With Christmas hoving into view, we’ll be posting reviews of some of the best books of 2020, (a few of which have appeared in different versions elsewhere – see bottom of the review*) and offering suggestions as to what to get the book lover in your life.
Scottish literature has a long and distinguished tradition where the psychological meets the supernatural. From James Hogg and Robert Louis Stevenson in the 19th century, through the early 20th century writing of J.M. Barrie and Margaret Oliphant, to the recent work of Kirsty Logan, Helen McClory, Francine Toon, and, perhaps most memorably, in Graeme Macrae Burnet’s 2016 Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project. Those are but a few examples, and, with far too many to mention here, you may believe there is little new to say or write.
However, just when you think you’ve read it all Tom Gillespie’s The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce appears as if from nowhere – a novel that asks us to question everything we regard as certainties and consider them anew. It touches on art, philosophy, psychology, maths, and possibly murder, as the story not so much unfolds as unravels. It reveals its secrets unexpectedly, often replacing them with new mysteries – riddles wrapped in puzzles orbiting an enigma.
The enigma is Dr Jacob Boyce who spends his days in front of a baroque painting in his local gallery, taking meticulous notes and measurements, and trying to solve what he perceives as its own secrets. But, for all that The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce is part mystery/part psychological thriller, (with a dash of the supernatural), it has an all too human tragedy at its heart.
Jacob’s wife is missing, possibly now in Spain, and as he contemplates all laid before him he begins to fear that all these conundrums are intertwined. Increasingly he, and we, have difficulty distinguishing the real and the imagined, if there is any difference at all.
As with many obsessives, Jacob’s paranoia soon sets in and he is never entirely sure who to trust and what to believe, including himself, eventually having to face up to his own role in events. The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce is a novel that examines grief and guilt through the twin prisms of art and obsession, and which is not afraid of grand themes and big ideas. Tom Gillespie has written the smartest thriller you’ll read this year – a novel that feeds the mind and soul in equal measure.
You can hear Tom Gillespie discussing The Strange Book of Jacob Boyce on the SWH! Podcast from earlier this year – Tales Of The Unexpected: The SWH! Podcast Talks To Tom Gillespie…
*A version of this review first appeared in SNACK Magazine