book: Looker (2019) by Laura Sims

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The blurb to this book describes it as a “propulsive Hitchcockian thriller,” a comment that’s both grossly misleading and in some ways justified. To take the latter first, I can see the connection with classic tales of obsession like Boileau-Narcejac’s Vertigo, which Hitchcock filmed, and Marc Behm’s Eye of the Beholder, which I wish he had (although the two extant movie versions both have a lot to recommend them). But what the blurb writer is really trying to imply by the remark, I think, is that this is a sort of Psycho-style edge-of-your-seat psychological suspenser — “the new Gone Girl” or “the new Girl on a Train” or whatever (even the Yellow Pages seems to be thus labeled these days) — which is something Looker just isn’t. It’s a psychological novel, yes: a psychological study of a woman having a nervous breakdown.

Our nameless narrator has recently been abandoned by her heartless turd of a husband, Nathan, seemingly because she’s incapable of having children. In her loneliness and misery and irrational guilt she’s become obsessed with the movie star, likewise unnamed, who lives with her family down the block. In a sense, this is a sort of displaced obsession, a deflection to the external of the narrator’s realobsession, which is with her own perceived inadequacy, in specific with her infertility: when she’s not loathing Nathan for his desertion she’s chewing over, again and again, her sense that it’s her fault that he dumped her. In the same way as with the actress, although to a lesser extent, the narrator manifests some of this introspective obsession into an overweening affection toward Nathan’s cat, which he left behind and which, before his departure, she actively disliked.

Whatever, the narrator becomes in effect a stalker of the actress. She’s making bad decisions in other areas of her life, too — she’s generally falling apart, in short, and there’s no one there to help her stop the disintegration.

Looker is a very readable piece (although I do wonder why someone thought it would be clever to use double-space paragraphing in place of the conventional practice), but I came away from it with the taste of ashes in my mouth. I have tremendous admiration for how well Sims has achieved what she set out to achieve (and will keep an eye out for her further books); at the same time I felt unpleasantly voyeuristic as I witnessed the narrator’s private hell. Perhaps this is another mark of Sims’s success in the novel — that I cared enough about the narrator and sympathized enough with her plight (even identified with her, perhaps?) to start finding the voyeurism distasteful.

All through the novel we know — as does the narrator, although she busily suppresses the knowledge — that the narrator’s obsession with the actress can lead in only one direction, to eventual tragedy, and this is indeed what occurs. But it’s not the tragedy we’ve been expecting — if anything it’s an even worse one. It’s a memorable sting in the tail of this unusual novel.

4 thoughts on “book: Looker (2019) by Laura Sims

  1. With its comparison to Hitchcock, I can see why you would have gone for this John. One of my biggest pet peeves is when publishers compare new releases to previous bestselling novels, or in this case a highly successful director who created his own sub-genre. I’m glad this wasn’t a complete washout for you though, and I’ll keep my hold at the library.

    • In fact, I took on the book despite having read complaints about its being marketed as a thriller and Hitchcockian: “it’s more interesting than that” was the conclusion I came across a couple of times. In a way I’m not so sure it is, although it’s definitely not a negligible piece of work. I’ll be interested to hear how you get along with it.

      I’m very much with you on the business of comparisons with bestselling novels, however effective it might be as a marketing ploy.

      Many years ago I knew the editor who invented the classic “better than Tolkien at his best” tagline as applied to whatever standard-issue fantasy came to hand. She thought it was hilariously funny. The sales dept., however, proclaimed it a stroke of genius . . .

    • I know what you mean. I admired it and quite liked it, as I note above, but I wouldn’t have thought it a must-read, especially for a primarily crime-fiction blog like yours.

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