When I saw the news on Twitter that Salon Magazine picked Barry Eisler’s Fault Line as a top book of 2009, I realized I’d been a complete slacker and hadn’t reviewed it, though I read the book in a gulping, cringing marathon of reading. I’ve been pondering books that have The Crack in them – you cannot put them down – and this was definitely one for me.
First, a few warnings. It’s not a romance, but it’s tense and packed with elements that are so realistically drawn that they could be possible – which is a key element in a thriller working for me. It’s just so outrageous in the revealing of the covert it could totally be possible.
Ben Treven is a covert badass. He’s described as an elite liaison or some other word with a lot of vowels in it, and really, the more vague the title, the better. He’s so far off radar, he’s completely disconnected from everything- including his brother, Alex. Alex is an attorney on the cusp of partnerdom, and his next deal could bring him that much-desired promotion. But when the key people are killed and Alex realizes something is very, very rotten in his personal Denmark, he breaks years of silence and distance to contact Ben and ask for his help. Sarah Hosseini, another attorney in Alex’s firm, finds herself involved as well, creating yet more imbalance between Alex and Ben.
The title is elegant in its multiple meanings: it could refer to the fault line between Ben and Alex, or it could refer to the instability and tremorous facts upon which the war on terror is based. It could simply refer to the line dividing the characters and who is at fault for what element of the past. Or it could be the epicenter of what shakes and breaks the protagonists and their worlds.
The two points that may trip up readers: first, it’s not a romance. While Eisler makes efforts to attract the romance reading audience to his books because there are strong women characters and emotional and sexual connections between key protagonists, this is not a romance. The female in question is not the center of the story, and doesn’t experience her own character growth or development. That said, Sarah’s role is not as a cypher or foil for the men, and she’s definitely NOT a Bond girl whose job is to look good in tight clothing. She’s not stupid, either, and matches intellect with both Ben and Alex.
The other point that is tripsome (is that a word? is now!) for some is Ben’s long, long periods of quiet and hiding in the beginning provide a lot of space for him to ruminate, and while some of his backstory is creepy and fascinating, all too often it becomes a political platform, or a giant infodump, or both.
The best part of the story is the story itself: it reveals in bites and pieces the history of Alex and Ben, of their shared past, and the major differences between them. But moreover, the intricacies of their relationship are realistic and not easily solved. While Sarah doesn’t have her own character arc and development, and that disappointed me, Ben and Alex aren’t going to hold hands and skip into the sunset – and that didn’t disappoint me at all. Sibling relationships are complex, especially when one sibling knows of eight ways to kill his brother with a nose hair and some toenail clippers. Alex and Ben are an emotional thriller, and the story itself grabs you and moves along so quickly it’s difficult to stop reading it.
The facts within the book, such as the methods of securing yourself as much as possible in a room or public area, and of evaluating a space for vulnerability and, basically, thinking like the bad guy, are based in reality, and that root in realism makes the rest of the story more powerful. Those scenes where Ben instructs Alex on the basics of keeping his ass alive and breaks Alex’s understanding of safety and how easy it is to make someone truly disappear are terrifying because all of what Ben reveals is so coldly simple.
Cast against that simple clarity is the political ruminations from Ben, and to a lesser extent Alex and Sarah – and because they are so highly subjective, and so far into one particular point of view, they contrast unevenly with the chilling factual neutrality of Ben’s lessons in how to avoid being dead. This is one of those occasions wherein knowing the author’s opinions can detract from my reading. I know Barry and think he’s spiffy as a person, and I read his Twitter feed. So when I read Ben’s ruminating inner thoughts, I couldn’t always tell if it was Barry or Ben I was listening to, and that confusion made the reading more difficult.
I think of books like this as gluey compulsive reads – you start and you can’t stop because the action and the plot move along so quickly, and the characters are so different as to be fascinating. I know Ben is the star of Eisler’s next book, and have read portions already. He is a complex and enigmatic character who could easily have a series built around him. Usually the violence is a dead stop for me (no pun intended) but Ben’s ambivalence and struggles with his occupation and his vocation created a space in which I as the reader was able to possibly understand the reasons and motivations, even as the acts themselves were abhorrent.
If you like thrillers, books with amazing technical gadgetry, battles of wits on a limited clock and truly visceral characters, this will not disappoint. I hope that the political criticism, the action, the intrigue and the emotional intricacy of the characters find better balance, but even being a step out of perfect time is minimal compared to the accomplishment of this book: I read about spies, violence, battle, and politics enmeshed within characters who were created with painful realism and could not stop reading. I don’t normally gravitate toward those subjects (ok, I do like spies and gadgets) but in this case, I will come back for more.