Book Review: Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic

One of the nice things about following blogs (certain blogs at least, or at least the few that are still being updated) is the wealth (and depth) of recommendations one can find. In this case, I happened upon Ward Six one day and found a description of an interesting novel, called Night Work. I’d never heard of it before and probably would not have if it weren’t for their recommendation. This is the nice thing about the Internet.

Written by Austrian author Thomas Glavinic, Night Work tells the story of Jonas, a young professional living and working in Vienna, who one day while waiting for the morning bus finds that the bus isn’t coming. It isn’t coming because, as he soon discovers, everyone is gone. Every living soul in Vienna seems to have disappeared and there is no television or radio reception. He calls his girlfriend, Marie, who had just left the day before to visit relatives in England. No answer. Everything is silent.

There is a decided chill to the first half of Night Work, with Jonas dealing with an overwhelming fear that he is not alone, that he is being watched. His unexplained predicament, while extraordinary, is rendered in ways which make it easy to relate to. His fears are human fears: being alone, being permanently separated from those he loves, not knowing what lurks in the dark. There is a pronounced longing for his family; one of the first things Jonas does is move into his father’s townhouse. As the novel progresses, his preoccupation with his childhood and family life becomes an evolving theme, particularly – as he explores the city and the remnants of places he knew – the question of what is left when people leave the earth.

The book’s title takes its form as Jonas suspects that something may be happening around him – perhaps to him – when he sleeps at night. What begins with a single video camera taping his sleeping patterns evolves into an elaborately orchestrated multi-camera obsession: to solve the haunting clues left behind on the videotapes he watches the next day.

No matter how far the book progresses, Glavinic manages to keep taut the suspense surrounding the question of whether Jonas is truly alone. We share his childlike fears as he attempts to methodically explore his surroundings, eventually to make one last attempt to contact Marie. Obviously, it’s a challenge for any writer to keep the reader’s interest given a single character, his reminiscences, and a world filled with abandoned artifacts. Glavinic manages to do this without cheating the reader or over-spicing the soup with unnecessary (or illogical) scares. Indeed, Night Work is about atmosphere and memory: these are, after all, the only things Jonas is left with. And, despite its sci-fi/speculative nature, it evolves into a rather touching literary and philosophical tale.

There are some small quibbles: not knowing Vienna (or Austria for that matter), Glavinic’s reliance on Viennese street names/neighbourhoods to denote where the story is taking place can be a little confusing (Brigittenaur Lände, anyone?). Also, I wish at times there had been a deeper view into Jonas’ emotional realm – that said, not to dwell on Austrian cultural stereotypes, the protagonist is an entirely practical, self-reliant character. This aside, I would recommend this novel for those looking for something different; perhaps for readers who like a little speculative fiction mixed in with their personal journeys.

Night Work, by Thomas Glavinic [ISBN: 978-1847671844] is published in North America through Canongate U.S. and is available at an independent bookseller near you, or readily available online. This edition was translated into (UK) English by John Brownjohn (I mention this in case you don’t know what a lorry is, etc..).

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