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Book Review: Failure of style and execution leaves novel short of breath

Hallinan’s forthcoming Breathing Water rarely strays from the trite and ordinary

Timothy Hallinan has lived in Southeast Asia off and on for more than 25 years. Breathing Water, to be published in August, is his latest novel. The author taught a writing seminar last week at the Australian Centre for Education.

Timothy Hallinan. PHOTO SUPPLIED

The first sentence of Timothy Hallinan's forthcoming novel Breathing Water seems to mark the beginning of an ambitious piece of fiction: "The man behind the desk is a dim shape framed in a blinding light, a god emerging from the brilliance of infinity."

As he describes it, Hallinan's objective for the novel, the third in a series about the Bangkok-based travel writer Poke Rafferty, was in fact ambitious. He said in a recent interview that he wanted to produce a convincing portrayal of Thai politics, one involving a hero who must "find his way through this minefield of huge invisible gravitational fields of power".

Breathing Water begins with Rafferty winning, in a poker game, permission to write the biography of Pan, a billionaire with political aspirations who was born a poor northeastern villager. Rafferty and others suspect that Pan has a complex criminal past, and the writer finds himself caught between those who don't want that past revealed and those who do.

Escorting the reader through "this minefield" is a tall order, one for which Hallinan is poorly suited.

That overwritten first sentence, the reader discovers, masks the author's lack of ambition both as a stylist and as a recorder of anything beyond trite observations touching on the usual themes: income inequality, corruption and the plight of street children.

What is most frustrating about Breathing Water's shortfalls is that they are of little concern to Hallinan, a point driven home during a seminar he led Thursday night at the Australian Centre for Education titled "Happy Endings: Finishing Your Novel".

At the seminar, he distributed a handout containing his 10 "rules of finishing", the last of which was particularly instructive for someone trying to grasp his approach to fiction: "Remember - it's only a book".

Style flaws

Back to that first sentence, which displays one of two habits that undo Hallinan as a stylist: his commitment to describing the light in every scene.

He approaches these passages with an attention to detail so clinical that they read more like the notes of a theatre lighting director than lines in a novel.

At one point, he writes: "The morning light pours in through the sliding door to the balcony, bouncing off the glass top of the coffee table to create a rectangle of sunlight on the ceiling." This is a fine sentence, but Hallinan can't be bothered to do anything with the light besides place it - and leave it  - up on the ceiling, where it becomes a distraction rather than a device.

Hallinan's other destructive habit is his dependence on similes. We are told, for instance, of a man who is "as lean as a matador and as dark as a used tea bag"; of a mouth that is "as unsettling as the underside of a starfish"; and of "a moment shaped like a vague question". These are either overdone  - why can't that man just be lean and dark?  - or, in the case of the "vague question" moment, outright puzzling.

At times, these two habits collide, resulting in a cringe-inducing combination of light references that fail to illuminate and similes that obscure: "There is enough city light reflecting off the low clouds to dilute the blackness of the hall into a kind of darkness in suspension, like a glass of water in which a writing brush has been dipped repeatedly." To which the only justifiable response is: What?

Plot hits and misses

Perhaps to fault Hallinan on style is to miss the point. He is interested, after all, in writing thrillers that work, and he excels at writing snappy dialogue that moves the story forward and at stringing many developments together to construct a plot with few holes.

But he gets carried away with the details. Of Poke, he told me, "I knew that I could write him because he didn't actually understand Thai culture." The  implication being that Hallinan doesn't either.

While this self-awareness is commendable, Hallinan's attempt to circumvent this problem involves inflating what he does understand about Thai culture - income inequality, the nouveau riche, the usual themes  - to unwarranted extremes.  

He writes at length, for instance, about a benefit held at Pan's Greek Revival mansion "roughly the size of the Taj Mahal". To get there, guests travel "through a flaming gate" towards a garden that contains artificial apple trees, with apples covered in precious stones.

And then comes the incongruity, the curve ball designed to induce a guffaw. In front of the mansion sits "a small, rickety, blow-the-house-down northeastern farm village".

Said Hallinan: "It made sense to me that a guy like Pan would want to stress the ways in which he was different from, rather than similar to, his economic peers."

He's right: The concept makes sense. The problem lies in the execution, which is neither artfully embellished nor innocently fantastical.

The passage makes the reader cry out for Hallinan to abandon altogether his attempt to describe "this minefield of huge invisible gravitational fields of power" and instead get back to the plot. Because as a thriller, and only as a thriller, Breathing Water works.

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