Book Review: Lonely Castle in the Mirror

Lonely Castle in the Mirror, by Mizuki Tsujimura (translated by Philip Gabriel), was a number one bestseller in Japan where it won two highly influential literary prizes. The publisher explains that, according to a recent UNICEF report,

“While Japanese children ranked first in physical health and often lived in relatively well-off economic circumstances, instances of bullying in schools, as well as difficult relationships with family members, lead to a lack of psychological well-being.”

The success of this story may well be testament to how it resonated with so many readers.

The story is mostly told from the point of view of Kokoro Anzai, a 7th Grade student (age 12/13) living in Tokyo who stopped attending her Junior High School after just a few weeks. This followed a run of upsetting incidents involving her new classmates. It opens in May, the second month in the Japanese academic year. Kokoro wakes up each morning suffering from severe stomach aches and apprehensively tells her mother that, once again, she cannot attend school. Kokoro is an only child and both her parents go out to work. She spends her days cooped up in her bedroom, often keeping the curtains closed and sleeping or watching soaps on TV. She does not wish this to continue but, unable to find the words to explain what happened and how it made her feel, can think of no way to return to a place that triggers her debilitating anxieties.

It is on one such closed in day that the full length mirror in Kokoro’s bedroom starts to glow with a bright light. When she gets up to investigate she discovers it has become a portal to a large castle. Here she meets six other children and the enigmatic Wolf-Queen. The latter – a masked and child-like figure – explains that the group have been brought together to partake in a quest. Until the following March they may come and go as they please by day – so long as they do so alone and vacate the castle by 5pm. Their quest is to find a hidden key by solving clues, some of which she has already given them. If they succeed then the finder will have one wish granted, after which the castle will be inaccessible to all of them.

The children are unsure of the cryptic nature of what the Wolf-Queen reveals. However, the castle becomes their refuge from the upsetting reality of the home lives they are each currently leading. The children are all of an age when they should be attending Junior High School. For a variety of reasons they have not fitted in and lead lonely existences. Within the confines of the castle they are accepted, albeit guardedly. Their experiences have rendered them painfully self-conscious and lacking wider emotional literacy.

The story of these seven misfits is told over the course of the remaining academic year. It employs the language of young people and is distinctively Japanese in its sometimes abrupt and detached expression. Some of the phrasing felt a little off at times but this came to be explained. Until close to the end the reader may be confused about certain elements of continuity.

The children are struggling to navigate a world driven by the cool kids and the teachers who favour them. Kokoro has loving parents who wish to support her but cannot break through the generational language barrier. It is only in the castle that she feels she belongs, despite her occasional missteps. As March approaches, the idea of losing this refuge – and the friends she has made there – must also be managed.

At times the curious directions the tale took made me question what I was reading and whether to continue. Oddities grated and I pondered if I was enjoying the often static and opaque developments. Throughout, however, the story remained strangely compelling. The author has captured the voices of distressed and anxious young people. Their often fraught interactions remain plausible and poignant, even when they behave badly towards each other.

The denouement pulls each thread together with the Wolf-Queen’s role and her clues explained. Dark undertones have the classic fairy tale feel for a reason. Magical elements and use of metaphor may not be for everyone but provide a thought-provoking conclusion, albeit a curious one.

An unusual bildungsroman that powerfully evokes the damage caused by school bullying, familial trauma and abuse. In portraying the impact through interaction rather than lengthy exposition, reader empathy overrides inevitable judgement.

Did I enjoy the book? Not entirely while reading, as indicated above. It is, however, growing on me as I consider it further. A worthwhile read I will be pondering for some time to come.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Doubleday.

Book Review: Andrea Víctrix

andrea victrix

“The excess of information made it impossible to be reliably informed about anything and every citizen would have required the talents of a Sherlock Holmes to make out the truth from the chaos and misrepresentation on all sides.”

