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Significance

Jo Mazelis
ISBN-13: 
9781781721872
Publication Date: 
Monday, September 15, 2014
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2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winner.

 

‘Significance is written with admirable storytelling skill that weaves captivating narrative tension, poetic density and exploration of ideas.’ Valerie Sirr, Wales Arts Review
 
‘A cool and sophisticated look at human interaction, loving, violent and inexplicable simultaneously.’ Sarla Langdon, The Bay Magazine
 
‘There is also a much deeper level to the novel that is just as enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written.’ Simon Savidge, Jerwood 2015 Judge
 
‘A  blend of policier and existential thriller that expands this vision by giving her gifts for subverting genre and stereotype greater rein than ever before.’ John Goodby
 

"With Significance Mazelis has set her novel-writing bar at a breathtaking height."Rachel Trezise, Agenda

Lucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but only gets as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.

Lucy’s death, like a stone thrown into a pool, sends out far-reaching ripples, altering the lives of people who never knew her as well as those of her loved ones back home.
 

REVIEWS

Review by Susan Osborne, A Life in Books

Friday, October 30, 2015

Fiction Uncovered was set up in 2011 with the aim of promoting British writing. Last year with the support of a charitable foundation it became the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.  It’s an unusual award in that there are eight winners including, this year, Jo Mazelis’s Significance. I’m more than a little late to the party with this one – the winners were announced back in June – but I’m glad I finally turned up. With its intricate plotting and many-layered narrative Significance turns out to be completely engrossing.

Unhappy in her relationship, Lucy has reinvented herself and run away to France. She’s booked into a hotel but is drawn back to the restaurant in a nearby small town she visited on her first evening. When she sees a young man on the pavement outside staring fixedly ahead she decides to investigate. He’s unresponsive and she learns from the man’s brother that he’s mentally disabled. Uncharacteristically, Lucy follows the brother to a bar where their overheard exchange startles an elderly English couple. Lucy moves on to another bar, unsettled at finding herself the only woman in the place. A little the worse for wear, she drops her cardigan in the street without noticing it. A young black man spots it and runs after her. Hearing footsteps, she dodges into an alley. Knowing that he’s frightened her, he decides to leave the cardigan spread on a bush outside the bar. Each of the many seemingly inconsequential acts leading up to Lucy’s death is observed by someone, all of whom are convinced their own version of events is correct. There’s a crime but this isn’t a crime novel: it’s a study in human nature and the way we interact and observe each other.

Mazelis leads us down a multitude of cul-de-sacs and wrong turnings, filling in the back stories of each of her characters no matter how peripheral they might appear. Given my predilection for pared back prose, you’d think this would be the kiss of death for me but patience pays off with this novel. By showing events from so many points of view and telling us her characters’ stories, Mazelis draws her readers into a rich tapestry of interpretation and misinterpretation. Her characters are sharply observed. They engage in internal debates on all manner of things from feminism to art. Assumptions are made by one character about another’s behaviour only to be proved entirely wrong when seen from the other point of view. It’s all beautifully done. Hints and clues are scattered through the novel – often red herrings – but when we do finally learn the killer’s identity it’s delivered almost in an aside. By then it’s hardly the point – the lives of Margelis’ characters are so involving that it’s what happens to them that matters. The ending is suitably ambiguous, open to interpretation. A gripping first novel, thoroughly deserving of its prize, and there are still seven other winners to explore.

Review by Simon Savidge

Friday, September 18, 2015

Many of you may know, as being so excited I mentioned it a few times, I had the joy of judging Fiction Uncovered earlier this year. Over the next few weeks (and indeed last six weeks) I will be (and have been) sharing my thoughts with you on the winners, one per week alongside the team at Fiction Uncovered. In the penultimate week this week it is all about Jo Mazelis’  novel Significance which is quite unlike any literary crime novel that I have read before, seriously.

Seren Books, 2014 (2015 edition), paperback, fiction, 472 pages, kindly sunbmitted by the publisher for Fiction Uncovered

Lucy Swann has run away. She has fled the life she had in Britain to start a new life with no attachments and no history. She has dyed her hair, bought new clothes and changed her image. What we the reader want to know of course is why. What the people in the Northern French town she comes to stay in want to know is who on earth this mysterious woman travelling alone is. Yet just as we, and they, are beginning to get some insight into Lucy (we the old Lucy, they the new invention) she is brutally murdered. Inspector Vivier and his assistant Sabine Pelat are called to investigate and as they do they begin to learn not only more about Lucy but about all the people in the town she ended up in.

Lucy orders a bottle of vin rouge. Madame Gallo watches her from behind the bar, she is middle aged, but her face is still pretty, her hair dark and glossy. She dresses well. Looks exactly right for the part. As does Lucy, who is a runaway in the disguise of a confident young woman with money and credit cards and expensive clothes.

