Harry and Michel live in the basement of a luxury apartment block, guarding the inhabitants. No-one goes outside. The world might be at war – it might even have been plunged into nuclear winter. No-one knows. All Harry and Michel know is that if they are vigilant, ‘the Organization’ will reward them: promotion to an elite cadre of security officers remains their shining goal. But what if there were no-one left to guard? And if the promised relief shift arrives, how will they fit in to Michel and Harry’s studied routine of boredom and paranoia?
The Guard by Peter Terrin – translated from the Dutch by David Colmer – is for me a great example of a marmite book! You’ll either love it or hate it. I’m caught somewhere in the middle and having just finished it I’m still not certain how I feel about it, more on that later. One thing you certainly can’t take away from the book – actually two – the narrative is intense and beautifully written and the author shows a great deal of promise, not that he needs me to confirm this of course!
Told in its entirety through the voice of Michel – an intriguing and complex narrator – we suffer the highs and lows of their – Harry and Michel – captivity. They can’t go anywhere; they have no contact with the outside world save for a regular delivery of water and food rations, rations that will see them through to the next delivery. The book is very circular in that the guards live for the resupply; they go through each day with regular monotony and intense precision leaving no stone unturned, convinced that they continue to play a crucial role in securing the residents safety from whatever lies outside the apartment block.
The first two thirds of the book are based in the confines of the concrete basement and with each new chapter I found it remarkable how the author kept my attention and perhaps more importantly that I didn’t feel claustrophobic! Paranoia and insecurity play a big part in the story and Terrin somehow keeps the story flowing and although not a quick read – there’s a lot to think about – it moves along at a decent pace. The narrative bounces around and I wasn’t quite sure if passages were in the present or the past at some points which that took me a little extra to get my head around.
Michel is a curious character whose world is based on his paranoid tendencies. The guards follow the same routines day in day out and the slightest variation is mentally dissected by Michel and an enormous amount of energy is wasted on finding solutions to problems that don’t need fixing. But what else can they do sitting in the depths of a luxury apartment with no one else to talk to? Conditions are poor and the insecurity plays an inevitable role in what eventually happens, insecurity comes a calling and forces their hand.
Having just finished the book and although we sit in on their daily discussions I still don’t feel I’ve learned that much about Michel or Harry which was a shame, I wanted to learn more.
When I picked up the book I was intrigued by the cover jacket and the premise, I’m not quite sure what drew me to the book but I’m glad I’ve read it. I had an idea in my head on how I wanted the story to unfold and although it didn’t turn out as I had imagined I do feel the author missed a trick with the latter stage of the book and I still don’t know what happened at the end. It certainly confused me and had it not been for the wonderful narrative I’d have closed the book disappointed.
Tense, powerful and beautifully written The Guard has been written by an author who knows his own mind and how he wants to write a book. Moving away from the norm he has certainly delivered an unusual and thought provoking book that will divide readers. I’m not entirely convinced with the book but one thing I am certain of, this won’t be the last book I read by Peter Terrin. Winner of the European Union Prize for Literature I want to see what he comes up with next!
- Hardcover: 288 pages
- Publisher: MacLehose Press (30 Aug 2012)
- ISBN-10: 0857050877
- ISBN-13: 978-0857050878