The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps, by Michael Faber

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I was assuming I would like this more than four times as much as I like The Thirty-Nine Steps, which is a lot, but it didn’t turn out quite like that.  It is a fairly topical read at the moment (January 2013) because Whitby, where the novella is set, has been in the news, firstly because bones are falling out of the eroding cliff-top graveyard onto the hapless residents below; and because Peggy in The Archers has recently dragged her unwilling and complaining daughter Lilian up those very 199 steps to visit the abbey while reminiscing about the great time she had in the town during the war.

Michael Faber manages to cover a lot of ground, in emotional and historical terms, if not geographically, in this novella’s slight compass.  Siân, an expert on manuscripts and paper conservation, is staying at a local hotel while learning archaeology at a dig as part of a group excavating first millennium human remains at the abbey.  Her back-story slowly unfolds, the reasons for her current loneliness and why she suffers such terrible nightmares.  One day she meets Magnus, a doctor and medical researcher, out running with a dog.  Magnus later shows her a two-hundred year-old manuscript, intriguingly hinting at a murder confession, rolled up in a bottle which his father had rescued from a demolition site many years before.  The narrative follows the parallel tracks of their developing relationship, her work on salvaging the text from the ravages of time, and how she comes to a more positive view of herself.

Siân is the focus of the story, and she is a well-rounded, credible character.  However, Faber had a problem with Magnus.  Siân is attracted to him at the beginning, but in order to prevent this turning into a glib romance, Faber has introduced some grit.  Thus Magnus is not an entirely sympathetic character, and is prone to saying the wrong thing.  Unfortunately some of his remarks are pointlessly, and implausibly, antagonistic (especially given that he wants to start a relationship).  This friction sets up the opportunity to examine the mores of the past, by allowing Siân to provide a more nuanced defence against Magnus’s blunt, and though often reasonable (particularly his point about how we reconstruct the past), at other times philistine, views.  However, Magnus remains a two-dimensional foil against which Siân’s transformation can be seen in relief.  We never get inside his personality as we do hers, which makes the characterisations unbalanced.

On the other hand, the painstaking rescue of the manuscript is an excellent narrative hook driving the mystery, because you have to wait while Siân teases out each instalment, trying to generate meaning from the partial information in much the same way an archaeologist has to decipher the partial remains left by the past, or how we decipher the personalities of those with whom we come into contact, re-evaluating as we go.  Once we hear the whole confession, it transpires that what happened is not what we had assumed, warning us that we can make easy judgements about the past that are erroneous, and do not do our ancestors justice.

The blurb says that Faber deploys “a masterful sense of ambiguity”, like The Turn of the Screw.  Well, I don’t think that on this evidence Faber will be bothering Henry James, but on its own more modest terms this slight work is a breezy visit to a charming, atmospheric spot, and is excellent publicity for English Heritage, which receives numerous name-checks.

First posted on Goodreads website 17 January 2013

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