Hugo Wilcken - Written in relentlessly probing prose with a delicious plot complication seemingly on every page, this is one of the most thought-provoking, chilling, and suspenseful novels you'll ever read

Hugo Wilcken, The Reflection, Melville House, 2015.

Hugo Wilcken's first novel, The Execution—a taut, psychological mystery about an average person who commits an accidental murder—got the kind of rave reviews authors dream of: He was compared to Camus and Hitchcock.
Now, in his second novel, The Reflection, the comparisons seem even more appropriate: It's a smart, creepy, steadily absorbing mystery about an average law-abiding citizen who finds himself inexplicably caught up in a case of mistaken identities—with one of his own patients.
When psychiatrist David Manne is asked by a friend who's a New York City Police detective to consult on an unusual case, he finds himself being asked to evaluate a criminal who's the exact opposite of himself—an uneducated laborer from the Midwest who seems overwhelmed by modern day Manhattan circa 1948. But when that laborer tells David that he's not who the police say he is, David slowly begins to believe it may be true.
Unable to stop himself, David begins to look into how the police handle the man, and the hospital they take him to . . . and begins to suspect that the man is caught up in some kind of secret governmental medical testing. Realizing he's got to rescue his patient, David quickly finds himself battling forces that seem to be even bigger than he suspected, and that now have him in their sights.
When he suddenly finds himself caught with a patient's i.d. papers on him, he decides on a risky course that seems his only way out: To change his identity, and enter even deeper into the conspiracy, if he's to find out how to escape it.
Written in relentlessly probing prose with a delicious plot complication seemingly on every page, this is one of the most thought-provoking, chilling, and suspenseful novels you'll ever read.

The Reflection is an experimental novel disguised as a thriller – or is it the other way around? On the one hand, it is a noirish page-turner set in 1940s Manhattan with more plot turns than a Hitchcock box set. On the other, it is a story about the way we try to make sense of stories.
It begins with New York psychiatrist Dr David Manne taking a phone call that tells him his ex-wife, Abby, has died. The news unbalances him, and he ends up leaving his clinic and wandering the city. When he returns, he is asked to carry out an examination on a violent husband. “It was my sideline. I was on call for incidents like this, when the police needed a psychiatrist’s signature to get someone temporarily committed.”
This is where things start to slip and crack for Manne. The man he sees, Esterhazy, denies not only the violence against his wife but even that he is who the police say he is. “My wife is dead. We split up a long time ago.” He says his name is Smith. To Manne, having been told initially that the man is unstable, this simply affirms the view. But what if Smith is right? Manne commits him, but becomes concerned about his decision. And then he finds things happening to him that belong to Smith’s past, and his memories begin to clash with other people’s recollections. Slowly, Manne’s life becomes so entangled with Smith’s that the two men become literally indistinguishable.
That is easier said than understood, but uncertainty and obscurity are at the heart of The Reflection. It shows that a good book is a dialogue, not a monologue: what the reader brings to  the conversation is crucial. So when Manne starts to think like Smith, the reader has a decision to make, just as Manne did when asked to sign those papers: resist, or dive in? Like Manne, do we trust what we were first told – that our narrator is a psychiatrist – or do we recall that, in the early pages, Manne described a former patient “who had developed the delusion that he was really a psychiatrist, by the name of Dr David Manne”?                         
Wilcken, as in his previous novel Colony, refuses to direct the reader. The Reflection could be read in a variety of ways: as a psychological thriller of mistaken identity; as the tricky tale of an unreliable narrator; or as slipstream fiction, bringing different realities into collision. (One character’s name references Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel, a novel similarly immersed in contradiction.) As Manne wanders “the immense museum of strangeness” that is New York, he inhabits Smith’s life ever more intensely, taking his job, sleeping with his girlfriend. In one late scene he finds himself effectively following, and being followed by, himself. Smith and Manne unfold inside one another. This drives the reader on, perpetually certain that the truth is just out of reach. It is a roller coaster, a helter skelter, a whole literary fairground.
Repeatedly, we are reminded of the artifice of all stories. Manne ducks into a movie theatre to escape his thoughts: “The more generic the movie, the more absurd, the more removed from anything realistic or artistic, the more I liked it.” He struggles to complete papers for publication in psychiatric journals. “I’d lost confidence in my writing. The problem was that every time I came to a conclusion, the opposite view would always start to look more attractive.” The book’s intractability could be maddening, but following Manne’s example, why not take the converse view? F Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence was the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind and still be able to function. We might say the same for first-rate novels. - John Self

Hugo Wilcken: Colony

Hugo Wilcken, Colony. HarperCollins, 2009.

