The Facility by Simon Lelic
Simon Lelic’s first novel, Rupture, was such a breath of fresh air last year that when I was able to get my hands on an advance copy of his second, I could hardly wait to read it and for the publication date to get near. Would it be as innovative as his stunning debut, Rupture, (which I reviewed here), or would it be a ‘difficult second novel’ ?
I’m please to report that it’s rather good. While lacking its predecessor’s way of interleaving a good police procedural with striking first person statements from those involved, The Facility is instead a thriller, and it does have a style all of its own…
As the book opens a prisoner called Arthur is being interrogated in violent fashion immersing us in strong language, torture and crudity on the part of the questioners. Immediately you are aware that reading the book will require a degree of stamina to cope with it. Chapter two switches to a secret government establishment; the Governor, Graves, is showing the a minister from the home office around the as yet unoccupied building…
Jenkins jabs his chin towards the centrepiece of the quad: a fountain, depicting Neptune in a chariot behind three horses. ‘A touch extravagant, would you not say?”
‘It is hideous, I know. The whole building, really, is an architectural chimera. His Majesty, for one, would not approve. There’s Gothic here, Romanesque there, Palladian and Tudor in the outbuildings. None of it original, of course. Except for the staff quarters, which were built in the fifties.’
‘You got it working, though. You left the damp but fixed the fountain.’
‘It was no great expense, minister. We felt it would be beneficial. The sound of running water, a place for the men and women to gather. You understand, I’m sure.’
‘They are prisoners, Graves.’
‘They will be imprisoned, minister. It is perhaps not quite the same thing.
‘Guff,’ says Jenkins. ‘Of course it’s the same thing.’
The scene is set, we’re in the near future – King Charles would appear to be on the throne. The government du jour have put in place ‘The Unified Security Act’ which was designed for terrorists, but in practice let’s them do whatever they want to whomever they want. ’Guantanamo UK’ as a newspaper headline says in the book.
We’ve still one more thread to pick up – Arthur’s wife visits an investigative journalist, Tom, convinced her husband has been ‘disappeared’ wrongly by the police. They’re not telling, so Julia implores Tom to take up the case, and against his editor’s better judgement of it all being a conspiracy theory, he does.
The thriller then works out through these three voices – Arthur, the wrongly imprisoned man; Graves, the former prison Governor who is not happy being involved in this top-secret work; and Tom, searching for answers. It soon becomes clear that most of the inmates are sick, but that Arthur is not. Government doctors arrive talking of trials for a cure, Graves finds himself overruled, largely impotent to help and essentially trapped – ‘you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave’ as the Eagles sang in Hotel California. I found Graves the most interesting character by far as he comes to realise his own guilt at being part of this plan.
‘What if’ novels always have big questions at their heart. For all we know, we could already have a dormant ‘plague-hospital’ in a sparsely populated area of the country. The author shows some anger at the way people who have not been charged with anything can be treated; at homophobia and racism; political double-speak; and so on. For the most part, he doesn’t attempt to answer any of the questions, leaving them hanging, keeping you thinking about them. In this way he subverts the thriller genre with this pessimistic view of the near future.
This is a bleak and unsettling book which I really enjoyed reading. Rupture was a ‘Whydunnit’; The Facility is a ‘What if’ – I wonder which question his third book will pose? (8/10)
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