Toyland

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Mark Smith’s brilliant first novel is an exciting tour de force which explores startling new dimensions of innocence and dread, destruction and redemption, guilt and responsibility through the lives of its two protagonists, Pehr and Jensen. They are middle-aged, intelligent, alienated from the flesh-and-blood world that has broken them. Their profession is killing for hire. Jensen, a soulless and crafty assassin, amuses himself by the intermittent mental torture of his partner Pehr, equally depraved but with power left to perceive his own depravity.

At the request of a rich and malevolent eccentric, the two men have undertaken the murder of two small children: the boy Poor and his sister Iselin. It is early spring; the children, already captives, are in the front seat of the car; their suitcases and stuffed animals are in the trunk; Pehr is driving and playing whimsical games with the children, while in the back seat, Jensen is deliberating the details of the children’s deaths.

As Pehr drives the car toward a tautly awaited climax deep in the Michigan woods, the satanic inner mechanisms of the murderers reveal themselves through Pehr’s dreams, déjà vues, frozen moment and flashbacks. Their perversity and evil and their struggle against it take many forms–ranging from outright terror to a bizarre humor verging on slapstick–which ultimately reflect a fatalistic but compassionate human condition that all of us share by the very fact of our existence.

With its evocative landscapes and atmospheric descriptions, its unique portrayal of the introspective criminal, and its subtle, probing language, TOYLAND alternates between the real and the phantasmagoric–between modern metaphysical thought and folk themes older than Grimm.

“Superficially, this is a bleak tragedy in which hired killers move like puppets and their victims do not resist… Pehr, the guilt-ridden man who tells the story has been told to ‘erase’ two children. The children are to be murdered in the (woods) of Michigan. On this macabre plot are hung questions of modern philosophy and of man’s fate and free will. The writing is brilliant. The philosophical theorizing is made immediate and agonizing.”  —Jessie Kitching, Publishers Weekly Starred Review

“On one level, this is a jagged projection of violence, guilt and imbalance; on another it’s a mood piece of still, chill dread framed by the scrub wilderness and forests of…Michigan—an ‘unlit world.’ Here, Pehr, a loner, and Jensen, his keeper, bring two unwanted children whom they’ve been hired to kill… An original…a Hansel and Gretel horror story, slowly and surely immobilizing.”  —Library Journal

“…a brilliantly-told brutal fairy tale. Sure to evoke varied responses among readers, the story effectively explores evil and the condition of man, through horrible fantasies and explorations of characters lead to an intensely-awaited climax.”  —Carman F. Hall, Boston Globe

“A combination of Pinter’s Dumb Waiter and Hansel and Gretel (as told by a guilty troll) in modern dress… an arduous cycle from one event and from one locale…this sense of place and mental activity make the work a peculiarly vast reel of felt landscapes and releases…the ambition and enormous effort of the author are well justified.”  —John Casey, Confluence

“A serious effort to meld reality and dream and explore the struggle of conscience within the criminal mind… In one effective scene an imagined children’s Halloween party turns into a Witches’ Sabbath, projecting a worldly guilt into a sudden vision of unspeakable evil.”  —Eliot Fremont-Smith, The New York Times

“Morbid cruelty can’t be dismissed as a quirk of the Japanese mind, for here comes a gifted young American novelist to jolt us with an even stronger dose of it… Like Mishima’s novel, (The Sailor Who Fell Into the Sea), this one impresses by the audacity of its concept… The explosive atmosphere of the novel, what might even be called the sheer nastiness of it, compels our reluctant respect… Mark Smith’s novel causes pain out of proportion to its size.”  —Glendy Culligan, New York Sunday Times Book Section

“A neglected book,” recommended by John Irving

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