Sunday, November 27, 2016


Coincidences happen.  As an urban legend enthusiast, I depend on that fact when I'm debunking stories that "can't have happened by chance."  As a mystery fan, I have a more complicated relationship with coincidences.  Too few and the novel becomes unrealistically sterile; too many and the coincidences are a crutch.  I thought about the coincidences in Grasshopper because the novel starts with one. Electrician Clodagh Brown goes out on a call and realizes that Mrs. Clarkson, who called her because "C. Brown" was at the top of the phone book listings, is Liv, the semi-fugitive Swedish nanny who was among those with whom Clodagh explored London roofs a dozen years earlier.  Back then Liv was agoraphobic, under the spell of her criminal boyfriend, and pining after Wim who'd started the crew on their roof-walking hobby.  Now she's "respectable" and tries to bribe Clodagh to keep her identity secret.  Clodagh refuses the money, but with some free time (her husband works for a relief charity and is doing field work), she opens up her old journals and writes the narrative of her first year  in London, with the perspective of time.

Clodagh's first meeting with Liv was also coincidental.  At 16, she started climbing the towers that hold electrical wires, and a year later that led to the death of her slightly younger (by a few months) boyfriend.  Depression and social ostracism led to poor A-level scores so her only option was a third-rate polytechnic and a program which did not interest her.  Living in the basement flat of a house owned by her mother's cousin and his wife (the star of an Eastenders style soap), she's isolated and miserable, a claustrophobic and depressed young woman living in what feels like a dank cave.  About to be expelled for non-attendance, she's on her way to a meeting with her advisor when police activity forces her to use the pedestrian tunnel where she has a panic attack and is rescued by Michael Silverman - Silver - the son of her cousin's neighbors and the resident of an attic flat in his parent's usually unoccupied house.

Silver is also about 20, but neither working nor in school.  He inherited money from his grandmother, enough to live on comfortably but not extravagantly, and he's assembled a small group of misfits who live with or drop in on him.  Liv is one of them, brought to Silver by Johnny, she's hiding the secret of the money she stole from her employers and hiding from her apparently reasonable parents.  Johnny is a  criminal (theft and assault), and others (Morna, Niall, Lucy) mainly students who came and went.  The one thing they shared was a love of rooftop exploration.  Led by Wim, they ran around London nearly 100 feet in the air.

That wouldn't be much of a story if they hadn't discovered a fugitive couple in one of the upper floor flats on their regular route.  Alison and Andrew wanted to adopt Jason, but child services decided that the bi-racial boy shouldn't be raised by two white parents so they abducted him.  Silver wants to help them, and Clodagh goes along with the plan.  But Alison and Andrew are not as they appear, and Silver discovers yet another coincidence just a little bit too late.

Ruth Rendell wrote Grasshopper 15 years ago, and that led to another level of analysis.  I'm about the same age as Clodagh, so I kept pulling back to my college years and seeing her story as I would have seen it back then.  Would a teenager obviously suffering from PTSD and depression after seeing her friend get electrocuted then fall to his death have been scolded rather than treated in the late 1980s?  Probably.  How about her parents' reaction to her claustrophobia?  Mine is not as severe as Clodagh's, but I get more eye-rolls than sympathy when I mention how difficult it is to drive through a tunnel under water or when I flinch at anything unexpectedly too close to my face.  She's reflecting at 32 and happy how she was at 20 and coming out of depression.  I kept wondering what Clodagh is like at 47.  It added to my enjoyment of a book that started slow but was definitely worthwhile.

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