Europa Blues by Arne Dahl

25793827Europa Blues, by Arne Dahl, was a really different kind of crime book, even in the genre I am so enjoying, the broadly termed “Nordic Noir.” Not realising this was book four in a ten book series, I picked it up, seduced by the synopsis on the back of the book which explains that his novel is about a series of crimes involving the grisly death of a Greek gangster, disappearing Eastern European prostitutes and the macabre murder of a famous Jewish professor. From the start, it was pretty clear to me that the police involved in the investigations had complex lives and histories to which I was only partly privy and which no doubt earlier books explored. But (and this is testimony to the strength of Dahl’s writing), at no point did I feel this disadvantaged me. Such was the power of the prose and the way the principal characters were presented and their back-stories hinted at, I felt I knew them and any gaps and omissions were filled. Better still, I cared about these people deeply.

With three investigations on the go and one man down (he’s on extended leave in Italy), the A-unit, or National Crime Investigation Department’s Special Unit for Violent Crimes of an International Nature (what a mouthful!), is busy, especially when, after a street thug is brutally murdered by a woman in a train station, they begin to suspect that all the murders are linked. When they seek help from Interpol and Europol, their suspicions are confirmed. But it’s when they ask one of their own, the man in Italy, to do some investigating there, that the connections reveal themselves. What’s exposed goes back decades and into one of the most violent and cruel periods of human history. Not one to shy away from both the individual’s or country’s role in human suffering and genocide, through is characters, Dahl is highly critical of Sweden’s “neutrality” or ability to look the other way. Exploring huge issues such as complicity and national shame, Dahl uses history to also critique the present in an intelligent and searing manner.

The final twists and turns are both shocking and gratifying.

The way characters are developed; the use of literature and history and the sense of social and personal justice that pervades this book is so strong. I was drawn into the story and the relationships – professional and personal. The writing is sublime and always powerful – though humour, particularly between those who have worked together and known each other so long – relieves some of the bleaker moments: gallows’ humour indeed.

A magnificent book that makes me long to lose myself in another in the series.

4.5 stars.

 

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Book Reviw: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

You know you are in the hands of a masterful storyteller when you put a book down only because you have no choice – life drags you away aA Thousand Splendid Sunsnd it’s a physical and emotional wrench to let it go, even for a moment. When all you can think as you go about compulsory tasks are the story and the characters. While you are away, you wonder what they are doing, where the narrator is going to take them and you care about their fates deeply. Such is the effect of A Thousand Splendid Suns. The characters live beyond the pages – not merely at the end, but throughout the reading experience, so realistically and gorgeously have they been drawn.

Just as the sublime The Kite Runner told the tale of doomed male friendship, ATSS tells the story of two very different Afghani women: Mariam – shy, subservient, filled with self-doubt and yet, despite what life has meted out, is also honest and possessed of an innocence that is both her greatest strength and weakness. Then there is the beautiful, smart and kind Laila. Raised under very different roofs and with different expectations of their future, fate in the form of political and sectarian upheaval throws these women together and what happens before, during and after is heart-wrenchingly bitter-sweet.

Hosseini knows not only how to capture the reader’s imagination but our hearts as well. Told without sentimentality but nonetheless with an almost unbearable sweetness and pathos, ATSS unapologetically describes what the women of Afghanistan (and many men, children, families and thus communities) were forced to endure. The rampant misogyny, sexism and horrific abuses; terror, hope, the loss, the grind, the joy in the smallest and simplest of things; their constant sacrifices. Their resilience is formidable and humbling; their strength amazing – as is their capacity to forgive. By focussing primarily on Mariam and Laila (and those who play important roles in shaping who and what they become) Hosseini gives us a searing insight into not only the plight of those who are helpless pawns in a brutal battle for control of a weakened state, but Western prejudices, sense of entitlement and misunderstanding as well as revealing the ugliness and terrible beauty of a culture so few of us understand except through snatches from sensationalized news bulletins or from foreign correspondents with a brief to fill. That there are those resistant to as well as complicit in oppression, suffer because of willful ignorance and the brutality of others; the way in which religion and culture can impose horrific restraints when reduced to power struggles while at the same time gesturing to a proud nobility is evident in the novel. Inevitably, as is the case when religion, sex and gender become politicized, there are scapegoats who pay for the hubris and cruelty of others – for more than a lifetime. The damage inflicted can last for generations.

