Review Catch-up: Ginsburg & Alsterdal

I’ve spent so long writing up a review for Shiny with a companion blog piece for this Thursday, I’m getting rather behind on my other reviews, so here’s a twofer of shorter reviews for you today, both from Faber & Faber Books. Unusually in my reading they show serendipity – both feature an older woman character with the onset of dementia and both hinge on events that happened twenty years previously!

The House Uptown by Melissa Ginsburg

The earlier flapped paperback

There are so many books where an orphan goes to live with a relative, I’m not even going to attempt to make a list. But you’d think it difficult for authors to put their own stamp on the trope. I did spot parallels to a superb Spanish modern classic that I read last year, Nada by Carmen Laforet (reviewed here) in which orphan Andrea comes to Barcelona go to university and has to live with her aunt, grandmother and extended family, gradually realising that they’re all mad and damaged, and the house is a mess.

Ginsburg’s protagonist, Ava, is only fourteen-years-old, and has to move from Iowa City to New Orleans to live with her grandmother, Lane, after her mother Louise died. Louise and Lane had been estranged for years, so it is with trepidation that she embarks on her journey.

The novel begins with a mystery though. In a prologue set twenty years earlier, Lane’s lover turns up at 2.30 in the morning with his teenaged son and asks her to look after him while he sorts something out. The boy is unhurt but smeared with blood, Louise is asleep upstairs, but wakes and takes the scene badly, seeding the distrust between mother and daughter.

Back to the novel’s present in 2017, Lane is reminiscing about her late husband, Thomas, who left her a young widow with a baby, and drawing furiously in her sketchbook (she is a Bohemian artist) when Oliver arrives for the day. Oliver is Lane’s house-keeper, secretary, manager of her finances, provider of drugs, alcohol, food, nurse – whatever she needs. When Ava arrives, it’s a surprise for Lane…

A woman stood in the middle of the room–graying hair pulled back in a ponytail, a paint-stained dress. She looked old enough to be a grandmother, but unlike any grandmother Ava knew. The woman stared openly at Ava.

“Louise,” the woman said.
“No,” Ava said. “I’m Ava. Are you Lane?”
“Lane, what the hell is going on?” the man said.
“God, you look like your mother,” the woman said.
“Really?” Louise had been beautiful, and Ava thought herself plain, awkward.
“Okay, god,” the man said. “Let’s go sit down. I’m Oliver, by the way. I could use another drink.”

New paperback edition

And so begins a new life for Ava, who makes a bed for herself on a sofa (just like Andrea in Nada at first). As the weeks go on, Ava spends a lot of her time with Oliver, as Lane is working on planning a huge mural for a restaurant that could be her final painting. In this house filled with art and antiques everywhere, she sees how he does everything for Lane. She disapproves of his procurement of drugs for Lane to smoke, but it is clear that he cares for her grandmother who is obviously in early stages of dementia now. It’s also becomes clear that Oliver has his own agenda and Ava decides that she should take control of her grandmother’s business; naturally, this will cause conflict. In a political side plot, that episode from twenty years ago will return to haunt Lane.

I won’t say any more about the plot, but adding this thriller element and the conflict between Ava and Oliver into the mix makes this novel stand out. Although for most of the novel the main story must be the developing relationship between Ava and Lane before she descends further into her illness, these sub-plots really add to the drama, with everything coming together in a final climax.

Suffused with some New Orleans heat and humidity, this is a subtle and concise novel that constantly surprises with moments of high drama. Ginsburg has created a remarkable trio of characters in Lane, Oliver and Ava, who make this book a satisfying and very enjoyable read indeed.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Pub Faber, March 2022, paperback, 256 pages. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link.

We Know You Remember by Tove Alsterdal

Translated from the Swedish by Alice Menzies

Alsterdal has previously written five standalone suspense thrillers, one of which from 2017, The Forgotten Dead, is currently available in an English translation by Tiina Nunally. Now a change of publisher, translator and a change of direction for We Know You Remember – the first book in her Detective Eira Sjödin police procedural series.

When Detective Eira Sjödin was younger, a sixteen-year-old girl went missing one summer. Lena Stavred was from the rural community in Ådalen, and everyone was affected by her disappearance. When a fourteen-year-old boy confessed to murdering her, they all breathed a sigh of relief, but a body was never found.

Two decades later, Olof Hagström, who had been too young to send to jail but went to a young offenders institution instead, has a job to deliver cars up and down the country. He’s currently in a classic Pontiac, when he calls in at the house he hasn’t seen for twenty years, only to discover his father dead in the shower – still running – and the dog barking, shut in the kitchen.

He turns off the shower, lets the dog out and goes back to the car to digest the horror he’s just seen, when Patrik Nydalen, their neighbour appears. He doesn’t recognise Olof at first, then he remembers…

As a result, Olof will find himself back in police custody while they investigate his father’s murder – which we all know he didn’t do – and already we have a sneaking suspicion that he didn’t murder Lena Stavred either.

Eira is a local and knows everyone in this closeknit community and is naturally assigned to the case, which is going to take a lot of her time working for Georg Georgsson, known as GG, from Violent Crimes.

In between her shifts, she has to look after her mother Kerstin, who has the beginnings of Alzheimers. Eira has moved back home to be with her mother, and they celebrate midsummer together with herring and mash, her mother wolfing hers down as if she might never be fed again, a symptom of her illness. Kerstin keeps asking about Magnus, Eira’s brother, who has split from his partner and living on his own again, enjoying his singleness with too much alcohol and drugs probably.

Eira gets on well with GG, he is very keen to use her local knowledge, and gradually they pick away at the case, and she does start to wonder if Olof didn’t murder Lena. But if Olof didn’t, who did? Sadly, Olof ends up in hospital, badly injured when someone sets the house on fire. Eira keeps digging, and starts to discover new evidence which points in a few direction and everything gets turned upside down. Ironically, she is aided in this unwittingly by her mother, whose long-term memory is still in tact.

This book set in the Swedish midsummer when the days are long in Norrland, the northernmost part of Sweden. Kramfors where the police station is is the most populated centre in the area, is situated on a major river which feeds into the Gulf of Bothnia between Sweden and Finland. Although all the placenames are Swedish, the character of the area didn’t come through terribly strongly to me – we could have been in rural Maine for instance, if it wasn’t for the Swedish food. Eira and her mother though are both well drawn – we can tell Eira will become a good detective, she has an eye for detail and good instincts. She has a lot to manage with her mother being so lively, and then there’s her brother to deal with and drag out of his hole.

We Know You Remember is a slowburn crime novel, matching the sultry summer. Detective Eira Sjödin is a refreshing addition to police procedurals, and given the outcome of this one, I’ll be interested to read the next book to feature her.

Source: Review copy – thank you. Faber, Feb 2022, Hardback, 368pp.. BUY at Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)

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