Andrea Víctrix, by Llorenç Villalonga (translated by P. Louise Johnson), was first published in Catalan in 1974. It is set in an imagined future, 2050, when Palma Mallorca has been renamed the Tourist Club of the Mediterranean – Turclub for short. The narrator of the story was in his sixties in 1965 when he opted to begin a cryo-cure. His doctor told him he would come round 85 years later looking 30 years younger. Unlike many, he survived the process but then had to face a world that had changed radically.

He discovers that the political and economic superpowers of old are gone. America and Russia annihilated each other – a mutual unleashing of their nuclear arsenals. The United States of Europe rose up in their wake, exterminating many of the remaining Asian nations. The State is all powerful.

Citizens are now forbidden to form families or have children. Procreation occurs in central facilities that produce only the types of people deemed necessary. Any form of emotional attachment is punished. Gender must never be referred to – this is now regarded as insulting. The ideal is to keep it ambiguous, sometimes achieved surgically. Drugs are available for any sensation desired.

“Our world was founded on the dissolution of the family and so it was essential that love became independent from sex and lost any connection with such an incredibly dangerous concept as intimacy.”

Life revolves around consumption and pleasure. Ubiquitous advertising berates those who do not have the latest fridges and vacuum cleaners, even though housing is mostly tiny, food requiring preservation scarce, and constant purchasing leads to permanent debt. Pleasure increasingly proves elusive, with moral and ethical standards subverted. Individual lives have no value. Consensual violence is rife.

“without sentiment, pleasure was so slight that it must necessarily lead to tedium and aberration.”

The story opens with the narrator, released only a few hours previously from the casket of his cryo-cure, travelling at speed in a car driven by Andrea Víctrix. He is shocked when she (he assumes Andrea is female but his choice of pronoun causes offense) deliberately collides with pedestrians and is then rewarded for doing so. To take his mind off his obvious discomfort, she gives him drugs.

The world he now views has become synthetic. Food is in short supply so is supplemented by chemically enhanced substances that are barely edible. People live with the cacophony of propaganda broadcast from loudspeakers and on radios they are required to buy.

“Secular propaganda is less scrupulous than its religious equivalent, and this is aggravated by the fact that those behind it know they have no absolute truths to draw on. Such knowledge ought to make them question everything like Socrates, but instead it makes them stubborn and disingenuous as Xanthippe. This is what we have come to know as practical sense and cunning.”

Requiring an income, the narrator enquires about employment. It is suggested he become a performer such as an acrobat or dancer. Entertaining others – giving pleasure – is regarded as a worthwhile calling. Daring feats are undertaken in front of an audience, often by young children made carefree by drugs. Death regularly results from such risk taking and nobody cares.

Unhappy with his prospects, the narrator recalls a recent visit made to a bath house. These offer sex or violence – the two often overlapping. He discovers that Andrea, the teenage Head of the Bureau of Pleasure, is a high class prostitute. Her job requires her to entertain wealthy tourists, to submit to whatever deviances they desire.

“Industrializing the masses and exciting them with heady, coarse pleasures, the panem et circenses of ancient Rome.”

Regular drug taking shortens lives but people are disposable. What is marketed as for the collective good underpins decision making and is seemingly accepted by the masses. The health of the economy is regarded as more important than the health of consumers, who can easily be replaced.

“This is why we encourage pleasure and debauchery, but without focusing on a particular person, and without making distinctions between the sexes.”

The world building and story telling appear secondary to the opinions the author weaves into the tale. While there are obvious flaws with the way Turclub is run, he points out the similarities with contemporary arguments for changes in what is regarded as acceptable. He has picked up recent adjustments to moral and ethical ideas and run with them to extreme.

The State places faith in scientific progress, where only a specialist few understand the intricacies and potential repercussions. This is likened to faith in geography. To explain, there is a belief that Greenland exists despite most never having been there. If taken to a frozen landmass, few would know how to use the instruments necessary to prove it was Greenland. People largely swallow what they are told if it is repeated often enough and supported by peers.

“Progress cannot be stopped”

Described as part essay, the portrayal of this dystopia and its citizens explores meaty issues. The author uses the story as a device for expanding his discourse on state coercion – how the public comes to accept what would once have been recognised and rejected as socially and individually damaging. The narrative can be shocking, the point being to raise awareness of the irony in what can come to appear normal, how opinions can be changed by indoctrination. The State survives only when its population acquiesces.

