Reviewed by Michael Lipkin
Ellipsis begins on a London train platform, as an unidentified narrator stares at a man near the track . . .
“I chose him because of the red scarf.
“My palms sweat. Dirt from the wall is smudged across them and slithers in the folds. There is a faint smell of kebab in the air and an excited murmur moving down the platform like Chinese whispers. I wonder how distorted the message will be by the time it reaches my end.
“Can you hear it too, Mum? Do you think they’re whispering about me?”
In these few lines, Dudley offers a striking symbolic image—the red scarf, artistically-crafted creepiness, and a hyperrealism that pulls the reader into the scene—suspended among precise details, suspended in time, fidgety about what might happen next.
The narrator, the reader learns, has been stalking this man for weeks. Slowly, it becomes clear that he or she will push the man in front of the train.
“The clock says 15:32 as casually as ever but it secretly signals to me: this is the correct time.”
The slow hyperrealism continues, details and flowing metaphors keeping the reader on edge.
“It is the scarf that ensnared me . . . . It is a snake that has coiled around my attention and shot its venom into my blood.”
The train approaches. The narrator’s “chest implodes,” and his or her “body springs alive.”
Next follow 23 lines, each a short sentence, each separated by a space—a poem suspended in time. An eternity passes . . . .
Peer into dark.
Wind hisses at hot skin . . . .
The train arrives. The man mouths the words “Right on time.” The demented narrator pushes . . .
Was the man speaking to the narrator?
And that’s just the first chapter, five pages.
Next the scene shifts to an insurance office, the narration to third person.
Thom Mansen is an empty man, on the phone all day telling customers why their housing insurance doesn’t cover some mishap. The job provides what Thom needs—a script to guide him though life.
Suddenly, Thom gets a phone call. His cousin Daniel is dead, hit by a train. Thom immediately feels guilty that he never really got to know Daniel. Yet he remembers that his cousin was mysterious, difficult to know.
Daniel is not exactly Thom’s cousin, though. When Thom was twelve, his own parents were killed in a car accident. He was adopted by his Aunty Val, who had two sons: Daniel (Thom’s age to the day) and Richard (a few years older).
So why does Thom still call her “Aunty Val” and refer to Daniel and Richard as “cousins” instead of “brothers”?
As the chapters and alternating narratives tightly interlock, readers learn that the stalker/pusher is an attractive young woman with dark curly hair, who was recently in a mental hospital after her own mother (“Mum”) had died.
It becomes clear that this story of murder and mystery also has within it the parallel and ironic stories of two dysfunctional, crumbling families.
The young woman (whose name is really Alice but uses the name Sarah) is haunted by the thought that she knew Daniel and that he wanted her to push him in front of the train. Yet her mind is clouded—she can’t remember. Obviously a delusion. Or is it?
The story has two unlikely detectives searching for the truth of Daniel’s life and death—Thom and Sarah, the killer herself.
Dudley’s plot ensnares the reader more deeply as Sarah attends Daniel’s funeral. Little by little she gets to know the family, soon even living with them on the pretense that she is behind on her own rent. And she innocently gets Thom to fall in love with her.
Then Thom discovers a jolting clue—a brief note left by Daniel with the exact time and place of his death. Did Daniel know he would die in front of that train at that moment?
Thom and Sarah separately begin to find more clues, all consciously left by Daniel.
“[W]as Daniel a genius who left behind an unsolvable puzzle? Or was he simply an ordinary man who wanted to die?”
Ellipsis is not a story of action. It plays out through characters’ dramatic discoveries, thoughts, and conversations. Yet the slow-paced hyperrealism creates as much mystery and suspense as any fight scene or shoot-out.
A character, about to explain a startling new development, may become conscious of her breathing or of the details of the peeling paint on a wall, leaving the reader’s heart stopped, wondering what will be revealed next.
Wondering–because in this story, people, events, relationships are not what they seem. Startling discoveries and revelations dramatically shift readers’ thoughts and expectations.
“You know why he jumped?” Thom asks sternly. Aunty Val blinks for several seconds, her lips taut and dry. It is so silent Thom can hear her swallowing; it is the loud and elongated sound of fluid squeezing through a tight pipe.
Dudley is a poet as well as a novelist. She uses her skill as a poet to weave the tight fabric of this story—not just with hyperrealism, but with metaphors that come to life, powerful symbols, subtle foreshadowing, and parallel events and images.
In fact, the book deserves a second read—to see more deeply into the foreshadowing, symbolism, parallelism—or whatever else—the reader may have missed in the first reading.
There is a moment toward the end of the story when one character’s shocking revelations become a bit complex, slightly like part of a soap opera. But by this point, Dudley and the story have built enough credibility to absorb this moment; and the new knowledge smoothly blends into the story’s unexpected, enigmatic conclusion.
Perhaps Dudley has forewarned the reader of the nature of the conclusion in an earlier description of Daniel.
“He is like that book, The Catcher in the Rye, because after you’ve read it cover to cover, you’re not really sure what happened when someone asks you years later.”
But readers need not be put off by the enigma of the book. It’s a tale that will keep them wondering, gasping, thinking, smiling, grimacing, rereading. What more can a reader ask for?