Review of The Culprits by Robert Hough
by Robert Hough
I put this on my "romance" shelf because, as the cover opines, this is a love story. It isn't a cheap political thriller, nor is it a tawdry bodice-ripper. It's a wonderful and fantastic love story that has a happy, if bittersweet, ending that isn't too sappy or Disney-movie like.
In The Culprits, Hank Wallins is an asocial former seaman living in Toronto, who suffers from tinnitus and works a boring job every night. After an accident in the subway, Hank finds a girlfriend via FromRussiaWithLove.com. Although Anna enjoys Hank's company at first, she finds she can't love him--she still loves a Dagestani man named Ruslan, who soon becomes involved with terrorists.
Robert Hough takes us on a safari deep into Russia, a place many of us will never go in person. With all of the attention focussed on the Middle East these past years, it's easy to forget that other places have similar internal and ethnic tensions foreign to us in the West. It's easy to forget that not everyone is as lucky as we are; not everyone lives in a country where they are safe from being picked up off the street and tortured at random. Hough reminds us of this without rubbing it in our faces. However, this theme plays an important part in the shaping of several characters of the story.
I didn't like the narrator, especially not at first. My heart gradually warmed to him, but I still didn't like the device much. Thanks to the appositives he injects once and a while (even if they're in Russian), I figured out the identity of the narrator rather quickly. His identity wasn't the problem, however. It was his constant interruptions, which seemed to ruin the unity of the narrative. After finishing the book, I understand why Hough chose to have that narrator, and I suppose it was the correct decision.
Both Hank and Anna are interesting characters who undergo fairly dramatic changes over the course of the story. Hank initially courts Anna because of her resemblance to a woman he lost (perhaps the only woman he ever loved). Anna, on the other hand, just wants to escape from Russia, especially after she learns that Ruslan will never return to her the affection she feels for him. This isn't enough to bring them together, though.
I thought Hough was very clever to make this point, and if he had just let them live happily after Anna first moves in with Hank, the book would have been much weaker. They couldn't be happy, not at first, because they weren't doing this for each other--they were doing it for themselves, and because of how they felt about other people. Once Anna returns to Russia to confront Ruslan a final time, and Hank finally banishes the spectre of his dead lover by falling in love with Anna, not the woman of whom Anna reminds him, then they can fall into a state of bliss.
If ever I've heard an apt title for a book, The Culprits is one. Hough plays on this motif quite heavily; indeed, "the culprits" is a catchphrase that shows up all over these pages. These are obstacles that fulfil the proverb quoted at the beginning of the book: "Life is more difficult than a walk in the forest."
The Culprits is a serious book in many ways, yet it's also fun and vivacious. It invokes elements of tragedy, but it's also about hope. The ending, in particular, is very sad and whimsical, but it contains the promise of redemption. It takes a skilled writer to create a book that transcends any particular form in order to tell a complex, organic story. In short, The Culprits blew me away.