The writing style is engaging if didactic in places. Although published half a century ago, what is portrayed has proved prescient. It is pointed out that when those in power fall, what rises from the ashes may be no better.

A fascinating work of fiction that is both thought-provoking and disquieting. A reminder of the importance of critical thinking when considering widely promoted changes in attitude that are supposedly for the common good.

Book Review: Astragal

Astragal, by Albertine Sarrazin (translated by Patsy Southgate), is described as a semi-autobiographical novel written when the author was in prison. This edition opens with an introduction by Patti Smith for whom the story held particular resonance. Patti researched the author, who died in 1967 ‘just shy of her thirtieth birthday’. She also read up on the translator, offering insight into the damaged people who created what is regarded as a ‘lost classic of 60s French literature’.

“My Albertine, how I adored her! Her luminous eyes led me through the darkness of my youth. She was my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps.”

I opened these pages with high expectations of a tale that would touch my core and leave me sated. I was disappointed.

The protagonist is a young girl, Anne, who in escaping prison – where she is serving a seven year sentence for armed robbery – breaks her ankle. She is rescued from the roadside – where she crawls – by an ex-con named Julien, who still makes his living by nefarious means. Over many months he hides Anne at various locations without and within Paris, paying well for her board and keep. Anne falls in love with Julien but must live with his peripatetic lifestyle, never knowing when he will show up for his short visits.

For much of the time covered, Anne is crippled by her injury. Frustrated by her reliance on others, she soon grows tired of each hideout Julien arranges. She spends her days smoking and drinking, often having to avoid the sexual advances of those she must share a roof with. When she can finally walk again, she gains a degree of independence by turning to prostitution.

Anne is tiny in stature but feisty, a teenager used to looking out for herself. She has no wish to remain beholden to Julien, but longs for him to choose to be with her above the other women he admits to consorting with. The world they move in is shady, a need to survive overcoming scruples many take for granted. Anne is favoured by the men she encounters. This is disturbing given her childlike demeanour.

The writing is succinct and engaging but I found the characters unappealing. The depiction of their lives was of interest but there seemed little hope or desire for anything more edifying. The love story at its heart appeared naive given the experiences of the subjects and the hustles they accepted. The denouement seemed fitting after the risks taken.

I may have enjoyed the story more had my expectations not been raised by other readers. Perhaps it will appeal to those who itch for vicarious risk, for whom precariousness generates adrenaline rather than anxiety. Anne and Julien were habitual and willing criminals. Reasons for the choices they made were glossed over making it harder to empathise with the lack of care shown for their victims.

A different side of Paris to that normally idealised by artists, especially the literati. Not a book I regret reading but one I am unlikely to recommend.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Serpent’s Tail, as part of a giveaway.

Book Review: Butterfly Wings

Butterfly Wings, by Rosa Aneiros (translated by Jonathan Dunne), is mostly set around the comings and goings of customers  who frequent a Galician café. This is located by ‘a prodigious crossroads where all the currents of the city, the region, Europe, flow together.’

The café is run by Patricia, who rents the business and a few rooms above the premises from the long time owners, Lola and Eusebio, who have retired. The elderly couple also live above the café. From their window, Eusebio watches activity in the street below.

As well as students, tourists and passing businessmen, the place has its regulars. Much of the book focuses on telling their stories, and of those whose actions effect them.

Before school each day a young boy meets his Grandpa for Cola Ca and churros. When his class is cancelled, they spend the day in the café. The boy would prefer to go home but the Grandpa does not have a key. He tells the boy they cannot go to his place as he lives in a cemetery – this reference is later explained.

Iqbal comes in each day to use the computer, sending loving emails to his girlfriend in London. Patricia secretly reads these and wishes someone would write of such feelings for her.

Adolpho is a taxi driver harbouring family secrets of which he is ashamed. He drinks with Paco, who lost his job and now gambles away the pension he can barely spare. Both men drink brandy to smooth over the cracks that have opened up in their lives – the resentments that percolate and hurts they nurse.

