Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Jo Spain – The Perfect Lie

Erin and her husband Danny are the perfect couple and still totally in love when, one morning, Danny’s partner appears unexpectedly at their door and Danny jumps to death. When Erin starts asking questions about the why, the police remain quiet, she only learns that there must have been some internal investigation and that obviously her husband wasn’t the good cop she has always assumed. Yet, a lot of things are strange and when Erin is approached by a guy named Cal who tells her that she shouldn’t believe the rumours because Danny wanted to help his sister against all obstacles within the police, she does not know what to believe anymore. Eighteen months later, she finds herself in court – charged with murdering her husband. How could things turn out so badly?

Again, Jo Spain has created a suspenseful novel in which nothing is as it appears at first glance. “The Perfect Lie” is not just around one lie, but around many lies, things left unsaid, bits and pieces which form a perfect picture but couldn’t be farer from reality. Since the story is narrated at different points in time, you quite naturally interpret the action based on what you know at that moment, just to learn a bit later that all your assumptions were totally wrong since you were lacking that relevant piece of information.

Erin is in her early thirties when she is confronted with the most tragic event imaginable: witnessing her husband committing suicide. Yet, this does not leave her grieving in shock and incapable of action. However, her questions are greeted with rejection and she is treated in the most horrible way by the police and her husband’s former colleagues and friends. No wonder she turns to the people who are willing to help her and one can only wonder why so many behave in this way. Suspense, however, is mainly created by the fact that she finds herself accused of murder only months later. As a reader, you witness the moment Danny decides to take his life, all is clear so quite naturally, it is totally unbelievable how this could have been turned against the widow. How far would police go to cover any trace of misconduct?

I was gripped form the start and couldn’t put down the novel once I had read the first chapter. Spain perfectly plays with our conviction to understand a situation based on the bits of information we have just to demonstrate that maybe we came to a conclusion a bit too quickly since things are not always what they seem. A superb read that I thoroughly enjoyed.

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.

Courtney Summers – The Project

Courtney Summer – The Project

Lo Denham has lost her parents in a car accident in which she herself was also seriously injured and which marked her with a scar for life. Her sister Bea, six years her senior, is the last bit of family she has, but she has not been able to contact her for months. It must be The Unity Project’s fault, the sect Bea joined when she couldn’t make sense of the loss she experienced anymore. When a man claims that The Unity Project killed his son, Lo decides to take a closer look and to get nearer to the charismatic leader Lev Warren with the aim to expose the group’s doings in the magazine she works for. However, Lo is not prepared for the experiences she makes there.

Courtney Summers narrates the story from different points of view at different points in time, thus we get both sisters’ perspective on the highly emotional events in their lives. This also creates a lot of suspense since from the beginning, there are gaps which need to be filled to make sense. It also underlines the different characters of Lo and Bea which, nevertheless, does not hinder them from being fascinated by the same man.

The crucial point is most definitely the psychological impact a major tragic event such as the loss of the parents can have on young persons. Coming to grips with such a stroke of fate which does not make sense and is hard to understand is not only very hard but also makes people fragile and prone to others who are eager to exploit their situation. The leader of the group is surely an interesting character, it is easy to see how he manages to win people for his project and how he can make them follow him blindly. In this way, the novel also cleverly portrays the mechanism which work behind sects and which make it difficult to immediately see through them and more importantly to leave them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel due to the multifaceted characters and the message beyond the suspenseful and entertaining plot.

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Ali Smith – Spring

ali smith spring
Ali Smith – Spring

Just as the years moves on so does Ali Smith with the third volume of her seasonal quartet. Now, its spring time, the time of the year between death and re-birth, between the end and a new beginning. A promising time, but also a time which can surprise and is hard to foresee. This time, we meet Richard, an elderly filmmaker who is still shaken by his former colleague and friend Patricia Heal’s death. He remembers his last visits when she was already between here and there. Richard is standing on a train platform with clearly suicidal intentions when a girl and a custody officer rush by. Florence and Brittany are headed for a place which they assume somewhere in Scotland, on their journey this unusual couple also addresses the big questions of life and humanity which Brittany can hardly find in the prison she works where the detainees are dehumanised and not even granted the least bit of privacy.

