When a man wakes up on a beach in Maine with no memory of who he is or why he's there, he starts to follow the clues backward. All he has on the beach is an abandoned BMW containing a registration with the name Daniel Hayes. He'll work from there. But when the police show up, the man realizes the stakes are much higher than he first anticipated. He has to figure out who he is and how he wound up alone on that beach.
I'm trying to keep my fingers from typing "THIS BOOK IS GENIUS! YOU MUST READ IT!" But obviously I didn't succeed on that front. When I read the synopsis, my first thought was, "this has the potential to be colossally horrible or amazingly brilliant." Marcus Sakey nailed "amazingly brilliant" with THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES, his fifth stand alone novel.
The suspense starts with the first sentence of the first chapter and it doesn't let up until the last word of the last chapter. Just when you think you have the plot figured out, Sakey yanks the rug out from under you and you have to read a little faster because the intensity is ratcheted up a notch. There's no doubt it is an impressive, mentally challenging thriller. However, impressive, mentally challenging thrillers don't necessitate "amazingly brilliant."
What makes this book amazingly brilliant is the juggling act Sakey performs with the plot, the characters, the themes and the writing; they are all symbiotic. Often when a book is moving at the pace that THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES moves, the detail is sacrificed, the character development is sacrificed. In this case, it's the plot that is developing the characters. This man with amnesia is learning who he is right along with the reader. The entire plot is acting on him as much as he is acting himself. That works to not only create empathy between the reader and the protagonist, it also leaves the reader in that same hazy amnesiac cloud of the unknown the protagonist is experiencing.
The themes, of course, bloom from that character/plot interaction. One of the strongest deals with identity and how much of a person's history defines who he/she is. Readers can't escape a Sakey novel without a philosophical challenge.
"The memory had come strong as a vision, and he wished he were alone, that he could sit and stare at the façade of life and try to peer behind it."
Marcus Sakey is an extremely talented writer and I have sung his praises here before, but I truly feel that he raised the bar on the writing in this novel. The imagery he creates, the atmosphere and tone, all of it exudes an invigorating passion. If Sakey didn't have fun writing this book, he's an amazing illusionist. He is in tune not only with nature: "The wind's laughter died" but with the thoughts and feelings of a person experiencing amnesia, "Had he always talked to himself?" He helps the reader experience the characters' surroundings:
"There was a reason the tourist shots always showed Vegas at night, glowing like fireworks. By the bright light of early morning, the glitter seemed surreal and cheap. A hangover after a night of bad decisions."
As well as the characters' emotions and experiences through powerful imagery like this:
"The connection between body and mind strained. He felt like a marionette with half the strings cut, a jerky, drunken thing. Was he going mad, really mad?"
THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES alternates between a traditional prose novel and a television script. Sakey has been quoted comparing his use of third person limited to filming a movie and having the "freedom to zoom in on whatever [he] thinks makes the best scene." In THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES, he actually uses that movie technique to develop the story.
And finally, Sakey's humor weasels its way into the novel, finding little corners to snuggle into and spring from at the most opportune moments:
"Luckily, he was in Los Angeles. If a second head had sprouted from his belly and begun pitching a spec script, it wouldn't have drawn more than a glance."
As I read THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES I could feel myself fidgeting with excitement, wanting to speed up my reading pace to discover what happens, but at the same time slow it down to savor the beauty of the writing and technique. When I finished, I wanted to talk to people about it and discuss all the ideas that were bounding around in my mind. I stepped away from the book before writing this review to try to calm my enthusiasm, but the minute I picked the book back up to examine my notes and thoughts, the excitement materialized again.
Every year there ends up being one or two books that really inspire me, that I feel overwhelming passion about. I become a kind of evangelist for those books. This year there is no doubt that THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES is that book. It's simply bursting at its covers with all the qualities of an amazingly brilliant book.
This book will be on my favorites list of 2011, so you don't need to wait until December to find out. Discover THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES as soon as you can. You won't be disappointed.
**Special Note: Check back later today when I'll have a short interview with Marcus about THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES as well as a contest to win a copy of his novel THE AMATEURS.
**Special Note 2: Marcus is holding a contest that you are eligible for if you preorder THE TWO DEATHS OF DANIEL HAYES. You can see the details about it here. Essentially, if you pre-order the book, you're entered in a contest to win an iPod loaded with the audiobook of THE AMATEURS. Pretty nice opportunity if you know you're going to get the book anyway.