A Very Short Review – Belinda Bauer: Snap (2018)

I’ve wanted to read Belinda Bauer for ages because I’ve heard so many good things about her books. Even so, I was surprised to see her on the Man Booker longlist. I don’t think many crime novels are included usually. And so, even though Rubbernecker is on my piles, I went and got Snap. I finished it two days ago and am still baffled. Baffled it made the Booker longlist. Not only baffled – sad really – because if the typical Booker longlist reader usually doesn’t read crime and this is his introduction to the genre  . . . Not ideal. Baffled also because it’s such a weak book. There’s some nice writing there, good characterisations, but the story is unbelievable, relies heavily on coincidences – one after the other  – and the killer’s motive is so far-fetched that it’s painful.

The premise is interesting enough. A pregnant mother leaves her kids in the car to get petrol and never returns. Later, her body is found. She’s been murdered. There are no suspects and soon it’s a cold case. Three years later, the three kids are living on their own in the messiest place one could imagine. What happened? The dad couldn’t cope and left the three children to fend for themselves. The oldest, Jack, provides for them by breaking and entering into houses whose owners are on holidays. Unfortunately, (biggest coincidence) one house isn’t abandoned and inside Jack finds not only a pregnant woman, but an object he believes had something to do with his mother’s death.

If I didn’t already own Rubbernecker, I’m pretty certain, I would not return to Belinda Bauer. But since I do, I might give her another try. I’m not sure though. I’ve read many great crime novels this year and also a few mediocre ones, but none was as unbelievable as this.

Why did I finish it, you may wonder? For the longest time, I thought it might go into another direction. Sadly it didn’t. And there was zero atmosphere.

 

Dorthe Nors: Mirror, Shoulder, Signal – Spejl, Skoulder, Blink (2016) Danish Literature

Dorthe Nors is a Danish writer who has written novels, novellas, and short stories. Her short stories have appeared in Harper’s Magazine, the Boston Review, and The New Yorker. Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize last year. Several of her books have been translated.

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal tells the story of Sonja, a single woman in her forties, who lives in Copenhagen and wants nothing more than learning to drive. It seems such a modest wish but for Sonja, who suffers from positional vertigo, it’s huge. The doctor actually told her she cannot learn how to drive but here she is anyway, getting driving lessons and failing miserably. Not because of the vertigo but because she just can’t figure out how to change gear. In itself, even though she urgently wants to learn to drive, this wouldn’t be so dramatic but there’s so much more that doesn’t really work in Sonja’s life that the failed driving lessons take on gigantic proportions.

Sonja moved to Copenhagen from rural Jutland. She’s the first of her family to study and after getting her degree in literature she moves to the exciting big city where she works as a translator of Swedish crime writer Gösta Svensson’s bloody serial killer novels. Not exactly the life she’d expected but then again what life did Sonja expect? That’s the question that not only Sonja asks herself during the course of this novel but also the reader. Sonja is the kind of character many readers seem to hate. She’s almost anachronistic in her failure to figure out what she wants and then go and get it. Because she is in many ways weak, people take advantage of her. Strangers and friends alike. Most people see her as someone they can use to talk endlessly about themselves, to show off, to bully, to patronise or, as her newest driving instructor, to have an affair with.

Sonja knows that her life is off its rails and she knows she’s missing direction but she can’t figure out how to get out of this mess other than to daydream or think about the past.

I was so not sure whether I liked this book or not until I read the last pages and everything came together. The ending was so sad, moving, and poignant that I ended up really liking this novel and it’s passive, at times annoying protagonist.

Everybody wants to read about strong, assertive characters and, of course, that’s inspiring but there’s so much truth in Sonja. I’m sure there’s so much hidden human misery in every big city, certainly also in small cities, that I found this story of a woman who had big dreams but ended up lonely and miserable very touching. It takes a special kind of character to survive in big, cold cities, especially when you were born elsewhere. And not everyone is capable of forming meaningful relationships, not everyone has the knack to be socially integrated. I’m very glad that Dorthe Nors chose to write about a quiet character whose struggles go unnoticed by those who surround her. At first even Sonja herself doesn’t notice. Only when she realises all of her struggles are futile does it dawn on her.

This could have been a sad and depressing story but it’s not because there are many funny moments. Sonja may not see herself as clearly as she should at first but she sees others all the more clearly. She has no illusions about those around her and her observations are often funny and laconic. There are the scenes with her massage therapist who also wants her to join her meditation group that are absolutely priceless.

