The Reflection by Hugo Wilcken

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Reviewed by Annabel

In this review, I could just make a list of the all the great noir novels and movies and their authors that went through my mind as I was reading Hugo Wilcken’s new novel, The Reflection. It would be a long list, with Alfred Hitchcock firmly established at the top, probably followed by Patricia Highsmith. In his acknowledgments at the end of the novel, Wilcken cites The Deadly Percheron by John Franklin Bardin (1946) as a particular influence, a novel with which I am not familiar (but now want to read). Although The Reflection is set a few years after WWII, I could sense some distinct echoes of Paul Auster’s more modern New York Trilogy in there too… tantalised yet?

A glance at the rather distinctive photo treatment on the cover will show you that this novel is about a dual identity – but is it about a man with a double life, is it a case of mistaken identity as in North by Northwest, or is it something more sinister like a split personality or doppelganger?

In true noir style, the story is narrated by the main protagonist, Dr David Manne, a psychiatrist – ‘a peculiarly unsatisfactory field, where patients rarely became better and often became worse.’ Manne has just found out that his ex-wife of some years ago, an actress, has died. He walks towards Central Park to take stock:

The sky had cleared; the sun sat low in the sky. The scene before me was like a stage set for my epiphany after the shock of Abby’s death. I was waiting for some sort of catharsis, but nothing came. …

After the failure of my marriage, I’d waited for the moment when the pieces would fit together, when I’d know what to make of my life and how to go on. Somehow, that moment had never arrived.

Returning to his office, Manne feels as if he is being followed. Later, he is called by D’Angelo, a police officer whom he’d first met years ago in college. D’Angelo needs his help to certify a disturbed man accused of threatening his wife with a broken bottle. Manne is used to acting as a consultant to the police and heads off to the apartment in the Lower East Side where the suspect is. The man there insists he is not who they say he is; they say he is Esterhazy, he says he’s Smith. Despite everything about the apartment feeling wrong, Manne, still discombobulated by Abby’s death, signs the papers.

When he finds out that Esterhazy/Smith wasn’t sent to the usual psychiatric hospital but a private uptown institute, Manne’s unease keeps increasing, to the extent that manages to spring the patient from there and takes him back to his flat, where the drugged man lies virtually comatose on his bed.

Needing to sort things out, Manne leaves the flat. He becomes certain he’s still being followed when he has an awful accident on the subway. Did he fall (or even jump), or was he pushed?

He wakes in a hospital bed, with his head bandaged. The doctors all think he’s someone else – he had Esterhazy’s wallet in his pocket. They don’t believe that he’s Dr Manne. They won’t let him go either. He’s in a mental institution himself now – he knows the game, he knows how to play it to get out – it means going along with who they say he is …  but is that really him?

The Reflection has all the hallmarks of a  classic noir novel: a narrator in crisis, a psychological drama, a femme fatale (or two), a whole string of coincidences that are anything but and a sense that everything is being stage-managed to turn the protagonist into one of his patients, which he must resist, whatever the cost.

We are as confused as the narrator himself as he repeatedly jumps through all the hoops, going round and round in circles. It’s cleverly done with some panache. The only drawback is that Manne is rather humourless and frankly a bit boring which meant that by the end of the novel I didn’t quite care enough about him, which is a shame as the initial premise was fantastic. The Reflection is, however, an interesting exercise in which nothing is actually in black and white, less noir, more greying.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books  

Read an article by Hugo Wilcken about immersing himself mentally in his locations in our BookBuzz section here.

Hugo Wilcken, The Reflection (Melville House UK: London, 2015) 9780992876562, 236pp., hardback.

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