Since my last review, life has changed, everyone’s life has changed, a hundredfold. My work moved online, but I still have it and am able to pay my bills. My family is well and the pantry, well-stocked. As an introvert, staying at home is the easiest thing our Canadian government could ask of me. Nevertheless, the changes to our society are cataclysmic and it is surreal and difficult to process what we’re living, especially as families lose loved ones. As someone who has readily lost herself in a book daily since I learned to read, I have, at best, read sporadically and listlessly, punctuated stabs at the Kindle with endlessly watching the news and scrolling through Twitter. I grappled with the idea of continuing with this review blog. Am I, like Nero, fiddling as Rome burns? In the end, I decided to forego the Nero metaphor and go with the Titanic musicians who continued to play as the ship went down until they went with it. I continue to teach poetry online and respond to my students’ writing. I check in with them for questions and discussion and I read and write reviews. I am neither a “front-line worker” nor possess any skills beyond the ones exercised here. I continue to do as my government asks of me (wash my hands, stay home, and social-distance) to ensure my family’s, friends’, colleagues’, and fellow citizens’ well-being and I offer these humble opinions to readers. I don’t know where the ship is headed, but we’re all on it and will go down with it … and we need to keep making whatever music we have in us.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been reading Ann Cleeves’s The Long Call, first in a new series, “Two Rivers.” It wasn’t lurid, or tense, or anxious; it was well-written, methodical in its movement towards revelations of truth and justice and, for the most part, with a few quibbles, I loved reading it … when I could immerse myself in it.
In North Devon, where two rivers meet, the Taw and Torridge, which then flows into the Atlantic, DI Matthew Venn watches his father’s funeral from afar. Matthew is a case of “you can’t go home again.” Rejected by the religious cult his parents belonged to, the Barum Brethren, Matthew is doubly “condemned”: by his rejection of the Brethren’s precepts and because of his sexual orientation. He lives nearby with his husband, Jonathan Church, but never interacted with his father, or still-living mother, not since he left and became a policeman. Not far from Andrew Venn’s laying-to-rest, a body washes up on the shore, Simon Walden’s body, a chef who volunteered at the Woodyard Centre, a community arts and education hub, where local parents send their Down’s syndrome grown children and which Matthew’s husband, Jonathan, manages. The dead man, Simon, sports an albatross tattoo on his neck, which makes his identification easy and obvious, sparing us the John Doe scenario and making brilliant allusion to Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. The novel focusses on Matthew and his team members, DS Jen Rafferty and Constable Ross May, as they unearth Simon’s story and bring his murderer to light. Into the mix, Cleeves throws the various characters who interacted with Simon and the visitors, students, employees, and volunteers of the Woodyard Centre, including Jonathan Church.
There were two reasons I loved The Long Call and the first one is Matthew Venn. Matthew is straitlaced, always in a neat, pressed suit and tie, punctilious, logical, analytical, and disciplined. He never raises his voice to his team, keeps order and exercises authority with a careful, knowledgeable, diplomatic hand. But he suffers from uncertainty, a lack of self-worth, especially when he wonders at his husband’s beauty and goodness, and often doubts his ability to solve his case. He is deeply, consciously, conscientiously, and intelligently ethical. He is moral, wondering if his case, given Jonathan’s connection to the Woodyard, is a conflict of interest. I wondered if the free-spirited Jonathan had any love or loyalty towards him. I also found it hard, and never quite managed, to warm to Jonathan who, despite cooking for Matthew, always seemed to be lolling with friends, drinking too much, spending too long at the pub. I wanted Jonathan to “stand at moral attention” (to quote F. Scott) to honour Matthew’s wonderfulness. I went so far as to think Matthew might be better off without Jonathan … but he seemed to love him so. And I’m willing to live with glamor-boy to spend more time with stiff-upper-lip Matthew in Cleeves’s next installment (and I hope there will be a next one).
At times, I thought Matthew might have a spot of the old OCD when he grew annoyed with Jonathan’s mess, or anticipated one, which, in fairness to Jonathan, he neatened, but I only loved Matthew the more for it. There were also quite a few moments where Matthew near lost his temper out of a sense of moral outrage at injustice, or cruelty … and again, this made me love him more. When he was peevish with Jonathan, totally justified. Sorry, Jonathan.
The second reason I loved The Long Call was the smooth, steady way in which Cleeves had the murder investigation reveal the victim’s motives and character, Simon Walden’s. At first, according to people who knew him at the Woodyard, Simon was a homeless, alcoholic drifter who found solace and purpose at the Woodyard and ended up rooming with its social worker, Caroline Preece, and her roommate, Gaby Henry, the centre’s artist-in-residence. But Matthew and Jen’s (she’s a beautifully irrepressible character herself) investigations reveal a man wracked with moral guilt, hence, the albatross, and on a profound personal campaign for redemption and restitution. When I started the novel, I was curious about Simon Walden and his albatross tattoo; by the end of it, I mourned him, a testament to Cleeves’s ability to build our sympathy.
My quibble with Cleeves’s novel has to do with her portrayal of the neuro-diverse characters who are part of the Woodyard and are embroiled, through no fault of their own, in Matthew’s investigation. They are adults and Cleeves does endow them with unique, engaging personalities. I loved her portrayal of their parents, whose love for their children was moving, pure, profound. I was puzzled and disappointed, however, in Cleeves’s frequent references to their “learning disabilities”. In their sensitive, overall portrayal, however, this is a quibble. What stands out in the end is, no matter how flawed, or too perfect in Matthew’s case, the characters are (Jen and Ross are something else and you know how I feel about Jonathan ) the moral triumphs. With Miss Austen, we would highly recommend this first book in Cleeves’s series and found within it, “a mind lively and at ease,” Emma.
Ann Cleeves’s The Long Call is published by Minotaur Books. It was published in October 2019 and may be found at your preferred vendors. I received an e-galley from Minotaur Books, via Netgalley.