Some stories are better left on the page. James Joyce’s Ulysses is a work of astonishing power and scope, but translated for the screen, it’s just a mid-level soap opera with delusions of grandeur. Conversely, some books would be much better served by the visual. The concept behind Tim Davys’ new novel, Amberville, is an attention-grabber: a city populated by living stuffed animals who work, play, and worship just like normal people. Only problem is, in prose, the effect is more clever than transformative. In a well-done film, Davy’s noir-ish allegory could’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of showing a teddy bear undergoing a spiritual crisis. As is, the book is far too straight-faced for its own good, lacking a clear understanding of its premise’s absurdity.
Eric Bear is living clean these days, working for an ad agency and married to the angelically perfect Emma Rabbit. Things weren’t always this good, though, and a big bad reminder of Eric’s old life comes knocking on the door one morning: Nicholas Dove, a crime boss with a short temper and a pair of gorillas to see to his every irate demand. Nicholas has just found out that his name is on the Death List, a fabled inventory of animals who are taken out of the city in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Nicholas wants Eric to get his name off that list, and if Eric can’t manage it, his beloved wife is going to wind up in pieces. So Eric gets together the old crew, and gets to work tracking down something he isn’t even sure exists.
First published in Swedish in 2007, Amberville has the plodding, often repetitive prose of many translated works. That becomes a near deal-breaker when Davys’ ambition overreaches his ability, in chapters devoted to another character’s obsession with the painful difficulties of always doing the right thing. But the book can’t be dismissed completely; not every narrative thread finds a satisfying payoff, but those that do combine themselves in unexpected, sometimes powerful ways. On its own, Amberville is too clunky and grim to recommend, but those parts that do work—like the discovery of the real mystery behind the Death List—are too intriguing to be forgotten. All it needs is a director with enough vision to see through the rough spots.