With a gripping introduction holding out the promise of great things to come and a knockout ending, it’s unfortunate that The Water Clock should have been marred by just about everything in between, which is to say most of the novel. If I were cynical, I’d say that teaser at the start was there to tell us ‘Hang on in there, be patient. It’ll be worth it’ without which many a reader may otherwise have yawned and given up. However, I’m not cynical and so will suggest no such thing.
The Water Clock feels like a bid for a TV adaptation and, as such, it could even be worth watching. A decent adaptation could lose a lot of the pointless digression – of necessity given the constraints of the medium – and give some of the characters a little more pizazz with decent acting.
We have too many characters here for a kick-off, and all of them get way too much background for what Kelly presents us with in the end; individuals with some eccentric character trait but little more to them than that. Take Humph, the (effective) driver of our MC, local journalist-turned-sleuth Philip Dryden. Having given us a fair bit of background to the man who is, after all, a central character in his own right, all we’re left with is a bloke who doesn’t like to get out of his car – ever – and has a penchant for learning obscure European languages for no apparent reason. Then there’s the editor who is thin as a rake and has a knack for appearing unexpectedly. We’re given a fair bit of background on the guy running the Chinese takeaway who speaks perfect English but lapses into the vernacular appropriate to his forebears with customers in quest of authenticity. Unfortunately for Kelly, I’ve not long since read Steinbeck’s East of Eden in which another Chinese cook, Lee, does much the same thing only to far greater effect. It permits some humour, but humour for Kelly is so dry that it can evaporate off the page before you get a sniff of it.
It would help if Dryden were more sympathetic as a character. After all, we see everything from his point of view, he’s in nearly every scene, and through empathy with him we could have some empathy with the characters. Unfortunately, Dryden has his head so far up his own backside that he doesn’t seem to have much empathy with anyone. He does a line in cynicism which I guess is intended to be world-weary and somehow wise, but instead it’s overdone, coming across like the naivety of a sulky adolescent. Dryden certainly has an eye for subtlety of character and I guess, on the back of that, so must Kelly in creating him. Small mannerisms are picked up, nuances in speech, Dryden could be an arch-manipulator if he could be bothered, but he doesn’t seem particularly bothered by anything much beyond his own memories. When his girlfriend gets hit in the eye by a firework we’re couldn’t care less given it’s hard to care when Dryden clearly doesn’t particularly, and he’s effectively the one telling us about it.
Then there are the tricks of the trade Kelly uses to ill-effect. Flashbacks that take us crashing out of the narrative, leaving us a little confused until we get used to the idea that when things are italicised, what we’re being told Happened In The Past And Is About To Become Important. Dryden receiving Information Which Reveals All, but though we’re so in his head we sometimes come out of his backside, what Dryden has just had revealed to him is withheld from us for fear of spoilers. That, Mr. Kelly, is cheating.
If I sound a little harsh, then here’s the good stuff. The things that makes this a three-star work instead of a two I’d never have reviewed given I throw two-star books at the wall half-read. That intro kept me reading through the entirety of this turgid work given it did inspire hope for a cracking ending. The cracking ending was delivered and worth reading, though perhaps too short to be worth the heavy price of entry into it. Kelly has, as I have said, a good eye for character, but that just makes it all the more annoying when the subtle nuances he can present are not invested, given to us instead as disposable observations. He does a nice little line in symbolism, water and ice in this instance, but why should I care about the subtleties of symbolism when I’m having a hard enough time keeping up with the narrative? Above all, what’s all this disposable subtlety got to do with what is, in the end, something akin to a thriller? Is this character-driven or plot-driven? It seems to be neither. Literature or genre? Again, Kelly doesn’t seem able to make up his mind and it plops to the ground somewhere in the middle.
A more literary work with different themes and Kelly might have walked away with a five-star review from me had he exercised his latent abilities to good effect but not here, not for this, sorry. I made it to the end and a cracking ending it was, but it wasn’t worth all the effort to get there.