As its title clearly indicates, Peter Abrahams’s twentieth novel explores the idea of a life lived as a delusion. It was well received by critics and acclaimed as being a model of the suspense genre that goes beyond formula work. In this novel, almost every character holds a belief that undermines and shatters identity, status, and relationships. Focused equally on Nell Jarreau and Alvin DuPree (Pirate), the book uses a limited omniscient point of view that gives readers glimpses into such personality motivators as innocence, naiveté, and barely suppressed anger. The confused maze of DuPree’s mind, in particular, provides a fascinating look at what these qualities mean when one is distanced from trauma by a delusion about what really happened.
The use of irony builds suspense in the novel as the characters reveal aspects of their personalities that uphold their delusional versions of life. DuPree has spent twenty years in prison. During that time he has been both the victim and the perpetrator of violence, but at the beginning of the novel, just before he is released as the result of the emergence of new evidence, he has finally found peace. He has associated himself with the biblical character of Job, internalizing the message of hope found in that book of the Bible. He is sure his favorite verses“And the Lord turned the captivity of Job, when he prayed for his friends: also the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before”are prophetic when his innocence is proven. Despite his assurances to himself that it is the biblical message that provides peace, his sense of tranquillity is more often physically manifested in the act of stroking the silky tassel of the ribbon that marks his place in the Bible. That delusion of peace deserts DuPree, however, when he is sent back into society. Once out of jail, he struggles to understand the varied people and situations he confronts: a reporter, Lee Ann Bonner, who wants to write a prize-winning book about his imprisonment; his thoughts of vengeance against the woman who sent him to prison; the idea that a guilty person has remained free while he was jailed; and his criminal tendencies. He centers his peace on two things: the book of Job and a homemade weapon that he hides in the empty space that is left behind after he lost an eye in prison. During the first days of his freedom, he finds that society is still brutally classist, and he turns to the familiarity of violence when he cannot interact in more acceptable ways.
Nell provides a complete contrast to DuPree. He was an uneducated criminal delinquent when Johnny Blanton was murdered, and Nell was Johnny’s educated middle-class girlfriend. DuPree had already dabbled in the dark side of criminal behavior, and Nell had never been confronted with evil. The fact that Nell has been sheltered from most aspects of life, even from the repercussions of the violence that she witnessed as her boyfriend was murdered, foreshadows her inability to see past the façade of her life. As a result, when DuPree is freed from jail and her testimony is questioned, Nell’s whole life is destabilized. Among other issues, she is forced to confront her daughter’s anxious concerns about whether Blanton’s murder was covered up by Clay Jarreau, the man to whom Nell has been married for almost twenty years and who has filled the role of Norah’s father. Norah even invokes William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1601) through a reference to the king’s ghostly warning that his death was contrived by his brother Claudius and his widow Gertrude. As Nell’s life unravels, readers are confronted with the question of what reality is and whether their versions of their lives are valid or deceptive.
The use of literary reference is not a new technique for Abrahams. DuPree’s reliance on Job and Norah’s invocation of Hamlet can be seen as echoes of his style in earlier works. For example, Abrahams’s 1994...
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