Published by Penguin Books on November 30, 2020
Genres: Adult, Fiction, Social Issues
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They wanted to escape capitalism; instead, they created the perfect business.
Only Ethan Hicks knows what happened up on the mountain, for everyone else is dead. Hundreds of them, hundreds of westerners, their bodies yet to be recovered from the devastated commune that sits high above the Kullu Valley.It’s an unfolding tragedy that has caught the attention of the world’s media, and pressure is rapidly growing on the Indian authorities to provide answers. For them, of course, Ethan—found barely alive at the foot of the mountain—is the key to everything.And the account he gives to investigators will prove extraordinary: of a remote commune that grew beyond recognition through a simple quirk of fate. Of a harmonious society that became driven by greed. Of a paradise befouled by its own inhabitants.Yet, for all of Ethan’s candour, there were some events that took place on the mountain of which he cannot speak—dark, terrible secrets that he intends to take to his grave.
I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Who hasn’t, at some point in their adult life, wanted to just walk away from it all and ‘drop out’; pack up a literal spotty hanky and disappear to a far-flung exotic land? For most who attempted this lifestyle choice, it meant a quick fling around Asia for a few months before realising it wasn’t all they thought it would be before returning to a land filled with wifi, a comfy bed and Primark. But for the characters of John Wigglesworth’s The Margins it doesn’t quite work out that way.
Set in India in the 1980s, The Margins tells the story of Ethan, a young man who is essentially running away from a life in the UK that has left him disillusioned, lonely and looking for something more. While in Delhi, Ethan meets up with two other travellers: professional hippy Hal and his girlfriend Div and they spend their time getting high and little else. Soon they meet Lorna, an old friend of Hals, and Ethan is immediately smitten. The trio spends all their time and money taking drugs and trashing Lorna’s house until they come to the realisation that this isn’t what they intended to do with their lives. Upon the suggestion of another traveller, they head off to set up camp in the sacred mountain region of Shadawalla, leaving Delhi (and Lorna) behind.
In establishing this base, the three realise that they can live quite well producing flutes to sell in the nearby village. Lorna visits the camp, intrigued by the prospect of this idyllic hideaway and she finds herself staying, much to Ethan’s pleasure. Soon, word spreads about the camp and new people arrive. Extra people means more flutes, and therefore more money is made. Eventually, things begin to spiral out of control (especially as more money means more drugs) and disastrous decisions are made.
As a reader, we know instantly that things don’t go to plan due to the structure that Wigglesworth has bravely chosen for the novel. The Margins opens with Ethan being interviewed by Director General of Police Jubbawy. Ethan is not in good physical shape; battered and bruised, with several broken bones he’s struggling to give the officer any answers. Jubbwy is adamant he’s going to get answers – and 127 dead bodies are why. Something horrific has happened at the camp, and Ethan is the only one who can tell him what happened.
Told in first-person, from Ethan’s perspective, it’s clear that the narrative structure of The Margins is going to play with the reader. We already know things end badly, so why should the reader stay invested in the story? That’s easy. The ambiguity of Ethan’s responses and his inner monologue during the interview (he hasn’t been charged with anything, he’s merely helping the investigation) keep you intrigued throughout. Each chapter is clearly defined between Jabbuwy and flashbacks to events as Ethan tells them, but cleverly, the chapters set during the interview have no date so the reader has no knowledge of how long the events took.
Of all the characters in The Margins, the only one that is distinctly likeable is Office Jubbawy. We’re not meant to like or empathise with any of the four main characters as it’s clear from the beginning that they are all deeply problematic people with few morals. Jubbawy acts as the moral compass of the novel, often highlighting the flaws in Ethan’s logic and excuses or forcing him to face up to the harm he has caused and his lack of regrets.
The relationship between Ethan and Lorna is used by Wigglesworth as a conduit for a deeper analysis of the anxieties and questions on modern life. The author is skilled here as their conversations could resort to cod socio-psychological cliches about life and the universe, but he keeps the dialogue short and meaningful. What also makes The Margins work as a narrative is the short, punchy chapters. Mirroring the interview process they never cover more than either a few days or moments at a time, keeping the story flowing between the two scenarios seamlessly.
While it builds to a horrific conclusion, The Margins is a well-written fable on the dangers of letting greed override your morals. It’s also a timely allegory on the destruction of our planet and the risks we take when we put ourselves at the front of the queue. This is a fantastic debut from John Wigglesworth and I highly recommend checking it out.
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