As I said, there were moments when I wasn’t too sure about this book but in the end I liked the book and its old-fashioned heroine very much.

Amélie Nothomb – Barbe Bleue – Blue Beard (2012)

In 1992, Belgian author Amélie Nothomb entered the literary scene with a bang. Her first novel, Hygiene and the Assassin – L’hygiène de l’assassin, was so successful, that to this day, it’s always the one novel mentioned together with her name. One could almost assume that she has not written anything else. One couldn’t be more wrong. Since 1992 she has published a novel per year. I read her first and wasn’t too keen on it, so I never returned to her until I saw Barbe Bleue (Blue Beard) in a book shop. I love fairy tale retellings or reinterpretations and Blue Beard is one of my favourites. Knowing that she’s famous for her dry, acerbic style, I thought it would be interesting to see what she would do with a tale like this. I was pretty sure, it wouldn’t be fantasy or fantastical and I was right. I had hoped I would like it, but I didn’t expect to like it so much. It’s clever, witty, and whimsical.

Saturnine, a young lecturer at the school of the Louvre in Paris, is looking for a room. When she sees and ad offering rooms in an elegant mansion in the 7th arrondissement, she’s thrilled. The rooms are big, the rent is cheap, what more could she wish for? Of course, she’s not the only one interested in the offer. The place is swarming with women. As Saturnine finds out to her surprise, most of them didn’t come for the rooms, but because they want to catch a glimpse of the rich, notorious owner. All of his eight former tenants have vanished and it is rumoured that he may have killed them. Because Saturnine is from Belgium, she had never heard of the story before. One of the women, applying with Saturnine, predicts that she will be the chosen one as she’s the youngest and the prettiest. And she’s right.

When Saturnine sees the host for the first time she’s totally underwhelmed. He’s not very attractive and full of mannerisms. He’s a Spanish nobleman with a long, flourishing name. Don Elemirio is very proud of his origins and of himself. He shows her around and tells her she can go anywhere she likes with the exception of one room with a black door. He warns her that it wouldn’t be dangerous for her if she entered.

Saturnine isn’t a nosy person and so she’s never tempted to open the door to the forbidden room, but she would like to know what happened to her eighth predecessors.

On the first evening, her host begs her to join him for dinner. She accepts and this will be the first of many dinners. They are all eccentric and downed with large amounts of the most expensive champagne. During these meals, Saturnine teases the nobleman but he doesn’t really get it. He stays serious and finally confesses he’s in love with her. Saturnine is shocked that someone could fall in love so quickly and very certain that she will never love him back. Soon, however, it becomes clear that the mysterious and many talented Don Elemirio fascinates her.

If you’d like to find if she falls for him, and whether or not she’ll access the forbidden room and what happened to the eight women before her, you’ll have to read the book.

To tell this whimsical retelling of the famous Blue Beard fairy tale, Amélie Nothomb uses mainly dialogue. There are only few descriptions and some of Saturnine’s reasonings added. The result is very lively as the discussions are so witty and original and touch upon subjects as diverse as the Spanish Inquisition, Ramon Llull’s Ars Magna, and the perfect color. Saturnine is anything if not feisty. Any other woman would have fled the premises. While she teases, questions, and criticizes the nobleman, he shows her a world of idealism and perfectionism that’s as far from our world as could be.

I enjoyed this book. It’s a clever reinterpretation of an old tale. Since it’s so dialogue heavy, I could imagine it would make a wonderful play.

Most of Amélie Nothomb’s books have been translated into English, but not this one.

I’ll be reading another of Amélie Nothomb’s books bery soon. After having read a few rave reviews I got Les CatilinairesThe Stranger Next Door.

Have you read any of Nothomb’s books. Which ones would you recommend?

Terri Windling: The Wood Wife (1996)

Terri Windling is an American author, editor, artist and essayist. Together with Ellen Datlow she’s edited numerous anthologies of fantasy/speculative fiction short stories. As a writer she’s famous for the use of mythology, folklore, and fairy tales.

Her second novel, The Wood Wife, which was published in 1996, is set in the Sonora desert and tells the story of the poet Maggie Black. Maggie Black has inherited the house of poet Davis Cooper who lived in the Rincon mountains, near Tucson for decades. Cooper was something like a mentor for Maggie and it was always her greatest wish to meet him in person. Unfortunately, this never happened. She’s surprised that Cooper, who was found murdered in the desert, chose her as his inheritor and travels to the Sonora desert with great trepidation. She hopes she’ll be able to write his biography and find out whether, as she suspects, he’s been writing secretly. Officially, Cooper stopped writing a long time ago. Possibly because he didn’t get over the death of his wife, Mexican painter Anna Naverra.

