There is no doubt that Emily St. John Mandel is a skilled and promising new voice. Her first novel, 2009’s Last Night in Montreal, proved she is able to craft clear, concise, and beautifully composed prose. Her pacing was perfect. Her construction was artful. She moved backward and forward in time effortlessly. She created a vivid universe in which to firmly ground the reader.
All of these things hold true for The Singer’s Gun, Mandel’s second novel; the failing lies in the story she has chosen to tell. Mandel’s writing remains deft, but the drama and conflict in this literary thriller never achieve critical mass. At every turn, Mandel manages to lower the stakes, making it difficult for the reader to invest in any outcome – positive or negative – for her characters.
Elena, who lives a rather empty life in New York, is facing deportation, but the young woman is originally from Canada, so we don’t really worry about the horrors that might befall her should she find herself shipped back to Toronto or Montreal. Meanwhile, Anton’s lifetime of lies is at risk of being exposed via blackmail, but all he stands to lose are a job he despises and a flaky (albeit beautiful) fiancée he’s not sure he loves. So unsure is he, in fact, that he’s having an affair with Elena, who is much more complex and understanding.
By the midpoint of the book, the story’s outcome is of little consequence. It is only the strength of Mandel’s writing that keeps the reader going until the lacklustre conclusion. Mandel’s future as an important fictional voice is still bright: The Singer’s Gun is simply a case of a writer telling the wrong story.