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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Out of the Line of Fire

Mark Henshaw

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To purchase Out of the Line of Fire

Title: Out of the Line of Fire
Author: Mark Henshaw
Genre: Novel
Written: 1988
Length: 287 pages
Availability: Out of the Line of Fire - US
Out of the Line of Fire - UK
Out of the Line of Fire - Canada
Out of the Line of Fire - India
Hors de la ligne de feu - France
Im Schatten des Feuers - Deutschland
La linea del fuoco - Italia
  • With an Introduction by Stephen Romei

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Our Assessment:

B+ : enjoyably and cleverly plays a variety of literary games

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times . 22/4/1990 .
TLS . 10/3/1989 Fred Baveystock

  From the Reviews:
  • "The writing is absorbing and teasing in the manner of the French modernists." - Sunday Times

  • "This becomes the novel's central problem: we can trust neither the teller nor the tale. So that when the final section sinks into melodrama (...) the lack of irony renders that narrator incapable of playing Marlow to Wolfi's Kurtz." - Fred Baveystock, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Out of the Line of Fire is a three-part novel. It begins with the Australian narrator describing his time as a student in Heidelberg, Germany, in the early 1980s, where he lives in the same building as fellow student Wolfgang 'Wolfi' Schönborn, who is working on his PhD (on the "metonymic perception of reality"). Near the end of their stays in Heidelberg, the narrator travels to Rome to do some research (on the suicide of Ingeborg Bachmann), and when he returns Wolfi has already left Heidelberg, to continue his studies in Berlin. A year later, after he has returned to Australia, the narrator gets a box filled with Wolfi's writings and other papers and documents, along with an: "infuriatingly brief note" suggesting: "Perhaps you can make something of this".
       The second section consists largely of these writings, as well as descriptions of some of the contents; most of this is Wolfi's writing, with some annotations or explanations by the narrator, and a few other odds and ends (a newspaper interview, for example). In these assorted writings, Wolfi reveals a great deal more about himself and his family life -- concluding with a final, rather shocking declaration.
       In the final section, the narrator describes trying to get in touch with Wolfi after he has read the contents of the box he received, though it is only a few years later, in 1986, when he finally gets back to Germany that he can really try to put together the pieces of all this information he has, and learn what became of Wolfi.
       In each section, various facets and facts of Wolfi's life and past are revealed, with some of the revelations throwing new light on previous events and encounters. Early on, there are things that happen where the narrator admits, for example: "I fail to see the connection between these two incidents"; as the novel proceeds connections become more evident, between any number of incidents and events.
       A great deal centers around sex, from Wolfi's sexual initiation -- helpfully arranged by his grandmother when he was eighteen and wanted to become a man -- to the complex intimacy between siblings in the household, especially once Wolfi's sister, Elena, reaches a certain age and becomes, more obviously, a sexual being (including being attracted to a boy they meet while on vacation, Alexis), to Wolfi's parents' fraying relationship. Going through Wolfi's papers, the narrator gets a sense that something is ... off:

I had already begun to suspect that there was more amiss in Wolfi's family than either the breakdown of his parents' relationship or the unsatisfactory relationship between him and his father.
       Early on, during their initial time in Heidelberg, the narrator admits:
     I am beginning to realize how sketchy my real knowledge of Wolfi is
       Even as the pieces get filled in later it's not only that his knowledge is sketchy (and, later, somewhat less so), but that there's so much ambiguity to all of it. Reality proves elusive -- and not just for the narrator: "the trouble with you, Wolfi, is that you wouldn't know the truth if it was staring you in the face", someone accuses the philosopher.
       Unsurprisingly, both philosophy and literature -- including literary theory (and practice ...) -- play significant roles in the text, as the narrator makes clear from the beginning that he isn't merely telling a story but is also concerned with how to tell it, and the significance of his choices.
       Henshaw plays with the reader from the beginning -- openly, cheerfully --, from before even beginning his story, with the common novel-warning that: "All characters are fictional. Any similarity between persons living or dead is purely coincidental" printed before the text proper (as opposed to in small print on the copyright page, where it is more usually found) -- and that opposite the dedication, which is: "For Wolfi", the fictional (?) character at the center of the novel. The novel proper then begins not with the story but with, of all things, the (ultimate self-referential) opening of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, as the narrator immediately thrusts questions of, among other things, narrative awareness and trustworthiness to the fore. Questions of translation are also raised immediately -- in a text in which the disclaimer that: "All characters are fictional" is presented in both German and English, and in which Wofli and the narrator repeatedly consider questions of translation, and in which remarks are also frequently given in German (with English translation).
       Among the obvious conclusions readers are reminded of, again and again: meaning is not fixed and/or absolute. Indeed, it's very early on that the narrator already mentions (unable to resist a little wordplay, while he's at it): "You begin to wonder where truth actually lies".
       So Out of the Line of Fire is a clever and very playful text, offering both a decent story that includes quite a few sordid episodes and behavior as well as lofty (but accessible) literary and philosophical speculation, and more than a few mysteries. Eventually, upon his return to Germany to try to get to the root of things, the narrator arranges to meet Wolfi's sister, Elena -- the one he had read so much about in Wolfi's records that he was sent -- and:
I was not blind to the significance of a meeting with her. It would be the first time that the world which Wolfi had created in my mind and my own world would actually coalesce in fact.
       But to what extent is 'fact' a construct, too ? Especially in a novel ..... As the narrator asked right at the outset -- and wonders throughout --:
     But what does one do if the novel is based on fact ?
       Henshaw has good fun with these ideas, and plays them out quite well -- though rather sensationalistically in the end, with his shocker-twists that throw a new light on much that was previously described.
       It's an interesting take on the literary-philosophical novel, with a deceptively light writing touch that differentiates it from most continental novels playing with similar tricks. The scenes, the asides, and the speculation are, both separately and together, good (if sometimes somewhat creepy) fun, and Out of the Line of Fire is a smart and smartly twisted novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 January 2017

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Out of the Line of Fire: Reviews: Other books by Mark Henshaw under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Mark Henshaw was born in 1951.

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© 2017-2021 the complete review

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