On to my third book of this year’s Giller Prize shortlist, and again I find myself confronting a familiar name: Lisa Moore. Her books Open and Alligator were each shortlisted for the Giller Prize, and her previous novel February was longlisted for the Booker Prize. So her name is familiar to me, but I have never read any of those books. And while I enjoyed Caught (2013), I’m afraid it’s not a book that makes me anxious to go read more Moore.
I’m surprised I didn’t like Caught, actually. It was one of the titles on the shortlist I was most looking forward to. A seasoned author writing about a fated criminal. But there was something in the gravity of Moore’s prose that didn’t fit. I’ll try to explain.
But first, a bit of the setup: The book begins in Nova Scotia in 1978. On the evening before his twenty-fifth birthday, David Slaney is escaping from a prison where he’s been for four years on drug smuggling charges. As he makes his way from the prison, he knows he needs to run but feels he should stay still, and vice versa he knows he needs to stay still but feels he should run. Certain he’s going to get caught, he’s amazed that he actually gets away. On the outside, his old friend Brian Hearn has set up an escape plan, and they’re planning to meet up again to do one last big job: two-tons of marijuana from Colombia to Canada.
Hot on his tail is Officer Patterson. In fact, we soon learn that the police are trailing Slaney — let him escape successfully, in fact — so they could catch their bigger prize: the friendly, deceptive Hearn.
At this point, I was still very interested. Here’s an exciting plot and Moore’s prose has nicely delved into Slaney’s fears. I hoped the exciting plot and the character study would continue, hand in hand. Sadly, I agree with other reviewers who felt that the plot took away from the character development and, in turn, the character development took away from the plot. At times it almost felt like Moore was writing two books, and just when one started going she’d switch to the other. Most of her attention, however, appeared to be placed on studying the young, well-mannered drug smuggler, which is why the tone of the novel remains heavy, even while the character of Slaney remains unformed — unformed even to himself:
He would not betray the innermost thing. He didn’t know exactly what the innermost thing was, except it hadn’t been touched in the four years of incarceration. Come and get me. They couldn’t get him. It fluttered in and out of view, the innermost thing, consequential and delicate.
Naturally, we readers are meant to do our own work to discover that innermost thing, but for me it felt more like Moore was giving lip-service to Slaney’s depths. After a while, I simply lost patience as we meandered around Canada. The plot never got exciting; the characters never got developed. And all along the way is this heavy prose, prose that seemed to be most funny when it perhaps was not intending to (like when there’s a betrayal, completed with a cock’s crow).
Caught is not a bad novel. It simply didn’t work for me, and I cannot cheer it on this Giller season.