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Book Review: The Golden Egg, Donna Leon

The twenty-second book in the Inspector Brunetti series, The Golden Egg starts slowly and unfolds at a pace fitting to its autumnal Venetian setting. The weather is turning and people are gradually retreating indoors, retiring from an outside life to an inside one and turning inwards and thus reflective, which is a good way to describe this gem of a book. It’s highly reflective – of character, human nature, identity, community and what makes family.

Asked to investigate a minor infringement among shop-keepers and their shopfronts in a sestiere as a favour for his boss, Brunetti does so unwillingly. But when his wife Paola asks him to look into the death of a kind, disabled man who worked at their dry-cleaners in the same region, a man who no-one seemed to notice much or care about, Brunetti uncovers a nest of secrets, cruelty and lies.

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of this book. It was quiet, with very little drama at one level and yet, in the telling of Brunetti’s discoveries about the man with no identity, only a mother who refuses to cooperate with the police, a tragic tale begins to emerge – one in which family is at the very heart. Of course, one of the delights of Leon’s novels is that family features in every single one – Brunetti’s. Regular readers have come to love Paolo, the children, and the ways in which the Bruntettis come together over meals and deal with the vagaries of adolescence, work and life. In this novel, the reader can’t help but compare the comfort and love the Brunettis offer each other, even when angry, tired and hurt, with what the Inspector finds; how “family” can be something that bonds and binds but also something that imprisons and ruins.

Deeply emotional and psychological, this novel plumbs some nasty depths in its quiet, understated way. Once more, Leon features the watery streets of Venice, the food, the quirky characters, but hovering in the background and shifting to the foreground at times is the idea of facades, of “shop-fronts” if you like – how we present one version of ourselves, wear a mask, and it’s only when you bother to seek what lies behind that you may be shocked at what you find. It’s also about communication – the failure we sometimes have to ask the questions we should, to “see” through language as much as with our eyes and how this can shape and break community.

In a languorous, but genuinely awful way, through patient and persistent communication/interrogation (which is always so gentle), the façade that was built around the disabled man is slowly torn down. While I guessed most of what was going on well before it was revealed, I didn’t see the final, terrible disclosure. Nor does Brunetti.

It’s testimony to Leon’s wonderful prose and story-telling abilities that, along with the Inspector, we reel at what is found, at the capacity for enduring revenge and cruelty that people are capable of and the legacy of “family.”

This is another crime book, but the subtleties and emotions that are explored make it so much more as well.

 

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