Maggie is used to big cities and coming to a place that’s as remote as Cooper’s house, is a huge challenge. Living there, even more so. Luckily, she finds the people living close by, former friends of Cooper, are very welcoming.

Soon after her arrival, strange things begin to happen. It’s as if the mountain and its fauna has a life of its own. All seems linked to Anna’s paintings and Cooper’s poems. Or is it the other way around? Did the paintings and poems come alive? Maggie embarks on a journey of discovery that is anything but safe.

The Wood Wife is such a haunting, beautiful book for many reasons. The way Terri Windling captures the desert, its flora and fauna is magical, even before she mentions any mythological creatures or folklore. The reader can feel how powerful it is and how it transforms Maggie from the beginning because she’s open to its beauty and wildness. Maggie has left behind a life that wasn’t all success and happiness. She was married to a famous musician who was unfaithful and cost her a lot of energy. In traveling to the Sonora desert, Maggie also hopes to return to her own writing. The connection of art and life and the theme of relationships between artists or between famous and less famous artist are some of the most important elements of this story. The book explores different possibilities and also different views of art.

Here’s Maggie:

I supported my ex-husband all through the lean years at the beginning of his career. I stopped writing poetry and hustled my butt getting every magazine assignment I could. Cooper was furious with me but I wouldn’t listen; I was in love, and ready to join that long tradition of the little woman behind the great man. . . I think I had this romantic vision of being The Artist’s Muse–but instead I was just The Hardworking Wife. And the muses were all the ladies that my husband had on the side.”

And this is Fox:

“You assume that what I want is what you would want: Success, Recognition. I’m not like you. I’m not like Cooper. That’s not what a good life means to me. Playing music is a high, for sure–but there’s other things that I like just as much. Carpentry, for instance; it’s honest work, it’s solid, it’s real, it pays a living wage . . . I give free music lessons to kids . . . I like having time for things like that. And time for my friends. And for myself. I don’t want to spend all my time hustling music. Just want to play it, enjoy it, and have a life.”

The Wood Wife tells, among many things, also a beautiful love story and stories of friendship. The strength of these stories stems from the wonderful, complex characters.

I enjoyed this book very much and read it very slowly. Terri Windling created a magical world that is beautiful but not cute. Life in the desert is harsh. For months it’s dry and then when it rains, everything is flooded and the people living on the mountain are trapped there. Coyotes and rabbits roam freely but they are also hunted by poachers and tourists who think it’s a fun sport. In many ways, this is a very realistic depiction of a landscape and a way of life but then the book goes deeper and uses mythology and folklore to show what a magical, powerful place the Sonora is.

Here’s what Cooper says:

I need a land where sun and wind will strip a man down to the soul and bleach his dying bones. I want to speak the language of stones.

The Wood Wife reminded me of a few European fantasy books, like Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock or Alan Gardner’s The Owl Service. They use European folklore and mythology, in the same way Windling uses North American Indian folklore. The juxtaposition of these two different, yet similar approaches is even addressed in the book.

“I’ve studied Davis Cooper as an English poet. Born and raised in the West Country. So when I read his poems I see English woods, I see the moor, and hedgerows, and walls of stone. And then I drive up here,” she waved her hand at the dry land around them, “and I realise that these are the woods he’s been talking about all along. These hills. This sky. Now I’m reading a whole different set of poems when I look at Cooper’s work.”

The illustration of the book cover shows artwork by Susan Seddon Boulet. Her artwork captures the spirit of Windling’s book. I’ve attached another example of her work above.

In the afterword, Terri Windling writes that she was inspired by the art of British artist Brian Froud. The picture above is one of his Faerie Realm series.

I discovered this book a while ago on Grace’s blog Books Without Any Pictures. You can read her review here.

Those who are interested in mythology, folklore, and fairy tales, might love Terri Windling’s blog, Myth and Moor. The essays are outstanding and the photos so beautiful.

Elina Hirvonen: When Time Runs Out (2017) – Kun aika loppuu (2015) Finnish Crime

I’m glad I stumbled across this book on Raven Crime’s blog at the end of last year because I liked it so much. One could say it’s less a crime novel than a novel about a crime and a study of the ways we deal with the many global problems we’re facing. Ultimately, it’s also an exploration of family dynamics and responsibility.

