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Nicola Griffith's Always [23 May, 2007]

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By Nicola Griffith; Riverhead; 480 pages.

Always is the third installment in Nicola Griffith’s popular series of books featuring Aud Torvingen, a six-foot-tall ex-cop whose set of special skills includes various martial arts and a heightened awareness of her body’s relationship to its environment.  It’s about Torvingen’s visit to Seattle, intercut with accounts of the self-defense class she teaches in Atlanta.

Torvingen is in Seattle to see her mother and check up on a warehouse that’s being used to film a television pilot.  The warehouse is hers, along with a lot of money—so much money that the mind boggles at the mere thought of it.  Shopping for a wedding gift for her mother, she coolly informs a saleswoman at Nordstrom’s that “there is no budget.”

Torvingen is drawn to Victoria “Kick” Kuiper, a former stuntwoman who runs the catering company that feeds the television crew.  Torvingen’s character is cool and unwilling to give in to her emotions.  But her life starts to unravel when she’s poisoned with a substance that leaves her without control over her body, hallucinating scenes around her and unable to drive.  Always is about control—how some try to exert it and fail, and how others regain it.  To complicate matters, Kuiper is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

All of this should make for an interesting plot and characters, but it doesn’t.  Always tends to read like the research notes for a novel rather than the novel we’d like to read.  The scenes set in Atlanta describe self-defense techniques but in too much detail, with too much about the vulnerable points of the body, and exactly how to turn your palm so that it becomes a lethal weapon with which to remove your attacker’s eyeballs, and so on.  Much of this reads like the author demonstrating that she’s spent countless hours collecting information for the benefit of the reader.

Griffith seems bored and unmoved by her own characters.  The novel has a carelessly tossed-off air about it and it often seems like the author slipped in details and then forgot why she put them there.  So, for instance, when Aud meets Kick for the first time, we are informed that the latter is protective of Rusen, the show’s director: “Perhaps the body language was unconscious, but the message was clear: if you hurt him, I’ll hurt you.”  This interesting tidbit does us no good—the book never expands on why Kick should feel this way about Rusen.

Before mid-point, we’ve given up caring.  The subplot involving the warehouse and estate deals is not, ultimately, much more than a land-grab scheme gone awry.  It’s difficult to feel much for Kuiper and Torvingen, whose relationship is a series of intense bursts but lacks the emotional detail to hold our interest.

Always, in short, is half-drawn and humdrum–which is a pity, because Griffith’s talent does shine through, on occasion.  Perhaps the problem is that Torvingen, with more money than God, has nowhere else to go and nothing else to surmount.  At the end of the novel, she resolves to settle in Seattle and set up a foundation, the exact point of which is unclear— except as a way for the author to tie loose story ends together.

So.  This is it? Aud Torvingen, super-sleuth, impenetrable martial-arts expert and, now … executive director?  What lies ahead?  Endless board meetings?  Will the chairman make it home in time to put her kids to bed? It’s not that money is inherently bad.  As Torvingen puts it, “Money shouldn’t frighten people.  It’s a tool.”  She’s right, but the problem with money in Alwaysis that it becomes the easy way to resolve situations.  Money is a great thing to have in real life, but it makes for a lousy plot device in a novel.

Originally published in Windy City Times, 23 May, 2007

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