MICROBURSTS

Microbursts by Elizabeth Reeder and Amanda Thomson

An honourable mention goes to Microbursts, a narrative non-fiction that wades into the grey void that is mortal illness, the shadow land between life and death. This is a celebration of familial love, coming to terms with the death of those closest to us and surviving. New experimental/hybrid publisher Prototype has an eye for original writing from the margins that deserves a wider audience. As this book deals with issues of family relationships and mortality Microbursts is relevant to each of us, this potent reflection on grief will resonate.

The book opens with an image, top of the page, a pencil sketch of a ridge, far off hills, set against an otherwise blank page. It’s an image that hints at the fragmentary nature of the text. These are Microbursts, a memoir unfolding in short passages of prose that express a single thought or examine a moment, gradually the book builds into a meditation on the passage of time, the relationship with our parents and the twilight world between life and death – caring, loss and grief. Similar to Subirana’s poetry these are intensely personal passages reflective of the universal experience. We all feel that grief is unique to us and we get wrapped up in it as if we are the first to experience it and yet we read someone else’s experience of pain and grief we can empathize as we realise we all go through the same emotional darkness to some degree. The first piece Between Places sets the scene, its a musing on the author’s time with her parents as they die. She has uprooted from Scotland to return to Chicago to care for them. The past comes back to inhabit the text and illustrations in the way it does when people have the cause to reflect on life.

“Genesis is a key pressed into butter, wax, something impressionable. It is clear like the bright call of waxwings was they trill from berry to branch in a clutch of days that can never be predicted. The beginning and the remembered. Remove it, cast it, palm it. Wait for the opportunity to put the key to use, and then pay attention as one surface communicates with another.”

The human is recognised in the landscape, the effects of time on the body, the alternative meaning of everything. A musing on the temporary nature of life, questioning the past; decline, care, decisions, emotions and objects, a battered wallet (her father’s), absence, stages of grief, anger, time spent with the wrong people, illness as a failing, death.

Microbursts draws on other writers for inspiration; reinterpreting, personalising, Rebecca Solnit:

“This is to say I don’t know. And I do. I am lost. I know how to be right here, as a daughter. I know this. And again and again I don’t know what to do in the minute, to move us out of that minute and successfully into the next one.”

Elizabeth Reeder, originally from Chicago, now lives in Scotland and is a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Glasgow. She has written two novels exploring the themes that echo so strongly in Microbursts.

Amanda Thomson is a visual artist and writer, also a lecturer at the University of Glasgow. Her work on themes of home, landscape, migration, and the natural world have featured in exhibitions nationally and internationally. Her book, A Scots Dictionary of Nature,

Prototype, 8/2/21
paperback, 9781913513061

This is a reprint of the review featured on NB Magazine 29/1/21

THE LAST CROSSING

The Troubles and The Last Crossing by Brian McGilloway.

 (revised and edited from http://www.crimetime.co.uk feature published 8/5/20)

Brian McGilloway’s Benedict Devlin series, (2007-2012), explore a place and people haunted by the violent and chaos of the past. Inspector Devlin is a Catholic Guard working cross border cases with his Protestant counterparts in the PSNI. A decade on McGilloway’s The Last Crossing, revisits the Troubles, significantly the peace is more stable but the trauma is still live. Moving between a callous murder in the 1980s and its ramifications is the present this is a tale of pain, guilt, memory and atonement. Thirty years on three former IRA comrades return to Martin Kelly’s ‘grave’ to retrieve the remains of the man they killed for the cause. 

Ireland has always been a land of poets and writers and crime fiction has become integral to its literary tradition dealing as it does with universal themes; love, greed, lust, revenge, anger and family but also distinctly Irish themes: the Celtic Tiger, dodgy property/land deals, a burgeoning criminal underbelly, immigration, racism and political corruption. And what Irish novel is not about religion, about church and state and the spiritual versus the secular? Then there’s the Troubles – The Last Crossing deals with the hurt of the past and the hope for the future.

Modern Northern Ireland/borderland fiction has a distinctly rooted feel. We moved on from the1970s action thrillers as the peace process brought more insightful reflective fiction. McGilloway’s books recognise the pervasive nature of the conflict on real lives, a different kind of normality. While distance from the Troubles allows McGilloway to explore dark times more forensically, more openly.

The Last Crossing is about the disappeared, victims of the Troubles who vanished, murdered by the IRA, since the peace process began several bodies have been returned to their families. This is about Martin Kelly and his family wanting his body back. McGilloway explores the ethical and emotional issues surrounding his murder. The Last Crossing questions how an ordinary person becomes a terrorist? How Tony, Tanya and Hugh came to murder their friend, how they see that crime thirty years on and how they lived with it over the intervening period. In The Last Crossing The three former IRA members are forced to confront their own guilt but rather than heal the scars the trip lays bare old wounds and agendas. Time has distorted memory, the truth about the murder is only fully realised in the present.

