Matala by Craig Holden

I will confess that I was both intrigued and nervous about Craig Holden’s latest novel Matala. Here is how the

Matala.jpg

author’s website describes the book:

Matala sets up as a simple con — a bored young American woman, Darcy Arlen, who’s in Rome as part of a pre-arranged tour of Europe, accepts a date with Will, a rough but beautiful young man she’s run into, unaware that she’s stepping into a scam set up by him and his older partner, Justine.

But after they manage to separate her from her group and get her to Venice, Will and Justine realize that Darcy isn’t exactly what she’s seemed either, and that even as they’ve been conning her, she’s been returning the favor.

By the time the three of them embark on a dangerous journey to the Meditteranean, Darcy has already begun to insert herself into both the personal and professional relationship between Justine and Will. This is a love triangle, a smuggling adventure, and ultimately the story of a journey of life-changing self-knowledge for these three people that ends, and perhaps begins again, beneath the spectacular carved cliffs of the place known as Matala.

The flap jacket describes a story with “shifting alliances and shocking betrayals, of sexual obsession and mercenary enterprise, of conflicting passions and fateful choices.” I wondered if it was going to be a tightly written and fast paced story about a mark turning the tables or if it was going to be thinly disguised erotica. I am a bit of a prude when it comes to sex as a subject. Well not really, I just find most writers do a poor job of making the subject interesting. I find prurient content just for thrills rather boring.

Matala turned out to fall somewhere in between my expectations. Janet Maslin’s The New York Times review captured this “it wasn’t as bad as it could have been” type feeling: 

But for all its efforts to link menace, eroticism and travel, this is neither Patricia Highsmith’s “Talented Mr. Ripley” nor Ian McEwan’s “Comfort of Strangers.” It risks being risible, in purplish prose and in psychological ways that didn’t haunt Henry James when he sent American innocents abroad.

Mr. Holden must struggle to hold the story’s secrets just out of his readers’ reach. He does keep his narrative lean. There are certain kinds of torture that the 180-page length of “Matala” mercifully avoids.
But for all its efforts to link menace, eroticism and travel, this is neither Patricia Highsmith’s “Talented Mr. Ripley” nor Ian McEwan’s “Comfort of Strangers.” It risks being risible, in purplish prose and in psychological ways that didn’t haunt Henry James when he sent American innocents abroad.

Mr. Holden must struggle to hold the story’s secrets just out of his readers’ reach. He does keep his narrative lean. There are certain kinds of torture that the 180-page length of “Matala” mercifully avoids.

Holden starts off well in building a sort of dark tension. And the characters are interesting in that they all are  warped and needy in different ways and yet all incapable of staying out of trouble. But ultimately he can’t quite pull it off. The twist that Darcy is not the innocent abroad she seems to be never really comes to promise. And the psychological and sexual twist involved in her encounter with Justine seems forced; as does the ending.

But Holden keeps it it together better than most. Maslin gives him a rather backhanded compliment in this regard:

The wistfulness of Will’s narrative voice is part of what keeps “Matala” from descending into cheap thrills. For one thing Mr. Holden’s sensationalism is inelegant but polite. (“Where was the jealous bitchy control freak he’d grown accustomed to?”) For another his book stops short of the graphic, so that Will’s “hot nearness” is “Matala” with a quick pulse. And if the denouement isn’t credible, neither is it infuriatingly clichéd.

You might call this novel one of those “interesting failures.” A book that doesn’t quite achieve what it set out to do, but is interesting nonetheless.

In a short review in the Wall Street Journal Tom Nolan observes:

In certain ways, the novel is a highbrow literary puzzle box. In others — like the finely observed sequences of violence, sexual intensity and betrayal — it is a suave sort of pulp fiction.

Nolan’s formulation makes a lot of sense, but to me Holden didn’t quite succeed in crafting the “literary puzzle box” but achieves the “suave sort of pulp fiction.” As Maslin points out, that is worth something.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *