In the midst of a chaotic, violent and crime-laden world human relationships can still form, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worst, more often than not both. This happens in Cara Hoffman’s latest novel, Running. The story follows Birdie, Jasper and Milo, three young people called “runners”—people who board a train full of tourists, convince them to stay the Athens hotel they work for, then make sure they don’t leave once they see how decrepit the place really is while the person behind the desk takes their passports and other possessions to hold for them. As Birdie puts it in her description of the job, if any of their possessions go missing once they’ve surrendered them over, it’s their own fault. Occasionally they have run-ins with a young Irish man, Declan, who acts as a sort of leader to the group, although not because they need one but because they are too afraid of him to oppose him.
The story is told from different time periods in a non-sequential order, starting with Birdie returning to Athens and learning of Jasper’s death. It then switches back to when the two first met, and Jasper taking Birdie back to their hotel room where she meets his boyfriend Milo, an ex-boxer who is too sensitive to fit into society considering his masculine image. It alternates between these two time periods as well as Birdie as a preteen living with her uncle while she develops her obsession with fire and explosives and a time set into the future when Milo has moved to New York and is now a successful poet and teacher.
The narrative can get confusing at times and it only uses first person from Birdie’s perspective, which can get confusing and jarring if the reader isn’t paying attention. The multiple plots from different time periods in these characters’ lives do flow in a dramatic arc, which helps. The characters sometimes slip into caricatures of the type of people they are supposed to be (Milo’s student who he also lives with, a young African American woman from New York comes immediately to mind). Yet the gritty storytelling distracts from this enough that we still care what happens to each character next, such as when Birdie becomes pregnant or an Egyptian they befriended (and unbeknownst to him, betrayed) becomes the prime suspect in a terrorist attack that he likely didn’t commit.
There’s so many twists and turns this story takes that makes it hard to give too much away without spoiling the effect of the storytelling. Hoffman knows how to keep the reader’s interest throughout, despite the unorthodox shifts in narrative and sometimes weak characterizations. Running is definitely worth the read, but be warned that it isn’t for the faint of heart.