The Chain, Adrian McKinty

Newtown Review of Books published my review of Adrian McKinty’s The Chain this week!

This is one hell of a ride. If you’re looking for a book to keep you up and turning the pages, this is for you. Adrian McKinty, author of the Sean Duffy series set in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, has shown his versatility in producing a tight, intricate thriller which unfolds with escalating horror.

Rachel Klein is pulled into a waking nightmare when her child is kidnapped and will only be released when she has paid her ransom, kidnapped another child, and then demanded that child’s parents pay a ransom and in turn kidnap another child. As a sinister plot device, harnessing the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her child is genius. It is also limitless, and Rachel has just become its next link.

Who runs this psychopathic business? The reader gradually finds out through McKinty’s agile shifting of perspective. For some chapters we are in Rachel’s point of view, living her collapsing world, but then we meet a pair of twins who, as children, delight in the manipulation of other kids. Who are they? We also enter the lives of the reluctant kidnappers and get into the headspace of Rachel’s daughter, the victim. Kylie’s voice is authentic.
She knows she shouldn’t have gotten into the vehicle. That’s how girls vanish …You don’t get in the vehicle, you turn around and you run, run, run.
But she doesn’t. She has a gun to her head.

While The Chain is a twisted adaptation of cyber extortion, its trade being children, the business model is not too far from the truth. I read this book, serendipitously, while covering a seminar on cyber-crime and Internet security. McKinty has done his research. The profile of The Chain’s criminal masterminds is accurate. Hackers are not hoodie-clad misfits living in their mothers’ basements. They are smart, tertiary educated, and use their cyber skills to solve more and more arcane intellectual challenges. The spyware, malware and intricate cyber breaches used to take over data systems is now so sophisticated that these extortionists set up helplines, hire translators and develop navigation tools to allow their victims to make the transaction as smoothly as possible. The corporate crowd attending the seminar I covered were advised to ‘park the criminality’ and see them as businesses.

McKinty prises open a conundrum: we have used information to defend ourselves, to minimise our vulnerabilities, but have we become hostage to it? Social media that broadcasts our every move has now been overtaken in its sheer scope by the Internet of Things: baby monitors over a cradle can tell you where a baby is, when she is sleeping, and how far away her parents might be; GPS trackers in kids’ shoes; doorbells that record every coming and going. McKinty’s commentary on the technology is timely. We have become accomplices to our own surveillance—we enter the Panopticon willingly.

And if one turns to crime—to rescue a child, to kidnap another, to buy narcotics—the information you need is there. When Rachel breaks into a house, Pete, her brother-in-law, asks how she learnt to break the lock. ‘Google,’ she replies. Of course. When searching for a child to kidnap, she turns to Facebook:
There are a breathtaking number of people whose profiles and posts are public and can be viewed by anyone. George Orwell was wrong, she thinks. In the future, it won’t be the state that keeps tabs on everyone … it will be the people … We are our own secret police.
As the reader becomes aware of the operation of the Chain, the secrecy, the reach of its tentacles, it is impossible not to think of Stasiland, Anna Funder’s powerful examination of East Germany’s secret police. At its height, it was thought that one person in four was in its fold reporting on their own community—family, friends, neighbours. Anybody can be watching. When Rachel sees a strange man look at her and then nod ‘grimly’, she thinks, ‘Is he another one of The Chain’s agents?’

Another time, Rachel is fiercely punched in the stomach, in public, by another stranger. A message from The Chain. The Chain is a perfect example of the gig economy, our outsourced culture where the victims themselves do all the work. Once corrupted by their own complicity, they cannot turn to authorities. The operation runs on fear and they are self-policing.

While The Chain multiplies, its corruption spreads like an oil slick. Doing evil makes us evil. Its insidious takeover of our ‘better nature’ is part of the its power. Rachel becomes aware of the contempt in her voice as she discusses the mother of the boy she is about to kidnap: ‘She remembers that Tacitus line about how you always hate those you have wronged.’

Rachel is on the road when she realises what she has to do to get her child back. She pulls ‘Into the slow lane, into the medium lane, into the fast lane.’ You will too, and don’t forget: the best kept secrets are those hidden in plain sight.

Adrian McKinty The Chain Hachette 2019 PB 368pp $32.99

Wedding Puzzle, Sallie Muirden

I recently reviewed Sallie Muirden’s gentle and thought-provoking book, Wedding Puzzle, for The Newtown Review of Books.

How does anyone ever manage to choose a partner for life? Given the imperfections of every choice, given that we are all complicated individuals with our own distinct bundles of neuroses, Muirden asks how anybody ever manages it at all.

