Monday, 2 May 2016

Zugzwang by Ronan Bennett

Zugzwang, first published nine years ago, is an interesting thriller by the Irish writer Ronan Bennett. It was recommended to me by my agent, with whom I've been discussing the possibility of writing a thriller. The point he emphasised was that the story has an intriguing history. Originally, it appeared as a serial in the Observer, and as a result there was a need to structure the plot in such a way that there were plenty of cliffhangers.

Zugzwang is a term in chess. It describes a deadly position in which a player is obliged to move - but every move only makes his position even worse. This is a rather good metaphor for the plight of a hapless character caught up in events beyond his understanding, which is the fate of Otto, a Jewish psychoanalyst working in St Petersburg in 1914.

Chess is integrated into the story, again in a way that I found interesting - and satisfactory. Otto is playing a long running match, and the positions in the game are reproduced in the novel. His patients include a gifted chess player, and a beautiful married woman, to whom he finds himself attracted. But he lives in dangerous times, and the police start to take an interest in him - and his patients. Even worse, it turns out that his young daughter Catherine is mixed up in some murky business, and before long, both Otto and Catherine are thrown into prison.

Overall, it seemed to me that the first half of the book worked rather better than the second. The characters are drawn well, but my enthusiasm began to flag as increasing amounts of Russian political history were introduced (a note at the end of the book lists sources, and believe me, there are a lot of them...) As a result, a book that might have been a minor masterpiece didn't really live up to its potential. But Bennett is a capable writer, and I'm glad I've had the chance to study his approach to thriller writing.

1 comment:

Helena said...

I hear that many congratulations are in order! Well done.