“Lies are spindly, unwieldy things. Delicate filaments, like bundles of nerves in the body. Easy to twist, hard to control, impossible to keep hold of.”
It’s already apparent we’ve got a lot of pandemic media headed our way. All the long-running TV series, of course, tried to grapple with it immediately, mostly poorly, and we’ve had a few films jump at the chance as well. Emma Donoghue’s Pull of the Stars, despite being about the 1918 flu and being released in summer 2020, was not a pandemic novel, but another Irish novelist has stepped up to the plate with an offering: Catherine Ryan Howard with 56 Days. Except, thankfully, it’s not really a pandemic novel, in the sense that it’s not really about covid-19: it’s mystery/thriller that takes place during the early days of lockdown, over the course of some 56 days from the time that Ciara and Oliver meet by chance in a corner shop in Dublin, to when a body is discovered in Oliver’s apartment. In between, the two lonely twenty-somethings, spurred by lockdown, neither with any family in Dublin, opt to move in together, despite their relationship being only a couple weeks old. A few weeks later, a body is found decomposing in Oliver’s apartment, and whose it is and how they died is the mystery propelling us onward (in the company of sardonic DI Leah Riordan and her partner, DS Karl Connolly, a hilarious certified fuckboy).
Howard has a deft hand with suspense and pacing, and she jumbles the timeline of the story to strong effect: at first we are following Ciara in the past, as well as Leah in the present as she begins investigating; eventually, though, we jog backwards a little again and pick up with Oliver’s perspective, at which point it becomes clear that he has some serious secrets. Eventually, we start to guess that perhaps Ciara does too. And Howard continues to string us along tantalizingly until the pieces come together.
It’s not secrets I like. It’s discovering things that are new to me but actually were always there. Secrets are a different thing. They’re destructive.
That, however, is where it gets a bit messy; Howard doubles back on herself again to keep this thriller appropriately thrilling, and I have to admit that I get a bit fussy when a novelist plays tricks on the reader like this. The secrets aren’t being withheld so much by the characters as by the author, and thus it is less of a twist where, in hindsight, everything comes clear, and more of an act of manipulation on the part of the writer, forcing a conclusion on you by withholding past the point of plausibility. Am I being coy? Probably, but annoyed as I am at this narrative tactic, I also don’t want to spill the beans. After all, aside from this, Howard does indeed craft an intriguing narrative, and until the last 15% or so of the novel, it’s a fantastic ride. Her sense of pacing and character are very strong, and while I’m dissatisfied by the end of this book, I respect the rest of her game enough that I’ll be keeping an eye out for her next novel.