Mohamed runs a restaurant a few doors up from the café. He tries to be a good Muslim but, having failed to finish his medical degree, is now afraid of being perceived as the radical he fears he could become if not careful. The slights he receives from locals he blames on their sinful ways.

Away from the café, Darai foresakes his girlfriend, Aysel, to fight for the independence of the Kurdish people. Ana from Buenos Aires is offered a job because the company receives grants for employing immigrants. Two brothers climb a mountain in an attempt to cross a fortified border designed to keep them from entering Europe. Their aunt sits in the café by the phone each day, hoping to hear they have crossed safely. A cleaner who frequents the café has a son fighting in Sudan.

“Climbers don’t conquer when they reach the summit, they conquer when they get back to base camp safe and sound.”

The backstories unfold of the estranged and the missing, the abandoned and misunderstood. There is grief at loss – of people and opportunity. There is: discrimination and sexism, parental coercion, thwarted love and futile protest. Cultural favours are gendered which adds fuel to domestic discontent. Choices have consequences and people’s experiences change them.

“we can’t go back now. Once you get here, the wind erases your prints in the sand and you forget the way back home. You can’t go back to the beginning”

The personal dramas being played out occur alongside what appears everyday, yet who can know another’s concerns when so much is never shared.

“The clients cluster around the marble tables, accompanied by all their friends, work colleagues, mortgages, test results, supermarket vouchers and various illnesses.”

The reader is offered snapshots that evoke sympathy, along with less appealing characteristics – monkey nut shells dropped on the floor where men will spit to show their hatred during some topic of conversation. Wives kept at home, because that is where they are deemed to belong, phone family and friends to express their unhappiness at a situation where their powerlessness can turn to desperation.

The writing achieves a fine balance between succinct, engaging storytelling within which powerful themes are explored. The structure enables each character to be developed while plot threads progress and add to the underlying tension. The final scenes include aspects that are horrifying alongside those that are uplifting. The café is a microcosm of multicultural Europe, with all the hopes and prejudices its people propagate and endure.

Butterfly Wings is published by Small Stations Press. My copy was provided gratis as part of a Giveaway hosted by Ninja Book Box.

Book Review: Nordic Fauna

In his notes on the text, the translator of this collection of six short stories describes the tales as

“depictions of human struggles with identity, regret, vulnerability, truth and our place among our fellow creatures.”

The creatures featured are both human and various. There is a touch of magical realism, although this is grounded in characters’ perceptions. It is kept in check by underlying questions around what they are experiencing and their own doubts about what they see and feel. Characters try to rationalise fears – to talk themselves down from emotional precipices.

Within the stories, ordinary events are transformed into sinister happenings, with a question hovering over what is real or imagined. This adds tension to interactions with vistas and people – that possible movement glimpsed in the periphery growing eerie and unsettling. Narrators struggle with darkness of thought that erodes the anchors of their existence.

The collection opens with The Bird That Cries in the Night. This is narrated by a young man who regularly visits his estranged parents one after the other. He is concerned about his father, moreso when the older man admits to not sleeping well. He keeps hearing a bird he cannot place that others insist on naming for him. The mother urges her son to concentrate on taking better care of himself. Memories from childhood haunt the man’s attempts to move towards a relationship – he dreams of a future but is distracted by his past, unacknowledged fears. As the story progresses, what unfolds is a spiral.

The Cat was my favourite story. In it, a mother removes herself from her family, leaving the daughter unsure of her standing. Father and son bond, then attempt to force a break in the family impasse. Control they take as their right, they do not possess as expected. Much is left to the reader’s imagination. There is power in the spaces between what is shared.

The Father Hole is another story where what is happening in the shadows is not always clear within the text. A young girl is sent to spend time with her father – a virtual stranger she is afraid of despite how often he lavishes her with gifts. His love is transactional – her physical reaction treated as an ailment. The climax and then her return to him left me with rather too many questions – the weirdness of certain key scenes harder to follow and explain.