Just like the two novels before in this quartet, Ali Smith captures the mood of the country at a very critical point. In my opinion, “Spring” is absolutely outstanding since it has several layers of narrative, it is philosophical, literary, sociological, psychological, political – an eclectic mix of thoughts and notions that come together or rather have to be put together by the reader. While, on the one hand, being were close to an archaic understanding of the concept of time and the natural course of a year, there are many references to artists and the imaginary world.

Underlying the whole novel is a certain despair – Richard’s grieve, Britt’s disillusion with her job, Florence’s detachedness from humans which makes her almost invisible – in a time of political shaky times: Brexit, migration crisis, an overall suspicion in society about what (social) media and politics tell them and more importantly what they do not tell. Will there come a summer?  And if so, what will it be like? As spring always is a new beginning, something might be overcome or left behind and something has the chance to flourish, at least the hope remains.

I found it a bit harder this time to find my way in the novel, therefore, “Autumn” remains my favourite so far and I am quite impatient to see, what “Summer” will bring.

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.

Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

clarissa goenawan the perfect world of miwako sumida
Clarissa Goenawan – The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida

When his friends ask him out for a date to have equal numbers of boys and girls, Ryusei is not too keen. But then he meets Miwako and immediately falls for the peculiar girl who is not stunningly attractive and even overtly harsh. They soon find out that they actually have a lot in common, they spend more and more time together and Miwako befriends Ryusei’s older sister Fumi-nee. Even though they become inseparable, they are not a couple, there is something holding Miwako back from really getting attached to the student who adores her. The secret lies in her past but she isn’t ready to tell it. Yet, the moment of confession never comes, she commits suicide before she can explain herself and thus leaves Ryusei and her friends behind wondering what lead her to this drastic step.

“The Perfect World of Miwako Sumida” is a complex study of characters who carry secrets they never want to come out, but which have a deep impact on their personality and behaviour. The main plot centres around the question what lead Miwako to this drastic decision of ending her life. Ryusei, their common friend Chie and also Fumi-nee all have some bits and pieces of knowledge of her, but they cannot put them together to understand the girl. All their perspectives are presented only for the reader to get the whole picture of a deeply disturbed and suffering character.

It is not only Miwako who is interesting in her way of coping with grief and life’s strokes of fate. Ryusei and his sister became orphans at a young age leaving the older girl in charge of her brother and renouncing her own dreams to take care of him. However, the fact that she herself struggled with life and the question of her identity made Miwako open up to her and revealing her secret because she sensed that both their stories were none to be told easily.

Even though a lot of very dire topics are addressed and all the characters have to endure much from the world around them, it is all but a depressing read. For quite some time, they try to cope with their respective situation alone, but just by opening their eyes and having a bit of trust, they could see that there are people around them who are sensitive and emphatic.

Just as the characters, the novel also takes some time to fully unfold and display its strength.

Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

barbara-bourland-fake-like-me
Barbara Bourland – Fake like me

When the young aspiring painter arrives in New York to become a real artist, she encounters the already famous quintet that calls itself “Pine City“ after the place they work. Jes, Marlin, Jack, Tyler and especially Carey are the up-coming big names in the art world and all that the unnamed narrator dreams of: self-confident, relaxed, comfortable in themselves. A couple of years later, she is at the threshold of making herself a name when her apartment burns down and with it several pieces of work that were meant to be shown just a couple of weeks later. She had stored them at home, not at safe place as she tells her curator, thus, she has to act quickly and rebuild them. An impossible task, even more so if you do not even have a work place anymore. She luckily finds an interim solution: a friend brings her at the heart of the circle she once admired and which has been reduced to a quartet after Carey’s suicide. It was her especially that she looked up to and felt connected with. Maybe staying there might give her some insight in why she decided to end her life.

