Shadows the Sizes of Cities

Shadows the Sizes of Cities, Gregory W. BeaubienWritten by Gregory W Beaubien — In this tension-filled debut thriller, you get rather quickly to the point where you don’t trust anyone – and that includes first-person narrator Will Clark, who claims to be a travel writer from Chicago. Yet it always seems possible that he might be something more.

The book starts in Madrid, where Will is waiting to hook up with three friends for a trip to Morocco, where he has a writing assignment. He’s working for a publication that’s just declined to hire him permanently and seems to be following some agenda of his own. Mostly, he needs money. Will is preoccupied with ‘the Dutchman’s offer’, a mysterious phrase invoked a couple of times too many, though when the explanation finally comes, it turns the story on its head.

If you don’t trust Will, you certainly don’t trust his clueless and irresponsible friends. There’s Tammy, the spoiled rich girl accustomed to having the world itself bend to her wishes, and her loser (Will’s opinion) Irish boyfriend Nigel. Author Gregory W Beaubien does a convincing job in establishing the nationhood of these characters through dialog too. Nor do you trust Will’s women – the unpleasant Marissa, especially, and the woman he’s recently met, Stacy, whom he’s really attracted to. Stacy keeps turning up, her cool blonde beauty a salve to Will’s overheated spirit, but who is she, really? Even the incidental characters exude menace. Sometimes their interactions are overlaid with an untrustworthy surface charm, but the bad guys dispense with any pretense.

Tammy, Nigel, Will and Marissa meet up in Madrid before heading across the Strait of Gibraltar to Tangier, in Morocco. The couple recklessly embroil Will and Marissa in a small-town drug deal that goes frightfully south. People are dead, and the escape south to Marrakech is risky. But wherever in the country Will goes, is he really safe? I really don’t want to say more about the fast-moving plot, to let you discover its surprises for yourself.

Much of the excitement in reading the book is that the story – and Will – are never predictable. You can’t be sure where you’ll end up geographically, morally, or metaphorically. If there’s a fault in the writing, it is that Beaubien (via Will) tends to name the emotions he’s feeling, rather than letting you discern them through his hero’s actions.

I really appreciated the novel’s sort of fractured approach, where everything seems slightly off-kilter. To me, this strategy rather realistically suggests the confusion you would feel in a country where you don’t know the language, where the customs are strange, where everyone looks at you funny, where there’s a backdrop of casual violence directed toward ‘rich’ Americans, and where the dangers from both the police and the drug gangs are absolutely real.

Beaubien is a journalist and has a reporter’s eye for descriptive detail that takes you right to where you feel the gritty desert, the heat, and the hostile stares of the men in tea shops. You see the austere beauty of the land. You smell the fetid toilets. If you’ve been to Morocco, you will experience it all again, down to the hair-raising trek over the Atlas mountains. If you haven’t, you’ll believe you have. This dense atmosphere is one of the book’s most compelling aspects.

You never really learn how Will acquired his fighting skills or whether there is more to his agenda than appears on the surface. Beaubien takes advantage of using a first-person narrative to let Will tell you exactly what and how much he wants you to know.

Moresby Press
Print/Kindle
£2.54

CFL Rating: 4 Stars

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