Book Review: Odesa at Dawn

odesa at dawn

“He just didn’t see the point of making up new terms, as if civilisation were evolving, as if history were linear, instead of repeating itself over and over.”

Sally McGrane’s second spy novel takes the reader inside the underbelly of Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea in southern Ukraine that was once the Russian Empire’s glittering third capital. Given recent media reporting on the war taking place in this country, it is an eye opening window into a place that is clearly not the forward thinking democracy those of us in the privileged west are currently being encouraged to believe. In this account corruption is rife, and any attempts to stamp it out are met with violence from those who milk the system. While threats from Russia rumble in the background, there are still plenty of citizens who align themselves with this former overlord turned aggressor.

The story being told centres around Max Rushmore, an ex-CIA man now working on assignments as a sort of freelancer. He travels to Odesa to attend a conference, along with a number of his former colleagues. While there, he is distracted by strange occurrences he starts to hear about on the grapevine. Drawn to work out what is going on he encounters a varied cast of characters trying to make money or retain ill-gotten power by dubious means.

The reader is introduced to: The King, a one-eyed old man who is not as doddery as he first appears; The Lion, a recently released convict with a drug habit; Rodion, a scientist working on a long hidden secret; Felix, an entrepreneur with dreams beyond his abilities; Sima, a young woman whose role appears to be the love interest; a colony of cats that get everywhere, listening in. Alongside these characters are politicians, policemen, and an eager young man Max uses to cover his increasing absences from the conference his boss believes he is documenting.

While the mafia style gangs, brothel keepers and drug addicts go about their iniquitous business, there exist tourists enjoying the local beaches. Their ability to ignore what is going on around them brings across how facile pleasure seekers can be. Many of the local population live in buildings liable to collapse into the catacombs that run underneath the city. Meanwhile apartment blocks lie empty, thrown up in haste by foreign developers eager to cash in on tax breaks – money laundering.

The unfolding mystery is convoluted but does come together by the end. The evident decay and endemic violence make Odesa sound a terrible place. Few of the characters featured are likable. When deaths occur it is hard to feel sympathy. Even the cats act in gangs and murder their own to retain advantage – an interesting addition to what is billed as a spy thriller but one that elicits little affection for the creatures.

The pace is slow for a thriller but there are nuggets of interest. The science behind the poor axolotls showed how narcissistic humans can be. Max treats his wife terribly. He must have a strong skull given the number of knocks it receives from which he recovers surprisingly quickly. Of course, such occurrences are not unusual in the genre. The hero is often both troubled and flawed yet has to live through hardships if he is to fight another day.

The mostly short chapters helped retain engagement. The writing is fluid with a good number of original twists. It took some time to work out who was who, and to join the dots as threads were woven together. The author trusts that the reader will keep up without being spoon fed, that they will spot the cues without necessarily guessing where they lead. The ending is satisfying as it is not too cloying, neat but with an edge of ambiguity.

A thriller for the literary minded rather than a page turner. A grim reminder of how corruption defiles all in the vicinity.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.


Book Review: Love Novel

Love Novel

Love Novel, by Ivana Sajko (translated by Mima Simić), is a brutally honest tale of a marriage suffering the twin stresses of a new child and grim, economic uncertainty. He is an unemployed scholar with plans to write a book for which the words won’t come. She is bearing the brunt of their childcare responsibilities having given up her job as an actress, albeit one who never quite made the artistic mark she hoped for.

“they had no interest in art, but rather only in very exact material relations; how many bums on seats per play […] They assured her the audience wouldn’t tolerate art either; all the questioning, uncertainties, hidden meanings and open endings”

The couple met, fell in love and then fell pregnant. Now they are living in a small apartment for which they cannot afford the rent. Suffering from lack of sleep and having to care for a young child, their resentments towards each other grow and fester. They lash out verbally but without explanation, believing the other should understand.

He escapes this toxic family life by taking part in meaningless protests against government corruption.

“when thousands of people sit in the streets to stop traffic, protesting against politicians, judges, bankers or the corporate mafia who, ultimately, pull the strings of all their lives, and when they unfurl their banners that read ENOUGH, they know it won’t be enough”

She deals with her anger by compulsively cleaning and tidying their home. She hates the ugly couch he brought with him when they moved in together, an item of furniture he regards as ideal for purpose. This difference comes to symbolise the emotional blindness they both suffer regarding the other.

