The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps by Michel Faber (2001) 66 p.

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This is quite a short book, somewhere between a novella and a long short story. My library ebook edition turned out to have a preview of The Book of Strange New Things taking up the final third, so I was a bit surprised when The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps ended quite abruptly on page 66.

Under the Skin was a brilliant debut novel and a hard act to follow, and The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps does unfortunately have a touch of sophomore syndrome to it. Haunted by repetitive nightmares, archaeology student Sian joins a dig at the old abbey in Whitby, Yorkshire. Here she meets an arrogant medical student from London named Mack, who shares with her an old parchment in a bottle his late father found in the foundations of a local building. Their relationship grows as they try to safely extract and decipher the message within, which turns out to be a confession about a centuries-old murder. So The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps is part romance, part historical mystery. It reminded me, on reflection, of J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. (Which, funnily enough, I reviewed exactly a year ago to the day.) Both are short books are about a memorable time in a person’s life, in a place they don’t normally live, visiting for a very specific task; the time and place unusual only in that it’s unusual for them, breaking them out of their normal routines and leaving them aware even as they live that time that it’s quite ephemeral. That was long-winded; I’m sure the Germans have a word for it.

Anyway, I found The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps engaging enough while I was reading it but not particularly memorable. It felt very much to me like an uncertain second novel after the huge success of Faber’s debut.