Fredrik Backman – The Winners

Fredrik Backman – The Winners

A lot of time has passed since the tragic events of Beartown. Maya Andersson and Benji Ovich have left the village to start a new life somewhere else, the rest of the inhabitants has found a way of either forgetting or ignoring. But now they are threatened by a storm and a fateful series of events brings people home, opens up old wounds and creates new ones. Beartown as its rival village of Hed will never be the same again, they all will have changed and one person’s life especially will be determined by the events of only a very short time.

I have read almost all novels by Fredrik Backman and yet, I am overwhelmed each time and even though I am all but prone to extreme emotion, I can’t help crying while reading his stories. From the first two books settled in the Swedish village of Beartown (The Scandal/Beartown and Us against you, I knew what to expect from “The Winners” and was somehow prepared, but nevertheless, the author managed to trigger something in me.

Maybe it is the characters who are the most normal people one can imagine, who have their good and caring sides as well as the others which would much rather be hidden. Maybe it is the setting in an unknown village somewhere in the forest which nobody has ever heard of. It is the maximum of normalcy that we encounter in this trilogy and that makes you feel at home and bond with the characters immediately.

Backman’s masterful foreshadowing gives a glimpse in what is to come, it only hints at the upcoming tragedies and thus raises suspense which keeps you reading on, unable to put the book aside. You know that something really dreadful, horrible is waiting at the end and yet, just like life goes on you continue until you reach that moment where you are hit with a hammer.

I am lacking the words to adequately convey what the novel did to me, to describe the experience of reading and after the last page, of leaving this wonderful story. Backman is an exceptional author and his Beartown series is an exceptional read.

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.

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.

Karin Smirnoff – My Brother

Karin Smirnoff – My brother

After years away, Jana returns to the Swedish village she grew up in. There is only her twin brother Bror left of her family. But as soon as she arrives, all the memories of her childhood come back. Her father, a brutal alcoholic who used to beat their mother and the kids, the mother who only ever told them to pray but never stepped in against the violence the kids had to endure. All those things Jana wanted to forget resurface, but there are also other things she wants to know after all this time: where is her daughter and who was Maria?

“I always assumed that something was wrong with me. The classic therapy answer was that I ended up in the same situation again and again in order to relive my childhood. “

Karin Smirnoff‘s novel lives on a very gloomy atmosphere. A snowstorm sets the mood on the very first page. Just as the fierce and merciless nature, the people also treat each other without too much softness in this remote area in the north. It is a story of violence and abuse, of adults looking away, not protecting children and a community which prefers to remain silent over stepping in. The result are scars on the outside and inside and two childish souls marked forever.

“All one can do is pray she said. And how we prayed. Childish prayers for help. “

Jana and Bror’s childhood is the most horrible story to imagine. Afraid of the father, every week hoping that he might die before returning to their home on Friday evening when he used to first drink and then hit whoever got in his way. The mother weak on the one hand, herself victim of constant beating, maybe having given up the hope for a better life, on the other hand, ignoring what her husband does to the kids.  Surely not a novel easy to read. Bror’s addiction and Jana‘s tendency to end up with men who show similar patterns like her father are the logic consequence.

Yet, there is more than the inner circle of the family, the whole village is full of secrets, things which are common knowledge but never told which Jana, now a grown-up and strong woman, uncovers.

To call the novel an enjoyable read would be totally inadequate, there is nothing to enjoy when reading about child abuse and domestic violence. However, the characters are authentically drawn and the dynamics within the village are interesting to observe.

Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

frances macken you have to make your own fun around here
Frances Macken – You Have to Make Your Own Fun Around Here

Since their childhood, Katie, Maeve and Evelyn have been friends and it was never a question who was the leader of their gang. Admired by the other two girls, Evelyn decided on what and who to like or dislike. When a new girl moves to their small Irish community, she immediately knows that Pamela is arrogant and stupid. Due to her mother’s interference, Katie is prone to become Pamela’s friend, but before they could really get to know each other, the girl vanishes and is never to be seen again. Rumours go from her being killed by one of the trio’s friends, over being abducted to her having run away. When school is over, Katie and Evelyn plan to move to Dublin together, but when her friend is not accepted at university, Katie for the first time is on her own and cannot rely on her friend anymore.

What a great beginning of a novel. I totally adored to careless and adventurous kids who then developed into typical teenagers. Unfortunately, the novel lost a bit of its spirit when the three separate. Even though this is necessary for Katie’s development, from this point on I struggled a bit with the reading, first and foremost because I found it hard to endure Katie’s naivety and her inability to become an independent person, to develop her own ideas and tastes, she is totally dependent on others and their opinion, thus just bounces somehow in her life without goal. Her return to her small hometown is a logic consequence which even makes things worse for her.

In my opinion, the protagonist is well developed and throughout her life, the decisions made are well motivated by her personality and point of view, yet, she is certainly not a character to sympathise with or to take as a role model. In spite of that, I found it quite realistic to see how she struggles with her future, not having really developed but play but only a mere vague dream, she cannot succeed and must end up being totally disappointed. Similarly, her blindness when it comes to her friend Evelyn is well portrayed, she ignores all warnings and other views and is thus left to learn it the hard way.

A wonderful first part and some great aspects, nevertheless, I was a bit disappointed in the end, as I think the author could have made more of her plot and character.

