There it is.
The blurred image of a man.
Standing. Stock still.
For one minute and
On the roof of a derelict Office Shop
There it is.
Emily Mackie’s second novel begins where it ends – with the death of her protagonist, Jacob Little. Although it’s not the end of the story, really it’s the middle. Confused? Let me explain.
The plot of In Search of Solace concerns Jacob Little, a 33-year-old man who arrives in a city in the Scottish Highlands looking for Solace, a woman he met at university. Since he left her, 11 years previously, Jacob has lived as many different men:
A different year, a different time, a different place, a different name. In 2004 he was Otto, a purple-bearded pagan dabbling in the occult. In 2005 he was theatre fanatic Benny Silverside. In 2006 he was known as both Simeon Lear the historian and Keith the archaeologist. In 2007 he was Isaac Featherstone, Teddy Two-Fingers and Graymalkin the street preacher. In 2008 he was Lambert the Christian and Teza the Buddhist. In 2009 he was Kenny Berk, Lindsay Ray, Trevor Bolter. In 2010 he was philosopher Eric Germain Huber and then later simply Archie the Alcoholic.
Now, back to being Jacob Little, he believes Solace is the only person who knows the real him and that’s why he needs to find her.
This isn’t just Jacob’s story though, it’s also the story of those who are affected by him during his search. We have teenager, Lucy, who works at the pub Jacob is lodging in; Big Sal, the owner of the pub; Elizabeth Mary Duda, the little girl who begins her own investigation into Solace’s whereabouts; Mr Benson, Jacob’s university landlord; Solace, and Jacob’s mother.
So there are interlinking plot strands and a host of vividly created characters but what really makes this book special is its form and structure.
Essentially, the novel’s structured like a jigsaw puzzle, one that when the pieces are put together in the correct way, reveal who Jacob Little is and why and how he affects the people around him. But to tell that story in a linear narrative would be to tell it in the same way as so many others. Instead, Mackie and her narrative voice lead us backwards and forwards through time. Sometimes the jumps are a number of years, sometimes they’re within the space of a few minutes to show the same scene from different viewpoints.
We should take ourselves closer, ogle from a better angle, and though it would be easy for me to finger-thumb click and take you into that room up there, I know there is little to see right now other than a skinny man in a long coat struggling with the latch on a window. Better to go back once more to the moment he arrived. But not with a click. No, not with a click. Please, reader, allow me some time to play.
Time is a key theme in the novel – how we exist in different times at the same time, in memory and conversation; how what happens in the past affects the future; how the actions of others affect our past and our future. Mackie considers whether it’s possible to erase the past, whether by becoming someone else or through death. It’s also a book about mental health and again, Mackie considers the affect of one person’s state of mind and the actions that result from this on another’s.
I finished In Search of Solace in a state of shock and awe. It’s a stunning book. Mackie tackles big, heavy, intellectual themes with a light touch. Despite its clever tone and fragmented structure, the characters and their stories shine through, the layers are there for you to delve into as deep as you wish. It’s an early call but I’ll be very disappointed if this isn’t on the Women’s Prize longlist next March.
Thanks to Sceptre for the review copy.