Inès Bayard – This Little Family

ines bayard this little family
Inès Bayard – This Little Family

A woman kills herself, her husband and their small son. What has led her to poison their dinner? They are a well-off Parisian family with a successful husband and lovely kid living in a beautiful apartment. What people cannot see is the inside, the inside of the family home and especially the inside of Marie who has been struggling for years to keep her secret well shut behind a friendly facade: she was raped by her CEO after work one evening and is convinced that Thomas is the result of the assault and not her husband’s son. Every day, she has to look in the eye of the small boy and is confronted again with what happened and what she cannot share with anybody. It is not the tragic story of a family, but the heart-breaking story of a woman not just suffering once from the humiliation and attack, but suffering every single day of her life.

Inès Bayard’s novel is one of the most moving and highly disturbing books I have ever read. She starts with the final step of Marie’s desolate and lonely voyage, no surprise where it all will end up, but the way there could hardly be more painful, more emotionally challenging and nevertheless easy to understand and follow.

Marie feels ashamed for what has happened to her, for her body after giving birth, for her behaviour towards her husband. She does not see herself as the victim she is, immediately, after the assault, she has taken the decision to comply with her assailant’s threat not to tell anybody and thinks she now has to stick to it. Her mental state is gradually deteriorating and Bayard meticulously narrates the downwards spiral. Looking at her from the outside, you can see that she is trapped in an unhealthy mental state that she has established and which is completely wrong but yet, it is so understandable how she comes to those conclusions and this almost paranoid view of her situation.

She does not get help or support, nobody even seems to notice her suffering, only when the signs become too obvious is suspicion raised. There might have been ways out of her depression and misery, but she cannot take these roads and thus needs to face her ultimate fate which does not entail living an option.

Without any doubt, Marie is a victim in several respects. But so is her son Thomas and he is the poor boy without any chance to escape or change his fate, he is exposed helplessly to his mother’s hatred which seems unfair, but I think it is not difficult to understand what she sees in him. Is her husband Laurent to blame? Hard to say, the same accounts for Marie’s mother who didn’t do anything other than just cover the traces of her daughter’s state when she becomes aware of it, she does not offer help when it was most needed.

The novel is a wonderful example for what such an event can do to people, how they struggle to survive and hide what has happened. It is deeply moving and frightening to observe which is also due to the author’s style of writing.

Denise Mina – Conviction

denise mina conviction
Denise Mina – Conviction

Just like every day, Anna McDonald gets up in the morning and turns on a podcast to relax before the usual commotion of her family starts. This morning, however, will be completely different. First, she learns in a true crime podcast that her former friend Leon has been murdered on a boat off the French coast, then, her husband tells her that he’s going to run away with her best friend Estelle taking their two girls with them. When Estelle’s husband Fin Cohen, a famous musician, turns up and a photo of the two of them goes viral, her carefully built life crumbles and falls. It will not be long before someone will recognise her, before those people that she has hidden from for years will finally find her, before it all will start again. She needs to run away again, but before, together with Fin, she will find out what happened to Leon and if the person she supposes behind it all is still looking for her.

Sometimes you start a novel, expecting it to be entertaining and gripping, but then you are literally dragged into it and cannot stop reading. That’s what happened to me with “Conviction”, once I began reading, I was spellbound and fascinated and absolutely wanted to know what all this was about. Due to Denise Mina’s clever foreshadowing and the high pace of the plot, you don’t get a second to relax and breathe deeply, as the protagonist runs, you are tagged along and eagerly follow.

Denise Mina does not waste any time, the story starts like a bull at the gate and before you are even the slightest oriented, you are already in the middle of the mess that Anna is experiencing. Choosing a first person narrator was some clever decision as thus, we only get her perspective, only what she wants to share and which leaves the reader in the dark for quite some time. At first, she seems to be totally overreacting until you realise that there is much more behind it all. The good and dutiful housewife obvious is entangled in some unbelievably big conspiracy with powerful people far beyond any law enforcement.

