Smilla’s Sense of Snow

I finally read Smilla’s Sense of Snow. I had seen the film and had felt no particular urge to read the novel it is based on.

The novel is credited to have started the Scandinavian hurricane in literary thriller genre.

Smilla Jaspersen is half Innuit- Half Danish genius scientist. Issaih, a young Greenlander boy she is extremely close to- son of her alcoholic neighbour, dies after a fall from the terrace. Cops think that he fell while playing. But Smilla knows of his fear for heights. She is also one of the premier Glaciologists in the world and knows snow like no other. She reads the snow on the terrace and realizes that Issaih was murdered. She sets on investigating the cause. She discovers a gigantic corporate scheme which is hiding a secret that could very well be the biggest scientific discovery of 20th century.

The novel began as a classic Scandinavian thriller. An intelligent and socially inept female protagonist. Precise and cold prose. Unusual characters. Distrust of authority and government. Hypnotic atmosphere and landscape.

And then it dissolved into pretentious prose very unlike Scandinavians and more like Indian writers writing in English – long words and flowery metaphors drowning any possibility of genuine storytelling.

Unbelievable twists that want you to applaud for the sheer scientific cleverness of it all, but are actually so cliched that you want to warn the evil scientist to look for a man with a gun rather than strutting through hundreds of pages of meticulous nobel prizeworthy scientific villainy.

An increasingly annoying narrator/ protagonist. Smilla begins to grate on us halfway through and then on she is simply too snobbish and unsympathetic a character to carry the book on her shoulders. Her holier than thou attitude, her lapses in the holy aboriginal mysticism, her overtly pretentious theories of life make her a preacher rather that someone who is looking to transcend, to belong, to learn- all these things she whines about.

Critique of western culture bordering on paranoia. The most annoying this was the ‘noble savage’ treatment of the aboriginal Innuit culture. Mystical, wise, gentle, serene, soulful and completely stereotypical. Classic misguided westerners who think all aboriginal cultures somehow represent a heavenly purity that will somehow wash away their grievances with western colonialism. It is one thing to critique the colonial culture and one thing to elevate the colonised side to extreme otherness bordering on glorified patronizing and homogenizing.

I have noticed that unlike the ‘smiling negro’ stereotype of warmer colonies, Arctic colonies are full of ‘ brooding warrior saints’ cliché. Be it Asa Larsson or Henning Mankell or Agnette Friss- every northerner feels it his/ her duty to eulogize Innuit culture and quell their collective conscience.

I am not sure if I would ever re-read it again.

Advertisements

Autopsied..

I read Patricia Cornwell’s latest Kay Scarpetta novel- Flesh and Blood.

It is really sad how the once Number 1 bestselling crime writer and mother of all crime-scene-investigation genre has lost the plot completely as to why her books became such a rage in 90s.

Kay Scarpetta- a chief medical examiner was introduced in late eighties. A 40-year-old divorced woman devoted to her work and justice- the books instantly won all awards and rose to stay at number one throughout the decade.

Scarpetta and Clarice Starling were two main reasons I got hooked onto new American crime fiction.

It was the ( then) unique concept of following the ( usually serial)killer using forensic investigation. Cornwell popularised autopsies, liver mortis, trace evidence, Luma-lite and other investigative terms. We read on with fascination as Dr. Scarpetta ploughed through smallest of fibers and dissected internal organs which uncovered the criminals. ‘The dead don’t lie’ is a term often used in the books. Scarpetta has reverence for the dead. She is tough but sensitive to injustice. She is meticulous and will not let go of any single inconsistency in her investigation. She is technologically suave and it was through these books that blockbuster shows like CSI gained credibility.

While we don’t have means to judge the technology or latest forensic science, Cornwell made it easy enough for us to feel smart by focusing on forensics.

Cornwell’s personal life was no less dramatic. She fell in love with a FBI officer whose husband kidnapped his wife and threatened Cornwell. Cornwell’s coming out as well as making once of the main characters in the series a lesbian was risky for the time. She married a neuroscientist Staci Gruber and they both were famous to ride helicopters and sue the fraudulent companies.