The Girlfriend has a slower pace than the other tales. This was fully compensated by the excellent ending – clever and unexpected.

The unpredictability of direction within each of these stories is managed to fine effect, never overdone but keeping the reader on edge and engaged. There is a poignancy within the darkness. Liminal spaces are conjured from what may be passed as mundane. It is easy to empathise with characters whose hidden concerns harbour threats they struggle to articulate. The Swedish setting provides an evocative backdrop to an arresting and enjoyable read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Peirene Press.

Book Review: Havana Year Zero

“I’ve always noticed that writers and artists are seen as unique beings with exceptional lives, as if they spent their whole time entertaining great people and talking in capital letters about profound, elevated topics. That’s OK by me, but I’m surprised that scientists aren’t equally valued. Very few people think about scientists; yet behind everything we touch, however ordinary it might be, there are hundreds of brains who worked on its creation, because science is a collective endeavour”

Havana Year Zero, by Karla Suárez (translated by Christina MacSweeney), tells a story from 1993, when Cuba was reeling from the impact of international changes – the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union. At this time, Havana suffered regular power cuts and interruptions to mains water supply. Food was scarce and residents banned from many activities, including travel outside the country. The narrator, Julia, is a mathematician who gets caught up in the search for an elusive, historic document. If found, it could prove that the telephone was invented in Cuba by an Italian, Antonio Meucci. Julia initially seeks scientific recognition and national pride. Others on the trail hope for more material rewards.

Julia is looking back on this time from the future, telling a story of the friends, lovers and colleagues she worked with to try to uncover the document. Although known to each other, this group of scientists and writers retain secrets that Julia gradually discovers. The twists and turns are further complicated by the bed hopping enjoyed. When life has been shorn of many pleasures, sex proves a welcome if complicating distraction.

Julia remains close to the man who became her supervisor at university and with whom she had an affair that impacted his marriage. She refers to him in the narrative as Euclid – characters are each given a pseudonym to protect their identity, she explains. Julia first hears of the inventor, Meucci, at a dinner party where an author – she names him Leonardo – talks of writing a book on Meucci’s life and work. It turns out that Euclid is familiar with this story and knows of the existence of the document. He recruits Julia as his assistant in tracking it down.

Other variables in the problem to be solved include Ángel – an out of work man who, unusually for Havana at the time, lives alone in a spacious apartment. Julia falls in love with him – or perhaps it is his apartment – and dreams of moving in. Ángel welcomes her attentions but has unresolved issues to attend to that could thwart her plans and must be carefully navigated.

There is also Barbara, an Italian tourist visiting Cuba on the pretext of bringing Leonardo information on Meucci, promised by her colleague who is prevented from travelling. As an outsider, Barbara has valued currency and permission to purchase items the locals cannot access except through the black market. She takes her new friends out to dinner – a welcome change from their diet of rice and split peas – supplying them with decent rum and other goods regarded as luxuries.

Julia moves between Euclid, Leonardo and Ángel, trying to work out who knows what of where the document could be. She is hampered by Havana’s lack of reliable utilities – particularly that working telephones are rare. Oh, the irony.

Leonardo is eager to talk of his writing so from him Julia learns more of Meucci, as the author shares with her his research for the novel he is writing. She also learns of the final factor in the equation – Ángel’s ex-wife, Margarita, who left him to move to Brazil. The three men in the equation have a history of broken marriages and other family issues that pull on Julia’s heartstrings. She desires justice for those who have been wronged, including herself.

“My problem is that I have no family traumas. I had a happy childhood, no one abandoned me or stopped loving me.”

“growing up in that sort of environment causes real problems because it makes you too structured.”

Thus Julia sets out to help her friends and herself. New facts come to light that change the focus of her endeavours – as happens in science. At times she feels like a puppet, at others the puppeteer.

