A VENETIAN RECKONING by DONNA LEON

I had owned up here, publicly, in a review a couple of weeks ago about having only recently discovered the wonderful Commissario Brunetti series, written by the talented Donna Leon.  Having got addicted, I am now binge-reading this series of gripping detective novels, set in Venice.  Catching up on the lost years, as it were.

In “A Venetian Reckoning” Donna Leon once again enchants us with her palpable love for Venice, a city which is as much a character, a presence in these books, and every bit as essential as the humans.

We re-meet, with great pleasure, Brunett’s intellectual wife, Paola, his affectionate daughter Chitra, fast morphing in front of our eyes into an adolescent.  We reconnect with his police colleagues – dependable, faithful Vianello, Brunetti’s impossibly conceited boss Vice-Questore Patta, as well as the latter’s delightful secretary, the organised, resourceful and beautiful Signorina Elettra, who likes to fill her office with fresh flowers and who manages to dazzle Brunetti by her computer knowledge and her vast network of contacts.

Against the backdrop of Venice, in all its beauty, Ms Leon shows us yet more of the sordid underbelly of La Serenissima.  In this case, it is human trafficking and prostitution, and as Brunetti tries to solve a series of murders of some of the city’s respectable and respected citizens, he is led ever deeper into a world of exploitation and despair.

But even when he is investigating death, Venice never ceases to take Brunetti’s breath away:

”Few people were out, and those who were all seemed lifted to joy by the unexpected sun and warmth.  Who would believe that, only yesterday, the city had been wrapped in fog and the vapourers forced to use their radar for the short ride  out to the Lido?  Yet here he was, wishing for sunglasses and a lighter suit, and when he walked out to the waterside, he was momentarily blinded by the reflected light that came flashing up from the water.  Opposite him, Brunetti could see the dome and tower of SAN Giorgio – yesterday they hadn’t been there- looking as though they had somehow crept into the city.”

The Venice we see through Brunetti’s eyes is essentially the Venice of Venetians, not that of the tourist hoards.  But occasionally, tourists do cross Brunetti’s path and on the day in question, lulled by the wonderful spring weather, he feels no rancour towards the visitors who otherwise seem to irritate most native-born Venetians:

”He turned right and walked up towards the Piazza, and Brunetti found himself, to his own vast surprise, looking kindly upon the tourists who strolled past him, mouths agape and steps slowed down by wonder.  She could still knock them down, this old whore of a city, and Brunetti, her true son, protective of her in her age, felt a surge of mingled pride and delight and hoped that those people who walked by would see him and somehow know him for a Venetian and, in that, part heir to and part owner of all of this.

The pigeons, usually stupid and hateful, appeared almost charming to him as they bobbed up and down at the feet of their many admirers.  Suddenly, for no reason, hundreds of them flocked up, swirled around, and settled back right where they had been, to continue with their bobbing and pecking.”

Venice, on a warm spring morning, in all her glory, and we the reader come to love the city as much as Brunetti.

One of the wonderful things about these Brunetti novels is his family life, which is (most of the time) a welcome haven for him, to de-stress from the horrors he sees during his working day.  Sometimes, of course, family life for the good Commissario involves the same kind of negotiation and manoeuvring that dealing with his unreasonable boss does.

In this bartering session with his young teenaged daughter Chiara, Brunetti wants her to go down and buy some wine for lunch:

“But why should I go?

Because I work hard to support you all.

Mamma works, too.

Yes, but my money pays for the house and everything we buy for it.

She set her book face down on the bed. “Mamma says thats capitalistic blackmail and I don’t have to listen to you when you do it.”

“Chiara,” he said, speaking very softly, “your mother is a troublemaker, a malcontent, and an agitator.

Then how come you always tell me I have to do as she says?”

Family banter like this with his adored daughter takes on a deeper significance for Brunetti, when he later asks Chiara to help him ferret out some information for him, via one of her school friends, a decision he will bitterly regret.  In the sordid world he is investigating, where young women are being forced into prostitution, the innocence of his own child is shattered by things she learns of the world around her.

As Brunetti investigates the murders, he confronts moral and philosophical issues, such as the logic of jailing someone for theft in a country where the political class is largely assumed to be corrupt and looting the public coffers for themselves.

