Valerie Sirr reviews the latest novel from Jo Mazelis, Significance.
Significance is a literary crime novel in which the ‘whodunnit’ and even the ‘whydunnit’ is less significant than the mystery of who the victim is (or who any of us are), the impact made by one person’s existence, and the consequences of murder for those who knew, or even briefly met, the victim in the hours and days before the horrific event. It opens with a young woman who, intriguingly, has chosen to disappear from her life, perhaps experiencing a breakdown, perhaps not, though her sense of dislocation almost to the point of dissociation is an edgy and discomfiting introduction that sets the tone for subsequent chilling proceedings.
To summarise the story without giving spoilers: we are led through a sequence of events before and after a murder that allows us a glimpse into the lives of loved ones, witnesses, suspects under investigation, and others, linked through personal relationship, or passing meeting, or by slight association with a murdered woman who hardly knew herself. We observe the distress of loved ones of the disappeared person and the questions that they are left with, we observe the lives of those connected only by chance, and we observe the processes of individual police investigators at work and their interior selves and relationships too.
This is a novel that includes questions outside of police procedure and while the crime elements of the story are handled with an authoritative, detached narrator’s voice, making it a real page-turner, the philosophical ideas make it even more engaging. Questions about who we are, our various selves, possible selves, reinvented selves – our own inventions and others’ who experience us; the unreliability of our and others’ perception, the subjectivity of consciousness and how it can become altered or skewed, exemplified, for example, by fallible witnesses, a boy suffering from severe autism, a woman’s poetic vision, a man’s possibly false childhood memory lodged in his unconscious mind, among other considerations of what makes a sense of self and others. In exploring all of these characters in depth, the narrative allows us to experience them in all their complexity, on their separate journeys – at some point colliding with the murder victim, sometimes more intensely than others. But always enough of an experience, however much at a remove, or fleeting, to form an impression based on significant remembered detail, or to be significantly affected by the association, however tenuous.
The novel is elegantly structured within separate sections each with their own epigraphs, and named chapters – which edge occasionally into portentousness, but the overall impression is of an architecture that is beautifully constructed with that controlling omniscient perspective mentioned earlier, all seeing, with an almost melancholy detachment. On a very odd occasion the point-of-view slips jarringly out of register, but this is a review copy and that may well have been corrected since elsewhere the perspective and structure is sharply accurate as well as making effective use of filmic cuts.
There is much erudition here, though it is worn lightly and filtered seamlessly through the individual characters’ knowledge of art, literature, medicine; psychology, policing. The characters present with a fascinating range of sensibility and education level. They are not all middle class, educated in the liberal arts etc; uneducated folk appear too, rendered with the same authorial empathy. Not to mention the autistic boy who’s experience, and that of his carers, is movingly depicted.
Significance is written with admirable storytelling skill that weaves captivating narrative tension, poetic density and exploration of ideas. Further enjoyment is provided by an acute sense of place which makes for a vivid experience of French urban life, and by the precision and awareness of the power of language, its multiple associations, beyond our conscious control, echoing Lacanian ideas subtly alluded to in the text – just one element of its intricate texture. It’s a story that will leave its readers with a lingering sense of tragedy along with some thought-provoking questions about the crime at the heart of the novel and about our own selves.
Significance by Jo Mazelis is out now by Seren.