Emily Braunstein Brookes
The Below Country, by Nicholas Edlin (Penguin, 2011) 275 pp. $30.
‘You’ll never see the real thing,’ an American civil student mired in 1980s South Korea tells the narrator of The Below Country late in Nicholas Edlin’s second novel. ‘You think you know a thing, then the bastards move the frame. I’ve spent ten years of my goddamn life here and I don’t know a thing. I don’t know nothing but shadows and fucking silhouettes.’
This arresting scene comes thick in the third section of The Below Country, and it is when the book is at its best. Here Edlin writes his theme into the mouth of a character, and The Below Country feels for the first time like the novel it has always wanted to be: a mystery set in world where nothing is quite what it seems and our narrator isn’t sure she can trust her own mind. It is a disorienting sequence of misdirections that evoke Dennis Lehane or Richard Condon, with characters sinister in their graciousness, and lashings of magical realism. If the whole novel were like this, and if Edlin were able to play the mystery through to a shocking reveal, The Below Country would be a real treat of a psychological thriller. But Edlin, a deft writer of thoughtful, refined prose, seems never to have settled on precisely what kind of book he is writing, making for a novel of uneven tone and frustratingly lacklustre intrigue.