Plays within plays. Movies within movies. Books within books. It’s a familiar path for artists to tread when they want to offer us mere mortals a glimpse inside their respective heads. But in her new standalone novel CROSSING THE LINES Sulari Gentill dives into this meta world with an audacity that few would dare to attempt and even fewer could hope to pull off with such aplomb. A rare thing indeed is a book with a great premise that is fully realised.
About the only thing that is without doubt for readers is that CROSSING THE LINES is a book about a writer and their fictional creation. What is far less obvious is which is which. On one hand crime writer Madeleine d’Leon is taking a break from her successful historical series to write a mystery featuring a new character: reluctant, amateur investigator Edward (Ned) McGinnity. But then we also read a story by Ned McGinnity: a literary novelist writing a book about lawyer-turned-crime writer Madeleine d’Leon. This kind of double twist could easily have become a gimmick-laden mess, but in Gentill’s disciplined yet creative hands the complex plot truly sings. From the first page describing the transformation of a fictional character from pre-thought to an almost living person, right through to its unexpectedly sad but, in hindsight, inevitable ending.
I am not one of those readers who sees – or tries to see – biographical elements from the author’s life hidden in every book. I’m happy not to know which characters or plot lines spring from the imagination and which have a basis in reality. But even I couldn’t fail to observe that CROSSING THE LINES must surely be presenting at least some version of Sulari Gentill’s life and not only because Madeleine d’Leon is a lawyer-turned-writer and attends a local writer’s festival with the very real Australian crime writer, Angela Savage. It is the way in which Gentill depicts her authors’ first getting to know their respective fictional creations then slowly becoming obsessed – consumed even – by them that gives the game away.
Madeleine imagines her fictional Edward into being in this passage
She could see him sitting on the open deck of his expensive beach house, oblivious to the ocean view as he worked on the great Australian novel. She smiled. Of course he would write longhand, every word chosen after consideration, deliberation and requisite suffering.
I loved the way these fictional authors are depicted as knowing their characters more deeply than some people in their real lives. But even more enjoyable is when the creations surprise their creators, such as when Edward discovers that, like Sulari Gentill herself, Madeleine comes from a Sri Lankan background
Edward put down his pen. Realisation. Surprise. Why had he not noticed that Madeleine had eastern heritage? She was brown. He could see it when he looked at her now, but he hadn’t noticed it before. She looked a little-like Harigini, the Sri Lankan exchange student he’d known at school.
But it is the hold these creations develop over their creators that is even more memorable. Is Madeleine’s need to tell Edward’s story what all authors feel?
Madeleine closed her eyes and waited for Edward McGinnity, called him from that part of her soul where stories were held awaiting release.
It seemed odd to be thinking of Stephen King and Sulari Gentill as having any kind of authorial similarity but I was reminded of THE DARK HALF more than once when reading this book. The two novels share a sensibility in exploring the darkness that can – perhaps often does? – arise when an author becomes unwilling, or unable, to separate fact from fiction. It’s delicious stuff in both cases.
Like both of her fictional creations Sulari Gentill has departed from her usual fare with CROSSING THE LINES but the result is highly satisfactory. There are two intriguing storylines to unfold, multiple engaging characters to meet and genuine insight into the inner life of an author to be had. Top stuff.
This is the 9th book I’ve read and reviewed for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challenge check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.
Publisher: Pantera Press, 2017
Length: 257 pages
Source of review copy: Provided by the publisher