Heidi Perks – The Whispers

Heidi Perks – The Whispers

When Grace returns to her British hometown of Clearwater after two decades in Australia, she hopes to renew the friendship with Anna. As kids and teenagers, the two had been close as sisters, due to her poor family situation, Anna more or less grew up with Grace’s family until they decided to move to the other side of the planet. However, Anna does not seem happy at all about Grace’s return, she has established a small circle of good friends and is reluctant of letting her former best friend join their group of four. After one evening at the local pub, Anna does not come home but neither her friends nor her husband seem to be really concerned so Grace takes over responsibility: she informs the police and starts to ask questions. Why do all people in the small sea-side town behave strangely? It has always been her to be in charge and to take care of the small and big catastrophes, so not much seems to have changed. But on her own, will she be able to find Anna and to uncover why all people are telling lies?

Heidi Perks wonderfully portrays life in a small town. Everybody knows everybody and is keen on spreading rumours, especially if there is something cheesy or malicious to share. As soon as Grace turns up for the first time at the schoolyard to bring her daughter to her new school, “The Whispers” among the mothers start and cannot be silenced anymore. Quite authentically, we hold as true the things we can observe and the bits and pieces of information we get and make sense of the story – and thus fall into the author’s trap since not much is really what it seems at first.

Admittedly, even though Grace as the protagonist is portrayed as a sympathetic woman, I did not really like her as she was, in my opinion, a bit creepy from the beginning. A lot of people live in the past and want to repeat it, therefore, returning to the place where she had a good time is not too strange, yet, the fact that she does not want to accept that Anna does not want to bond with her anymore and that she does not even make the slightest effort to find other friends, I found quite weird and obtrusive.

After Anna gets missing, the other characters indeed do behave inexplicably, yet, it does not take too long until the author reveals the other side of the story. As an experienced crime novel reader, you tend to be cautious and hesitant from the start when you are only presented with one character’s point of view, this is why I did not find it too surprising that not all things are what they seem at first. However, what I totally adored was how Heidi Perks managed to portray especially the small town women and their gossiping and how they make an effort of polishing their own lives to appear as someone superior to the others.

An entertaining read with some unexpected twists which brilliantly captures small town life.

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

When Dot dies from a stroke at the age of 70, she leaves her twins Jeanie and Julius behind. Even though both of them are well in their adulthood, they still behave like children and therefore are totally overstrained by finding their mother dead on the kitchen floor. The three of them have lead a decent life at the small cottage since their father and husband Frank was killed in an accident, they have never needed much and could rely on their garden and the small amount of money Julius could make in providing a helping hand with all sorts of craftsman jobs. Yet, Jeanie and Julius do not have much time to grieve before all sorts of people turn up from the village claiming money their mother allegedly had borrowed. They can hardly believe it; this does not fit to the image they had of Dot. But this is just the beginning, without the strong and determined woman in the house anymore, the twins become an easy prey and soon have to face an unexpected problem: they are being evicted from what has been their home for decades.

A couple of years ago, I already enjoyed Claire Fuller’s novel “Swimming Lessons” which presented complex characters and a challenging family structure. In “Unsettled Ground”, too, the reader is confronted with a couple of highly interesting characters and an all but usual family construct which slowly unfolds its real tragedy in the course of the novel. Neither Jeanie nor Julius or any other character is easy to sympathise with, the world they have created for themselves is undoubtedly quite unique and takes some time to understand.

The novel has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction which is nevertheless easy to understand. It presents two characters at the critical point in their life when all they have known is threatened, when everything is about to fall apart and when all they have taken for granted and believed to be true has to be reassessed. Jeanie and Julius have a strong bond which nevertheless does not hinder them from coping with the threats they face totally differently.  Ultimately, it is the struggle of survival in a hostile world, the attempt to build a life on the broken pieces of the truths they have held to be true but turned out to be all but that.

Admittedly, reading “Unsettled Ground” makes you feel depressed more than once, the story is hard to endure at times. Yet, this surely can be attributed to the author’s skill of transmitting atmosphere and mood in a brilliant way. It’s one of those novels one does not really want to dig deeper in while at the same time one can hardly put down once started.

