The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey (Maeve Kerrigan #4)

A few months back I read some wonderful reviews about the Maeve Kerrigan series in some of your blogs. Later on, I came across Jane Casey over Twitter, and after much talking about our common interests, which include Ireland, London and crime fiction, she kindly offered to send me a couple of her books featuring London-based, Irish DC Maeve Kerrigan, for which I will be forever grateful. Last August, The Stranger You Know (Maeve Kerrigan #4) made it to the top of my TBR pile while searching for a good police procedural to take away with me to my holidays. Spoiler alert: I could not have chosen a better book!

  

The Stranger You Know is the forth in the Maeve Kerrigan series, and although I usually read procedural series in order, I was so glad Casey had sent me this novel personally, that I forgot about the previous installments in the series. I have to admit I am very happy that I did this. The Stranger You Know can be perfectly read as a stand-alone, because the author makes a huge effort to situate the reader, and there is no trouble at all deducing the personal relationships between the main characters. Also, now that I know how much I love DC Kerrigan, I know I still have three other books to get to know her past, and how she came to be one of my favourite fictional detectives.

If there is something remarkable in The Stranger You Know, it is the crime in itself, something that had not happened to me for a few reads now. It seems that recently, crime fiction has been more of a character study than a good, thrilling case, but this novel changed it. As a huge fan of the TV show The Fall, I could not but see the resemblances to the also Irish production, while noting that Casey’s story has nothing to envy to the silver screen. The inclusion of a cold case gives the narration more depth, and allows the author to prove her skills at portraying teenager social relationships mixed with social expectations, and that first love that makes your head spin round. Kerrigan is brought to the team investigating the murder and postmortem amputation of three young, hard-working, upper-middle class women in their London houses when the second victim of the so-called ‘Gentleman Killer’ turns up. There are no apparent similarities between the victims except for the modus operandi, and Maeve’s true calling to the investigation by her boss, Godley, comes from a darker place than she expected:

‘Charlie wanted you to be involved because you have more in common with the victims than the rest of us do’.

From that moment on, Kerrigan devotes all her efforts – in the typical and ever inspiring crime fiction way in which no one sleeps and eating is overrated and usually forgotten – to capture the killer that is threatening London’s young women. In the process, she even feels identified with the killer, in the sense that they are both getting sleepless nights, and adrenaline rushes from the women: him from the killing, her from the detecting process. Even though this is typical device, I will never get tired of the moral and emotional process that ties the detective with the killer, and Casey nailed it by making Kerrigan subvert what everyone thought she had to do – identify with the victims – to what she finally did: identifying with the killer.

The fact that the series main character is a woman does not always mean that there is anything remarkable about women’s representation. But, add the crimes, a pregnant forensic doctor, an Irish mother, a Lesbian co-worker and her partner, and London’s young, professional women that include two migrants, and the scope of female characters you get is wide and diverse. I was very pleased to read things such as ‘everyone has an accent’ as a reclaiming of the many englishes – no capital C needed, for there is not such hierarchy – versus the supposed London English, which I dare say may come from Casey’s own experience in London as an Irish migrant. Finally, I was particularly diverted by DI Josh Derwant’s irreverent tone, which usually stood for the Patriarchal discourse, and Kerrigan’s impossibility to shout up or stop herself from proving him wrong, and letting him know so.

What can I say? The Stranger You Know has made me fall  in love with DC Maeve Kerrigan and her spotless, always on-point detective work. I will be reading more of her, and possibly of Casey. Stay tuned for a review of the next book in the series, The Kill.

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

I first learned about Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill on Twitter, when it was described as “Mean Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale“. I love Mean Girls, and I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale yet, but I love everything Atwood writes, and I am sure her masterpiece is no exception. So I requested a review copy, and Alainna Hadjigeorgiou at Quercus books made sure I got one within the week.

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Only Ever Yours is a dystopian, feminist novel. I am not shocked at all that many people have compared it to Atwood’s fiction. O’Neill herself read English at Trinity College in Dublin, admiting that “I was always drawn to the more feminist modules, taking classes such as Gender and Sexuality studies and Post-Colonial Women’s fiction” (source). The main character, freida – yes, like the painter, no, no need to use a capital letter in O’Neill’s work when referencing women – is facing her last year at an all-girls school where women are trainned for their life in the EuroZone, that is, what is left of Europe after we, lovely human beings, almost destroyed Planet Earth. But this school is different to what we understand as education nowadays. The girls are weighed-in and taken pictures of every morning. Standards must be upheld! These are the wives of the future leaders of the Euro Zone. These are the women that will give birth only to sons. These are the women that – in a survivial of the most beautiful, and patriarchal-oriented – are going to destroy each other to be chosen by the best husband.

