My top 5…. novels of the Second World War

When you consider all the novelists who’ve been inspired to write about the Second World War, the numbers are huge.  The events of those few momentous years have provided – and are providing still – the subject matter for a vast swathe of the contemporary literary canon.  I don’t read military history and I don’t seek out documentaries on the period, and yet when it comes to fiction I find myself drawn time and again to stories set during that time.  It was such as enormous and multi-faceted conflict, affecting people from all continents and all walks of life, that the human experiences to be explored are almost endless.  All the books in my top five take a very different angle on the war and what it meant for those caught up in it, so I really hope that something here will catch your eye.  So here are…

…my top 5 novels of the Second World War

  1. “All the Light we cannot see” by Anthony Doerr – if you’re a regular visitor to my blog you may have read the glowing review I wrote for this book a few months ago. The juxtaposed stories of a blind girl stranded in France during the Nazi occupation and a gentle German boy forced into a life of violence that he really doesn’t want provide some of the most moving moments in fiction that I’ve ever come across.  The ideas here of the survival of the human spirit against all the odds will stay lodged in your heart for a long time.
  2. “Suite Française” by Irène Némirovsky – I haven’t seen the recent film adaptation and am determined not to because I enjoyed the book so much. It’s superb in its own right but is rendered all the more poignant by the knowledge that the author, a Russian Jew, died in Auschwitz in 1942.  The book is made up of two stories – she had planned to write more – that describe daily life in France as it was under the German occupation.  The microcosms depicted would have, you feel, been played out countless times across the beleaguered country.  It flits between the mundane and the desperately harrowing in a way that you sense is a very authentic representation of the time.
  3. “Obedience” by Jacqueline Yallop – this novel was nowhere near as prominently reviewed or talked about as the previous two, but it’s still an absolute gem. It concerns the developing relationship between a French nun and one of the occupying German soldiers that could best be described as unfortunate!  The consequences for Sister Bernard don’t stop with the end of the war; we see in tragic detail how the decisions she made then play out during the rest of her life.  It was quite an unusual story, I thought, and one worth discovering if you haven’t already.
  4. “HHhH” by Laurent Binet – now this is something very different. It’s based on the true story of an Allied mission to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi secret service, while he is visiting what was then Czechoslovakia.  It’s an unbearably tense adventure novel, but it’s something more besides, which sets it apart from most other novels of its kind.  The striking element is the very audible presence of the narrator who, as well as telling the tale, tells us of his struggles in trying to present a factual account without succumbing to the temptation of artistic licence.  It sounds a bit of a weird idea, but honestly it really works – and it certainly makes you think about how many of our notions regarding historical events might be skewed by unreliable narrators.
  5. “Maus” by Art Spiegelman – I’m sure you’ll forgive me for including a graphic novel on my list since it is arguably one of the most famous fictional depictions of the Holocaust ever created. It’s certainly the most powerful I’ve ever read.  In this version, the Nazis become cats and the Jews mice; other than that, events play out as they really happened.  I’ve never been able to get my head around exactly why replacing humans with animals makes this book so heart-wrenching.  Maybe we can envisage the fragility of a mouse more easily than that of a human?  I don’t know.  What I do know is that this is a masterpiece that needs to be experienced by everyone.  I saved the best until last with this list, so if you read no others, please try this.

I hope you enjoyed my top five today; as ever, I would love to hear your favourites!

“The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters – review

People are usually a bit surprised when I tell them I’ve never tried Sarah Waters, understandable I suppose given my love of stories set in the past.  I think I’ve always been deterred by the knowledge that a number of her novels have a fairly substantial supernatural element, a theme that doesn’t appeal to me at all.  “The Paying Guests”, however, is rooted very firmly in the physical world with all its lies, disappointments and sordidness, and has a sense of unvarnished realism that I found very refreshing.  It’s a love story, a crime thriller and a perceptive snapshot of a time when social expectations – particularly for women – were starting to change.

