Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"The Abduction"

Jonathan Holt read English literature at Oxford and is now the creative director of an advertising company. He lives in London.

Holt applied the Page 69 Test to The Abduction, the second book in the Carnivia Trilogy,and reported the following:
I’m going to cheat a tiny bit and give you Page 68 as well, as it’s the beginning of a chapter. This scene is the first time in the book that we meet a central, but secondary character called Daniele Barbo, who some readers will already know from the previous book in the series, The Abomination. Daniele is a mathematician-turned-computer-hacker who’s recently built a social media site,, which has the unusual property that all interactions on it are anonymous.

The irony is that Daniele himself is the least social person imaginable. The son of a Venetian aristocrat, he was kidnapped as a child by the Red Brigades. Tragically, when his parents were slow to pay the ransom, the kidnappers cut off the boy’s nose and ears. It isn’t 100% clear whether Daniele was slightly autistic before the kidnap, or whether it was the trauma that triggered or worsened the condition. However, at the end of Book One he began for the first time in his life to feel attraction to a woman, US Intelligence Analyst Holly Boland. This scene has him trying to ‘cure’ his autism – or at least, to develop emotional empathy - with the help of a friendly psychiatrist.

I guess the point I’d make about this scene is that it isn’t typical of most thrillers to spend so much time on a character’s emotional life, certainly not a whole chapter. So it’s a good illustration of the ambition I set myself, which was to write a thriller where the characters are as gripping as the conspiracies. Have I succeeded? I guess that’s for the readers to tell me.

Daniele Barbo leant forward and held up his hands, fingers spread, so that they were exactly opposite the hands of the young woman sitting across the table from him, his left palm facing her right and vice versa, leaving just a few millimetres between his skin and hers.

“Begin,” a quiet voice said behind him. He heard the click of a stopwatch.

He looked directly at the woman, flinching minutely as they established eye contact. But he’d made good progress since he first started doing this exercise. Now he was able to meet her gaze without panic or distress, although he felt his breathing quicken.

Long seconds passed. Where their hands almost touched, his palms and fingers seemed to throb, as if his pulse was reaching out to hers. It was, he knew, an illusion, but the sensation was not unpleasant.

“Good,” the voice behind him said.

If he could manage it, the exercise required him to stare directly into her eyes for six whole minutes. Gradually he relaxed, and it became easier. She was, he supposed, attractive; her eyes, especially so. Around the pupils, her irises were light grey, flecked here and there with variations of colour. Magnified by the curve of the cornea, he could make out intricate white lines within each one, like a pattern of Murano glass inside a paperweight. Involuntarily, his skin prickled at her closeness, and blood thickened in his groin.

The eyes opposite him seemed to widen minutely, as if she knew. Or, he realised, as if something similar was happening to her. His hands twitched, ready to break away, but the millimetre-thin distance between their palms still held.

As their breathing deepened and synchronised, he became aware of the regular rise and fall of her chest. Now, somehow, he understood that it was her turn to feel self-conscious. He could feel her wanting to drop her gaze; felt the inner struggle as she told herself she couldn’t. It felt as if the two of them were having the most intense conversation, but without speaking a word. He wondered if it was the same for her. Every fibre of his body told him that it was, that this intense bond was being reciprocated. But a small, rational part of his brain knew that, unlike him, she had probably done this many times before, and with other patients besides him.

He also knew that the exercise they were carrying out, apparently so simple, was based on extensive research. In a 1989 study at Clark University, psychologist James Laird had established that mutual eye gazing for just two minutes can produce rapid increases in sexual empathy, even between strangers. The physical proximity of their hands was based on a similar discovery by Leon Festinger and Robert Zajonc at Stanford.

“Sabrina, make a gesture,” the voice behind him said.

Without taking her eyes off Daniele, the young woman moved one of her hands sideways, down towards the table. Immediately, Daniele copied her, so that their hands remained opposite each other. She did the same with her other hand, then turned her head from side to side. Each time he copied her, their eyes still locked together.

After two minutes of mirroring – again, based on research which demonstrated that it increased feelings of intimacy – the voice behind him spoke again.

“Now truth,” Father Uriel said. “Daniele, you first.”

He thought. What secret did he want this woman to share with him? Under the rules of the exercise, she had to answer any question honestly, no matter how intimate or revealing.

“Sabrina, why are you here?” he asked.
Learn more about the book and author at the Carniva website.

--Marshal Zeringue