Reviewed by Anna Hollingsworth
Admitted, to say that the world has shrunk into a village has shrunk into a cliché itself. But the cliché is painfully accurate, and Lesley Glaister’s The Squeeze plays out the global village in its most brutal sense.
Glaister squeezes Europe into an Edinburgh brothel, where global human rights violations and personal issues become – quite literally – bed mates. One night, Marta and Mats find themselves together in a grotty room in said brothel. Marta is there as a result of human trafficking: the Romanian girl living in post-Communist poverty is swept off her feet by promises of a better life, only to witness her dreams of university change into a nightmare of forced prostitution. She joins the ranks of countless other girls asking the same question and facing the same disillusionment:
“Never did I trust a guy before, but this one, he said he loved me and I believed him! What happened to my brain that day? He said I was his girlfriend, the special one, and then I remember nothing for a while. Maybe a drug in my wine or my coffee. How do I know? I woke up in the dark with a pain in my head.”
Mats, on the other hand, is a high-flying Norwegian businessman who finds himself with Marta after boozy after-work drinks. His marriage no.2 is on the fast track to being stranded – even if it has given Mats the children which he was hoping for, and which his first wife and love of his life didn’t want to have with him. What ensues is a moral hangover of sorts. To relieve his guilt, Mats goes on a mission to save Marta, and soon becomes entangled in crime and a web of lies on a scale much larger than he could have envisaged.
While the implications of the one-night encounter are only possible in a global village, the larger problems are ultimately tales of individuals. As the implications of the nightly encounter seep out of the bedroom, personal stories become intertwined in a way that shows Glaister’s forte for multi-voiced story-telling: there’s Vivienne, Mats’ new wife, who grapples with post-natal depression; there’s Alis, Marta’s companion in the brothel; and eventually, Mats’s children, revisiting the events that happened when they were too little to understand them. Glaister navigates the chapters told from different perspectives with dexterity, hopping fluently from anguished Mats to disillusioned Marta to erratic Vivienne:
“Hate the sound of my own voice. Shouldn’t listen. Don’t listen till you’re ready. Sue said. And you might not ever need to listen. The therapy is the speaking. Getting it out there. Getting it out where?”
Glaister writes with an intensity that is maintained throughout the different narratives. The Squeeze is very much not a comfortable read: the brutal honesty and intensity of describing oppression push the reader out of their comfort zone. A particularly strong, even suffocating, psychological effect comes from how the characters much of the time drift through the plot, seemingly unable to affect the course of their lives:
“He looked at his watch: 1:40. No time for a sandwich now, he must go right back. As he passed a café, the smell of pizza made him hungry. She reached Princes St and crossed the road. He had to wait and once he was across, she was lost to him. OK. Good. Leave it. Go. But there was a gap in the railings, steps down to the gardens, maybe… just a quick look. What did he hope to gain from this? It was crazy. But it was where his feet took him.”
Where The Squeeze falls slightly short of excellent is that just as the characters remain distant from any authority over their lives, there is a bit too much distance between the author and her characters. The reader cannot, ultimately, quite reach to the characters. Their motives have an out-of-the-blue feel to them more often than not, robbing the novel of actual psychological plausibility. Perhaps it is the parallel weaving of multiple narratives that does it, but the characters remain as acquaintances rather than friends. A shame, as the characters and their stories are so complex that the reader wants to befriend them and to understand more.
Another cliché, ‘a haunting narrative’, attaches itself to the The Squeeze: it is particularly powerful read against the current political climate, bringing a whole new gravitas to the cliché of global village. It takes the reader well beyond their comfort zone, but it is every bit worth the discomfort.
Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.
Lesley Glaister, The Squeeze (Salt, 2017). 978-1784631161, 304 pp., hardback.
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