The story is set in contemporary Helsinki and Mogadishu and told from several different points of view. Laura, an expert in climate change, Erik, her husband, and their son Aslak live in Helsinki. Their daughter, Aava, is a doctor in Mogadishu, where she’s helping the poorest of the poor.

Right from the beginning we know that something’s wrong with Aslak. He hardly talks to his parents, doesn’t always show up when he’s invited, doesn’t seem to work. He’s drifting. While it worries his mother, it doesn’t come as a surprise as he’s always been difficult. Laura isn’t sure, where that comes from and in several chapters, telling the back story, she tries to analyze why Aslak is the way he is. Should she have stayed a single woman and not had children, like she originally intended? Was Aslak born different? Or is his character the result of a traumatic experience? As a young boy, he vanished for several hours and nobody ever found out what happened to him.

When a young man begins to open fire on passers by, in the center of Helsinki, there’s no doubt who the shooter is.

While the book is about the reasons for such a drastic act, it’s also about more than that. Each of the three major narrators – Laura, Aslak, and Aava – respond to the world around them, to consumerism, overpopulation, animal abuse, climate change and many other global problems in a very specific way. I absolutely loved the way Elina Hirvonen explored the very different ways to find solutions to global crises.

The character I found most interesting was Aava. In an attempt to help the poorest people of Somalia, she risks her life and health. Very often with very little success. At times, she manages to save a child, only to see it die a few weeks later of some ailment that wouldn’t be of any consequence in Europe. The struggle and futility of it all often lets her lose faith. According to a short biographical notice I found online, Elina Hirvonen has travelled a lot and knows Africa very well. One can sense that. The parts set in Africa felt just as authentic as those set in Finland.

As I said before, the book is about a crime. About why a young person would commit it and how this will end for him and his family. One of the central themes is responsibility, responsibility for children, other people, animals, the planet. It shows the many contradictions we face, how, even when we try to do well, we might still fail on some level. And, it also shows that it’s often easier to help strangers than your own family members, easier to communicate with someone one hardly knows than with a brother, mother, sister or husband.

When Time Runs Out is an engaging, thought-provoking book that tackles major themes of our time and looks at them from different points of view. And it’s also an analysis of the struggles of family life, missed communications, missed opportunities. It’s biggest strength however, is that it allows us to understand people whose choices are very far from those we make. Another reason this was so engaging and readable is the structure and the narrative techniques. It’s so well constructed and balanced.

It’s not often that a crime novel would make an excellent choice for a discussion group – this one certainly would.

 

Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

Would you believe it – there’s finally a psychological crime novel whose premise is so original that it isn’t constantly compared to Girl on a Train/Gone Girl  . . . The book in question is Laura Marshall’s début Friend Request. I’d been aware of the novel since last year when it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2016, and was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award 2016. The premise sounded so great, I knew had to read it as soon as it was out, even though I’m a bit tired of psychological crime with a major twist. I’m certainly glad that didn’t keep me from reading it because I thoroughly enjoyed Friend Request. The premise, which you see summarized on the cover, is pretty simple but arresting—Louise gets a friend request on Facebook, from a former classmate, Maria. But Maria has been dead for over twenty years. Or hasn’t she? Fact is, nobody really knows. All they know is that she disappeared at the end of the leavers party and was never seen again.

Louise is shaken by this request. Not only because Maria is said to be dead but because Louise has done something very bad, something that seems to be linked to Maria.

As the novel unfolds, more requests are sent and Louise even feels that she’s followed. We learn who Louise is and who Louise used to be and why she’s so guilt-ridden. In 2016, Louise is a self-employed interior designer. She’s divorced from her highschool crush, Sam, and has a little boy of four. Back in 1989 Louise was an insecure schoolgirl who desperately wanted to be friends with the cool kids. So much in fact, that she wouldn’t shy away from letting others down or even betray them.

After Maria receives the friend request, she receives an invitation to a school reunion. Scared and intrigued, she contacts a former friend, who was the center of the group of cool kids, Sophie. She too has received a friend request and an invitation to the reunion. I’m not going to say much more or the book would be spoilt.

