Surprise! For me, this single word best describes my reaction to Alan K. Austin’s new book, The Cottage. But the extent and nature of surprise in this novel is puzzling and overwhelming at times. My reader’s emotions ranged from wanting to abandon the book, to not being to able to put it down. The source of the chaos is not so much the story, as it is the love/hate relationship some readers are apt to develop with the book’s central character, eccentric documentary filmmaker Jack Duncan (Austin’s other career is that of award winning, investigative film documentarian). Duncan is painstakingly created and is aptly described by another of the book’s primary characters as “the most peculiar man I’ve ever met.”
As complex as is the character Jack Duncan, the story told in the The Cottage is even more entangled. From the first page, it is clear that the reader will be challenged to consider whether the circumstances of the story are true tales or tall tales. Jack’s fiancé, whom he doesn’t really know, disappears in the first chapter, and despite that event, Jack suddenly heads off to undertake a project that rides the coattails of the current Shakespeare controversy.
England and Shakespeare country are the setting for the rest of the story. It is also apparent from the first page that Jack Duncan is brilliant and befuddled, quite capable of making mind-boggling poor choices in his actions. This mosaic combination of plot and character made the first few chapters maddening for me. But once more of the story was revealed, I began to become more captivated with it.
While Jack Duncan is clearly the central character, and the most developed, there is a strong, eclectic supporting cast who also contribute to the book’s allure. Indeed, Mr. Austin has a special gift for getting us “inside” his characters, in some instances deeply. This might well be a carry-over from his documentary work. That same work also lends an air of authenticity, real or by association, to the overall tone and manner of Jack Duncan’s thoughts and actions.
But despite the overall influence of Austin’s documentary background, it does not appear to have noticeably influenced his writing style. He is a first rate storyteller with words and has a strong ability to subtly guide the reader through his tangled web of surprise.
Alan K. Austin’s The Cottage, like the book’s central character Jack Duncan, is perhaps one of the most peculiar books I’ve read. It is also one of the more engaging, stimulating mystery novels I’ve read. A strong story, strongly developed characters, and magnetic writing make for a not surprisingly good book that is full of surprises.
(Reviewed by Joseph Yurt for Reader Views)