Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

ShutterIslandI guess it might sound strange but I read this novel (back in 2011) because one night I dreamed that I was reading this novel (and another one by Dennis Lehane, Sacred). Of course I had been aware of the existence of Lehane’s novels when I dreamed about them, but I hadn’t planned to read them. But then I thought, why not – it doesn’t happen everyday that I dream about unread novels. Anyway, I must add that – strange dream or not – Shutter Island didn’t change my life and Lehane didn’t immediately become my all-time favorite author – but I didn’t regret having spent a couple of hours with this book, either.

And this is something to say, because Shutter Island is basically a huge bundle of clichés: the tough-but-broken-hearted cop (who hadn’t been able to accept the death of his wife) and his young-and-inexperienced sidekick arrive at an ominous prison island which specializes in the treatment and detention of criminals with a mental illness. The cops arrive to solve a strange case: a convict had mysteriously disappeared without a trace – which is not a small feat in such a well-defended detention center. However, the tough cop isn’t only interested in unveiling the mystery – he also wants to take revenge for the death of his wife. But then a raging hurricane cuts the island off from the mainland, and along with the increasing sense of claustrophobia, panic and paranoia also set in; and after a while it appears that in fact nothing is what it seems.

Typing the previous paragraph was almost painful for me because of the banality of every single plot element. Each character, each setting, each event reminded me of characters, settings, plot details from other crime novels / thrillers, even though I’m not a huge fan of these genres. What is surprising, though, is that Shutter Island isn’t a bad book by any means: Lehane managed to contrive a strangely unnerving and frightening story out of all these clichés, and the oppressive atmosphere he created in the novel is unique. What’s more, Shutter Island is well-written, exciting, fast-paced and sometimes even funny – still, its most outstanding feature is that it’s not outstanding at all.

It may not sound much, but the best I can say about this novel is that there’s nothing I could criticize it for. It’s exactly what I would expect from a contemporary crime novel: Lehane’s writing is easy and amusing, the story is clever and man-scaled, and there are no redundant or irrelevant elements in it. Of course, I didn’t expect a cathartic experience, and I didn’t get one either, but – even though I’m secretly waiting for catharsis to happen in every single book I read – that’s okay, I guess.

All in all, Shutter Island is a good and entertaining novel: it’s not shallow, it makes your brain work, it’s pleasantly dark and ambiguous, but it’s also a fast and easy read.

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane

(The post may contain spoilers.)

I’ve already read two other novels by Dennis Lehane and I’ve grown to like him. However, I liked both Shutter Island and Sacred in a negative kind of way: I didn’t like them because they were exceptional books, or because they completely renewed their genre or because they made me feel something I’d never felt before. No. I simply liked them because they were decently written books, with a good story, with interesting, very human characters and with witty conversation. (Of course these are just the basics in a novel – or rather, these should be the basics in a novel – but for some reason a book featuring all the above-mentioned elements is relatively hard to come by.) So what I most liked in these novels was that there was nothing in them I could criticize – they were good in their way, without being outstanding, and even though this may sound rather condescending, I do think this meagre praise is definitely something.

However, I liked Mystic River not because it’s not bad at all, but because it’s an excellent novel. The three protagonists of the novel used the friends in their childhood. They fooled around together all the time, until one day something happened: one of the boys, the loser of their bunch, Dave hopped into the car of the men who at first sight looked just like policemen, and when he finally escaped from the in-fact-not-policemen after four days and went home, suddenly nothing was the same as it used to be. Due to his experiences, Dave developed something very much like a split personality; his friend, Jimmy – a silent, moody, nonchalant but very emotional boy – felt sadness settling on his heart; and the third boy, Sean slowly drifted away from the old bunch, as he was always a good boy, he lived in a better neighborhood and had a more normal family than the others – so he probably couldn’t have been the friend of the other two boys for long, anyway.

Twenty-five years later Dave is still an average loser; Jimmy, an ex-criminal and now the owner of a shop lives happily with his family; and Sean works as a detective while suffering constantly because his pregnant wife had left him a year before. Of course the childhood friendship of these three men ended long ago (although Jimmy and Dave are related through their wives), but the brutal murder of Jimmy’s daughter, Katie brings them together again, because Sean is the detective investigating the case, and it seems that Dave might have committed something terrible on the night of the murder.

So, Mystic River is supposedly a crime novel. It certainly features a murder, a murderer, and a couple of typical doughnut-munching, coffee-gulping, alcoholic and/or workaholic cops who have no private life whatsoever, who like to fire witticisms at everybody and who are so extremely tough that when they see a half-rotten corpse in the trunk of a car, they go ahead and jokingly ask their colleague whether he would care for a sandwich.

However, as regards the typical elements (clichés) of a crime novel, Dennis Lehane stops right here, and the majority of the novel consists of a thorough analysis of the characters’ inner lives and feelings. And Lehane does this remarkably well – in a heartrendingly emotional, yet totally understated, quiet way. The way Dave fights his demons; his wife’s, Celeste’s dilemma whether she should stand by her husband or betray him; Sean’s helpless rage and the hopeless emptiness in his life left by her wife’s departure; the grief Jimmy feels after the death of his daughter; the perhaps exaggerated („I will never love anyone this much again”) but definitely serious heartache suffered by Katie’s boyfriend Brendan – all these are depicted in such a way that I was very close to shedding tears at several points in the novel.

Besides the constant analysis of the characters’ inner torments, the main theme of the novel is the question how a person’s life becomes what it is. Are there any moments in a life after which things inevitably change? And how is it possible to live with the idea that the smallest decision might change the course of a life forever? Put this way, these questions may sound like the questions in some cheap, pop-psychological, mystical novel just like the ones of Paulo Coelho. But Dennis Lehane is no Coelho, and his characters don’t act as if they were hugely talented geniuses in the fields on psychology and philosophy who can redeem themselves, the others or the whole world in a simple way – so Mystic River treats these questions with taste and delicacy.

By the way, it’s an interesting question who had the worst life of the three men. Judging objectively, Dave seems to be the most pitiable of the three, because he was robbed of his chance to grow up to be a healthy, mentally stable man at a very early age. However, it was Jimmy I pitied the most: his quiet, sad, deeply emotional personality and his wildness make for a very strange mixture, and his suppressed, almost unbearable and inexpressible pain is very painful to witness even from the outside.

It’s strange that by eliminating Dave at the end of the novel, it seems that order is finally restored to the two men’s life (of course I ignore the fact that order is not restored to the life of Celeste – but this novel is more about the three men than about anybody else): Sean’s wife comes home, and Jimmy finally becomes strong enough to start to deal with his grief in some way.

Is this a happy end? We get rid of the poor, psychologically damaged loser with a life screwed up mainly by others, and then everybody is happy? I wouldn’t say so, since it’s only too obvious that both Sean and Jimmy paid a huge price for this order and perhaps-happiness. And I’ve got a notion that probably both of them will keep thinking a lot about the day Dave hopped into that ominous car – and the different lives they might have had, had Dave not done so.