Orient by Christopher Bollen

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Reviewed by Alice Farrant

Orient, murder mystery come introspective character novel, is Christopher Bollen’s second literary offering. Set on the North Fork of Long Island in the town of Orient, the novel follows the shocking deaths within a seemingly harmless and peaceful community. Our protagonists Mills Chevern and Beth Shepard form an unlikely bond between village-born and outsider as Mills is accused of murder.

This is how I first saw you, Long Island, on a map in the front seat of Paul Benchley’s car. Like the body of a woman floating in the New York harbour.

Mills, a down-on-his-luck foster kid, is brought to Orient from New York by resident Paul Benchley. He is quickly distrusted by almost all of the community, except Beth, a failed artist who has returned to Orient with her husband Gavril. Beth takes Mills under her wing as she determinedly attempts to discover who is responsible for the deaths in her town.

This is a novel that picks apart the small-town mind set, where to be a true member of the community you need at least five generations worth of roots. The reaction of the ‘year-rounders’ (permanent residents of Orient) to any invasion of their town from outsiders was reminiscent of racist or prejudice attitudes. The watchful eye of the Orient residents is uncomfortably familiar.

 I have as much right to be there as you do. You think because you are born here you have a right to ask me who I like and don’t like, and call my wife by her first name but me by my second?

Effortlessly capturing the public/private divide the orient ‘year-rounds’ try to navigate, Bollen conveys the ease with which you can spread fear amongst a small community. No private life is ever as much exposed as it is in a small town environment, where it is near impossible not to know everyone else’s business. Like Chinese whispers, rumours spread through Orient. A community weakness exploited by author, ‘year-rounders’, and the killer.

To Pam, the threat of city encroachment was real and visceral; she actually pictured Orient as a kind of tapestry, its land shaped like a flame, unravelling at every waft and edge, leaving only a few remaining threads to hold the illusion of an unspoilt image.

When it comes to language, Bollen’s use of prose is luscious. His descriptions of a bleak New England landscape, though expressive, never feel superfluous, washing over the characters and leaving them with a lifelike veneer.

She was porous, and the wall was solid, and a million distractions blew through her and left her leaning on the table.

All the residents of Orient are reminiscent of reality, their secrets each cleverly pointing towards guilt or murder, yet it is the main characters who breathe humanity into the story. Mills is a nineteen-year-old drug addict, a boy lost in the cracks of care system. His sexuality is a theme of the novel, but fortunately not in a position that would make it tokenism. Mills often feels older than his years, which is as frustrating as it is understandable.

It was hard not to adore Mills. Discovering the murderer quickly became unimportant in comparison to securing his innocence.

Beth is a young artist, talented but restrained. Bollen portrays Beth as a reluctant expectant mother, layering her with different feelings of desire and regret. Her pregnancy, though planned, is sudden and intrusive. Stepping into the world of motherhood is also a step away from creating art, she has run from her demons by retreating to where they originated. Beth represents a multitude of feelings many women experience when expecting without being limited to an object of discourse. By investigating the deaths in her community Beth is able to escape her pregnancy fears, avoiding the inevitable.

Orient’s mystery is a complicated one, and once you peel back its layers everything becomes immediately clear. Bollen encourages the reader to look in a variety of directions, and even the false leads have clues pointing towards the solution. Property plans, mistaken information and misshapen animals reminiscent of sci-fi novels all play their part. What begins to feel complicated and fantastical soon swerves back to reality.

Orient is surprising, a ‘whodunit’ that embraces characterisation and descriptive language. With distinct characters and a page-turning mystery, it is a novel that will leave you contemplative in the hours and days after you finish reading it.

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Christopher Bollen, Orient, (Simon & Schuster: London, 2015). 978-1471136146, 624pp., hardback.

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