Scarpetta’s slightly stiff but ultimately kind character was central to the plot. As a woman chief in a man’s world, she maintained her clinical focus and never depended on her male colleagues or lovers for protection. She almost always was the most brilliant investigator of the lot. The series had the trappings of gun savvy, slightly right-wing ideology, Cornwell was after all a family friend of the Bush family. But the strong female characters- both heroes and anti-heroes were so unique and appealing, that we forgave them for being ‘one-of-the-boys’. Scarpetta also loves to cook and long scenes of her cooking elaborate Italian meals provided a sensuous relief to the bloody narrative.

And then somewhere she lost the plot. The personal anguish of Scarpetta soon became self-aggrandizing to the point of obnoxiousness. The oft repeated formula of the killer obsessing with her and getting vanquished turned comical as virtually every human being in the books started targeting her. Intricate twists turned into ridiculous conspiracy theories. Scarpetta’s heir-apparent, her brilliant niece Lucy Farinelli turned into a caricature. The helicopter flying, gun-toting, techno-wizard, ex-FBI-Agent Lucy turned absolutely repulsive and needlessly dark. Captain Marino- Scarpetta’s sidekick turned disgustingly annoying. The pop-psychology turned self-conscious. Scarpetta increasingly became paranoid. And the whole series lost its focus on forensic investigation and became a badly written chronicle of arrogant, judgemental, self-important people. The recent books almost read like a parody of noir-ish first-person narratives full of conspiracies and unbelievable criminals rising from their graves once too many.

I read some of the 90s Scarpetta books and while now they seem dated what with their obsession with technology, I think that is what Cornwell did best. And I wish she stops with her angsty pretensions and returns Scarpetta to dissect human bodies once again.

Bridge ( Bron/ Broen) season 2..

(I was looking in my archive and was shocked to see that I hadn’t published this post!! Especially since it deals with my 2 obsessions neatly wrapped in 10 episodes of pure bliss. Scandinavian Crime and Lady Detectives!)

bron
Bridge 2. Or Bron/ Broen 2 as it is called in original Danish/ Swedish. Speechlessly great, astounding tv. You know why you should watch this show even if you don’t watch anything else ( other than the equally brilliant first season)?

Outstanding Female characters.
So so non-cliched. It is a pleasure to see shows where women are shown as people. From heroic to bad ass villains to ordinary people caught in life’s complexities. The sheer range of women characters in Bridge- from cops to activists to lovers to tycoons to bitter troublemakers is huge. And there are no thin, young, suspiciously smooth-faced actors there. These women look and feel real and purposeful. Their individuality, intelligence, sexuality is so human, that watching something like Bridge painfully makes you aware of the sexism in virtually every other show.

Saga Noren.
The emotionally distant and inhumanly brilliant Saga gets a painful back story in this season, but the writers do not try to lazily explain Saga away. Saga epitomizes everything about the show. The morality, value system, detached honesty, cool rationality and a sweetly dark humour that makes you happy to be imperfect. The sheer range of this character makes me speechless. She is Lisbeth Salander’s nemesis – with a law rulebook in her hand. Saga tries hard to follow social norms in this season, mostly with hilarious outcome. She is trying hard to be in a relationship too and has memorised all the popular wisdom about modern relationships. Her desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to be part of the normal society actually end up exposing the inherent hypocrisy of the world. Saga, ultimately, is so pure and adorable that you want to protect her from humanity. Not that she would let anyone do that.

Martin.
The intensely huggable and possessing merriest sparkly eyes with the best smile on TV papa bear, Martin is battling his demons from season 1. He is self-destructive in such a relatable way that you want to extend your hand towards the screen and stop him from treading the path that you know will harm him and his dear ones. Saga is perhaps the only one he relates to and is genuinely fond of without any complications. Martin is like you and me- weak, vulnerable, susceptible to temptations but ultimately a nice guy who desperately wants to do the right things.

