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This is a review of 'The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps' by Michel Faber, an author that I have read before, in fact 'Under the Skin' was one of the most haunting and scary books I ever read and have returned to a few times. In short, 199 Steps was written in 2001 and refers to the famous steps at Whitby which lead up to the Abbey. I have trod these steps many times in my life and thought it sounded like a 'must read' book. I would have liked to read this book in an idle B&B moment in Whitby but it didn't look like that would happen any time soon.
This book begins with a strange concept. The author was invited to the abbey to write a short story during the actual dig. I can't help but think this was a bit of a PR stunt on the Archaeology front. They could also sell the book from the gift shop then too!
Whitby is famous for its gothic vampire links, something which I am sure they have used to increase the tourism to the area. They also do great fish and chips but I am certainly getting off plot here. The book does feature some of Whitby's history but it is largely a fictional short novel , at just 115 pages. The main character Sian joins the dig and we learn a little of her personal history, a difficult accident in Bosnia has left her disabled but she tries to hide this with layers of clothing and a thick skin to any questions asked by strangers.
During the time she is employed to dig at Whitby she is befriended by a runner with his dog. The runner is a sexy doctor who is temporarily staying at Whitby to complete a research paper and sort out his late father's affairs and estate. Sian is attracted to the sweaty stranger and loves his dog but she is so spikey she will not let him get close to her. Sian suffers from insomnia, wandering around Whitby in the early hours of each morning, killing time until her work starts and she has a persistent bad dream in the B&B she stays at that she is being strangled by a stranger she loves. He caresses her head then slits her throat and she wakes each time, clutching her neck to her body.
The Doctor who runs draws in Sian with an old artefact found in his father's house foundations. A message in a bottle, damaged by time but full of intrigue. Sian has the right connections to carefully open the bottle and separate the layers of paper and translate the olde English written hundreds of years before.
I enjoyed reading this short book on a simplistic level but I can see why it has been criticised by some in that it does not go into much depth or explanation. The message in a bottle ties in nicely with the other parts of the story and is quite interesting. I was quite happy to finish the book and will never bother to return to it again as I have with Faber's other novel I read.
The steps explained
I have a particularly memorable school trip to Whitby where I was the kid that got ill and had to go to hospital thus ruining everyone else's stay. An infected foot was the ailment which brings me back to the 199 steps. I had to hop up them on my good foot to enable the class to go out that day as it was a 'one stays in all stays in' rule due to teacher supervision obligations. This may be why this book spoke to me in particular. I know those steps well.
This is a nice book to read if you are planning to visit Whitby as it contains some history pertaining to the Abbey and a lot of conjecture about the Nuns and their lives. Whilst it was a short read, I'm not sure I wanted any more from this book. It was an interesting concept that Faber practically wrote this book 'to order' and clearly had lots of history information to hand to help him write it.
Sian has recently joined an archaeological dig in Whitby. Troubled by horrifying nightmares after an accident in Bosnia that left her badly injured, she is trying to get by one day at a time, while trying to forget about the pain in her leg that she believes could be cancer. When she meets Mack and his gorgeous dog, Hadrian, she feels a flash of life return to her again; even more so when Mack presents her with a centuries old murder mystery that she feels compelled to solve. She also hopes that the fact that she can do something so satisfying will bring her closer to Mack. Will she be successful? Will she forge a new relationship with Mack - or are her deep-rooted issues too great to overcome?
Set in Whitby around the Abbey, there is a very Gothic theme to the book, backed up by the numerous references to Dracula. This is perfect for a murder mystery, because it sets the scene perfectly. It must be stressed, however, that the mystery isn't really the focus of the story overall. It is very much about Sian and her rite of passage from utter despair through to a glimmer of hope; the mystery is just there as a device to get her from one extreme to the other. That didn't concern me in the slightest. I loved both Sian's story and the mystery part - I think they worked very well together to present a fulfilling and intriguing story. Considering the author is actually Dutch and grew up in Australia (although he now lives in the Scottish Highlands), I think he did a fabulous job of capturing the Northern feel of Whitby.
I thought Sian was a very well drawn character. She isn't immediately likable - she is very prickly and clearly finds it hard to socialize. However, the reason for this, merely gently hinted at to begin with, soon becomes clear and she really grew in my estimation. Faber turns her into a very sympathetic character, with whom I could really identify. For anyone who doesn't like the touchy feely aspect of Sian's story, however, there is no need to be concerned. It is kept brief and at least partially covered up by the mystery angle. Sian really is the only character with any development - the story is told from her point of view. However, enough is told of Mack to be intriguing - and I really wanted them to get together, although this is far from being a love story. The relationship that builds up between Hadrian (the dog) and Sian is really touching and very well done.
The way that the book is written is excellent. The author uses very precise language that is deliberately concise, yet manages to convey a great deal. The reader is able to get a real feel for the main settings of Whitby that the story takes place in and the site of the dig with its hundred and ninety-nine steps is particularly vivid. This is a novella, so is very short, at just over 100 pages and there are no chapters as such. This isn't a great problem, because there are longer than usual paragraph breaks to show where the reader can leave the story for a while. Nevertheless, I would have preferred some more obvious breaks.
The only major criticism that I have has nothing to do with the author, but rather the publisher. The print on each page is very narrow, presumably to make the book look longer than it really is. I found this a waste of paper, especially in this day and age of being environmentally-friendly, and would much rather have had a shorter book with fuller pages. The aim is perhaps to age the book in the style of the eighteenth century (which is when Sian's 'mystery' took place), but it really didn't impress me very much.