The year is 1928, and Sabir—petty criminal, drifter, war veteran—is on a prison ship, bound for a notorious penal settlement in the French tropics. On his arrival, he is sent out to a work camp deep in the South American rain forest. There, he wins the confidence of the camp's idealistic commandant, who sets him the task of carving a landscaped garden out of the surrounding wilderness. At the same time, Sabir plans his getaway with a band of like-minded convicts, through the jungle and across the ocean on a stolen boat. His only hope, he realizes, is to become someone else entirely. Evoking an atmosphere of colonial decay, the novel explores the ever-shifting boundaries between identity, memory, and reality.

Foolishly, he'd assumed he'd get a job at Saint-Laurent as a gardener. Such stupid faith in your hopes and dreams is one of the dangers of prison life. The past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert - so you retreat into a fantasy world, where finally you're in control. Among the lifers he's known, Sabir has seen the syndrome time and time again. You lose yourself in grandiose plans, unrealisable dreams, until life becomes a mirage. And escape can be the worst dream of all.
Of course, it's ironic that, as we read of Sabir's realism about escape from a South American prison colony, we are ourselves seeking a form of escape. The novel is the dream.
Hugo Wilcken's Colony is a compelling flight into the unknown. In this it has the same relentless quality as Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Yet, unlike that novel, Colony also begins to unravel the dream.
By using what might be, in other hands, a generic tale of prison life and intrigue between guards and inmates, Wilcken has dramatised - Beckett-like - the threat lurking within the uncanny power of storytelling. It's a terrific read.
I had wanted to write a full review because the novel deserves attention, but that would involve outlining the plot. While this usually isn't a problem with the books I tend to review, in this case it might spoil your own discovery. So instead, just read it. -
Hugo Wilcken’s second novel Colony was published in the UK straight into paperback in 2007. Saddled by a hopeless cover, lost in the sea of novels published each year, it sank, so far as I can tell, without trace. Or almost without trace. I caught mention of it on Steve Mitchelmore’s blog (“a compelling flight into the unknown … a terrific read”); if one – impossible – way of differentiating the novels in that sea is to read them all, another is to rely on trusted sources. So I picked up a copy about 18 months ago, and left it to languish (that hopeless cover!). It took a couple of days of planes and hotels, without the distractions of other books, to make me read it at last. I was amazed.
Colony was described by Wilcken before publication as “sort of Papillon meets Heart of Darkness.” Steve Mitchelmore saw Cormac McCarthy and Beckett. To those, let me add Damon Galgut, whose seductive combination of dry plotting and unreality are everywhere here. The book’s sometimes elusive nature seems to be reflected in the references to Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym. But what impresses most is Wilcken’s unwillingness to try to impress the reader: the prose is unfussy, the scenes uncluttered. There is no ‘fine writing’. Instead, there is very fine writing indeed.
The theme of Colony is escape: from captivity to freedom, and vice versa; from reality into dreams and memories; from one identity to another; from life to elsewhere. It is apt that this is explored in a book which on the face of it has the escapist qualities of a thriller. Wilcken takes us to a penal colony in French Guiana in 1928, where “everyone’s got a scam.” Sabir is a new arrival, just off the boat where, after days of seasick rocking, the “absolute stillness feels as though something that had once been faintly alive has finally died.” The story follows Sabir’s progress in the colony, where the challenges are not just heat, exhaustion and violence, but relentless existence: “the past is dead, the future stolen away, the present an endless desert.” There is the struggle too with “imagination and memory. Which are always wrong. Always telling you what you want to hear.”
All this suggests a book which plays with the reality of its world, as in Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation. But to limit Colony to a genre or type would do it a disservice, as this is a book – as evidenced by the references it suggested to different people above – which unpacks in several different ways. It would also do a disservice to the book and its future readers – I hope there will be many – to outline the plot in any great detail, though I can say that there is a fundamental shift halfway through, and that we are helpfully told that one character “found he could consider two opposing notions and then accept both, without fundamentally believing in either”.
In some ways the characters seem stock types: the hardened criminal; the camp’s fixer; the idealistic commandant and his bored wife. Yet Wilcken’s no-nonsense style enables him to create scenes of great wonder and emotional heft, from death scenes to the tiniest – and therefore most potent – hints of a character’s previously unrevealed childhood. Past, present and future, and how they interconnect, are central to the book.
In any case, the various futures have already been lived out, played out, and all one can do is wearily continue along these set paths. Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.
Colony is an exceptional achievement whose overlooked status is little short of scandalous. If blogs can do one thing, it is to give deserving books like this life beyond their few weeks on the 3-for-2 tables. Having taken up Steve Mitchelmore’s endorsement of it, I can only urge others to do the same, and accept my inchoate view as a recommendation as strong as any I’ve given this year. If you read it and like it, spread the word yourself, by blog or word of mouth. This is a book I was sorry to leave, but simultaneously read through impatiently, keen to see where it would go. Where I will go next is to Wilcken’s first novel, The Execution. “Always a sense of anguish with every departure, however desired.” - John Self