Partnership.
Saga and Martin is one of the best detective partners in recent times. They are poles apart but are bound by their obsession with work and mutual respect/ affection for each other. Their friendship is priceless for both of them and is the only steady anchor in their rocky lives. In this season also Saga saves Martin’s family. Martin continues mentoring Saga in social niceties and being protective about her, albeit to disastrous results. When these two characters come together in one frame, it crackles with chemistry and camaraderie. Non romantic partnership between an eccentric woman and a more conventional and caring man seems to be the latest Scandinavian gender-bending formula, see Girl with Dragon Tattoo Series, The Killing. Saga and Martin seem like a classic detective pair- a cool, uber-rational, slightly superhuman genius ( Sherlock Holmes) is paired with a warm, genial partner ( a pumped up version of Watson) and the two form lasting friendship. But life is more complex than simple formulas and The Bridge shows us just how so. Towards the end of the show my stomach was twisted in knots with fear that our beloved pair might break off their friendship. The climax, was not unexpected but gut-wrenching nonetheless.

Lack of clichés:
Anything clichéd is going to be demolished in this show. If you, like I, try to be smart and predict the outcome- you will fall flat on your face. Because Bridge 2 is on a mission to give you characters, motives, clues and turn of events that twist the genre and your norms till they are unrecognisable. Seriously. Anything can happen in this show. So make sure not to form too many attachments and cling to any Sherlockian theories here- you will be deeply humiliated.

Emotional pitch:

I was watching the last episodes literally with bated breath, i.e., when you hold your breath for too long and your throat and jaw aches from too much emotion. The show peels away the characters and lays them bare. There is cruelty and honesty in the way we see the battle of conflicting emotions. Every lined face, every leafless tree, the dreary weather, race against time, disappointments, surprises crackle with muted tension. If it was not for Saga’s ‘I want to be normal’ humour, the show would have been unbearable in its sheer intensity.

Storytelling:

Even with a slightly sloppy and disappointing final answer to the mystery , the overall unrevealing of the suspense of the show is pitch-perfect, edge-of-the-seat. Which is not surprising knowing it is the Bridge we are talking about. There is very little one can talk without spoilers, so let me just say that your nerves will be fried in delicious anticipation when you watch the show.

Acting:

See it. Can’t be lauded enough. Can’t be reviewed. Just see it. Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia are gods. And while Saga is a more challenging character, I think Bodnia’s Martin is my most favourite performance in the show.

Humanity:

Finally, the real success of the show is the deep, very relatable and very very moving humanity that envelops every character, every event, every motive. Be it extreme ideologies or misguided people or dysfunctional relationships- this show champions the imperfect humanity in all of us in a manner that is brutal and still filled with love. Does this make sense? After watching Bridge, I am unable to watch anything else because it just feels so fake and shallow and wannabe.

In nutshell, see the show. And be happy that such TV is being made and we are being able to watch it.

(I was looking in my archive and was shocked to see that I hadn’t published this post!! Especially since it deals with my 2 obsessions neatly wrapped in 10 episodes of pure bliss. Scandinavian Crime and Lady Detectives!)

The Killing (Forbydelsen) Season 3

I managed to finish the season 3 of Forbydelsen a.k.a The Killing.

The show blazed the trail for worldwide popularity of Danish thriller shows. Along with Borgen and Bridge, this show helped cement the Danes’ reputation as master thriller makers. It also introduced us the character Sarah Lund, who rewrote the rules for female detectives onscreen. Just like Lisbeth Salander did it for angels of vengeance .

In season 3, Sarah is ready to take on more desk jobs and is about to become a grandmother. But do we want Sarah Lund the administrator? Of course not. She gets caught in a web of murders, political cover-ups and revenge crime as she hunts for the kidnapper of a daughter of a financial tycoon. The kidnapping case uncovers an older crime- an orphan girl’s brutal murder and rape. An election is under way and various political personalities benefit from the murder being kept under the wraps. What will Sarah do to bring the victim to justice when her own life is at stake?

It is a typical Scandinavian formula, popularised by Girl With Dragon Tattoo and Wallander series, amongst others. Society and institutions fail innocent people. Moral obligations and accountability are put in conflict with personal gain. Can justice for an individual be sacrificed for larger goals? How can social institutions protect the vulnerable without compromising the stability of society at large? What is the role of an individual when she is called for action in this situation?

The story telling is complex and taut. The characters are compelling. The production values are excellent.

