The Turnglass – Gareth Rubin

Ok. Cards on the table. I only review books I enjoyed and I try to be as honest as I can in the reviews when I write them. So when I got an advance copy of The Turnglass by Gareth Rubin from Simon & Schuster UK I was…sceptical. A lovely cover (or covers) – with one side Blue and one side Red. The note that came with it explained:

Imagine you’re holding a book in your hands. It’s not just any book though. It’s a tête-bêche novel, beloved of nineteenth-century bookmakers. It’s a book that is two books: two intertwined stories printed back-to-back.
Open the book and the first novella begins. It ends at the middle of the book. Then flip the book over, head to tail, and read the second story in the opposite direction.
Both covers are front covers; and it can be read in either direction, or in both directions at once, alternating chapters, to fully immerse the reader in it.

I’m all for an unconventional book –House of Leaves is still one of the most memorable reading experiences I’ve ever had, but I wondered whether this might be a bit…gimmicky?

I read the ‘blue’ story (half?novel? novella?) first. Set in 1880s England at the solitary Turnglass House on a small island off the Essex coast, it tells of an idealistic young doctor, Simeon Lee who arrives from London to treat his gravely ill cousin, Parson Oliver Hawes. There’s a story within the story (within the overall story if you like) – as Dr Lee reads his cousin’s journal and learns more about Florence, currently kept in a glass-walled room in a library within Turnglass House.

At 234 pages it was a read-in-one sitting story and all the better for it. I’m not normally a ‘historical crime’ reader, but I found this one entertaining and with a satisfying number of twists and turns, written very much in the style of the era it portrayed.

So, onto the ‘red’ story. Set in 1939 Los Angeles, Celebrated young author Oliver Tooke, is found dead in his writing hut off the coast of the family residence, Turnglass House. His friend Ken Kourian doesn’t believe Oliver would take his own life and starts to investigate. It immediately struck me, a fan of golden age mysteries, as my sort of story. But…within the first few pages, when we’re introduced to the beach home called The Turnglass House I was a little disappointed. That is the connection between the two stories? Two different locations in different time periods and in different countries with the same name?

I think I actually sighed. Audible enough for my wife to ask me what was up. I muttered something about ‘gimmicky’ (possibly a tiny part of me satisfied in my original suspicion).

But ignoring that, it was already interesting me a story, so no harm no foul. I kept reading. And very soon, I realised I had been wrong.

Very wrong.

This second story wasn’t just a stand-alone with a vague shared reference. It was much more than that.

I’m not going to go into any more plot detail because so much of the joy from this book was the way it works in its two halves but even more as a whole thing.

What I will say is the author does a fine job of creating authentic feeling from both eras he writes in. He does an even better job in weaving disparate threads together into (cliched as it is) a finely spun web of a story.

Does it matter which order you read the stories in? I don’t think so – although I think the way I read it (Blue then Red) is probably the most satisfying (I may well go back and read it the other way round to test this theory).

Is it a ‘gimmick’? You might think so when you start. By the time you finish, you’ll realise it’s anything but.

I said at the beginning of this I always try to be honest in my reviews – honestly, this is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

And in tribute to the book you’ll find that if you read this backwards there’s a hidden message in this review*

* OK, sometimes I lie about some things in my review. I’m not as clever as the author to manage anything as smart as that would entail.

The Turnglass by Gareth Rubin is available now in Hardback, Kindle and on Audio from Simon & Schuster UK.

Simon Bewick. 09/23

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