The year is 1922.  Mrs. Wray and her daughter Frances are the only surviving members of the Wray family, having lost both sons in the Great War and the father soon after.  Their large London home is proving too expensive to run, and mother and daughter are forced to take in lodgers to make ends meet.  Those lodgers are Lillian and Leonard Barber, a young married couple whose modern sensibilities at first seem out of kilter with the subdued, formal atmosphere of a house still in mourning.  Gradually, however, the naturally rebellious Frances is drawn into their enticing world – and life in the house on Champion Hill will never be the same again.

I absolutely loved Frances as a central character.  She was headstrong and opinionated, yet also had an obvious vulnerability that prevented her from slipping into the dull and patronising cliché of the “feisty” heroine.  We learn that she has been involved with the Suffragette movement and taken part in anti-authority activities to the consternation of her parents, and her mother still admonishes her for wanting to talk politics over the tea table; yet I didn’t see this as the familiar story of a woman ahead of her time trying to break through society’s conventions.  In those kind of novels, the lead female character is often the only woman portrayed as being forward-thinking in any way and is surrounded by others whose desire to stick with convention is as strong as the heroine’s desire to break from it.  “The Paying Guests” is not a book about one renegade woman: it is a novel of women, normal women who are simply in search of a life that will make them happy.  If some of society’s mores are overturned in the process then it’s a by-product of an individual’s pursuit of personal fulfilment.  It is without doubt the female characters who take centre stage and determine the novel’s course of events.  The only male character we get to know in any detail is Leonard, whose enigmatic and unsettling demeanour becomes more and more troubling to Frances.  This weighting towards the feminine is an interesting reflection of the state of Britain at that time, where thousands upon thousands of men have been killed in a war still fresh in everyone’s memory.  Frances has lost all the male members of her immediate family, and throughout the novel peripheral characters make reference to male friends or relatives who lost their lives in the conflict.  As events take a more sinister turn, those involved remark on how the war not only took so many innocent lives but hardened and corrupted the outlook of many of those men who survived, this collective shift towards self-serving cynicism being to the detriment of society and community.  Little wonder then that women, their desires and ambitions are suddenly coming to the fore.

I can’t bring this review to a close without mentioning just how exciting this novel is in terms of its plot and action.  Almost from the first page there is a tingling sense that something untoward is going to happen, and happen it does.  The first major event is pretty easy to anticipate; after that, however, I was taken completely by surprise and consumed the last half of the book with a real stomach-knotting desperation to see how the story would conclude.  I’ve read a lot of novels recently that I’ve enjoyed for their linguistic prowess, perceptive character studies or emotional impact, but it’s been a while since I read anything that has that real “what’s going to happen next” verve about it.  I’m really pleased I’ve finally discovered what a brilliant writer Sarah Waters is and can guarantee I’ll be returning to her before too long.

“Devotion” by Ros Barber – review

If you were being crushed by the unshakeable weight of a profound grief and you were told it could be taken away forever by a pioneering neurological procedure, would you take that opportunity?  Can the spiritual side our existence be defined by the laws of chemistry, biology and physics?  And what are the implications of a world where apparently undesirable mental states such as guilt, grief and even extreme religious views can be “cured”?  “Devotion” explores all these questions and many more besides; I found the reading of it a pretty intense emotional and intellectual exercise in the best possible sense.  You will need to have your brain well and truly engaged to get the most out of it, but the rewards are there if you do.

I really don’t want to say too much as regards the plot, as to give away any spoilers would completely derail the journey on which the story takes you, so instead I’ll simply set the scene.  Finlay Logan is a psychologist mourning the death of his daughter Flora in a tragic accident.  April is a teenage girl who blew up a bus full of students in the name of God.  Both are tormented by some traumatic – and downright hideous – events in their past, and when Dr. Logan becomes professionally involved in April’s case he realises that the mental and emotional experiences of this unfortunate girl might actually have a significant bearing on his own crumbling life.  Dr. Gabrielle Salmon is a neurologist to whom he turns for help; her extraordinary claim is that she is able to provide the experience of a direct connection with God through electrical stimulation of the brain, and that such an experience can permanently transform the lives of previously troubled individuals.  At first Logan is sceptical, but the question is already planted in his head, and the reader’s: does God have to be an external entity in order to be real?  Can He legitimately be made to feel as real to us as other emotional sensations whose existence we would never dream of denying, such as love and compassion?  From this initial proposition the novel casts its intellectual net wider and wider until the very nature of reality itself is called into question, and we are left wondering if reality is in fact just a construct of our own minds.

