Elegy for April–a Quirke Novel

Elegy for April

By Benjamin Black (John Banville)

Published 2010

Read June 2020

This reader found a hard copy of Elegy for April in a Little Library on a road along a lake in the Finger Lakes region of New York State.  This reader was unaware that Benjamin Black is the pen name Booker Prize winner and Dubliner John Banville has used to write crime novels featuring a Dublin pathologist named Quirke.  Apparently Banville considers what he does as Black “a craft” and what he does as Banville “art” and he expects his Black books to remain in print longer than his Banville books 1.    Well this reader is glad Banville created Benjamin Black and Quirke.

Quirke has some typical crime investigator attributes—-is single, drinks too much, and has family issues.  But he is single because his wife died when his daughter was a baby and he gave her over to his sister and brother-in-law to raise. His family problems are driven in large part because Phoebe, his daughter, didn’t know Quirke was her real father until just a few years ago.  Also, he really isn’t a crime investigator.  His job is a pathologist at a hospital, but he hasn’t been there for a number of weeks while he was voluntary checked into a facility to dry out, and he seems not to spend much time there since he checked himself back out.  When Phoebe contacts him to help her find a friend that’s been missing, he engages a real investigator in the local police department who is a friend.

Since the missing girl’s influential family is more worried about a scandal than finding her, a missing person’s report is never filed and the search for her is limited to Quirke’s poking around with some help from his detective friend.  The mystery is eventually resolved but the mystery seems more of an excuse to describe wintery Dublin, consider the relationship between Phoebe and her father, delve slightly into the troubled past of each Phoebe and Quirke, describe Quirke’s interactions with Phoebe’s friends, and touch on Dublin’s views on race during the time of the novel, sometime in the 1950’s when Bing is still popular.

A reader unfamiliar with “Bing” and the war in which April’s dead father was an officer will likely not readily place the timeframe of the story except to note that it’s pre-cell phone.  The timeframe of the story doesn’t really matter much as the dilemmas and conflicts touched on are fairly universal. 

While Banville may consider his crime novel writing a “craft”, he does note he’s pretty good at it1 and this reader agrees.  His writing enables the reader to feel the wintery cold and wet of the Dublin winter, see the dark lonely streets on which Phoebe walks towards home, hear the sound of the empty wine glass Quirke has drained before ordering a second, despite his intentions. 

What a treat the Little Library box had for this reader.  Now this reader will be seeking more Black novels for more excellently “crafted” crime novels more about the characters and their relationships with others and themselves and maybe a Banville novel as well to see what his “art” is like. 

What a wonderful treat this visit to the Little Library provided.  1https://www.theage.com.au/entertainment/books/booker-winner-drawn-by-appeal-of-black-magic-20080119-ge6meh.html

Lethal White—another Cormoran Strike hit

Lethal White

By Robert Galbriath (J.K. Rowling)

Published 2018

Read May 2020

This reader enjoyed reading the first four Harry Potter books with her family—reading them aloud to the kids while camping.  You know the books are engaging when the kids wanted to listen to the book over burning marshmallows in the fire.  This reader listened to the fifth book during long drives to see her hospitalized father.  And this reader likes crime investigation mysteries.  So Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling) crime investigation books are perfect long-distance driving companions for this reader. 

This most recent installment of the Cormoran Strike series is the longest and was a perfect fit for a 24 hour drive fest.  This reader truly enjoys that the author takes her sweet time with the development of the twists and turns of the mystery plot while describing the daily challenges of Cormoran’s chronic pain driven by his prosthetic leg, Cormoran’s love life, the slow dissolution of Robin’s brand new marriage, and Robin’s joy of doing this investigative job especially as she goes undercover. 

This reader looks forward to more Cormoran Strike installments.   Likely they won’t be any shorter which is just fine with this reader. 

The Map of Salt and Stars–Two Parallel Stories

The Map of Salt and Stars

By Zeyn Joukhader

Published 2018

Read Nov 2019

Joukhader gives us two parallel stories of girls, eight hundred years apart, travelling from Syria across north Africa.  In the modern story, twelve year-old Nour, her sisters, and map-maker mother have returned to her mother’s home city of Homs in Syria, from Manhattan, after Nour’s father’s death.  Nour is the only one in the family who wasn’t born in Syria and she speaks little Arabic.  She does not feel at home in this land.  They become refugees and journey across north Africa in search of safety with family in Morocco.  In the ancient story, actually a fantastical story Nour’s father told her and she now tells herself, Rawiya, a sixteen year-old girl, tricks her mother into thinking she is going to a nearby town for provisions.  She actually disguises herself as a boy and takes her horse on a journey to find and become apprenticed to a famous map-maker.

