Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Ireland, John Banville, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘April in Spain’ by John Banville

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 368 pages; 2021. Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley.

If I had to choose one word to describe John Banville‘s latest crime novel it would be this: fun.

April in Spain is historical crime at its best, the kind of story you can get lost in and enjoy to the full even if the crime itself is a bit of a let down.

Postwar tale

This evocative postwar tale stars Dublin pathologist Quirke, whom we have met in earlier novels published under Banville’s pseudonym, Benjamin Black, and Detective St. John Strafford who made his first appearance in last year’s Snow. (Note, you don’t need to be familiar with those novels, but it’s great fun for readers who are.)

It’s set in San Sebastián, on the northern coast of Spain’s mountainous Basque Country, and is famous for its forests, beaches, sparkling wine and seafood. Quirke is holidaying here somewhat reluctantly (he finds it difficult to relax) thanks to his wife, Evelyn, a straight-talking Austrian psychotherapist who survived the Holocaust, having arranged it all.

‘Northern Spain is southern Ireland,’ she said. ‘It rains all the time, everywhere is green, and everyone is Catholic. You will love it.’

One evening, enjoying a quiet drink in a bar in the Old Town, Quirke hears an Irish accent and wonders if he might know the woman to whom it belongs, but she’s sitting behind him and he can’t see her properly. When he does finally run into her under different circumstances a few days later he realises he does know her — or at least he thinks he does. The problem is she’s supposed to be dead, having been murdered by her brother following a sex scandal involving one of Ireland’s most distinguished political families many years earlier.

Quirke being Quirke can’t ignore the possibility that April Latimer, now going by the name Angela Lawless (note the same initials), is still alive, but how to prove it? That’s where Detective Strafford comes into the picture. He arrives in Spain, accompanied by Quirke’s adult daughter who was friends with April and will be able to help identify her.

Villain in the shadows

But lurking in the shadows is another visitor to San Sebastián with a keen interest in April Latimer. His name is Terry Tice and he’s an Irish-born East End gangster cut from a similar cloth to Reggie Kray.

Terry Tice liked killing people. It was as simple as that. Maybe like wasn’t the right word. Nowadays he was paid to do it, and well paid.

The narrative eventually brings all these characters together in a surprising end, although it’s a slim premise for a crime novel. The strength of April in Spain is really the way in which Banville tells his story and builds suspense via his beautifully crafted prose. I love how he comes at everything with a completely original eye, inventing his own metaphors and creating unique similies. It’s the kind of writing that dazzles without showing off and is utterly enjoyable to read.

A flustered woman, for instance, is described as being akin to a “bird floundering in a net as colourless as air”. An old guy behind the desk in a pub has “the look of a walrus, with fat shoulders and a sloped back and a tired moustache drooping at the tips”. A man becomes anxious so that the “collar of his shirt seems all of a sudden two or three sizes too small for him”, while a worried woman feels “like a swimmer on a high diving board whose nerve had failed”.

I particularly liked this description of something as simple as dust:

She blew the dust from the lid — how lovely dust could be, when it lay like that, like a smooth coating of fur, dull-mauve and almost too soft to touch.

He paints such delicious pictures with words that the story really comes alive in your mind.

San Sebastián travel diary

The first part of the book, as Quirke settles into holiday mode, is a delight. I went to San Sebastián in 2018 and it remains one of the most memorable (and beautiful) European destinations I’ve ever visited. I recognised so much of Banville’s descriptions, including his references to the local fizzy white wine known as txakoli — “That was one word Quirke was quick to learn how to pronounce: tchacholy” —  and the delicious skewered snacks known as pintxos, which Quirke describes as (rather unkindly) “a slightly fancier version of the dull old sandwich. He was against the idea of local specialities, which in his experience were all too local, and rarely special”.

In move to protect his “big Irish head”, Quirke is even dragged to the very same hat shop I bought a Panama hat in:

They found a hat shop not far from the hotel. It was called Casa Ponsol. A sign over the door announced with a proud flourish that it had been founded in 1838. It might have been an annexe to the Londres [his hotel]. Quirke felt intimidated.

