First published back in August of 2016, ‘Marked’ formed the debut novella for British author Stuart Park.
They’d gone to Sandswich Sands for a nice family day out. Nothing spectacular – just some time to enjoy the sunny weather and relax as they look out over the sea line. Mark had gone off to buy ice-creams for them. And that’s when he heard the first shrieks of panic coming from his increasingly distraught wife. He could see her now by the cliff edge, desperately searching amongst the crowds of people - calling their four-year-old daughters name out. Crying out if anyone had seen her child. And then, worst of all, staring down the cliff edge at the waves crashing on the rocks below.
That day would haunt Mark and Kim Goode for the rest of their lives. It was the day they lost Kaylyn. The day their four-year-old daughter disappeared, leaving them with an empty void that they found could never be filled. The police had no clue what had happened or where Kaylyn had gone. The loss ripped the family unit apart.
Twenty years later and the pain is still there. Still crippling. The loss still as heavy as it had ever been. Kim had allowed her work to swallow her whole. Her life splitting in two – no one ever seeing the real Kim. The full person. The two sides together.
Mark had taken things more steady. He’d tried to accept the bitterness that still haunted his past. He’d allowed life to carry on. Relaxed into the flow of things. But never really coming to terms with the guilt. The pain. The underlying loss.
Meanwhile a once-in-a-lifetime event was taking place. Venus and her sister planet were about to come to the end of their three-thousand yearlong cycle. All eyes were on the stars. The world’s focus on the sky above them.
But not for Mark. Mark had more important things on his mind. His last gardening job had ended without payment. He’d tried arguing with the old Japanese guy about payment, but the aging shopkeeper seemed more concerned with the stings on Mark’s hand than anything else. Since then everything seemed to have spiralled out of control. Nothing seemed to make sense. His daughter – Kate - had walked off. Whilst trying to locate her he’d been hit by a rickshaw and flung into the city’s Japanese underbelly where everyone seemed cold, uncaring and just out for themselves. In fact, the world around him seemed to be getting more and more insane. Cascading in on him. Burying him in its madness.
And damn those stings on the back of his hand itched some…
It has to be said that Stuart Park’s debut novella is a very strange offering to say the least. It’s one of those oddly disorientating and intriguingly abstract pieces of fiction that makes the reader work reasonably hard to keep up with it. Often when you have stories of this nature, they’re annoyingly difficult to read, and can cause more frustration than anything close to fulfilment or indeed plain old enjoyment. Not so here. Park’s kept his eye on the ball as far as keeping the roaming storyline fresh, energetic and engaging – delivering a tight and utterly compelling read which draws you in with an assassin like stealth.
For the most part the plot is a strange latticework of micro-stories, each jostling for position for their part to play in the overall direction of the tale. In essence we have a man who, after taking on a gardening job for a Japanese family, gets stung on the back of the hand, and from that moment on his life spirals out-of-control into a mindboggling abyss of surreal encounters and bursts of extreme violence.
Think David Lynch meets ‘Falling Down’ (1993), with a strange Japanese underworld twist on the whole thing. Yeah - it’s that much of a damn quirky read.
To be fair at the start the novella sets off on a reasonably solid footing. Here we have every parent’s worst fear – the sudden realisation that one of your children is missing. Park handles this with a heart-wrenching voyeuristic detachment – as if the reader is floating in the air just above Kim and Mark, observing the unfolding situation.
Not knowing the full story of what’s happened, we’re then flung twenty years on to the present day where Mark and Kim are still battling with the loss of their young child. Park’s aim within these early pages is clearly to cement in place the key characters (as they are now), and really allow their characterisation to lead the main body of the story. And fair do’s to Park, he achieves this with a seemingly effortless grace – fleshing out the lives and layered emotions of Mark and Kim to such a degree whereby at this early stage the reader already feels emotionally invested in both.
From here the story takes the first of innumerable sidesteps into a weird and wonderful magma of oddness. Page by page the story unfolds at a chaotically fast pace – with a momentum behind it that makes a Shaun Hutson novel appear pretty much static in comparison. Indeed, as each page is turned something new and completely unpredictable seems to shift the course of the tale into a slightly different direction. It’s safe to say that there really is no linear or predictable pathway in the novella. It zigzags here, there and every-frigging-where, with shifting perspectives and dual lives only furthering the multi-layered wildness of the narrative.
Keeping your head where the story’s going in all honesty is quite a mammoth job, which requires a keen eye and careful, thoughtful reading. Even though the pace might be galloping along at a hundred miles a minute, if you don’t keep your wits about you throughout the unfolding madness, you’re likely to miss a key ingredient to this wonderfully elaborate cocktail.
However, it’s not all thought-provoking Lynch-esque strangeness that’s crying out for deciphering. Park’s also injected in a healthy dose of dry wit – often laced with a smart social commentary – into the mix. Indeed, all through the novella there’s a definite sense of colour and just-off-kilter joviality that keeps the wheels greased nicely.
The opening quote for the book pretty much sums it up…“shit happens, then you die”. Indeed, Mark goes through one hell of a series of events, each more maddening and perplexing than the last, until were eventually edging towards the ultra-violent territory of David Moody’s ‘Hater’ (2006) books.
One of the biggest questions that kept coming back to me whilst reading the novella was how much of what we’re reading is real. Is it all a hallucination brought about by a couple of nasty stings during gardening? Is it all a nightmare? A self-hating guilt-trip for two desperately lost parents? Or is – as bizarre as it is – everything really as it’s shown? This outrageous madness actually a truthful reflection of the real world?
Whatever was Park’s plan, he’s undoubtedly achieved a hell of a lot with ‘Marked’. Although chaotic and confusing, the story is nevertheless lucid in its flow – carrying the reader along in the contagious momentum of intrigue born from a strangely compelling story. It’s hard to not keep diving deeper and deeper into the wondrous dreamlike world that Park’s spun for us. There’s so much to see, to feel, to experience, if only you can keep swimming deeper into the abyss. But of course eventually you need to come up for air, and when you do, you realise how utterly mystifying it all is. But you can’t help but want to dive in again for some more of that truly wonderful madness.
The novella runs for a total of 156 pages.
© DLS Reviews