Dec 182013
 
Martin Reviews: The Dante ChamberThe Dante Chamber by Alan Power
Published by Self published on Sept 5, 2013
Genres: Adult, Thriller
Find the book: Amazon, Goodreads

What secrets lie hidden in THE DANTE CHAMBER?
The incredible answer will shock you. Where it leads to will change everything.

Edgar Holt is in over his head. He owes a lot of money to some violent people who know he can't pay. Against his better judgement, he is drawn back to the sprawling family home where the remnants of his parents and their glittering Hollywood past shadow his every step. A confrontation that has simmered for years waits there, threatening to destroy everything.

Why has Isaac Holt refused to speak to his brother for over a decade? Only he knows where he has been and what he has done in that time. Now returned to the village of his youth, the younger Holt brother has lost himself in the twisting corridors of the old house. Some of the locals still nurse grudges against the Holt family, and when a young girl disappears, tensions rise once more. Bad blood boils to the surface and brings with it a wave of malice that plunges Edgar into a dizzying world of madness and murder - a descent that will end in the mysterious depths of THE DANTE CHAMBER.

On his website, Irish-born author, Alan Power, describes Knut Hamsun’s fin de siècle novel, Hunger as “one of my favourite books.” And there are certainly parallels between Hamsun’s work and Power’s well-written and exhilarating debut novel, The Dante Chamber. In each, the protagonist is in mortal combat with events beyond his control; and in each, we watch as the lead character spirals downward into madness. But this is where the similarities end. Where Hamsun’s main character struggled unsuccessfully against the social upheaval of the industrial revolution, a Christianity in decline, and intellectual and psychological alienation (standard themes in modernist literature), Power’s narrator, Edgar Holt, is caught in a post-modern metaphysical quagmire of his own internal construction. The redeeming feature to Power’s book may lie in the final chapters, where fiction becomes philosophy, and it is here where the reader must decide whether the convention succeeds or fails.

Edgar Holt is a down-on-his-luck London cinema memorabilia shop-owner. With payments due to a local loan shark, Holt realizes that his only hope in saving his family and business may be to convince his brother (one he has not spoken with in ten years) to sell their old family estate. In a fog of inebriation, Holt arrives at his Dublin childhood home, in all its Gothic trappings (this is surely metaphor), to discover that his brother, Isaac, is of questionable mental health. But soon, none of this matters. In fact, soon nothing matters except for the Dante Chamber, wherein lies The Suicide Throne. It is a chair that their father acquired years ago…an artifact said to convey fantastic powers. Holt, of course, takes a seat in the throne and his brother straps him in. Isaac starts up the mechanism and Holt describes the experience:

There was an unbelievably loud crack, as if the world had split in two. My body was racked with pain such as I had never previously experienced. Every muscle contracted at once, my chest compressed, my brain froze white hot. Every atom of my being seemed poised to explode.

Then:

Everything fell silent. Everything went black. There was nothing. I was dead.

In two minutes of unconsciousness, or death, Holt relives fourteen years of his childhood; this time, however, he was in control of this “lucid regression” and was able to manipulate his actions without repercussion.

“I know it was only a dream.” Holt said. “I was able to change things.” “That’s the best part,” said his brother Isaac. “Your past is your playground…you had what they call a ‘life Review.’ Your life flashed before your eyes…all the machine did was make you aware it was happening.”

And so we are off to the races. Holt eventually loses interest in everything but the Suicide Throne. By the time his wife and son arrive at the estate, Holt is too far gone to be saved. For him, dream and reality have become indistinguishable. At one point, Holt’s son goes missing, and Holt is convinced that the chair will provide them with the answers to his whereabouts. And this becomes the main theme of the book: just what is a dream and what is reality? In the end, plot takes a back seat to the metaphysical and Power challenges us to reassess our lives.

This work was a pleasant surprise, and Power holds literary promise. For a self-published book, it was almost flawlessly edited, and there was an unusual economy of structure that is impressive for a first novel. The chapters read in reverse order, which is nothing new, but it seemed an excellent fit for this narrative. Also, there is real talent in Power’s prose. A solid poetic temperament effloresced on the screen of my ereader. Upon Holt’s arrival in Dublin, Power describes this scene with haunting beauty:

Huge ferries passed each other in the bay, slow as driftwood. I looked right, to the north. Ireland’s Eye, squat and dark, was suspended on glasslike waters. A halo of planes hung above the distant airport. The faint shadows of the Mountains of Mourne lurked many miles further, peering in from a different country, a different world.

I’m reminded of Hamsun here, as his character in Hunger stood and looked out over Oslo Fjord at the ships that represented his death.

This book, however sharp, does have its dented corners. The characters are sometimes wooden and I felt a bit fatigued as I joined Holt on yet another one of his Suicide Throne jaunts into the past. Another thing that gave me pause was Holt’s Hollywood pedigree. Why were his parents Hollywood stars, I kept wondering to myself? Is this to justify the family wealth? Does this facilitate the L.A. scenes? In Power’s grand scheme, it would seem that pedigree should have nothing to do with an individual’s struggle with the themes of eternal recurrence.

It will be interesting to see what Power does next. His literary powers are in ascendancy. Now that he’s exorcised his existential first-novel demons perhaps, in his next book, a bit more humor and light will filter through the cracks. In the meantime, don’t finish his current novel at three in the morning, when the night is at its blackest and you’re all alone with your thoughts. You may come to Edgar Holt’s conclusion…that there is no way out.

About Reviewer: Martin Fossum

An occasional reviewer at Workaday Reads, Martin Fossum is the author of Faking Smart!, Beyond Asimios and Ildarim’s Arrow.

He currently lives in St. Paul with his wife, Emily, and their irascible and lovable terrier, Max.

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