But even then this season fails to bring that sense of climax to Sarah’s epic story and answer the questions raised about society in general.

Her character is lacklustre compared to earlier seasons. The whole fun about Sarah was her headstrong and rebellious stoicism. In this season, she lacks the punch until the very last 15 minutes of the show- when we get our beloved reckless and stubborn Sarah in full form. It is great to see a grandmother kicking ass and shooting the villains and threatening prime-minsiters though . And Sofie Grabol does an excellent job as usual.

The romantic track between Sarah and Borsch is dull. So is her relationship with her family.

The clues to the mystery are clichéd and certain scenarios seem too far-fetched. The tendency to doubt every single character was good in Agatha Christie’s time, but in 2013 it just seems naive.

The appeal of the first season was also the story arc of the victim’s family. For the first time a thriller focused as much on those who lose someone as those who are hunting the killer. In this season, the family of both the kidnapped girl and the murdered girl don’t appeal to emotions. I am tired of hysterical martyr characters of mothers in stories where a child is a victim. Why can’t we have mothers who in control of the situation and express their grief in less melodramatic manner? It is a lazy shortcut to appeal to viewers’ sympathy.

We the fans looked forward to the grand finale to the grandmother of modern crime with high expectations. Maybe it is the too high expectations that disappointed me. As a stand-alone, it is still a great season, way above its English language counterparts.

Marriage, murder etc. Part 2

In my last post about the popularity of Marriage Thriller as the latest blockbuster genre, we talked about its intrinsic association with women- by authorship and readership. And how this trend is quickly dismissed as ‘chick noir‘- that annoying term to define any crime/ suspense/ dark fiction that doesn’t feature a masturbatory female model of male imagination.

The popularity of these, and other bestselling thrillers featuring interesting female characters and putting female experiences in forefront, is actually one huge middle finger up patriarchy’s a** when it comes to popular fiction!!

So let us look at my top 10 of the latest Marriage Thrillers, using succinct criteria that will make my snooty teachers of lit. crit. beat themselves up with Literary Theory Vols. 1-17.

** I am only listing English language, post 2011 published titles here. A separate post coming up on my all time favourite modern marriage thriller masterpiece- Out, by Natsuo Kirino.

gone girl1. Gone Girl: THE Wicked witch grandma that kickstarted this trend in the west . Read my post/rant on the book here.

2. wife How To Be A Good Wife by Emma Chapman:
Fucked up relationship: It is your typical old-fashioned marriage- wife looks after the house, husband goes out to earn for the family. The eponymous instructional guide for married women that Marta quotes from is hilariously dated and quaint, as it drones out advice to women on becoming a ‘good wife’, by subsuming their identity for husband and family. But isn’t that the true nature of marriage, most of the times, anyway? The deliberate old fashioned lifestyle acts as a mirror to which the sexism inherent in marriage is held up. And then doubts start creeping up about the true nature of the husband- has he or has he not committed a terrible crime?.
Prose: Moving, slow, hypnotic- mirroring the protagonist’s confused state of mind. Beautiful and melancholy.
Nasty twist: We never know – reality and memories and hallucinations merge together towards a rather lovely open ending. As Marta grasps at her true identity, it becomes clear that power dynamics of a typical, sexist marriage are not very different from a terrible crime that might have been committed.
Creep factor: Not really. The hallucianations/ sightings are described eerily, beautifully, quaintly- but there is nothing that will make you gasp out.
Motherhood: Marta’s disturbed state of mind is heightened by her beloved son’s upcoming marriage. She is a clingy mother who requires constant validation from her son. Her maternal feelings border on pathetic.
Interesting female protagonist: Marta might be suffering from the Empty Nest Syndrome, or re-discovering her real identity, or uncovering a terrible crime. Her fragile state of mind, her possessiveness about her son, her growing despair at marriage, make you sorry for her. I found her obsessiveness about the son annoying . She is not my favourite part of this otherwise gorgeous novel.