I really dived into the novel and was immediately hooked by Barbara Bourland’s novel. The young artist who is insecure and admires those who already succeeded. I also appreciated the insight in a painter’s work, how her emotions lead to results when she manages to channel them into the art. Interestingly also to glance behind the façade of the art and culture circus – you get the impression that it is just this: a façade, a cover-up to please, a pretence – without any solid foundation or walls. However, I got a bit lost when the plot developed too much into a love story.

I enjoyed the author’s style of writing and the combination of the art world with a touch of mystery. Yet, apart from the protagonist, it was hard to support the characters who were nor only shallow but pretentious and affected, and who took themselves and their work by far too serious. Just like the characters, the overall plot was also a bit trivial and lacked the depth and analysis or insight in the art work I had expected. The mystery surrounding the suicide of Carey, too, did not really show any suspense. An interesting read with a very strong beginning but a bit lengthy from the middle on.

Emma Rous – The Au Pair

emma-rpus-the-aupair
Emma Rous – The Au Pair

After her beloved father has died, Seraphine Mayes digs into her family’s history. When she finds a photograph of her mother, her older brother Edwin and one baby, she is astonished: it must have been taken on the day of her birth, but which one is the baby? Seraphine or her twin brother Danny? And why does the mother look so happy, only hours before she committed suicide? The photo must have been taken by the au pair who was then looking for Edwin, a certain Laura. When the young woman starts her search for the former babysitter, memories of rumours surrounding her family home Summerbourne also come back to her mind: why did everybody in the small village always say that twins do not survive in that house? When Seraphine tracks down Laura and tries to contact her, she inadvertently sets in motion a series of events.

Emma Rous’ mystery starts as a simply family story and then develops into a suspenseful crime novel. The story is told alternatingly between Seraphine’s search for Laura and the latter’s experiences as an au pair 25 years before. Two young women full of distress who cannot foresee what they run into. The plot is carefully crafted and to sort out the complex connections takes some time thanks to unexpected twists and turns.

“The Au Pair” clearly lives on the two protagonists. I liked both of them dearly, Seraphine’s stubbornness is quite convincing, she does not give up even when being threatened, actually this only spurs her curiosity and fervour to uncover the events surrounding her birth. On the other hand, Laura had to flee from her evil stepfather and tries to regain control over her life. Both women are created multifacetedly, especially their relationships are complicated which makes them authentic and believable. Apart from the characters, I especially liked the atmosphere of the novel and the spooky tales that circle around the two family homes which give you the impression of old gothic homes which have some secrets buried that are never meant to come to the light.

Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

catherine-simpson-when-i-had-a-little-sister
Catherine Simpson – When I Had a Little Sister

Catherine Simpson’s memoir is not a book easy to review. First of all, it is of course non-fictional, second, it is a very personal report on a sister’s emotions and thoughts after her younger sibling committed suicide. This makes it difficult to use phrases like “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it” since they simply don’t work here. It is also somehow out of question to discuss the tone of writing as while reading it, I had the impression that it was much more written for Simpson herself than necessarily for a reader. It seemed to me to be her way of coping with the situation and sorting out her thoughts and feelings.

I appreciated her openness in sharing her sometimes contradictory emotions, in not embellishing her own role in her sister’s life. She presents episodes where she was nasty as a kid or where she simply did not pay enough attention to Tricia’s needs. This surely is not easy to talk about. But this is exactly the point she is making: in their family, they never talked. The girls were taught to be silent, not to ask too many questions and best not to be seen at all. They did not have a poor childhood, they had good times and fun on the farm, too, but the family’s way of coping with emotions certainly played a role in the development of Tricia’s illness and final suicide.

The book definitely gives a good insight in living with depression and how the loved ones who are left behind after someone chose to end his or her life feel guilty and wonder if they could have done more. I don’t think there is much you can actually do to protect and help people with serious mental health issues, but you can certainly work on talking more with the people around you.