- Genre: science fiction
- Similar novels: China Mieville’s The City and The City
- My Rating: 9/10
I am going out on a limb and say that Dave Hutchinson loves Europe. He loves all those small Eastern European countries and all the various ethnic groups that brush shoulders there. I’d say he loves the deep, rich, sluggish history of Europe with all its strife and the long memories of struggle between cities and peoples; memories that still have an impact today. He loves the European rail network, that brings you everywhere on the continent within a few days, and the cosmopolitan feeling of it. He probably even sees romance in the rusting Polish industrial wastelands.
He probably also loves classical spy novels, such as those by John le Carré. He loves talking about Hungarians and Swiss and Poles and Estonians, doing sneaky business in dark alleys of Central European cities. Hutchinson is intelligent enough a writer to be very aware of the clichés that all this invokes. He has written a book full of intelligence and passion: passion for spy stories, for Europe, for sharp characters and for writing in general.
Rudi is an Estonian, working and wandering all over Europe, mostly working in kitchens. He is recruited step by step into the shadowy organization Les Coureurs des Bios, a spy network specialized in jumping borders for errands and messages. The Coureurs have their own spy jargon and their work is laced with intrigue and paranoia. Rudi learns on the job, is often double-crossed while he sinks deeper and deeper into the Coureur network.
And jumping borders has become a profession in this near future Europe. The continent has fractured into hundreds of small nations, with new ones popping up overnight. When even individual towns, pop-culture fan groups or football hooligans declare their own nation-states, red tape and bureaucracy has mushroomed into an epidemic. When borders rise up and close down, the very human impulse to travel and mingle with others fuels the Coureur network.
Hutchinson’s writing style is crisp and elegant. In fact, I cannot find any fault in it and I am thoroughly impressed with his characters, the pacing of the story and sudden twists, the realism of his environments, his humane observations and gentle wit. I’m overjoyed to feel so gripped by his writing. Hutchinson has long experience with writing short stories, and this novel is built up in a way where every chapter is constructed as a short story, finding Rudi at a new city again and having a new adventure.
Before long, the story starts making erratic jumps as it is tiptoeing around a central mystery. Hutchinson keeps us on edge constantly just because we are trying to understand what is going on. Rudi knows more than we do, but he now only appears on the margin of stories. I am sorry to say that Hutchinson’s choice of telling the story this way does some harm. The flow of the story is broken up because every chapter starts with new characters, and after a while I lost the feeling that I was reading a narrative that had any consistency, and I started to feel more insecure about how much I liked this novel.
Then it hit me. Fracture is the key word. Europe as a continent is fractured. And then reality, geography itself starts to fracture. And in this Europe, there is the railway, the Line, that stitches the continent together. The narrative is fractured in the same way, as it mirrors the reality that it is describing. Rudi’s clandestine adventures take place in the background with Rudi forming a line that stitches all the disparate story parts together. In this sense, the movements of the novel and its revelations make more sense.
This is a stunningly good novel that reads like a smooth whiskey and rocks you like one. It does help that I have traveled extensively in Central and Eastern Europe, and this story nicely mirrors my own fascination with these regions. Others might want to keep a map close, because Rudi covers a lot of terrain.