The Woman in the Fifth, by Douglas Kennedy

Harry Ricks is a professor of film who's had (for reasons which are initially unexplained) to leave his family and job in the US, fleeing to France to get some time alone. He arrives with very little money and is immediately taken ill, finding himself at the mercy of a bullying hotel clerk who charges an exhorbitant rate for the room he's confined to. He makes friends with Anand, a Turkish immigrant who's some kind of hotel porter, and with Anand's help, finds cheap lodgings and a job.

The job is obviously related to criminal activity, but Harry isn't in a position to ask too many questions, and so does the work while remaining ignorant of what's going on. At a soiree for ex-pats, Harry meets a mysterious Hungarian woman: things seem to be looking up. But then Anand turns up dead, and things with the woman don't seem to be very straightforward.

This was another book which I read having no idea what it would be about - I think I had the impression it was a romance of some sort. And even after finishing it I'm not exactly sure what genre it would be labelled as.

For most of the book I wasn't sure where things were going - what is the book about? The writing is reasonable but nothing amazing, so one assumes that the plot has some significant interest. The things that happen to Harry are peculiar, and in some ways the book feels a bit dreamy: I thought perhaps this was meant to reflect Harry's own state after his illness, or that perhaps the book was a hallucination. In fact, I wouldn't have been entirely surprised if it had finished "and then I woke up".

There's a fairly significant twist about three quarters of the way through the book, which I don't think you could see coming, but that adds to the surreal feel. Either this is some kind of dream, you think, or there's some fantastic plot twist that's going to be needed to make sense of it.

In some ways the ending was a bit of a let-down: some questions were answered but quite a lot weren't (e.g. what was going on at the place where Harry was working?). But the author had painted himself into such a corner that this was probably the best way out he had.

But still, even though "The Woman in the Fifth" is the most significant bit of the story, there's an awful lot else that happens before that really gets going. So it's not really about the woman.

That all makes it sound like I didn't like the book, but in fact I did: it was quite intriguing to find out what was going on, and although it maybe didn't make as much sense as it could, I did enjoy the ride. Maybe I missed the point completely, and it's meant to be a metaphor or something.

I'd read more by Douglas Kennedy, on the assumption that not all his other books use this kind of plot-line - if they're all like this, I wouldn't bother.

Completed : 27-May-2009 (audiobook)

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