“Aux animaux la guerre! by Nicolas Mathieu – “Of Fangs and Talons”! – in the wake of Émile Zola?

In the Vosges, an economically depressed part of north-east of France, the loss-making Velocia car plant is due to close, adding to the problems of union leader Martel who has been embezzling funds to pay for his mother’s care home. Desperate for money, he takes the unwise step of joining with Bruno, a coke-snorting bodybuilder on a temporary contract at Velocia, to kidnap a girl on behalf of the Benbarek brothers, a pair of ruthless gangsters. Predictably, the plan goes awry.

Available in English as “Of Fangs and Talons”, in its original form the novel is a challenge for a non-French reader, by reason of the large amount of slang and colloquial speech. The initial scenes are not in chronological order, which adds to the confusion. “I owe as much to Proust as to the Sopranos”, Nicolas Mathieu has observed in an interview. By this, I assume he is referring to the lengthy passages devoted to minor events or everyday situations described in minute detail, as opposed to those of extreme, often gratuitous violence. He also seems fascinated by the psychology of bored, disaffected teenagers, whom he portrays rather well. Overall, he is clearly more interested in character, ambiance, an ironic take on the inequalities, injustices and prejudices of modern French society, than in plot.

The prologue set decades earlier in the Algeria of 1961 is presumably meant to provide the usual overused hook of violence in the form of the brutal execution of those suspected of involvement in the movement for independence from France. This has little relevance to the rest of the novel, except to indicate the unflinching lengths to which some of the characters will be prepared to go. The fragmented structure of the novel results in some major incidents being implied, or never made clear. Some banal scenes make frustrating reading since they break the dramatic tension, although in the case of the most brutal events this could be a relief. The inconclusive ending may be a stroke of genius in reflecting what real life so often turns out to be, while paving the way for a sequel, or perhaps it is simply a disappointing “cop-out”.


The debut novel of an author who went on to win le prix Goncourt for “Leurs enfants après eux”, “Aux animaux la guerre” has been made into a French TV series. I imagine the latter might “work better” in dramatic terms, but perhaps lose some of the irony which is the saving grace of this bleak, overlong novel.

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev: “Standing on the threshold of the future”

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Jeantaud, Linet et Lainé by Edgar Dégas 1871

It is hard to believe that when published in 1862, Turgenev’s “Fathers and Sons” caused such a storm of “virulent attacks” in Russia: “each generation found the picture of the other very life-like, but their own badly drawn”. In the novel, the usual generational differences are heightened by the abrupt change from the repressive regime of Tsar Nicholas I to the more liberal rule of Alexander II who has permitted the “emancipation” of the serfs, together with a climate of greater freedom of expression in which intellectual rebels like the novel’s anti-hero Bazarov, a “socially inferior” doctor’s son, feels no inhibitions about getting embroiled in fierce arguments with Pavel Petrovich, a minor noble with rigid conservative views.

Turgenev displays a gift for observing human nature which still rings true despite the passage of time and massive changes in society. Bazarov, an unconventional medical student who prides himself on being a nihilist “who bows down to no authority, who takes no single principle on trust”, no matter how respected it is, reminds me of a passionate Extinction Rebellion supporter. His nihilism leaves him totally ill-equipped when it comes to knowing how to deal with being in love.

His gentle friend Arkady is typical of an open-minded young man struggling to form ideas, who is susceptible to the influence of an opinionated friend, until he begins to question his ideas as too extreme. Arkady’s father Nicolay Petrovich, the tolerant and well-intentioned owner of a rundown country estate in desperate need of modernisation, is generally regarded as a soft touch, taken advantage of by the peasants on his land.

Bazarov is by turns boorish and unexpectedly kind. He is brusque with his doting parents, but inspires trust in “the humblest of people”, as when, in one of the many humorous moments, he explains to a couple of farm boys why he is collecting frogs to dissect, “..as you and I are just like frogs….I’ll know what goes on inside us…So as not to make a mistake if you become ill and I have to look after you”.

