If you read a lot of books, then you'll have probably experienced the feeling that the edges between some of them can blur a little. Even very good books can sometimes tend to become confused in the memory with other, similar books, especially in genre fiction. Having come to the end of "Chiff Chaff" by David Barnard, we can say one thing with absolute certainty: we are never going to confuse it with any other book we've read. This is a compelling book, and an intriguing book, and a slightly unsettling, almost disturbing book. It is a book that is about as far from genre fiction as it is possible to imagine.
Where to start? The subtitle on the front cover of the book says "This is all about Orkney". Meanwhile the publisher's blurb states that "The breathtaking Orkney landscape is the main character in this novel." It also notes: "There is nowhere as uncomplicated and crystal clear and as pure as Orkney. There is nowhere as mysterious, as dark and as filled with menace as Orkney." It's true that anyone who's ever been to Orkney will recognise something of the magical feel of the archipelago as they read the book. But it's perhaps also true to say that the Orkney of "Chiff Chaff" is an Orkney that has changed greatly in the time since the novel was set. The first half of the book, "Chiff", is largely set between June and October 1952, and the central human character, Alexander A. Alexander, is a 16-year-old youth growing up on a farm on Orkney's West Mainland. The second half of the book, "Chaff" is set in the "Early 1960s", when Alexander is 27 years old, with occasional excursions into his early childhood in the "Early 1940s".
Alexander has a singular view of the world, and a singular way of expressing himself. This results in a form of language that, though entirely readable and comprehensible, makes up its own rules as it goes along. That's one of the things that makes this such a memorable book. Another is the complete lack of certainty the reader faces at every turn. At times, especially in the second half of the book, it's unclear whether what you are reading is intended as an account of actual fictional events, or whether we are immersed in some sort of dream sequence, or even something else altogether. The publisher's blurb describes the book as "a murder thriller and a reflection on personal morality". It is true that something very significant happens at the pivotal moment in the book, at the very end of "Chiff", but it remains unclear in the reader's mind - this reader's mind at least - how much of what we are being told is real and how much imaginary. This is definitely a book that will repay a second reading, if only to immerse ourselves once more in such an engagingly distorted reality.