If this is all starting to sound like a philosophy essay I can promise you the book doesn’t read that way.  There are big philosophical questions looming undoubtedly, but there is also a story, an engaging and also very sad one about just how thoroughly grief can dismantle a human life.  Logan has a son, a wife and friends who are all in turn affected by his emotional demons, and it’s their story too.  What is more, despite the fact that on paper the subject matter sounds somewhat depressing, the author’s hypnotic and exquisite prose elevates even the most awful moments into something profound and beautiful even while the events themselves are ugly.  Ros Barber is a poet as well as a novelist and it shows.  I can’t imagine enjoying this story so much in anyone else’s hands; on every page there were turns of phrase that made me catch my breath they were so perfect.  Even if the synopsis doesn’t grab you, read it for the writing because her style is sublime.

Ultimately, the idea on which this tale hangs is not a remote and fanciful hypothesis.  In the author’s skilful hands it all suddenly seems completely plausible.  “Devotion” is actually set at an indeterminate point in the near future, a “post-Dawkins” world that has seen a gradual shift in attitudes towards science and religion; but really it could be almost any day now.  On the one hand science is the voice of reassurance, and for Logan it might just be the only thing that can help him get to where he wants to be.  On the other hand there is a faint air of menace in the apparent ease with which minds can be altered at the drop of a hat, electronically poked into supposed spiritual enlightenment.  All too recognisable too is the push to medicate against everything, even emotion itself; the drug Logan takes in order to alleviate his suffering does indeed dull the pain but also sends him into a mental stupor.  In a way the central conceit is simply the next logical step along a road that already feels familiar.

It’s been a few days now since I finished this novel and I’m still thinking about it; I have the feeling I’m going to carry on thinking about it for some time to come.  Many of the more profound questions the author declines – quite rightly – to answer; how we respond to the startling, and potentially controversial, ideas in this mesmerising book is left very much up to us.

Past Masters – C J Sansom

Welcome to the latest instalment of my Past Masters series of blog posts, in which I share with you some of my favourite historical fiction authors.  It may seem like quite an obvious choice this time round, but I wanted to write about this particular author because, despite my love of history, I only discovered him when a relative lent me one of his books.  Today, it’s C J Sansom.

C J Sansom

Which historical period does he write about?

He’s done a couple of standalone novels, but his most famous are the Shardlake books, which are set in Tudor England.

Why should I read him?

I didn’t pick these up initially simply because they were shelved in the crime section of my local bookshop, and I’m not really a crime fan.  If like me that’s put you off trying them, don’t let it.  The first three books of the series had already been released when an aunt lent me “Dissolution”; I devoured it and never looked back!  I think the series is so successful because of the appeal of its main character, Shardlake: a lawyer with a hunchback and not at first glance the most likely of protagonists.  Yet he is a character who really gets under your skin and as the books went on I found I became extremely attached to him.  First and foremost he’s incredibly human, experiencing self-doubt, frustration, fear and anger; his authenticity endears him to the reader, as does his unswerving desire to do the right thing and ensure that justice prevails, even when he comes up against the most vile of characters.  The stories are thoroughly gripping, a bit grim in places but never unreadably so – they are whodunnits, yes, but with a real depth of humanity to them.

Which authors are most similar?

The closest is probably S J Parris (someone I’ve raved about on the blog before), but I would also throw Rory Clements into the mix.

Which book should I start with?

I would definitely recommend the Shardlake series over the individual novels, and “Dissolution” is first in the series.  It’s not the end of the world if you don’t read the books in order, but even though each novel is self-contained there’s always a bit of character development that perhaps you miss out on if you don’t follow the sequence.

