What to read when you have Covid

… or just generally feeling very poorly and brain-foggy, struggling to concentrate. The answer seems to be: a tale about a giant rabbit, a biography and historical crime fiction set in Cracow.

I will spare you the long rant about how my younger son and I got Covid from his school, and how run-down we have both been feeling over the past week or so. Initially, I tried to console myself that, although my plans for a writing holiday somewhere else than within my own four walls had come to nothing, I would at least recline gracefully in various strategic places around the house and read all day.

Alas, turns out that pounding headaches and severe nausea are not conducive to long bouts of reading, certainly nothing too serious or challenging. Here are the books that worked for me in this situation, and which might work for you if ever need a balance of page-turning yet educational, lightness and darkness.

Antti Tuomainen: The Rabbit Factor, trans. David Hackston

I have said before, many times, how much I enjoy Tuomainen’s blend of comedy and pathos, his insight into the lives of ordinary, ‘loser-type’ people who are then confronted with rather extraordinary events. In this book, we are with the first person narrator, Henri, a financial actuary who is a whizz with figures but not so great with human relationships – and certainly no fan of the absurdities of corporate life. He is fired from his job for being a ‘dinosaur’, i.e. refusing to play along with the latest corporate fad. The author has great fun skewering office life, and, in a time when so many of us have been working from home and therefore have started questioning the absurdity of enforced mingling and teamwork, his words cannot help but resonate with us:

… I didn’t like our open-plan office. It was noisy, full of distractions, interruptions, banalities. But more than anything, it was full of people. I didn’t like the things so many others seemed to like: spontaneous conversations, the continual asking for and giving of advice, the constant cheap banter. I didn’t see what it had to do with demanding probability calculations.

Funnily enough, just as I started reading this book, I caught up over Zoom with an old mathematician friend of mine who now works as a financial risk modeller or actuary or something, and he expressed many of the same sentiments about corporate speak, so clearly Henri is extremely well observed. He is painfully honest and earnest, the kind of person who could be infuriating in real life, but ends up being rather endearing in fiction.

Henri unexpectedly inherits an adventure park from his brother, who seems to have been mixed up in some unsavoury affairs. Nothing could be further from Henri’s mind than to run an adventure park and make it thrive against all the odds, yet he finds himself doing unbelievable things to keep his employees happy, the park solvent and the loan sharks breathing down his neck less dangerous. Along the way, he makes many mistakes, demonstrates naivety but also an unexpected amount of cunning; he also discovers he has a heart after all, even if it refuses to delve in sentimentality.

This has the trademark Tuomainen deadpan humour, as well as nailbiting moments and a big, big heart. There is also the joy of a cat named Schopenhauer, which gives the author an opportunity to riff on the notoriously pessimistic philosopher’s assertion that our is the ‘the worst of all possible worlds’.

Life isn’t a loan; it is a payment fraud. It is a project, lasting on average seventy-five years, whose sole aim is to maximise our own stupidity. And yet, that’s exactly what we seem to crave. Look at the choices we make. If we are healthy, we make ourselves ill by smokng cigarettes, drinking alcohol and over-eating. If we want to bring about societal change, we vote for options that make our situation worse. When we should be thinking about what is rational, people start talking about how they feel… The most successful people are those who talk the least sense and blame everybody else for it.

The frequent rants against so many facets of contemporary life (like fine dining, for instance) reminded me a little of John Boyne’s recent The Echo Chamber. However, The Rabbit Factor is much, much better, because it really has a plot, the humour seems effortless and never reaches the level of desperately farcical, and the rants are never overblown, exaggerated or repetitive. They are Finnishly restrained, and all the more powerful for it.

Artemis Cooper: Elizabeth Jane Howard – A Dangerous Innocence

I vaguely knew Howard’s biographical details, particularly of her marriage to Kingsley Amis, but, having recently read the Cazalet Chronicles, I was interested in finding out more. I was astounded to discover what a tumultuous life she had and how many of those details she incorporated into her novels. What is particularly interesting is that she was obviously such a bundle of contradictions: an impulsive beauty with acting aspirations, a shy observer of social interactions who aspires to make notes and use it all in her writing, an anxious, somewhat idealistic young woman with an intense home-making instinct who longs for lasting love and friendship, that she had to divide out all of her thoughts and experiences among at least three different characters in her Cazalet series (Louise, Clary and Polly respectively).