“Numbers are mental constructions that mathematicians use in an attempt to define the properties of and relationships between everything in the universe. Authors did something similar, but with words”

The structure of the book is that of a mystery, within which there are complex entanglements and much dark humour. There is a strong sense of place that offers a lesson in living with only basic amenities and supplies – in close proximity to wider family. My only quibble with the language employed is the occasional direct address to the reader – the narrator asking “Do you get me?”, “Do you see?” – which I found jarring. Aside from this, the tale remained engaging with elements of surprise that added depth.

An enjoyable tale that develops gradually but never feels slow, all detail adding to the final interweaving of threads. The author writes with skill and verve – credit to the translator. Fun but never frivolous, this was a pleasure to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: Theatre of War

Theatre of War, by Andrea Jeftanovic (translated by Frances Riddle) tells the story of an immigrant family living in South America whose lives are shadowed by the lingering effects of war. The story is narrated by Tamara, a young woman looking back at her childhood. During her early years she lived with her parents and two older siblings. When her mother and father separated she lived for periods of time with each of them. Her father appears to have suffered PTSD brought on by his own childhood experiences in the troubled Balkans. His shifting moods crater his young family, passing on lasting psychological problems to the next generation.

The story is structured as a sort of play in three acts, with each scene a memory conjured by the narrator. Characters play their parts – roles assigned by Tamara and viewed from her perspective. Thus we do not get to know the other cast members’ thoughts or feelings. They exist only in how they affected Tamara.

“We rewrite each other’s parts. We bring our characters to life.”

The story opens with the family moving house – something that happened repeatedly over several years. What possessions they acquired would be crudely packed, abandoned or sold – with little warning or explanation. There were regular periods of neglect and hunger. Tamara’s few positive memories revolve around her siblings, particularly her older sister.

The mother is remembered as screaming at the father, having an affair and then leaving. Rarely does she appear happy, making herself ill with medication until hospitalised. In one dark period she rejects Tamara entirely.

The two older siblings were born of a different father to their sister. This effects how the parents treat them at times but does not change how the three children regard each other.

The father suffers regular nightmares. In trying to protect Tamara from the causes, he instills curiosity but also a barrier to questions she feels she cannot ask. He recoils from blood, creating issues when his daughter menstruates. He comes across as doing his best for his family but with broken tools.

As the ‘play’ progresses we learn of Tamara’s sexual encounters and attempts at forging relationships. Her lack of anchor due to her troubled childhood results in drifting, avoidance, and then loss.

The tale is of Tamara and her experiences but also much more. Scenes portray her recollections but build into a powerful account of damage wrought by parents unable to provide what their child requires. As it is narrated by a grown daughter, there remain questions about reliability of memory – was a doll abandoned or sold, did the family members ever feel love or joy, what of the spaces and interactions that are not explored. Words are spoken and parts played but from Tamara’s point of view this was never enough.

“Someone hugs my neck, kisses my toes, pokes me in the abdomen. We look distractedly past one another, engrossed in our own roles.”

The writing is visceral and succinct, the tale dark and raw but told in language that is affectingly evocative. It offers a piercing reminder that the damage caused by war is not confined to immediacy or direct aftermath, and that family conflict can also destroy.

An abiding story that had me pondering how many of our relationships are acted out, and how much we can ever know of the impact we have on others – including those we love. A recommended read.

Theatre of War is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Ramifications

Ramifications, by Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney), is a story narrated by a psychologically bedbound thirty-four year old man. He is trying to deal with pivotal events that occurred when he was ten years old by writing down his memories of the time and the effect they had on him. Set in the Educación neighbourhood of Mexico City, the boy’s life changed when his mother, Theresa, left the family home one lunchtime during the summer holidays, never to return. The boy’s father did not explain to his two children why she had left, although the elder child, fifteen year old Mariana, may have understood better. The strength of this tale is the depiction of the emotions and concerns of a ten year old boy – how the lens through which he sees his world is insular, imaginative and self-centred.

The boy’s interests include reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and he enjoys the idea that, if faced with challenges, he could become an admired hero. As his mother leaves during the school holidays, when the boy’s best friend is away from the city, he fondly imagines how he will share what has happened to cast himself as a figure to be revered by classmates. When Mariana is tasked with looking after her brother while their father is at work, the boy meets her teenage friends including Rat, a person he equates with risk and influence. He conjures impressive scenarios from the ether that he looks forward to recounting. What actually transpires is a journey that forces the boy to confront how unlike the hero of his imagination he actually is – an unmasking with negative and lasting impact.

