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

Book Review: A Musical Offering

“When a child first learns to hum a melody, the child stops being music and instead becomes a receptacle for remembering it.”

A Musical Offering, by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch), is a challenge to define. It tells numerous stories but in short vignettes that weave into and around each other – a sort of counterpoint style of writing. Its frame is music and the effect various pieces have on a variety of listeners. As with a new musical composition – however enjoyable – it is not until the finish that it may be fully considered and appreciated.

The opening chapter explains why Bach was commissioned, by a Russian Count, to compose what became known as the Goldberg Variations. In the twentieth century these gained a wider audience thanks to recordings made by Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. The importance of the length of the silence between each variation is explored as is the circularity of the work.

The discussion segues into the story of Scheherazade. I had to look up who this character was – she is a storyteller in the collection of Middle Eastern tales brought together in One Thousand and One Nights, often known in English as the Arabian Nights.

There follows a series of reflections on lullabies, then the music of the Beatles. This is the first of several threads that weave in contemporary culture and historical figures. The work of artist, Jackson Pollock, is included.

By the end of this first chapter, the structure and style of writing had been established but I was unconvinced that the stories being told were worth pursuing. Early on certain similes and opaque suggestions had grated.

“an extraordinary harpsichordist who not only is capable of playing anything that is put in front of him but can also read a score upside down, like a rock star playing a guitar behind his back”

“the slower pace of the later version is that of someone who knows we only leave a circle before taking the first step”

I was also irritated by the assumption that the reader would recognise and understand references to people and artistic endeavours. As well as Scheherazade, I had to look up Virgil and Dantes to puzzle out their inclusion. I pondered if the author was writing for someone better read than me (whatever better read actually means).

There were, however, thoughts being shared that I enjoyed despite their sometimes tenuous conjunctions.

“Every mother carries a Noah’s Ark in her womb (after all, there are forty weeks of gestation and forty days of flood). We’ve all been the animals in the Ark before descending to the earth.”

The second chapter delves deeper into how silence is perceived and completely hooked me. The discursions teased out fascinating accounts of people’s behaviour. Revered art is depicted as merchandise – investors driving up price then storing the work in a warehouse. The tales of two of John Cage’s musical compositions – 4′ 33″ and ASLSP – are as bizarre as they are brilliant to share. It is pointed out that there is never true silence if we pay attention.

The tale of The Great Organ of Himmelheim had me checking if it was true – not that it mattered given the joy of considering why such a thing would be built.

A poignant chapter on music in a time of war again kept me fully engaged. Man is capable of such atrocity yet also beauty.

As well as sharing interesting stories, the author philosophises on wider issues. I enjoyed his thoughts on sending music into space. I also learned about the wood used by Stradivarius – why it was special. I didn’t look up if this factoid was true – by now I was engrossed in each of the digressions and interested in how they would be brought together. The denouement adds an element of circularity to all that has gone before.

After my initial concerns I was drawn into this work and thoroughly enjoyed reading each interwoven tangent. Fact and fiction may have been blended – I remain unsure – but it has been done to impressive and immersive effect.

A Musical Offering is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Holiday Heart

“By this point, Lucía knew that her argument was falling apart, that the things she was saying were only distantly connected to what she’d read. She simply wanted to say them, and it seemed like a good opportunity to do so.”

Holiday Heart, by Margarita García Robayo (translated by Charlotte Coombe), is the story of a crumbling marriage. It opens on Miami beach where Lucía and her young children – twins, Rosa and Tomás – are watching the Fourth of July fireworks. They arrived earlier in the day to spend a fortnight at Lucía’s parents’ holiday apartment where they will be looked after by Cindy, an American of Cuban descent. Lucía and her husband, Pablo, are Columbian immigrants – educated and financially successful but hankering after an elusive satisfaction in the life they lead.

Pablo has recently suffered heart issues which brought to light his infidelities. He remains at their home in New Haven, recuperating. His actions, though, are secondary to resentments that have been bubbling to the surface for years. Pablo and Lucía goad each other with both their silences and conversation. They try to be good parents but neither of them truly enjoys being with their children.

“She wondered if giving birth to a child and just abandoning it to its fate – whether as the decision of a Spartan parent or out of necessity or tradition – would hurt less than giving birth to it only to neurotically monitor the area surrounding it every day: that diminutive, infinite space filled with dreadful and uncontrollable dangers.”

