Every Contact Leaves a Trace

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Every Contact Leaves a Trace, Elanor Dymott, book reviewEvery Contact Leaves a Trace is Elanor Dymott’s first novel, and is best described as a literary whodunit. The setting is the University of Oxford. The main characters are students or academic staff, or closely associated with the University and the story is narrated by Richard, now a lawyer in early middle age. At the start of the novel he meets, apparently by chance, Rachel, with whom he has been at University. We know very quickly that the two have a shared past, but the details of their previous relationship are only revealed slowly during the course of the book.

Very rapidly, Richard and Rachel marry and settle down into what appears to be idyllic married life. Before long has passed, they pay a visit to Oxford to visit an ex-tutor, Harry. After dinner Rachel goes for a walk in the College Garden and is violently killed. This much is revealed from the outset of the novel – the core is the gradual unravelling by Richard of what may have happened to his wife, and the reasons behind it. Every Contact Leaves a Trace has a small cast of characters. Apart from Richard, Rachel and Harry, only three others play a major role. Anthony and Cassie were the other members of Rachel’s tutorial group at College, and Evie was her stepmother. There are a number of others who play minor roles, but it is this central group of six who provide the key to what has happened.

There seem to be two key themes at play. Firstly, and introduced in the very first paragraph, is the idea of how little we know about other people, even those closest to us. “If you were to ask me to tell you about my wife”, says Richard, “I would have to warn you at the outset that I don’t know a great deal about her.” But it is not just Rachel about whom Richard knows little; the same can be said about many of the other characters. And when they speak about themselves, it is generally to reveal only partial truths or sometimes lies. Even Richard only slowly and partially reveals his deepest truths to others, and to the reader. Linked to this is the idea of the unreliability of memory. Frequently during the novel, Richard recalls previous events or fragments of them which increase his understanding of what is happening in the present. Often such recall is triggered by some chance present event, like the taste of the Madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past or the sound of Norwegian Wood in Haruki Murakami’s novel of the same name.

Secondly, is the idea that we need to create a narrative to allow us to make sense of disparate facts, and that until we settle on a narrative we are likely to be uncomfortable with ourselves and others. In Every Contact, some characters weave their narrative to fit the facts (Richard, an analytical lawyer), while others mould the facts to fit their preferred narrative (Harry). Even at the end we are not quite sure if the truth has been revealed.

Overall, I enjoyed Every Contact Leaves a Trace, but felt that the gradual reveal was overdone. Atmosphere and tension were built reasonably well, but the grief of Richard was overdone, and his gradual recall of key events from his past became a little repetitive. Once, maybe, but several times was too much. The novel could have lost one quarter of its length with some firm editing without losing its impact, and it would probably have gained strength from the process. However, this book is a worthwhile read and an author to watch in the future.

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Every Contact Leaves a Trace
by Elanor Dymott

One Comment on "Every Contact Leaves a Trace"

  1. JoV
    22/07/2012 at 20:21 Permalink

    This book intrigues me. I heard about it and so wanted to read it. Like you said it would benefit from a little trimming and get to the point quicker. I dislike books that drag on, for no good reason.

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Written by Ian

Ian is a medical academic with a long standing interest in books, particularly literary and crime fiction, as both a reader and a collector. He has published extensively in the scientific literature, mainly on nutrition. He has two grown-up children and lives in Ireland.

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