The boy is also attempting – and failing – to create objects using origami. He becomes obsessed with symmetry and how rare it is under close observation. These distractions do not cover the damage caused by his mother’s defection. He cannot articulate, or even fully recognise, what is happening to him. It is only from his bed in the future that he will try to unpick events and how they stymied his development.

The writing style is perfectly pitched and structured to offer fascinating glimpses of a past life that may now be influenced by hindsight. The reader is made aware early in the tale of key moments, of resulting difficulties, yet there is always some new aspect to reveal. As the narrator digs deeper into the cause and effects of his parents’ actions, his ten year old self is presented in a light few writers I have read could master. It is a reminder to adults that children are not just smaller versions of themselves.

The story drew me in from the beginning but acquired impressive depth as it progressed. Its power is all the more admirable for its brevity, accomplished with no compromise to the richness of language and affect. So much of this resonated, leaving much to ponder. The denouement provided satisfying completion whilst allowing the reader to imagine beyond the final page.

It is books such as these that make me want to read more translated fiction. Another fine offering from a quality publisher that I heartily recommend.

Ramifications is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Winterkill

Any crime fiction fans who have not yet read Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series should rectify this as soon as possible. Set in the small town of Siglufjörður, northern Iceland, this is claustrophobic noir delivered with aplomb. The voice given to the protagonist, Ari Thór Arason, conveys much about the difficulties this young man faces in his personal life. By ‘showing not telling’ the focus of each book remains on the crime to be solved. It is refreshing to have intimate scenes presented without unnecessary, voyeuristic detail. Characters have depth and nuance but exist to provide tension and pace to the story.

In this, the final installment in the excellent series, Ari Thór is now a police inspector. He and a young rookie cop are the only employees based at the town’s police station – not a problem when crimes tend to be few and minor. Set over an Easter holiday weekend, the tale opens with the discovery of a teenage girl found dead in the street with a terrible head wound. Initial impressions are that she took her own life by jumping from the balcony of an adjacent building.

Early on we learn that Ari Thór is separated from his partner, Kristín, who has moved to Sweden with the couple’s son, three year old Stefnir. Kristín and Stefnir are due to visit Siglufjörður, to enable father and son to spend time together. Ari Thór’s work ethic had been a bone of contention in his relationship with Kristín so he is concerned that this new case will impinge on his plans for family time. He cannot, however, do his job without following all leads that come to light. 

The dead girl turns out to be the sheltered, only daughter of a couple who now live apart. The mother is convinced she knew everything about her daughter’s life. The father flies in from America to harangue Ari Thór about his handling of what happened. Neither parent believes their child would have committed suicide. They expect the inspector to uncover a murderer.

Meanwhile, an old man in a local care home writes a disturbing message on his bedroom wall. Is this connected to the recent death or is it something from his past, coming to light as his dementia muddles memory timelines?

Many of those Ari Thór questions come from families who have lived in Siglufjörður for generations. Although he has now worked in the town for seven years – during which time it has changed markedly as tourism increases – he still feels at times like an outsider. He is not familiar with the many familial links that have proved important in tying threads of past cases together. He misses his old boss, and is struggling to build the same rapport with his cocky, junior officer.

Ari Thór’s desire to spend time with his son must be balanced against his need to solve the case satisfactorily. With a violent storm approaching there is an undercurrent of impending crisis – difficult decisions to be made about the future. 

The writing is as well paced and engaging as previous installments in the series. The denouement is satisfying without compromising what has gone before.

I pick up little crime fiction these days as so much merged after reading and I prefer stand out books. The Dark Iceland series is an exception. Winterkill provides a Stygian story with a somehow hopeful conclusion for readers to enjoy.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Orenda Books.

