(Two Dollar Radio, 2012)
Though contemporary pop culture is often saturated with the sensational and overwrought as a means to present an enthralling narrative, Anne-Marie Kinney’s debut novel, Radio Iris, offers a refreshing alternative, reminding us that a finely-crafted, subtle thriller can captivate the reader just as effectively. Fraught with subdued humor amidst the backdrop of the absurd goings-on within the modern workplace, Radio Iris begs questions of an existential nature without feeling heavy handed.
Iris Finch is a 20-something receptionist at a nondescript corporation called Larmax, Inc. As her unconventional boss’s behavior becomes increasingly bizarre and coworkers begin to disappear, Iris continues to show up to work each day in spite of the strange void in the office. She often resides in a somewhat dream-like state, so while she does notice the curious changes occurring, she is not overly concerned. As she spends her time working in a virtually abandoned office, answering incomprehensible phone calls, and receiving cryptic instructions from her boss, she becomes aware of the strange behavior of a man who appears to be living in the office next door. Through clipped conversation, handwritten notes, and the music from an old-fashioned radio, Iris becomes absorbed in observing him and trying to establish a connection. Although she prefers to listen and observe than to socially engage, she is loosely anchored to the outside world by her one good friend who makes futile attempts to establish normalcy in her life with party invitations and blind dates. As we are meticulously taken through Iris’s daily activities, Kinney leads us by the hand so skillfully that everyday happenings become riveting, and we begin to forget we are waiting for some kind of monumental event.
In a few of the novel’s chapters, Kinney seamlessly switches to the point of view of Iris’s brother, Neil, a traveling salesman. Although appearing to function normally in the professional world, Neil, like his sister, is socially absent and detached from others. While Iris finds comfort in the predictability and banality of her office, Neil is only comfortable when constantly on the move, traveling from city to city. Through the narratives of Iris and Neil and sparse descriptions of their nomadic parents, the present is peppered with glimpses into the family’s past, heightening mysteries in both realities and revealing a tragic event that occurred long ago and continues to haunt the family today and dictate how they live their lives.
The world Kinney has created for Iris is suggestive of Murakami’s magical realism, with a well-placed dash of surrealism toward the end. Kinney structures the novel so that we travel between past and present, and in and out of dreams, further blurring our perception of Iris’s reality and her imagination. Although the themes of alienation and isolation are prevalent throughout Radio Iris, the quiet intensity of the story allows us to become engrossed without having to be repeatedly hit over the head. Be warned, however, if you like stories to be tied up with a neat little bow and all mysteries spelled out for you; you may be disappointed. However, if you enjoy being trusted enough to be given a story which may be left to your own interpretation and leaves you thinking about it after you’ve put it down, then you’ll find Radio Iris a very satisfying and engaging read.