3. appleApple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty:
Fucked up relationship: The marriage is not great, but the extra-marital affair is truly kinky, with the otherwise prim-and-propah couple getting over their mid-life-crisis, i.e., getting their kicks from having quickie sex in public places.
Prose: Elegant, sensuous and sometimes cruelly honest, this novel delights in keeping you wondering about the very nature of truth.
Nasty twist: Sort of. A violent event acts as a catalyst of sorts. I am not sure if I don’t find this turn extremely troubling from feminist point of view. The event trades daintily over boundaries of sexual consent and left me feeling queasy is the novel unintentionally punishing Yvonne for daring to be adventurous? I found this to be the biggest flaw/weakness in the otherwise sparkling narrative.
Creep factor: Safety and security of Yvonne’s life, built carefully over 5 decades, is shattered by one callous move, just like that. It is a scary premise, something all of us dread at those wee hours of gasping dreams.
Motherhood: Yvonne’s relationship with her troubled son and an accomplished daughter feature later in the novel. Although it is one of the least touched upon themes in the book, the ending tantalises readers with possibility of a meaningful reunion between mother and son.
Interesting female protagonist: Superb character in Yvonne- a 52-year-old scientist ( whoa!!), she is open to experimenting and throwing caution to the wind. She might come across as snooty, but her passions and morals make her a true hero-however flawed she might be. I think Yvonne is one of the best characters I have come across ever in fiction.

4. brokenBroken Harbour by Tana French:
Fucked up relationship: Like in all Tana French’s novels, this relationship acts as a symbol of Irish society in transition. The economic bubble of the country bursts, the young yuppie couple find themselves at the end of their wits and their bubbly relationship starts crumbling in a horrifying way. French sometimes mocks and sometimes tut-tuts at the shaky ground on which this so called-love-of-life is based. I find this so true of majority of relationships around me.
Prose: Oh, what can one say about her prose? Her writing wants me to recite passages aloud just for the pleasure it provides. French is the master of word-stringing-till-they-create-a-magical-castle technique. The trademark psychological insights, evocative descriptions, dark wit are there with an undercurrent of sympathy for all characters involved.
Nasty twist: Technically, the novel is more of a police procedural, so the there are several twists, the final one not shocking per say, but tragic.
Creep factor: Plenty. Hint of supernatural, brutal violence, hopeless downward spiralling of everyone involved- just your usual Tana French mind-fuck-fest at its best.
Motherhood: The young mother tries to spare her kids the horror of their situation. Like their relationship, she discovers perils of modern parenthood that depends so much of material well-being. The kids’ horrific murder and the possibility of their mother as their killer, threads this shimmering-with- tension novel an extra edge.
Interesting female protagonist: Not really. And I am still waiting for Detective Cassie Maddox to reappear in French’s books.

5. shouldYou Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz:
Fucked up relationship: Grace- a marriage counsellor believes that women should have known that there is something wrong with the relationship from the very go. There are signs that they ignore for the hope of romantic ideal and she attempts to scientifically demonstrate how the mistakes can be avoided. It is given, of course, that her perfect marriage is going to be doomed. It takes a good fifty percent of the book to discover just how truly fucked up the relationship is. And how the celebrated psychologist ignored her insights when it came to her own life. Physician- heal thyself!! The perverse, masochistic delight of reading the book comes from the possibility that the faith we all have in our spouse can be misleading and the foundation of the relationship shaky.
Prose: Elegant, clean and simple- just like Grace herself. The slow pace and the gradual unfurling of terrible secrets are superbly executed.
Nasty twist: Oh yeah!! The major twist gives way to somewhat expected domino effect of tiny twists. There are way too many of them by the end though. It almost makes us doubt Grace’s duplicity. The sheer quantity of them somewhat harms the central premise of the book that you can never know your most intimate partner fully well.
Creep factor: Yes, although the suspense could have been heightened by some read danger to Grace or her loved ones.
Motherhood: Henry- Grace’s son is sensitive and talented. The terrible events transform him from a prep school kid to a young man with courage and future. Grace finds out that it is Henry- who provides her with the will to live and ray of hope. The relationship between mother and son is one of the best parts of the book.
Interesting female protagonist: Grace is strong, smart and ethical. Her very beliefs are shattered which could leave her an empty shell of her former successful being, but thankfully it doesn’t happen. She bravely picks up pieces of her life and rebuilds it. I loved the fact that she is not punished into loosing her career.