Pablo, a teacher, is writing a novel. Having read through the manuscript, Lucía accuses him of yearning for his homeland – something she regards with derision. The reader is offered snapshots of his past through interactions with his wider family. For them, making a life in America is regarded as a success in itself.

Lucía writes a column for a magazine in which she is highly critical of her husband, claiming artistic licence when Pablo complains. He feels that he lost her when the twins were born and Lucía took the reins in how they would be raised. On holiday at Miami Beach, the children have more fun with Cindy than they do with their mother. She views the friendly young woman as trashy but is jealous of her easy affinity with the youngsters, especially Rosa. Both Pablo and Lucía are critical of many aspects of demeanour they observe in other immigrants.

“His shirt is tucked in and he wears a blue suit jacket that screams cheap. Bad taste in clothes is the last sign of an impoverished background to disappear. Sometimes it never leaves. Almost all of the high school teachers are of Latino descent: they are the sons and daughters of technicians, plumbers, maids, supermarket cashiers. Getting an education, unlike their parents, doesn’t make them any less rough around the edges, if anything the contrary.”

The key lives portrayed are brimming with dissatisfaction making this a rather bleak tale to engage with. The writing style is taut and flowing but neither Pablo nor Lucía elicit sympathy – their actions appearing foolish and weak. I was left curious as to the veracity in terms of the immigrant experience: if assimilation creates a disconnect, if expectations can ever be met. Pablo ponders the life his unmarried aunt, Lety, has chosen for herself, unable to understand how she can be content when her job is running a launderette. It is, perhaps, because neither Pablo nor Lucía can find the joy in what they already have that I struggled to empathise.

A well structured and written tale but not one I especially enjoyed reading. Maybe the insular and stifling reflections of the privileged characters were not the best choice for me given current lockdown economic concerns and restrictions.

Holiday Heart is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: Wild Dog

Wild Dog, by Serge Joncour (translated by Jane Aitken and Polly Mackintosh), is in many ways a thriller but written in such rich and sensuous language it demands to be savoured rather than rushed to conclusion. The plot runs across two timelines: the year following the outbreak of the First World War, and August 2017. Both are set in and around a remote French village where incomers are treated with unfriendly wariness.

Opening in July 1914, the superstitious villagers of Orcières are disturbed by the shrieks of unidentified creatures. They look fearfully towards extensive woodland that surrounds a steep hill casting its shadow over the village. They believe the house at its peak is cursed. Nobody now lives there although once it was the centre of a thriving vineyard.

When war arrives it steals the men and also livestock, requisitioned as beasts of burden or to feed the troops. Readers are reminded throughout the story of the barbarity of such man made offensives – the cost borne by those with no choice or understanding, yet made to suffer terribly.

In order to survive, the men’s work must be done by the women of the village. They feel guilt that they can shoulder the burden and worry about the changes this foreshadows.

The first known casualty of the war is the doctor whose wife, Joséphine, appears to be the only resident who has retained her horse. She takes to riding it up the cursed hill where an itinerant circus performer, a German, has been permitted by the mayor to hide his animals. The villagers are disturbed by the roars of lions and tigers that require many kilos of fresh meat to be fed to them regularly at a time when food is scarce.

The more contemporary timeline features a long married couple, Lise and Francke, who work in the film industry. Lise has been ill – blaming irradiated waves from phones and networks – and chose to step back from acting. She seeks solace in painting, meditation and a change in diet to cut out animal products. Following recent failures in the films he makes, Franck started working with two young business partners he hoped would reinvigorate his production company. Instead, he feels threatened by their ideas. When Lise suggests a three week holiday cut off from technology Franck is fearful of what plans will be hatched in his absence.

Lise and Franck rent the remote house on the hill above Orcières. They have never before taken a holiday away from other people. Franck is appalled at the lack of WiFi and mobile phone connection. Lise relaxes into the solitude, relishing the beauty of the location.

Across both timelines tension quickly builds as man and nature vie – predator and prey. Man is, of course, also of nature. And war springs from posturing power play – attempts to prove supremacy and reap the rewards. In the modern world this can also be seen in business deals – the suppressed violence felt against those who seek to neutralise competitors. When Franck befriends a wild dog that appears out of the woodland his primal instincts are awakened. Stripped of society, he seeks to attune with nature and use it to his advantage.

