a visit from someone from the Team called Christine Vargas, who asked him to see men (and the occasional woman) who were destined to go to areas where they might be captured and tortured. This turned out to be a waste of time for both sides. Vargas then made a proposition. He should take these people and torture them (sensory and sleep deprivation, bright light and loud noise, electric shocks, simple physical assault—the punch to the gut, the blow to the head, the belt around the neck, the dog whip). This would continue till, essentially, they could take no more. Apparently it did help those few that were subsequently captured and tortured, though there were some failures or, more specifically, one serious failure. Incidentally, Joe himself went through the procedure himself.
Eventually, not surprisingly, Joe had had enough. He retired, with a retirement package, not overly generous but enough to live on. The stress of the job had caused his marriage to break up and Carole, his ex-wife, got the house so Joe had to look for somewhere else to live. He finds a small house a couple of hours upstate from the Big Smoke. For me, the Big Smoke is London but, according to this Wikipedia page in the US it refers to San Francisco.
The house has a reasonable sized garden. It has neighbours on three sides. On one side is an artist, Wendy, and her niece. On the other side is Big Paul, a security guard, his wife Renee (who takes a shine to Joe) and their son Small Paul who, at Renee’s request, Joe will make a half-hearted attempt at educating. At the back, with a large fence separating them is an empty house in poor condition but soon after Joe’s arrival a group of unruly young men move in. Joe and the young men will have issues throughout the book.
It is while shopping that he meets Miranda. Miranda is handing out flyers, offering to do odd jobs. Joe hates shopping so he engages Miranda to do his shopping for him. Miranda is a would-be mixologist, i.e bartender who makes cocktails, and her ambition is to invent a special cocktail which will, of course, be called The Miranda. She experiments with Joe and at his expense (he pays for the alcoholic drinks she buys for her experiments.)
Joe likes walking and would like to walk around the world. He realises that this is impossible because there is too much water in the way. The Earth is almost exactly 40,000 kilometres in circumference (the circumference of the Earth was the basis for calculating the metre) which equates to approximately 25,000 miles. He therefore decides to walk 25,000 miles around his garden. He reckons he can do twenty-five miles a day so it should take him a thousand days. And off he goes, to the bemusement and amusement of his neighbours. Miranda goes along with it, taking his shopping order as he walks.
While he is doing this, we learn about other walkers (Buddha, Freud, Albert Speer) and we learn more about his past. In particular, one of his volunteers went rogue and Joe and this man have clashed. Joe has hoped that he has escaped him by coming here. We follow his relationship with Miranda, the escalation of his relationship with the unruly back fence neighbours, his relationship with Darrell, the Buddhist postman, his relationship with Renee and the Pauls, and Wendy’s desire to turn him and his walk into an art work.
Joe does a bit of self-psychology which is not terribly successful. He seems to be swing between being a tough guy loner and being (or trying to be) a relatively normal human being, who has, buried away, a heart though perhaps not a soul. He does not seem too perturbed by aggravation or the prospect of aggravation. Indeed, on occasions, he seems to relish it.
One area where Nicholson has not changed is the complex plot with various twists and the inevitable quasi-apocalyptic finale with many of the various characters coming together and bodies everywhere.
Nicholson tells a good and fairly complicated story with interesting plot twists and keeps us guessing to the end. However, with torture and brutality being its main and recurrent theme, I cannot say that I enjoyed it as much as his earlier work, though perhaps I am getting too soft-hearted in my old age and Nicholson’s story is a reflection of our modern times.
First published 2017 by Unnamed Press