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A paranormal romance that seems to go nowhere: NVK, by Temple Drake, reviewed

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

11 April 2020

9:00 AM

NVK Temple Drake

Titan Books, pp.330, 8.99

NVK, which is the IATA (International Air Transport Association) code for Narvik’s old airport, is in this instance Naemi Vieno Kuusela, a Finnish femme fatale whom we first meet in this novel in North Karelia in 1579 and later in the company of Zhang Guo Xing, a wealthy Chinese businessman, in a Shanghai nightclub in 2012. This surely offers a clue about her. But, as she says on page 118:

You think you know what I am. You have no idea. I’m not in any of your books. You try to catch me. Your hands grasp empty air. I’m not a story you can tell.

That doesn’t sound like a promising basis for a novel, but its author gives it a go. Unlike NVK, we know at least who he is, because the biographical note declares that Temple Drake is ‘the pen-name of acclaimed author Rupert Thomson’. Disguising yourself while surreptitiously announcing who you are — a theme of this book — is now a ploy of writers to declare that they are marching into genre but taking their literary kitbag along for the trip. No doubt there is some marketing reason for this that is churlish to object to, but in practice the results are often less innovative or stylish than those not steeped in the genre imagine, while frequently failing to impress fans of the field.

That field, I suppose, is paranormal romance, though Zhang’s intermittent, cagey encounters with Naemi are driven by increasing obsession, and attended by attempts to understand how we make (or fail to make) human connections, not hearts and flowers. These efforts are limited by the not-quite-answered question of to what extent Naemi is human.

Without divulging too much, she isn’t a conventional vampire (though she has no reflection — something, oddly, which is never noticed by the other characters) or an obvious demon, though Mad Dog, one of Zhang’s friends, immediately identifies her as one. More of a problem is that she doesn’t come together as a character; but then neither does anyone else. For a tale of passion, and one in which atmosphere is for the most part effectively and eerily conveyed, everyone remains slightly cold, detached and bloodless.

The plot meanders, with much extraneous description, towards a surprising denouement that seems to spark some revelation in the protagonist — though I’m not sure that it’s adequately conveyed. More annoyingly, it rests upon a character briefly seen at the beginning and then hardly mentioned again.

The total effect is stylish enough and, since this is the beginning of a series, it may be that its aimless quality will be resolved if more details snap into place in later books. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch’s films — all very moody, but to what purpose? Still, you might find this offbeat ghost story haunting or even poetic — and at least there’s no danger of confusing its superior prose with Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series.

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