Martin Kelly’s murder hangs like a pall over the community, a cruel and vindictive ‘punishment’, a way of establishing control and fear. It’s a lasting scar which this novel conveys in its sombre poignant tone. Martin Kelly fell foul of this “frontier justice” and was murdered in a forest outside Glasgow. The novel asks to what extent the sins of the past can be addressed? Tony got into the IRA following the death of his brother at the hands of the British army but has carried the guilt of Kelly’s murder for thirty years. The story is weighed down by history, by a sense of melancholy, grievance and injustice and is told with compassion and understanding. This is an enjoyable thriller but moral complexity is what gives the murder mystery gravitas and real world credibility.

Since the Good Friday Agreement Adrian McKinty, Gerard Brennan, Anthony J Quinn, Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville and, of course, Brian McGilloway have attempted to make sense of the past: the role of the police, (protect or repress), terrorism, political corruption and collusion with paramilitaries, criminals/drugs/prostitution and the role of the secret services. The Devlin novels were written at a time when the peace process was fragile, no one knew how it would unfold. The Last Crossing looks at how community perspectives have shifted over time, this is an age when the Troubles are over but they’re not are they? Not in living memory and not in ramifications, (Brexit).  

As a novel that speaks to our times I highly recommend The Last Crossing and if you like this novel I’d recommend Turncoat by Anthony J Quinn https://www.crimetime.co.uk/turncoat-by-anthony-j-quinn/

Constable, paperback, ISBN 978-0349135014, out 4/2/21.

UNTRACEABLE

Untraceable by Sergei Lebedev

Sergei Lebedev is an important voice in Russian literature and has garnered a reputation in the US and UK for his novels, oblivion, Fritz the Goose and Year of the Comet. Untraceable will only enhance his reputation; it’s a ‘state of the nation’ novel that melds serious literary themes with the intrigue of a spy thriller. An intense and intelligent novel that maps the political life of modern Russia through its history and relationship with the wider world. The kernel of the novel is the secret bio-warfare programme. Untraceable establishes a chain of events from Stalin to Putin, exploring the mistrust and conservatism behind the Russian desire for a demagogue at the helm with all that entails. This is the panoramic landscape  Lebedev paints, the soul of the Russian nation and its people in thrall to despicable leadership and a cabal of, all too willing, henchmen. Lebedev has a sharp eye for detail and a keen sense of what drives people, he conveys complex meaning with an unerring and pithy precision and does so with style and wit. This is the obverse of the territory le Carré’s inhabited. Untraceable mirrors the Englishman’s intellectual and emotional quest to uncover the perversions of the heart and the mind. Lebedev uncovers the workings of the secret world and it’s links to politicians, scientists, and citizens.

Untraceable will have huge resonance in the west because it deals with the increasingly poisonous relationship between the West and Russia since the end of the Cold War, when many thought the rancorous rivalry would end. Sadly, there’s a new Cold War in the making. Russia’s contempt for the West is apparent in its cyber campaigns and, more relevant here, the Sergei Skripal Salisbury poisoning incident and the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Lebedev fictional murders provide context for real events, an intelligent and perceptive analysis of what lies behind the headlines.

Untraceable inhabits the grand tradition of Russian literature that questions society and it’s values through a vast array of characters. It is short by the standards of the epic tomes of Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and Pasternak, it is nonetheless a comprehensive survey of the state of a nation. A great nation with soul and heart but in the hands of gangsters, (I make no comment about higher values or morality in the West by the way).

Vyrin is old, he feels it most in the summer, the time of year he defected, got a new face and a new identity. He’s still haunted by the existence of his file in a secret Russian archive which speaks of his betrayal – a reminder of his existence for his enemies at home. The information he sold would have been out of date pretty soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union so he had to act quickly, irrevocably. In Russia there is only loyalty or disloyalty, no grey areas.

“…a dossier, he thought, is not a duplicate of life. It is a special, dark, truncated twin, fabricated from denunciations, stolen, eavesdropped words, covertly observed scenes; the source of the secret, evil power comprising the ability to tear off the protective covers of quotidian life.”

Vyrin turned in his colleagues for their links to scam businesses and money laundering, then it didn’t seem such a big a deal, but now they are the power and they have long memories and a long reach. Vyrin is suspicious of everyone, he knows uncertainty born of fear. If they find him they will kill him.

The Soviet Union is gone, the Party Committee gone, but the secret numbered department remains; no records of membership, unacknowledged but still working for the cause. Two generals discuss the murder of the defector;

“However, their language, laden with professional euphemisms, deceitful by nature, allowed the men to formulate sentences so that they could be interpreted as expressing either conviction or doubt.”

They speculate on the poison, could this be Kalitin’s Neophyte? If so, why? Lieutenant Colonel Shershner is a reliable man, a veteran of Chechnya and Syria. A man with a dirty past and a flexible conscience, Shershner will find Kalitin.

