When Tim Davys’ Amberville first came into my hands, I thought someone had made a mistake. First, I hadn’t paid for it—it was in my shopping bag when I left the book store. Then I saw “Advance Reader’s Copy,” so I figured it was a giveaway from the indie book store. Secondly, it had a teddy bear on the cover. But it was clearly not a children’s book; this bear was seen from behind as he pondered a dark city street that blatantly screamed noir.
Which is exactly what it is: Amberville is a highly unusual book that mixes crime noir, religious fantasy, and stuffed animals to a bizarre, engrossing, sometimes-stumbling, but ultimately successful end.
Eric Bear finds his calm world of a happily married advertising salesman shaken by the threats of his old boss, the crime lord Nicholas Dove. Dove claims that there is a Death List, which mysterious chauffeurs follow when they come out at night once a month to take stuffed animals away in red pickup trucks. Dove has discovered he’s on the list for the next pick up and demands Eric find out the truth behind the Death List and get his name off of it. The only problem is the Death List is supposedly a myth, and even if it weren’t, removing a name is said to be impossible. But if Eric fails to do so Dove’s two (literal) gorillas will tear Eric’s wife, Emma Rabbit, apart.
One might expect a book about stuffed animals would have a concealed grin, a wink and a nudge, a whisper of satire somewhere in the pages or a furry joke buried deep within, but this book is played straight. It reads almost like a drama thought up by a very serious child, playing with her toys, determining bizarre rules governing the life and death of her toys: while older stuffed animals are taken away by the red pickups, babies are brought to couples in green pickups. There’s no child-like, “Tee hee! Toys!” joy here. When there’s love, you ache, and when there’s violence, you wince, even though the characters don’t experience blood or broken bones. In fact, the book has one particularly astonishing brutal murder. And this was just a stuffed animal dying.
The protagonist Eric is one of the least colorful characters as he plays straight man to the other people in his life. This involves mainly his wife Emma, who seems to have more in her past than Eric had known, and his buddies from his crime days. Sam Gazelle is a gleefully sadistic gay prostitute who hasn’t changed at all since their crime days, Tom-Tom Crow is a thug turned happy crafter, and Snake Marek is a devious genius who has turned his machinations from crime to government; he doesn’t want to lead, he wants to control grants sent to creative artists. His plans are baffling but admittedly admirable.
The book had one aspect that I’m not entirely sure author Davys pulls off: the enigma that is Eric’s twin brother, Teddy Bear. Davys features Teddy only in occasional chapters told in first person POV. He’s a character who sees the world in stark black-and-white hues. A person is either good or evil, an act is either right or wrong. He’s obsessed with this concept and discusses it zealously. He’s not involved directly with the action of finding out the truth of the Death List. Instead, he gives background history, telling of growing up with Eric, how Eric was the dark cub and he was the light. How Eric was the charismatic bad boy and Teddy was the shy, saintly judgmental one. How he is in love with Emma, Eric’s wife, and the very odd relationship he has with her. While Eric and his reunited entourage learn about the dark, underbelly of the world as they search for who chooses the fate of the stuffed citizens of Amberville, and whether they can control anything about it, the reader finds herself more interested in the mystery given us: what is Teddy’s true story?
You might think that without the winking satire the book might falter for taking itself too seriously, but that is not the case. While occasionally I got startled out of the story by realizing that Eric and Teddy’s mother was a rhinoceros, for example, or wondering how sexless stuffed animals of differing species have a healthy love life, I found myself sufficiently drawn into the story and the odd mythology concerning the life and death of stuffed animals.
Although they are engrossing, none of the characters seem like heroes you can root for. Eric is not the nicest bear; he has to make some decisions that cause you to downright squirm inside. He loves his wife and we don’t want him to lose her, but his actions (and her later characterization) make us wonder if she’s worth it. Emma and Eric’s buddies all have their darker sides (or in the case of Sam Gazelle, one side, which is quite dark and delirious)—even Tom-Tom, who seems sweet until he fulfills his thug duties with violent efficiency and no hesitation. But that could be what Davys is telling us with this novel: nothing in life is black and white.
The stuffed animals angle was what enticed me to read the novel, but the well-woven plot and deliciously flawed characters were what kept me going. Not to mention I was driven to find out the truth about Teddy, possibly the most interesting character in the book, even if his story is told in an awkward way. If you like bizarre fiction, Amberville may be the cure for a life that needs a break from typical fantasies.