Bring up the Bodies

(With apologies to Hilary Mantel). A crime novel from New Zealand and a stellar winner of the Miles Franklin Award which isn't a crime novel but one in which crimes certainly occur.

Issue #41: Tuesday 21 March 2023

Bookish News

New and Upcoming Releases

House of Odysseus by Claire North

This is the story of Penelope of Ithaca, famed wife of Odysseus, as it has never been told before. Beyond Ithaca’s shores, the whims of gods dictate the wars of men. But on the isle, it is the choices of the abandoned women - and their goddesses - that will change the course of the world.

Due out on 24 August 2023.

This is the sequel to Ithaca, which I read earlier this year. I’m a big, big Claire North fan, so this will be a “must buy” even in hardcover. By the way, I really like this cover, and the way the word “of” mimics the symbol for the female gender.

Buy from Readings

My Reading

Completed Since Last Issue

In Her Blood by Nikki Crutchley

Nikki Crutchley is a New Zealand writer, whose books have twice been shortlisted for the Ngaio Marsh Award, which is New Zealand’s premier award for crime fiction.

Unfortunately, I found this one, In Her Blood, to be both disappointing and annoying, so I won’t spend a lot of time on it.

The story is told in three parallel streams, two of them set in the modern day, and the third as a series of flashbacks to events twenty-two years earlier.

As the book opens we’re introduced to a teenage girl called Charlie, who wakes to find herself in a dark room. She has no idea where she is and soon finds that she’s confined within some kind of cage.

Then we switch to a young woman called Jac Morgan, who is returning to her home town after a seven-year absence. She had left under a cloud, accused of causing a fire in her home which killed her mother, though her father and younger sister Charlie escaped. She’s returning now because she’s been sent some disturbing texts by her father, telling her that Charlie has gone missing. But when Jac arrives she finds that her father is dead, apparently having fallen into a lake while drunk (his habitual state). No one knows where Charlie and the police aren’t very interested.

Eventually, Jac, who is broke, finds her way to an old hotel on the hill above the town. There she encounters Iris Gilmore, the strange old lady who owns it. Iris offers Jac a job and accommodation. This is apparently deeply resented by the old lady’s daughter Lisa, who looks after her aging and sometimes bewildered mother.

Throughout the book we get flashbacks from Lisa’s point of view about her childhood during which she was treated with irrational cruelty by her mother, who greatly favoured her eldest daughter Paige. But 22 years ago Paige went missing, never to be heard of again, though her mother insists, even after all this time, that she’ll return one day. It’s clear she’s drifting into senile dementia.

Lisa’s story is interleaved with short chapters from Charlie’s point of view, still locked up somewhere, brought food and water while she’s asleep so she never sees her captor. And also chapters from Jac’s point of view as she tries to find out where Charlie has gone, without much progress.

It’s pretty obvious from early on that Lisa and Iris, and the old hotel, must have something to do with Charlie’s disappearance in the modern narrative, and that she’s probably imprisoned in or near the hotel. You’re just waiting for the details to be revealed. So I found that the story dragged on quite a bit and I had to push myself to keep on reading. The solution to the mystery of what happened to both Charlie and to Paige really relies on two people being pretty much insane, and not for me in a very believable way. And nothing of this comes about through Jac’s actions, she’s pretty much just a bystander and observer.

Can’t recommend this one.

Bodies of Light by Jennifer Down

This was the winner of last year’s Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s premier literary award, and right from the start I can say that I think it was a very deserving winner.

Interestingly, however, it was also nominated for last year’s Davitt Award, given by Sisters in Crime Australia to honour the best crime novel by an Australian woman writer. I found this nomination to be surprising, and after reading the book I’m still puzzled by it. It’s certainly true that crimes are committed in the novel, mostly with the main character as their victim, and that the main character is accused of a terrible crime, but it’s hard to see it as a “crime novel”.

Anyway, enough blather, let’s get to what the book is about. Now I’m going to be giving away spoilers, I don’t think that I can avoid doing that, so be warned.

Very quick plot summary: Bodies of Light is the life story of an Australian woman, born in the early 1970s in Melbourne, all written from a first person point of view.

It’s superbly written. The narrator’s story strongly engages our sympathy as we follow her through the traumas of her life. But she’s definitely a survivor, determined to overcome the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” as Hamlet has it.

The novel opens with a woman called Holly, who lives in a small community in Burlington, Ohio, in the United States. She has just received a message from someone on Facebook. The man who sent it is a stranger to her, she doesn’t recognise his name. He says he’s looking for someone called Maggie Sullivan, and that he lived with her for a couple of years when they were both kids. He’s seen a photo online in which Holly appears and he has been struck by how similar she looks to Maggie, who went missing in 1998. Is she a relation?

Holly reacts to this message with a degree of panic, and so we know immediately that Holly is Maggie Sullivan, and that she desperately doesn’t want to be found. The question of why, and what brought her to this point is answered by the rest of the book.

We get a series of flashbacks of Maggie’s life, which as I’ve already indicated hasn’t been an easy one. Her parents are drug addicts, and her mother dies from an overdose when the child is very young. A few years later her father is imprisoned and, she ends up in institutional care and lives in a series of share houses and foster homes. She is sexually abused in these places, and raped at the age of 11. As she moves into her teens, she starts to experiment with drugs, despite knowing the effect they had on her parents. Eventually, though, she finds a safe foster parent who encourages her to study and try for university, at which she succeeds but drops out fairly soon.

Maggie’s story [is] both a fascinating character study and an indictment of institutional responses to children who are in bad circumstances.

The key turning point of her life (spoiler here!) is that after she is married she has a series of babies, all of whom die in infancy or early childhood, presumably from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. It’s hard to read this section of the book as we follow how Maggie deals with these increasingly shattering tragedies for her and her husband, who is driven to despair. After the final death, she is interviewed by the police and eventually charged with infanticide, purely on the basis that “once is a tragedy, twice is a coincidence, three times is a crime”. This section of the book relates to several similar real-life cases such as those of Kathleen Folbigg in Australia and Sally Clark in England. Here, I suppose, is the major crime component of the novel, though we have no doubt that Maggie is innocent. Looking back at her life history, however, she knows it will count against her, and that she’s very likely to be convicted. So she finds a way to escape. As I say, she’s a survivor.

The author really engages us with Maggie’s story, and it’s both a fascinating character study and an indictment of institutional responses to children who are in bad circumstances, sometimes taking them into much worse circumstances which will affect the rest of their lives.

Top notch, I was really impressed by it, and as I say I think it’s a very worthy winner of the Miles Franklin Award. But is it a crime novel as such? I don’t know, but it’s not how I think of it, anyway.

But there’s no doubt that Jennifer Down is an Australian writer to watch, and I'll certainly be keeping an eye open for anything else that she writes.

Currently Reading

Civilisations by Laurent Binet

I’m enjoying this so far. Great concept: an alternate history in which the Inca invade and conquer Europe, not the other way around. Sounds crazy, but the author develops some very clever justifications that make it eminently plausible. And when you think about it, the real history, in which the Spaniard Francisco Pizarro, with only 168 men, was able to conquer the entire Inca Empire, is equally crazy but yet it happened.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I think this is the only one of Austen’s published novels which I’ve never read before. Enjoying it a lot. It’s written with a delightfully sly sense of humour, more than I’ve seen in Austen’s other books. The version I’m reading is from Standard Ebooks, free and beautifully formatted as always.

Waiting on the Shelf

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And that’s all for this issue. See you next time!

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