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Belinda Bauer – Exit

Felix Pink works as a so called Exiteer which means he accompanies people during their last hours to decently transit from this to another world. Normally, they work in pairs and so far everything has gone quite smoothly. They do not leave any clues about their presence and don’t use their real names even with their colleagues. When Felix is called to his next client, it is his first job together with Amanda who is new to the business. When they have accomplished their task, a bit more demanding since the old man this time seems to have become reluctant to die in the last second, they are about to leave the house. At this moment, somebody shouts for them, obviously, they haven’t been alone in the house as expected, but there was a witness – waiting for them to assist his suicide. Felix and Amanda have made a huge mistake and have to face reality: they have just killed somebody and the police are already on their way.

“He had made a terrible mistake, but hoped there was a good reason why. He just hadn’t found it yet.”

I was first allured by the idea of the Exiteer business since assisted suicide has been fiercely discussed and surely isn’t an easy topic. However, Belinda Bauer’s novel turned out quite differently than expected. From the rather serious and gloomy start, an incredible plot develops which is full of fine irony and humour, wonderful characters who are diligently drawn and all the absurdities life can offer.

“‘Bloody hell,’ said Pete. ‘I did not see that coming.’ Calvin thought that spoke well of Pete, because you’d have to be pretty sick to see that coming.”

Felix Pink is a decent elderly widower who is a bit lonesome but as Exiteer has found a task which gives him the feeling of being helpful. Finding himself suddenly in the middle of a crime is something he absolutely cannot cope with. He is full of pangs of conscience which leads him to worsen the situation even more. Yet, it is not only the Exiteer who is breath-taking to observe but also the dead man’s family – consisting of his son Reggie and his father Skipper – who have quite some story to offer and also the police is a set of extraordinary characters.

A remarkable plot which offers quite some surprises one surely cannot see coming.

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Pola Oloixarac – Mona

Mona, a Peruvian writer who has been living in California for some years, is invited to Sweden as she has been nominated for the notable Basske-Wortz prize, one of the most renowned literary awards of Europe. Together with other authors from diverse countries, she is to spend a couple of days in a remote resort where they have talks and give presentations. Rivalry starts immediately, some of them Mona has known for years and met at literary festivals before, others she admires for their work. However, the young woman is not too much concerned with the possibility of being awarded a famous prize, it is her life that matters most at the moment. Her body is covered with bruises and she cannot recollect where they stem from. Also her abuse of diverse substances follows her to the Swedish secludedness – travelling to the end of the world does not mean you can escape your demons.

The setting the Argentinian writer Pola Oloixarac has chosen for her third novel is perfect for a small community under a magnifying lens. None of them can escape and they have to face each other – as well as themselves. For the protagonist Mona, she herself comes to scrutinise her very own situation: where does she stand as a writer and why does her current novel refuse to advance; where do these bruises come from which hurt and yet do not give a clue of what might have happened; how to people perceive and classify her as a woman of colour who, as a doctoral candidate at one of the most prestigious universities, penetrated into an area which normally is closed to people with her background.

Even though I found the ending rather confusing, I totally enjoyed reading the novel which is remarkable due to its strong protagonist and quite a unique tone of narration with strong images and brilliant use of language.

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Donna Leon – Transient Desires

Two young women, tourists in Venice, are found severely wounded in front of a hospital one late night. Luckily, with the help of video surveillance they can quickly find out the two men who put them there. But which did they abandon them even though they first provided help? As commissario Brunetti investigates the case together with his colleague Claudia Griffoni, they happen to link one of the men to another crime of which the police only have a faint idea so far, but this might be their breakthrough.

Whenever I take up a Donna Leon novel on commissario Brunetti, I know what I will get: a crime story which is solved not by some miraculously appearing deus ex machina, but by meticulous police work combined with the protagonist’s clever instinct and the ability to read people and to actually listen to them. Apart from that, it is always like some kind of bookish holiday to travel to the Venetian Lagoon and to delve into its very unique atmosphere. The thirtieth instalment in the series does not disappoint in this respect.

Quite interestingly, the crime with which the novel opens is quite quickly solved and classified an accident and a series of unfortunate events and decisions. Yet, it is only the beginning of a real crime – a crime of the sort nobody wants to know about and people eagerly close their eyes on. This time, it is Brunetti’s colleague who stirs the investigation and the commissario not only gets to know her from an unknown side but also learns that Griffoni’s hometown of Naples could also be on another planet that different life works there.

A plot driven by interesting and strongly painted characters, just the sort of entertainment one knows Donna Leon to provide.

Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom

Gifty has always been second, her brother Nana was the beloved child of the parents, as a sports prodigy all eyes of their Alabama hometown have been on him until an injury and later a drug addiction took his life. Gifty’s mother has never recovered from the loss, her father had left the family even before to turn back to his home country Ghana. Even as an adult and highly successful scientist, Gifty longs for the mother’s recognition which she never gets. Also religion, with which she grew up does not really offer any condolence. How should she ever be able to love when she herself has never experienced being loved?