Kalitin became a scientist at Sovetsk-22, a place that never existed, a walled city where everyone worked for the Institute. Uncle Igor, a man of many guises, ran the city, he took the boy under his wing. Kalitin didn’t have the weakness of his father when it came to the work they must do.

Untraceable is a cold cynical view of the world of spies, politicians and puppets from the darkest moments of the Cold War to the present day. This is a novel of ethics and obsession, of entrenched divisions and how power resides in the wrong hands. A devastating portrait of modern Russia a nation manacled to its bellicose past. Translated by Antonina W. Bouis.

New Vessel Press, paperback, ISBN 9781939931900, out 2/2/21

Hunting the Hangman

Hunting the Hangman – Howard Linskey

This exciting but downbeat thriller is a realistic fictional account of an audacious wartime operation that shook the Nazi world – the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich. Hunting the Hangman is a thought provoking and insightful retelling. Thisis about Operation Anthropoid, set up by the SOE, (Special Operations Executive), in the Autumn of 1941 but very much a Czech mission. The brainchild of Eduard Benes, the London exiled Czech Prime Minister, the assassination plan was approved and supported by Winston Churchill. The target, Reinhard Heydrich, was deputy to Heinrich Himmler, head of the Reich Main Security Office and Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia. A man many assumed to be the natural successor to the Fuehrer. The plan to assassinate the man in charge of the brutal Nazi subjugation of Czechoslovakia would come at a high price. Heydrich was a man arrogant enough to believe that no one would dare to make an attempt on his life, he rode around the city in his car with a driver but no escort. Hunting the Hangman relates the story from inception and recruitment of the agents to the execution of the plan, the fall out and terrible aftermath. A story of the best and worst of humanity; a tale of conviction, sacrifice, betrayal and brutality.

The introduction to the novel provides a short explanation of how Linskey came to the story and how the novel was years in the making. It also sets the scene for readers new to this momentous event in European history, (a brief cast of characters and chapter quotes are a useful adjunct to the story.

Reinhardt Heydrich is an enigma, he may not be the best known Nazi but he is the one most people have trouble figuring out. Clearly erudite, courageous, fiercely intelligent and talented, (a highly regarded violinist). Yet he is known to history as ‘The Hangman’, ‘the Butcher of Prague’ and even his colleagues referred to him as ‘The blond beast’. His role as the instigator of the Wannsee Conference and the ‘Final Solution’ is highlighted in this novel. That Heydrich might have followed Hitler as Fuhrer may be one of the motivations for Benes’ plan. Linskey presents a chilling portrait of this man and the complexity of his character. A reflection on man’s inhumanity to man.

The heroes of the novel are the brave partisans, Josef Gabcik and Jan Kubis, the men who volunteered for this mission despite knowing the personal sacrifice it demanded. Linskey has imagined two men with the usual ambitions of the young, flawed but with a burning idealism; determined and brave. Keen despite the knowledge of the terrible cost of success and what it will mean for them personally and the people of Czechoslovakia. Believable young men, ordinary people rising to the challenge of extraordinary times.

Linskey has a flair for scene setting, such as the meeting between Benes and Churchill to agree the plan, or the introduction of Heydrich to the novel as a family man at a photograph session. We see the fear, apprehension, opposition, acceptance and enthusiasm for the plan by the local partisans who helped the two men carry out their operation. The merits of the plan are discussed – is this an assassination or a murder? Important questions of morality and consequence are explored. The action takes us from the Home Counties to the heart of Prague and the denouement at St. Cyril’s and St. Methodius church. Linskey sketches out places and people that provide real colour to the storytelling.

This is one of the most courageous and conspicuous events of the second world war, ideal fodder for a novelist but also a daunting task to do it justice and make it an entertaining read. Linskey manages to do this. ‘Hhhh’ by Laurent Binet, may be a more literary retelling of the events of Prague of 1942 but Hunting the Hangman is much more engaging emotionally. The novel is meticulous researched and a number of real events are brought to life with reimagined dialogue and descriptive prose.

Published in the UK by No Exit Press for the 75th anniversary of the incident, Hunting the Hangman is now out in the US from Kensington Books. For those interested, there are two movies that came out at roughly the same time as the UK publication of the book: ‘Anthropoid’ and ‘The Man with the Iron Heart’ and there was a film made in the 1970’s called ‘Operation Daybreak’.

Linskey has gone on to write another book about the SOE, Ungentlemanly Warfare. If you liked Corpus by Rory Clements I think this novel will interest you. If you want to know more about Heydrich as architect of the final solution there is a short book called ‘The Villa, The Lake, The Meeting‘ by Mark Roseman, detailing how the decision to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe was made in such a speedy and chilling matter of fact way.

US: Kensington Books, paperback, ISBN 9780786047024, Out Now

UK: No Exit Press, paperback, ISBN 9781843449508, 2017.

review originally published in NB Magazine 2017, revised for US publication date.

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