Christine Desrousseaux – En attendant la neige

Christine Desrousseaux – En attendant la neige

Après un accident de voiture, Véra se retrouve au coma. Quand elle se réveille, elle n’a aucune mémoire de ce qui s’est passé. Elle décide de quitter l’hôpital pour passer quelques jours retirée dans un chalet d’un ami au Jura. L’hiver approche déjà et elle sait que soudain la neige va tomber et elle devra quitter son refuge. Quand elle s’effondre dans la forêt, elle fait la connaissance d’un voisin mystérieux : Andreas Ballmer. Il est venu au Jura pour chercher Laura et lui aussi a l’impression que les habitants du village voisin sont plutôt hostiles. Vient la neige, viennent aussi les secrets bien cachés. C’est non seulement la mémoire de Véra qui en a caché quelques-uns, mais aussi Andreas et d’autres du village. Et ils sont prêts à faire tout pour les laisser cachés.

« En attendant la neige » commence plutôt tranquillement, d’abord, j’avais l’impression qu’il s’agisse d’un roman psychologique dans lequel une femme se met à penser sur la vie et de prendre des décisions en ce qui concerne son avenir. Mais, c’est vite que de petits trucs se passent qui sont un peu étranges et qu’on ne peut pas situer facilement : la jeune femme, a-t-elle subi de plus graves blessures crâniales qu’on ne supposait au début ? A un certain point, le roman devient un policier et le suspense s’installe et on veut bien savoir ce qui s’est passé pendant l’accident de Véra, mais aussi qui est cette fameuse Laura et quelle est sa relation avec Andreas.

J’ai bien aimé le style de Christine Desrousseaux, quoique ce soir un policier, le ton est plutôt doux et mélancolique. Les deux personnages principaux sont intéressants et ils ont une histoire qu’ils révèlent peu à peu et qui les fait apparaître humain et authentique. La fin ouverte était un peu surprenante, mais je la trouvais appropriée néanmoins.

Stuart Evers – If this is Home

Stuart Evers – If this is Home

When he left the UK, Mark Wilkinson also left behind his name and entered the US as Joe Novak. By now, he is known as Mr Jones and selling apartments in Las Vegas. But something from his past is haunting him, he has episodes, hears voices or better: one voice: the one of Bethany, his girl-friend when he was still a teenager and living in England. He is thirty now and Bethany has been dead for thirteen years. He had wanted to leave their sad hometown together with her, to build a life together in New York, but then, she was murdered. After an incident with a client, he returns to England, now to find out the truth about Bethany’s death.

I was eager to read the novel due to the high praise I could read everywhere. After having finished, I am somewhere between disappointed and deeply confused. Either I didn’t get it at all or it absolutely didn’t work for me.

First of all, I had the impression that the first and the second half of the novel didn’t work together at all. It’s like having completely different characters and two independent stories told. In the beginning, we get a lot of clichés about men who are by far too rich and who think they own the world. It might be quite realistic, but not very interesting and ultimately, it leads to nothing for me. The second part, when Mark tries to figure out what happened to Bethany made a lot more sense, even though he hears her ghost talking constantly. I was waiting for the stunning moment when the circumstances of Bethany’s death are revealed, I expected something unusual, unforeseen and really surprising. Yet, this didn’t come. Actually, I didn’t even understand why he had to change his name all the time and what he was running from after all.

Karine Lambert – Un arbre, un jour…

Karine Lambert – Un arbre, un jour…

La chronique d’une mort annoncée : le 21 mars, le début de printemps, on abattra le platane sur la place centrale du village. Ordre par le maire. Il faut cela pour que les gens se rendent compte du platane, de son histoire, de son importance pour eux. Lui, à 103 ans, il a tout vu : deux guerres mondiales, il a regardé les gens grandir, il a subi des canicules et des hivers froids. Mais ils sont là pour lui : le jeune Clément, âgé de 10 ans seulement, Suzanne la patronne du café, les deux sœurs Bonnafay qui ont perdu leurs fiancés dans la guerre et qui ont passés toutes leurs vies ensemble, Fanny la jeune artiste, Raphaël Costes qui n’a plus besoin de son psy après avoir trouvé une chose pour laquelle il vaut bien lutter. Un comité se forme, on écrit même au Président de la République. Il faut sauver le platane – mais leur combat n’est pas trop promettant. C’est le maire qui décide et il ne voit pas pourquoi changer d’avis. Pour un arbre.

Encore une fois Karine Lambert a trouvé un sujet extraordinaire, un sujet tout à fait ordinaire duquel elle arrive à faire quelque chose de spécial et d’original. C’est un arbre, oui, il est vieux et majestueux, mais quand même, pas un être vivant. Elle lui donne une voix et elle dirige l’intérêt de ses personnages à lui.

J’ai surtout adoré les passages dans lesquels le platane parle. Ce qui est vraiment étonnant, c’est, d’un côté, on ne se rend pas du tout compte des arbres dans notre vie quotidienne. Ils sont là, ils nous donnent de l’ombre quand il fait chaud et on les admire parfois pour leur force et leur âge. Mais, contrairement aux animaux, on ne les croit pas vraiment « vivant ». Quand l’arbre parle dans le roman, c’est tout à fait normal, on veut bien croire qu’il a des sentiments, qu’il éprouve quelque chose quand on le touche et qu’il réfléchisse à ce qui peut bien se passer avec lui.

C’est de la vraie poésie que Karine Lambert nous offre ici. J’adore son ton narratif depuis le premier roman que j’ai lu d’elle. C’est gai et mélancolique en même temps, mais avant tout, elle traite ses personnages doucement, elle ne les exhibe jamais, elle les montre vulnérable et elle s’approche d’eux calmement et toujours avec du respect. Ils ne sont pas des super-héros, mais des gens comme toi et moi, avec des faiblesses et des défauts.

« Un arbre, un jour… » est un petit bijou parmi les masses des livres publiés chaque année.