The Distance | Helen Giltrow | Hb 2014, Pb 2015 | Orion | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book
Once upon a time Charlotte Alton was Karla, a woman who made people disappear, a shadowy figure who dealt in secrets. She thought those times were in the past until she is persuaded to put a man inside the ‘Program’ to make a hit. The Program is a new type of prison, an area of the city abandoned by its inhabitants, walled in, its streets and tenements now a battlefield for the very worst type of criminals, thrown together into an experiment that leaves many dead. There is a special link between Karla and the man, Simon, that she must place within this prison hell. They are tied together by events that happened in the past, something so terrible that even the gangster who controls life and death within the Program knows all about it. And then there’s Simon’s hit, a woman who seems to have no existence within the Program but is there all the same. But what has she done? And why is somebody somewhere prepared to pay such a price to silence her?
Although it is Simon on the inside of the Program while Karla is supposedly safe on the outside, both characters are about to enter a very dark place. In The Distance Helen Giltrow immerses us – and her characters – in the shady world of spies, in which nobody is who they seem and where every action has its consequences, not necessarily straight away, sometimes many years later, but these consequences are inescapable. The story has several perspectives, with chapters moving between the key characters, building the tension and pace. Apart from Karla and Simon, we have the secret agent Powell, flown over from America to investigate a dead spy’s source. This investigation parallels that of Karla’s into the background of the female hit as well as Simon’s own hunt in the Program while maintaining his fake identity.
This is a dark world and it is also a violent one. Charlotte Alton might enjoy the opera and the other rich trappings of her life in London but The Distance frequently reminds us of another type of life entirely. This is a gory novel in places and there are strong torture scenes. The gore was a bit too much for me, to be honest, and I did have to skip the odd page because of it. Some of the people we meet are truly horrendous and all the more so because they seem so calm, clinical and practical in their administration of violence and torture.
The Distance is a fine debut from Helen Giltrow. It is an extremely tense and menacing novel, rich in atmosphere and mood as well as confident and intelligent. It is full of shocks, surprises and twists. The setting of the Program is especially well painted and vividly imagined. It is a haunting, terrifying place, brilliantly created.
If you enjoy a clever spy novel then The Distance is most definitely the book for you.