Apart from these, the following marriage thrillers are also read-worthy:

6. sleepBefore I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson:
A bestseller novel about Christine who suffers from anterograde amnesia-a disease which makes her forget everything about her past every time she wakes up from sleep. Yes, like in that awful movie 50 First Dates. Thankfully, here we are in for more solid and well-written surprises and twists. The novel challenges the very nature of identity and memory. The twist is truly surprising. Like majority of marriage thrillers, the central premise of the novel questions the sexist power dynamic in intimate relationship. I am keenly waiting for the movie featuring Nicole Kidman.

7. husbandThe Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty:
In this bestseller, Cecilia- a successful and somewhat smug mother of three, discovers a terrible secret about her beloved husband. Her otherwise perfect life is threatened as she needs to choose between safety of her kids and an ethical obligation to reveal the secret. The novel is full of charm, humour and evocative description of close-knit community of families in Sydney. I really enjoyed the novel but the overt championing of ‘family values’ started annoying me by the end. The worst part was the final redemption based on being a good parent. Like a Hindi movie, where no matter what horrible deeds you commit, they are justified as long as you are a loving mother/ father to cutie pie kids.

8. cornerInto The Darkest Corner by Elizabeth Haynes:
A near perfect tale of domestic violence, I loved the character of Catherine. She is spunky, makes mistakes, is not perfect and lives to party. She is what Pramod Muthalik would call a ‘slut’. What happens to her- the violence and life-altering OCD- is not the ‘punishment’ for her lifestyle though, but a tight slap on the notion of victim blaming. It is a disturbing read, to say the least, but not gratuitously so.

9. wifThe Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison:
Marketed as the next Gone Girl, this elegant novel features Jodi and Todd’s not-perfect marriage. And the steps Jodi takes to correct it. I loved that the ethical dilemma is well played out. I found Jodi’s character a bit of cold fish and honestly, I would shudder at the possibility of having such perfect specimen as a spouse. Does that excuse her husband’s sleeping around with a teenager? Absolutely not. Does that mean Jodi should take matters in her manicured hands? Absolutely yes.

10. TASTESeason to Taste or How to Eat Your Husband by Natalie Young:
OK, the premise, as the title not-so-subtly announces, is shocking to say the least. Lizzie, your average English housewife, kills her husband, chops him up , freezes the meat and eats him over a period of seven weeks. It takes the famed Hitchcock story ( where the woman kills her husband with a joint of meat, roasts it and feeds it to the investigating cops- thus effectively destroying the weapon) to new heights. Shocking premise aside, the novel is tame and quite boring. But then, I am a vegetarian and maybe that is the reason I didn’t squirm. A meat is a meat, no? Anyway, the author should have worked more on the real creepiness rather than shock value, methinks.

Here we come to the end of the list, pheeewww…

Even if you don’t read any of the above, do do do read Out, by Natsuo Kirino. She takes the macabre, dark humour, gore, biting social commentary and feminist angst to a level which is not achievable by anyone not born a Japanese. A post on it coming up. Along with Gothic Lit. which is perhaps the great-grandmother of this trend.

OUT

Enjoy reading.

And don’t run to your counsellor if you occasionally feel like killing your spouse.

You are not alone.

Just kidding.

Actually I am not.

Fresh from Little Poland…

A kick ass female detective. An array of interesting characters and cultural references from non-English-speaking background. A strong sense of morality. A great protagonist. Clean, non-chunky prose. A few dead bodies. Dramatic international intrigue.

lip2

Anya Lipska’s series with investigative pair DI Natalie Kershaw and jack of all trades Jansuz Kiszka is redolent with all the above, making the series an addictive , if somewhat old-fashioned entry in the ‘international crime’ genre. Where the Devil Can’t Go was released last year to favourable reviews( ‘RIP Scandinavians, the Poles are here’, says one copy) and Death Can’t Take a Joke is releasing end of this month. I got the review copy from NegGalley and devoured it in a day.

lip
Each novel starts with a heinous crime ( of course) and our unlikely and hugely likeable pair’s paths cross and eventually merge. As they run in with Ukrainian gangsters, Polish politicians, desperate sex-workers, illegal activities and colourful immigrants, old scandals pop up, threatening to explode. Kershaw and Kiszka must save the innocent, stop the villains and not get killed themselves in process. Simple!!