Yaa Gyasi‘s “Homegoing“ was already a novel I thoroughly enjoyed, “Transcendent Kingdom“, however, is much stronger in the way the protagonist is portrayed and in conveying this fragmented family‘s critical emotional state. The mother struggling to make a life in a foreign country and thus enduring open racism from the people she works for; Gifty being raised to be silent with a strange idea of how to be a good girl and to follow ideals marked by a religious understanding which limits her in every respect.

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

Gifty loves her brother, admires him and even though, as a child, she cannot understand what happens to him after his injury, he is the one who drives her to work her way up in the scientific community, to go into one of the hardest disciplines in order to understand the human brain and to contribute to scientific finding and development.

“Like my mother, I had a locked box where I kept all my tears. My mother had only opened hers the day that Nana died and she had locked it again soon.”

Gifty’s mother suffers from depression which makes her unable to care or love her daughter. She does not see what the girl achieves, how hard she works and how much she suffers from the lack of emotional care. It is a pity to see how she neglects the girl who retreats into her own world and which makes her unable of bonding with others, no matter if on a friendships or a romantic basis.

A wonderfully written novel, highly emotional and going to the heart.

Danielle McLaughlin – The Art of Falling

Nessa McCormack and her husband Philip have just sorted out their marriage after Philip’s affair when ghosts of the past reappear. Her former best friend’s son Luke and his father Stuart appear out of nowhere after almost two decades without any contact. After Luke’s mother’s suicide they did not stay in touch, not only because times where difficult but also because Nessa and Stuart had a brief affair. Also at work things become complicated when Nessa is curating an exhibition of sculptor Robert Locke and a mysterious woman appears who claims to have created the most impressive piece of the exhibition. Yet, Locke’s widow and daughter claim to have provided all materials and never to have heard of the woman. However, she has set her mind on finally being recognised as an artist.

The most striking about Danielle McLaughlin’s novel is the protagonist and her development throughout the story. Apart from this, the dynamics between the characters is also remarkable, set in motion by the classic sins which you can find almost all in the novel: pride, lust, greed, wrath, sloth – you name it. They have always belonged to mankind, so why not to 21st century characters, too?

At the beginning of the novel, Nessa is on the one hand disappointed and fells devalued by her husband since he not only had an affair but chose a woman who isn’t even the slightest attractive in her opinion. On the other hand, her husband’s misconduct brings her into a morally superior position which she quite unashamedly exploits. She has got a big project in her job which will automatically come with a lot of kudos, undoubtedly, she is good at what she’s doing and an expert of the sculptor she curates. But small lapses leave cracks and with the appearance of the mysterious woman, the cracks start to deepen and threaten her reputation. At the same time, her daughter first seems to be on her husband’s side – the cheater! – and then openly opposes her mother to take sides of the other woman. There is not much left in her life which works according to plan and Nessa becomes increasingly irritable – until a secret, well-kept for many years – suddenly surfaces and threatens to destroy it all.

A lot of moral questions are addressed in the novel without providing simplistic answers or role models. The dramatic structure also creates the suspense that keeps you reading on.  A compelling read I thoroughly enjoyed.

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Sonia Faleiro – The Good Girls

Padma and Lalli, inseparable cousins and friends, were only 16 and 14 when they were killed. As their small village in Uttar Pradesh was rather underdeveloped in hygienic and housing terms, the girls needed to go to the nearby fields to relieve themselves. One night in 2014, they went missing and were found hanging in the orchard a couple of hours later. Rumours spread fast about what might have happened and who could be responsible for their deaths, however, even though national media became interested in the case, investigations took their time and the police only reluctantly tried to solve the case. Girls from lower classes have never been high priority and their death seemed to cause more nuisance than alarm.

“This negligence contributed to an epidemic of missing and exploited children, many of them trafficked within and outside the country.”

Sonia Faleiro’s book is a true crime account of how the girls’ lives might have looked like in their last hours, the immediate reaction of the families and villagers and also a lot of facts which help to understand the circumstances in which this crime could take place. The subheading “An Ordinary Killing” already gives away a lot: the murder of girls and women had become to ordinary in India that people didn’t bat an eyelid anymore. However, the events of 2012, when a student was violated in a bus, made worldwide headlines and stirred protests which finally made people aware of the hostile and misogynist climate they were living in.

