Publish Date: 1st March, 2013
Source: Free on Amazon
Pages: 144 pages
Synopsis: The last person Juliet expects to meet on a work trip is Luke. She has changed her name and worked hard to ensure he wouldn’t find her, but now he is back in her life again. Is it chance, or something more sinister? Juliet has secrets she needs to keep hidden, but Luke wants to renew their relationship. After meeting him incidents occur that make her fear the unthinkable. Her life may be in danger. She leaves Auckland for Sydney on a business trip, but Luke appears there. Can she trust him, or are his secrets more dangerous than the ones she hides. (Source: Amazon product description.)
Short version: An intriguing premise and setting, but let down a little in the execution.
Longer version: Driftwood is the debut novel of Anglo-New Zealander writer Shauna Bickley. It was first self-published in October of 2010, and later published in paperback form. The version I read was the E-book published on Kindle in March of 2013, so any discussion of formatting, spelling, punctuation applies only to that particular version.
The novel opens with Juliet, our protagonist, suddenly hearing a familiar voice behind her in a coffee shop. It’s Luke, an old childhood friend and flame who broke her heart in university. Since she hasn’t seen him in twenty-four years, she’s baffled and upset, and quickly leaves. But Luke (now a forty-something widower with an adult son, Josh) won’t be put off as easily as that. There ensues a protracted game of Kissy-Chasey where the reader is left intrigued as to whether Luke is a romantic hero or a dangerous stalker.
The novella opens without preliminary or prologue, the reader into a scene and letting them sink or swim in terms of working out the characters, their previous relationship, the setting, etc. While I’m not a fan of expository prologues that explain the upcoming plot, throughout the first scene I kept thinking (and at one point actually wrote in as a note) “Who’s Juliet? Who’s Luke? I don’t know these people, so I don’t care about them yet.” Luke’s voice is described as appearing in Juliet’s “nightmares”, but there’s no elaboration on that for a long time. At another point Juliet is referred to as having attended a “leadership course”, but what she actually does for a living is not explained for several more chapters.
It’s obvious from Bickley’s writing that she loves her characters, from protagonist Juliet and love-interest Luke (“If rich dark chocolate had a voice it would sound like him…”) to minor characters such as Kim, Juliet’s assistant. (It was refreshing to see a female working relationship depicted in this novel, even if Kim is less than professional, raving about a complete stranger’s “cute butt.”) Juliet is likeable and sympathetic, and it’s no hardship to spend a couple of hours with her. Initially showing her as a consummate professional, somewhat closed-off emotionally due to her past, Bickley seems to enjoy revealing chinks in Juliet’s armour. I felt that this armour falls off altogether a little too easily and too quickly, but that is largely due to pacing reasons I’ll discuss in a bit.
While some characters are vividly and emotively drawn (I am particularly fascinated with someone who holds a relatively small role – Juliet’s independent, artistic sister Lia) others seem hastily sketched, there to service a plot twist or inject largely unnecessary tension into some of the narrative. One, a potential love-interest for Juliet named Alex, seems to be progressing nicely as a character until he becomes irrelevant to the plot and is quietly written out. I still wonder whether he may have fallen victim to a dropped sideline plot. Possible-hero-maybe-villain Luke fares little better – seen from Juliet’s point of view, he is slightly Harlequin-novelesque. We’re told frequently of Juliet’s attraction to him, but (beyond “he is kind of handsome”) not shown why he has had such an impact on her for nearly a quarter of a century.
While Bickley perhaps doesn’t give some of her characters the attention they need to become full-blooded and real to the reader, she is deft at tiny, vivid character portraits. Memorable ones include Juliet apologising to nobody in particular (so much character implied) and an elderly couple Juliet observes in an airport lounge. She observes and relays little details wonderfully, such as the wobble of a parked car next to high-speed traffic, and these bring her scenes to life nicely. At one point Juliet is involved in an accident that leaves her badly bruised, and Bickley’s description of the after-effects is so vivid it almost made my shoulder ache.
The dialogue in Driftwood seems a little stilted, especially in places where Bickley uses it to help along the plot. At one point, Luke’s son Josh tells him of his grandmother: “I think she has a hangover from my birthday dinner last night.” Presumably Luke knows his son’s birthday and was probably present for the dinner, so doesn’t need to be told that. The exchange, and some others, don’t resemble how real people would have a conversation, which makes it difficult for the reader to see these characters as “real people” and care about them as such.
Bickley is at her best when she is describing the beautiful and evocative New Zealand coast. She paints a vivid picture of pohutukawa (a sort of New Zealand evergreen) and windswept beaches and the “leprous blemishes” of underground rocks in shallow water. An early scene between sisters Juliet and Lia at Lia’s home was easily the highlight of Bickley’s writing for me, bringing out strong, specific sensory details:
“… the hill sloped gently down until it reached the steep drop. The ponga fronds waved gently in the breeze, and Juliet smelt the pungent earthy scent of Lia’s geraniums.”
A later scene where Juliet wanders around Circular Quay (an area I know well) demonstrates how meticulous she is with geographical detail.
To facilitate her plot, Bickley sometimes conceals information from the reader in scenes where it would be normal for it to be revealed. For example, in an early scene between sisters Juliet and Lia, the reader is shown a picture of a child, referred to in the narrative as “Rose.” But while Lia’s succession of dogs are discussed at length, Rose’s identity and significance to the plot doesn’t come out for several more chapters, and the reveal seems unnatural and a little stiff.
The pacing is a little uneven, some scenes (such as an early meeting between Juliet and Luke at a winery) becoming almost a summary, with vague lines like: “she saw some people she knew and joined them.” The plot is tight to the point of being rushed toward its final climax, though toward the end of the book I was genuinely interested in how events would turn out. There were a few moments where my suspended disbelief caved in slightly (why would a stalker park their car in plain sight, then get out of it and hide in the shadows next to it?) but these are niggles, not dealbreakers.
I won’t spoil the ending in a review. I will say that it seemed rushed, with a deus ex machina descending on the plot with such abruptness that I actually checked the page numbers on my E-book, wondering if I’d downloaded a faulty partial copy. Driftwood is a novella, and only clocks in at around 30,000 words. But it seemed to be crying out for about least 20,000 words more, to flesh out the characters, their backgrounds and motivations, and to texture the ending.
Chipping away at my enjoyment of this book were a number spelling, punctuation and grammar issues (SPaG.) In any novel, particularly a self-published one, I would expect to see the odd typo or punctuation flub. In the free Amazon version of Driftwood that I read, there were minor, but niggling, SPaG issues on almost every page. Bickley has a habit of dropping commas, as in her first line of dialogue: “A flat white please”, which would be more correctly rendered “A flat white, please.” In other places she uses too many commas, as here: “She pulled on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, and went for a walk, but nothing…”. She has a tendency to drop question marks from both rhetorical and direct questions, particularly outside of dialogue. There were also several spelling mistakes, where she writes “blonde” for “blond” and “lightening” for “lightning.”
All these glitches don’t obscure the meaning of the story, but I found them as distracting as a dripping tap at midnight. The impression I got was that I was reading a draft, not the finished product. If it didn’t undergo rigorous editing prior to being published in paperback form, it should have.
There’s lots to like about Driftwood, but it reads like a book born prematurely.