“Brunetti knew this mood and almost feared it, this recurring certainty of the futility of everything he did.  Why bother to put the boy who broke into a house in gaol when the man who stole billions from the health system was named ambassador to the country to which he had been sending the money for years?”

It is this grappling with the larger issues of life, being able to rise above the horrors of his job and squabble good-naturedly with his children, and his total compassion for the marginalised people he encounters in the course of his investigations, that make Guido Brunetti such a likeable detective, and a fitting hero for these wonderful books.

Oh yes.

Of course.

How could I forget?

Food.

There is always wonderful Italian food in Donna Leon’s books:

“He brought his attention back to the table, and their plates of fettuccine, glistening with the sheen of butter.  The owner came back, carrying a small truffle on a white plate in one hand, a metal grater in the other.  He bent over della Corte’s plate and shaved at the truffle, rose, and bent over Brunetti’s plate and did the same. The woody, musty odour wafted up from the still-steaming fettuccine, enveloping not only the three men, but the entire are around them.”

“A Venetian Reckoning” is every bit as enthralling as the earlier books in the series, with its skilful blending of crime, family, food and the dramatic beauty of La Serenissima.

If you  would like to read this book, it couldn’t be easier.

Here’s the link.   You all know what to do.

BLACK WATER LILIES by Michel Bussi

What a bewitchingly clever book Michel Bussi’s “Black Water Lilies” is, the original page turner if ever there was one, and a book that keeps you guessing right until the final sentence.

It is also a book that is virtually impossible to review without spoiling everything for those who still have this book to read.

A murder takes place in Giverny, the pretty French village that was home to the Impressionist painter Claude Monet, and is now a pilgrimage site for tourists the world over, who converge on Monet’s house, his famous garden and its even more famous pond of water lilies.

At the beginning of the novel, our narrator gives us a quick lowdown on what is to follow :

“Three women lived in a village.

The first was mean, the second a liar, and the third an egotist…

…All three were quite different.  But they had something in common, a secret  All three dreamed of leaving.  Yes, of leaving Giverny…”

Giverny is an essential part of this brilliantly constructed murder mystery, its beauty both a charm and a curse.

We are privileged to see much of this pretty place in the warm summer mornings, almost at daybreak, when one of the oldest residents of the village walks her dog Neptune through the pre-tourist-rush deserted streets, and muses about the changes she has witnessed in Giverny over the years.  Our narrator is waspish, and doesn’t like what she sees:

“Having seen all the changes that have taken place in the village over the years, I sometimes have the feeling that Giverny has become a giant theme park.”

She rues the car parks and the tourist buses, the crowds, the wannabe painters, the Babel of languages and the constant traffic, all of which floods into Giverny every morning, stays for a noisy day and then departs in the evening, leaving the village it used to be.

“But I won’t lie to you.  For most of the day, Monet’s meadow is, in fact, a giant car park.  Four car parks, to be precise, clustered around a bitumen stem like a water lily made of tarmac.  I think I can afford to say this thing, at my age.  I have seen the landscape transform itself, year after year.  Today Monet’s countryside is just a commercial backdrop.”

Our narrator who walks with difficulty, and has only her friendly Alsatian Neptune for company, walks virtually unnoticed though the streets of the village where she was born and has lived all her life. She accepts that as an old lady, in black, her head covered with a headscarf, she is largely invisible to the tourists who flock to Giverny every day.  Old age and loneliness are one of the leitmotivs in her narration.  She observes the world around her with a keen eye, whilst realising that the world largely ignores her very presence:

“Go and stand on a street corner, any corner, a Parisian boulevard, in the square by a village church, wherever you like…You turn to gaze at a girl’s bare navel, you push your way past the senior executive in a hurry, or the gang of young people filling the pavement, you glance at the buggy, the baby in it and the mother behind it.  But an old man or woman…They are invisible.  Precisely because they pass so slowly that they are almost part of the decor, like a tree or a street light.  If you don’t beleive me, just try it.  You’ll see.”

