One of the ways novels can shed light on the dark corners of human nature is to put a character in an extreme situation and then run through the specific details.
Russell Celyn Jones’ Thirty Seconds from the Sun from 2005 does precisely this and does it well. The first-person narrator is a riverboat man named Ray Greenland who works on the Thames and revels in a comfortable domestic life with his wife and two children.
But from the very opening scene, in the couple’s favorite Italian restaurant, Ray is worried everything will come crashing down:Two men sitting at the next table along are way out of their habitat. Off the ships, maybe. They are sunk in shadow and I can see no more than a black leather jacket zipped to the throat and a tight-fitting t-shirt. But something about them hair-triggers my instinct for self-preservation…I know when I’m in the presence of itinerants, people passing through.
As shortly becomes clear, Ray indeed knows the two men – from prison.
Ray Greenland, enjoyer of the occasional armchair Macallan, is a false identity
Ray Greenland, dedicated father and husband and enjoyer of the occasional armchair Macallan, is a false identity, assumed after the narrator was released from jail, having served his sentence for a horrible crime he committed as a boy.
The moral ambiguity of lies and truth is the novel’s major theme, neatly encapsulated in a flashback of how the narrator’s parole officer trains him to exist in normal society:Truth was the lingua franca of my supervision periods, while lies kept me alive outside. And it was Tom who taught me to lie as well as tell the truth. From the age of twelve I’d lived inside institutions. I needed a back story, to be deployed whenever someone – struggling with their memory to locate me, where they’d seen me before – asked about my life. Tom ‘lent’ me his.
With a last name taken from an unknown stretch of frozen land and a childhood borrowed from someone charged with rehabilitating convicts, the narrator has succeeded in putting the past behind him.
Until the day when his stepsister and her creepy boyfriend Miles appear, blackmailing him with the threat of revealing his true identity to his unsuspecting wife.
Ray’s game of make-believe appears to be up. Then, he invites the boyfriend to have a drink with him by the river he knows so well:A few minutes later we are standing on Lambeth Bridge, dazzled by the lights of Westminster Palace burning on the surface of the water. Miles guzzles the whisky. He doesn’t know where he is. The tide races out to sea at eight knots, running the ancient course, sucking at the buttresses of the bridge.
Can two wrongs make a right, the novel asks, and can the worst criminal offences ever be water under the bridge? Or will the truth inevitably have to surface?
Ten Seconds from the Sun is a thought-provoking rumination on members of society most of us never think about. Something to ponder with a glass of Macallan, as one asks how much of the one’s own past one has to omit in order to lead a normal, domestic life.