I'd recently been impressed by one of Conrad Williams' short stories, so the thought of getting my hands on a novel-length work made ordering Loss of Separation an easy decision - the intriguing set-up didn't hurt none either:
Paul Roan used to fly jumbo jets for a living, until a near mid-air collision loses him his pilot's license and his grip on reality. He's plagued by nightmares of the crash that never was, and so, together with his girlfriend Tamara, he moves to a little fishing village on the Suffolk coastline with plans of opening a B & B and enjoying a slower pace of life. But things don't go as planned. Paul falls foul of a hit-and-run that leaves him in a coma for six months. When he finally wakes, Tamara has mysteriously disappeared and his nightmares are as strong as ever.
The story unravels at a steady pace, but with plenty of mystery and intrigue and an underlying uneasiness that everything is somehow connected. Local children are going missing, and the villagers adopt Paul as their Sin-eater - offloading shoeboxes of mementos for him to burn for them.
But as good as the set-up for Loss of Separation is, the promise far outweighs what is actually delivered.
Williams' prose is high quality but descriptively dense. His intense focus on Paul's injuries becomes tedious and repetitive, which I coped with to start as I thought his condition had a greater part to play, but in the end his injuries were situational, and as Paul's investigations draw to a close, the injuries that had debilitated him through most of the story just evaporate, leaving Paul fit to carry out Williams' dénouement.
Characterisation is disappointingly shallow. Paul's injuries and nightmares -interesting as they may be - are mere surface detail, but it's the supporting cast that really standout as two dimensional. Ruth, the nurse who took Paul in after he woke from his coma, is a rough sketch of a character, as is Charlie, the kindly fisherman.
Dialogue is fairly pedestrian throughout, but Williams' shows his true potential in the confrontational dialogues between Paul and DI Keble, which are charged with wit and nuance - a real treat that could've been lavished on the rest of the cast's exchanges.
Loss of Separation is by no means a bad novel; I read it and enjoyed it mostly, but it felt lazy in parts and would've benefitted from further drafts. Ideas were thrown in and left half-baked - the Sin-eater thread for one - and the idea of Paul's nightmares and The Craw being linked is vague at best, and if I'm honest, I didn't understand it. There are also areas where you feel Williams is merely treading water, concentrating on trivialities that neither furthered forward momentum nor added anything to plot or characterisation.
You could argue that Loss of Separation has been plumped with 50 pages of nonessential text, but for me, the novel is grossly underweight and underdeveloped. I wanted to see Tamara with Paul before the hit-and-run - see the hit-and-run for that matter. Seeing how much Tamara loved Paul and what a great gal she was would have made her disappearance all the more puzzling. Likewise, seeing Paul's dependence for Ruth and Charlie grow from its inception would have made the finale more arresting and given their characterisation a much-needed shot in the arm. As it stands, Paul only knows them for three weeks, and we are only ever told about that. I just didn't believe their relationships.
But the major underdevelopment is the village itself. Williams is trying to sell a pretty hefty dark secret, but never provides evidence of the depths of the village's complicity. The sin-eater idea was a great start; it just needed another 300 pages and another 10 characters to sell it properly. I just don't buy it as it stands.
Loss of Separation is a 3.5 star novel, which I obviously can't give, but I certainly couldn't mark it down as a 3 star - Williams' prose is just too good.