The village school teacher, the beautiful Stéphanie Dupain, is one of the 3 women mentioned by the narrator in the opening moments of the book.  Stéphanie is much loved by her young pupils, and she quickly captivates the newly arrived Police Inspector Laurenç Sérénac.  He knows that she is married, and that her husband might be a suspect in the murder he is investigating and yet, despite professional misgivings, he is drawn to her.  He admires her beauty although, in a telling moment infused with art, he wonders about her:

“As the teacher leans over and turns away slightly, the ray of sunlight shining through the window reflects off the white paper and illuminates her face, a reading woman bathed in a halo of light that is suggestive of Fragonard, Degas, Vermeer,  For just a moment, Sérénac is touched by a strange idea, an impression: not one of the young woman’s gestures is spontaneous; the grace of each movement is too perfect, calculated, studied. She is posing for him…”

The third woman mentioned is a child, the prodigiously talented Fanette, who has a gift and a talent for painting that she doesn’t fully understand, but that is so strong it governs her young life.  Against the wishes of her mother, and despite the petty playground jealousies of her school friends, Fanette knows one thing.  She has to paint.  And, like the narrator and Stéphanie, Fanette wants to leave the gilded cage that is Giverny.

Stéphanie compares living in Giverny to living in a painting:

“…the décor is frozen.  Petrified.  You’re not allowed to redecorate any of the houses in a different way, repaint a wall, pick so much as a single flower.  There are laws forbidding it.  We live in a painting here.  We’re walled in…”

The plot of this novel is dazzlingly clever, but I absolutely cannot share it with you here.  If you haven’t yet read the book, there is no way I’m going to spoil one single moment of it for you.

The extent of M. Bussi’s cleverness only reveals itself right at the end of the book, and then you sit there, blinking at the brilliance, and re-thinking the storyline, and suddenly realising how all the parts fit together even more superbly than you had realised.

Originally published in French, in 2011, Shaun Whiteside has done a brilliant job of translating it into English.

The English version was published in 2016 by Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

The paperback sells for £7.99 in the UK & for Rs 399 in India.

If you haven’t already read this book, and now wish to do so, it couldn’t be easier.  Here are two links for you – and you don’t need guiding through the online ordering process, now, do you?

THE JEERA PACKER by PRASHANT YADAV

What an extraordinarily good read this book is.

And, rather puzzlingly, what an extraordinarily uneven book it is too.

I dislike crisiticising someone’s writing, because it is such an intensely personal thing, but this excellent book is so uneven in its writing that it could almost have been written by two people – one of them fluent and funny and spot-on descriptive, and the other making silly, sloppy grammatical mistakes.

Take the opening page of the novel, for example:

“How I wish this candle trips over…”

“…sitting on the front counter…”

And then, a couple of paragraphs later:

“All-powerful, all-pervasive sameness this, it drags me in even on my day off…”

See what I mean?

From poor grammar to stunning prose in just a few lines.

I think tighter editing might have done the trick, for I do not for a moment believe that a writer of the obvious calibre of Mr. Yadav would say things like ” I pretend not hearing her” or “a couple of boys touching twenties”.

For a while, I wondered whether the grammatical mistakes were not deliberate, putting poor English into the mouths of his Hindi speaking politicians.

But I fear it might just be sloppy editing

Right, now that’s off my chest, let me rave about a great contemporary Indian novel.

I have mentioned in other reviews, that although the circumstances of reading a novel should not necessarily influence one’s appreciation of the writing, the fact still remains that very often they do.

And so, reading a book like this, living in North India as I do, and with non-stop talk and coverage of  the political shenanigans in the tumultuous, populous state of Uttar Pradesh, which goes to the polls in a few weeks – well, Mr. Yadav has painted us a vivid, all too imaginable scenario.  Corruption, internecine fighting, rent-a-crowd, all the elements of North Indian politics are brilliantly reflected in this novel.

The struggle for the Chief Ministership of India’s largest state, the dream of eventually becoming Prime Minister, are the guiding forces of Dada’s life, and his entourage of feckless family, hangers-on, corrupt cops, venal politicians…oh, it is all too familiar and therefore totally believable.

The noise and chaos and dirt and scruffiness that characterises so much of small town north India is perfectly described. You can hear the incessant noise from that traffic jam – actually, sitting in Delhi as I write this, I really CAN hear the racket from the traffic outside, but you take my meaning.