The World War roars on demanding more and more men to fuel its furnace of constructed hatred. In Orcières, Joséphine is struggling with the loneliness of widowhood and fantasises about the lion tamer whose body is so different from the doctor. The villagers blame the German incomer for any ills that befall the village. Voices of the circumspect are drowned out by those of the fearful. What is to be truly feared goes unrecognised.

Apart from a brief lull around the middle of the story, the plot progresses at a carefully crafted pace, building tension from potential threats – real and imagined. The basis of rumours that swirl are gradually revealed.

The writing style is wrapped around a degree of repetition. This cadence fits with the hunter mentality manifesting in the many layers of comparative lifestyle choices and personalities.

The story offers perspectives on the cost of survival in societies where what is considered natural is largely man made. Emotions are suppressed, creatures trained, vegetation managed. Ripples caused by any deviation from the accepted balance have consequences that are rarely anticipated.

Character development brings to the fore how little we know even those we are close to, and how new experiences can bring about unanticipated transformations. True nature is shown to be as barbaric as it is beautiful. This is a thought provoking and alluring read.

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

Book Review: Fate

Fate, by Jorge Consiglio (translated by Carolina Orloff and Fionn Petch) is the first of Charco Press’s 2020 publications. Set in Argentina, it features a disparate cast of characters. They each weave in and out of their often mundane day to day experiences without truly noticing how others are thinking or feeling. The author is exploring within the story how people exist – that they can only view the world through their personal lens. Concerns affecting self override empathy. Written in a fragmentary style, the character studies offer intimate details yet the language used has a detached feel. Settings are largely irrelevant except as conduits for a character’s flexuous thinking.

The book opens with a note from the author explaining how the apparent randomness of fate has such a significant impact on the course a life will take.

“When tragedy strikes, there is always someone who is spared by some tiny detail. As a result, triviality takes on monumental dimensions.”

“I imagined […] the characters would find themselves in a state of solitude, would be defined by it – yet would also fight tirelessly to make that modest leap of exceptionality and intensity.”

The first character introduced is Amer, a taxidermist specialising in museum work. His health has been adversely affected by his smoking habit so he joins a therapy group in an attempt to quit. There he meets a younger woman, Clara, who is training for a change of career. They start dating, although Amer appears to want more from Clara than she is willing to give.

As Amer and Clara are coming together, another relationship is crumbling. Karl is a German musician who left his home country and daughter to move to Buenos Aires and be with Marina, a scientific researcher. The couple now have a young son, Simón. Marina starts an affair with a colleague in an attempt to push her ‘paltry and predictable’ life into a forward trajectory.

Alternate short chapters offer snapshots of events from the points of view of Amer, Karl and Marina. They go about their days – at home and as they move through the city. They encounter others but remain engrossed in what is happening to themselves. They look to loved ones for affirmation and feel let down if this is not forthcoming, unaware that they too are failing in this respect.

“What he’d just felt – the pleasure of the sfogliatella – had faded. It had found no echo in the only person who could confirm the value of his experience.”

Karl buys Marina a birthday present and is dismayed when it is not valued as expected. He is unaware of how his son regards him, feeling anger when food cooked for the boy is not appreciated.

Marina pushes through any despondency she feels with focused determination. When she finds she cannot control every factor of the changes she orchestrates this is accepted as yet another new starting point from which decisions must be made and then dealt with.

Amer is pleased when an inheritance is finally processed but then discovers he is not sure how best to control and enjoy it. Clara shows only transient interest in plans he shares, unwilling to fit herself into the role he has unilaterally assigned her.

The writing captures how thoughts fluctuate and change direction with many threads forgotten as others take precedence. Plans change as individuals react to the unexpected actions of others. This is shown to be just one factor in the inability to control one’s future position.

By setting the story in the everyday, readers will recognise the unpredictable aspects that drive the direction life takes. It is a salutary reminder of any individual’s lasting significance.

The perfectly formed structure offers a story told in taut yet attentive prose that resonates with poignancy without demanding sympathy. The characters’ flaws add to their authenticity. It is a thought provoking and gratifying read.

Fate is published by Charco Press.