Tuesday, 1 June 1999

Tom Holt: Wish You Were Here (1998)

Edition: Orbit, 1998
Review number: 262

At the time of writing, I believe this is the most recent Tom Holt novel to be published. For a comic fantasy novel, it is extremely bleak, being based on the fairy story idea of the wish which turns out to be rather a liability when granted. (Stories of this kind are extremely ancient, being found in Greek and Roman myth as well as Hans Andersen and the Brothers Grimm.)

Lake Checopee, in Iowa, has a resident spirit, who grants those who drown in the lake their heart's desire, or at least their strongest desire at the moment when they pass through the lake's surface. There are two problems with this. First, she only has limited resources at her disposal (basically the labour of those who drowned in the past, plus a little magic). Second, her interpretation of the desire is often quite perverse.

The fulfilment of the wish generally involves some series of encounters with bears, Indians, Vikings (exploring from Vinland via the Great Lakes in a complicated sort of way), and so on. The idea behind the spirit's actions is to improve the personalities of the wishers in some way, and is generally both confusing and unpleasant, as they are brought to realise that their shallow dreams do not equate with happiness.

The four characters tracked through the book have fairly typical hearts' desires: ambition (the reporter wanting the scoop of her career), social success (the woman wanting sex appeal), escapism (the desire for adventure) and - a typical Holt touch - mundane and immediate (to find the car keys that the search for led to the fall into the lake).

Wish You Were Here is quite depressing to read, as the dreams are relentlessly ground down. In contrast to Holt's other novels, I did not find it very amusing; it is more as though he is trying to say "This is what life is really like."

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