Kershaw is ambitious, arrogant, and cockney ( yes, cockney, not cocky). She is trying to fit in with the ‘boys’ and struggling with her love life. She is sharp and ends up as a saviour, as kick ass heroines are bound to do in these kind of books ( love them!!). As a female detective character, she is ok, not outstanding, but comfortably entertaining.

The most sparkling character is Kiszka- a brooding, good-looking, intellectual Robin Hood. He dabbles in illegal activities and loves to read New Science and Economist and wax poetic about music. A student of physics two decades ago, when he joined the anti-communist movement in his native Gdansk, and escaped to London after a tragedy, he now lives a fairly dangerous life as ‘jack-of-all-trades’ investigator. He is a bit Humphrey Bogart mixed with young angry Amitabh Bachchan mixed with Harry Hole. He loves to cook, has almost naive, old-fashioned beliefs and is ready to jump in to protect his countrymen, and women.

Although the series is largely set in London, the stories are rooted in the background of Polish immigrants. The colourful curse words, descriptions of places in Poland, lively interaction between the immigrants and mouth-watering polish food devoured by the characters as they wax nostalgic about their motherland makes the series pulse with a very distinctive diasporic environment. The situation of Eastern Europe in general and Poland is particular plays a major catalyst in each novel, and one can get a fair amount of idea about post-Soviet Poland from the novels.
lip3
Anya Lipska excels in the fast pace, superb characterisation, good story-telling and interesting twists ( bit unbelievable ones, but hell, that is the fun!!).What I really liked was the light, slightly old-fashioned d narrative. The characters, both Polish and English are entertaining, if somewhat clichéd. Grumpy police chief, jovial best friend, golden hearted prostitutes, oily politicians…you get the drift. The clichés occasionally reminded me of a Hindi movie, but in an endearing and enjoyable way.

I find your typical diasporic fiction extremely annoying. The italicised local words, the nostalgia, ornamental prose, playing up the cultural stereotypes- all these hallmarks of disaporic lit. seriously piss me off. I did my thesis on Diasporic Cinema and by the end of it, I was convinced that the mainstream Indian diaspora is perhaps the most irritating, conservative and boring group of all. Diaspora was a big , overrated fad in academics and fiction 10-12 years ago, and thank god that it has passed.

I was annoyed that Lipska plays with the clichés of post-iron-curtain Eastern European immigrants for dramatic effect. I mean why is every girl coming out of that part of the world a stripper or a prostitute? Even girls who have studied film-making and economics? Why does every young immigrant man dabble in drugs and smuggling and is flashy? I am not denying that these characters don’t exist, but it is sad that Anya Lipska indulges in stereotyping so frequently.

This series has ignited my interest in Polish crime fiction and I definitely want to read novels originating from Poland. The homegrown fiction is almost always superior to the diasporic one. I hope this series encourages more translations from native Polish.

Marriage, murder, etc. Part 1

Hitchcock, the maestro of suspense and morbidity, introduced his iconic show ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents succinctly. ‘ Television has brought back murder in home, where it belongs.’ Said the man who loved to wring our nerves to bits by creating the best suspense ever.

Now the hot selling ‘Marriage thrillers’ are taking up the book world by storm and Hitchcock would have loved it to his morbid pits. Marriages turned sour or plain boring, cheating spouses, deadly secrets, subtle mind games and usually a couple of dead bodies, voila, a successful book that is usually marketed with a tagline, ‘if you liked Gone Girl…’

Gone Girl is a book too clever for its own good, and sexist to boot, but addictive nonetheless. I have devoured almost all the recco readalikes from 2012 onwards and some are good, some bad, some excellent. Overall, I love the premise of intimacy of relationship gone putrid, and these books take a special pleasure in ‘twisted’. If you like Gothic genre, which is also fantastic from feminist point of view, (A post on it some other time.), you will see how this new trend heavily borrows from it. This article does a great job listing these classic female noir writers. (I am not a big fan of the classic noir, but it is interesting how these women writers were sidelined completely in a genre that celebrated depression era angst and virulent sexism at its worst.)