Mr. Yadav writes powerfully and brings his cast of characters to life, from the interesting jeera packer himself with his lovely wife Jyoti, to the Pathan who dreams of riding off into the sunset on his Bullet, to the about-to-retire policeman, terrified of life outside the toadying, protective bubble of official cars and drivers and the saluting deference which he has come to love.

This is a fast-paced, good read, and never for once does it tip over into clichés.  This is India “warts and all” and the ending is a cracker.

Heartlly recommended.

Excitingly, this is a brand new book, published in 2017 and since the year is just a week old, you don’t get much more contemporary than this.

Published by the energetic Fingreprint! (& I do so love that ! in their name)

UNRAVELLING OLIVER by Liz Nugent

How is it possible that this stunning novel eluded me for 2 years?

What a read.

I sat up in the misty Himalayas, wrapped in a duvet against the damp chill, and read and read and read and didn’t go exploring.  Just gobbled up this dark, gripping, clever book.

The book opens with a bang:

“I expected more of a reaction the first time I hit her.”

And from that sentence on, we start unravelling the man behind the public persona of handsome, urbane, successful Oliver Ryan.

The format of the book, telling the story mainly in flashback, and always from a different person’s perspective, is initially a little unsettling.  For the first few chapters, until the characters all settled into place, I had to keep double checking who was now speaking, but after a while, as the story proceeds, the cleverness (and the consummate skill) of hearing all these different voices, from different time frames, and seeing different perspectives and views add to the mystery.

“Unravelling Oliver” is a psychological thriller of note.

Oliver is a man who has just beaten his wife into a coma in the opening moments of the book.  He is a man with many secrets.  And yet, such is the skill of Ms Nugent’s spare prose, that there are moments when we feel genuinely sorry for this manipulative man.

For make no mistake, Oliver manipulates people shamelessly, from his earliest days of getting to know women in his student days in early 1970s Dublin:

“I have learned over the years how to charm them.  It’s not too hard if you are handsome and can appear to be clever with a dry wit. Then, gradually, begin to take an interest, as if she is a specimen in a laboratory.  Poke her a bit with a long stick while keeping your distance.  Ignore her for long periods to see how she reacts and then give her a good shake.  It almost always works.”

There are so many layers to the story, and as you the reader, peel back each new layer, the story gets progressively deeper and more mysterious.  With hindsight, you realise that echoes and precursors of the truth behind Oliver are scattered throughout the book.

Here, for example, where Véronique talks about her father, a man who suffered much at the hands of the Gestapo:

“He had told nobody and, despite his heroics, he felt nothing but shame.  I think it an honourable thing not to visit your horror upon those that you love, but I suspect that the pain of keeping it inside must also cause a lesion to the soul.”

With hindsight, we realise that these words – well, some of them – could apply equally to Oliver.  Oliver is not heroic, but he does have secrets that he will not and cannot share.

This is a story with dark tragedy at its centre, but yet there are moments of pure beauty, too.

When you read this toddler’s reactions to a story being told to him, it is such a joyous vignette:

“As Monsieur began to tell the story, I watched the boy’s face as he perched on his papi’s knee.  He was transfixed by the tale of a happy young prince of a fantastical land and would exclaim in the middle of the telling, would hide his eyes at the arrival of the bad witch, and clap his hands in excitement at our hero’s escape in the end.”

Books and stories, and the telling of stories, and the not telling of stories, are all part of the fabric of this clever book.  There are twists and turns right up until the closing paragraph.

Consummate story-telling.

Ireland per se isn’t a character as such in the book, but the social situation and the mores of 1970s Dublin, are a leitmotiv running through the book, influencing the decisions and behaviour of the characters.

For example, the parlous state of Irish food in the 1970s comes in for gentle criticism, when Michael spends a summer in France:

“Ireland in those days was a gastronomic wilderness.  Parsley sauce was considered the height of sophistication.  Here, I learned that boiling was not the only way to teat a vegetable…and that garlic existed.”

A great read.  A gripping story.  Totally recommended.

If you would like to buy the book after reading this review, here you go.

Couldn’t be easier. Just click on the link, and yes, of course, you know the rest…