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Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margoulis Kovály

The starting position of the police in 1950s Prague is that everyone is guilty of something. If they can't find evidence of a crime, it just means they're not looking hard enough. It's a wonder that there are enough detectives to investigate actual murders, since so many seem busy trying to catch people committing "political crimes." In Innocence; Or, Murder on Steep Street, by Heda Margoulis Kovály, the novel's protagonist, Helena Nováková, is the unfortunate target of Captain Nedoma—before Nedoma turns up stabbed to death on the street where Helena works.

Strangely enough, Innocence begins with another murder entirely. A young boy has gone missing. The police follow his trail back to the Horizon Movie Theater where Helena and a more or less motley bunch of Prague citizen. The boy turns up murdered by the theater's projectionist. No one saw it coming. At one point, Helena muses:

Twenty-nine years ago, by some terrible accident, two cells that should never have met joined to create something that should never have existed...Maybe it was something you could see. Maybe a little black dot...and if I were a brain surgeon I could point to it with the tip of my scalpel and say to my assistant, "There, you see? That tiny spot on the cortex? That's the death of Josef Vrba, age eight, of Prague." (Chapter 1*)
This seems to be the perspective of Captain Nedoma. It's only a matter of time before everybody slips up. In contrast, Helena herself is repeatedly described as an innocent person. While other characters are revealed to have negotiable respect for privacy or are cheating on their spouses, Helena virtuously waits for her husband to be released from prison. (He was sent to prison because of sheer bad luck. He drew a map to help some guests find the Novák's vacation house. Two of the buildings turned out to be military installations.)

After this murder and before Nedoma's, Kovály bounces between Helena and the perspectives of two other women who work at the Horizon. The detective investigating Nedoma's death, Lieutenant Vendyš, is also pressed into service as a narrator. In a few scant chapters, these characters create a chilling portrait of life in Communist Prague. In this Prague, as the introduction by the author's daughter, puts it:
People had to adopt a double life, a public one in which they supported the communist regime, and a private one, rigorously guarded, where they expressed their true opinions and misgivings only to close relatives and friends. (Introduction**)
Worse, for Helena, the double life and having an innocent husband in prison and the constant surveillance and police interference with her life, are giving her symptoms that sound a lot like schizophrenia. The only hope a person in such a state (or State) can have is that there is a reason for the accusations and punishments. But looking for the reason behind it all is:
a dangerous drug. You begin to see nothing but ambiguous symbols wherever you looked, interpreting everything from the perspective of some higher plan, forgetting that if there was any order to the world, it was created by an intelligence too sophisticated for human beings to comprehend. (Chapter 4)
Unfortunately, Helena never discovers the reason. Instead, she is battered back and forth by Nedoma and his allies' machinations. Until he is murdered. Helena is the chief suspect, but only for a moment. It seems that more than one person had good reason to see the Captain dead.

The introduction reveals that Kovály was a big fan of Raymond Chandler and the dialog of this book has more than a whiff of Philip Marlowe. The noirish vocabulary of mid-Century Prague citizens is jarring; I never got used to it. The dialog was so incongruous to the setting that I think it ruined the book for me. Apart from the dialog, Innocence is a moody meditation on the dangerous surrealism of communist life. The parts where Kovály stops copying Chandler are the best.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 2 June 2015.

* Quotes are from the 2015 edition published by Soho Press, translated by Alex Zucker. Page numbers are not provided because this was an advanced reader copy.

** This is supported by several anecdotes from Anna Funder's Stasiland.


The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey

The Girl with All the Gifts
The original "girl with all the gifts" was Pandora, who opened a box that released evil, plague, sorrow, and all the other bad things into the world. In M.R. Carey's The Girl with All the Gifts, the eponymous girl is Melanie. Ten year old Melanie has a genius level intelligence. She's conscientious, modeling her behavior on the heroes of the Greek myths her teachers read to her. One might think it's very strange that she's locked in a cell most of the time and that it takes at least two soldiers to secure her to a wheelchair before she goes to her lessons. Everyone who comes in contact with her douses themselves in a chemical deodorant. Even stranger, she only eats once a week.

Within a few chapters, however, we learn why everyone is so very, very cautious around Melanie and her fellow students. Twenty years before The Girl with All the Gifts opens, a fungus jumped species. The fungus, a mutation of Ophiocordyceps, has turned humans into zombies (known in this book as hungries). For some reason, a small group of children have some resistance to the fungus. They feel an all consuming hunger when they scent human sweat, but they are otherwise fairly normal children. The school is actually a research facility where Dr. Caldwell and her team are trying to find a cure or a vaccine for the Ophiocordyceps fungus.

Of course, it is inevitable in a horror story that things go to hell. Just as Melanie is scheduled for dissection by Dr. Caldwell, surviving humans attack the facility. Melanie flees with her favorite teacher, Helen Justineau, Dr. Caldwell, and two soldiers. The Girl with All the Gifts rapidly changes tone from chilling science fiction to zombie story. Dr. Caldwell maintains her monomaniacal quest to research the mutant Ophiocordyceps. Ironically, she's as relentless in her quest for brains as the hungries that litter the abandoned British landscape.

Carey frequently shuffles narration duty between Melanie and the four humans in their party. From Private Gallagher, we learn about the sorry state of Beacon, the only safe place mentioned in the book. Sergeant Parks teaches us the brutal art of surviving outside Beacon's borders. Dr. Caldwell's feverish (literally, at times, as she's suffering from septicemia) thoughts reveal more and more about the true nature of the Ophiocordyceps infection. Helen Justineau is the conscience of the group. The other humans will kill anything that presents a danger, but she constantly reminds them that Melanie and others like her are children above all else. They may be infected with Ophiocordyceps, but they should be treated like human children. If they slaughter them, Helen asks, doesn't that make them monsters, too?