I find it hard to reconcile her self-aware, witty writing and deep insight into human nature with her apparent oblivion in real life to the nuances of human behaviour. As her stepson Martin Amis is quoted as saying in this book: ‘I’ve always thought that was one of the mysteries about Jane: the penetrating sanity on the page, but when she’s off the page, she’s actually not that clever with people.’ She seemed to have a desperate fear of being abandoned or unloved, an incredible neediness, which made her life choices at times very questionable indeed. Yet she was able to analyse them with such clear eyes in her writing.

Maryla Szymiczkowa: Karolina or the Torn Curtain, trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

Cracow in 1895/96 is a city desperate to pretend it’s not provincial, but an important cultural capital within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Zofia Turbotynska, wife of an anatomy professor at the Jagiellonian University, is an exemplary housekeeper but her restless mind is never content with just accepting facts at face value. When her servant Karolina is found dead, violated and stabbed, on the riverbanks just outside Cracow, she wants to find the true perpetrator and chivvies the police along to perform their duties. Not content with their lacklustre obvious findings, she doggedly pursues the case and learns a lot about poverty and prostitution, human trafficking and corruption in the process. Above all, she learns about herself and sees society with different eyes.

I love that about Zofia: she is a bolshy, inquisitive Miss Marple type, but she is a character that is still unfolding and developing. She has hitherto unquestioningly accepted some of the ideologies and beliefs of her age (about socialists or fallen women or Jews), but she is beginning to realise that the truth is much more complicated than portrayed in the newspapers or society gossip.

There is a lot of gentle humour about Zofia’s social pretensions and attempts to keep up with the good society of Cracow, but there is educational historical detail too, and many parallels to be drawn with the present day (particularly with East European girls being trafficked to Western Europe). Coincidentally, I have also been watching the TV series Paris Police 1900, which is a much starker, more violent recreation of the ‘good old days’ but presents a similarly darker underbelly underneath an affluent, apparently respectable society. There is an added link to the TV series, which features the historical Alphonse Bertillon, police inspector and forensics specialist, who introduced anthropometry and mugshots to identify criminals. In this book, both Zofia and a police commissioner Jednorog are enthusiastic about the scientific advances in detection thanks to Bertillon’s methods, which were spreading beyond the French borders at the time.

What is particularly invigorating, of course, is the modern eye of the two authors, and their tongue-in-cheek accounts of Zofia’s frame of mind on occasion make her very relatable indeed to a contemporary audience, yet without ever making her feel too far out of step with her century: a clever balancing act.

It occurred to Zofia that she had had quite enough of all these self-pitying men by now, blaming everyone but themselves for thier problems. It was usual to say that women become hysterical… but meanwhile Zofia found that it was chiefly the men in her environment who were prone to this affliction.

The two (male) authors who write under the Maryla pseudonym are Jacek Dehnel, a wrier, poet and translator, and Piotr Tarczynski, a translator and historian, which explains that happy marriage between plot, language and historical detail. It was an instant love affair for me and I look forward to many more books in this series.

Old World and New: Louise Penny and Antonin Varenne

More escapist comfort reading, which took me to some very strange places indeed. Quite a contrast in style and subject matter, but both proved to be excellent distractions and got me back into the reading groove again.

Louise Penny: The Beautiful Mystery

I am an unabashed Penny fan, cannot get enough of her delightful, gentlemanly, wise and slightly melancholy Armand Gamache. While I quite enjoy closed room mysteries, I couldn’t help but be sceptical of the audacity of setting this book in a secluded monastery, locked away from the outside world, and with no mention at all of our beloved Three Pines, the idyllic Quebecois village that we all want to live in. But I should trust the author: I have followed her before, moving away from the realm of crime fiction in The Long Way Home, and I have continued to enjoy everything she brings to the table.

As always with the Gamache novels, there is a murder to be solved, as well as a personal vendetta and conspiracy within the Sûreté du Québec. I’ve not read the books in order, so I already knew how things had worked out between Gamache and his faithful sidekick Beauvoir once their corrupt and evil boss Francoeur waggled his serpent’s tongue. That took some of the suspense out of the book, but there is still the mystery of who killed the choir director in the tranquil and long-forgotten community of monks, who have recently become famous because of their amazing recording of Gregorian chants. Comparisons to The Name of the Rose are inevitable, given the setting, but Louise Penny makes this her own, with beautifully rounded characters and sensuous details (those chocolate-covered blueberries!). She turns this very much into a meditation on good and evil, the search for the divine vs. seeking fame, the virtues of silence vs. communicating via words.