On the surface, this may seem a rather simple and fairly uneventful tale. In fact, although short, it is skilfully constructed to convey more than many much longer ones: a strong sense of place, in particular the vast, neglected countryside; vivid impressions of life on a typical mid-C19 estate; pithy dialogues, with the relationships between the characters building to some intense psychological drama, and sharply divided views on progress versus stability.

Turgenev may have been enabled to write such a perceptive book because his travels in Europe gave the scope to judge his native country more objectively. He actually began to write it when staying at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight. If such an allegedly gentle and certainly insightful man managed to fall out for several years with both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, was it primarily their fault?

For me, this is the most accessible and enjoyable Russian novel I have read. It is both heartwarming and poignant, with a final sense of “everlasting peace, of that great peace ‘indifferent’ nature”, despite everything, to quote Peter Carson’s excellent translation.

“The Magician” by Colm Tóibín – “the pure genius of mankind, and alll the pathos”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Good biographies often read like fiction. Colm Tóibín’s fictionalised biography of the Nobel Prize winning German author has the advantage of giving scope to imagine Thomas Mann’s inner thoughts, and invent dialogues or scenes which may enhance our understanding of him. Tóibín’s evident research and knowledge of Mann’s work enable him to perceive the author as fairly and accurately as a pure biographer. The drawback is that the reader cannot be sure where truth ends and artistic licence begins, but does that matter if one gains a sense of the “essence” of a personality, together with a better grasp of a writer’s work?

Tóibín is ambitious in covering Mann’s life from sixteen-year old son of a wealthy Lübeck merchant in 1891, to old man approaching death in 1955, revisiting his birthplace after years of exile from Nazi Germany. Each starting with a different location and date, the eighteen chapters prevent the narrative from getting bogged down in detail but create a somewhat disjointed effect.

It can be hard to keep track of the complex, often troubled relationships within Mann’s large family, including several siblings, six children of his own with their various partners, plus some acquaintances. With an unexpectedly stiff style and often artificial dialogue, which I assume to be in intentional imitation of Mann’s own prose, the book did not at first live up to the expectations raised by Tóibín’s earlier novel about “The Master”, Henry James.

Unlike his opinionated, socialist older brother Heinrich and eldest son Klaus, Mann comes to perceive himself as cautious, wary, and wavering in his beliefs. Heinrich is enraged by Mann’s deceit as a boy in gaining his father’s approval by feigning interest in the running of his business. Throughout his adult life, Mann understandably tries to conceal his obsession with handsome boys, expressed in his novel “Death in Venice”. Fearing the destruction of his reputation, Mann agonises over the apparent loss of a suitcase containing compromising diary entries, which his son Golo has tried to smuggle out of Nazi Germany on his behalf.

Mann is portrayed as a self-contained introvert, observing those around him, including family members, with a clinical objectivity, using them as material for his stories with a ruthless insensitivity. Aware that his Jewish wife Katia is unusually close to her twin brother, Thomas transposes the legendary love between the twins Siegmund and Sieglinde into a wealthy Berlin household, modelling the interloper who comes to marry Sieglinde on himself, “the dull man out of place in the glamorous Rosenberg family.” Although her father is furious on hearing the gossip about this, Katia is strangely unconcerned. Years later, she is more disturbed to realise that Mann has used their grandson Frido, whom he claims to love, as the model in his latest book, “Doctor Faustus”, for a child who is destined to die, because his uncle “could only damage those who came close to him”. The uncle in question is very obviously based on the real composer Schoenburg, inventor of the twelve-tone system, who is enraged by the suggestion that he might have made a pact with the devil like the ficticious composer Adrian Leverkühn.

I was surprised by Tóibín’s only brief reference to “Buddenbrooks”, the novel based on his own family’s decline, which made him a wealthy literary sensation from his mid-twenties. The inspiration for other novels is interesting: visiting Katia during her prolonged stay at a Swiss sanatorium for tuberculosis, gives Mann the idea for “The Magic Mountain”. He is fascinated by the X-ray images of his own body, “as it would be in the grave”, and is excited by the prospect of being the first novelist to describe an X-ray, “with all the eerie lights and uncanny sounds”.

