Wilken's debut novel excels as an example of a certain kind of crisp, emotionally detached style that for some reason seems to be particularly prevalence among modern British male writers. So it's just as well that the story centers on an emotionally empty, self-absorbed human rights worker who gradually self-destructs over the course of the slim book. At work, Matthew Bourne is given stewardship of a campaign to free a dissident African poet facing execution in his homeland, while at home his French girlfriend becomes pregnant with their second child. However after he's called upon to ID the body of his colleague Christian's wife, something slowly start to eat away in him and he casually falls into a torrid affair and neglects his work.
Wilken creates a lot of mystery and tension in a limited space, but the payoff isn't quite there. His on again, off again guilt certainly rings true, but his spiraling descent is more annoying than it is disturbing. Why is Matthew's girlfriend acting increasingly odd, why does their three-year-old daughter fear "the man with glasses" who attacks her teddy bear, why does his colleague's dead wife's face haunt him, why does his fate suddenly seem inextricably bound to that of the poet? Some of these are answered, and some aren't. While I often like films that don't explain every last detail, here there are too many unexplained threads. (This may be because the narrative constraints of film's 120 minutes make such absences more necessary and thus palatable, whereas novelists have all the space they need to explain anything they wish to.) For example, a number of times Christian tries to tell Matthew something important, but is never able to. Why repeatedly stage such a scene only to never reveal its meaning? Another time, Matthew and Christian see each other in a train station, pause, and then walk past each other wordlessly. Again, as if we are in a David Lynch film, the reader is left wondering what that was all about.
All this is not to say the book is not well-written, because it is-however, it suffers from a kind of "is that all there is?" ending. Indeed, I could see it making a much better film than novel.