The mood of the story isn’t as dark as you might expect. The banter between Quirke and his wife is particularly funny (the push and pull of their relationship is brilliantly evoked). And there’s a vein of gentle humour, often mocking, running throughout. Here’s an example. Quirke and Evelyn buy oysters in the local fish market but when they get back to their hotel room they realise they have nothing to open them with.

Now she came out of the bathroom. ‘Here is a nail scissors,’ she said. ‘That will do to open them with.’ And that was how Quirke ended up in hospital.

And here’s how Terry Tice describes his impression of the tourists he sees on the beach:

People looked so stupid here, the tourists especially, the fat women as pale as suet, the men with the cuffs of their trousers rolled up and knotted handkerchiefs on their heads to ward off the sun. Then there were the he-men, flexing their muscles, as if they all thought they were Johnny Weissmuller. As for swimming, that really was for chumps. Imagine floundering around up to your neck out there, with them all screaming around you, and throwing water in each other’s faces, or standing with their hands on their hips and that faraway look on their faces that told you they were taking a piss.

I suspect diehard readers of the crime genre might find this novel a little disappointing. But what it lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in terrific characters — the people in this book are brilliant creations, each one distinct and well rounded, and Terry Tice is dastardly enough to become one of those strange evil villains you love to hate.

Yes, April in Spain is great fun. More, please.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2019), Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Fiction, historical fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Sarah Schmidt, Setting, TBR40, Tinder Press, USA

‘See What I Have Done’ by Sarah Schmidt

UK edition

Fiction – hardcover; Tinder Press; 336 pages; 2017.

When Sarah Schmidt’s debut novel See What I Have Done came out in 2017 it generated a lot of book publicity. This was backed up by a slew of prize listings — including, for example, the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the Indie Book Award for Debut Fiction and The Ned Kelly Awards for Best First Crime. It went on to win two key prizes in Schmidt’s native Australia: The ABIA Literary Fiction of the Year 2018 and the Mud Literary Award 2018.

Set in the US in the 19th century, it is based on a true story: the brutal murder, by axe, of a husband and his second wife in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts. Lizzie Borden, the husband’s 32-year-old daughter, was convicted of the crime but acquitted.

This fictionalised account examines Lizzie’s possible culpability but does not provide any clear cut answers.

Different perspectives

The tale is told from various different perspectives in alternate chapters: Lizzie’s steady and responsible older sister Emma; the Borden’s hard-working Irish servant Bridget, who is saving up to return home; an enigmatic and violent stranger called Benjamin, whom may (or may not) have been hired to commit a crime against Mr Borden; and Lizzie herself.

The narrative, which is divided into three parts, jumps around a bit in terms of timeline, so some chapters are set on the day of the murder — 4 August 1892 — while others are set the day before or the day after. Section three opens almost 13 years later, before spooling back to talk about the day of the funerals.

This backwards and forwards movement gives the reader the opportunity to see how actions can be pre-planned, how things said in the past can take on different meanings in the present, and helps paint a picture of a small but complex family rife with petty jealousies, rivalries and injustices.

Failed to engage 

But I had problems with this book. I just could not engage with any of the characters. I felt like I was always one step removed from them, or that I was watching their movements through a window, never able to quite make them out through the smears on the glass.

I think this was partly to do with the fact that the voices of the characters are too similar. They almost blended into one, so I couldn’t really distinguish them. Only Bridget, with her use of  “ya” and working class English, sounded slightly different to the others.

Australian edition

And the story felt too drawn out. I wanted to hear more about the conviction and the trial, but these are only mentioned in passing right near the end, and I’m none the wiser as to why Lizzie was arrested in the first place, much less why she was acquitted by a jury.

(That said, there’s enough meat here to figure out her motivations for potentially carrying out the brutal deed.)

