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This is a review of 'The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps' by Michel Faber, an author that I have read before, in fact 'Under the Skin' was one of the most haunting and scary books I ever read and have returned to a few times. In short, 199 Steps was written in 2001 and refers to the famous steps at Whitby which lead up to the Abbey. I have trod these steps many times in my life and thought it sounded like a 'must read' book. I would have liked to read this book in an idle B&B moment in Whitby but it didn't look like that would happen any time soon.
This book begins with a strange concept. The author was invited to the abbey to write a short story during the actual dig. I can't help but think this was a bit of a PR stunt on the Archaeology front. They could also sell the book from the gift shop then too!
Whitby is famous for its gothic vampire links, something which I am sure they have used to increase the tourism to the area. They also do great fish and chips but I am certainly getting off plot here. The book does feature some of Whitby's history but it is largely a fictional short novel , at just 115 pages. The main character Sian joins the dig and we learn a little of her personal history, a difficult accident in Bosnia has left her disabled but she tries to hide this with layers of clothing and a thick skin to any questions asked by strangers.
During the time she is employed to dig at Whitby she is befriended by a runner with his dog. The runner is a sexy doctor who is temporarily staying at Whitby to complete a research paper and sort out his late father's affairs and estate. Sian is attracted to the sweaty stranger and loves his dog but she is so spikey she will not let him get close to her. Sian suffers from insomnia, wandering around Whitby in the early hours of each morning, killing time until her work starts and she has a persistent bad dream in the B&B she stays at that she is being strangled by a stranger she loves. He caresses her head then slits her throat and she wakes each time, clutching her neck to her body.
The Doctor who runs draws in Sian with an old artefact found in his father's house foundations. A message in a bottle, damaged by time but full of intrigue. Sian has the right connections to carefully open the bottle and separate the layers of paper and translate the olde English written hundreds of years before.
I enjoyed reading this short book on a simplistic level but I can see why it has been criticised by some in that it does not go into much depth or explanation. The message in a bottle ties in nicely with the other parts of the story and is quite interesting. I was quite happy to finish the book and will never bother to return to it again as I have with Faber's other novel I read.
The steps explained
I have a particularly memorable school trip to Whitby where I was the kid that got ill and had to go to hospital thus ruining everyone else's stay. An infected foot was the ailment which brings me back to the 199 steps. I had to hop up them on my good foot to enable the class to go out that day as it was a 'one stays in all stays in' rule due to teacher supervision obligations. This may be why this book spoke to me in particular. I know those steps well.
This is a nice book to read if you are planning to visit Whitby as it contains some history pertaining to the Abbey and a lot of conjecture about the Nuns and their lives. Whilst it was a short read, I'm not sure I wanted any more from this book. It was an interesting concept that Faber practically wrote this book 'to order' and clearly had lots of history information to hand to help him write it.
Sian has recently joined an archaeological dig in Whitby. Troubled by horrifying nightmares after an accident in Bosnia that left her badly injured, she is trying to get by one day at a time, while trying to forget about the pain in her leg that she believes could be cancer. When she meets Mack and his gorgeous dog, Hadrian, she feels a flash of life return to her again; even more so when Mack presents her with a centuries old murder mystery that she feels compelled to solve. She also hopes that the fact that she can do something so satisfying will bring her closer to Mack. Will she be successful? Will she forge a new relationship with Mack - or are her deep-rooted issues too great to overcome?
Set in Whitby around the Abbey, there is a very Gothic theme to the book, backed up by the numerous references to Dracula. This is perfect for a murder mystery, because it sets the scene perfectly. It must be stressed, however, that the mystery isn't really the focus of the story overall. It is very much about Sian and her rite of passage from utter despair through to a glimmer of hope; the mystery is just there as a device to get her from one extreme to the other. That didn't concern me in the slightest. I loved both Sian's story and the mystery part - I think they worked very well together to present a fulfilling and intriguing story. Considering the author is actually Dutch and grew up in Australia (although he now lives in the Scottish Highlands), I think he did a fabulous job of capturing the Northern feel of Whitby.
I thought Sian was a very well drawn character. She isn't immediately likable - she is very prickly and clearly finds it hard to socialize. However, the reason for this, merely gently hinted at to begin with, soon becomes clear and she really grew in my estimation. Faber turns her into a very sympathetic character, with whom I could really identify. For anyone who doesn't like the touchy feely aspect of Sian's story, however, there is no need to be concerned. It is kept brief and at least partially covered up by the mystery angle. Sian really is the only character with any development - the story is told from her point of view. However, enough is told of Mack to be intriguing - and I really wanted them to get together, although this is far from being a love story. The relationship that builds up between Hadrian (the dog) and Sian is really touching and very well done.
The way that the book is written is excellent. The author uses very precise language that is deliberately concise, yet manages to convey a great deal. The reader is able to get a real feel for the main settings of Whitby that the story takes place in and the site of the dig with its hundred and ninety-nine steps is particularly vivid. This is a novella, so is very short, at just over 100 pages and there are no chapters as such. This isn't a great problem, because there are longer than usual paragraph breaks to show where the reader can leave the story for a while. Nevertheless, I would have preferred some more obvious breaks.
The only major criticism that I have has nothing to do with the author, but rather the publisher. The print on each page is very narrow, presumably to make the book look longer than it really is. I found this a waste of paper, especially in this day and age of being environmentally-friendly, and would much rather have had a shorter book with fuller pages. The aim is perhaps to age the book in the style of the eighteenth century (which is when Sian's 'mystery' took place), but it really didn't impress me very much.
The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps was excellent and would certainly like to read more in that ilk. I'm a fan of mysteries anyway, but the added bonus of the interesting character and the Gothic setting make it that much more enjoyable. I'll certainly look out for more books by this author and hope that they are of this quality, because it doesn't get much better than this. Five stars out of five, highly recommended.
The book is available from Amazon for £6.90. Published by Canongate books, it has 288 pages. ISBN-10: 1847678912
This review was first published on curiousbookfans.co.uk.
Part historical thriller, part gothic romance, part ghost story.