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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Guard

Peter Terrin

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To purchase The Guard

Title: The Guard
Author: Peter Terrin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2012)
Length: 242 pages
Original in: Flemish (Dutch)
Availability: The Guard - US
The Guard - UK
The Guard - Canada
The Guard - India

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Our Assessment:

B : solid psychological thriller (with emphasis on former rather than latter)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times F 28/9/2012 David Evans
The Guardian . 11/10/2012 John O'Connell
Irish Times A 20/10/2012 Eileen Battersby
Het Parool . 2/9/2009 Karin Overmars
The Telegraph . 8/10/2012 David Langford

  Review Consensus:

  Mixed reactions

  From the Reviews:
  • "A strangely lacklustre and aimless novel, it is difficult to see what exactly Terrin hoped to achieve with it, apart from to suggest that two people who spend a long time together in a confined space are liable to drive each other crazy. Hell is other people -- or, indeed, an interminably dull dystopian novel." - David Evans, Financial Times

  • "A mix of psychological thriller and SF fable, this strange, wonderfully claustrophobic novel from the Belgian author Terrin won the European Union prize for literature." - John O'Connell, The Guardian

  • "The Flemish writer Peter Terrinís coldly beautiful, dystopian allegory depicts the world of now, a strange place paralysed by an unspecified threat. (...) This is a tremendous novel, often horrifically funny and always unsettling. Most emphatically, though, it is a European novel, articulating the cultural situation of a Flanders-born writer looking to Dutch literature while retaining a powerful awareness of Belgiumís surrealist traditions." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "De bewaker is een subliem boek (.....) In die zin kun je De bewaker lezen als een allegorische vertelling over hoop en wanhoop, en natuurlijk is het uiteindelijk de hoop die er het diepst inhakt." - Karin Overmars, Het Parool

  • "Effectively horrid." - David Langford, The Telegraph

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:

       The Guard is set in an enormous luxury apartment building, whose only entrance is in the very low-level garage, guarded over by Harry and Michel. Michel narrates the three-act story, which is presented in a quick succession of short chapters (185 of them over a mere 242 pages).
       Harry and Michel work for 'the organization'; their grand ambition is to rise in the hierarchy and become more elite members -- entrusted, perhaps, with guarding something even more important. They are certain the organization is taking note of all that they are doing -- though the only regular contact they have with anyone else from it is with their food delivery driver on his occasional rounds -- and so they take their duties very, very seriously. They live in what amounts to something like a bunker, and it's not surprising they develop something of a bunker mentality.
       Despite the comings and goings of the residents, Harry and Michel don't really interact with them -- and even less so with the outside world. There's a woman who works for one of the families that sometimes brings them food as a treat, there's the occasional handshake, but that's about the extent of it. And then suddenly almost everyone clears out more or less overnight, with only one resident apparently remaining behind. Suddenly, it gets very, very quiet here -- but Harry and Michel dutifully continue as always.
       Something bad seems to have happened -- nuclear war? environmental catastrophe ? -- but it remains unclear to the guards what actually has transpired in the real world. Sporadic food deliveries continue to arrive, but they don't get news of the outside world from the driver -- and they feel that to contact their employers directly and ask them what the hell is going on would be seen as a sign of weakness that might undermine their chances of moving up into the elite. Duty calls, and they follow -- even as there is no real threat, and not much to do.
       One of their concerns is the arrival of a third guard: they have apparently been told to expect one, but when none shows up for ages they take it as a sign of the confidence the organization has in how well just the two of them are handling their mission. Until, of course, a third guard does show up. Whatever delicate balance Harry and Michel managed to maintain when it was just the two of them is thrown all out of kilter by the presence of another guard; the fact that the world outside seems more or less to have come to an end does seem to have put them more on edge than they might have hoped for, too. Things do not go well.
       Eventually, the guards venture forth from their bunker, up into the building they have been safe-guarding for so long, looking to find the lone resident that their entire mission revolves around now. They come across more than they perhaps bargained for, yet the larger mysteries -- of what has happened, and of their own roles -- remain.
       The Guard is all psychological thriller. Yes, there are dystopian elements here, and Harry and Michel are like two castaways, left to fend essentially for themselves, but it is their personal-professional obsession -- with their (empty) job, and advancement in the organization -- that Terrin focuses his attention on. So eager are they to please, which they feel they can only do by excelling at their jobs, that they make practically no attempt to determine what has happened in the world at large (and whether they might not be better off abandoning their posts, for example). It's an acute psychological study, and Michel's descriptions of what happens is a fairly convincing one of withdrawal into paranoid states that such claustrophobic and limited circumstances surely could easily lead to. Of course, that also brings certain frustrations with it, as the circumstances are left so vague that it remains a novel of great uncertainty, and one that can seem largely uneventful -- and Michel and Harry's unwillingness to at least try and take some other steps can be annoying.
       Still, it's fairly effectively done -- an interesting study in isolation and obsession, a mind game about mind games.

- M.A.Orthofer, 5 December 2012

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The Guard: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Flemish author Peter Terrin was born in 1968.

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© 2012 the complete review

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