Tóibín does not baulk at portraying Mann as quite unlikeable, although there is usually a reason for his more dubious actions. The unconscious single-mindedness of an artist is perhaps common and necessary for success. Mann’s initial reluctance to criticise Hitler is justified by his fear of putting his wife’s Jewish family at greater risk, less so by reluctance to see his books removed from German shelves. When fleeing Europe for the United States, he does not hesitate to try bribery or feign frailty to jump queues, his wealth giving him a sense of entitlement. Perhaps most troubling is the decision to continue his planned book tour of Germany despite news of his eldest son’s suicide. He does not attend the funeral, possibly trading on his distraught wife’s inability to cope with the idea of seeing her son’s coffin. Another son Michael reproaches him bitterly, “You are a great man. Your humanity is widely appreciated and applauded. It hardly bothers you most likely, that these feelings of adulation are not shared by any of your children”. Tóibín describes how Thomas hides and soon destroys the letter.

The book becomes more gripping as the exiled Mann has to reassess German society and culture after the horror of the Holocaust and to face accusations of being a Communist when he insists on visiting the East Germany in what has become a divided country. No longer welcome in the US, he feels obliged to leave the luxurious home built in California, but cannot face return to a devastated Germany where, at banquets during his book tour, he is aware of being “forced to shake still fleshy hands that not long ago were sticky with blood”.

One can appreciate this book without having read any of Mann’s work beforehand, although it may seem odd to do so. Although I feel ashamed to admit to failure in previous attempts to read “Buddenbrooks” and “The Magic Mountain” (which Mann jokes is so long he doubts anyone has actually read it ), Tóibín has stimulated my interest in Mann in the context of Germany at a calamitous phase in its history, and the details of his life will linger in my mind.

“Le Dit du Mistral by Olivier Mak-Bouchard – according to the mistral…….

Mont Ventoux hikes: what not to miss | Provence Guide
Mont Ventoux

In this original, quirky novel, the unnamed narrator, let’s call him “N”, is steeped in every aspect of the Luberon, the part picturesque, part wild and dramatic mountainous area of central Provence where he has always lived: the landscapes, wildlife, legends, customs, local recipes, Occitan language and writers – and continual presence of the mistral, the unpredictable, often violent wind from the north-west.

When his retired neighbour, M. Sécaillat discovers what look like archaeological remains in his cherry orchard, N manages to persuade him not to bury them quickly in order to avoid the hassle and red tape involved in reporting them, as the law requires. Instead, taking advantage of his wife’s timely trip abroad, N somehow arranges extended leave and works with Sécaillat on a full excavation of what proves to be a hot spring with apparent healing powers, presided over by the carving of an enigmatic stone goddess. To salve their consciences, N leaves on the doorstep of the local museum cases of the “toutouros”, the clay horns which the two men have painstakingly glued together.

Will they be tracked down by local council officials or the police and fined, even imprisoned? If, on the other hand, they destroy the evidence, will they arouse the wrath of Vintur, the ancient god of the mountains, and his capricious son, “Le Mistral” wind, and if so, what form will revenge take?

Midway, this novel changes tack, drifting into a surreal mix of weird incidents, waking dreams and fantasies linked to legends, which a cynical reader might attribute largely to the narrator’s disturbed mental state and possible autism. I enjoyed the vivid sense of place supported by the possibility of locating many of the landmarks on Google images: the rare short-toed snake eagles to be glimpsed at the Madeleine Cliff, or the summit of Mount Ventoux, sometime finishing post for the Tour de France, with its memorial to the British cyclist Tom Simpson who died of heat exhaustion there. The Provençal recipes and customs are intriguing, like the tradition dating from pagan times and adopted by the Catholic church, of sowing on Saint Barbara’s Feast Day (December 4th) the seeds of corn, chick peas and lentils to represent the Trinity, destined to form part of the Christmas decorations.

I found the second part overlong, and at times too “off the rails” for my taste. I kept reading because, apart from some powerful descriptions, flashes of wry humour and learning a lot about the Luberon which I would now hope to visit, the novel is packed with useful idioms for a student of French. Although the narrator himself is not, as a few readers have noted, a particularly likeable character, who does not deserve his long-suffering wife Blanche, his well-observed white pet cat, Le Hussard (by reason of his striking black legs, which resemble the knee high military boots of a hussar), is a very appealing presence.

