#40 / Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (first review of Greek crime!)

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw, translated from the Greek by Yannis Panas (Edinburgh: Black and White Publishing, 2013 [2007])  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…

Greek meandros unravelling… (image courtesy of http://www.ekathimerini.com)

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

You’ll find an extract from the novel available here.

With thanks to Black and White Publishing for sending me an advance copy of this book.

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21 thoughts on “#40 / Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw (first review of Greek crime!)

  1. Mrs. P – It certainly does sound like an intellectually engaging book! And I have to say that whole notion of a ‘letter puzzle’ intrigues me. I’m not one normally for an ‘alternate reality/future/etc.’ kind of book to tell the truth. But this one sounds like it’s definitely worth investing the energy to digest it. And I always give ‘not the usual thing’ points to a well-written innovative novel, even if it isn’t what I’d have expected.

    • It is very different, Margot, and that was one of its big appeals for me (every now and then I crave crime that’s trying something really unusual). A refreshing change and definitely worth a go if you fancy an innovative novel. It has some quite profound things to say about individuals facing adversity as well.

  2. This sounds great Mrs P – hard not to be impressed by all that ambition and the promise of a good ending is too hard to resist – I’ll definitely seek this one out.

    Cheers,
    Sergio

    • Ambition is a very good word to use in relation to this novel, Sergio. I’m not sure if the author has written other novels in the genre, but in any case, I’ll definitely be checking to see if there are other books by her in translation. It was a pleasure to read a narrative that had such imaginative reach.

  3. This book sounds extraordinary. I’m not sure I’m in a place where I have the time to value it right now but it’s definitely one I’m interested in after a review like that!

    • You’re welcome, and yes, I think you’d enjoy! Am keen to get my hands on Ostmark now thanks to your recommendation. Definitely one for my research database and it sounds like a very memorable read.

  4. Wow, this sounded complex in your review. And I went and sampled the excerpt and that confirmed it… very complex and somewhat of a downer. Maybe work is too much for me right now, but I am not sure I am up to an intellectual puzzle like this. The writing in the excerpt was very good, and I would rather read good writing and complexity than bad writing with little or no depth. All of which is to say, it isn’t available here yet and maybe by the time I see a copy, I will be ready and eager to give it a try.

    • Hi TracyK – I’d say that the novel requires some concentration at the beginning (really just to ‘get’ the whole concept and the role of the different characters in the narratives), but once you’ve got going, it’s all structured quite logically and consistently developed. It’s one that you probably need to be in the right mood for, as you say, but I found it a very rewarding read.

      • Thanks for that additional information. I do hope I will be ready for it by the time it makes its way here. I fear that because I spend my work time solving puzzles (programming), I resist too much of that in my non-work reading. I don’t like light mysteries, but I think I lean toward explorations into character and evolving relationships (with a mystery component).

        And I did like the Usual Suspects, a lot.

      • That sounds wholly understandable, TracyK – if you do a lot of a certain thing in one area of your life, it stands to reason that you’ll be looking for something a little different in others. Well – one to bear in mind in case you are in the mood one day… I hope it reaches the US at some point in any case.

  5. Oh yes please this sounds brilliant! I heed your warning though about it not being an easy read, so perhaps not for me right now what with summer hols and soggy mummy brain…I think my hubs might like this one too. Have just ordered More Beer and One Man One Death by Arjouni as loved Happy Birthday Turk, another excellent Mrs P recommendation.

    • I’d love to hear what you think of this one at some point, Blighty – it’s completely off-the-wall… Enjoy Arjouni and the marvellous Kayankaya – one of my very favourite private eyes 🙂

  6. Oh, this sounds rather challenging, and I think that my gray matter can’t expand any further, especially during the summer relaxation time. I have my own humongous book piles and am trying to get through some of them.
    Enjoy this book and I’m going back to my one-plot line, one-dimensional reads.

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