LAST GREAT READS FOR NOVEMBER, 2015
Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl
I’ve done it again: unwittingly read the latest book of a series, BUT! Swedish author Arne Dahl has provided so much information from earlier stories that I don’t feel that I should go right back to Episode One – and bless him for that because there are only 24 hours in a day, and I have to have SOME sleep.
Mr Dahl sets his thrillers in Stockholm but his protagonists, members of an elite section of the Swedish CID travel far and wide through Europe to unravel his latest mystery. Paul Hjelm is one of the stars of the team, and (miraculously) he hasn’t reached burn-out level yet – he has had an intense affair with a colleague, but (again miraculously) his marriage is still intact; in fact life is as good as one could expect, given the job he has and the hours he spends away from home. Hjelm has an antidote for the horrors he must face every day (this is Swedish Noir, remember); he is something of a philosopher, a clever abstract thinker; and he firmly believes the world is still redeemable whenever he listens to jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’s magical playing on ‘Kind of Blue’. There is still plenty of beauty in the world to match the ugliness.
Until his colleague Jorge Chavez calls him to come and examine the remains of someone who has fallen into the Wolverine enclosure at Skansen Zoo. There is precious little left to see: those furry wee critters with the pretty faces attacked the mystery man in a fury and the police have found just a pink- trousered leg so far – but that leg had a rope tied round its ankle. The man was hung by his legs in the pit, and his death must have been excruciating: who was he and why was he murdered so horribly?
As their investigation progresses, Hjelm and his team (and what a singular lot they are!) discover the man’s identity: he was a Greek gangster, suspected of murder and drug trafficking and currently pimping and terrorising a group of East European prostitutes. What a nice guy! Then other ‘nice guys’ are discovered to have met a similar fate in various European cities – not being dispatched by Wolverines, but by being hung upside down, then having a sharp metal rod inserted into their temples, guaranteeing maximum pain before they died. When the Greek pimp’s skull is eventually found in the zoo enclosure, he too has been murdered with the metal rod.
Mr Dahl is a very clever writer, certainly more literary than most, and his translator, Alice Menzies, deserves huge and hefty pats on the back for presenting his story so beautifully. Each character is scrupulously credible and there is a wonderful vein of very necessary humour threaded like gold throughout a convoluted and horrific plot. Hjelm’s colleagues, far from being burn-outs themselves, have lives which, if not the norm, are at least as ordinary as they can make them; in fact they ring so true that maybe I will have to visit the earlier books, whether I want to or not! FIVE STARS
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Family dynamics: that weary, well-worn euphemism for the myriad ways that people hurt those whom they should love most.
The clarion cry of ‘It’s not FAIR!’ engendered by sibling rivalry which, as siblings reach adulthood becomes ‘Why did they love you more than me?’ has never been portrayed with more skill, perception and humour than in Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Tyler’s peerless chronicle of a family’s life through three generations – not very long as a family ancestral record, but of sufficient length to draw the reader into this graceful story, because we recognise so much of it as our own.
In 1994 Red and Abby Whitshank have four grown children. They live in Baltimore, Maryland in a house that Red’s father built, and Red has taken over his father’s construction company after both his parents were killed in an accident. Abby is a social worker, a woman who welcomes the waifs and strays, especially at Thanksgiving, a holiday her family secretly dreads for they never know which awful waifs will be present at the carving of the turkey – but Abby doesn’t care: her heart is big and There But For the Grace of God etc etc. More turkey, anyone?
In the main, Red and Abby are content with their life and their family, whom they love dearly. Amanda, the oldest girl is a lawyer; Jeannie followed her father into the construction business, a bold step; Douglas (called Stem for a very poignant reason) has also gone into the family company; but Denny, the third child – well, Denny appears to have taken on the role of family failure; family flitter-away-from-responsibility candidate; family jack-of-all-trades – and master of none, despite much encouragement and many new starts, assisted emotionally and financially each time by his parents.
Time passes inexorably; Red and Abby age; their family start families of their own – all except Denny. His life is a mystery to them: they have no idea where he lives, or what he does for a living – does he even work? Then they receive an invitation to his wedding. He is marrying the bride because she’s pregnant. Oh. Okay then. They’ll have a grandchild to love and spoil! Sadly, no. Denny disappears for years, until family concern about Red and Abby’s vulnerability as they age brings him home, and what has been simmering beneath the family surface since childhood erupts in an ugly geyser of hatred and resentment: Denny’s anger is never directed at himself; he could never hold a mirror up to reveal his many faults: instead, he lashes out at those who are the last to deserve his ire, causing ructions that are shocking but come as no surprise to anyone.
I can’t remember reading at any time a more perfect evocation of family life; the petty jealousies, the perceptions real or imagined, of who loves who best, and the immense loyalty and unity only a family can draw on when tragedies occur. And the great, beating heart of this family is contained in the house, built by their grandfather for someone else, but eventually becoming his, as told in beautiful flashbacks.
Roddy Doyle and Nick Hornby, both writers who ‘know their onions’ (my old gran used to say that often!) maintain that Anne Tyler is ‘the greatest novelist writing in English’ and it is easy to see why. SIX STARS!!!
The American Lady, and Paradise of Glass, by Petra Durst-Benning
These two novels complete the Glassblower trilogy. I reviewed the first book in September (see review below), but have to say that the sequels do not live up to the promise of Book One. That is not to say that they are not readable but quality of writing has taken a dive in Ms Durst-Benning’s attempts to cover the huge societal changes in turn- of-the-century New York, the setting for ‘The American Lady’.
