Book Review: The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock

I’ve always been fascinated by the practices and the thinking behind religious cults. By how their (often flawed) logic frequently leads to broken families and disillusionment, which is why I picked up Peter Rock’s new book, ‘The Shelter Cycle’.

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The story centres around The Church Universal and Triumphant (TCUT), a religious group based in the Montana area that prepared for the End of the World in the late 80s. They believed the world would end in the spring of 1990 and so built underground shelters to house the members of their community. The group disbanded when the world (obviously) did not end, its members losing their faith when they had to go back to the same problems (and large debts incurred through the building of these bunkers) they had thought they’d be leaving behind.

The novel opens with the reader being told that a 9 year old girl has gone missing from her backyard – her little sister, also out in the backyard, was not taken. Their neighbour, Wells, along with the rest of the neighbourhood, is out searching for the missing girl. Also out searching is Francine, Wells’s heavily pregnant wife who used to belong to TCUT when she was a child. Colville, Francine’s childhood friend mysteriously shows up on their doorstep, claiming he is there to help find the girl and that a newspaper article detailing her disappearance is one of the many ‘signs’ that lead him to Francine. Reconnecting with Colville allows many of Francine’s childhood memories to come to the surface so she feels compelled to write them down – sections of which are interspersed through the novel –  and also to secretly revisit the site of the bunkers.

Colville’s secret surveillance of Francine’s house, his subsequent journey to the Montana site of the shelters (laced with touches of magical realism, or indeed hallucinations), along with other sneaky behaviour leads us to believe that he has a plan – though what this plan is remains mysterious right up until the end – and to be honest, even then I wasn’t really sure what his intent was.

The beginning of this novel is highly enjoyable – the sinister mysteriousness of a stranger appearing on the doorstep made it very atmospheric (has a feeling of eerie unease throughout), and the desire to understand Colville’s motives will keep you going.

And so comes my very big BUT: this book feels unfinished and not properly thought out. I didn’t feel that I necessarily understood what this cult was fully about after having read this story. This is partly because no explanations are given when using cult-specific terminology so it can be quite confusing at times, and whether it’s a case that I completely did not understand it, but I felt that the novel was building up to a twist/climax that never came. It’s as if it almost got there and then receded. A very unsatisfactory ending that made me feel all that reading was for nothing.

Peculiar Love: Anthropology by Dan Rhodes

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101 short ‘stories’ (or paragraphs, really) each 101 words long, each one more bizarre than the last. I’ve had this book for years and find myself dipping into it whenever I feel like laughing. Each story is narrated by an unnamed man who is experiencing one difficulty or another with a girlfriend. The stories are disturbingly hilarious and undeniably dark with a common thread of absurdity running through them. Here’s a little taster; enjoy!

TRICK

My girlfriend told me she had been the victim
of nature’s cruellest trick, that although born
male she had always felt female. She said she
had started dressing in women’s clothes at
the age of seventeen, and three years later
had undergone the necessary surgery. I was
stunned, but told her that I loved her first and
foremost as a person, and that I would give her
all the emotional support she needed. She
looked horrified. She had only been joking.
She left me. She said she was going to find a
real man, not some queer little gayboy like me.

BINDING

I found my girlfriend smashing our two-year-
old’s toes with a rock. I told her to stop. ‘What
are you doing?’ I cried, above the baby’s
agonised wails.
‘You wouldn’t understand,’ she said,
winding a bandage tightly around the crushed
digits. ‘It’s a woman thing. It’ll help her get a
boyfriend.’
‘But darling, don’t you remember what the
doctor told us? It’s a boy baby.’
‘Really?’ She looked surprised. ‘Oh well.
Men look nice with small feet too. I expect
he’ll be gay, anyway. He’s got that look about
him. See?’ I had to agree that she had a point.

CHARGING

My girlfriend started charging me for sex. She
said she had to think of her future, and
anyway her friends did it so why shouldn’t
she? I didn’t mind too much because her basic
rates were very reasonable, although she
always expected tips for extras. Once, as she
was holding the banknotes I’d given her up to
the light to make sure they were real, I asked
her if she ever went with anyone else for
money. She was furious, and asked what kind
of girl I thought she was. I said one with
laughing eyes, and lovely long dark hair.

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Book Review: The Last Weekend by Blake Morrison

It starts with a simple phone call – Ian and his wife, Em, are invited to come up to the country to spend a long weekend with Ollie (Ian’s best friend from university) and his wife, Daisy. What do you need to know about these two couples?  Well, according to Ian:

‘The various ways in which we’re not like Ollie and Daisy is a conversation we often have. Indeed, we’ve spent far more time talking about them than in their presence. The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkestone; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua etc.) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; […] golden couple vs pair of ugly toads. I exaggerate but not much.’

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Meet Ian, the narrator of this quietly chilling novel who wants to tell you what happened over the course of this long bank holiday weekend up at Badingley (the farm house).

‘As to the events of August, I don’t suppose I’ll ever get over them. I’m the kind of guy who feels guilty even when he’s innocent – expects to be stopped going through customs even when he has nothing to declare. But what happened that weekend would surely have happened anyway. It’s not like I’m a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you. I’m trying to tell the story, that’s all – not to unburden myself or extenuate some offence but to set things straight.’

And so we begin to hear what transpired over the last weekend of August. Sandwiched between tales of Ollie, Ian and Daisy’s time together at university (Ollie ‘stole’ Daisy from Ian), we are offered glimpses into the mechanics of friendship and rivalry, love and lust, money and class. A weekend meant to be fun and relaxing, is fused with a palpable tension when old rivalries resurface and pulse along to build up to a startling conclusion.

What needs to be made clear is that this is very much Ian’s version of events and as he’s so very honest about wanting to be honest and perhaps not remembering certain things as they happened, he very skilfully lures the reader over to his side.

‘My memory’s pretty good on the whole…And yet Badingley, which ought to be etched on my soul, slips away at times – or refuses to come into focus, like something wrapped in tissue and shut away in a drawer. Did Ollie really say this or Daisy that? I remember a mass of things but nothing distinctly.’

What works in Ian’s favour is that through his recounting of the events that shaped his and Ollie’s friendship back in university, the reader finds it very easy to dislike Ollie. But as the narrative progresses, we slowly begin to realise that things aren’t quite what they seem. Ian slowly emerges into your classic unreliable narrator, leaving the reader constantly weary and on edge. There is a chilling sense of foreboding throughout the novel, and it’s ultimately the desire to know what exactly it is that happened over this specific weekend that keeps you going. This is a highly atmospheric and compelling novel that deserves to be read in all its uncomfortable glory. And watch the miniseries if you can (featured on ITV last year, starring Rupert Penry-Jones) – although good, it’s not as subtle as the book.

 

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