“The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam – review

When I write a book review I normally jump straight in a couple of hours or so after I’ve finished reading; I like to have the emotional impact of a novel still alive and kicking in order for me to best share that reaction with others.  This time round things were quite different.  The sensations I got from this book were so intense that I needed a few days to withdraw and let them settle before I could even attempt to put them into words.

Let’s start with the easy bit: the synopsis.  “The Blind Man’s Garden” is the story of two men from Pakistan who unwittingly end up recruited by the Taliban to join the war against the Western forces in Afghanistan.  The novel’s two main strands follow the plight of these unwilling soldiers and also the lives of the families they leave behind in a country that is itself becoming ever more unstable.  It’s a war that dominated our media for years, and yet in all that time I never came across anything that got inside the heads and hearts of the people who actually lived through this terrible period as vividly as this book.  As you would expect, there are some disturbing episodes that depict mankind at its most brutal.  Aslam’s writing is unwaveringly lyrical even when presenting his readers with the most horrific of scenes, and yet despite this linguistic delicacy I still had to take a day or two’s break in the middle and step away from the characters’ emotional and physical pain for a while.

Something I really love about this author, though, is his emphasis on beauty even in the face of the ugliest human behaviour.  In this book, we return time and time again to the lush tranquillity of the titular garden; its owner may have failing sight but he can sense the vibrancy of nature all around him.  This idea of trust in the constancy of the garden’s beauty became for me a metaphor for having faith in all that is decent and pure even when our own world seems so darkened by malice and evil that we lose sight of it.  And it would be all too easy for a book to descend into absolute bleakness when it’s telling a story such as this.  Jihadists murder children, Western soldiers torture innocent civilians, human lives come to an end in the most pitiful of ways – and yet somehow what stays with you after you’ve finished reading are the depictions of love that outlast everything else, even death itself.  It’s too neat a solution and too easy a cliché to say that love conquers all, but you get the feeling that in Nadeem Aslam’s mind love and beauty will always prevail no matter what.

There’s very little in the way of judgement here.  The author clearly cares deeply about the fate of his creations and yet there is a certain sense of detachment from the situation as a whole.  The novel isn’t really even asking the reader to take sides in any political debate.  This is one tiny part of the conflict; although the action takes place against the backdrop of a world forever altered by the events of 9/11, it’s really about the effects as felt by just a handful of individuals.  The war in Afghanistan may be sending ripples across the entire globe, but for the people involved it’s not so much about the survival of a country or army, but simply the survival of themselves and those they love.  I think this is one reason why the book rang so true; all the characters have their own political opinions of course, but in a time of crisis it’s the relationships with the people dear to them that carry the most weight and spur them on in their darkest moments.

If the subject matter sounds grim, please don’t let that put you off.  Yes, parts of the book are heart-breaking and hard to read, but it’s never unreadable – and I’m generally quite sensitive to depictions of brutality.  Images from the novel will almost certainly linger in your mind for quite a while, but I found the moments of hope proved as potent as those of despair.  He’s such a tremendous writer and I guarantee his exquisite turn of phrase will blow you away.  Not many people I know have read his novels, and I think that’s a real shame because he deserves a much wider audience.  Make time for this book and you’ll be rewarded.

Past Masters – my favourite historical fiction authors

I adore historical fiction – from the Middle Ages to the Victorians, I’ll read it all.  So to trumpet my passion just that little bit more, I’m launching my Past Masters series of blog posts, the aim being to celebrate some of the amazing historical fiction writers out there and hopefully to inspire you to try someone you haven’t yet read.  Without further ado then, first up this week is…

Suzannah Dunn

Which historical period does she write about?

The Tudors; her books are focussed primarily on the Tudor court.

Why should I read her?

Most of her novels feature real historical figures, so if like me you see historical fiction partly as a springboard into learning some historical facts then you’ll enjoy these.  What Suzannah Dunn does particularly well, though, is to use some less well-known, or almost entirely fictional, characters to provide a unique perspective on what is quite a familiar and frequently explored period in British history.  In “The Queen of Subtleties” for example, she takes a single name and job title from the actual historical records relating to Henry VIII’s court, and from that starting point creates the character of King’s Confectioner, who tells us the famous story of Anne Boleyn’s downfall as seen through the eyes of a servant – a class of people whose experience of their times all too often died with them.  When it comes to finding a convincing narrative voice this author is a real class act; her books are incredibly well written and she clearly has a real love for the period.