The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was excellent and would certainly like to read more in that ilk. I'm a fan of mysteries anyway, but the added bonus of the interesting character and the Gothic setting make it that much more enjoyable. I'll certainly look out for more books by this author and hope that they are of this quality, because it doesn't get much better than this. Five stars out of five, highly recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.90. Published by Canongate books, it has 288 pages. ISBN-10: 1847678912
This review was first published on curiousbookfans.co.uk.
Do you know what a 'book on demand' is? If you've got the title of a book which has been out of print for a while or a manuscript of your own which all the publishers you've sent it to have rejected, but you feel you must see in print, then you can turn to a publishing enterprise on the net and have the book printed.
When I opened Michel Faber's 'The Hundred and Ninety-Nine-Steps', I learnt that the term can have a second meaning. "This book exists because Keith Wilson, Artist in Residence at Whitby Abbey during summer 2000, asked me to come and write a short story inspired by the English heritage dig." If that was a singular event or if Mr Faber can be booked is something I don't know.
Although Faber was invited to write a short story, what he has written is a novella, a prose form not often found in the English literature. What is it? Well, it's a piece of prose longer than a short story and shorter than a novel, between 30 000 and 50 000 words long.
I came across the title browsing through amazon, the synopsis sounded as if the book might be interesting: "Sian, tired of nightmares in which she meets a grisly end, decides she needs to get out more. Joining an archaeological dig at Whitby Abbey, she uncovers a mystery involving a long-hidden murder. Faber's novella is in turn thriller, romance, ghost story and meditation on the nature of sincerity."
The first sentence, "The hand caressing her cheek was gentle but disquietingly large..." leads us into a murderous scene culminating in the sentence, "Her scream was gagged by the blade slicing deep into her throat, severing everything right through the bone of her spine...". Sounds promising, doesn't it?
The third paragraph, though, wakes not only Sian up "Bolt upright in bed, Sian clutched her head in her hands, expecting it to be lolling loose from her neck...".
This, dear author, i.e. the selling of dreams/nightmares as descriptions of realistic events is one of the cheapest tricks and deserves a thumbs-down!
The whole nightmare business is rather odd. We hear that Sian suffered from a recurring nightmare for some time in which her life was endangered, but since she's in Whitby she dreams that she's killed. So much room is given to this subject, several nightmares are retold in gory detail that we can expect a psychological explanation for them, but no, no reason, no explanation is ever given.
On page 92 (out of 116) we read that Sian doesn't have nightmares any more. Hooray, we're glad for her! What has saved her? Getting pissed until 'toxic fumes (are) rising from her body' has! The nightmares are not motivated by any goings-on in the novella, are not integrated into the plot, and when they don't serve any more, they're drowned in alcohol. If that isn't odd indeed.
Before coming to Whitby Sian was badly wounded in Bosnia. In Bosnia! It's not just a place name any more, it stands for something, just think 'Bosnia' for some seconds and your mind will become active. The author must have relied on this, he lets the readers do the thinking, find allusions, invent a story, he doesn't use or exploit the place for the story, what happened to Sian could have happened anywhere, why, even in Nether-Piddleton-on-the-Marshes, but Bosnia sounds more interesting, topical, political, exotic, dangerous, more everything.
Sian does a lot of walking does she and one day she meets a jogger and his dog, a Finnish Lapphund, oh yes! Why not a poodle/dachshund/terrier? Same reasons as with Bosnia if you ask me, just sounds better. According to the critic of The Guardian 'the most plausible characterisation belongs to the dog.' The owner of 'Hadrian' is an attractive young doctor from London who's in Whitby on famil
y business. Will something come out of the encounter?
The novella is told in the third-person perspective, the narrator creeps into the main character's thoughts, we get her point of view on things. By doing this the author makes us develop sympathy for her - at least this is what this writing method normally does, a brilliant author can make us feel even with a character we would normally loathe.
Yet, try as I may I don't like Sian, I think she's a silly cow and the young man she meets, snaps at, orders around, rebukes and reprimands is much too good for her! We're more or less told by her to find him shallow, superficial, hollow. Ha, I think he's great, he looks good, is intelligent, funny, witty, good-humoured, friendly, what more does a woman want?
The reviewers on amazon are all 5-star-enthusiasts, one of them mentions in a half sentence that the book got a bad review in the Times Literary Supplement, something he can't understand. Having finished reading I tried to find this review, but the TLS is for subscribers only. I don't earn enough on dooyoo to be able to subscribe to the TLS, well, to tell you the truth, even if I had the money I wouldn't, I write the reviews I want to read myself, but it would be nice to compare notes. Can anyone help me here?
So it's only *down* the Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps? No, not really. There's a bench in the middle on which Sian rests on her way to and from the dig in the graveyard of the Abbey, we can put the book there, too, with 2 1/2 stars. What pulls it *up* is the description of the archaeological site and above all Sian's work on an old manuscript she gets from the young doctor, she's a trained paper conservator and manages to bring to light the fascinating confession a killer wrote on his death-bed more than 200 years ago.
And then the book looks nice, 6.99 GBP (Canongate) for 116 pages is a shame
, but I'm sure it sells well in Whitby, it just says, "Buy me as a present!" Not a convincing argument for a literary critic, I know, but I don't want to finish too negatively.
Why not? Maybe old age softness setting in?
Part historical thriller, part gothic romance, part ghost story.