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The Narrows by Alexander Irvine
Review by Sam Lubell
Del Rey Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 0345466985
Date: 27 September, 2005 List Price $13.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Or perhaps it is a spy novel. Jared is asked by his boss to find out information about the plant where his wife works. This leads to shady doings in the war recruitment office and a possible Nazi spy conspiracy and a spy agency with supernatural links including a talking bird.

And it may be a mainstream novel about a man confused by his role in life, slowly losing his wife's affections but determined to do the right thing in a world more confusing than he ever believed, whose own family history and relationship with his father may be key to the future of Detroit, the Narrows of the title.

Actually, The Narrows is all three (for the price of one). Much of the story takes place on the assembly line, quickly christened the Frankenline, with a cast of characters chosen by a pygmy for their family history of odd events. In true WWII movie fashion the group includes varied character types - the hillbilly, the Negro - who frequently quarrel but are really good friends. Early in the book we learn that as a child Jared broke his hand when a mysterious dwarf appeared in front of his father's Model T, causing an accident. Later, it is revealed that the dwarf is a symbol of disaster and a group of secret agents want to convince the dwarf to use his power against the Germans or Japanese and believe that Jared has a tie to the dwarf. Meanwhile Jared is dragged by boss into what may be a Nazi conspiracy or may be simply attempt by Jared to make up for the military's refusal to let him fight in the war.

What makes this book real is the emphasis on how ordinary life persists despite war, spying, and supernatural goings-on. Jared's bitterness over the way an old injury prevents him from being accepted into the war leads him to say the wrong things to his wife. His child does cute things. He gets a dog. He does not get along with his mother-in-law. He worries that his wife makes more money than he does and if his boss will fire him unless he can find information on another secret project. These ordinary domestic elements make the reader accept the supernatural as another part of life. There's even a parallel between Jared announcing that his wife is having a baby on the same day that the first golem comes to life.

Jared himself is a very human character. He makes some wrong choices, keeps secrets from his wife, looks on the negative side of things too much, and is clearly over his head with the professional spies and counter-spies. But all of this is very believable and Jared comes across as a man trying to protect his family and his livelihood. The other characters, even the minor ones, are carefully drawn. No one is a simple stereotype.

In the last third of the book things become mystical, with dreams and dream-like textures. The spying is resolved, a bit too confusingly, and more magical elements are drawn in. But even this is anchored in the realness of Jared and his family.

The Narrows is not for action fans nor those looking for another Tolkien style quest. The book is almost North American magical realism with the magical elements key to the story, but mostly hidden from the normal people. The strengths of the book are its realistic aspects, an almost mainstream sensibility. I highly recommend it to fantasy readers who also like mainstream and it is the ideal book for readers of the mainstream who wish to try dabbling in fantasy.

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