Still clearing the to be reviewed pile. Today, proof that planning your year end best of early can mean readjustment when a late contender appears. But first…
Geneva by Richard Armitage
Yes, it’s a celebrity thriller, but given Armitage’s pedigree as an actor, and narrator of many audiobooks, one that I had higher hopes for than most, and the book isn’t bad at all. But the cover and the prologue threw me.
The book is called ‘Geneva’ which is where a high-level conference about an medical implant innovation (for medical use only) will happen, to be endorsed by Professor Sarah Collier, reluctant recipient of a Nobel Prize for her work on Ebola. The Schiller Institute, where the implant has been developed is beyond the other end of Lac Leman, near Montreux (I think).
On the cover of the book is the Matterhorn (4478m) which straddles the Swiss/Italian border in the Alps – not the tallest (that’s Mont Blanc at 4805m) – but in it’s pyramidal shape, perhaps the most recognisable. The view on the front cover is from Zermatt to its east. The prologue features a woman being chased on a mountainside, ‘A kestrel soars high above the summit of the most iconic mountain in Europe…’ Nowhere else is the Matterhorn mentioned. Now look at the map…
The Matterhorn is bottom right, Mont Blanc bottom middle, Geneva to your left, Montreux at the right-hand end of the lake. It’s 120km from Montreux as the crow flies, 170km from Geneva. They say that on a good day you can see the big peaks from the far distance… but not that face from the NW. From Geneva to Montreux is around 95km and takes about an hour and a half. There was an awful lot of too-ing and fro-ing from Institute to the hotel in this novel, and given that most of it took place outside and in Montreux, why call the book Geneva? The geography of the book did annoy me hugely.
Armitage does have a USP in his plot though, for it is envisaged that ‘Neurocell’ will be beneficial to those with Alzheimer’s. As the story begins, we see Sarah’s experiences with her father who has the disease and is in a home, the lack of short-term memory effects of it really showing now. Thus, it is a shock when Sarah, who is fiftyish and had retired after winning the Nobel to promote her husband Daniel’s career and look after their daughter Maddie, is beginning to suffer from similar symptoms, including blackouts and terrible headaches, and is having an MRI scan. The possibility that Professor Collier may have Alzheimer’s must be kept a secret from the world until well after the launch of Neurocell, on which Daniel has been working with the Schiller Institute, as she could benefit from it. Naturally, there are those who would want the chip to fall into the wrong hands, those with an axe to grind against against Big Pharma, something Max Schiller entrusts his ruthless PR manager Helen Adler and Head of Security Pavel Osinov, an exiled Soviet to handle. Sarah, who is finding things increasingly difficult to handle, isn’t sure what’s going on, and when a doctored leaked tape of an interview she did with a blogger reveals to the world that she has Alzheimer’s, everything gets very complicated she is no longer sure who she can trust, at all. There follows some double and triple-crossing, murders, and all that constant too-ing and fro-ing. This was a competent debut from Armitage, but I must admit, I was obsessed with finding out if the Matterhorn actually mattered or not!
Liminal by Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by Jamie Bulloch
From the near ridiculous to the sublime. I enjoyed Schimmelpfennig’s first novel One Clear Ice-cold January Morning at the Beginning of the Twenty-First Century a lot. It was dreamy and impressionistic, telling the stories of a disparate bunch of Berlin incomers, who like the wolf on the cover, converge on the city. I had high hopes for his second novel, especially after Susan loved it so (read her review here).
Liminal is similar, yet different. Similar in that the Berlin it portrays is not the Bauhaus-bright capital city, but the darker world of underground clubs and drugs, seen through the eyes of a disgraced cop. As it begins, it’s May Day and Tommy is at a techno rave watching.
The young woman in the wedding dress floated down the canal on her back, gazing up at the sky.
Then a bird landed on her chest and pecked at her, but nobody apart from me seemed to notice the girl and the bird. All the ravers by the bank and on the narraw, packed bridge above the canal kept dancing as if everything was normal.
Tommy, although intoxicated, realising that even suspended, he is the nearest thing to the police there, pulls her out of the water, but she’s dead, and in his semi-trance state, people talk at him – we’re not sure whether they’re real or hallucinations – and ask him to give her a name. No-one there knows who she is, but visiting the morgue the day after, the coroner (Tommy’s former girlfriend, Katrin) shows him her back. She has the most beautiful tattoo covering scars beneath.
Her entire back was a sea of flowers that looked as if they’d been painted and the colours had run. This wasn’t just a tattoo, it was a watercolour etched into the skin. I’d never seen a tattoo like it.
Identifying her gives Tommy a project for an unofficial investigation into Berlin’s nightlife and underground. As Tommy tries to find the tattoo artist, anyone who knew her and who she was trying to escape, we also discover why he’s on trial for corruption. It hadn’t started out that way, but becoming friends with the drug dealer Csaba, led to being at the beck and call of one of the city’s big crime families, followed by trauma, when he was involved in an tragic accident.
Csaba is in prison now, but Gianni, their friend and waiter, beckons Tommy in for a drink.
…I only wanted water, but Gianni put a bottle of grappa on the table with two glasses. We drank one each, then another and then another.
That last little triplet forms a poetic refrain that runs throughout the book, other examples go “Hello resurrection. / Hello blue. / Hello death.” and “Hello stochastics. / Hello Neuköln. / Hello summer.” (I had to look the word ‘stochastic’ up – it refers to outcomes based upon random probability, and seemed an odd choice of word – no doubt translator Jamie Bulloch had a reason for choosing it?)
The German title of the novel was Die Linie Zwischen Tag und Nacht, The Line Between Day and Night, but I think Liminal suits it perfectly, describing everything about this novel. It’s all on the edge, in the twilight, not quite real, not quite unreal either, but definitely medicated. Everyone is searching for anchors for their own identities, Berlin is a city of immigrants who must find their way in from that edge. Some succeed, others, like the girl who died don’t. In finding the key to her story, Tommy will come to another crisis point in his own.
This novel was so good, it’s going into that end of the year list, I can tell you now. Describing it as Berlin-noir doesn’t do it justice, ecstasy-arthouse-noir would give a nod to its dreamlike qualities and filmic vision of the playwright author. Bulloch’s translation (bar that one word that jarred!) really captures all the liminal essence that must be in Schimmelpfennig’s original text. As Susan felt too, I agree that this novel would be great on screen, all arthousey and full of chiaroscuro…