I’ve just read in quick succession two books about cross-cultural relationships and misunderstandings, about overcoming prejudices and making sense of things in a world where everything is unfamiliar. This is my specialist subject in the so-called ‘real world’ (although there are no end of surreal elements to the corporate business world), so these books are always going to tempt me. But my expectations are high, so it’s not easy for a book to meet them. The first I liked, the second I was more ambiguous about.
Kerry Hudson: Thirst
This is a simple love story between Dave, a young man from a run-down estate in London, and Alena, a young woman from Siberia who has ended up in London, a victim a human trafficking. Except that there is nothing simple about this story – and, at first, not even much love. Alena is caught shoplifting in a fancy Bond Street store, where Dave is a security guard. At first it’s pity and self-interest which brings them together, but slowly, gradually, these two very hurt and lonely people find a way to relate to each other, although both of them are reluctant to divulge their secrets and profound emotional wounds. It’s by no means certain that they will be able to build a future together – the book does not end on a ‘happily ever after’ note, although it is not pessimistic either. There are no easy answers, no sentimental sweetness about the relationship. Instead, we get a lot of good intentions, cynical self-protection, childish reactions and lying. Yet, in spite of all that, the tale is truly heart-warming and the two main characters are endearing.
What was so enjoyable about the book is that it took well-worn clichés about Eastern and Western Europe and turned them on its head. Yes, prostitution and violent Ukrainian gangs are involved, but are they ultimately that different to the drunks and thugs that Dave sees on the council estate? Poverty is equally demeaning at both ends of Europe – and the author brings to life (pitch-perfect, as far as I can tell) the world of those with little education and few options. The exact opposite of privilege. Yet these people too have dreams, a thirst for life, a desire to improve their lot and find something that takes them out of the urine-soaked grey concrete of their surroundings.
Kerry Hudson has a clear-eyed approach which eschews tales of maudlin misery, although there are hints there of anger at social injustices. Her fresh, direct style injects a note of humour even in the bleakest moments, but it’s not the right read for you if you are looking for something light-hearted at the moment.
I did want to fall in love with this one and most of the reviewers I know and trust did indeed like it. So maybe I am just ‘faulty’ and missing something, but I found it less than satisfying. In fact, it was slightly irritating and I dragged myself back to reading it with a dutiful rather than a joyous heart (we are discussing it this week at the Virtual Crime Book Club).
It’s a shame, because the book is well written stylistically and the premise is of the zany, intriguing and implausible that I usually like. Sheldon is an 82-year-old, ever so possibly senile American Jewish widower, who comes to Norway to live with his granddaughter, witnesses a crime involving the next-door neighbour and goes on the run with the neighbour’s traumatised little boy, outwitting the Norwegian police, the family and some tough Kosovan criminals along the way.
Sheldon is a former US Marine, you see, so he can hide, stalk, shoot, improvise along with the best, even if his body is no longer quite so reliable. Despite the occasional funny moments, I found the lone ranger attitude rather tiresome in the long run, too reminiscent of the American imperialism and assumption of cultural superiority which Sheldon spends most of the book dissociating from and condemning. The old man himself was far too grumpy and culturally insensitive rather than endearing, as well as brooding too much on his past, his feeling of guilt over the death of his son and on anti-semitic slights he has endured along the way. The secondary characters felt rather hastily sketched in: the little boy was a strange blank blob, partly because of his mutism, and I would have liked to see more of policewoman Sigrid and of Sheldon’s granddaughter and her partner. It just didn’t all quite gel for me, but I’m in a real minority here. I heard some reviewers say that it is not the right read if you are expecting a conventional thriller – but for me, it was too much of a thriller!
To my surprise, I discovered the author is an international affairs expert and married to a Norwegian, so I am probably reading too much negative comment into the book which betrays the main character’s flawed attitude. I will be curious, however, to see what Derek B. Miller comes up with next.