“Although Delhi was notoriously unsafe, stories about sexual assault didn’t often make the news.”

There are a lot of factors which enabled the murder of Padma and Lalli, their status as girls, their belonging to an inferior class, the remoteness and backwardness of their village – many standards and rights we in the western world take for granted simply do not apply there. But it is not only the crime itself which is abhorrent, also the situation of the police – understaffed, ill-equipped, prone to bribery – and even more of the medical examiner – without any training, just doing the job because nobody else would do it with the logical result of a post-mortem which is simply absurd – are just incredible. What I found most interesting was actually not the girls’ story and the dynamics in the village afterwards but the background information. Sonia Faleiro convincingly integrates them into the narrative which thus becomes informative while being appealing to read. I’d rather call it a journalistic piece of work than  fiction and it is surely a noteworthy contribution to the global discussion on women’s rights.

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

Lauren Oyler – Fake Accounts

When the unnamed narrator seizes the chance to snoop through her boyfriend’s phone – which he normally does not let out of his sight – she discovers that he has a large Instagram account on which he spreads conspiracy theories. She is confused but admittedly, she was already thinking about splitting up and now she’s got a good reason. However, her plan – telling him after returning from the women’s march against Trump – fails totally because when she’s still in Washington, his mother informs her of his fatal bike accident. Even though she already was detached emotionally, this hits her hard and literally throws her out of her life. She quits her job and travels to Berlin, the city where they first met and where she hopes to find out what she expects from life and what she actually wants to do professionally.

Lauren Oyler’s novel is a portrait of a somehow lost generation who lives a double life: one in the real world, where many of them are lost and orbiting around aimlessly, and one in the online world, where they can create an idea of themselves, a person they would like to be and play a role according to their likes. Yet, the more followers they generate, the more narcissistic they become and inevitably, the fake life in the world-wide web has an impact on reality, too. Slowly, they also start to create fake personalities there and increasingly lack the necessary authenticity and sincerity it needs to have serious relationship with others.

The narrator lives such a life in both spheres at the same time, her job involves roaming the net for good stories she can re-use and pimp for the magazine she works at. After leaving her old life behind and moving to Europe, she does not even start to create a new life in Berlin, neither does she try to learn German nor does she really make acquaintances. She dates people she gets to know online simply to tell each one a different story about who she is – she successfully transfers the possibility of a fake online account into real life. However, this does not make her any happier.

In a certain way, this is funny and ironic since it is so much over the top that it cannot be real. But is it really? Are people still able to make a distinction between the two? And which consequences does this have for us? We are all aware of how photos can be photoshopped, how information online can be embellished or simply wrong and we pay attention when we are approached by someone online whom we don’t know. In real life however, don’t we expect that people tell us the truth at least to a certain extent? And especially in a relationship, aren’t sincerity and truthfulness necessary foundations to build trust in each other?

An interesting study in how far our online behaviour may fire back – not something we can really wish for. Even though the tone is light and often funny, is leaves you somehow with a bad aftertaste.

J. S. Margot – Mazel Tov

J.S. Margot – Mazel Tov

Even though the interview went rather poorly, the Schneider family employs the narrator as a tutor for their four children. The two boys cope with school quite well, but the oldest daughter Elzira struggles and needs support. The children do not go to an ordinary school, just like the family is not the ordinary Antwerp family. They are Orthodox Jews and with her tutoring job, the doors to a completely new world open for the young student. Gradually, she does not actually become a member of the family but they grow totally fond of her and even when the kids have grown up, they not only stay in contact but support each when they are in need.

The Flemish journalist and novelist Margot Vanderstraeten narrates her encounter with the Jewish community at the beginning of the 1990s when she was a student. She is quite young, only a couple of years the children’s senior when she first enters their life and thus can only wonder about what she sees and learns about the family’s faith, the different types of Judaism and a life in her hometown of which she did not have the least idea.

She is confronted with a lot of contradictions and unbelievable concepts, however, she also learns that they can provide anchors in life and give orientation in the modern world. Over the years, she also understands why some Jews prefer to keep to themselves and why all of them always have a passport at hand. At times funny, at times pensive – the novel gives insight in an unknown world without judging any way of life or religion. It is a wonderful memoir which first of all shows how people can bond even though, at first, they could hardly differ more. By showing Jews not only in Belgium but also in Israel and the USA, she also underlines that all of them find their very own way of interpreting their religion and of uniting an old faith based on ancient rules with the modern world.