Publisher: Jacana Media
“The path to paradise begins in hell,” Dante Alighieri tells us in The divine comedy – and the first circle of hell is, of course, limbo, a haven for virtuous non-Christians. It is in limbo that we first meet Paola Dante, the anti-heroine of Lady limbo, the first novel in a projected trilogy. Hovering between life and death in a coma after having been hit by a car, Paola tells the story of her turbulent life in fragments – memories, historical documents, the crime fiction of Gabriel Montaigne (who happens to be her beloved husband, Daniel de Luc, who vanishes mysteriously on a cruise ship that is bound for St Helena).
In this tense literary suspense, more twisty than Sir Lowry’s Pass, we become intimately acquainted with limbo – that state of suspension, of uncertainty and moral equivocation, in which Paola finds herself. Daniel is still absent, yet he hovers over the narrative like a disembodied ghost. It is hinted that he has a dark past that has forced his hand – some trauma that keeps him from the woman he loves – but Paola believes that love is stronger than determinism. It is faith which draws her out of limbo, on her painful journey towards some final, unspecified redemption.
Wolf trap begins with Paola’s attempts to keep their 14 year old adopted daughter Simone safe from harm, having rescued her from a porn empire before the auction of her virginity two years previously. Simone remains a target, although the evil Nada Sarrazin is in prison (but up for parole). Do the religious fanatics on the corner work for Nada and her criminal syndicate, or are they simply harmless proselytisers? What about the threatening traffic cops who come to Paola’s home? And who assaults Paola on her morning jog? “Evil is everywhere. It will find us again,” Roland writes knowingly.
If Lady limbo sends us on a Dantesque journey through a handful of glamorous cities, the pages of Gabriel’s novels, and the lustful transactions of women wanting perfect genes for their babies, Wolf trap keeps us within the precinct of almost claustrophobic domesticity – at least for the first part of the novel. Wolf trap is less about love than responsibility, and we feel Paola’s acute anxiety about Simone, who resents her mother’s vigilance: “The more scared she was, the more defiant she became.” Simone rebels – she joins a chat room and becomes “Butterfly” to the mysterious “Diable”, who seems to know all her secrets. “Into the mouth of the wolf,” writes Diable; “May the wolf die,” Butterfly opines. Then, Simone’s friend Roxy is kidnapped, and Simone is plunged back into the hell of her own past – something she and Paola will have to face together. Will Paola get to Simone, who tries to rescue her friend, in time to save her from the clutches of her paedophile captor?
Somewhat darker and less fanciful than Lady limbo (although the same delightfully eccentric characters people its pages), Wolf trap takes Paola from a twisted Wonderland to a far more sobering reality (there are sly allusions to Through the looking-glass, and what Alice found there). Now, a mother willing to protect her daughter with wolf-like ferocity, Paola has to face her worst fear – the possible loss of Simone as well as Daniel.
Littered with literary references (John Fowles’s The collector is mentioned in both Lady limbo and Wolf trap), the novel has the self-consciousness of a postmodern creation, yet maintains the pace of a thriller (the final two thirds of the novel are rather breathlessly gripping). Once again, Roland blends genres to create a teasing hybrid of a novel; similarly, some of her more stereotypical characters defy being typecast (Manolo the gigolo preens like a Mills & Boon character, but may know more about nefarious dealings than he lets on). My favourite is the mercenary Heidi, a “real-life warrior woman” with “elastic limbs”, who brings to mind the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s.
Roland’s commanding narrative leaves just enough questions unanswered to prompt the final novel in the trilogy, and one can’t help but wonder whether Paola and Daniel will find their way back to one another (or whether Paola might be better off with a less tortured lover?). One feels that love and desire have been rendered too treacherous for mere mortals. What might paradise finally look like for Paola, a woman who has never lost her faith in the possibility of transformation? The reader hovers in limbo, like Paola, waiting for the final reveal that is the third book in the trilogy …