Someone Else’s Conflict – Alison Layland
‘Someone Else’s Conflict’ marks the authorial debut of literary translator Alison Layland, and what a fine debut it is. A highly original contemporary thriller, featuring unusual, engaging characters, and a plot that’s not shy in tackling thorny issues at the personal and social level, nor to observe, from the outside but with a sharp eye indeed, one of Europe’s XXth century disasters: the Balkan wars following the dissolution of Communist Yugoslavia.
After a harrowing prologue, a glimpse of the butchery of war seen from a small boy’s hitherto innocent eyes, the story sets out sedately enough, with a street busker/story-teller entertaining a market crowd in a small Dales town.
Jay Spinney is a quiet, easy-going fellow who seems happy plying his wandering trade. The morning after his ‘performance’ Jay bumps into Marilyn – a young pottery artist living alone and licking the wounds of a broken relationship – as he camps in the moors close to her isolated Dales cottage. Marilyn was in the market audience and, having had her pockets picked during Jay’s story-telling, she politely but pointedly asks him whether he ‘noticed’ anything. Jay hadn’t and, unfazed by Marilyn’s thinly-veiled suspicion, he offers to help her repair the damage a landslide – caused by the night’s torrential rain – has done to Marilyn’s barn/future pottery workshop.
Not exactly James Bond-ish as first chapters go… yet I was immediately drawn into the story by Layland’s clever sketching of her two main characters, Jay and Marilyn, and by the hint of suspicion and tension visible, as if through a gauze, behind their initial sparring. Then we meet Vinko, a teenage illegal immigrant we have to presume is of Eastern European origin, who’s trawling a nearby town looking for his lost grandparents, and we soon realise he is the pickpocket in question.
A street musician, a pottery artist and an illegal immigrant. An unusual trio on which Layland builds a plot that’s cleverly layered, with plenty of twists to keep the tension up. She also uses flash-backs skilfully, gradually letting the reader become acquainted with Jay’s intriguing past.
We discover that Jay went to Croatia in 1990 as a dreamy eighteen year old, helping out his best friend Ivan, son of Croatian immigrants to the UK, when the latter wanted to experience firsthand what the newly-created Croatia was like. They will both get caught up in the civil war that explodes soon afterwards, and they will experience firsthand the horrifying brutality of that conflict. A violent coming-of-age for Jay, who will return to the UK after getting wounded, falling out with Ivan and having an affair with his aunt, the wife of a local warlord. Enough to twist young Jay’s life off-kilter, with the added complication of a large sum of money he will receive from Ivan’s aunt on trust, unbeknownst to her family. A heavy burden, which Jay deals with by distancing himself from the money, though keeping it safe, even after Ivan dies in the war. An unusual choice but totally in-keeping with the personality Layland has created for him: restless but light-hearted, solitary but honourable, introspective but affable.
Putting a character such as Jay at the heart of a contemporary thriller is, in genre terms, perhaps a risk, but Layland pulls it off handsomely. By patiently developing his personality, by showing us what it is from his past that makes him what he is and, above all, by making us share his doubts, fears and aspirations. This makes him prone to a good deal of introspection, but also makes him very real and believable.
A large sum of money cannot be kept hidden for ever though… and it will become a magnet for some decidedly unsavoury characters, distant relatives and ‘friends’ of Ivan, who will hunt Jay and not shirk from murder to get their hands on the money. While Jay, in order to save his skin and protect Marilyn and Vinko, will have to pull himself out of some hair-raising corners, more the former soldier than the innocuous busker.
Woven into this rich tapestry – and there are several layers I’ve omitted – we discover many subtle threads that add life to Layland’s characters. Both Marilyn and Vinko are just as realised as Jay, and their development adds depth to the story, only occasionally detracting from the narrative rhythm and always rendered with a deft, compassionate touch. How and why we trust others, both those we forge relationships with and near-strangers; the powerful bond of family and blood; the need to belong, whether to the family or society; the issues of immigration and emigration; and the love story between Marilyn and Jay, almost awkward at first, but surprisingly fresh and honest.
Not the usual ingredients of a thriller novel. Yet they make ‘Someone Else’s Conflict’ an utterly engaging read, thanks to Layland’s ability for making Marilyn, Jay and Vinko real people, and not mere disembodied characters. Alive with the strengths and weaknesses that are the stuff of daily lives, and that make it easy for us to feel that their troubled story can be part of our own too.