Book Review: The Piano Student

“Criminality and remorselessness are not prerequisites for making art, but sometimes art is created by the criminal and remorseless”

The Piano Student, by Lea Singer (translated by Elisabeth Lauffer), centres on an affair between one of the 20th century’s most celebrated pianists, Vladimir Horowitz, and his young male student, Nico Kaufmann, in the late 1930s. Based on unpublished letters by Horowitz to Kaufmann, the novel portrays the acclaimed musician’s duplicity and frustration due to his never publicly acknowledged homosexuality, and the resultant price paid by those close to him.

The story is structured as a conversation between two gentlemen in 1986. Reto Donati is frontrunner for the highest position on Switzerland’s Federal Supreme Court. He is engaged to be married. The book opens with two men arriving at Donati’s house to administer a poison that will end his life, with consent. Donati has, however, changed his mind and fled. He seeks out a bar with a resident pianist in Zurich’s fourth district (Kreis 4). He needs someone to play Träumerei (Dreaming) by Schumann for him. After several fruitless searches he comes across Kaufmann, a one time local prodigy who never fulfilled his expected potential. The music is played and the two men leave the bar together. Recognising that Donati is in crisis, Kaufmann offers use of his guest room.

Träumerei is significant to both men. Over drinks they begin to share their histories. Both are homosexuals and grew up in a time when admitting to this would have resulted in ostracisation. When they hear on the radio that Horowitz is to perform in his home city, Moscow, for the first time in sixty-one years, Kaufmann is inspired to take a road trip with Donati during which he will tell of the affair he had with the renowned pianist. He can empathise with Donati’s misery and wishes to offer a distraction.

There is much dialogue in the ensuing tale. At times rereads of sections were required to work out who was speaking. The gentlemen travel in Kaufmann’s car with Donati driving. Over the coming days they visit places that were significant during the Kaufmann and Horowitz affair.

Horowitz was not long married when he was first introduced to the young piano student. His wife, Wanda, was the daughter of a famous conductor, Arturo Toscanini. The marriage was not a happy one and Horowitz was treated with disdain by Wanda’s family. Toscanini could not bear any man who displayed what he regarded as effeminate characteristics. When Wanda recognised what was going on between her husband and the handsome young Kaufmann she did what she could to keep them apart. This included alerting Kaufmann’s parents who he still lived with in Kreis 4. They demanded he seek psychiatric treatment in pursuit of a cure.

Such attitudes towards homosexuals are distressing to consider. Men married to allay suspicion, thereby condemning wives to unfulfilling existences. What comes to the fore though is the wider cruelties inflicted by the successful artists pressurised by society to live this way. Their actions may be born of frustration but are exacerbated by temperament. Sublime art can be created by those with dark hearts.

In his early years, Horowitz had experienced life under communist Russia. His affluent family had lost their standing and possessions, forced to move to a cramped apartment and carry out assigned work. Their son escaped the Soviet Union and met with rapturous success. Horowitz’s father was allowed one visit to hear him play, and on return sent to a Gulag. Horowitz was suspicious of any who tried to het close to him – including Kaufmann – questioning motive. He was volatile and demanding, voyeuristic in his attention to the details of Kaufmann’s other assignations.

The buildup to the Second World War is in the background of this story and offers timely threads. German Jews were escaping over the border but many in Switzerland resented their growing presence. The wealthy continued to attend concerts and travel around European cultural centres, the prospect of war regarded as an inconvenience.

Through his connection to Horowitz, Kaufmann met many of the revered classical musicians of the day. Whatever they suspected of the relationship, it was never acknowledged.

Donati shares with Kaufmann his own love story, also kept secret for the sake of his career.

“Was he crying at the thought of everything he’s done?
I’d say more likely at the thought of everything he hasn’t done.”

The writing offers a slow build, taking some time before the reader is in tune with the cadence. There is then a fascinating and always engaging middle section offering emotional resonance. By the time the final silence falls my very soul and heart were vibrating. The power of the story is unexpected with an intensely satisfying denouement. A haunting and at times heartbreaking read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by Turnaround who distribute for the publisher, New Vessel Press, within the UK.