A few weeks ago John Self highly recommended Hugo Wilcken’s Colony (2007), a book that, through no fault of its own, passed quickly into obscurity upon its release.  Indeed, word is that the book “wasn’t so much published as dropped from a height.”  I’ll take any recommendation from John, but this one was a bit more expeditious because it came with a blogger call to arms: resurrect Hugo Wilcken’s Colony through blog power!  Which is really one of the best things about book blogs: many bloggers do not limit themselves to reviewing new books or new editions, and in a community of people with similar tastes they have the ability to bring back rewarding but otherwise lost books.
Colony is one of those rewarding books that should attract a variety of readers due to its masterful mixture of plot and what I’m thinking can be called anti-plot.  On the plot side, I’m not one who requires a tight plot spinning faster and faster as I near the end of a book, but I had other things to do when reading the last fifty pages of Colony and kept finding myself avoiding those other things just to get a few pages closer to the end.  It’s an exciting, tense book.  But that’s not all.  It wasn’t just the excitement of needing to know what would happen or even why things happened.  I couldn’t wait to finish so I could start to ruminate on how things happened.  Though the plot moves along clearly in limpid and direct prose, by the end we readers aren’t sure we’ve remembered things correctly.  As straight forward as the narrative is, it subverts itself nicely and without being self-conscious.  Up to the end (and, to be sure, even after), I was having the same trouble as one of the characters in that I “couldn’t quite seize it in its entirety.”  (Even that bit of apparent self-consciousness fits perfectly in the direct story, so it doesn’t jar the reader coming across it).
I will follow the honorable lead of other reviewers and not give away much of the plot here.  It’s worth discovering on one’s own.  But here’s how the book starts, introducing us to the setting as Sabir, a French convict, arrives at French Guiana on a ship in 1929:
Lurid rumours abound about life in the penal colony.  There are the labour camps where they make you work naked under the sun; the jungle parasites that bore through your feet and crawl up to your brain; the island where they intern leper convicts; the silent punishment blocks where the guards wear felt-soled shoes; the botched escapes that end in cannibalism.  As the stories move through the prison ship, they mutate at such a rate that it becomes impossible to gauge their truth.
Sabir is a veteran of the Great War and his mind frequently (yet not so frequently that one feels Wilcken is trying to stretch connections) reflects on that time of captivity when he was tempted to desert.  Now, he’s in a new form of captivity where “his only real hope is to become someone else entirely.”  The atmosphere is tangible.  I lived for quite a time just south of French Guiana along the Amazon, and Wilcken made me feel the afternoon heat and lethargy all over again, with all of its mind altering effects.
That’s about as far as I am willing to go into the plot, though, as I said above, the plot moves at a gripping pace.  It is one form of irony in this book that it could be read almost as a form of escapist literature—just something with excitement guaranteed to keep your mind in the book and out of whatever else you’re doing.  Escape is its theme, one of them at least.  There are many forms of escape in this book, and most all characters are trying to escape or have escaped from something.  Two of the most compelling threads, I found, were the ideas of escaping into and out of dreams and of escaping one’s self.
During the long, humid afternoon spent transcribing the impossible wishes of others, the realisation has grown in him that his old life is dead.  That he can now never expect to resurrect it.  That his survival—should he want it—depends on sloughing off this dead skin.
The book’s intelligent structure (I’ve alluded to it above) is another reason I was compelled to finish it as quickly as possible.  See, somewhere towards the middle Wilcken has the reader second-guessing his or her reading, which is quite a feat for someone who writes so clearly and who moves the plot forward with little showiness.  It’s one of “[t]hose moments.  The tiny instants when, almost imperceptibly, one’s world tilts, then tips over into something else entirely.”  This second guessing continues through the remainder of the book.  Far from being an annoyance, this is part of the book, this sense of shifting reality and of shifting identity.  It plays with our own memory of events, makes us question the impressions it just made on us.  Though reading a book like this is like finding a forgotten treasure, it would be a shame Colony were allowed to drift into further obscurity.

