Janet Colson’s novel The Shark Party blends together romance and thriller. It tells the story of young artist Carla, who has wound up in modern-day New York among unscrupulous businessmen and art collectors. She is doing her best to navigate a world she doesn’t belong in, and to play the role she’s expected to play by her controlling partner Nathan. When she meets environmental film-maker Patrick, her life as she knows it begins to unravel, and Carla needs to choose between keeping up the charade or being honest with herself – but the second option doesn’t fit with the plans Nathan has for her.
The Shark Party is an intense and thrilling read that grips you from the start and pulls you into its world until it becomes impossible to put down. The greatest strength of The Shark Party is its fast pace and its power to entrance the reader with events that unfold at high speed. Each new character that enters the story brings with them a new complication or an unexpected plot twist. The storyline never feels predictable (apart from the obvious: surely Carla and Patrick must get together by the end, right?) and it takes several turns in surprising new directions. Even in this fast-moving context, Colson also manages to build in slower-burning tension: without giving away the story, I can tell you that there are instances where she plants chilling suspicions in the reader’s mind that then unfold slowly over time.
The Shark Party has a large cast of characters, to the point that it can feel like the characters are rolling in on a conveyor belt – especially when we’re still meeting new characters when there aren’t that many pages left to read, and those late arrivals then play a significant part in how the plot is eventually wrapped up. But none of the characters are redundant: they are all crucial to making the plot work. Each of them is also a distinctive individual, all of them coming across very real on the page, with their own personalities and lives.
The one shortfall of these otherwise great characters is that their actions aren’t always clearly driven by character-specific motivations. Instead, they seem more likely to act in line with what the plot requires them to do. I found myself questioning why Carla chose to live in a world that she clearly wasn’t comfortable in? Why did she stick with Nathan when he kept treating her so condescendingly? (And she wasn’t the only character whose motivations I couldn’t understand.) Carla does, eventually, offer an explanation for her behaviour, but this seems weakened by the fact that it comes so late in the book. Even more than Carla, Nathan seems to act for the plot rather than on his own motivations: he consistently goes through the motions of being a classic villain, without overt motivations for his erratically violent and manipulative actions.
The other thing that jarred with me in this otherwise gripping novel was that the pacing was at times off-balance. The novel opens at a fairly leisurely pace, and through scenes where characters chat about this and that we get to know who’s who. Following this, some key scenes are skimmed over very quickly – Carla begins her affair in a couple of sentences of narrative summary, and the reader is left feeling that a full scene with action and dialogue would have been more satisfying and delicious to read.
That description of the start of Carla’s affair was the first moment that made me feel like I was watching a film rather than reading a book: there was no dialogue, I didn’t know what was going through Carla’s mind, but it was a dramatic scene. The same happened in other places, and in fact reading The Shark Party is reminiscent of watching a film. The novel lets us watch the action unfold, without giving us much on the characters’ internal thoughts and emotions – and on balance, perhaps Colson is right to avoid too much introspection from the characters, so as not to risk detracting from the breathless, movie-like twists and turns of the story.
If The Shark Party is like a film, then, it starts off like a rom-com and turns into one of those complicated thrillers that I can rarely follow. In particular, there is a scene towards the end where the characters explain how an art hoax that they uncovered was supposed to work, and that went as much over my head as similar scenes do in films. It doesn’t actually matter, though, in terms of my reading experience – the plot is clever (the author obviously knows exactly how it worked because she had the characters explain it) but even if all I understood of it was that there was a hoax by some bad guys who got caught, that was enough to give me a thrilling read. Similarly, I did enjoy reading about Carla’s affair and her battle to escape a toxic relationship, even if I didn’t get a direct lowdown on her motivations.
It was because The Shark Party was a thrill-a-minute read that I was happy to ignore my desire to understand more about character motivations. This book certainly kept me glued to my (camping) chair for a good part of the summer holidays this year, and should keep you glued to yours, too.
You can find out more about Janet Colson (Janet Reeve) on her website.