Marie, the true artist and youngest of the Steinmann girls is persuaded to visit her sister Ruth, now happily and respectably married to her lover, Stephen Miles, and grandly ensconced in New York. Initially, Marie cannot believe the enormous change in Ruth’s personality – she seems to have forgotten completely their humble origins in the German village of Lauscha and has thrown herself with singular verve into conquering high society, a mission Ruth has successfully accomplished with the aim of cushioning her rebellious daughter Wanda from all of the sadness and poverty that marked her own early years.
Marie finds Ruth’s new life enormously constricting, and after various excursions with Wanda makes new, exciting friends in the Art scene of New York, including a daring, wanton Isadora Duncan copycat called Pandora: she meets all the darlings of the Modern movement, and Ms Durst-Benning name-drops with abandon everyone who was artistically anyone at that time; she also decides it is time for Marie to meet her Great Love, a handsome Italian Count whom she eventually marries – much to the icy disapproval of his family in Genoa – only to find that ‘her handsome Italian’ harbours a terrible secret, a secret that appals Marie to the extent that she knows that she and her unborn child would be better off with her own family in Lauscha, permanently away from him and his medievally awful family. BUT!!! (There’s always a But.)
Marie’s plans to escape her situation are thwarted in melodramatic, Mills and Boon fashion: there is no escape from her awful life – until ….. until Rebellious Wanda manages to engineer a visit to Genoa to find out why none of Marie’s family has heard from her for so long.
Rebellious Wanda has taken up residence in Lauscha to research her origins, after finding out a secret that Ruth had thought well- hidden, and being the impetuous Wilful Wanda that she is, she decides it is time to lay all the family skeletons out in the harsh light of day: she has a family she never knew existed, and perhaps in Lauscha she can make a good and meaningful life for herself. Fair enough, especially when Ms Durst-Benning gives Wanda the role of rescuer extraordinaire – but Wanda’s adventures should at least have the ring of truth, not to mention Marie’s: the credibility of Book One has been entirely lost with the switch to Torrid Romance in Book Two.
There is improvement of a sort in Book Three, ‘The Paradise of Glass’: Ms Durst-Benning writes very well of the glass industry in 1911; the plot is well-researched and believable. The everyday lives of Lauscha’s inhabitants are well-portrayed and the older characters endear themselves to the reader, BUT! (Sorry about the buts, but I believe absolutely in buts) In Ms Durst-Benning’s efforts to present Wilful Wanda as a young woman defying the constrictions of her time – especially in her heroic attempts to organise the glassblowers of Lauscha into a united group of investors so that they can buy their own foundry – the storytelling expertise of Book One has deserted her, and Wanda, Wilful, Winsome, Worldly though she may be, is not drawn with the skill required to carry a trilogy. THREE STARS
The Glassblower, by Petra Durst-Benning
Ms Durst-Benning completed this first novel in her trilogy in 2003; unfortunately for English readers, it was not translated from the German until 2014 – but better late than never. Now we can all enjoy her lovely story of the Steinmann sisters, daughters of proud and protective widower Joost Steinmann, a respected glassblower in the small Thuringian village of Lauscha. In 1890, Lauscha is renowned throughout Germany as the international destination for exquisite glassware, and Lauscha is proud of its reputation for craftsmanship, and the artisans who reinforce the village’s good name.
Joost shelters his three daughters. Every young man who comes calling in the hope of getting to know his pretty girls better is shown the door: men are all up to no good – only after one thing! The girls despair of ever meeting suitors, but they are too busy to reflect on their lack of experience, for there is much work to be done in their father’s business – until one morning he fails to rise from his bed. Joost has closed his eyes for the last time, and to their horror, his sheltered, cosseted daughters are on their own. Who will look after them now? How will they earn any kind of living in a patriarchal society where a woman’s duty is clear: ‘kirche, küche, kinder’. The choices are few, but if a woman does have to earn her living she does so for slave wages in one of the few glassworks in the village. Those uppity Steinmann girls are no different from anyone else – they’ll have to lose their airs and graces and subsist, just as other widows and single women do!
Ms Durst-Benning easily captures the reader in the first chapters. Each daughter is different: haughty, beautiful eldest daughter Johanna, unaware of her business acumen until she is forced to employ all her intelligence to prevent the family from starving; middle daughter Ruth, equally pretty but convinced that the only way out of poverty is to make a good marriage – and then does the opposite; and Marie, the dreamy youngest girl, nascent artist and eventual self-taught glassblower, using her late father’s equipment so that she can realise in glass the beautiful baubles she creates on paper – all in secret, for a female working as a glassblower is unthinkable.
Late 19th century Europe is captured unforgettably in all its beauty, poverty, double standards and hypocrisy; Lauscha, that tiny village with the enormous reputation is riddled with hierarchies that refuse to accept change, and the Steinmann girls find that the way ahead is strewn with pitfalls – and I won’t find out what happens until Book Two ‘The American Lady,’ comes into the library. Ms Durst-Benning has given us a real page-turner, even though Samuel Willcocks’ translation favours the modern idiom perhaps more than it should. That minor quibble aside, I can’t fail to give this lovely, unashamedly romantic story FIVE STARS.