As for the reason why I find her books so comforting, the author herself describes it best:

My books are about terror. That brooding terror curled deep down inside us. But more than that, more than murder, more than all the rancid emotions and actions, my books are about goodness. And kindness. About choices. About friendship and belonging. And love. Enduring love.  If you take only one thing away from any of my books I’d like it to be this: Goodness exists.

 

Antonin Varenne: Retribution Road (transl. Sam Taylor)

You will love this book if, like me, you were excited by the premise of the recent BBC TV series Taboo, starring Tom Hardy, but somewhat disappointed by its execution (great build-up, but didn’t go very far and let down by its ending, as is so often the case with a story told over several episodes). A damaged but principled individual returning from a traumatic experience abroad, the East India Company as an out-and-out villain, the dirt and miasma of London and its poorest people, the lure of the New World across the Atlantic – both stories have these elements in common. The book is a chunky 500+ pages, but it’s one of those rollicking adventures of the Alexandre Dumas/ Robert Louis Stevenson type, so it didn’t take long to read.

It’s panoramic, epic and historical crime fiction, three epithets which usually put me off a book, but it really works in this case. A further no-no in my book: it’s about a serial killer, and it spreads over three continents and 11 years. It starts in 1852, with an ill-fated mission in Burma organised by the East India Company. The men are captured and tortured; there are only ten survivors, and they come back more like zombies or ghosts rather than men.

Six years later, one of the survivors, former sergeant Arthur Bowman, works as a policeman in a pestilent, drought-ridden London, and continues to battle his demons in a haze of opium and alcohol. Then he discovers a corpse in a sewer, bearing the same mutilations as they experienced in the jungle, and he becomes convinced the killer is one of the ten men. His mission to discover the killer – who does not stop at one victim, of course – takes him to the New World and ultimately to the Wild West, but above all it’s a journey to find himself.

It takes great courage to combine all these different genres together: adventure story, serial killer thriller, Western and character study, so bravo, Monsieur Varenne for this ambitious tour de force! It has all the breadth and variety of RL Stevenson, the darkness of Joseph Conrad and none of the ‘going off on a tangent’ of Moby Dick.

The book was published on 9th March by MacLehose Press.

Traumatic Memories: David Young’s Stasi Child

stasichildDavid Young’s new series set in 1970s East Germany just about qualifies as historical crime fiction, but the history is so recent that the scars are still prone to reopen and suppurate. Personally, I found this book quite an emotionally draining experience (some things were just too familiar, even though I did not grow up in East Germany but in another Soviet satellite state). But for those who have a sufficient distance from the events, it is a thrilling and entertaining tale. The background feels quite fresh, as it’s not been used too much in crime fiction to date.

Young takes a number of historical facts, such as political prisoners making IKEA furniture in East Germany, repatriation agreements for under-16s between the West and the East, the Stasi turning family members against each other, youth work camps for ‘difficult’ children and escape tunnels to the West, and spins an enthralling and claustrophobic tale out of them. If anything, one might reproach the author with trying to tackle too many of the grim GDR realities at once, throwing everything plus the kitchen sink at this story, a common enough failing with debut authors. He does, however, blend the multiple storylines quite skilfully, and there is no arguing with the sinister atmosphere of paranoia and fear which he creates.

Karin Müller is everywoman – as her name (a very common German name) indicates – a police officer trying to survive in a tough world. She gets roped into a strange investigation into the death of a young girl in the no-man’s land around the Berlin Wall. It appears the youngster was trying to escape from the West to the East – almost unheard of at the time. So why is the Stasi getting involved, are they trying to cover up something? Karin feels increasingly uncomfortable about Jäger – her Stasi superior – and his interference in the investigation, nor is she sure she can trust her partner Tilsner, despite the strong physical attraction she feels for him. Finally, she feels guilty about her husband Gottfried, a good man, a teacher with Western sympathies, from whom she feels more and more estranged. The author does an excellent job of conveying that feeling of helplessness, of not being able to trust anyone, which was a permanent fixture of Communist dictatorships.

Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)
Berlin, Germany, 19th November, 1961, East Berlin border guards adding barbed wire to the newly built Berlin Wall, The wall was set up the Soviet army to prevent refugees escaping from the Soviet sector in the East to West Berlin (Photo by Popperfoto/Getty Images)

There are some elements which stretch belief here (the tricks which Karin and her team have to resort to at times, the lengths to which she is prepared to go for the sake of the investigation), but overall it’s a cracking little thriller, with a fantastic cover to boot. I’ve also heard it’s been recently optioned for a TV series – and it does sound perfect for that, so here’s hoping it gets made.