I didn’t want this book to end. My heart soared, it plummeted; I gasped, cried, held my breath and as I read felt physically pummeled then embraced, experiencing the 30 years the tale covers as a visceral thing that left me psychologically and imaginatively battered but richer in ways that count. But, I also felt ashamed. Ashamed for thoughts I may have harboured deep down, for prejudices I may not have even realized I held until this novel exposed them to me, and for that, I am grateful.

This is a beautiful, deeply moving book that I cannot recommend highly enough. It was a privilege to read and now to share.

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Book Review: Antonia and her Daughters, Marlena de Blasi

Having read and loved Marlena de Blasi’s other ‘Italy’ books, I longed to read this one and share her next adventure -and I am so glad I did. De Blasi has this wonderful capacity to include the reader in her life, to open her door, take you by the arm, and welcome you into her adopted country, relationship with Fernando, house, bedroom, and most certainly, her kitchen. She also takes you along when she visits other people and we become privy to their lives and the role they’ll inevitably come to play in de Blasi’s. In her previous books, these encounters have been brief and tended to further our understanding of de Blasi and her relationship with her Venetian. This is where Antonia and her Daughters differs from de Blasi’s previous books. While the sense of the author and her warm and empathetic personality are evident, this story is very much as the title suggests: about an amazing 83 year old woman, Antonia, and her gorgeous daughters. It is also about the next generation of this family, very much a matriarchal one dominated by the tempestuous, intelligent and intense Antonia who feels, when she meets de Blasi, that she has found a worthy sparring partner. And believe me, Antonia doesn’t hold back. It’s testimony to de Blasi’s comprehension of human nature that she seeks to understand Antonia’s barbs, her attempts to challenge and embarrass an even undermine  her as well as her overt xenophobia, not simply relate it to us. That she patiently allows this woman to open herself to her and thus us by a slow retelling of her history, is superbly and sympathetically done. It is also incredibly respectful and honest. The story unfolds in typical Italian fashion, over laden tables, groaning with delicious repasts that have been lovingly prepared by the females. Between meals, walks, arguments and other episodes, Antonia’s tale and that of generations of Italian women (and those of other cultures) is revealed. Like an onion being peeled, we gradually get to the core of what makes Antonia the feisty, formidable and utterly fascinating creature that she is. When the reveal comes, and the heart of the story/person is exposed, it is powerful, emotional, tragic and beautiful.

From war time Italy through to the invasion of tourists and expats from Europe and America in contemporary times, who seek to interpret or worse, impose themselves and their ways on the Italian landscape and culture, this story spans many years, subjects and profound emotional states and how we recover (or not) from heart-ache and how the past inflects the present. It’s about memory, love, loss, family, friendship, the brutality and beauty of human nature; it’s about how we cope in extraordinary circumstances – how these can bring out the best and worst within us. It’s about cultural differences and similarities and what we can do to both sustain and bridge these. Beautifully written, the book has a haunting melodic quality that not only transported me to the Tuscan hills, but reminded me of the exquisite prose of Shirley Hazzard. The depth and richness of some of the dialogue makes you want to linger over it in the way you would a fine wine or, appropriately, a wonderful meal. I reached for my quote book a few times, wanting to remember lines such as : “Solitude untethered by love is loneliness…” or “there are no miracles to be had from geography” (though I couldn’t help but think that Elizabeth Gilbert – author of Eat, Pray, Love – might beg to differ!). These are just a couple out of a book that is filled with philosophical and practical gems. Furthermore. The end of the book contains recipes – so not only are our minds and heart nurtured by this book and the stories contained within, but our bodies as well. Thank you, yet again, Marlena de Blasi. Bellissimo!

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