I’m in the thick of my 2018 Petrona Award reading at the moment, and have chanced on two quite unusual submissions. While different books in many respects, both are gripping explorations of what it’s like to be a mother in traumatic circumstances.
Agnete Friis, What My Body Remembers (trans from Danish by Lindy Falk van Rooyen; Soho Crime, 2017). First line: “Can’t you get him to shut up at night?”
This standalone novel takes us into the world of Ella Nygaard, a 27-year-old single mother who’s struggling to make ends meet while dealing with the fallout of her own traumatic past – she was made a ward of state at the age of seven after her father murdered her mother. Ella suffers from PTSD panic attacks and strange physical symptoms that she can’t quite decode. When the state threatens to place her son Alex in care, she takes decisive action. But the price of keeping Alex with her is a return to the seaside town in northern Denmark where she was brought up, and a confrontation with the traumatic events of the past.
I really liked this novel. Ella is a great character – traumatised but tough – and the book gives a sobering insight into the strains of living on the edges of poverty and under the constant gaze of a state that can take your child away from you. Ella’s physical symptoms are used very effectively to show the severity of her trauma, but are cleverly also clues to the mystery of what happened the night her mother died twenty years before. While some aspects of the novel’s ending might make you raise an eyebrow, this is a very well-written, gripping thriller that stays with the reader thanks to Ella’s characterisation (shades here of Gillian Flynn’s resilient heroine in Dark Places).
Karolina Ramqvist, The White City (trans from Swedish by Saskia Vogel; Grove Press, 2017). First line: ‘It was the end of winter’.
This novella tells a tale normally lost in the margins of gangster stories: the fate of women who are left behind by their gangster husbands when things go wrong. Here, the woman in question is Karin, whom we meet a few months after the disappearance of her husband John. Gone is the high-flying life she used to enjoy on the proceeds of her husband’s criminal activities. All that’s left now is a once-grand house, serious financial difficulties, and government agencies closing in. Oh, and a baby that Karin never actually wanted to have.
The White City is a raw, but utterly compelling portrait of a woman at rock bottom, and her efforts to heave herself out of a state of despair. As in What My Body Remembers, Karin’s body becomes a symbol of a life that’s out of control. I’ve rarely seen the physical realities of motherhood described in such unvarnished, powerful terms in a literary work.
Nicolas Verdan, The Greek Wall (trans from French by W Donald Wilson; Bitter Lemon Press, 2018). First line: ‘In normal circumstances he’d have gone on his way’.
Nicolas Verdan’s debut, The Greek Wall, is a truly European novel. Its author is a French-speaking Swiss journalist who divides his time between Switzerland and Greece. It’s set partly in Athens – the symbolic heart of the Greek political and economic crisis – and partly on the Greek-Turkish border, where the river Evros is a favoured crossing point for immigrants trying to enter the Schengen Area. Its characters are Greek, Turkish, German, Finnish and Russian.
When a severed head is discovered on the Greek-Turkish border by a Frontex patrol, Agent Evangelos of Greek Intelligence is sent to investigate, and finds himself embroiled in a politically sensitive case that exposes the realities of power, corruption and illegal immigration. Verdan draws heavily on the true story of the wall (actually a 12.5 kilometer barbed-wire fence) erected by Greece along the Evros in 2012 (an interesting article on it here by EU Observer, with a handy map).
I particularly liked the character of Evangelos, who’s a veteran of turbulent Greek politics and has his own murky past, and the novel’s lyrical style, which is at times dreamy and looping, like the thoughts of its investigator, and at times brutally frank about Fortress Europe, and the way that nationality and wealth so often dictate people’s life chances. The ending is neat too.
A bit of exciting telly news for those in the UK. Next Monday, 12th February, sees the start of a new four-part series on BBC 2 that looks very promising indeed.
Political thriller Collateral is scripted by playwright David Hare (the David Hare) and features an absolutely stellar cast. Along with the fabulous Carey Mulligan, who plays Detective Inspector Kip Glaspie, there’s an ensemble cast including John Simm, Nicola Walker and Billie Piper. I know!!!
Set over four days in London, Collateral explores the consequences of the fatal shooting of a pizza delivery man.
David Hare says of the series:
‘At its start, Collateral may seem to be familiar. After all, it does involve a police investigation. But I hope you will notice the absence of any of the usual apparatus of police procedurals. […] After an illegal immigrant is shot in the opening moments, I am much more interested in exploring how the death of one individual, who has lived out of the sight of respectable society, resonates and reaches into various interconnecting lives.’
Carey Mulligan adds:
‘There is such a scarcity of great writing for women and this drama has so much. It is happening much more in TV than in film, but it is still rare to have this many well rounded female characters in one drama, and what I love is that they are not all likeable – they are flawed, three-dimensional, real people. Often women are encouraged to be amenable, likeable characters and these women are much more than that, they have so much going on which is really exciting.’