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.  

Robyn Reviews: The Tower of Fools

‘The Tower of Fools’ has the same translator, David French, as Andrzej Sapkowski’s ‘Witcher’ series, and the narrative voice is undoubtedly the same. However, unlike the ‘Witcher’ books, this first instalment in Sapkowski’s ‘Hussite War’ trilogy is much heavier on the historical than the fantasy. I enjoyed the insight into a period of history I know little about – but unfortunately, as the novel continues, the constant references to more and more historical figures become a little draining. It’s like reading ‘A Game of Thrones’ for the first time magnified by ten – it’s impossible to remember who each character is.

The novel follows Reinmar of Bielewa – known as Reynevan – a scholar and physician from Prague who fled after the invasion of the Hussites. Now safely ensconced the other side of the border, he makes the mistake of having an affair with a nobleman’s wife. The nobleman’s family are enraged, and Reynevan is forced to flee. Thus begins a story in which Reynevan runs from town to town, makes generally bad choices, and survives thanks to good luck and much smarter friends.

Reynevan has great potential as a character. An accomplished physician – and secretly, a far less accomplished mage – he comes across as a generally nice man (unless women are involved). Unfortunately, his constant terrible decision making makes him a very difficult character to like. He’s rash, hot-headed, and – unless medicine is involved – generally a bit clueless about everything. I have no idea how he’s ended up with so many useful and helpful friends without picking up a lick of common sense himself.

The cast of supporting characters evolves, but some of the most interesting are Scharley, Samson, and Urban Horn. This is a plot-driven rather than character-driven novel, and all three characters are left mostly mysterious, but hopefully more will be revealed in book two – especially about Samson, who is far more than he seems.

The fantasy elements are mainly the existence of mages – of which Reynevan is an amateur, but far more accomplished mages and witches are encountered – demons, and mysterious shapeshifting creatures, including one known as the Wallcreeper. There’s no specific magic system, but each element is worked neatly into the story. The Wallcreeper appears to be the true overarching ‘enemy’ of the trilogy, but remains a peripheral figure in this first instalment. The witches are brilliant and, whilst they only make cameos, deserve their own book.

The main issue I have with this book is one that I also have with the ‘Witcher’ novels, and that’s the attitude towards women. Of course, ‘The Tower of Fools’ is a historical (15th century) book written through a man’s perspective, so misogyny is to be expected – but that doesn’t make it pleasant to read about for 500 pages. Sapkowksi appears to try to make Reynevan marginally less misogynistic than his peers, but his thoughts about women are regularly unpalatable. Overall, this is a solid historical fantasy novel that will likely appeal to fans of Bernard Cornwell-esque historical fiction, Sapkowksi’s Witcher novels, and fantasy novelists like Mark Lawrence – but perhaps not fans of more modern fantasy that’s moved past medievalist fantasy tropes.

Published in the UK by Gollancz
Paperback: 27th October 2020

(Originally published in Polish in 2002)

Book Review: The Pear Field

The Pear Field, by Nana Ekvtimishvili (translated by Elizabeth Heighway), is a powerful but unremittingly bleak depiction of life in a residential school for ‘Intellectually Disabled Children’. Located on the outskirts of Tbilisi,  in a newly independent Georgia, many of the children at the school were abandoned by their parents at a young age. Some have suffered appalling abuse at the hands of their peers, and also a monstrous teacher who preys on the younger girls with impunity. The descriptions of certain acts are deeply disturbing to read. 

Opening with a death, the first chapter names a great many of the characters living in and around the school who will feature in the ongoing tale. I found it challenging to keep track of who was who, flicking back and forth to try to understand relationships.

There are obvious friendships but also a lack of trust among the young people whose lives are scarred by cold and hunger as well as parental rejection. A central figure is eighteen year old Lela – a long time resident, old enough now to leave the school but with nowhere else to go. She has her favourites in the youngsters, chief among these is Irakli whose mother keeps promising she will visit him but never appearing.

Over the course of a stifling summer, the lives the children lead are revealed in bleak detail. The only glimmer of hope appears to be the prospect of one child being adopted by an American couple – a new life in a land of hope. Those who leave the school mostly end up selling themselves – into crime, prostitution or eventual destitution.

Neighbours in the Soviet tower blocks that surround the school are sometimes kindly but also inhumane. A mother brings her errant child to the gates, threatening in front of the inmates to leave him there if he will not behave. Men treat the girls as prey, to be raped as this can be done without consequence. Perhaps to salve their consciences they offer rewards of sweets or, when the girls are older, money. Those running the school make a little extra by selling on goods provided to ease the hardships faced by the children. 

