I often have sinking feelings when starting a book written by a friend. This one was no exception, because the layout is the first obvious downside. Each paragraph is separated by a blank line. There are no indents or smartquotes. There are run on sentences galore, because there are no semi-colons. It was obviously spellchecked and proofed but obvious things were still missed. So I had sinking feelings, because Lay Dee is the pseudonym of a friend of mine who sent me a signed copy from the Netherlands.
Fortunately, all this kind of works because the novel is told by an unnamed narrator in stream of consciousness style, somewhat like a diary without any dates. It's matter of fact, conversational and information heavy. It's also insightful, because we learn a lot about our narrator through her attitudes to and interactions with the ensemble cast: mother, stepfather, real father, neighbours, friends, teachers, the police, all the way up to special agents, because this book knows how to escalate.
Because this is a sort of diary, this narrator doesn't actually tell us who she is. We don't know her name or her age. During early chapters, we wonder how old she must be. She's certainly a kid but she doesn't always act like one, as she has both common sense and maturity. Then again, she doesn't act like a child all the time because she's sometimes judgemental, pessimistic and cynical, rather like the teenager she is. We eventually learn that she's sixteen.
She's also apparently close to the heart of what's going on, even though she is also clearly not responsible for it. It, in this instance, is a heck of a lot of deaths: a murder or two, but mostly just tragic accidents. No, she's not a teenage Dexter. She merely flouts the odds often enough that we can't fail to guess at why. And, to give the author credit, when we do guess, we fail because the inevitable revelation is brutal and twisted and fantastic.
And while the word is overused, these deaths really are tragic. The first is Mr. Kelly, who has a fall in a hospital room, while his wife is giving birth to their first child. He smacks his head on a countertop and she's suddenly a single mother. A twin is run over and mangled by a riding lawnmower driven by a man who's just died of a stroke. The head of our narrator's father is crushed by a concrete beam in his house during his birthday celebrations.
I'll stop there but there are many more deaths here, most of which will stay vivid in my mind because of their circumstance. On the rare occasions that they avoid tragedy, they're memorable for another reason. I refuse to spoil Ms. Belle's demise but it's an act of glorious karma that's set up well and delivered even better. We have no idea why people are dying, because they appear to be unrelated in every way, but there are common factors.
One is our little sixteen year old who seems to know all the victims and be present at many of their deaths, often discovering them even if they don't happen right in front of her. I puzzled over the reason for that throughout the novel but was not unhappy when it was revealed. It's one of those ideas that I want to talk about with you right now but really can't because it's the very definition of a spoiler.
Another is the title of the book, 'Population 3000', because that's clearly telling. The unnamed town in which we spend the entire book starts it with 2,998 people to its name and two more about to be born. Only the accidental death of Mr. Kelly nixes the celebrations about to trigger at the point the count reaches the 3,000. As the back cover blurb prompts us to wonder, will the town reach that total and what will happen if it does?
There are a string of possibilities, of course. Our narrator can't help but wonder whether she's a jinx and so do we, but the local paper talks about a curse and a little delving into the archives throws up surprising history. I appreciated that this plays up the mystery. The deaths are memorable though mostly not gratuitous and while they were clearly meant to be memorable, it was just as clear that they're meant to prompt us to ask questions.
The mystery is one of the best things about the book, while the deaths are another. A third is that there's some real power in some of the sections. I really felt the scene a quarter of the way in when a sociology teacher has his students, some of which have just lost friends, examine this trauma from a human perspective. Some children walk out immediately and the rest follow after our narrator gives the teacher a piece of her mind. This is a powerful scene and it's not the only one.
Some may find the matter of fact tone a negative aspect, but I wouldn't buy into that. The novel is being told by a sixteen year old girl as she's being confronted, often quite literally, with the gruesome deaths of family and friends. She's writing from a standpoint of trauma, not to mention a number of other fundamental changes in her life. I don't believe that any attempt to write this from a literary standpoint to tug at our heartstrings with a lyrical tongue would remotely work. This approach works well and, with the right voice, would make for a fantastic audiobook.
What I found negative was the ease with which the ending unfolds. I realise that it kind of has to play out the way it does but it felt a little easier than I'd have liked, both emotionally and from the perspective of narrative. Also, when earlier events play out elsewhere, like on television, on a page of the local newspaper or through a third party, our narrator has a habit of recounting them verbatim rather than summing them up with a more believable synopsis. None of this affects the impact that the novel has, if maybe some of its flow.
While I had sinking feelings for the first few pages, they went away pretty quickly. 'Population 3000' caught me up quickly and carried me capably to a chilling revelation of a finale, the odd proofing errors more jarring than anything in the author's writing or approach. I should add too that this is everything it needs to be; there's no need for a sequel and one would serve only to diminish this novel. We're left pondering on just what Lay Dee set up and its many ramifications and that, above a notorious scene early in the second half, is the most brutal thing here. ~~ Hal C F Astell