February Reading: A Season of Grimness

I was offline for a couple of days and gathering my lists and reviews for February, when I realised that this short, dark month has provided me with quite a lot of grim reading. Not ‘grim’ in terms of the quality of the writing, since pretty much all of them have been very well written indeed. But the subject matter(s) has/have been relentless: child abductions, abuse, alcoholism, serial killers, cannibalism, mental illness, highly dysfunctional families, discrimination against immigrants… and an astronaut stranded on Mars.

Still, I managed to read 16 books this month, which is very good going, although I have fallen far behind in my reviewing.

1 Book Each in German and French:

Irena Brežná: Die undankbare Fremde

Delphine de Vigan: Rien ne s’oppose à la nuit – will be part of a larger post on mothers in fiction

5 Translated Books (and therefore worth knowing the translators’ names)

Jean-Pierre Alaux & Noël Balen: Nightmare in Burgundy, transl. Sally Pane (to be reviewed soon on CFL)

Pascal Garnier: The Front Seat Passenger (to be reviewed), transl. Jane Aitken

Shuichi Yoshida: Parade, transl. Philip Gabriel

Parade

Promising set-up: four young people who share a flat and seem to have nothing in common. Each is slightly off-kilter, dysfunctional, but not in a very obvious way. As a picture of disaffected youth, of the anonymity of city living, of friendships of the ‘chatroom type’ (even when people are living together) and of the darker side to Japanese society, it works perfectly. As a crime novel or even psychological thriller with a coherent story arc, it does not.

Pierre Lemaitre: Irène (to be reviewed), transl. Frank Wynne

Jung-Myung Lee: The Investigation (to be reviewed), transl. Chi-Young Kim

1 Non-Crime Book (More Science than Science Fiction)

Andy Weir: The Martian

Martian

Surprisingly technical, with a high level of scientific precision (and yet manages to keep it thrilling throughout). It really would make an excellent film. Lovely sense of humour of the main protagonist, plus a lot of the politics of NASA, the US and even China, keeps this lively.  Ultimately, however, this one felt just a bit too geeky to me. It didn’t have enough of the human/psychological elements to it.

4 Books from Crime Fiction Series

Elly Griffiths: The Outcast Dead (Ruth Galloway, forensic archaeologist)

Denise Mina: The Red Road (detective Alex Morrow)

Donna Leon: By Its Cover (Commissario Brunetti) – to be reviewed

Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday (psychotherapist Frieda Klein)

NicciFrench

I might have known that Nicci French would not do a conventional crime fiction series. Don’t expect a police procedural (although police are involved) and don’t expect a self-contained story, as so many recurrent characters reappear and so many allusions are made to events in the previous two books. Yes, there is a distinct murder, plus an intriguing trail which could mean several more murders, but this is all much more about loss and bereavement, trauma and its psychological consequences.

4 Standalone Crime Novels (although at least 2 of them really stretch the boundaries of crime)

Lucie Whitehouse: Before We Met

Natalie Young: Season to Taste

Paula Daly: Just What Kind of Mother Are You? – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

Koren Zailckas: Mother Mother – will feature in my ‘mothering’ post

So many fantastic books this month, not a single turkey. A few frightened or even repelled me (The Red Road, Season to Taste, Mother Mother, Irène), most of them saddened me (even Donna Leon and the winemaker series were not so cosy this time round), so it was hard to choose my favourite. In the end, I opted for The Investigation, because it combines so many of my favourite things: poetry and mystery, Japanese history and the triumph of beauty and art over the most inhumane conditions.

I’m linking this to the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme organised by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.

Reading in German: The Ungrateful Stranger

Brezna

This is a book by a Czech writer who fled to Switzerland with her family as a teenager, during the brutal reprisals following the Prague Spring in 1968. But it is also the story of asylum seekers everywhere, of just how welcome they are made to feel, how grateful they are expected to be, how they cope with major cultural differences, how they learn (or don’t) to build new lives and new identities for themselves. Part novel, part memoir, it is written in a very candid way, showing not only the disappointments and discriminations of immigrant life, but also the naivety and sometimes mistaken obstinacy of the new arrival. Interwoven with the personal story of cultural adaptation of the young girl, we also have little vignettes of new immigrants and their misunderstandings with the social workers, the medical profession or the local authorities. The narrator has now integrated into Swiss society and acts as an interpreter for these people. These scenes are often deeply moving, sometimes quite funny, always highlighting the vulnerability of those who flee impossible conditions at home and try so hard to make something of their lives in a new country, yet fear losing their cultural identity. The host country and its people may be well-intentioned, but also often comes across as arrogant or patronising.
Irena Brežná has a style which is at once wryly humorous, indignant and yet also poetic. In the very first scene she describes how Swiss bureaucracy strips her of all the little wings and turrets (diacritical signs) from her name, as well as its feminine ending in -a.
‘You don’t need this fiddle-faddle here.’
He slashed my round, feminine ending and gave me the surname of my father and brother. The two of them just sat there speechless and allowed me to get crippled. What was I supposed to do with this bald, masculine name? I froze.
Then she is asked what she believes in (a scene which is repeated with another child at the end of the book).
‘A better world.’
‘Then you’re in the right place, little girl. Welcome!’
This was a very timely reminder of what it means to ‘become Swiss’, the week after Switzerland voted for curbing the rights of foreign workers. But I hope it will be translated into other languages, for wider circulation in a Europe of so-called free movement, where certain countries or ethnic groups are still maligned and political rhetorical fever runs high against foreign nationals who come to ‘take our jobs’ but also at the same time ‘claim all our benefits’. A painful book for both immigrants and their hosts, but one which deserves to spark deeper, more authentic conversations.