 The writing is visceral and uncompromising with a plot that simmers and sparks with tension. It is clear that anything can happen to the characters, whose wellbeing is undercut by their need to survive deprivation of sustenance and care. Even a lighter scene – a nighttime raid on a neighbours fruit tree – has a distressing conclusion.  

A story that will force the reader to confront the scale of difficulties faced by those whose lives have no backup – be it of education or family. The state provides but advantage is taken of children, leaving them scarred and emotionally damaged. A well written but searing read.  

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

Robyn Reviews: The Last Wish

‘The Last Wish’ is a collection of short stories that introduce Geralt of Rivia, Yennefer, and Dandilion – the key characters of the Witcher series. The stories jump around in time and place, with tales of Geralt doing his job as a Witcher – hunting down monsters – interspersed by an overarching story of Geralt recuperating at a temple. The stories are the basis for the first season of the ‘Witcher’ TV series and will likely be familiar to fans of the series or the games, although as someone who never watched beyond episode one of the TV show I appreciate how much more vocal Geralt is in the books than this on-screen equivalent.

The stories are an intriguing introduction to Geralt’s world. Loosely inspired by Medieval European, and more specifically Slavic and Polish, history, there are references to folk tales and many creatures of European myth. Sapkowski also chooses to set his stories at a time when Witchers are declining, their occupation frowned upon, which adds an interesting dynamic to each of Geralt’s interactions. There are also a number of ethical questions posed about the nature of monsters.

Geralt himself is a mostly likeable protagonist. ‘The Last Wish’ was originally published in Polish in 1993 and is typical of 1990s fantasy in its attitude towards women; Geralt mostly but not entirely escapes this misogyny. Nonetheless, he always tries to do the right thing and it’s obvious that he’s a good person at heart. Similarly, Dandilion – introduced halfway through, in the fifth of seven short stories – is a fairly stereotypical hapless companion, but a nice character and it’s clear he has a larger part to play in later books.

Yennefer, by contrast, appears in one story as the beautiful yet evil seductress. I hope her character is further developed later on, as from first impressions she seems a bit two-dimensional, especially as the series’ most important female character.

The format of this, with each tale relatively short, keeps it engaging, and whilst it’s definitely plot rather than character driven fantasy there’s plenty of room for character expansion later on. Its main issues are related to its age – at nearly thirty years old, it suffers from all the tropes and misogyny common to popular fantasy at the time. The fact that Geralt is slightly more progressive keeps this from being intolerable, and hopefully later books – especially those where Yennefer is more prominent – will suffer from this less.

Overall, this is a solid introduction to the major character of the Witcher series and an enjoyable collection of short stories. Recommended for fans of traditional fantasy and folklore-inspired stories.

Thanks to Books2Door for providing the entire box set of the Witcher series – this in no way affects the content of this review

Robyn Reviews: Anxious People

Fredrik Backman has a gift for writing people. He seems to understand how people think, how they interact with each other, their motivations, their desires, their fears, in a way that no-one else quite manages. His books are little slices of humanity, always profoundly moving experiences, beautifully written but without any flowery language. I wish I could speak Swedish just so I could experience them in their original form – but full credit to the translator, Neil Smith, for their exceptional job.

Anxious People is a brilliant book. It’s laugh out loud funny in places, sad in others, and changes the way you look at the world. Each character is fresh, unique, and perfectly written. The plot is, in many ways, completely insane, but it works – possibly because it’s almost incidental. This is a story about characters, not about events, and the madness of the plot illustrates perfectly the madness of humanity.

It’s a story about a bank robbery, except it’s not. It’s a story about a hostage situation, but to call it a hostage situation doesn’t do the book or the characters justice at all. Really, it’s a story about a bank robber, two police officers, a banker, a young lesbian couple, a retired couple who renovate homes, an actor, a grandmother, an estate agent, and a therapist. I could tell you more, but all I’m going to tell you is to read it. It’s brilliant, and it’s even more brilliant when you don’t know anything going in. Just enjoy being taken for the ride.

The characters are perfect. They all start perfectly normal, somewhat stereotypical, then layers upon layers are peeled back and suddenly you’re questioning everything. Backman takes every single assumption that people make and flips them. It’s clever and leaves you questioning everything, which is exactly how a novel should make you feel.

Read this book. I usually end my reviews by recommending books to a specific audience, but this book’s audience is everyone. There is no-one who wouldn’t benefit from reading this, and I think most will enjoy it. It’s fun, clever, very different, and an indescribably good reading experience. I’m so grateful to live in a time when we have a novelist like Fredrik Backman.

 

Published by Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Hardback: 20 August 2020