There are some books that echo in your mind because they retread paths taken by others. So it is with Papillion and a bit of Heart of Darkness that you start to get pulled into The Colony.
First impressions are of a writer confident enough to describe a world that he hasn’t experienced in a period that has been clearly well researched. You quickly believe in the proposition and want to know how the plot will develop.
The story focuses on a couple of characters with the first, Sabir, being introduced as he waits on a prison ship to land on the penal colony in a remote forgotten outpost of the French empire.
You are sucked into a bleak world of suffocating heat and little prospect of escape. The most they can hope for is to escape from their minds but there are fears of murder, losing what little comfort you have.
For Sabir it is to lie and get a role as a gardener working directly for a commander with dreams of creating a new penitentiary in the jungle. He is failing but doing so sharing his mind and drink with Sabir.
But the prospect is to escape and for the former solider who fought in the trenches of the first world war the desire for liberty is much stronger than that for the cushy number as the gardener. Most of those questions hover around Sabir’s old comrade from the trenches Edouard one of the main drivers behind the escape. Very little about him tallies up and you suspect that underneath all the lies there is one about desertion.
The question of desertion from the war and desertion from the Colony are both inter-twined and Sabir does have regrets as he leaves behind a life as a gardener and the fantasies of the Commanders wife, who is shortly to arrive to try and validate the paradise the dreamer is building.
There is a great deal of description about location but most of the barriers are mental rather than physical. But as the story moves to the post Sabir escape the focus moves back to the Colony and picks up the story with another character. Again Edouard is the connection with an old solider and fellow deserter coming to find him. The relationship between Manne and Edouard seems to be a strange one with it more based on mutual respect than friendship.
Manne retraces Sabir’s footsteps and finds himself with the commander and his wife in a strained relationship. He then follows the convict to the same position of escaping for his life. They are almost the same person with Manne carrying out Sabir’s fantasy of sleeping with the commander’s wife and staying around the garden.
What does it mean to be a prisoner and at what stage do you give up your liberty? When do you know that your ideas will never come to fruition? How do you carry on in situations when it would have been better to have died?
Those are the things I will be trying to fathom out following this because those are the big questions that emerge from what on the face of it appears to be a relatively straightforward story with a select cast of characters.
In many ways this feels like a film in the sense that your imagination is called on to roll out the scenes of jungle captivity and this would be one of those movies that left you debating it and thinking about it from the minute the lights came up.
This is not about heroes and villains or even so much about the physical idea of captivity but for me it is about the idea of being a prisoner to your own fears and thoughts whether they come to you in a trench or on an island prison miles from home. -  Simon Quicke

Colony by Hugo Wilcken is my favourite novel this year so far (it’s a couple of years old). It reads, at least in part, like a novel by Camus. I wonder if the title isn’t a reference to the hallucinatory Joy Division song Colony or (more likely) the Kafka short story In The Penal Colony that inspired it. I’d certainly like to think so. - Dan Wagstaff

Hugo Wilcken, The Execution: A Novel, Harper Perennial; Reprint ed., 2003.

