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It seems 2013 was the year of the sequel for big name authors. Stephen King returned to The Shining with Doctor Sleep, whilst Sycamore Row sees John Grisham return to the characters and setting from his first novel, A Time to Kill.
An old man dying from cancer hangs himself, leaving behind a handwritten will that disinherits his children and gives his $20 million fortune to his black housekeeper. They naturally contest the will leading to a big court battle. As if that wasn't juicy enough, the will also makes a mysterious reference to something which the deceased and his brother witnessed a long time ago.
Sycamore Row is your usual John Grisham affair - and whether you consider that a good or a bad thing will depend on how you viewed his other books. It can sometimes appear as though Grisham is writing to a template: big, high profile court case, greedy lawyers fighting over a large pot of money, innocent (and not so innocent) victims caught in the middle and a David vs. Goliath fight. All these elements are apparent in Sycamore Row and Grisham is not exactly stretching himself when it comes to plotting.
Yet despite a lack of originality, Grisham once again proves that he has a real knack for storytelling. Even though I had a pretty good idea from early on where the book was ultimately heading, it made me keep reading it and maintained my interest throughout. It's helped by the fact that Grisham uses the apparent predictability to lead you astray. He seems to be going down a well-trodden path then will suddenly throw in a curve ball which leads you to question what you thought they knew. This helps to keep the narrative feeling fresh and the reader interested.
It's true that Sycamore Row suffers from a few too many plot jags at times. It seems as though Grisham has thrown in virtually every plot twist he can think and not all of them work. Some of the issues (which are central to the way the story unfolds) feel rather too coincidental and many are extremely unlikely. There is a sense that Grisham is making things up as he goes along, bringing in new developments to make sure the plot is able to go the way he wants it to.
Yet no matter how unlikely the plot developments and coincidences become, they work within the overall context of the book. There were certainly a few that made me raise my eyebrows, but none that were so ridiculous as to spoil it completely. Although the pacing can sometimes feel a little slow (with too many ideas thrown into the mix all at once) there was no point where I stopped enjoying the book. Quite the opposite - I couldn't wait to get through it to see how it all panned out. Whatever his weaknesses when it comes to plot, Grisham remains a born storyteller.
Although Sycamore Row is heavily billed as a sequel to A Time to Kill it only partially fulfils that promise. The lead character is once again Jake Brigance (the white lawyer from the first book) and it's good to catch up on what has happened to him in the three years since. However, there is hardly any information on any other aspect of the original novel. There is no reference to what has happened to the Hailey family (the main black characters) and only a few vague references to the trial that was such a sensation. If you didn't know this was a sequel, there's actually very little in the book that would make you realise it was. That's a big disappointment. Whilst I understand that Grisham wanted the freedom to create a new plot with new characters he needed to satisfy the readers' curiosity too. It's not really a sequel; it's merely a book set in the same location and featuring a small number of returning characters.
The biggest disappointment of all is saved for last: the ending. After crafting 400 plus pages of a compelling story, Grisham turns in a really wishy-washy conclusion that is deeply dissatisfying, highly unlikely and leaves you feeling cheated. It's not quite "and they all went home and had some tea", but it's not far off.
Overall, I enjoyed Sycamore Row and would recommend it. There might be a few mis-steps in the plotting and the way the book has been marketed, but there's no doubt that Grisham can tell a good story that keeps you entertained from start to finish.
Available for around £9 in hardback (new) or £6 on Kindle.
Hodder & Stoughton, 2013
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