There is something brilliantly seductive about a story that grabs you right from the get-go, that immediately and successfully plunges you into a world far removed from your own, making it feel like it’s somewhere with which you’ve always been familiar (and yet not), populated by people who are fully-formed and instantly relatable even if their lives bear zero resemblance to your own.
That prodigious storytelling feat is even more impressive if the story occupies a genre that holds little to no fascination to you.
Manifest Recall is not normally the sort of story I’d read; not because it isn’t extremely well-written – author Alan Baxter is a master of his craft, as talented with narrative shifts and vividly-realised characters as he is with dazzling, affecting word play – but because crime-based stories, especially those with a high body count, usually tilt their attention almost wholly towards gory action and graphic violence, eschewing meaningful storylines and character interaction in the process.
But Manifest Recall, which opens with mob hitman Eli Carver in a car he barely remembers buying, speeding along a road he doesn’t remember turning onto with a young woman sobbing next to him in next-to-no-clothing, puts paid quickly to any fears that this is story replete with only death and murder and little to no heart or soul.
“Where the hell am I?
I feel as though I’ve just been switched on, like a light in an old house, flooding a room with illumination for the first time in years. Or ever. A flicker of a story comes to me. Lethe. One of five rivers in the underworld of Hades, the river of unmindfulness. The shades of the dead were required to drink its waters in order to forget their earthly life. Maybe I’ve died and drunk a gutful of Lethe and this is some strange hell.” (P. 8)
What becomes almost immediately apparent, testament to the grips-like-super-glue way Baxter establishes and develops his headily-amnesiac premise, is that something is wrong, very wrong; Eli can’t remember how he got where he is or why, with memories coming back to him as shattered, disconnected remnants that defy his ability to sort them into any kind of coherent, meaningful pattern.
We are plunged mercilessly into the panicked maelstrom of Eli’s very small world which is missing great big pieces, the recalling of which is hindered, as is any substantial forward momentum, by the fugues Eli keeps tumbling into for hours or days at a time.
His psyche is clearly fleeing from something horrifically traumatic but what, and why is he seeing the faces of people he has dispatched in the name of his grubby, amoral employer Vernon Sykes, whose young wife, Carly, is the woman in the car, equal parts terrified and angrily confident.
It’s a deliciously unsettling, gothic tumble into the chasms that exists in all of us, those dark, unreachable places that only come to the surface when life has been so badly bruised and beaten to a bloody pulp (much like Eli’s many victims) that the only reasonable response is to flee, figuratively and literally from the cold, harsh reality stalking us like some kind of deranged hunter.
What marks this slowly and yet-not-so-slowly unfurling reveal of Eli and his rather misbegotten life, which has just been shaved of its few redeeming features, is how much humanity Baxter has poured into what is at times, quite literally, a graphically-explosive story.
People die and vengeance is taken, and there are scenes where the blood flows scarily abundantly in a tale that is dark, in-your-face and what-the-hell-ish all at once, but Manifest Recall is at heart the story of one man grappling with the elusive ghosts of his own identity, with the oft-times fatal decisions he has made throughout his young life (he is only in his late twenties) and whether there is any way to escape the crushingly dead hand of consequence.
Suffused with the suggestion that there may be something supernatural at work in the banally flawed affairs of man, Manifest Recall is powerful and yet quiet, bombastically violent and yet intimately introspective, a journey through one man’s scarred psyche that is writ large against the backdrop of a world long ago gone irredeemably bad.
“I need to not lose it here. Not let the blanking thing happen and not let these circling memories eat me alive. I’m more than a little scared, I feel like a child. Something throbs in my gut at that thought and I bit it down.” (P. 40)
The innate humanity of the story is what elevates Baxter’s engrossing story above so many other crime thrillers.
At every turn, no matter where we are in the bloody chain of events that soak Manifest Recall in a vivid shade of bloody red, we are privy to the sense that Eli, for all his sins, real and imagined, is an inherently good, principled man who long ago lost his way and is trying, in the most hellish of circumstances, to find his way back.
As anyone who has ever sunk to rock bottom, or skirted scarily near to it knows, the adage that “the only way is up” is simply not always true; technically yes, up is the opposing direction but as Eli discovers again and again, simply aiming for it is no guarantee you’ll get there.
But Eli aims anyway, providing us with an engrossingly immersive story that acknowledges the brokenness of humanity and the flawed world we inhabit, but amazingly manages to envisage there may be a way to redeem the lost and the bloodied, the twisted and the furious.
Of course, we’re left guessing, as we should be in any thriller worth its salt, to the last possible minute to see if any kind of redemption is on the cards, giving Manifest Recall, an existential treatise in gothically frantic clothing, an air of tension that bites savagely and with punchy brio right up to the final heart-pumpingly full-on scenes.
This is life with guns, bullets and man’s inhumanity to man soaked through it like litre upon litre of misspent blood, but it is still life, and it is a credit to Baxter’s powerfully-arresting writing that this very relatability shines through even in a story so far removed from our everyday reality.