Dutch writer Peter Terrin comes with an impressive body of work already under his belt. His novel The Guard is his first work translated into English and his opening salvo on what could be a major advance on the British literary scene.
The Guard is an allegorical modern fable of the dangers of doing one’s duty without question, and the unbalancing effect of labour with no tangible end result. Michael and Harry are guards, responsible for the security of the wealthy residential building that they watch, night and day, through a multitude of security cameras from the building’s basement. They meticulously log and check their supplies, patrol the space and watch. But, as time passes, their role in the building becomes increasingly unclear, and their responsibilities seem ever more suspect.
The Guard is told in the short and sharp, analytical bursts of the notes the two men keep in their sentinel prison. Terrin’s use of ambiguity in the book is clever: the reader can’t be sure of the state of the world outside the building, the exact hierarchy of the two guards, the disappearances of the residents and many other things making the book feel both claustrophobic and strangely disorientating. This feeling is heightened when the seemingly banal inventory-and-report style language of the early chapters begins to give way under the paranoid pressure of the environment, becoming more descriptive, philosophical and indicative of the breakdown of the guards' blind trust that, if they do their duties, they will be rewarded.
Terrin’s skill is in his ability to create tension in tiny, insidious changes in atmosphere and mood that build up over time. The Guard is an excellent exercise in fear, not the fear of terrible things being done to you but the opposite, the fear of being forgotten altogether.
The Guard was in the running for our 2013 First Book Award.