“Buddenbrooks” by Thomas Mann: minute descriptions of a bygone way of life

Buddenbrooks House (Buddenbrookhaus) — description, photos, оn the map
Built in 1758, belonging to Thomas Mann’s grandparents, what is now a museum is where the author lived in his youth, and set his account of the decline of a bourgeois family in Lübeck.

A book group’s choice of Colm Tóibín’s “The Magician”, a fictionalised biography of Thomas Mann, prompted me to read one of this Nobel prize winning author’s works. “Buddenbrooks”, his first novel published in 1901 when he was still in his mid-twenties, traces the decline of a prosperous family of Lübeck merchants over four generations, clearly based on his own. In writing about the materialism, snobbery and stifling moral codes of the wealthy middle classes, perhaps this may be compared with “The Forsyte Saga” by John Galsworthy, who also won the Nobel Prize.                                                          

Although it is considered one of the finest novels representing C19 Germany, I have to admit that by the end of Chapter 14, I had  decided against struggling on dutifully through the remaining almost 600 pages. Flipping forward through the text, and searching for motivation via the many glowing reviews did not alter this decision.  Initially, I thought that the stiff style, which could of course be said to reflect C19 German society, might be down to the English translation. I switched from the version produced by Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter, who possessed sole rights to translate Mann’s work for  more than two decades, to the American John Wood’s less formal style, published in 1994.

However, the problem remained for me in the  mind-numbing descriptions of people’s dress and appearance, the décor and furniture of rooms, the plentiful food and small talk, although all this may well convey very accurately the ambience and behaviour of a particular society.  When poor little Christian Buddenbrooks shocks his mother  at a social gathering by complaining he is “damned sick”, the doctor knows it is a case of indigestion triggered by four heavy meals a day, but tactfully suggests a strict diet of “young pigeon and French bread”.  This may be quite revealing, even slightly amusing, but are such incidents sufficient to hold one’s interest?

There is a plethora of characters who make brief appearances, lists of families who form part of the Buddenbrooks’ social circle, but all are sketchily portrayed and two dimensional – admittedly perhaps intentionally indicating the superficiality of relationships. There are telling hints that some of the pushiest socially inferior upstarts are doing rather too well, but this theme is not fleshed out. Those described in more detail often seem somewhat eccentric or unreal, their inner thoughts remaining opaque.

Dramatic incidents prove damp squibs: a house warming party is threatened by a letter to patriarch Johann Buddenbrook from his estranged son, demanding compensation for his share in the property – this sounds like a promising plot-line, but comes to nothing. Likewise, when sent to holiday on the coast to ease her stress over being courted by a man her parents wish her to marry, Tony (Antonie) Buddenbrook ironically falls for a young medical student but this situation is never developed. It seems that Mann was more interested in characters than plot, but even the main players seem too bound by convention to express themselves with any spontaneity and depth.

By Chapter 14, it is clear that girls like Tony are mere  pawns in a marriage market designed to support family fortunes,  pampered but denied a decent education so dependent and ill-equipped to cope with life. Tony’s sense of personal importance grounded in her family, acceptance of her role in forming a link in the chain of family connections, ultimately lead her to agree to marriage to the phony creep Herr Grünlich. The fact that even she can see through this character while apparently her father cannot, may be a clue to the failure of the family to prosper, as the decline begins.

So, feeling that I have grasped the narrow, blinkered bygone world presented in this novel, so lacking in natural expression of real human feelings, there is not enough to move, amuse, enlighten or fill me with anticipation to read to the end.

“Travels with a Donkey” by Robert Louis Stevenson – modern reevaluation of a classic

TRAVELS WITH A DONKEY IN THE CÈVENNES (Taylor & Guild Annotated Classics) by [Robert Louis Stevenson]

When I was a child, a dark red leatherbound copy of “Travels with a Donkey” lay unopened on a shelf for years as a classic I knew I ought to read. When recently I finally got round to downloading it on my Kindle, I was put off by hearing on the radio that Stevenson’s donkey Modestine had in fact been judged unfit for travel, so that the author had to include the last leg of his journey through the French Cévennes by stage coach. This, I discovered, was after only twelve days in which the poor animal, “not much bigger than a dog”, weighed down under a “monstrous deck-cargo”, was goaded, often by means of a whip or spiked stick, to trot some hundred and twenty miles up and down a succession of steep slopes.

