The Singer's Gun: a cleverly layered, multi-stranded story

24 March 2015

In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a bleak post-apocalyptic world is transformed into something beautiful by following a travelling Shakespearean theatre company as they pass through ruined town to town. She explores art, celebrity, fame and leaves the reader with a nostalgia for the world we live in. Recently longlisted for the Women's Prize for Fiction, Station Eleven fans include Jessie Burton, Lauren Beukes and George RR Martin. If you've already read (and loved) Station Eleven, why not check out Emily’s first three novels which are released in the UK for this very first time this month.

As a big Station Eleven fan, Picador invited me to read and review one of her earlier novels, The Singer’s Gun.


After shaking off an increasingly dangerous venture with his cousin, Anton Waker has spent years constructing an honest life for himself. But then a routine security check brings his past crashing back towards him. His marriage and career in ruins, Anton finds himself in Italy with one last job from his cousin. But there is someone on his tail and they are getting closer . . . 

Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven was one of, if not my favourite, book of last year. But then again it had all my perfect ingredients; a science-fiction, literary fiction, post-apocalyptic hybrid. It quickly prompted me into buying one of Emily's previous novels (The Lola Quartet), which had not yet been published in the UK at the time, and that I also loved. But, as with The Lola QuartetThe Singer’s Gun is a completely different book from Station Eleven with almost nothing in common. This is certainly not a criticism, merely a fact, and to compare the two is a mistake. The Singer’s Gun is a fantastic read, told by an author of extraordinary talent, who has fast become one of my all-time favourites.

“I love how she begins chapters like this, ‘Elena, buying a Social Security card at the Russian Café:’”

As much as The Singer’s Gun is a twisty, turny tale of a man running from his shady past and the illegal activities he has been involved in, it is also about familial bonds and how these can be used against us, to manipulate us into actions we might not be comfortable with, and how far we can be pushed. The illegal activities that the family are involved in are portrayed as entirely natural throughout the book. It is only one man who thinks of it as unnatural and has moral uncertainties and dilemmas, although he himself is also involved and implicated. This is why Anton is left thinking, ‘I wish I had a different family.’ The difference in opinions in the family of what it is they do, and should do, for the sake of family is vast. This is what makes for some of the most thought-provoking and engaging reading in the novel.

As I have now come to expect and admire when reading Emily’s work, The Singer’s Gun is a beautifully crafted and exquisitely told tale that had my attention from its very first pages. It has a cleverly layered, multi-stranded story, among other trademarks that I now see in Emily’s writing. How she begins chapters like this, ‘Elena, buying a Social Security card at the Russian Café:’ and using this device throughout the book at the beginning of other sections of the story. The way she cleverly moves backwards and forwards in time, seamlessly dripping parts of the story into the narrative, is something I love about her writing. And then there's the different points of view the story is told from: Anton hiding in Italy, a seemingly innocent Elena… These characters’ stories are of isolation and loneliness, yet there is so much heart at the core of their tale.

There is an intriguing mystery at the heart of the novel, and a bitter-sweet sense of foreboding from early on, although this is delicately laid through the narrative until we think we know exactly what is happening, and then another twist flips it on its head. By the end, Emily works the novel into a clever and gripping conclusion, which has already left me restless to read the only novel of hers I have not yet read, her debut, Last Night in Montreal.

>>READ THE OPENING OF THE SINGER'S GUN

The Singer's Gun

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