So far admittedly it sounds very like many a murder mystery or thriller you might have read before. However the murder and indeed the murderer and their motive are really the background of the book, whilst remaining the driving force of the novel. I know this sounds somewhat bonkers so let me explain, without giving anything away of course. In the lead up to, and indeed after, the murder of Lucy Swann we not only get insight into her life, we also get insight into all the people that she interacts with even if it just be a random bumping into in the street. Slowly but surely Mazelis spins us into a web of the stories of many of the people in the towns and what their relationships are and what it going on behind closed doors.

Florian looked at Suzette; three weeks ago she had invited him back to her flat. They had drunk tequila together, biting into oranges between shots instead of limes. He had not expected her to suddenly kiss him, but she did. And had wordlessly taken his hand and drawn him into her bedroom. But in the morning he’d had to get up early and was slightly hung-over. She hadn’t given him her number. He hadn’t asked, nor given her his. It was his mother’s birthday so he’d gone to dinner that evening, though he’d really wanted to see Suzette again. The night after that he’d gone to the bar to see her, but it was her day off. Then, for some reason or another, he couldn’t get to the bar for another three days, and the next time he tried she was again not working. More than a week had passed before he finally saw her at the bar, but it was unusually busy and Jaques was in a foul temper. When Florian caught her eye Suzette barely looked at him. He took the hint and left after just one drink.

I loved this element to the novel as we really get into the lives of a whole cast of characters with many mini stories or vignettes interweaving around the main one. This I found gives Significance additional depths to a simple ‘whodunnit’ or ‘whydunnit’ as it shows the secrets that the victim of murder has, how the murder effects a town brimming with secrets and whose secrets and relationships are significant to each other and the murder. It is rather like Mazelis has taken a box filled with all the crime novel/thriller tropes and really shaken it up to see what can be done outside the box. Have I gone too far with that metaphor? Maybe, but it is true none the less. I think I also loved it because I am quite a nosey person, which I think all readers are to an extent as why would be want to read about so many other people’s fictional lives, and this gives you a chance to have a really good route around into a whole host of characters lives. I found the stories of Suzette the bar maid, Joseph a young black soon to be medical student and Marilyn and Scott holidaying with his younger autistic brother to give his parents a break as interesting and poignant as Lucy’s.

There is also a much deeper level to the novel that just an enthralling and entertaining, and it should be said beautifully written (you can tell Mazelis is a poet, the writing is lyrical yet has real pace) and crafted, read. From the title you would imagine that the novel is about the significance of a murder and of course it is, yet it is also about many other significances; the significance we give ourselves and others, the significance we are given, the significance of tiny details or moments and how they can change everything. It is also a book that is very much about perception, the things we notice and the things that we don’t. I was reminded a lot of this novel when I was reading Melanie Finn’s Shamewhich has been shortlisted for the Not The Booker which is also a sinister tale which unravels in all directions, changes perspectives and expectations as it goes.

It is dark when she leaves the hotel. A boy is standing on the edge of the pavement across the road. Lucy has the curious sensation that she passed him earlier – hours earlier, when it was still light, although the shadows had been lengthening.

I think Jo Mazelis has created something quite unique with Significance. Not only has she created a tense (occasionally quite sinister and gothic) literary thriller, she has also created a novel where the murder is really the back story and the human nature of a collection of people in one town and how their lives and their little actions can create a turn of events. It is a novel that will have you guessing and as Poirot, or Agatha Christie really, said it is a novel where those “grey cells, sometimes they work even better in the dark”, mine certainly did and not just about murder but a whole host of societal issues.

Review by Bethany W. Pope, The Lonely Crowd

Saturday, July 25, 2015

 Significance, by Jo Mazelis, is a fascinating fusion of genre and high literature; it is a thriller, with a focus on psychology and character. It is this skilful joining of heart and mind, of the emotional thrust of genre and the muscular intellect of literature, that gives this story such great power. Although it is woefully underrated as an art, genre is useful for exploring more allegorical modes of thought; mental scenarios that, like dreams, are a real, vital part of life but which cannot comfortably be set in unbloodied middle-class living rooms. Using action descriptions and characterisations reminiscent of Stef Penney’s The Tenderness of Wolves, Mazelis explores the darkness that lurks behind our civilized fronts. Bankers attend Bizet’s operas in order to relive the passion of a vital early love affair that felt splendid at the time, despite the fact that it took place in a squalid student flat. Carmen reminds them of mental and emotional landscapes not necessarily reflected in visible fact. A skilfully-executed murder mystery reminds the reader of something else; this genre is good for exorcizing demons.

The back-cover synopsis states:

In Praise of Significance by Jo Mazelis

Lucy Swann is trying on a new life. She’s cut and dyed her hair and bought new clothes, but she’s only got as far as a small town in northern France when her flight is violently cut short. When Inspector Vivier and his handsome assistant Sabine Pelat begin their investigation the chance encounters of her last days take on a new significance.