Stevenson’s admission of feeling horror over his cruelty makes his persistence in this seem even worse – as when he rearranges his own load to free an arm with which to “thrash” Modestine, “two emphatic blows” needed for every “decent step” which the poor animal takes. Combined with his failure to plan in advance how best to reduce the load to manageable proportions, I set about reading this somewhat prejudiced against the famous author. To be fair, in the 1870s, lightweight synthetic materials were not available. But does it excuse the author that a local peasant insisted on making him a spiked goad as the only way of managing a donkey?

At first I was also impatient with Stevenson for undertaking the journey in late September, where he was likely to find “cold…grey, windy, wintry” weather four thousand feet above sea level. However, the weather seemed to improve as he travelled south, and I suppose it might have been too hot to walk earlier in the summer.

With overnight stops at a Trappist monastery “Our Lady of the Snows” where his admission of being an atheist prompted two visitors to combine in trying to convert him, at a number of remote inns or with a villager prepared to offer him hospitality for a small fee, Stevenson was able to portray the lives and attitudes of the local inhabitants. He was clearly impressed by a historical struggle which has deeply affected the area: the doomed uprising of the Protestant Camisards against the oppression of the Catholic majority in the early 1700s.

What finally won me over at least to the extent of appreciating why this novel was so famous for more than a century, is Stevenson’s ability, as he passed through the regions of Velay, Gévaudan, Mont Lozère and Cévennes to describe the landscape, and his wanderlust, in such vivid and precise terms.

“I lay….studying the colour of the sky, as we call the void of space, from where it showed a reddish grey behind the pines to where it showed a glossy blue-black between the stars. …I wear a silver ring. This I could see faintly shining as I raised or lowered the cigarette; and at each whiff the inside of my hand was illuminated, and became for a second the highest light in the landscape…..The outer world, from which we cower into our houses, seemed after all a habitable space…. I thought I had rediscovered one of those truths which are revealed to savages and hid from political economists: at the least, I had discovered a new pleasure in myself”.

In the valley of the Tarn, where Spanish chestnut trees have been so important to the economy, his portrayal makes it possible to visualise them without ever having visited the area.

“Some, trusting to their own roots , found strength to grow and prosper and be straight and large upon the rapid slopes of the valley; others, where there was a margin to the river, stood marshalled in a line and mighty like the cedars of Lebanon. Yet even where they grew most thickly they were not to be thought of as a wood, but as a herd of stalwart individuals; and the dome of each tree stood forth separate and large, and as it were a little hill, from among the domes of its companions…..autumn had put tints of gold and tarnish in the green; and the sun so shone through and kindled the broad foliage, that each chestnut was relieved against another, not in shadow but in light. A humble sketcher here had laid down his pencil in despair”.

It is probably an advantage at least to have passed through the area, stopping off at places like Florac or St. Jean-de-Gard, but the names of the the remoter points he passed are intriguing, prompting one to search the web for maps and images: Cheylard-L’Évèque, Chasseradès, Cassagnas, or Le Pont-de-Montvert.

“Barchester Towers” by Anthony Trollope – a master in analysing human nature

Barchester Towers (Vintage Classics) by [Anthony Trollope]

In this early Victorian soap opera, an elderly bishop’s death triggers the drama of Barchester Towers. His ambitious, worldly son, Archdeacon Grantly, who has long been the power behind the  bishop’s throne, is anxious to succeed him but an untimely change in government and the move against ritualistic, “high church” practices, which have long prevailed in Barchester, count against him.

