The most compelling thing about The Complex is the atmosphere it creates: it’s as if the characters have been placed in a magical patch of land cut off from the world by a thick blanket of fog. The Hunter family, husband Leo, mother Gabrielle and son Stefan, have been invited to stay at a remote house as a kind of spring retreat by Gabrielle’s new client Art Fisher who will also have his family with him. The house is a modernised stately home with a swimming pool, huge glass walls, a lush garden whose produce is unseasonably ripe, a maze, a surrounding forest, and an underground network of rooms that hold not only a vast library, but something darker, some deeper concrete bunker like network that feels both real and surreal as its architecture is mapped onto a virtual reality game Art’s daughter, Fleur, thinks she is developing without her father’s knowledge.
Even before they arrive though, as they drive beyond the grid of the internet, their car hits a young male deer. When they step out of the car to investigate, they find a bullet wound, and though they are no longer fully culpable for its death, they watch its last breaths with a distant, creeping feeling of horror. Though nature isn’t exactly set up as an enemy, the idea of humans being a crueler more destructive version of nature’s red tooth and claw is there. Man’s tools and weapons are a more developed version of the stag’s antlers and there is certainly more than one run in with deer in the novel. While nature is both dangerous – those antlers – and vulnerable – the young dying deer -, and when left alone, in balance, mankind is out of control.
As the book progresses, told from the interlaced perspectives of the Hunter family, the menace of interpersonal relationships between the two families grows. Art is keen to be the dominant male. Every encounter at the pool, over drinks or dinner, even in the grounds feels like a game in which winning is essential, and through which sexual tension shimmers in the surprising heat.
Who was Gabrielle’s father? What has Gabrielle been doing with Art? Why did Art invite them all the way out into the countryside and what is behind those virtual reality headsets that Art’s daughter has no control over? What is in all those little bottles of pills Stefan keeps seeing in his mother’s room, in Fleur’s room? What is this place they are staying in? What is in that complex of rooms below stairs?
Though the novel is set in a near distant future, it is history that weighs heavily upon the characters and their attempts to live in their modern world. There is a sense in which the novel explores the hidden costs of modern living, the war and suffering upon which our safe, consuming drama relies. We live in that fog through which the stag’s antlers appear, dark and poised to attack.
It’s a great fun, fast and eerie read. Another great Salt title.
Next I’ll be reviewing Chemistry by Weike Wang.