The two stories parallel each other in the girl’s journey across Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Morocco.  Interestingly, each part of the novel begins with a poem in the shape of a country the girls are crossing.  Each girl faces various dangers.  In the modern story, we don’t learn much about the political situation leading to the need for the journey but rather the author focuses on the personal story of what is happening during the journey and what the main character is feeling.  She has the condition/capability of synesthesia which drives her perceptions of various situations and feeling to appear to her in colors.  In the ancient story, the main character faces down various perils including battles with the great white roc—a legendary bird of prey- and giant snakes.  The contrast between the stories is that Rawiya is seeking (and finding) adventure away from her family while Nour is seeking safety with her family. 

At times this reader wished the novel focused on Nour’s story of fleeing Syria and encountering many obstacles on her journey.  Certainly the descriptions of Rawiya’s adverntures were beautifully written.   They just felt somewhat distracting from the “real” story of Nour’s family’s journey.  But that is likely due to this reader’s limited taste for fantasy.  It’s possible that remembering the ancient adventure story with its successes of Rawiya made it easier for Nour to to bear the real challenges her family faces.    And possibly it makes it easier for the reader to read about these challenges.  Joukhader is to be congratulated in using this interesting approach to tell get the reality of the flight of refugees read by an audience that might not readily choose that topic. 

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead—More Than a Mystery

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

By Olga Tokarczuk

Published 2009

Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

This translation published 2018 in the UK and 2019 in the US (different publishers)

Read May 2020

As the novel opens, our narrator has been woken by her neighbor (who she calls Oddball) requesting she help him investigate another neighbor’s cottage.  They find the neighbor (who she calls Big Foot) dead on his kitchen floor.  Oddball wasn’t able to reach the police yet (cellphone connecting to Czech 911 vs their Polish police) and he convinces our narrator to help him dress Big Foot and put him on the couch.  During this process they find a bone stuck in Big Foot’s throat, the probable cause of his demise.  They eventually are able to get their Polish village’s police on the phone and the police take over the case.

Our narrator disliked Big Foot as he was a frequent poacher in the forests.   We get a sense of our narrator quite early: “By now Big Foot had gone, so it was hard to feel any pity or resentment toward him.  All that remained was his body, lifeless, clothed in the suit.  Now it looked calm and satisfied, as if the spirt were pleased to be finally free of the matters, and the matter were pleased to be finally free of the spirt.  In this short space of time a metaphysical divorce had occurred.  The end.”

We eventually learn the name of our narrator, Janina Duszejko, although she insists on being called by her last name only.  She was once a structural engineer who built bridges before she became a teacher.  She is now semi-retired, living in a small rural community near the Czech/Poland border.  Only she and her neighbor “Oddball”, and  previously the now deceased neighbor “Big Foot”, stay on their hill during the winter.  Our narrator watches seven summer cottages for their owners during the winter.  She also teaches English at the local school a few days a week.  She spends her days pouring over the poetry of William Blake and “The Complete Ephemerides, 1920-2020”, the latter being her reference for building detailed astrological charts for people based on their birth date and time.  Her former student, who she calls “Dizzy”, meets with her regularly as they work on translating Blake from English to Polish. 

As the winter turns to spring and summer and the police investigate Big Foot’s death, two other locals are found dead:  the police chief our narrator calls The Commandant and a local fur trader and brothel owner, Innerd.  These deaths give our narrator more fodder for her letters and in-person requests to the police to consider that Animals have killed all these men to avenge the murders of their brethren by these hunters.   “I wish to appeal to the gentlemen of the Police not to shy away from the idea that the perpetrators of the above-mentioned tragic incidents could be Animals”. 

During this period we readers are treated to the narrator’s thoughts.  “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding”.  In fact the narration feels much more like a conversation the narrator is having with herself than one she is having with the reader.  An entomologist she calls Boros happens into her yard one day.  She gives him tea, allows him to stay a few days while he is waiting for his students to join him and then ““I raised the quilt and invited him to join me, but as I am neither Maudlin nor Sentimental, I shall not dwell on it any further.”  After a time, Boros eventually stops waiting for his students and moves on.

Readers will be glad this reader reveals no further plot elements of this interesting mystery as it unfolds more of our narrator’s story and thoughts.  For this reader, the mystery primarily provides our author a convenient excuse to continue drawing this special picture of our narrator.   She has had an accomplished past and now is semi-retired.  She is progressively isolated from those around her.  Her strident animal protection speech, her devotion to astrology, and her general isolated way of life make it easy for the village to dismiss her.  Her world is shrinking, especially as she lets her neighbors know she can’t be responsible for watching their cottages over the coming winter and she has to give up her teaching.  A man asks her what she has done in life and she remains speechless as she considers this question and answers only to herself:  “For people of my age,” she thinks, “the places that they truly loved and to which they once belonged are no longer there.”  So an interesting and convenient mystery provides a backdrop for this compelling look at a woman who remains vibrant in her thinking but increasing invisible to others.

Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature (awarded in 2019) for “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.