'Time is a Killer' review: Thrilling times

'Time is a Killer' review: Thrilling times

This novel has all the ingredients of an entertaining page-turner. People die, raising intriguing questions. Mysteries unravel, only to reveal fresh twists and throw up more questions. Exotic settings, plenty of action and enough cliff-hangers; mysteries within mysteries leading to more intrigues; expect all these ingredients of a bestselling thriller and more.

In the summer of 1989, a delightful family vacation in the exotic Mediterranean island of Corsica suddenly turns into a nightmare for Clotilde. As her father drives the family down a steeply twisting mountain road to reach a concert, the world as Clotilde knew it, ends forever. Their car veers off the road at a hairpin bend and bursts into flames as it plunges down a ravine. Fifteen-year-old Clotilde, the sole survivor, sees her father, mother and elder brother die before her eyes.

Shattered deep inside, Clotilde hides her pain from the world and tries bravely to get on with her life. She undertakes rigorous studies and trains to become a successful lawyer. She also marries and raises a daughter. Yet those haunting memories of the terrible tragedy of her past never leave her. To exorcise those ghosts from her painful past, Clotilde returns 27 years later to that same campsite in Corsica where she vacationed with her parents as a young girl. Clotilde also wants to bridge the growing communication gap between her and her teenaged daughter with some holiday bonding. This pilgrimage would be “a sign of respect. A way of sharing something.”

The unthinkable happens and the ghosts from the past return with a vengeance. Clotilde receives a letter upon arriving in the camp, written ostensibly by her long-dead mother, and with details which only her mother could have known. Contradictory clues and intrigues pile up as the mystery deepens. “That explicit letter about the dark room, Orsu’s mop, the Labrador called Pacha. So many mysteries that could only be explained by the presence of her mother, here, alive on the island. Cesareu Garcia knew the key to the solution of the impossible problem; how had Palma Idrissi survived the accident?”

The author builds up the mysteries and suspense with masterly strokes. Did Clotilde’s family die in an accident, or was the car sabotaged? If it was sabotaged, who did it, and why?

Old friends and acquaintances appear from the past, with more clues and questions. Characters who seem to hold the key to the mystery suddenly die, and the intrigues take off on new tangents. There’s plenty of hair-raising action. Safety mechanisms suddenly give way, sending young girls plunging down a deep and rocky waterfall. Ghosts appear and vanish. Murder most foul catches up with unsuspecting victims.

“Perhaps her mother was still alive? Perhaps the emergency services had performed a miracle? But then why announce her death? How could they justify resuscitating a patient, saving her, and then not telling anybody? Not even her daughter. Why make her an orphan? To protect her mother? Because she was the one someone had wanted to kill? She was losing her mind. She didn’t know who to trust. Was Cervione telling the truth about her brother Nicholas and her parents’ accident? Was Franck, her husband, playing some unlikely double game? Had Natale really seen her mother’s ghost? What did grandfather Cassanu know? Who was the one pulling the strings right from the beginning?”

Sometimes, the mysteries hit too rapidly like a salvo of gunfire. The plot is action oriented at the expense of character development. The characters often appear as props to the action rather than flesh and blood individuals. The protagonist Clotilde is constructed on a bundle of commonly observed traits. A sensitive and introverted teenager who keeps a private journal and dresses like a Goth girl to display her rebellious streak, she grows into someone who hides her inner pain to be the perfect, self-sacrificing wife and mother. She cooks, she strains to please her husband when not in the mood, and oh, she’s a competent lawyer too, who juggles family and professional life expertly. She never gets over her secret rivalry with her too glamorous and perfect mother, and tries too hard to win over her indifferent daughter. These traits are credible and common enough. But we do not see how she deals with all this as a flesh and blood individual. We do not see what makes her special, and more than a mix of personality traits.

The other characters are unabashedly two-dimensional. Valentine, the self-absorbed and sulky teenager, shows her indifference to her mother “without even the minimal effort this time. Not even trying to hide her boredom under an affected mask of melancholy.” Franck is the typical callous husband under the romantic and affectionate veneer. Cervone Spinello is “Liar. Boastful. Calculating... Obsequious. Pretentious. Lecherous.” Maria-Chjara is a heartless vamp with a body that drives men mad. The list goes on.

Overall, this is a light, fast and exciting thriller. No more, no less.

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