Matthew Bourne - very much the center of his own universe - has a long-term partner, a mistress, and a successful career with a human rights agency, where he is campaigning to secure the release of a condemned African dissident. Then one day a colleague's wife dies in tragic circumstances, and Matthew is called to identify the body. Only much later does he realize that this incident has seeped into his life like a slow poison, and he spirals into a nightmare of death and betrayal.

“An exciting, nervy thriller that fulfills the demands of the genre while resonating on deeper frequencies.”
The New York Times Book Review

“While Camus’s specter looms large throughout The Execution, Wilcken ultimately pulls it off on his own with an engrossing, twisting narrative. His is an important new voice in philosophy wrapped up in literate storytelling.”The Boston Globe

“A diabolical thriller that echoes the best suspense of Patricia Highsmith with a cheeky nod to Dostoyevski . . . This is a remarkably accomplished debut heralding the arrival of a noteworthy talent. Wilcken’s literary career may take as many fascinating twists as this brilliant book.”Publishers Weekly

“In this stunning debut, Wilcken creates a beautifully written, intricately crafted, multilayered story that can be read as a psychological thriller, a commentary on the superficiality of modern life, an Everyman story, or a modern morality tale. On whatever level, the book is both moving and mesmerizing.”Booklist (starred review)

The Execution purports to be an "existential novel" -- and certainly it is full of angst. Yet the label undermines Wilcken's acuity: namely, his ability to probe the connections between obsession and detachment, violence and retribution. There are occasional slip-ups (...), but overall Wilcken's ideas are provocative and engaging." - Heather Clark

“Nuanced, compelling, and fresh . . . an exceptionally well-done debut.”Kirkus Reviews

“Unnervingly cool prose . . . an entertainingly urbane thriller [whose] suspense lies not in the whodunit, but in watching a perfect life unravel.”The Daily Telegraph

Matthew Bourne tells the story of his disintegrating life in The Execution. The novel begins with a slight hiccup (a colleague's wife dies in a car crash), but overall his life is going well. He works at a human rights agency, Africa Action, and early in the novel gets a plum assignment: organizing the defense of an African writer and diplomat named Jarawa, sentenced to death in his unidentified Francophone West African country. Bourne lives quite happily with artist Marianne: they aren't married, but they are definitely a couple, and they have a three year old child, Jessica.
       Still, Bourne isn't averse to a little fling on the side. He thinks he can have it all, and it looks like he might.
       The colleague who lost his wife, Christian, doesn't deal with it very well -- but Bourne wasn't particularly close to him and it actually makes his work easier. Domestic life also seems to be going quite well, with Marianne expressing some eagerness to get married.
       But Bourne's life begins to unravel. Bourne discovers that Marianne is having a fling of her own, and this impacts on all aspects of Bourne's life. He doesn't perform his work-related duties adequately any longer -- despite the fact that it is a matter of great importance, as he is trying to save a life. And his relationship with Marianne spins out of control too. Eventually Bourne confronts her lover -- and Bourne makes even more of a mess of things, leading to the inevitable spiral downwards of his life completely falling apart.
       Jawara's life also hangs in the balance -- though oddly distantly. There is competition from another organization trying to save him (competition that, in part, overlaps with Bourne's domestic woes), and the man's life seems to be treated almost as a secondary consideration: more important is to be seen as the leading agency in dealing with this sort of thing, rather than actually saving his life. Jawara himself is also a somewhat questionable figure. Bourne treats his life-saving agency work largely abstractly: the human behind the figure he is trying to save seems almost irrelevant, and though he makes an effort to learn about Jawara (reading his writings, talking to his wife), he never has any sort of idea of who the man really is.
       Bourne's fall comes quickly and precipitously, and even his colleague Christian (whom he calls upon in his desperation) can't set things right. He tries to maintain some control, but he can't. Marianne falls apart, and the end comes as it must.
       Hugo Wilcken has written a passable thriller. Bourne's actions are largely understandable, even the most desperate ones, but quite a few of the events (and especially the coincidences) in the novel seem artificial or at least staged, clearly the product of a writer's imagination. They simply seem unlikely -- and to too little purpose.
       Wilcken's style is also not the most natural, and the novel does plod along in sections. And there are bits which are simply bad:
Then it occurred to me that, in any case, I'd destroyed that piece of music forever. For the rest of my life, whenever I heard it I would no longer be reminded of Marianne's young body, instead I would remember the one now stretched out before me.
       (How can Bourne know that that is how he will react to the piece in the future ? It is wishful thinking on his (or rather Wilcken's) part, in trying to add some (melo)drama and portent to the scene -- but this is the worst way to do it.)
       The Execution has some decent ideas and bits, and reads well enough most of the way. Still, it is largely unremarkable. - The Complete Review 