Beth Shaw, who has spent her life so far trying to avoid decisions in love, preferring to be passively chosen than to choose herself, must answer this in Wedding Puzzle. The book opens with her driving to her childhood home in a pretty seaside town, on her way to her own wedding. The town’s mock Tudor hotel is where she and Jordan, her fiancé, had impulsively decided to marry a few months earlier. But the night before the wedding, she has received an anonymous letter telling her something shocking about the man she is about to marry.

Sallie Muirden Wedding Puzzle Transit Lounge 2019 304pp $29.99

Read the full review here.

Dying in the first person, Nike Sulway

First published in the Newtown Review of Books (18 July 2017), my review of Nike Sulway’s luminous novel, Dying in the first person.

This is a powerful and extraordinarily beautiful story of family, love and sacrifice. Sulway has created a world we enter slowly, uncovering the past and its hurts in small steps. It draws the reader into a place of mystery and wonder as Samuel is brought face to face with an emissary, Ana, who brings news of his long-estranged twin brother.

We learn of Morgan’s death in the canal near their home in Amsterdam in the opening lines —‘A woman came across the field, carrying the body of my brother, who had drowned.’ Ana’s first contact is through letters, then telephone calls. Samuel and his mother, Solange, have had no first-hand contact with Morgan for many years but on accompanying Morgan’s body back to be buried, Ana stays, allowing herself to rest, to be loved. In Sulway’s depiction of her growing relationships with Samuel and Solange, there is a longing and vulnerability that all readers will recognise.

Sulway explores ideas of sacrifice and the accompanying notions of obligation, commitment and entitlement; these are part of loving somebody. Her characters’ offerings to those they love are almost biblical in their scope—life, freedom, memory and voice—but we can see echoes of them in our own lives. We all make huge, yet unrecognised, sacrifices every day, for love.

It is through the book’s gradual unfolding that we learn of Morgan’s life, his self-imposed isolation from his family and why and how he died. Ana’s complicated relationship with Morgan is teased out. Ultimately, she has wanted to save him: ‘I believed I could rescue him, restore him to himself, simply by being patient and kind.’ Sulway’s examination of Morgan’s mental state reminded me of Jeffrey Euginides in his 2011 book The Marriage Plot where Madeleine, who wants to save Leonard, is told: ‘But you can only save yourself.’ Sulway is acutely aware of our limitations in treating emotional pain.

The book’s central theme is the power of language. Sulway portrays its role, through narrative, in recording truth, or lack of truth, which then, in turn, allows us to see reality and change and grow. As children, the boys develop a secret language, sophisticated and complex. As adults, Morgan writes books in this language and becomes famous; the language has taken on a life of its own, studied by linguists, the focus of international conference. His books are translated by Samuel who is conflicted about his role in appropriating words not his own. Who owns these stories?

As boys, they had developed an entire world in this secret language—the island of Nahum—inhabited by men only. Sulway’s examination of the roles of men and women, their strictures and freedoms, is light and deft. She never hammers home a message, leaving nuance and murkiness to allow us to reach our own conclusions. While her attachment to her women characters is evident—Solange, in particular, her talents, intellect, resourcefulness, independence—she tells her story through men and their agency. Women’s stories and powers, the influence of a mother in shaping her children, is always present but in the background.

One spring morning,’ my brother would intone, holding his tiny craft aloft in this wide, pale hands, ‘the father leaves his son sleeping and goes to the sea. He does not know, when he steps onto the deck, whether he will return, whether it will be a good day, or a bad day, but he goes down to the sea, because that is what men do.

And at the end, we are left with Ana’s sacrifice, her selflessness as she, too, goes into the storm.

Sulway’s writing is beautiful and evocative. She forces her readers to slow their pace, to absorb every detail through her recreation of scenes in real time precision: the trappings and formalities of a funeral, the basting of a turkey.

In the kitchen, our mother laid out her ingredients, as well as her needles, skewers, scissors and string, her long-handled, flat-faced spoons and glass bowls. She had taken out her recipe form its hiding place, where it lay folded all year, cheek-to-cheek with a page clipped from the newspaper in 1949, which had detailed instructions on how to truss a turkey. Once everything was in place, she opened a bottle of dry Semillon, poured herself a shallow, golden glassful and began.


In many ways, this is a book about the complexity of human relationships and the little that children ever really know of their parents’ lives.

Sulway, Nike, Dying in the first person, Transit Lounge Publishing, Melbourne, 2016, ebook and paperback (304 pages), RRP $29.99