Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas (Edinburgh: Black and White Publishing, 2013 ) 4.5 stars
Opening line: Perhaps reality is but a mass delusion, thought Phileas Book, watching the waves of the Mediterranean Sea breaking against the concrete quays of Paris.
Well! I was hoping for something a bit different when I opened this book, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Winner of the 2008 Athens Prize for Literature, What Lot’s Wife Saw is a dazzling, hybrid crime novel that takes readers on an extraordinary journey of the imagination.
The novel is set in the future, twenty-five years after The Overflow, a tsunami that destroyed large portions of southern Europe, and whose cause was the eruption of a highly addictive violet salt through the Dead Sea Rift. The harvesting of this valuable commodity at a remote ‘Colony’ is now controlled by the mysterious Consortium of Seventy-Five, but when the operation is placed in jeopardy following the suspicious death of the Colony’s Governor, an expert is asked to help investigate.
And this is where things get really interesting. The expert is Phileas Book, who works for The Times newspaper compiling Epistlewords, a new kind of three-dimensional crossword shaped like a Greek meandros or key pattern, which uses fragments of letters (and the ways in which their ‘soundhues’ interact with one another) as clues. For this reason, Book is asked to inspect six letters from inhabitants of the Colony who were close to the Governor, in the hope that he will be able to ‘detect’ the truth of what happened. Along with Book, we are given access to the letters, and invited to take up the role of investigators, by comparing and contrasting the accounts of these rather dubious individuals, and trying to sift the truth from what may well be a tissue of lies. The six letter-writers are Bernard Bateau, Presiding Judge; Andrew Drake, Captain of the Guards; Montague Montenegro, Orthodox Priest; Charles Siccouane, the Governor’s Private Secretary; Niccolo Fabrizio, Surgeon General; and Regina Bera, the Governor’s wife. All have secrets that they would rather not share…
What I’ve said so far doesn’t even come close to conveying the richness of the narrative, which manages – don’t ask me how – to combine a re-imagining of the biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah with a critique of multinationals and totalitarianism. From a literary perspective, the novel feels like a slightly bonkers mash up of Thomas Pynchon (think the tour de force that is Gravity’s Rainbow), Agatha Christie (won’t say which one) and The Usual Suspects (super-stylish narrative construction). Really.
If you’re looking for an easy read, then put this book to one side for now. But if you’re in the mood for a challenging, vividly imagined and highly original crime novel with plenty of chutzpah and heart, then this one could be for you. A compelling read that’s perhaps a little too long in the middle, but is redeemed by a bravura ending, What Lot’s Wife Saw will stay in my mind for a while to come.
Mrs. Peabody awards What Lot’s Wife Saw a staggeringly inventive 4.5 stars
With thanks to Black and White Publishing for sending me an advance copy of this book.