Review: Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

Needle in a Haystack
Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I started reading this without high hopes. I thought I’d soon put it down. Instead, I was drawn into the story. And yet, now that I’m finished, I’m trying to pinpoint why. The style and voice are unusual. It is written in — or translated into — the present tense, which threw me off at first, but that lasted only a page or so. Mainly, the opening of the story made me curious. The story revealed its secrets slowly, without indulging in backstory before its time. It gave just enough to want to know more. So I kept reading.

But soon, I found the number of characters introduced a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t see exactly where the story was going, nor did I have a handle on the characters. We slowly learn more about them, such as when it’s revealed that Eva is an operative. But it’s brief and almost as an aside. Instead of revealing aspects of the characters, only hints were given and often not explained.

This story is written in the omniscient POV. This was also a problem for me when I read Dune. It was again the case with Haystack, especially when the inner dialogue switched between characters in a single paragraph. That’s simply annoying and feels like head-hopping. When I start a scene, I orient myself through the character who starts the scene, who obviously has the POV. To have to repeatedly change that is disorienting, and I just get pulled out of the story over and over. It also keep the characters at a distance. Not what you’re looking for in a story.

In this case, I don’t think it was the omniscient POV that kept me at a distance from the characters. There were moments when I got inside their heads and felt some connection with them. But that only went so far. We simply never learned enough about the characters to build a real connection.

One of the major complaints I have with this novel is how the author structured the dialogue. It’s in italics, without quotation marks, which just on a subconscious level I think is disorienting (makes me think it’s internal dialogue). But what’s worse is each speaker doesn’t get his or her own line. You basically have to guess who’s speaking and when the other speaker starts speaking. No tags, no breaks. Just a paragraph of italic text. It’s extremely confusing and forces the reader to do some detective work to figure out what’s going on.

Even more puzzling: Only at about page 100 did I figure out that chapter one is actually a prologue of sorts. The next chapter goes back in time to before the murder — but there is no indication of this whatsoever. I can’t imagine why an author would do that. At chapter fifteen, we get to the point in chapter one, when the man is killed and his body dumped where he was found in chapter one. It does say something about the story that, in the fourteen chapters in between, there is so little attention paid to the murder the detective was supposed to be investigating that I sort of forgot about it. Those chapters develop the various characters, mixing backstory with events happening at the time. The characters, what I learned about them, are interesting and often surprising. But the structure of the story is bewildering. You should not find out more than halfway through the book that you’d stepped back in time at the beginning.

In the end, while an intriguing story, it meandered a bit much. Many events seemed unrelated. Many characters were peripheral with little connection to the main plot. Such as Giribaldi’s wife and the baby. What was the point of that?

I’m finished, but I’m not entirely sure what happened.

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