O’Neills narrative about the struggle of these girls against the constant images they are subjected to feels painfully familiar. ‘You are never enough’, the subtext that 21st century women are constantly subjected to is turned into an overt narrative: Never thin enough, but too thin if you take it too seriously. Never enough made-up, until you go too far and look like a whore. However, there are deeper concerns in Only Ever Yours, feminist concerns that I would like readers to discover by themselves, because I found out the ridiculousness of these arguments while reading the novel, and next time those same arguments cross my mind – and they will, they always come back – I will laugh out at them and remember that constant improvement, and perfection, do not exist.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I have long wanted to watch Atonement, which I tried once a few years ago, and then gave up on minute four. Because, if a film is that good, how is the novel it is based on supposed to be? Well, Ian McEwan’s most famous work is the masterpiece that I thought, and even more.

It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you

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Atonement tells the story of Briony Tallis, her older sister, Cecily Tallis, and the family long-time friend, Robbie Turner in 1935 England. Briony is thirteen, and she wants to be a writer, she has even transitioned from fiction to drama as her cousins from the North arrive to her Surrey residence to escape a scandal in the family. So, while waiting for everyone to join rehearsals, Briony is witness to a suspicious scene: her sister, Cecily, is getting out of the fountain, while Robbie simply looks. Briony feels there is something wrong with it, but what? And this is where McEwan’s genius comes into full force: by describing the very same scene from the point of view of the three main characters, he manages to put the reader in the shoes of Briony, Cecily, and Robbie, in a way I had never experienced before. For Briony, there is something wrong born out of her coming-of-age own personal narrative. For Cecily, it is the first stage in the recognition of her own romantic feelings. And for Robbie, it is the beginning of his narrative.

Because Atonement is such a masterpiece, I am not giving away anything more. I really think this is a book that will appeal to a wide audience. The characters’ voices are so clear and well-defined, that it is worth a study on characterisation. The themes are so many, and treated in such complex ways, that the novel deserves a full- Humanities approach to get the analysis it deserves. The historical depiction of the troubled and uncertainty that made the 1930’s in England could very well make for a History thesis. And, one of the themes in especial is so close to feminist studies, that I wish I had read this book years ago, so that I could have written an essay during my degree on it.

Many people on my Twitter feed had told me that the 2007 film adaptation – starring Keyra Knightley as Cecily, James McAvoy as Robbie, and Saoirse Ronan as Briony – is one of the best they have seen. I do not doubt it, but I am still mourning the last few chapters of the book. Not since Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life had a book left such a strong impression on me. Loss, death, and frustration come high on the list of feelings that Atonement presents to the reader, but there are still images flashing on my mind from a love scene at the library. And I hope, they will never go away.

For the moment, there seemed no way out with words.

The Truth and Other Lies by Sacha Arango

I was given The Truth and Other Lies by Sacha Arango by the lovely Elizabeth Preston on my last visit to London, and I could not be happier, because I have to admit that I would not have picked the book for myself in a book shop. Elizabeth is a great friend of mine, and she knows what I like to read – we finally met in real life at this year’s CrimeFest, talk about common interests! – so, I trusted her when she said I would love this book. She was right.

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Fiction is the truth inside a lie.

The Truth and Other Lies tells the story of Henry Hayden, a best-selling author leading a tranquil life in a little town with her wife, Martha, while working on his next novel. Until everything falls apart. We soon learn that it is not Henry himself who writes the novels, it is his wife, but trying to escape all fame, and success, she lets him publish the texts under his name. Martha writes at night, art for art’s sake, while Henry leads a socially active, and very public life. The dualism between the couple, the way they complement each other, reminds the reader of old-fashioned narratives, and I could not but resent the way Martha was relegated to the private, domestic sphere – Martha does not even accompany Henry to literary festivals or readings – while Henry did all the social activities related to being a writer. However, Arango goes beyond this simply gender-biased construction of social roles, using some meta and postmodern techniques that I’d rather let you discover by reading the novel. This is one of the things that I loved most about the novel: because it is a writer’s story, there are constant references to writing, narratives, and images, that make the novel a very complex text.

The book is compared to Patricia Highsmith’s work, and I can see why. The characters, as well as the themes, felt very classic, and I wondered a few times while reading, if Arango is trying to pay homage to mid-century crime fiction writers. However, his writing is strong enough to stand on his own, and I plan on keeping an eye on him. It took me only three sittings to finish the novel, and even though the female characters were somehow irritating – I quote: “Man is his own worst enemy; women’s worst enemy is other women”– I loved the little surprises that the meta-text gifts the reader with. And, above all, I loved the way Arango made me want to know more about Henry, and about Martha.

Currently Reading…

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By the time this post goes up, I hope I’m already enjoying my short, but well-deserved (and PhD-Supervisors’-forced) summer break, on which I plan to go with a case full of books to our house by the beach and spend my days reading and writing – until I get really bored, which should happen by day 3, and then I’ll enroll on some kind of course. Meanwhile, I’ve finally started Atonement by Ian McEwan, bought in September 2014.