July 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

Always by Nicola Griffith

I read Nicola Griffith’s new novel, Always, expecting a mystery with a conventional female investigator, a la Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, as protagonist. What I found instead was a story built on dual plotlines, one current and one in the recent past, which take the reader into the heart of one woman and her uncompromisingly complicated life. Aud Torvingen is like no protagonist in fiction, male or female, and her complexity makes for fascinating fiction. Throw in a domestic violence subplot, some romance, some mystery, and the always difficult nature of mother/daughter relationships, and in Always you have a rare combination of genres that together make excellent fiction, and even better reading.

Always is actually the third novel starring Aud, but I read it as a standalone with no confusion at all. She has recently arrived in Seattle with her close friend Dornan to look into some troubling developments with real estate investments that she inherited from her father. It’s a pain-in-the-ass kind of problem and not the sort of thing that Aud wants to deal with, but as it happens her mother and brand new stepfather are also going to be in Seattle for business, so the trip is an opportunity for a perfunctory meeting. Aud is resolved to the old uncomfortableness of every other interaction with her mother.

Instead of lulling readers along with the Seattle plotline and letting the tension slowly build, Griffith introduces a second plot, set in Aud’s home of Atlanta, in the second chapter. Alternating back and forth between chapters, this story about Aud teaching a women’s self defense course slowly unfolds with the reader knowing that something is coming -- that all of this discourse on violence and women who have never been taught to raise a hand in anger finding the courage to fight men is certainly leading somewhere. The Atlanta chapters are striking on their own, both for the insight they provide into Aud’s life and emotions and for the interplay between her and her students, but as the Seattle story becomes more dangerous the tension in both plot lines begins to build. Ultimately each of them erupts, but the way they do is more than a bit surprising, both for Aud and the readers. Nothing is wasted in Always, and all of it contributes to Aud’s story.

In Seattle it is all about the real estate and the reality that someone she trusted financially is stealing from her. Her need to clean up the mess draws her to the property in question, a warehouse that has been rented out to a group making a television pilot. There she meets Kick, former stuntwoman turned caterer. Aud feels an instant attraction but is unsure if Kick does as well, and then her friend Dornan seems to connect very quickly with Kick, which is both an annoyance and a concern. It is clear that Aud has few close friends and she prizes her relationship with Dornan a great deal. Is it worth it to pursue Kick at the risk of hurting her friend? And she can’t resist being frustrated and angry that they both should find the same woman appealing. All of this spins the plot in a whole other way, which becomes even more complicated as Kick’s personal problems take center stage.

The fact that someone nearly kills Aud and a lot of other people at the set one day just means she is in pretty poor shape to work all of this social behavior out. She’s also pissed off and the fun part of the novel starts when Aud kicks butt. Watching her unravel just who is doing what and how is as enjoyable as any well-written thriller, but always in the background is that unfolding story from before, in Atlanta, and the knowledge that something happened there to make Aud a bit more cautious; something happened to bruise her just a little.

That lingering emotional caution along with an apparent inability to think before acting, prompts more than one problem with everyone she is trying to get close to. Thus the reader sees Aud fail with the ones she loves while simultaneously succeed brilliantly in the most difficult of dangerous situations. She is not perfect, in fact she is clearly a work in progress, but Griffith is so good at allowing Aud to evolve. Watching her fight her way along is both interesting and exciting. In fact I would say that it is the personal drama which really carries the book here, and the mystery is the part that keeps things from slowing down. The blend of the two makes for a very fast-paced reading experience and certainly shows Griffith as an accomplished writer who pulls out all the stops to keep her readers both engaged and challenged from start to finish.

Aud is supremely confident: she’s wealthy, physically strong and damn smart, but she worries over what to wear as she goes to meet her mother; she worries that Kick will not choose her when she so very much wants to be chosen. At one point in the self defense class she asks her students what the words feminine, ladylike and womanly really mean. They run through a list of predictable responses: soft, kind, nice, motherly, until one of them says “vulnerable,” and that word alone encompasses everything they said before. In more than one instance in Always Aud seems to be totally invulnerable and yet, just as many times, she is also most certainly physically or emotionally vulnerable. This ongoing struggle with strength and weakness makes her a character both to admire and, more importantly, understand. Aud is not a warrior; she is a woman, and the way in which she embraces that term and makes it her own is what I truly loved about this book.

I’m still thinking about Always and Aud and Kick and what I think about the choices they made. That’s the true hallmark of a good book for me; one that lingers long after the final page is turned. Well done Ms. Griffith on such a good story and engaging heroine -- and please, write some more.

Always by Nicola Griffith
Riverhead Books
ISBN 1594489351
480 pages