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Sunday, September 8, 2013

"The Crooked Maid" by Dan Vyleta and 'The Luminaries" by Eleanor Catton (short reviews by Liviu Suciu)

"Vienna, 1948. The war is over, and as the initial phase of de-Nazification winds down, the citizens of Vienna struggle to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble.

Anna Beer returns to the city she fled nine years earlier after discovering her husband's infidelity. She has come back to find him and, perhaps, to forgive him. Traveling on the same train from Switzerland is 18-year-old Robert Seidel, a schoolboy summoned home to his stepfather's sickbed and the secrets of his family's past.

As Anna and Robert navigate an unrecognizable city, they cross paths with a war-widowed American journalist, a hunchbacked young servant girl, and a former POW whose primary purpose is to survive by any means and to forget. Meanwhile, in the shells of burned-out houses and beneath the bombed-out ruins, a ghost of a man, his head wrapped in a red scarf, battles demons from his past and hides from a future deeply uncertain for all."

The Crooked Maid is a loose sequel to The Quiet Twin (FBC Rv) and a suspenseful edge on the seat read that kept me turning the pages till the great ending; superb characters in Anna Beer, Robert Siedel, Annelise  - the crooked back girl from The  Quiet Twin who is now the title character - and the mysterious and seedy former POW and current "bum and survivor at all costs", German Czech Karel Neumann, though 1948 Vienna is in a way the main character though we take a tour to the tragic past too.

I will just add the author's afterword to get a sense of the book as it reflects superbly what is in; while for now on my highly recommended list of 2013 novels,
this could go to my top 25 list too, depending on how it wears in time.

"When I set out to write The Crooked Maid, I had contracted the Balzacian bug: I wanted to write a world, not a book. All the same, a world must be assembled piece by piece. The train ride came to me early, as did the theme of parricide, both in conscious homage to Dostoevsky, whose books I love.

Other, less conscious, Dostoevskianisms have crept in, further proof that books are dangerous things: you read them and they impose on you not just their words but a whole sensibility; not incidents but a mode of seeing reality. Structurally, the book owes much to Dickens.

I read Our Mutual Friend early into its writing, and took note of Dickens’s daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance; of his book’s unstable tone that drifts from comedy to tragedy and back and is capable, despite its author’s much-decried sentimentalism, of calling forth real emotion; and of his deft management of the book’s vast cast (Dickens would have made a good film director). 

The trial at the centre of The Crooked Maid owes much to Kay Boyle’s wonderful 1950 New Yorker reportage on a Frankfurt war crimes trial. Many of its details are directly inspired by this report, which is a wonderful literary performance in its own right and (along with Boyle’s other essays on postwar Germany) deserves to be rediscovered by a wider readership.The Crooked Maid is set only two years after my first book, Pavel & I (albeit in a different city), but the postwar moment it depicts is quite distinct.

If Pavel & I captures the catastrophe of deprivation at its lowest—and coldest—point, The Crooked Maid is interested in the social and moral flux that accompanied the early years of reconstruction. The year 1948, when the book is set, was a year of change. West Berlin had been cut off by the Soviets and had to be supplied by air; Czechoslovakia had gone Communist; and Vienna was rumoured to be riddled with spies: the Cold War had started in earnest.

At the same time, identities were shifting, and an assertive type of Austrian nationalism that distanced itself from Germany, and was given licence by the Allies to describe Austria as the first victim of an expansionist Reich rather than its willing bride, was gaining ground. POWs were still returning home, displaced persons languished in camps, denazification was slowly being wound down. In Vienna itself—a city that combines aspects of the metropolis and the village—neighbours, work colleagues, and families faced each other across the chasm of their respective war experiences, a drama played out in the shadow of entire strata of society who had been murdered by the Nazi regime.

I did not want to exploit the suffering that took place in this age of uncertainty but simply to understand it: so I started far from it, in a cozy train compartment, over a cup of sweet (yet bitter) tea" 


"On a blustery January day, a prostitute is arrested. In the midst of the 1866 gold rush on the coast of New Zealand, this might have gone unnoticed. But three notable events occur on that same day: a luckless drunk dies, a wealthy man vanishes, and a ship's captain of ill repute cancels all of his business and weighs anchor, as if making an escape. Anna Wetherell, the prostitute in question, is connected to all three men.

This sequence of apparently coincidental events provokes a secret council of powerful townsmen to investigate. But they are interrupted by the arrival of a stranger: young Walter Moody, who has a secret of his own...

THE LUMINARIES is an intricately crafted feat of storytelling, a mystery that reveals the ways our interconnected lives reshape our destinies."

Long-listed for the 2103 Man Booker prize, Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries is a long (800+) and very ambitious novel whose subject did not really interest me that much, but where the writing and the structure of the novel kept me reading it till the end. 

I alternated between being hooked and being bored and moving along. If you like scripted books where "each phrase" as a fawning review, put it counts toward the complicated plot, this could be a delight for you, but I prefer messier, more life-like novels and this one fails on a few counts (coincidences, boy wonder, way too complicated plot based on the dumbness on some otherwise seeming intelligent characters).

This being said the book is well written, literary speaking, and I see why some people are so enamored by it. Also it is quite ambitious and with a great atmosphere indeed, but a more interesting setting - as the New Zealand gold rush of 1860's leaves me utterly cold - and more believable characters would have made "The Luminaries" a book for the ages, not the "ok, I read it, I can make a note and then forget it" novel it turned out to be. 


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