The Girl with a Clock for a Heart by Peter Swanson

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Reviewed by Harriet

Liana was not simply an ex-girlfriend who had once upon a time broken George’s heart; she was also, as far as George still knew, a wanted criminal. . . . She had, without doubt, murdered one person and mostly likely murdered another.

Back in Shiny 5 I reviewed Peter Swanson’s second novel, The Kind Worth Killing. I enjoyed it enormously and in fact my enthusiasm for it was so great that I got hold of this one, his debut, and plunged in straight away.  It’s just now appeared in paperback, so I was happy to revisit it.

The Kind Worth Killing was told in chapters narrated by several different alternating narrators, and this one uses a similar device, except that this time we are constantly moving between two timeframes, the present day and a past about twenty years earlier. The main protagonist is George Foss, who is now the manager of a small Boston literary magazine. When George was eighteen and in his first year at a small New England college, he had fallen deeply in love with his first ever girlfriend. Imagine his desperation, then, when in the Christmas vacation he had heard that Audrey had committed suicide. Unable to settle to anything, he had rushed off to her Florida home, only to discover that the girl who killed herself was not the girl he knew as Audrey. Gradually the truth behind this bizarre deception had started to emerge, and he had discovered that ‘his’ Audrey was in fact Liana Decter, a girl from a highly dysfunctional background. But then Liana had disappeared. 

Back in the present, it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that George has never really got over Liana. He’s still unmarried, and though he has a delightful on-off girlfriend he’s unable to commit to her. He just can’t stop thinking about Liana, and has thought many times over the past twenty years, mistakenly, that he’s spotted her in a bar or a café. Then one day, he actually does. But, though initially thrilled to be reunited with her, he soon discovers that she’s using him in a big way. She tells him she’s in trouble, and asks him to deliver a large wad of banknotes to someone she stole them from. Most people would say no, but poor besotted George agrees, and soon things turn from bad to worse to much much worse. There are violent hit men, tranquilliser darts, dead bodies and kidnappings galore in store for George, but despite it all he can’t seem to break himself of his addiction to a woman who he knows very well is astonishingly bad news:

It was a gift, a specialty, a talent. She could become someone else, and she could then just as easily kill what she became, taking out whoever happened to be in the way. And if transformation was her special talent, then George knew what had attracted Liana to him was that he was someone who would never transform. He would always be the same.

‘He would always be the same‘ — this is really the clue to George, I suppose. He isn’t anyone special, just an ordinary, slightly depressed sort of bloke getting on with his life as best he can. Liana, on the other hand, is a crook of the first order. Completely lacking in morals, she blithely dashes through life, making use of anyone who happens to come in handy, and disposing of them when they have outlived their usefulness. The book’s rather curious title is the way George describes Liana to himself towards the end, though I couldn’t quite see what it meant apart from the obvious fact that she’s completely heartless. 

There’s a lot of fun to be had in this novel, and excitement of a decidedly noir-ish kind. The novel has been optioned for a film, though who knows whether that will be made or how it will turn out. I shall certainly be looking out for Peter Swanson’s next novel. 

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Harriet is one of the Co-Founders and an editor of Shiny New Books.

Peter Swanson, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart (Faber & Faber, 2016). 978-0571331307, 352pp., paperback.

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