Do you remember where you were and who you were on New Years Eve 1999? I do. It seems both five minutes ago and something from another time. I was me but not the same me that I am today.
Now, imagine you were in your twenties on that New Year’s Eve, gathered with close friends from university to celebrate your graduation and being on the threshold of wonderful lives. Then something happens that takes your imagined future away and binds you together in public grief and suppressed anger and guilt that others wouldn’t understand. What would you have done? Who would you have become?
These are the questions that JJ Marsh sets up in ‘Odd Numbers’, a book that she describes as her ‘first foray into psychological drama’.
The friends in this story are in Geneva, studying to be translators. They’re the kind of international mix that courses like that make possible: three men, a rich Czech, a Europhile American, an Englishman of Indian descent and three women, a Fin who describes herself as a ‘girly swot’, a Swiss-French woman with Finishing School manners and deep anxieties and an Irish woman who intends to become a journalist. The six of them hold their own private New Year’s Eve celebration on a remote lake in Czech. Only five of them get to see New Year’s Day.
The novel starts in the present day, with Gael, the Irish woman, arranging the tenth biennial New Year’s Eve party for the five survivors. This will be their tenth and final event. The rest of the story is told as first-person accounts from each of the five survivors, sometimes describing one of the ‘Odd Number’ year parties and sometimes describing the events of the tenth and final party.
I’m not going to share the plot, as figuring out who did what and why is a central part of the experience of this book but I will say that the plot is clever and it skilfully unfolds the mystery.
Typically, I’m not a fan of ‘psychological dramas’. More often than not, I find the tension forced and I feel as if the author is trying to outwit me. ‘Odd Numbers’ isn’t that kind of drama. If it was on television, I’d assume that it was from Nordic Noir. The tension is quiet but always there, like waiting to hear ice crack on a lake you’re crossing. There are lots of surprises in the plot but, for the most part, they arise from the people, their relationships with each other and how both of those things change over twenty years. In the final quarter of the book, the present-day story heats up and produces that ‘I have to read more right now’ feeling. I loved the ending. It’s credible and chilling.
There’s more to ‘Odd Numbers’ than a clever plot. We are shown the world as seen by each of the five main characters. We get to watch how experience shapes their thoughts and actions. Seeing them in a series of snapshots based around whatever spectacular location the Odd Numbers party is taking place in and having those snapshots taken by different characters gives a strong sense of the evolving group dynamic. This is spiced up as it becomes clear that each of the characters is hiding a reason for not liking the friend who didn’t make it to the year 2000. I think JJ Marsh does a great job in describing the people the places and the attitudes, all of which give power to the final action of the book.
I’m hoping that JJ Marsh will make more forays into this kind of psychological drama. If she does, they’ll go straight onto my TBR pile.
Jill Marsh is a British writer, currently living in Switzerland. She has worked all over Europe as an actor, teacher, writer, director, editor, journalist and cultural trainer.
She’s best known for her Beatrice Stubbs European crime series, the first of which is ‘Behind Closed Doors’.
Jill has published twelve Beatrice Stubbs books, two standalone novels and a short story collection.