"No-one knows my story here, I'm anonymous at last … I've done it." The movie of One step too far should open with a 10 second zoom shot. Planet Earth from space – camera accelerating towards, through atmosphere, clouds part, reveal Western Europe. Focus on England, North West, landscape, trainline, train. Through window, woman, alone, tight focus on hands, one worrying a wedding ring off the other.
Tina Seskis slams us straight in to the heart of her debut novel – no warm-up, no fictional foreplay – a woman, seemingly abandoning happiness, a husband and a child. Is she serious? Six paragraphs in and you have your answer. Emily Coleman stands at Crewe station, wedding ring in hand – sacred, public symbol of her marriage – and the cruelty of what happens next removes all doubt. Deadly serious.
I'm no spoiler slut - pretty much all this and more is on the back cover and One step too far is a solid genre piece – everyone reading the jacket knows that, if we open on a character hard-erasing her past with all the subtlety of sledgehammer vs memory stick, the author has effectively just set a big shiny red LED straight-outta-Hollywood countdown timer towards the point where they have to explain themselves. Call it a twist, call it a reveal – whatever. Somewhere in the next 300 or so pages and it may or may not be the absolute crux of the story, is the WHY Emily’s doing this.
Well, I'm out the other side people. Things I know after reading this.
- The last book I read before this took me a fortnight. This one took me a day.
- I’ll be buying Tina's next one
- The “reveal" is a dangerous game for an author to play.
One step too far is the story of Emily Coleman, her twin sister, her family and her life. It’s compartmentalised into chunks, shifting between third and first person narratives which, far from being annoying, ease the reader's transition into where and with who we are.
As Emily moves away from her past in the opening pages, Seskis paints a compelling picture of a new beginning. Granted, she gives her lead a little money, but not too much, and the author is a little naughty with how she sidesteps the difficulty of getting a new identity for whom Emily will become, but the reader’s natural generosity towards a novel’s opening act isn’t abused.
If the inner turmoil of Emily's re-invention is hidden and traumatic, its outer manifestation is unbounded simplicity – writ large in a smart vignette of a Tuesday morning visit to IKEA – was there ever a store more suited to fresh starts? – you'll never look at a single person walking around there in the same way again. It's a compelling opening showing how, with care and and a little luck, you could erase yourself and start again, complete with matching throw rugs.
Along the way, Emily picks up new friends and relationships and Seskis layers them and their backstories into the overall narrative, with varying degrees of success, just as in a couple of decades of a real life people will enter and leave with varying degrees of impact. And then we have her past, given to us piece by piece in what seems at first to be a separate, parallel narrative, until it gradually arcs inward towards the reinvented Emily…
For this reviewer, the novel only makes one genuine wrong turn – there’s a point at which Seskis chooses to intersect Emily with the UK's pathetic obsession with "celebrities". I clearly have a personal aversion to such vacuous nonentities, but it also felt unnecessary within the novel - we already had enough going on.
OK, the indoor elephant. We have to talk about it, but with some care. This is a genre piece, and there will be a point or points where what we know and what we think we know will be, ahem, “changed” by the author. Do it well, (think Kevin Spacey’s final, morphing walk in The Usual Suspects) and you get the holy grail of an audible gasp from your reader. Do it badly and, well, let’s not go there…
Consenting Adults people - We KNEW this would happen going in, but when an author takes this route, they are making a bond of trust with the reader. Manipulate yes, but don’t marionette – those strings have to be invisible, or you at least need to persuade us to look away from them. I still cannot decide if Seskis played by the rules here. And, if we’re going to convict, she’s a recidivist as well – once the forbidden fruit of the plot twist was eaten, there was no going back. Reader be warned – in the second half of this novel we are not on steady ground.
So, in One step too far we have a neat, intertwining story of interesting characters, told mainly through flashback episodes – some dark, but enough which are funny, entertaining, warm and human to make this a rewarding journey. Worth picking up…
My copy was supplied by Netgalley, all opinions are my own (I'm not short of them).