Thursday, May 31, 2018

Book Review: "The Stranger Game" by Peter Gadol

You're in a public place and a person or group of people catches your eye. It may be the way they look, their actions, things they're saying, but you just can't stop yourself from surreptitiously watching them. You don't want to get caught, but you can't look away, and you (and perhaps even a companion) imagine who these people are and what they're doing. When they get up, or leave the area where you've been watching them, you may even be (more than) slightly interested in following them, but you know it's too risky, or even foolish.

Take this at least one step further and you have the crux of Peter Gadol's enigmatic new novel, The Stranger Game.

After a few weeks with no contact, Rebecca comes to the realization that her on-again, off-again boyfriend Ezra has disappeared. She can't figure out where he would have gone without any warning, even though their relationship was in one of its odd periods. But he left without giving notice to his job or paying his rent, so she starts to wonder whether something has happened to him.

When she reports his disappearance to the police, they don't seem concerned in the slightest. They suspect Ezra is off playing "the stranger game," a cultural phenomenon which seems to have gripped society. In the game people choose someone to follow (unbeknownst to them), and while the initial objective of the game was to get as close as possible and follow for as long as possible without getting caught, it seems the game has transformed, becoming more complicated and, in some cases, sinister.

In order to see just what type of craze has affected Ezra, Rebecca tries the game. She is almost immediately sucked in, and it starts to affect other aspects of her life. At times she even has trouble distinguishing between who is playing and who is not. She meets Carey, a handsome and mysterious man who awakens her emotions, which have been hidden away for so long. But Carey also draws her further and further into the game, and she doesn't know whom to trust—or where she is safe.

"And then I wondered how many kinds of games people played with strangers every hour every day. We were, each of us, isolated creatures who ached for proximity, for intimacy with others, but who also out of primal self-preservation insisted on and maintained a safe distance. These stranger games we invented shuttled us somewhere halfway between stations of affinity and detachment, but more often than not we ended up at the latter destination. It was a miracle anyone ever connected with anyone. Most of the time we were cast back into our own longing."

To borrow a phrase from Winston Churchill, The Stranger Game is, "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." I love the basis on which Gadol built his novel, as I am one of those people who is fascinated by people-watching and wondering about the dynamics between groups I see in public. However, I felt that as the book progressed, the twists became more and more confusing until I, like Rebecca, wasn't sure what was real and what was artifice, part of the game. And while I'm okay with suspending disbelief when I read, I just found the whole premise a little unlikely.

Gadol has always been one of my favorite writers. His earlier books—The Mystery Roast, Closer to the Sun, The Long Rain, Light at Dusk, Coyote, and Silver Lake were all really fantastic, and he is one of those authors for whom I've waited a long time for a new book. As always, his use of language and imagery, and his ability to evoke emotions and connections is superlative. I just wish I liked this book more—despite the interesting concept, it just didn't gel for me.

Looking forward to the next one, however!

NetGalley, HARLEQUIN — Trade Publishing, and Hanover Square Press provided me an advance copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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