An intricate portrayal of the way work, life, and love interact with each other, set against the backdrop of industrial upheaval and social unrest, Bespoke Betrayals and Sartorial Secrets by Marc Kage is an impressive slow-burn of a novel. With the style of a literary novel and the intrigue of a thriller, Kage has achieved a remarkable blend of character nuance and suspense.
As the title suggests, the fundamental question at work in this novel is that of trust. Everyone is holding something back from everyone else, from business partners to romantic partners, or even family members, as Kage portrays the inherent suspicion between small town people and those from the bigger town over the way, between haves and those left behind, insiders and outsiders. The book never comes up with any easy answers to probing questions, allowing the readers to make up their own minds.
At its heart, the novel is the story of a couple, Jabir and Michelle, who live in the city of Melford, Massachusetts. Jabir is a professional photographer, though he feels his work goes undervalued by the industry as a whole, and he is worried about his future in the business. Michelle is a publicist and work is not going so well for her either – added into which she worries about Jabir and his purist approach to work, as well as her wayward sister.
Things look about to change for the couple, as a day in the historic but moribund Old Town leads Jabir into a new project idea involving his friend Aaron and a mysterious writer named Aurelio Zimmerman; meanwhile, Michelle is offered a job by an old and extremely rich friend, Hector. The opportunity, however, appears to involve more ethical compromise than Michelle is comfortable with – there are titular secrets buried here, and will the mistrust of the people of Old Town prove to be well-founded?
Kage flips between perspectives to good effect, approaching plot elements from different angles and revealing the subtleties and subtexts behind apparently innocent character developments. A weakness of the writing is that perhaps Kage’s voice, casual and unpretentious, doesn’t always highlight the differences between characters, even if their motivations are well fleshed-out. It is also true that the novel might be too much of a slow burn to start, the pace lapsing in the first half at times. It does all tie together in the second half, however, and to tragic effect.
Overall, Bespoke Betrayals and Sartorial Secrets is a deftly crafted novel – subtly written while covering big themes, carefully portraying the effect of social change on people’s lives, and examining how much people contribute to their own circumstances, all wrapped up in a plot that unfolds like a thriller. At once old-fashioned in its setting, but thoroughly modern in its questions about modern life, the novel might not have any definitive answers about bridging the gap between people, but it is wise in the questions it asks, and leaves readers with deep and searching questions of their own about the modern world.