As we approach the time to consider the books that will make my best of 2011 list, there’s always an candidate for the best book I never reviewed (usually because life intervened). Well, right now the prime candidate for that honour is Peirene #4. Of course, by the end of this post that will no longer be the case and I shall have to think of another honour to award it …
While I do that, take a look at this brilliant book trailer:
The dead wife, the myopic husband, the mysterious and slightly seedy Dana with the chinese symbol, Kan, tatooed on her neck. She thought it was sexy when it’s actually the sign for abyss, void, destruction. And many a ménage à trois ends like that. Though this isn’t your traditional one. It’s off-kilter, skewed.
This is the moment when Dana appears in the picture …. At first glance a woman in a trouser suit, everything about her luxurious, accompanied by a gentleman and another lady. At second glance a woman with short hair neatly parted, strikingly pale skin, alarmingly large eye sockets with weary dark eyes … And then suddenly he saw her in the arms of the man – no, really the man was in hers – he was unable to fend her off. … She surely was going to kiss that man right into the ground any moment now …. The next moment, however, she was pushing him away, turning from him to the lady, who had been watching and smiling … But then came the kiss between the two women!
Dana’s first appearance, quoted above, contains foreshadowing, but it’s not exact. Our expectations are subverted. In the same way as Hinrich Schlepp’s laser-eye treatment improves his physical eyesight but renders him all the more myopic psychologically. Doro, his wife, the quiet one, the most intuitive and the home of still waters being sucked down into an emotional maelstrom ….
The human drama is fascinating. First impressions and face values are subverted through the disconnected perspectives of Hinrich and Doro. Considering Hinrich discovers his wife’s corpse on the first page, this is an artistic tour de force – an achievement made possible by an ingenious structure. Doro dies as she is editing one of her husband’s unfinished manuscripts. Devastated by her death, Hinrich begins to read Doro’s notes. In the course of that he is forced to confront his wife’s true feelings, her contempt and derision. Shocked to his core, Hinrich finds himself incapable of alerting the authorities about his wife’s death. He is paralysed, spends the day revisiting his memories and hers, working out the critical moment when life went wrong. As his wife’s body decays, the smell of her corpse and his own seedy behaviour rise and he loses the will to live. It seems fitting and unavoidable that he will follow his wife to face a second death.
Turn the page and what’s this – an alternative ending? Oh no – I hate games like this. Always have. I had a rather impassioned conversation about it with the publisher, Meike Ziervogel, when I met her for coffee during World Literature Weekend, way back in May. Meike’s argument was/is that it’s entirely in keeping with the shifting perspectives of the story. What starts as Hinrich’s story gradually becomes Doro’s, who isn’t content just to annotate Hinrich’s manuscript but actually takes over and completes it in an entirely unexpected way. The alternative ending is the author’s opportunity to play the same subversive trick on the reader. Very true.
I held off reviewing while I made my mind up about that. So much time passed that I needed to reread to decide for definite. Conclusion: Structurally sound it may be. But granting a second life to a story preoccupied with visions of a second death diminishes the pull and power of the prior narrative. While that is probably the authorial intention, I don’t like being undermined as a reader in that way when I’ve been so completely engrossed in the concept thus far. Pull the rug from beneath me early on if you will, but not at the end. If I can deduct a star for Ian McEwan doing similar in Atonement, I am being consistent in doing the same here.
None of which prevents this from being my favourite Peirene to-date. So that’s one gong for Politycki and here’s the second: Next World Novella is awarded the Lizzy’s 2011 so-good-I-read-it-twice-award.
(And I now have another candidate for best book I never reviewed … to be continued ….)