In what seems the worst possible outcome, the newly appointed Bishop Proudie, is not merely “evangelical”, but completely under the thumb of his wife who has chosen as his chaplain her protégé Mr Slope, a slippery  schemer who  fully intends to run the show himself. The twists and turns of the ensuing power struggle are complicated by the fact that three very different men, including Obadiah Slope, are drawn in various ways not only to Grantly’s sister-in-law Eleanor Bold, a beautiful and wealthy young widow, but to the even more alluring but crippled Signora Neroni with  a mysteriously absent Italian husband, who flirts outrageously from her sofa as a distraction.

Much of this novel is a page-turner by reason of Trollope’s very acute observation of human nature and his ability  to describe it so vividly in all its contradictory shifts. His plots are  imaginative and humorous, with strong dialogues which often have the directness of a playscript.  The occasional “continuity errors”, generally in timing, do not matter greatly and are probably a result of the novel having been written and expanded over a period of months.

The more serious drawbacks for a modern reader are the result of  the inevitable  radical changes in  the accepted style of writing and in society over more than a century and a half.  Trollope is an intrusive narrator, who cannot resist  often telling the reader what is going to happen, musing about such matters as the problem of knowing how to finish a book, or simply digressing to bang on about some new custom  which he personally dislikes.  He causes occasional twinges of unease with examples of  anti-semitism, male chauvinism and class snobbery,  because although one know he was understandably influenced by the values of his times, one somehow expects such a perceptive man to be more self-aware as regards such issues. Some sections are heavy going  because of the references to the doctrinal battles within the Church and  the political divisions of the day, together with the Latin tags now long forgotten. Obviously, one can look these up, but that is a distraction from the plot flow.

Overall, although one might not wish to wade through all the Barsetshire Chronicles,  this classic is certainly worth reading. Throughout, Eleanor’s father, the outwardly meek, even weak Septimus Harding remains the most decent, fair-minded and truly virtuous of them all.

“Le pays des autres” by Leïla Slimani – “Other People’s Country”

The first part of a planned trilogy, this  family saga draws  on memories of Leïla Slimani’s own Franco-Moroccan heritage. 

Le pays des autres (French Edition) by [Leïla Slimani]

Mathilde, an impulsive, immature young  Frenchwoman who has grown up in Alsace,  falls in love with Amine, a Moroccan who fought for France in the Second World War, enduring captivity as a POW in the process.  A relationship which seems largely based on physical attraction is strained at times almost to breaking point by the inevitable cultural differences  which neither has anticipated.  “You can’t be serious” Mathilde exclaims on learning that they will have to live with Amine’s mother for months before he can gain access to the land he has inherited. “Here, that’s the way it goes,” is Amine’s stern response, having sat down to mask his wife’s height advantage, which might sap his authority.

When the land proves poor,  further stress hastens  Amine’s metamorphosis into a  dour workaholic, finding occasional relief only in drinking sessions with friends in local bars, his frustration too often exploding into violence which may be justified to some extent by the norms of his society .  Mathilde, it has to be said, is quite an irritating woman, yet one’s sympathy is aroused when the white colonial wives openly disparage her for “being pregnant by an Arab”.  The resilience and stoicism she develops over time are admirable, although her passive acceptance, even complicity in some of Amine’s worst actions is troubling. She goes beyond  a fleshed-out character to one who seems a mass of contradictions.

Amine  has some redeeming features. Brought up as a muslim, he shows tolerance in letting their daughter Aïsha attend a Catholic school, where the bright little girl is horribly bullied and perhaps  as a result becomes excessively pious. In the ferocious battle for Moroccan independence Amine tries to avoid taking either side, literally grafting orange on to lemon trees in the novel’s recurring metaphor. Even when at risk of losing everything during a general torching of the locality, he is able to teach his daughter that  in wars, the concept of good and bad people, along with justice, cease to apply – people we have grown up with become our enemies.

The Country of Others by [Leïla Slimani]

Yet, overall, the book is too long, laboured, repetitive and somewhat disjointed, so that the reader is left wondering what happens to a particular character, or has to  assume that certain key events have taken place. For instance, from being grindingly poor the family seems to become suddenly better off, but the process of change is unclear. Mathilde’s development as provider of an unofficial local medical centre seems implausible in the light of her other well-intentioned but half-baked projects. Conversely, some quite minor incidents are given undue coverage, before drifting away to nothing. As is often the way with French novels, there is too much “telling” rather than “showing”. So we have to receive a mini history lesson on  1950s Morocco at one point – useful, but the facts could have been woven more subtly into the  tale.