Marriage thriller, typically features a couple in troubled relationship, with a few deadly secrets and eventually a nasty meltdown, usually resulting in a dead body or two. Or three. The writing is evocative, full of tiny details that string the relationship, psychologically nuanced and smart/witty. An elegant morbidity a la Hitchcock hangs in the air, poisoning it oh so daintily, till the facades are torn and ugliness wipes out the oaths of ’till death do us part’.

There are several reasons quoted for the success of this trend. I agree with some of the analysis. After all,intimate relationships ( spouses, lovers, friends, parents, colleagues) are always potent with power dynamics. And it is very easy for power to turn abusive, for abuse to turn violent, for violence to turn bloody. The tiny details that make the relationship dynamic simmer, make for a delicious brew that slowly drips venom in the guise of sweet, normal moments of togetherness.

I also think the trend owes its success to crumbling of marriage as an institution. On one hand, the wedding business has gone through the roof ( it is only business that was not hit by recession, according to a close friend who is a successful wedding photographer), but the naiveté that accompanied the premise of marriage is no more sacrosanct. Virtually everywhere in the world women are asking for divorce in higher numbers and the stereotype of a ‘pathetic middle aged divorcee’ is drowned by high earning power of ( many, if not all) women of a certain class.

But think it boils down to a simple truth: women, like men, want to read interesting and thrilling stories featuring women, and men.

So far, majority of your typical interesting stories in crime/ action genre marginalised women’s experiences , and/or only authorised certain experiences seen from a certain perspective as worthy of being told, and/or ignored a woman’s point of view by making female characters objects rather than active subjects. Now, we have women writers topping bestseller lists in crime genre, writing about diversity of experiences that treat women as people capable of an array of choices in life and women are dominating the readership, thus driving trends.

Many, if not all, writers of this genre are women, and if publishers are to be believed, so are the readers.

What do you expect happens then? Hmm… women’s lit!! Or chick-lit!! Or in this case, Chick Noir.

Because women are ‘women’ while men are people. When men write, produce films, paint, shit, fuck, it is people doing all the said things. When women do the same, it is ‘women’s $#%&’.

And that’s what annoys me, this tag- Chick Noir, that accompanies any dark book which is told from female point of view or has a female character that is not a masturbatory fantasy of a male writer. Like that annoying term ‘Chick Lit’, ‘Chick Noir’ dumps all women writers writing about ‘relationships gone sour’ into one condescending bucket.

Because art that is produced for women or by women is almost always looked down upon, in virtually every culture.

Had Flynn been a male writer or had not written about marriage, but say, about two buddies who play mind games with each other, she would be hailed as 21st Century’s Raymond Chandler. Nobody calls Thomas Harris a ‘serial killer dick lit’ guy, do they, just because he happens to write about serial killers? And you know what, they would have dumped him in the Chick Noir category had he included another strong character like Clarice in his novels and not resorted to Hannibal Lecter fanboyness.

Agatha Christie, the original Queen of Crime escaped the label sheerly because of her male detective, Poirot, while Miss Marple is a far more original detective. Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and other Gothic masterpieces with marriage as a violent catalyst are, well, masterpieces, so they can’t be branded as the offensive ‘chick’ label, can they now?

Sometimes, I want to own this ‘chick %$#%’ label and raise my middle finger. Yes, we are ‘chick’ readers who happen to read about ‘chicks’ who do all sorts of interesting things in a great story. Murder, or invent sci-fi machines, or turn nasty, or do brave acts, or kick ass, or survive in outer space, or rid the world of impending disaster, or teach young kids, or travel around the world looking for redemption.

Because women are people too, I know it is tough to swallow this dramatic truth for majority of ‘man’kind. But it is true. Women’s experiences have been marginalised so far, but it is high time we stopped labelling them as ‘women’s experiences and start looking at them as ‘human’ experiences.

More on some of these popular Marriage thriller books you should read whether you are chicks are not, whether you are married or not, whether you are in a relationship or not, in part 2.