A modern day industrial espionage tale, 1.9.7 HAMBURG, the debut novel from Alex Camouro is a very brave undertaking. Moving backwards and forwards in time in chapter jumps, it tells the story of much of Dixon Grace's past life as well as present circumstances. As befits the situation she finds herself in Germany, everything about Grace is complicated - her name, her ethnic background, her family, her current situation, the investigation she's involved in, her love life. Everything.
Part of the braveness of this novel is what seems to be the intentional use of complication. There's very little in this book that's straightforward. Fortunately it did work as quite a strong hook, as the complication, even when it contributes to a bit of confusion on the part of the reader, manages to hold the reader's attention - provided the reader is comfortable with being confused.
The downside, however, of the frequent confusion is that there are points when the pace lags - either because of all that darting backwards and forwards, or genuinely because nothing actually seems to be happening. The ability to stick with those parts of the narrative might have a lot to do with a reader's connection with Dixon Grace.
The viewpoint of the entire novel is that of Dixon Grace's. There are other characters moving in and out of the storyline, and whilst many of these are a standout (Grace's grandmother for example), they are ultimately less well formed and out of focus. And therein lies another problem - if you don't like Dixon Grace then just about everything else here is going to jar. Even if you struggle a bit with her, then the confusion is likely to be annoying. If the confusion is driving you bats, then Grace is going to be profoundly irritating. It's very much an all or nothing type of book.
Which gets you back to the braveness of the undertaking. One of the strengths and weaknesses of 1.9.7 HAMBURG is difference. This isn't a crime / solution style of novel. It's not straight-forward and it's not built around likeable or even easily understandable characters. It's not about resolution either. Whilst for this reader, despite a somewhat ambivalent attitude to Grace, and some profound confusion at points, that lack of resolution and the non-straightforward nature of the entire novel worked. It might not have made for comfort reading, and there were times when I was obsessed with desire for something, anything to happen. But never once did I feel like throwing in the towel on it. Which in itself was rather intriguing.