Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Revolver by Marcus Sedgwick

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
Anton Chekov

"My mother's children are not murderers."
 Sig Andersson, Revolver

I'm really interested in the first lines of books.  I think a strong first line sets the tone for the whole story, and I actually have a little collection in my head of favourite first lines of novels.  Revolver opens with a one-line paragraph:  "Even the dead tell stories."  This book had me at the first sentence.

Revolver is the best frontier novel I've ever read.  It's stunning, really.  It reads like the kind of book that's been polished and pared down again and again and again until there is nothing left but the pure crackling light of the story.  Every word counts.  Chapters begin with the shortest of sentences.  "How things unwind."for example.  Yet despite it's spare frame it features a dramatically tense plot, an almost visceral sense of place and time, and beautiful characterization.  At the heart of this intelligent book is the working out of an implacable ethical question:  is it right to shoot another to save oneself?  

Revolver is alternatingly set in 1910 in Giron, a small Swedish settlement north of the Arctic circle, and Nome, Alaska, in the late 1800s (the gold rush period).  Sig Andersson, a young man living with his father, stepmother, and older sister in Giron, has just discovered the icy corpse of his father, who had fallen partway through the ice while driving over a lake by dogsled.  The lake Einar himself has warned his son never to cross.   Sig's sister and stepmother leave to get help from neighbours who live miles away, and Sig is left alone in the cabin with his thoughts and his father's frozen corpse.  But then a stranger breaks in, a man who claims that Sig's father had cheated him out of a fortune in gold.  The stranger wants the gold back, and he has a gun. 

Revolver is really so perfectly plotted that I don't want to spoil the story for anyone.  But the decision Sig must eventually make is whether to accept the practical philosophy of his father (" 'A gun is not a weapon"' Einar once said to Sig. 'It's an answer.  It's an answer to the questions life throws at you when there's no one around to help.") or the ideals of his mother, a devoted Christian who believed in nonviolence and forgiveness.   His very survival depends on what he chooses, and Sedgwick makes us feel the weight of that all the way through this gripping story.