On a more positive note, I liked Schmidt’s prose style and her ability to paint vivid pictures using fragmentary sentences and original adverbs (“saliva-wet baby hands”, “a red-fox vixen scream”, “her stale-wood dressing table”). There’s a heavy emphasis on odours (the smell of rotting pears, rotted meat), on sounds, on the wetness of things — and both Lizzie and Benjamin seem obsessed with licking whatever they can see. This brings scenes to life, nicely aided by authentic sounding dialogue.

And there are recurring motifs — pigeons, pears, mutton and vomit — that ties everything together.

But on the whole See What I Have Done just didn’t do it for me.

This is my 14th book for #AWW2019; my 6th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 25th book for #TBR40. I purchased it in hardcover not long after it had been released because there was such a “buzz” about it. Plus, the hardcover was a thing of beauty, with orange-edged paper and an attractive cover image. But then it sat on my shelf unread and, in fact, it’s still there — in London. The copy I actually read was the Australian edition, large-format paperback, which I borrowed from Fremantle Library last week.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Hannah Kent, historical fiction, Iceland, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, Setting

‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent

Burial-rites

Fiction – hardcover; Picador; 378 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I may possibly be the last person in the world to read Hannah Kent’s extraordinary debut novel, Burial Rites, which has been lauded far and wide and nominated for almost every prize going since publication last year.

It is one of those rare Australian novels that has achieved international acclaim — and with good reason. This is a universal tale of what it is like to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, with no recourse to proper justice, and it tells the story in such a frank and interesting way that it is difficult to put down. I read it in a matter of days.

A fictionalised true story

Set in Iceland in 1829, the book is based on a true story, as the author explains in her note at the end: “Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last person to be executed in Iceland, convicted for her role in the murders of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson on the night between the 13th and 14th of March 1828, at Illugastadir, on the Vatnsnes Peninsula, North Iceland.” Interspersed with real letters and court documents, the narrative fictionalises the events leading up to the murders and beyond.

When the book opens we meet Agnes almost a year after she has been sentenced to death by beheading.  She has been sent to the north to work her final months on a farm owned by the District Officer, his wife Magrét and two daughters, Lauga and Steina, all of whom regard her with suspicion and distrust.

Allowed access to a spiritual adviser to prepare her for “her meeting with Our Lord”, she requests that Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson, a young priest she met in passing years earlier, take on this role. But it is a task he is ill-equipped to handle.

Kent sets up her story nicely with a triumvirate of characters —  a convicted killer, a family that doesn’t trust her, and a man of religion — but what happens next isn’t really what you might expect.

During her time on the farm, Agnes changes: she grows in confidence, is less fearful of the future and begins to remember incidents from her past, which are told flashback style (in the first person). But she also has a profound effect on the people with whom she must now live and work among — they begin to see her in a new light, particularly when she tentatively opens up and tells her sometimes shocking, always surprising version of events.

Effortless read

What I loved most about Kent’s story is the effortless way it is told. Her prose style is clean and compelling, although the language — particularly the idioms and some of the dialogue — does occasionally feel too contemporary for the 19th century.

But the way in which the narrative builds and switches between third person (for the District Officer’s family and the reverend) and first person (for Agnes) is one of the book’s great strengths. Not only does it build momentum and provide insights into all of the characters thoughts, it gives the author an effective vehicle for dramatising what happened on the fateful night through the eyes of the person charged with the crime.

Perhaps the only real problem I had with this novel (and I suspect this is unique to me) is that I felt like I’d read it all before — it did not feel as fresh or as original as other reviewers have stated. But I suspect that’s because I’ve spent the best part of 10 years working my way through Arnuldur Indridason’s Reykjavik series. While his novels are set in Iceland in contemporary times, many of them focus on historical crimes, and they’re not dissimilar to Agnes’ situation.

That said Burial Rites is a great read — a proper page-turner with believable characters, a compelling plot that is deftly handled, and a narrative that “zips along” (as a 2011 Booker judge might want to say). It is an incredibly assured debut and it will be interesting to see what Kent comes up with next because for sheer audaciousness — and attention grabbing marketability — this one is going to be hard to top.