Book Review: Sarah Court

Craig Davidson’s work has attracted the attention of people like Peter Straub, Chuck Palahniuk (to whose style Davidson’s sometimes draws comparison), Irvine Welsh, and Clive Barker. Most recently, Toronto’s ChiZine Publications brings us Sarah Court, a bizarre, biting novel that defies easy classification. Welcome to Sarah Court, home to the disturbed and the damaged: fathers who destroy their children, a nerd who imagines he’s a vampire, a foster mother who sports a vicious streak, and a thing that lives in a box.

Title: Sarah Court
Author: Craig Davidson
ISBN: 1926851005, 978-1926851006
First published: 2010.

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Several characters, residents of the same subdivision, tell different parts of their related stories. The novel finds the greatest horror in humanity– despite the fact that one character isn’t human at all.

High Point:

Several fine stories comprise this novel. Perhaps the strongest involves an unsuccessful fighter and his bullied, vampire-obsessed son. Another follows a man’s dark quest for redemption after his own obsessions destroy his daughter.

Davidson’s voice, his skill at crafting words, makes a book worth reading:

Locals look startled in their habitat: slugs at the heart of a lettuce head. Catch sight of myself in a shop window. A winnowed aspect to my face. You’d think its angles had been scored using a dentist’s drill.

The bar’s enclosed by a wrought-iron fence. Girls too young to be legal sit on the patio with a jug of radiant green cocktail resembling engine coolant. Inside it’s quiet enough to hear the suck-suck of sorrows in the drowning. The assembled rubbydubs’ faces look fashioned from slum-grade tin. Pitted, discoloured, robbed of whatever dignity flesh possesses robing men of substance. Fuck me if I don’t fit right in. The draft beer glows unhealthily. Quaffing the blood of an irradiated god. (93-94)

Low Points:

1. The downside of having a strong personal style becomes clear in a novel with many narrators. Although some characters (such as the autistic Jeffrey and our resident non-human) speak in distinct voices, many of the narrators sound too much like each other.

2. In “Black Box: The Organist,” one of the novel’s strongest sections, our characters wander into a direct theft of Raold Dahl’s “Man from South.” Davidson acknowledges the source in an afterward, though he would have expected most readers to recognize the story, which television has thrice adapted (it remains one of the most famous episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents), and which Tarantino stole in his section of Four Rooms.

I have no idea why Davidson bothered. The chapter, already replete with horrific sideroads and suburban depravity, gets dragged down by this unnecessary and necessarily-derivative detour.

The Scores:

Originality: 4/6 We’ve seen these kinds of people before, though Davidson provides a distinct perspective. SF/Horror/Hardboiled Slice-of-Life/Mystery Novels do not come along so often.

The reference to Tarantino in the Acknowledgements I found telling. Despite the novel’s many literary qualities, I kept thinking of its cinematic antecedents. We have a suburban Pulp Fiction here, with an alien reminiscent of 80s cult cinema (think Repo Man and Liquid Sky) and an ambiance that updates the hardboiled and the noir.

Imagery: 6/6 Davidson excels at rendering the physical world. We’re on the dark side of the Niagara escarpment, in real places that reek of scarred lives.

Story: 4/6. Readers will require patience to make sense of the story. Each narrator tells his or her own piece. We lack context for events when we first hear of them. Beneath the tangle of voices and lives lie several comparatively simple narratives. We even get an epilogue, complete with (problematized) moralizing. The relationships among these tales make them complex.

Characterization: 5/6. Davidson has pondered long and deeply on the ways the average person can be disturbed. If you need to like at least one character in order to enjoy a book, you may be at a loss. I found his people fascinating studies—and decided that a few of them had appeal after all.

At times the narrators resemble each other too closely. I almost wished Davidson had gone for third-person narrative, or the Thing in the Box as a clear narrative center.

Emotional Response: 5/6.

Editing: 5/6. Davidson writes very well.

Overall score: 5/6 I enjoyed Sarah Court and intend to seek out the author’s other books. At times, I found its edge a little forced. As I’ve written elsewhere (and in a very different context), forced darkness in genre fiction isn’t any more mature than wild-eyed escapism: it’s just a different form of immaturity. That said, I recognize the dark excess as intrinsic to the story Davidson wants to tell and, in many respects, he succeeds.

In total, Sarah Court receives 34/42