[ilds] a scheming older Englishwoman named Justine

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Mon Dec 17 06:06:34 PST 2007

December 17, 2007
Books of the Times

  Crossing Europe, Packing Menace, Sex and Secrets



By Craig Holden

180 pp. Simon & Schuster. $22.

Darcy Arlen, straight out of Indian Bend, Ohio, is taking a six-week 
European tour courtesy of her parents, who gave her the trip to 
celebrate her high school graduation. As Craig Holden's "Matala" begins 
to spread its dark wings, Darcy is an accident waiting to happen, 
despite her squeaky-clean schedule full of museums, opera, architecture 
and ruins.

Darcy is on a bridge in Rome, peering into the waters of the Tiber, 
having briefly escaped her tour group and chaperon, when she has a 
fate-altering encounter with an American stranger named Will. Sparks 
fly. Hearts flutter. Soon she is faced with a choice. Which would she 
rather do: improve her cultural credentials or run off with a handsome 
22-year-old grifter?

Since "Matala" badly wants to be about "dangerous things" that are 
"chemical, sexual, criminal," the answer to that question is obvious. 
But Darcy is taking only the first step in a treacherous adventure. The 
second step is for the wide-eyed --- or is she? --- former schoolgirl to 
meet Will's lover: *a scheming older Englishwoman named Justine (which 
pointedly brings to mind Lawrence Durrell and the Marquis de Sade, 
authors of books named "Justine").* What mysterious forces bind Will to 
Justine? Why is Justine, at the ripe old age of 39, staying in a youth 
hostel? Why does everyone at the hostel call her La Madre? Is that a 
suggestive nickname? Or is it just Italian for Mom?

"I thought we weren't going to," Will tells Justine as she tempts him 
with some unspecified naughtiness. "I thought we said we had to take a 
break." But neither of them has the backbone to stay out of 
garden-variety trouble, let alone resist the nubile provocation that is 
Darcy. "The girl might have been naïve, but she wasn't stupid," the book 
says as its mind games begin and its tables start turning. "She knew 
where the power lay."

Who's fooling whom within this newly formed trio? Mr. Holden tries 
tirelessly to shroud each character's motives. This means a book that 
reaches for cryptic, velvety sadomasochistic innuendoes every time it 
can. Any of these lines would suit any of the three characters, and each 
can be found in "Matala":

"Big baby."

"No more easy street."

"It'll be easier for us both if you relax."

"Let yourself have what you've been looking for for so long."

But for all its efforts to link menace, eroticism and travel, this is 
neither Patricia Highsmith 
"Talented Mr. Ripley" nor Ian McEwan 
"Comfort of Strangers." It risks being risible, in purplish prose and in 
psychological ways that didn't haunt Henry James 
when he sent American innocents abroad.

Mr. Holden must struggle to hold the story's secrets just out of his 
readers' reach. He does keep his narrative lean. There are certain kinds 
of torture that the 180-page length of "Matala" mercifully avoids.

"Matala" is narrated by Will, but it has third-person chapters that 
provide the viewpoints of both Darcy and Justine. This keeps it hopping, 
as does a busy itinerary. Once Will and Justine figure out that they can 
move through Europe at Darcy's daddy's expense, the characters go from 
Rome to Venice and on to the Aegean.

It is on Crete that the story's big payoff is scheduled to happen. A 
certain package, "a special gift for someone who has everything," is 
supposed to change hands there.

"Matala" takes its title from the Greek village of the same name, which 
is famous for its caves. Once they were famous as a hippie mecca; now 
they are even more famous for their symbolism. The story moves its 
characters toward this destination in search of other kinds of release, 
making it clear that Matala is a long way from Indian Bend. And along 
the way Darcy keeps on revealing secrets about herself, not least of 
them that she has kleptomaniacal tendencies. "When their stethoscopes 
kept disappearing, they kicked me out," she says of the doctors who 
tried to cure her.

A book like this has a finale problem: Will it put up or shut up, 
metaphysically speaking? Is Mr. Holden seriously trying to explore the 
mutable nature of identity? Or is he just building up to the part of the 
story that has armed thugs running around a Greek island? There is more 
earnest inquiry than formulaic exploitation here, even if one of the 
women is ultimately referred to as a "shrine" and the other as a "pagan 
feast." At least Mr. Holden casts temporary doubt about which is which.

The wistfulness of Will's narrative voice is part of what keeps "Matala" 
from descending into cheap thrills. For one thing Mr. Holden's 
sensationalism is inelegant but polite. ("Where was the jealous bitchy 
control freak he'd grown accustomed to?") For another his book stops 
short of the graphic, so that Will's "hot nearness" is "Matala" with a 
quick pulse. And if the denouement isn't credible, neither is it 
infuriatingly clichéd. There are better ways to fuse rites of passage 
with psychological suspense. More often there are worse ones.

Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu

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