The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go
Debut novelist Justin Go had me riveted until page 447 (or some 16 hours stuck in the ears). With less than 20 pages to go, how did that utter devotion morph into annoyance, disappointment, dare I say, even a sense of betrayal? I thought – hoped? – I had perhaps missed a track, so I frantically hit left arrows but could find no lapses, then went back to the book and reread chapters. Alas, I had stuck exactly with Go’s narrative and missed nothing, even as I felt I missed too much. More often than not, I adore stories with open endings that leave plenty of room for ongoing dialogues with favorite characters long after the final page. But here, I just felt carelessly abandoned.
What happened …? Fellow readers, please enlighten me!
Tristan Campbell, a recent college graduate from San Francisco, is called to a London solicitor’s office to be told he’s the only possible heir to a vast fortune. He has seven weeks left of an 80-year clause in a mysterious will to prove his direct lineage to the original beneficiary.
Eighty years before, in 1924, Ashley Walsingham died while attempting to scale Mount Everest; just before he began his lofty journey, he named a missing woman, Imogen Soames-Andersson, to inherit the bulk of his considerable estate. A letter that suggests Tristan’s link to Imogen surfaces just a couple of months before the unclaimed riches are about to be disbursed among various charities … and thus the ‘steady running of the (11th) hour’ ensues.
True to his moniker, potential heir Tristan immediately embarks on a quest for Iseult – I mean Imogen – that will take him from London to Sweden to France to Germany to Iceland, from remote island archives to devastated battlefields to forgotten farmhouses to small museums and beyond. Dovetailed into Tristan’s peripatetic sleuthing is the truncated love story of Ashley and Imogen, their chance meeting, their desperate five days before Ashley leaves for the frontlines of the Great War, their wrenching separation and their eventual, inevitable losses. The steady running continues … and Tristan’s seven weeks pass all too quickly.
According to Go’s fascinating, artful website, Steady took six years to finish. Like his quest-driven hero, Go left job, family, friends in 2008 to arrive somewhere else. “I was 27 years old. I didn’t know anything about writing books, and this book was complicated. To write it I had to research a million subjects and travel all around the world.” He refers to his drastic life change as “THE GAMBLE“: goodbye, NYC and hallo, Berlin, never mind not even speaking any German. “I knew it was crazy to leave, but I did it anyway.” After thousands of miles and even more pages – he rewrote “the whole book at least seven times” – he finally finished the last chapter in his grandfather’s Tokyo home. “I was sick of looking at [the stories]. Maybe that meant I was done.”
Go’s gamble certainly paid off. The manuscript sold at auction, made all the ‘can’t-wait’ literary lists, debuted this April, and is being translated into 20 languages. Narrator Steve West turned out a superb, listening-on-the-edge-of-your-seat, audible rendition. The critics seem to be mostly enthralled, with only a few duds.
After finishing the dense debut in a single day (when I couldn’t read the page, I multi-tasked aurally), the disappointment has regretfully dulled all that glitters: serendipitous discoveries seem all too convenient, a not-yet lover’s concerns feel presumptuously nagging, repeated deus-ex-machina interventions stop being believable, superfluous minor characters are too many, and that aggravatingly nebulous ending begs for a rewrite. And still … curmudgeonly reactions aside, anticipating Go’s in-progress-novel #2 admittedly promises new hope.