01/11/2005. Contributed by Tom Lloyd-Willams
pub: Dalkey Archive Press. 226 page enlarged paperback. Price: $13.95 (US). ISBN: 1-56478-412-6.
check out website: www.dalkeyarchive.com
What would you do if you found an envelope containing a movie ticket wedged in your front door? The narrator of 'Hidden Camera', a fussy and old-fashioned undertaker whose job is starting to wear him down, decides to do nothing. That it is simply a clever marketing ruse that he wants nothing to do with. It therefore comes as a surprise, even to him, when he suddenly rushes out the door and races to the theatre, where a private and almost solitary screening awaits him. To the narrator's astonishment, he himself is the star of the show, having been covertly filmed during one of his lunch breaks sitting on a bench in the park. This convinces him that he's been drawn into some strange hidden camera reality TV show so when the lights come on and he finds another envelope, he decides to play along and see where it takes him. Through the course of the night, aided by a few individuals who each play a number of roles, he doggedly follows the trail of clues, refusing to be deterred as the path becomes increasingly strange and extreme.
The scale of this book is small. Really only one proper character, a simple - albeit enticing - premise and extending over the course of a single night. In effect, this is a short story that somehow went on to cover 200 pages and in parts, it really feels that way, too. The narrator himself is not a likeable person, pedantic and irritating for much of the book and overly committed to his increasingly implausible interpretation of events, yet despite the fact that I didn't like him, I never once doubted the author's ability to sketch a character. There is real personality there, simply not one I liked. Perhaps not ideal but far preferable to a dull and one-dimensional hero.
Overall, there are several aspects to the book that diminished my enjoyment of it. The ending fell a little flat, even after I'd re-read it to see whether I'd simply missed something and the narrator was annoying, but once the book was closed those details paled. Instead, it was the fresh writing and original voice that lingered in my mind: vivid writing augmented by eccentricity and humour. In the rather homogenised world of mainstream publishing, books such as this one often don't get the chance to shine because flawed originality rarely outsells accomplished predictability. 'Hidden Camera' isn't a perfect novel, but it's different and it's not trying to be anything other than what it is. Without novels like this in the world, reading would be a wholly less interesting activity.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA