Map of Blue Book Balloon

19 March 2020

Review - NVK by Temple Drake

Design by Julia Lloyd
Temple Drake
Titan Books, 17 March 2020
PB, 336pp

I'm grateful to Lydia at Titan Books for an advance copy of NVK.

I loved this book.

Interlacing the lives of a mysterious young Finnish woman, Noemi Vieno Kuusela, and of a Shanghai businessman,  Zhang Guo Xing, NVK blends cultures, genres and the ages.

The book opens in a flashback to a murder which took place hundreds of years before in North Karelia, before jumping into Zhang's life. He's a powerful man, someone with money and influence and friends who's familiar with the nightclubs and bars of Shanghai - Drake gives us vivid descriptions of a hedonistic, money-fuelled scene all taking place under the harsh nighttime neon of a city on the make and on the rise. Zhang's at home there, clearly, and he's keeping his family - a wife and son - at a distance, phoning them infrequently and simply paying the bills.

So when Noemi turns up in a club one night its hardly surprising that they end up having an affair, or possibly something more casual. Yet Zhang seems to see something in her apart from the surface allure - so much so that he sets one of his fixers to find out more about her. Pretty soon he knows all isn't as it seems.

Noemi has reasons, going back to that remote farmhouse in Karelia, to not be known about, remembered, or recognised. So a dance commences between the two, suspicion and caution entwined with appetite and sensuality. From one perspective there's something very wrong here, a great danger - this is, genuinely, a horror story - but there's also a great passion and there are I think no bad intentions (which isn't to say no-one gets hurt). This isn't the story of a scary monster in the dark, indeed the dark here is vital, pulsing with life, with abandon. (Zhang also moonlights in a blues band with a bunch of old friends and Drake's account of their relationship and of a session they give is wonderful, full of joy and sweat and glory).

And so the old story takes off, Drake giving hints of some darkness, something Noemi can't, in the end, get away from, something Zhang would rather not know about, their relationship increasingly knotted by what each known about the other, about themself. It feels high risk, something in a precarious balance, only enduring so long as it's in motion, so long as there are distractions. And increasingly, it's out of anyone's power to rescue, too stabilise.

So - a strikingly modern, horror/ romance, deeply atmospheric, very much rooted in a place and time. I've never been to China, still less Shanghai but this book gives a vivid picture of that city - both its modern affectations and accomplishments and the older, shabbier ways tucked - literally or metaphorically - behind the modern facade. Ways that remember how to deal with a ghost, a monster.

This is a book that made me gobble up page after page, impatient for the next scene, the next insight, the next steps in the increasingly wild dance. It's one I'd strongly recommend.

For more information about NVK, see the Titan Books website here.

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