“everything was still in place, undamaged, before they’d started resenting each other over promises unfulfilled, over weakness, laziness, selfishness, over stupid trifles and the goddam rent, while they still believed that love saves”

There is a brief respite when both find jobs and money worries recede. What happens next proves that hard work isn’t always enough – a timely reminder given the current and likely worsening economic situation here.

A thread explores the actions of a neighbour who has time and inclination for bringing residents of the apartment block together and trying to improve the aesthetics of the place. The couple seen through neighbours’ eyes reminds how societal judgements are made. What becomes of this man is shocking and rendered with perceptive precision.

Elements of the story are also told through their effect on the baby. It is painful to consider why grown children will often avoid calling or visiting parents, and the roots of this behaviour.

Although an often uncomfortable read this is still a love story, stripped of veneer and then corroded by emotional and material difficulty. There is no suggestion that either of the couple is a bad person, although they themselves may beg to differ given the thoughts they suppress. Their spiral towards the denouement builds tension but also a rare togetherness.

A remarkably intricate dissection of a relationship under pressure. The pithy yet powerful prose delivers a bitingly impressive and always riveting tale.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.

Book Review: The Bureau of Past Management


“I’d prefer it if people weren’t always looking at things from the outside, trying to explain the crime. Instead, speak of the suffering. I wish people would think about what it is essentially about. Contemplate, rather than commemorate.”

The Bureau of Past Management, by Iris Hanika (translated by Abigail Wender), explores the shadows that national guilt can cast on future generations. It also raises the point that history is monetised as a tourist attraction. All this is told in a tale of two middle aged friends over the course of a few weeks during which their personal lives reach a crossroads. Set in contemporary Berlin, the inheritance of the Nazi era continues to fester.

The story focuses on Hans Frambach, a middle aged bachelor who has long worked as an archivist at the eponymous bureau. Hans is facing something of a crisis, questioning the worth of the work he is now required to undertake. His private life is also largely empty, its highlight the times when his only friend, Graziela, turns to him for advise on the affair she is embroiled in. Hans is happy to offer whatever support she asks for, recognising the value of their friendship.

Hans follows the same habits each day, turning up for work where he tries to act as he believes a normal person would.

“He drew up the corners of his mouth so she would think he was smiling. There would be no other choice. He observed all social conventions, which was why he pulled up the corners – it was customary, that’s how people smiled.”

That he does not consider himself normal adds to the detachment he feels. He ponders the life he is leading, the loneliness he feels knowing he exists with little purpose. He regrets there is no one to ‘hold his hand’.

“In the time he’d found the two records and listened to both songs, a full twenty minutes of his life had been taken from the future and turned into the past.”

When out and about he watches the people around him, his caustic observations bringing to the fore how awkward he feels in company. There is little to suggest he admires anyone else or the lives they lead.

“Another man, young but not handsome, oozed sexual need from every pore. And yet he wore a disparaging look on his face, as though he’d rather torture an animal than have sex, and if a woman did happen to fall into his hands, he’d treat her the same way.”

There are few bright spots in Hans’ days. He looks forward to his regular phone calls with Graziela. When they meet he enjoys her company and conversation. His other pleasure comes when he feels he has bested his co-workers, who he regards with contempt – these small victories are rare and mostly short-lived.

In managing the nation’s past, the bureau is keeping the memories fresh as so many people rely on them for work. Hans can see that this is happening. He tries to discuss his misgivings with Graziela while she shares her own trials with him. Both appear on the cusp of change, something the other encourages, which brings further anxieties.

The irony and wit of Hans’ contemplations sit alongside his loneliness and melancholy. He suffers fearful dreams that are coloured by the Auschwitz archives he is digitising. His suffering is clear, but this is tinged by comparisons to Holocaust victims.

There are occasional chapters that I struggled to fit with the narrative. Perhaps they are internet rabbit holes Hans ventures down during his empty evenings. I do not believe I got from them what the author intended.

In her note at the end of the story, the translator writes that she regards the book’s central question to be ‘how do we understand the past, and what is the purpose of collective, historic guilt?’ While I enjoyed pondering this dimension of the novel, I feel I only garnered what was offered at a superficial level.

An engaging and unusual tale that provides much to consider. Despite being unable to fully grasp every aspect included, the story was well worth reading.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, V&Q Books.