The Loch

October 2, 2009
A Look, a Story, a Master Storyteller: The Loch: A book review

I've never been to Scotland before, but with detailed geographic descriptions, dialogue that reflects the thick Scottish accents spoken by Scots, and rich characters who show the local culture, author Steve Alten makes me feel like I've lived in the city of Inverness, Scottish Highlands, the capital of the Highlands, “a city of sixty-five thousand, its architecture steeped in Scottish tradition, its land filled with history”, as the legend of the Loch Ness unfolded before my eyes (Alten 95).

Out of all the good traits of the story, I feel that Alten's richly developed characters are the best part of the novel. From Zachary Wallace, the marine biologist who searches for the legend to conquer his deepest fears, to David James Caldwell II, “a self-promoting hack who had maneuvered his way into a position of tenure based solely on his ability to market the achievements of his staff”, to Justin Wagner and Amber Korpela, two unlucky Alaskans who got lost on Loch Ness at night and found the monster they were searching for, Alten brings his characters to life by giving every character, minor or major, a distinct personality (Alten 15).

Zachary Wallace, the main character and narrator, is Alten's best example of rich characterization. Alten creates Zach as a seemingly successful man who is secretly haunted by his past. Born with a mild case of hypotonia, Zach was a runt with an abusive, alcoholic father when he was small, but his life changed after he moved to America. He ended up playing for college varsity football and became a well-renowned marine biologist, but deep inside, he still is suffering from a hidden trauma.

I love how Alten adds so many rich details to Zach's past. Each aspect of Zach's upbringing helps me to really understand how Zach works, thinks, and feels. It's as if I've known Zach all my life. I also appreciate how Alten gets in depth with Zach's mental conditions; I can tell he researched the psychology. But it's not just Zach. Alten also bring other characters to life.
Take 25-year-old Justin Wagner and his 24-year-old childhood friend Amber Korpela for example. Although their story is complete within a few pages of the book, Alten shows their youthful naivety through their dialogue and Wagner's train of thought. Though they are not described in as much detail as Zach, it is enough bring them to life as believable characters. Alten's storytelling skill is amazing in the aspect of characterization: all of his characters, minor or major, come to life.

Alten also amazes me in how he brings out the Scottish culture and tradition. It is apparent in the dialogue of the people that live there. When Zachary sees True MacDonald, his childhood best friend, again after 17 years, True tells Zach that “ye sound like ye're talking oot o' yer nose. Ye're no runt any mair, I see, an' by God, it's guid tae see ye” (Alten 127). Sometimes it gets hard to understand what a character is saying, but imagine how hard it was to write like that. The accented dialogue enriches the story as it makes me feel like I'm actually in Scotland, witnessing the unfolding events. Alten also gives historical background of the land when introducing a new setting. For example, after Zach arrived in the city of Inverness in Scotland, Alten took a short paragraph to explain the city of Inverness. “Inverness began as an ancient fortress on Craig Phadrig, a hill fort with huge ramparts, which served as the capital of the Pictish kingdom as far back as A.D. 400. It was here that St. Columba embarked on his quest to convert the Picts to Christianity … [sic] and, in so doing, discovered a water creature that would be turned into a legend” (Alten 95). Little snippets of history like this permeates the novel and enriches the story as they help the reader understand Scotland better.

When I read through Steve Alten's masterpiece, I was astounded at how he could bring me, someone steeped in Chinese-American culture, to fully understand and somehow relate to a story immersed in Scottish tradition and culture. Alten, an author who started with no previous novel-writing experience or training, made a legend come to life right before my eyes. Not only that, but he did it with style, breaking down a cultural barrier as he told a tale. I say, kudos to Alten for a rich, thought-provoking tale.
After a second drowning during an incident on an expedition, marine biologist Zach finds a deeply buried and hidden childhood trauma that has secretly haunted him for over 17 years. He develops night terrors, intense nightmares where “patients bolt upright in bed, screaming, paralyzed in fear, their hearts beating at upwards of a 170 beats per minute” , and hydrophobia, an irrational fear of water (Alten 73). Zach tries to deal with his mental conditions, but eventually gives up and falls from grace; a man of science gives way to alcoholism and sex. As Zach is going along a slow, painful, downward spiral, a knock on his motel door changes his life. A lawyer appears and takes Zach to Scotland, where Zach confronts his deepest fears, attempts to clear his father's name, and finds himself entrapped in a particularly sticky love situation.

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