The big showdown is in London. I don't know how much I can say here without ruining a beautiful and perfect ending to this expectation- and genre-breaking novel. The Pandora references at the beginning of the book hit me hard when I realized what Carey was up to. I will say that there really is no other way for this story to end. Anything else would have been a cheat.


Girl at War, by Sara Nović

Girl at War
Ana Jurić has spent the last ten years not talking about what happened to her and her family in 1991, when Yugoslavia collapsed and war broke out. In Girl at War, by Sara Nović, Ana returns to Zagreb to find any friends and family who survived the war, hunger, and genocide. Girl at War is the story of a girl who has been surviving, but not living, for a decade. Ana is looking for a home, but where can she find people who can understand what she's been through?

Girl at War begins in 1991. Ten year old Ana and her family live in Zagreb. The language in this section is simple, as befits a young narrator. Ana is unaware of the political tensions brewing between the different ethnic groups in what would soon become the former Yugoslavia. She is bewildered when the man she buys her godfather cigarettes from asks her if she's buying Serbian or Croatian cigarettes (6*). As Ana tells it, the war officially began while she was running errands for her mother. Air raids soon become a part of Ana's daily life. She and her friends cope well. The family's luck runs out when her younger sister, Rahela, starts to die from renal failure. The only way to save her life is to have Rahela evacuated from Sarajevo to the United States. On the way back from Sarajevo, Četniks (paramilitary Serbian forces, named for Yugoslav fascists who fought during World War II) stopped the family in a roadblock. They murdered every Croatian they stopped. Ana only escaped because her father thought of a way to trick the Četniks.

Part II of Girl at War jumps us to 2001 in New York. Ana is on her way to give a speech at UN Headquarters; the topic of her speech is hidden for a few pages as we wonder what happened after the massacre and how Ana managed to escape. We learn that in America, no one could help with her grief and her anger. At first, Ana would speak of her traumas to the Americans who adopted her and her sister but:
After those initial bursts of curiosity, no one spoke to me about my past, even within the family. Laura developed euphemisms for me "troubles," the war and its massacres reduced to "unrest" and "unfortunate events." (127)
When Ana later tells her boyfriend about her parents' murder and her time as a child soldier, he suggests she go back to Croatia because "It might give you some closure" (160). The few Americans Ana talks to often trot out this kind of pop psychology because nothing like what happened in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia ever happened in the United States.

All of Ana's bitterness and sorrow and pain have been festering for ten years. The only relief she gets is from books by authors who discuss the trauma inflicted by war and war crimes. A sympathetic professor gives her books by W.G. Sebald and others. The bibliotherapy is some help. The UN speech, however, brings her memories of Croatia up from repression. Within a few days, Ana decides to go back.

The bulk of Girl at War takes place after Ana's return to Zagreb and begins searching for her godparents and old friends. Nović also gives us flashbacks to reveal how Ana survived the months between her parents' murders and being returned to Zagreb, before being spirited out of the country entirely. In Croatia, Ana finds an entire nation of more or less successful survivors. The war is no longer her "own personal tragedy" (193). Traveling reveals that most towns have their own memorials to the dead. Though Croatia is no longer the home Ana longs for, she doesn't have to hide her past the way she did in America.

I have a feeling that Girl at War will frustrate some readers. The ending is ambiguous. There is none of the closure that Ana's American friends and family would want. That said, I find that Girl at War has intriguing things to say about the nature of memory and healing. In Girl at War, there is no closure, but there is resolution. Ten years after tragedy, Ana's healing process has begun.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher's publicists, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 12 May 2015.

* Paraphrases and quotations are from the 2015 hardcover edition by Random House.


Written in the Blood, by Stephen Lloyd Jones

Written in the Blood
Written in the Blood, by Stephen Lloyd Jones, is a story of unfinished business. In The String Diaries, Lloyd Jones introduced us to the hosszú életek, long-lived creatures capable of changing their appearance. Written in the Blood picks up the story of Hannah and Leah Wilde fifteen years after the fiery ending of The String Diaries. Fifteen years have given Hannah a chance to try and save the dying hosszú életek, in spite of her blindness. Her daughter, Leah, recognizes that their efforts are not enough. She goes in search of hosszú életek exiles, not knowing that her good intentions will draw the attention of enemies the Wildes didn't even know existed.

The kirekeszett are hosszú élet who were cast out for their crimes or the crimes of their families. When Leah approaches their leader, the kirekeszett are understandably wary and angry. But the chance to have children is too tempting for most of them. Of course, nothing is ever simple in the world of the hosszú életek. As Leah invites kirekeszett women into the—for lack of a better word—breeding program, the hosszú életek's predators come out of hibernation and an old enemy turns out not to be dead.

Written in the Blood bounces back and forth between Leah and Hannah Wilde, hosszú életek named Etienne and Izsák, and a few temporary characters that introduce us to the tolvajok—creatures that can possess humans and hosszú életek. The plots and subplots can be little hard to follow as Lloyd Jones jumps from narrator to narrator and location to location and time period to time period. I highly recommend reading The String Diaries before attempting Written in the Blood. Lloyd Jones and his characters don't give up information easily. I know this isn't easy on new readers, but I appreciate that Lloyd Jones doesn't try to download gobs of information via dialog or exposition.

Written in the Blood wraps up a lot of stray plot threads and seals a lot of characters' fates. However, I thought that The String Diaries did the same and now there's a sequel. I wonder what Lloyd Jones has in store for the Wildes in the future.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 26 May 2015.