For me a shorter novel with a stronger narrative drive would have proved more engaging. As it stands, it may improve on a second reading.

“Sarah Thornhill” by Kate Grenville – when life takes on different shapes viewed from different angles

Sarah Thornhill by [Kate Grenville]

A sequel to the prize-winning bestseller “The Secret River”, this can be read as a stand alone novel. Sarah Thornhill is a bright, shrewd  and spirited girl, but illiterate since no one sees any need for a girl to be able to read and write in C19  rural New South Wales.  Her father is an emancipist,  a euphemism in this case for a freed convict, who has worked hard and gained wealth and status through land, although at what price remains a guilty secret which would blight his descendants’ conscience and peace of mind once revealed.  The widow of a respectable soldier, Sarah’s step-mother is dedicated to drumming genteel ways into her husband and the children she has taken on.  All hell breaks loose when Sarah’s intention of marrying Jack Langland becomes known. Although  the  son of a well-off neighbour, he is unacceptable as a husband because his mother was a native girl, exploited at a time when  few European women were available.

Using Sarah as a narrator, Kate Grenville provides a vivid visual portrayal of  the Australian outback as it was first settled by Europeans, up to the sharp range of mountains marking “the Limit of Location”.  Daily life was underlain by the tensions, injustice  and casual brutality which resulted from the contact between white men in search of land assumed to be free for the taking, and aborigines with attitudes and  customs which incomers discounted or despised, their innate prejudice for the most part blinding them to the possible interest or  value of anything that was simply different.

The author spins a good yarn, dry wit mixed with poignancy, but the climax of the tale seems too implausible in some respects, contrived to serve a particular purpose and make points which the reader may find it hard to accept. Yet on reflection,  Kate Grenville has succeeded in producing some thought-provoking insights: the children of settlers may never feel that they truly belong to any country; those  who have profited unwittingly  from their parents’ exploitation of a native population may be driven to extreme measures to assuage their guilt.  Charitable gifts are insufficient – the only way fully to understand and empathise with  another culture is to experience it firsthand, in the process learning how it feels to be alien in one’s own.

“The Girl who Died” by Ragnar Jonasson: marmite effect of Scandi supernatural crime noir

The Girl Who Died: The Sunday Times bestseller that will take you to the edge of the world by [Þ. Ragnar Jónasson]

Having enjoyed Ragnar Jonasson’s “Dark Iceland” series of psychological crime thrillers for their strong sense of place, plot twists and well-developed characters, I was somewhat disappointed by this stand alone novel.

Written in a rather wooden, clichéd style, which may be due to the translation, the frequent intrusion of creepy menace seems rather heavy-handed, alternating with slow-paced, generally rather dull scenes which admittedly reflect daily life in a tiny, inward-looking isolated coastal community.

This is where Una, “a Reykjavik girl through and through” decides to spend a year teaching the only two children in the fishing village, rather implausibly without first visiting the place to experience just how eerily quiet it is, checking out the ten inhabitants or being “vetted” in person herself. It also appears unlikely that she would previously have given up her training to be a doctor for supply teaching, although it is suggested from the outset that she has been traumatised by some previous event which remains tantalisingly unexplained until near the end.

The author employs the usual devices: the prologue to provide a “hook” of chilling suspense (which proves to be a chapter repeated later on); a sinister apparently unconnected sub-plot interwoven in short chapters written in italics with the main storyline. There is a difference from the author’s previous novels in the strong suggestion of the supernatural, although this could always be attributed to Una taking too much refuge in red wine or simply being mentally disturbed. After a final ingenious and poignant twist, the ending may seem weak and rushed, but leaving the situation, “what happens next”, open to interpretation may in fact prove more satisfying for many readers.

On reflection, there are the ingredients here for a novel as outstanding as it is falsely hyped to be, but it feels dashed off too quickly, perhaps to meet a deadline.