A proper page-turner with unexpected twists and turns which also has some witty and comical bits and pieces to offer.

Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

kate elizabeth russell my dark vanessa
Kate Elizabeth Russell – My Dark Vanessa

A big dream becomes true when 15-year-old Vanessa Wye is accepted at Browick, an expensive boarding school with an excellent educational programme. Immediately she is hooked by her literature teacher, Jacob Strane, who opens the world of books to her. But this is not the only world he introduces her to. It all starts with some glances, some minutes he makes her linger after class, a careless and random touch until it is what it should not be: sexual abuse of a minor and a student. However, this is just one view, for Vanessa, it is her first love, the first time somebody pays attention to her, tells her she is pretty, appreciates her mind and opinion. Of course, a secret relationship like this will not go unnoticed and when Strane and Vanessa are confronted with the accusations, it is her who is expelled. More than 15 years later, she still wonders how all this could have gone so wrong, they were only in love, that’s all.

Kate Elizabeth Russell’s novel really is a hell of a read. Using the first person narrator perspective, you climb into Vanessa’s head and get her thinking without any filter. More than once I was stunned, abhorred, terrified or just could shake my head in disbelieve. This girl – even as a grown up woman – is totally captured in her construction of the world, her oftentimes limited capacities of assessing a situation and the naivety with which she confronts her treacherous teacher is one of the best and highly authentic characters I have read about in a while. Even though I could hardly be farther away in my own thinking, I can easily imagine that her state of mind can be found in many girls who are insecure and a bit detached from her classmates.

This novel certainly is not for the highly sensitive. Child abuse and sexual harassment have been topics I have been faced with in my job and in my opinion, “My Dark Vanessa” is a superb example of how a molester gets closer to his victim and which techniques of manipulation he can use to make a girl or woman comply with his wishes. Blaming the victim for what has happened is one of the most loathsome strategies but quite typical and more than once I cringed while reading. Several times, Vanessa senses that something is not right, she feels maybe not abused but her wishes and needs are not respected but she does not possess the mental force or the words to express her position. Even when she is older, it takes some time for her to say it out loud what all that happened has to be called. Possibly her own understanding helped her to cope with the situation better than others, nevertheless, at 32, she is a total mess and far from mentally stable.

A wonderful novel in many respects. Not an easy topic to write about, but an exceptional development of the characters and by using flashbacks also an excellent way of presenting two interpretations of the same incident, the younger and the older Vanessa are not the same anymore. “My Dark Vanessa” was highly praised as one of the most remarkable and important debuts of 2020 – I could hardly agree more with this.

Gytha Lodge – She Lies in Wait

gytha-lodge-she-lies-in-wait
Gytha Lodge – She Lies in Wait
Thirty years have passed since 14-year-old Aurora Jackson vanished when camping with a group teenagers. But now, her body has been discovered by coincidence. She has been dead all the time, buried in the woods and her killer running free. What happened that night, when Aurora‘s sister and her friends had invited her in the woods? Obviously a lot of booze and drugs, but how come that one of them could have been murdered and the others remain silent for over three decades? DCI Jonah Sheens and his team have to face a group of friends who stand in line even after all the time. They must have to hide quite a lot…

 

Gytha Lodge‘s debut is a thrilling crime novel from the first to the last page. The plot offers many different side lines that could lead to the solution and the combination of having the story advance in the present and the flashbacks of the day in 1983 keep suspense high.

 

What I found most interesting was the dynamics between the friends. On the one hand, the group of six as teenagers where the cool ones lead and have their say, but also later as adults where they all found their place in life and in their small group. They made some wrong decisions out of fears that are understandable for teenagers, but they never corrected them as adults even though they had the chance.

 

Many twists and turns keep you guessing about what happened that night and in the end, it all is solved convincingly. For me, a perfect crime novel and a very entertaining read.

Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

Sarah-henstra-the-red-word
Sarah Henstra – The Red Word

For a conference, Karen returns to the town she attended college many years before. It is not a pleasant return since the place is connected to sad memories. Going back there brings it all again to her mind. Her roommates, nice girls at first, whose plan got completely wrong. Her then boy-friend and his fraternity GBC who always treated her nicely but also had another, darker side. The teacher they all admired in their gender studies classes. And the scandal that shock the whole town.

Sarah Henstra’s novel tells different tales with only one story. First of all, we have the strong protagonist Karen who as a Canadian always stands a bit outside her fellow students’ circles. She doesn’t have the same background; neither does she have the rich parents who provide her with all she needs not does she come with the intellectual package that most of the others seem to possess. The need to earn money to support herself keeps her from leading the same life as they do. This also brings her into the special situation between the groups who soon find themselves at war.

The central topic, however, is how college students deal with sex. On the one hand, we have the partying during which much alcohol and all kinds of drugs are consumed which makes the young people reckless and careless. On the other hand, we have the planned drugging of young women with Rohypnol to abused them. There is a third perspective, represented by the academic intelligentsia: the classic image of the woman as victim, portrayed in history and literature throughout the centuries and which did not change in more than two thousand years.

“The Red Word” could hardly be more relevant and up-to-date in the discussions we have seen all over the word about male dominance and indiscriminate abuse of their stronger position. Sarah Henstra does not just foreshadow what happens at the student houses, she openly talks about the rape that happens there. And she does provide a credible picture of what happens afterwards, of how women are accused of having contributed or even asked for it, of lame excuses for the male behaviour and of the psychological effect these experiences have on the students – both, male and female. It is not just black and white, there are many shadows and motives behind their actions, Henstra integrates them convincingly.

A felicitous novel with a very important story to tell.

Fredrik Backman – The Scandal/Beartown

fredrik-backman-the-scandal
Fredrik Backman – The Scandal

A small town in northern Sweden. There is not much that connects the people in Beartown, it is too small and too insignificant to be known beyond the town’s limits. Yet, when the junior hockey boys win the semi-finals, for the first time in history, something big can happen. Beartown has always been a hockey town, if you don’t play, you are nobody. If you are not connected somehow with the local club, you are an outsider. Peter is the manager of the club and of course his wife Kira and their kids Maya and Leo also have to live for the club. Coach David has raised a generation of winners and with this junior team, they can finally pick the fruits of many years of hard work. But one evening will change everything, old friendships and loyalties will be tested, values will be questioned. The town will never be the same when the scandal comes to light.

I have read novels by Fredrik Backman before and really like his style and his eye for the detail in creating singular characters. However, “The Scandal” is so much more than interesting characters at a crucial moment of their life, it is the portrait of a community, the study of an average small town and the way these places work and how the individual is just a small cog in the machine. Admittedly, I also wouldn’t ever have imagined that a novel about ice hockey could be interesting, but it is.

First of all, the structure of the novel is full of suspense. You get to know the small town, all the important people, logically connected to the club, yet, the narrator warns you quite early that something is about to change everything, that things are not going to stay the way they are.

We have the kids, the boys playing hockey, friendships based on doing sports together, on being in a team, on standing in for one another. We have the girls who only play a minor role in the public opinion since they do not play hockey, there is no girls team, they are just a reward for the successful player, an accessory to decorate oneself with. We have the functional and the dysfunctional families, the rich and the poor, the local heroes and prestigious and the outsiders whom everybody ignores. Beartown is just like any small town anywhere in the world.

When the scandal finally becomes known, people have to take sides and have to admit to their values: is winning with the club more important than the individual’s fate? Whose side do you take, whom do you believe? What are you willing to give up and risk for a hockey team? Many are ready to forget long-time friendships, to forget their ideals, to place success before justice. It is impressive how Backman traces the development of the mood in town, how the machine finally starts and how opinions are formed.

Actually, it is not a novel about hockey. It is a novel about you and me and the question what is important in life and what you are willing to do to defend your principles or to be successful.