Review: THE FACELESS by Vanda Symon

thefacelessBilly is a young homeless woman living on the streets of Auckland. Her favourite thing to do is create street art. Beautiful street art; Billy is no tagger. Occasionally – to fund art supplies or food – she will sell her body. It’s a means to an end and she does it on her terms.

Max is homeless too. Much older than Billy he looks out for her as well as a man who’s checked out of regular life can. In fact the unlikely pair look out for each other. Which is why Max makes a fuss – does things he really doesn’t want to do – when Billy fails to come ‘home’ – the alley where the pair sleep on flattened boxes.

Bradley is a disgruntled office worker. His boss piles on the pressure at work and his wife nags incessantly at home. One evening he’s had enough and decides to pick up a prostitute. Billy. But instead of the release he seeks he becomes embarrassed and takes all his frustrations out on Billy.

I suppose authors hate people like me. People who buy their books then forget to read them for four years. Better than not buying the book at all I suppose. But still. Shame on me for neglecting this excellent novel for so long. Although sadder and more poignant than I anticipated based on my reading of Symon’s police procedural series, this standalone novel is a cracker of a read.

What impressed me most was the way each character is so well realised. It would – I imagine – have been much easier for Symon to use stereotypes and manipulation to lead the reader into feeling a certain way about each of her three main characters. But she takes the tougher route of giving each person a range of personal qualities and allowing us to really understand how they came to be at the point in their lives where we meet them. Even though he is clearly the least sympathetic of the main characters Bradley is not the caricature of evil that psychopaths often are in less nuanced thrillers. I can’t begin to endorse the choices he makes but Symon does make me see how plausible it is for good people to turn bad and thus provides a much scarier and more sobering villain than the italics-written freaks beloved by modern publishing. I can’t help looking at my office colleagues a lot more warily just now, wondering which of them might be a Bradley in the making.

The story too is cleverly constructed. It unfolds from multiple perspectives, sometimes overlapping and providing different views of the same events, sometimes leaving tiny gaps which result in tension and doubt for the reader. This is a great technique when it works and Symon has mastered it. And this is not one of those books in which the ending is inevitable; until the very end there is uncertainty about whether there will be a satisfactory – let alone positive – resolution for anyone we meet.

In short THE FACELESS is a cracking read. It balances a decently paced story with thoughtful character development and deftly addresses some topical issues such as the experience of homelessness in our modern communities. Strongly recommended.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Penguin [2012]
ISBN 9780143567202
Length 324 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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3 Responses to Review: THE FACELESS by Vanda Symon

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    So glad you enjoyed this, Bernadette. That’s one thing I really like about the way Symon writes: you do get to know the characters quite well. And it isn’t easy at all to make a character like Bradley comprehensible, let alone sympathetic. I give Symon a lot of credit for doing that.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. tracybham says:

    This does sound interesting, Bernadette, and I read one of your reviews of her series books. I will have to keep an eye out for affordable copies.

    Liked by 1 person

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