Although Lucy’s murder lies in the centre of the book, the real mysteries are embodied in the people surrounding her. Each character is psychologically complex, vividly drawn, and bursting with a fully-realised interior life so believable that the characters nearly throb on the pages. While living, Lucy brims with self-doubt and an insatiable appetite for love; a thwarted poet simmers with the anxiety of pregnancy; two inspectors form a fascinating bond; a pair of old hippies see, and fail to see, what lies before them, and an irritable Canadian carries guilt over the possible maiming of his brother, memories which surface, again and again, in his vivid, uneasy dreams:

And here’s what it was. A crib in a darkened room. His parents’ bedroom, but strangely they aren’t there. He has no idea where his parents are. In the crib he sees Aaron, snivelling in his sleep and beginning to whimper. And there is this bad smell. A really bad smell of shit, pungent and stale and lightly cheesy. And in Scott’s hands is a pillow – the pillow from his own bed which has repeat motifs of the Lone Ranger astride his rearing-stallion. These specific details are the worst part of it because they make him think that it’s real, that it actually happened and is no dream at all. Scott lifts the pillow in two hands and carefully, deliberately he pushes it down onto Aaron’s sleeping face.

The writing is exquisite, engrossing, filled with cinematic details (the glint of light on skin, the texture of a bead) that draw readers into what feels like a whole and working world. This novel is a pleasure and a joy to read, even (and especially) when the narrative shunts you down dark, dingy corridors. The essential mystery of character is why we are the way we are. If we don’t have our very specific histories, if time and pain left us unwounded, our surfaces unmarked, then our futures would be random, undifferentiated. This novel understands that in order to solve a mystery in the external world we must first unravel the twisted secrets of the heart and brain. There is a reason that this novel won the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize. It deserves much more acclaim.

Review by Valerie Sirr, Wales Arts Review

Friday, December 5, 2014

Significance is a literary crime novel in which the ‘whodunnit’ and even the ‘whydunnit’ is less significant than the mystery of who the victim is (or who any of us are), the impact made by one person’s existence, and the consequences of murder for those who knew, or even briefly met, the victim in the hours and days before the horrific event. It opens with a young woman who, intriguingly, has chosen to disappear from her life, perhaps experiencing a breakdown, perhaps not, though her sense of dislocation almost to the point of dissociation is an edgy and discomfiting introduction that sets the tone for subsequent chilling proceedings.

To summarise the story without giving spoilers: we are led through a sequence of events before and after a murder that allows us a glimpse into the lives of loved ones, witnesses, suspects under investigation, and others, linked through personal relationship, or passing meeting, or by slight association with a murdered woman who hardly knew herself. We observe the distress of loved ones of the disappeared person and the questions that they are left with, we observe the lives of those connected only by chance, and we observe the processes of individual police investigators at work and their interior selves and relationships too.

This is a novel that includes questions outside of police procedure and while the crime elements of the story are handled with an authoritative, detached narrator’s voice, making it a real page-turner, the philosophical ideas make it even more engaging. Questions about who we are, our various selves, possible selves, reinvented selves – our own inventions and others’ who experience us; the unreliability of our and others’ perception, the subjectivity of consciousness and how it can become altered or skewed, exemplified, for example, by fallible witnesses, a boy suffering from severe autism, a woman’s poetic vision, a man’s possibly false childhood memory lodged in his unconscious mind, among other considerations of what makes a sense of self and others. In exploring all of these characters in depth, the narrative allows us to experience them in all their complexity, on their separate journeys – at some point colliding with the murder victim, sometimes more intensely than others. But always enough of an experience, however much at a remove, or fleeting, to form an impression based on significant remembered detail, or to be significantly affected by the association, however tenuous.

The novel is elegantly structured within separate sections each with their own epigraphs, and named chapters – which edge occasionally into portentousness, but the overall impression is of an architecture that is beautifully constructed with that controlling omniscient perspective mentioned earlier, all seeing, with an almost melancholy detachment. On a very odd occasion the point-of-view slips jarringly out of register, but this is a review copy and that may well have been corrected since elsewhere the perspective and structure is sharply accurate as well as making effective use of filmic cuts.

There is much erudition here, though it is worn lightly and filtered seamlessly through the individual characters’ knowledge of art, literature, medicine; psychology, policing. The characters present with a fascinating range of sensibility and education level. They are not all middle class, educated in the liberal arts etc; uneducated folk appear too, rendered with the same authorial empathy. Not to mention the autistic boy who’s experience, and that of his carers, is movingly depicted.

Significance is written with admirable storytelling skill that weaves captivating narrative tension, poetic density and exploration of ideas. Further enjoyment is provided by an acute sense of place which makes for a vivid experience of French urban life, and by the precision and awareness of the power of language, its multiple associations, beyond our conscious control, echoing Lacanian ideas subtly alluded to in the text – just one element of its intricate texture. It’s a story that will leave its readers with a lingering sense of tragedy along with some thought-provoking questions about the crime at the heart of the novel and about our own selves.

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