Which authors are most similar?

The obvious comparison is Philippa Gregory, but Alison Weir’s fictional books aren’t a million miles away.  I have to say I do prefer Suzannah Dunn to Alison Weir though.

Which book should I start with?

My favourite was the one I mentioned above, “The Queen of Subtleties”, primarily because I loved the idea of exploring the world of the people behind all the Tudor splendour and gastronomic extravagance.

I hope your interest is piqued enough to give this fantastic author a try!  See you soon on the blog for another of my favourite writers.


“The Light Years” by Elizabeth Jane Howard – review

I’m not entirely sure what it was that drew me to this book.  It might have been the half-remembered flashes of a long gone television adaptation, or maybe it was the name Cazalet on the cover that jumped out at me, it being one of those literary names that you know you’ve vaguely heard of even if you’ve never read the book.  My decision may even have been swayed by the pretty floral cover design.  Either way I’m delighted because I’ve discovered a new series of books (5 in all) I can really get my teeth into.

I will say straight off, though, I can imagine “The Light Years” may not instantly appeal to everyone.  Firstly, although it was only published in 1990 it does have quite an old-fashioned feel to it; the 1930s setting is definitely reflected in the style of prose.  Secondly, this is a world of vast country houses, prep schools, chauffeurs and croquet on the lawn, and at first I wasn’t convinced I was going to be able to take to any of these characters who had everything money could buy and then some.  It becomes apparent as the story develops, however, that despite their privileged position in society almost none of them are particularly happy.  True, an eccentric patriarch with a tendency to implement grand building schemes on his estate at the drop of a hat and the inconvenience of extra guests turning up for a dinner party are undoubtedly very minor dramas in the grand scheme of things, but these are outweighed by some truly devastating events – affairs, disintegrating marriages, even death – that only serve to highlight how even the most materially blessed are ultimately subjected to the same emotional pain as everyone else.

This novel has a pretty hefty cast (luckily a family tree is provided at the beginning!).  However, unusually for an ensemble piece on this scale, it wasn’t difficult to keep track of who was who and how they fitted into the family.  Juggling vast numbers of characters is a real skill; I find that often interrelationships can become confusing and the effort required to hold them all in my head spoils the flow of the novel, or that there are some characters whose storylines fail to sustain my interest.  Neither of those things is true in this case.  The Cazalet family is 17 strong, yet all get a remarkably equal share of the action and there wasn’t a redundant or dull character among them.  What I felt Elizabeth Jane Howard did exceptionally well was finding the voices of the children.  They get as much dialogue, and therefore as much input into the story, as their adult relatives, and as a result we get to see another side to events as they unfold, viewed as they are with naivety, childish humour or sometimes fear.

As the book draws to a close, the prospect of another world war is looming on the horizon.  The two eldest Cazalet brothers bear the physical and psychological scars of their time in the trenches of World War I, and the family’s sickening dread of having to go through the same thing all over again casts an ever darkening shadow over the superficially idyllic days.  Having become incredibly attached to this family I am now gasping to find out what happens to them over the coming books.  If this one is anything to go by, the author doesn’t shy away from tragedy so I imagine a few heartbreaks will be on the cards.  If you want to get wrapped up in a multi-stranded, traditional family saga then this comes highly recommended.

“The House on Paradise Street” by Sofka Zinovieff

I picked up this book expecting to be transported to the blazing heat, buzzing cicadas and dazzling, cream-white architecture of Greece; indeed I was, but the journey that ultimately made the greater impact was the one that led into the dark heart of a period about which I knew nothing, the country’s occupation by the Nazis and the subsequent civil war.  In fact, this novel takes the reader to some pretty grim places that I wasn’t expecting, but by the end it had inspired me to go and learn more about the violent events that almost tore the country apart.

