Scars Beneath the Skin, the debut novel from Cheshire-based writer A.J. Duggan, captures the uncertainty and moral emptiness of a post 9/11 world prone to random violence through the eyes of East Berliner, Karl Dresner. Caught up in a bomb blast in London in 1996, he struggles to cope with the traumatic psychological injuries, which are intensified by the September 11th attacks some years later.
Gradually detaching himself from society, Dresner descends into an emotionally barren life of lap dancers, drink and disturbingly vivid flashbacks, until by chance he saves the life of Lucia Cavallieri, who tries, in turn, to save his. Billed as a ‘dark modern love story’, the novel charts Dresner’s road to deliverance and his desire to know himself once again.
Duggan cites Graham Greene as one of his influences and certainly the prologue – with its striking opening line: “There is only so much loneliness a human being can stand” - is reminiscent of the kind of dark, desperate underworld Greene often portrays. It also draws heavily on noir, with Dresner on the point of suicide - the pills, the drink, the pistol all on the same table, a coin turning ominously through his fingers. The first few chapters are full of tension as we draw nearer to the moment of explosion – and Duggan writes from first hand experience here, having been in Manchester the day much of the city centre was ripped apart by an act of terrorism.
Coming in at over forty chapters, the narrative ploughs along at a blistering pace and there is an urgency and immediacy which is infectious, but I felt at times I wanted just a little more - some unpredictable twist or unforeseen difficulty, some larger truth under the surface tantalisingly withheld. The episodic structure and disturbance of linear time works very well in places, mirroring Dresner’s (literally) fractured world, but there were parts when events and conversations didn’t seem to feed into or suggest a bigger plot when I really wanted them to. But perhaps I was looking for something that intentionally wasn't there. Perhaps the point is that Dresner’s world is made of nothing more than these inconsequential meetings.
Traumatised and lonely as he is, some readers might find it hard to sympathise with Dresner, given the fact that women from all social strata seem to like him instantly and a perfectly formed, successful Italian woman with an Alfa Romeo gives him everything he could ever wish for. But there is more to their love affair than this. There is comedy, for sure, in pitching her Latin exuberance and brutal honesty against his morbid self destruction - but perhaps the most important thing is what Lucia's willingness to mend Dresner's mind says about the capacity for human goodness. On the surface they bicker flirtatiously, but there is a mutual need beyond all the wisecracking which is much more complex and fragile.
For my money, Duggan is at his best during the action sequences – namely the explosion itself in London and where Dresner and Lucia find themselves trapped in a riot sparked by George Bush’s visit to Berlin. The strength here is in the subtlety; Duggan resists the urge to overdo the violence and mayhem, enabling the horrific events to speak for themselves. 9/11, Afghanistan, the build up to the Iraq invasion and paranoia reminiscent of The Cold War, rather than taking centre stage, linger ominously in the background. Dresner’s world is one which can change in an instant, but not always for the worse. Amongst all this terror, there is still hope.
Scars Beneath the Skin is available now from Flambard Press and A.J. Duggan will be reading from the novel at Word Soup #5 on 22nd September.