Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer
Writing fiction is all about voice and point of view. As writers, we think about how we would tell the story face-to-face and then modify that version so the story works on the page. The inherent problem, of course, is that the page can’t represent all the body language, facial expressions and voice modulation that goes into a live performance. The best we can do is approximate the voice, add in more description, and hope for the best. As to point of view, assuming the writer is not going to be omniscient, we readers are invited to see the events through the eyes of one or more characters. This makes first-person narrative one of the traps for the unwary. Given that the author can “become” the protagonist and write as if he or she was thinking, speaking or doing, it’s easy to believe everything about the protagonist is interesting to the reader. After all, most authors find themselves interesting and therefore assume readers will like them as first-person narrators.
So here we go with Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer (Oceanview Publishing, 2014) which is a first-person narrative featuring Linnet Mere. She’s a project manager superstar, specialising in large technology projects or bringing start-ups to the market. In this instance, she’s come to New Zealand to help launch a challenger in the broadband market. Although she was born in that country, her father took her to America when very young. This means she’s had no contact with her two sisters. She also has an “ex” who lives in New Zealand. So, from her point of view, there are three reasons for coming to the islands. Obviously she’ll be well paid for her work, she can put out feelers to her family, and make tentative moves to resurrect her lost relationship. Because this is a first-person narrative, we’re with Lin as she speaks for and about herself. The point of this novel, therefore, is that our protagonist cannot know the generality of what’s going on around her. The Board of the start-up has its own political agenda and it’s not being honest with all the key people whose job it is to get the technology up and running. Lin delays contacting the family because she’s uncertain of their welcome. And then there’s Ben. This is one of these complicated situations. He lives in a fairly remote area, earning a living by making furniture and looking after his daughter now aged seventeen. Getting him to leave his comfort zone and potentially take up a globe-trotting lifestyle while being “kept by” a woman is not going to be easy, even if it’s desirable.
So this is what the reliable voice tell us about the set-up. But in the first-person, we’re faced by an inherently unreliable narrator. There are so many things he or she cannot know. Think of Watson to Sherlock. He’s limited in what he sees and has to depend on Sherlock to tell him what’s actually happening. So Lin is highly competent in her professional capacity and as responsible as any normal person can be in her personal life. And, for a number of reasons, she’s a target. Take the work environment. She has to take tough decisions and this leads to resentment. Not only is she a woman in a country which celebrates the macho ethic through its rugby culture, but she’s also a decisive leader who works out all the angles and sees clearly which way to go. So whether she publicly berates a male colleague or quietly terminates his contract, it’s the same result. She’s made an enemy. What she cannot know is how far this resentment will go. Some men may just move on to another job. Others may allow the anger to fester. It’s the same in families. She does not know exactly why her family split and avoided contact. Approaching the New Zealand end of the break-up story may be the proverbial can of worms. In life, she’s not oblivious to danger, but she’s tough enough not to allow worry to hold her back. At some point, she’s always going to take the bold decision and do whatever’s necessary to get the right result.
In many ways, this is a book exploring the sexism inherent in patriarchal societies. New Zealand, like many developed countries, prides itself on the steps it’s taken towards gender equality. Yet, when you scratch the surface, little or nothing has changed — the men still think they are in charge. Hence, this is a fascinating exploration of the mindset a woman has to develop if she’s not only going to survive in the corporate world, but also climb the career ladder. It’s worth reading if only for that insight. The structure of the book also carries its own interest. I suppose it ends up being a kind of hybrid. It starts off as a conventional piece of modern literature about the corporate world. It interweaves elements of romance and the uncertainties of family relationships. And, in retrospect, it’s a thriller. Notice the key word, “retrospect”. Such is the strength or weakness of first-person narration. Since our protagonist is oblivious to the danger, so are the readers. The result is a clever piece of writing. As a purely personal reaction, I confess to being less than engaged during the first half of the book. I prefer a more real sense of menace to permeate the text. I’m also less than interested in the commercial exploitation of technology and the politics of competition. But as a reviewer, I’m very conscious of the general appeal of this type of book. Many will enjoy the scene-setting and, more importantly, the end result gives us the chance to reprise events to see which were significant and why. This makes Trilemma better than average on all three limbs of the “lemma”.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.