Friend Request is told in chapters that alternate between 2016 and 1989. A lot of the suspense comes from the first person narrator’s withholding information. That’s a narrative device I’m not too keen on and it annoyed me here as well. It just feels a bit artificial and not always believable psychologically. That said, the novel still works and feels realistic. Anyone who has gone to school was either part of the cool crowd, despised by them or just a neutral bystander/observer. In any case, we’ve all experienced or witnessed similar things – bullying, shunning, shaming -, so this was very relatable. Louise is a likeable, interesting character and to some degree I could understand, why she kept what she did a secret.

The final twist was surprising but not far-fetched. It really worked for me. Yes, I would have wished that the writing had been a bit less manipulative, but overall it was gripping and so entertaining that I was sad when it was finished.

Laura Marshall’s certainly an author to watch and while her début has a few flaws, it also has a killer premise, a lot of suspense and a very satisfying ending. That’s more than one can say about most contemporary psychological thrillers.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004) Literature and War Readalong October 2017

Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel was written in 1942, rediscovered in 1998 and published in 2004. Originally it was planned as a sequence of five novels, but Némirovksy was deported and murdered in Auschwitz before she could complete it.

The two novels included in Suite FrançaiseTempête en juin and Dolce – can be read individually. There are a few characters that are mentioned in both but that does not affect the plot. Judging from the notes Némirovsky left, part three, would have reintroduced a number of the characters from the first books. We can assume, that all five books together would have worked a bit like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.

Part one, Tempête en juin, which is much more episodic than part two, begins in Paris, in 1941 when the Germans arrive. Thousands of people flee in panic. The book follows several groups of people who all flee the town. Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, flees with his mistress. Some members of the Péricand family flee to Nîmes, where they have family. One of the sons is in the army, another one runs aways to join the army and a third, a priest, is guiding orphans out of the town. Charles Langelet, an aesthete and collector of art and porcelain, flees in a car. The Michaud’s, two bank employees, try to join the staff of the bank in Troyes. Their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded, is recovering in Bussy.

The narrative moves back and forth between these people, yet the result is anything but disjointed because the tone is so similar and the descriptions so astute. At times it feels like a documentary. The reader is there all the time. We can see, hear and smell the chaos, the fear, the panic. But we also see people at their worst. Most of those Némirovsky chose to describe, with the exception of the Michauds, are rich people. Rich people with a lot of possessions that they don’t want to lose and cling to. People who think that even under dire circumstances, when there’s no food, no shelter, they should still be able to get what they want because they can pay for it. Most of these people are shown as materialistic, ruthless and selfish. They cling to their things in a way that’s absurd. The best example for this is the collector Langelet. He tricks a young couple and steals their petrol, just to save himself and his possessions. In the end, he has nowhere to go and returns to Paris. We see him unwrapping his collection, dine in expensive restaurants and return to his life as a socialite, until he has the most absurd accident.

Part one ends with the armistice and the Germans occupying large parts of France.

Part two begins right after the armistice and is set in the province, in Bussy. It shows how the French dealt with the German occupation and ends when Germany begins the invasion of Russia and the troops stationed in Bussy are sent to the Eastern Front.

Part two has two main story lines. One centers on Lucile Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. The Angelliers are one of the richest families of Bussy that’s why a Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht is billeted at their house. Lucile and the Oberleutnant both seem unhappy in their respective marriages. After long shared walks and endless discussions about music and art, they fall in love but don’t engage in an affair.

The second story line follows a French farmer who was a prisoner of war and escaped. He’s one of those who has the hardest time accepting the new masters. While things look peaceful, under the surface it’s boiling. The French resent the Germans, resent that they eat their food, flirt with their women, live in their houses and make the rules. Who disobeys is shot.

Both parts are very good but I loved the first one more. The descriptions, the choice of details, the characterisations were so captivating that I could hardly put it down. I could also relate to it far more as my father’s family was among those who fled Paris when the Germans arrived. Nobody spoke about it. My dad had just been born, so he didn’t experience it and other members of the family didn’t talk about it. I know they fled to Brittany where my grandmother was from. Brittany was among the parts occupied by the Germans and they spoke about that. Just like in Dolce, they described the Germans as mostly very polite and even kind, but, like in Dolce, they found that even harder to take. Psychologically, an occupation is an extremely difficult experience. So many conflicting emotions play into it. Irène Némirovsky excels at describing this.

Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on  aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.

One could write endlessly about this book. I only scratched the surface. Suite Française is more than just an outstanding novel, it’s an invaluable document. What a terrible shame it wasn’t finished. That said, it doesn’t feel unfinished.

Other Review

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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Suite Française is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the German pre-war novel The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger. Discussion starts on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.