Hugo Wilcken, who lives in Paris, has chosen the extremely French subject of murder and adultery, so you don't expect wisdom. The tone, however, which in its fatalism could be called existential, could also, in its acceptance of the way the world and emotions work, be called wise. Through this tone and elegant patterning The Execution transcends genre. Its direct, factual narration never makes a misstep.
It is set in London, where the deadpan narrator, Matthew Bourne, works for an organisation monitoring human rights in Africa. He has just taken charge of a publicity campaign to save a political dissident sentenced to death when his campaign partner, Christian Tedeschi, gets a phone call telling him his wife has been killed in a car crash. Soon Matthew is the unlikely recipient of the unwanted confidence that Christian knew his wife was being unfaithful and that he wishes he had left her.
Shortly afterwards, Matthew suspects his partner, Marianne, with whom he has a daughter, of having an affair - though he has just embarked on on one himself. 'I'd always thought you were a cold bastard,' Christian tells him. 'Never said much. I used to wonder how you ended up working in human rights.'
Exactly. Matthew is utterly unsympathetic to his daughter, who is three, and it is not difficult to see why Marianne has turned to someone else. As for the job, it emerges that Matthew previously worked in PR and that his boss, who seems if anything more indifferent to rights issues than Matthew, hired him as a PR whiz. Marianne's lover is also involved in a campaign to save the African dissident; it is a competing campaign and when, confronted by Matthew, the lover accuses Matthew of naivety, that seems true too. It is through knowledge of his wife's affair that tiny shoots of self-knowledge germinate in Matthew.

Matthew feels his fate to be almost mystically bound up with the dissident's, and the actions of each character mirror and highlight the actions of the others. You could say the book is about the fragility of life or what it takes to appreciate life's beauties, or that it is about, through the protracted vacuum of Matthew's unawareness of this central inevitability, our connectedness to each other. - 

Hugo Wilcken, David Bowie's Low (33 1/3)Bloomsbury Academic, 2005.

"One day I blew my nose and half my brains came out."
Los Angeles, 1976. David Bowie is holed up in his Bel-Air mansion, drifting into drug-induced paranoia and confusion. Obsessed with black magic and the Holy Grail, he's built an altar in the living room and keeps his fingernail clippings in the fridge. There are occasional trips out to visit his friend Iggy Pop in a mental institution. His latest album is the cocaine-fuelled Station To Station (Bowie: "I know it was recorded in LA because I read it was"), which welds R&B rhythms to lyrics that mix the occult with a yearning for Europe, after three mad years in the New World.
Bowie has long been haunted by the angst-ridden, emotional work of the Die Brucke movement and the Expressionists. Berlin is their spiritual home, and after a chaotic world tour, Bowie adopts this city as his new sanctuary. Immediately he sets to work on Low, his own expressionist mood-piece.


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