Book Review of “The Girl on the Landing” by Paul Torday.
Reading Paul Torday’s novel “The Girl on the Landing” makes one want to paraphrase Joseph Heller’s quote from “Catch 22” to read: “Just because you’re [being treated for] paranoid [schizophrenia], doesn’t mean they aren’t really after you”. The story here is about Michael and his wife, Elizabeth. They’ve been married for ten years and have a relationship that is best described as “they get along well together.” That is, until a strange incident in Ireland when Michael sees a girl on the landing of the house they’re staying at. Soon after that, Michael seems to change – he’s suddenly become more affectionate and loving. This makes Elizabeth ignore his slightly erratic behavior. But just when it seems that Elizabeth is finally finding the man she always hoped for, their whole lives begin to fall apart.
This story is actually part mystery and part fantasy. The mystery comes in when Elizabeth begins to see the changes in Michael. Despite her wanting to just enjoy it, she realizes that it isn’t all rosy and begins investigating what is the cause behind the change. The fantasy part is Michael’s visions and his being tortured by them. Then we find that Michael suddenly stopped taking medication that Elizabeth wasn’t even aware he was taking. So there is a medical background to Michael’s changed behavior. Even so, Torday seems to suggest that perhaps Michael isn’t crazy at all, and what he’s going through is something very real. As we toggle between their two stories, we slowly become acquainted with them, together with the intensifying situation. In this way, Torday melds the plot together with the characters so that they seem to drive the story forward with almost equal power. This is because Michael’s almost Jekyll and Hyde situation makes the character himself become part of the plot. Of course, adding to this is Elizabeth and how all this effects her and her world.
What the reader will find with Torday’s work, and in particular this novel, is that he truly knows how to get to the heart of a story quickly and then pull his readers in. This not only makes them very fast reads, but fascinating ones as well. In fact, you might get so involved with this story that you’ll hardly notice the 300 plus pages going by, since it’s so jam-packed with action. What’s more is that Torday does it in such an easy-going and comfortable language. Since this novel is two different accounts of the same story as told by this couple in an almost diary entry form, it isn’t hard to imagine that the tone of the writing is very conversational. The primary reason for using this method is to keep from using descriptive passages that sound dead and boring, since you are basically reading the narrator’s thoughts straight his or her head.
Fans of Torday’s who have read his first novel “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” will know of his ability to find an absurd situation, bring in a good dramatic climax while keeping the reader smiling. However, this novel has little to no humor in it at all. In fact, it is very dark which makes it almost difficult to believe that these two novels were written by the same person. However, there is one similarity in these two stories. That is, the inclusion of something which one can’t say couldn’t actually be realistic, even though it does seem highly unlikely. In the case of this story, while it is highly unlikely that Michael is having anything more than hallucinations, can one discount the evidence that there might be something real behind it all. The answering of that question is the last element Torday has used to truly capture the reader.
After all this praise, one must come to the ever-present “however…” section. The most major drawback has to do with Elizabeth. In this day and age, it seems unusual that any woman would “settle” for someone that she knew she didn’t love in order to have financial stability and comfortable companionship. This would seem especially true for someone as attractive and intelligent as Elizabeth. Furthermore, since Elizabeth is a career woman, it isn’t like she had to be gold-digger. So this marriage seems a bit more Jane Austin-like than 21st century. However, Torday does allow that Elizabeth was initially attracted to Michael when they first met – and not to his money. Still, was this enough to make this something the reader can accept, and more importantly, is it okay for a character’s back story to be only “possibly realistic, despite being unlikely”? Perhaps, in this case it was somewhat necessary. Still, it might have been more realistic and far more likely had Elizabeth really loved him to begin with. This also would have made her frustration in the marriage more understandable, as well as her reluctance to figure out why he was changing. This made Elizabeth less of a sympathetic character than she could have been.
The other problem is that Michael seems a bit less fleshed out than he should be. Seeing as everything in the story revolves around his personality change, he could have had a bit more focus. One can only think that either Torday thought it would be better to keep him clouded in mystery as much as possible, or that he wasn’t sure how to chronicle the thoughts of a man as he takes steps he knows might drive him crazy.
All told, Paul Torday’s novel “The Girl on the Landing” is a well crafted novel that will appeal to a large audience. While the characters are on the quirky side, they are interesting, although they seem to lack in certain places. However, the plot is dark, fascinating and gives one food for thought about mental illness and if some types of disturbed states might not have some basis in the outside world. However, Torday does know how to grab his readers, and his style is one that makes reading his books a pleasure. For all of this, “The Girl on the Landing” deserves four out of five stars, and is recommended.
“The Girl on the Landing” by Paul Torday published by Phoenix (an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd) released October 16th 2008 is available (via these affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, on iTunes (iBook or audiobook), from the website eBooks.com, from The Book Depository (free worldwide shipping), new or used from Better World Books (to support libraries and world literacy) or Alibris, or from an IndieBound store near you. This has been adapted from my original review published on the now defunct site, Dooyoo.