The view of the macrocosm comes later: the novel begins with a single death in the modern day.  Nikitas’ colourful life comes to an abrupt end one night when his car comes off the road and plummets over a cliff.  Maud is the English wife he leaves behind, and she decides to carry on with the project her husband was working on before he died, researching his family history.  There is one mystery that appears never to have been solved: what exactly happened to his mother before she abandoned him and left Greece for Russia when he was a mere toddler.

There are two people’s stories running concurrently here – Maud’s, as she struggles to cope not just with her grief but with the gradually dawning realisation that there are people around her who know much more about her husband’s past than they’re letting on, and that of Antigone, Nikitas’ long lost mother, who has spent her entire life in exile and estranged from her family.  In the chapters of the book devoted to Antigone she tells her life story, sharing the traumatic events in which she participated during the war.  As a Greek Communist, she joined with other Stalinists in an attempt to rise up against the country’s Nazi occupiers – you can probably guess that her decision has several tragic repercussions for herself and those close to her.

Choosing these two voices, Maud’s and Antigone’s, really serves to highlight the complexity of the moral struggle endured by the family – and country.  On the one hand, Antigone puts forward a very particular view of events as seen through an unwavering political conviction.  Maud, on the other hand, is something of an outsider who has played no part in the country’s turbulent history.  Her life in Greece is not one of political activism; rather she is surrounded by people who hold all manner of viewpoints, and most significantly, people for whom the militant Antigone is not a patriotic hero but a betrayer of family and friends.  After hearing everyone’s stories we have no choice but to conclude that there is no black and white – after all, is any war ever completely black and white? – but there is a real sadness in the fact that even the closest families can be split irreparably by each side’s inability to see things from the other point of view.  Antigone, her siblings and parents each held fast to their beliefs for a lifetime, and the result was a lifetime apart.

I have to say this book was not what I expected at all, but in the end it turned out to be so much more substantial than I’d anticipated.  Of course it’s a work of fiction, but nonetheless I feel I’ve learned a little bit of history along the way.  It’s a definite thumbs-up for this one from me!

“The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton” by Elizabeth Speller – review

This was one of those occasions when the right book landed in my hands at exactly the right time.  I was in need of something not too heavy but that would nevertheless engross me enough to remove me utterly from the various stresses that were taking over everyday life.  I’d read “The Return of Captain John Emmett” some time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it, but by one of those little quirks of life I’d never felt an overwhelming need to pick up the second novel – until now.  “The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton” features the same central character as “The Return…” but it’s not a sequel in the true sense of the word.  There are fleeting references to the events of the previous novel but your enjoyment and understanding would not be in any way hindered if you haven’t read it.  (In fact I’m so terrible at recalling even crucial details like characters’ names it was some while before I even realised that the two novels shared a protagonist!)  That protagonist is Laurence Bartram, a First World War veteran weighed down by the emotional fallout not only from the conflict itself but also the death of his wife and child and the loss of a subsequent love – possibly the real true love of his life.  The year is 1924 and he arrives at Easton Hall with the task of investigating the history of the family church on the Easton estate.  However, Laurence quickly becomes drawn into a much more sinister mystery: the unexplained disappearance years before of five year old Kitty Easton, who vanished from her bed never to be seen again.  In a house full of extended family, friends and household staff from the local community, everyone has their own idea of what could have happened to the little girl; some hold on to the hope that she could still be alive, many more believe she is dead.  But does someone among them possibly know the truth?

The great thing about this book is that the reader is clearly invited to take part in solving the puzzle.  The author scatters clues here, there and everywhere for us to collect and mull over – but I have to say that although some of my suspicions were vindicated, I didn’t come close to guessing how the novel was going to conclude.  Yet despite the fact that the missing person case runs through the book from beginning to end, it’s only one thread of a tale that encompasses so much more loss than just that of Kitty Easton.  This was a period of history during which almost no-one was untouched by the shockwaves of war.  The disappearance of a small girl is a clearly visible and tangible loss, but every character here has had something taken away from them, unfairly and permanently: the ability to walk or have a physical relationship, the possibility of pursuing a dream career, the chance to see a child grow up.  The village of Easton is a changed place, now only home to women and children, the elderly and infirm and the tiny smattering of men who were lucky enough to make it back alive but who are now irrevocably altered.  As with many communities at that time, the loss of so many young and middle-aged men has left a gaping hole.  The anguish and emotional paralysis of Kitty’s grieving family are really the reactions of a nation played out in microcosm.  In an instant the world has been turned upside down, and the questions everyone is left asking are, what just happened and how do we possibly carry on?

This novel achieves a balance between mystery and social history very cleverly.  There were only two slight downsides for me.  Firstly, a mass of characters and back stories are introduced very quickly, and initially I found myself flicking back to make sure I had everyone’s relationships correct.  Secondly, there are often scenes involving several characters during which the author is so keen to describe everyone’s tiny reactions and expressions in between the dialogue that it becomes a little overwhelming to read.  But these are minor quibbles that in no way ruin what I found to be a highly enjoyable book.  In fact, I was very sorry when it ended, and that is perhaps the best endorsement of all.

“The Girl who wasn’t there” by Ferdinand von Schirach – review

I’ll be blunt about this from the outset: I found “The Girl who wasn’t there” to be quite a strange book.  Not necessarily in a bad way, I hasten to add, but I got to the end feeling slightly unsure as to what exactly it was I’d just read – and on top of that, the hunch that I wasn’t meant to be sure.

It’s a book of two halves – literally.  Section one tells the backstory of the man who will later be implicated in a murder case (and don’t worry, that’s not a horrendous spoiler, it’s on the book jacket!) while section two deals with the police enquiry and subsequent trial.  We first meet the suspect, Sebastian von Eschburg, as a young child growing up in a remote country house that was once a place of some grandeur and prosperity but is now a dilapidated shadow of its former self.  Sebastian is a strange child, a fact of which he’s very much aware – he experiences emotions and memories as colours and unnerves his schoolteachers by conversing out loud with characters from his favourite books.  A shock event propels him from an unconventional childhood to a troubled adolescence, and by the time he reaches adulthood the events from his past combined with his already unusual mental disposition have well and truly taken their toll.  He launches what turns out to be a highly successful career as a photographer, his unique way of visualising the world around him giving rise to some complex and at times disquieting artistic creations.  The mental torment is never far away, however, lurking behind the lens, channelled to an extent by his work but always ready to strike.  By the end of the first half of the novel it would seem that Sebastian’s inner demons have struck indeed.

Part two switches abruptly to a new central character: Konrad Biegler, a curmudgeonly barrister who has been persuaded, very much against his will, to spend some time in a mountain retreat following a nervous breakdown.  Biegler is cantankerous, rude and regards most of the people around him as imbeciles, and yet he was the first character in the book for which I felt any kind of warmth.  The main reason for this is that he is incredibly funny – the archetypal “grumpy old man” if you will – and I found this brought a much-needed relief from the exploration of the tormented artist that had gone before.  The story itself remains serious; from this point on it follows the pattern of what I would call a more typical crime thriller.  We don’t see a whole lot of Sebastian in this part of the book; it’s more of a police procedural and courtroom drama, the focus being the investigation into the alleged murder.

To be honest, this sudden jump from the emotionally complex, almost dreamlike character study of the first half to the straightforward, plot-driven second half was what made the reading experience bizarre.  It felt as if I had read two different novels, neither of which was quite complete.  I found the backstory much more engaging and although the criminal case was by no means uninteresting it felt a bit rushed, as if there wasn’t enough time to really build the suspense.  The book’s conclusion does go some way to linking the two halves together again, but by that point I wasn’t quite sure that the device had worked.  Having said that, the book did throw up some interesting ideas, particularly about the indistinct nature of the line between art and reality.  If you have an afternoon to spare it’s worth a try; I liked von Schirach’s writing style and hats off to him for offering up something a bit different.  I wouldn’t review a book on my blog if I really disliked it, so although for me this one had its challenges I think it could be one that many different types of reader could enjoy.  If you’ve tried it I’d love to hear what you think.