“I knew she was a girl who liked to live her life on a wire or better, a razor blade”.
[Necessary spoilers are included in this first paragraph only]. This novel, by an Italian author writing in English about adventure in The Netherlands, sets off immediately with a well-constructed starting point to engage the reader: exploring the hopefully fictional nightmare that through either an error or by deliberate corruption, two doctors in agreement do have the power to diagnose or misdiagnose a patient as having a severe mental disorder, remove their liberty and banish them to an institution where others have control over their life, indefinitely. With the stigma and powerlessness this diagnosis brings, it would then be exceptionally difficult for any inmate to have that ruling overturned, unless they had support and funding from tenacious and loyal friends. It’s a strong scenario because it’s a credible fear, just as being buried alive is a fear that’s unlikely but not impossible. However, the author adds another level of tension: Something’s being done to the psychiatric patients. This raises a further and older fear from Napoleonic times of procedures, medicines and even tortures being tested on convicts, lives devalued. Having primed the coiled spring, the cat is cast amongst the pigeons and the journey begins when a patient unexpectedly wins his reprieve and walks out of the clinic, taking his suspicions into the real world with him.
As a series of action scenes and with an unfolding mystery that’s tricky to predict, it works. With Wesley, a lead character who gets bounced between a hardened gang, his women (another hardened gang) and their spoils, all set against a backdrop of Amsterdam’s canals, houseboats and a warehouse full of cheese (so Dutch), I liked it. This story isn’t supposed to be another Van Der Valk because these are not professional detectives but amateurs caught up in someone else’s scheming, although it serves the same ideal, a puzzle to solve within a travelogue for all of us who’d like to see what Amsterdam is like when you don’t have the eyes of a tourist. Great, let’s go.
I can’t help wondering why the events of the story don’t attract more police interest though. An explosion in a capital city, for example, would be international news and a messy murder would leave witnesses spending 12 hours in the police station re-tracing events. They wouldn’t be asked to do this if they had escaped the scene, so that’s probably the answer I’m feeling around for, but going to chat about an alarming event afterwards in a cafe, calmly, without any sirens in the background and with no nasty questions is a little light-touch. Then again, no one bothers James Bond with this sort of low level nuisance either, so the poets of entertainment have a licence, I guess. There’s also a fair amount of description about what girls are wearing and compliments about models of car, again channeling spy movies, then even a vodka martini gets in on the action. I should clarify that the book is its own entity, not a copy of Fleming or anything else, but subconscious Bond stuff is around them, almost as a metaphor for the adventure — normal people thrown into a dangerous world of international danger and flashing jewels. Exciting, yes? Would you call the police and go into hiding (end of story, boring) or skid off in the Aston Martin with the wind in your hair, spin through alleyways and knock over some cardboard boxes? I can’t criticise the recurring car awareness then because that’s likely to be normal in city street fiction and I’m just not seeing it very often in the sci-fi theme I’m usually into. As for the strong feminist temptation to criticise the three girls teasing, posing, trying to attract attention and making the first move on the poor boy, although I’d like to complain that it’s demeaning and no one does that in the real world, I’ve had a good honest think and decided to avoid the subject altogether and not be hypocritical.
The positive stuff makes for a good plot and a rollercoaster story, so far so good, but now I have to mention the elephant in the room. Think about how hard it is to write a book in your second or third language, the one you were not brought up with as a native speaker. Could you do this? I couldn’t even dream about the challenge of writing prose directly in Italian or Dutch — at least thirty years of study right there. Jules Verne produced great works in English, absolutely, but he wrote them all in French, couldn’t read English and didn’t make a direct translation, instead employing another to make his French phrases read as if they’d been penned by a native speaker of English. In this book, Marco Marek has tried to master a challenge that the likes of Verne declined to attempt: to write directly in a studied second tongue. The trouble is, I don’t think it reads well at all. This issue isn’t about content, excitement or originality. Specifically, when a native speaker of English reads it, the story sounds quite clunky and distracts from what is going on in the scene. To back up my view, I’ll add some sample ‘clunky’ sentences below.
The problem with the flow of the tale can also become the solution, just by turning it around in your mind. The storytelling style re-creates the impression of sitting in a cafe in Holland and being told an engaging anecdote by your close friend from Holland who isn’t as fluent in English as they like to think they are. That’s suddenly fine then, isn’t it? It’s better to hear a continental story from a continental voice and that’s a realistic illusion for the reader because the atmosphere of immersion in colourful foreign lands comes through even more. The problem is that it just looks accidental rather than a deliberate style enhancement and it’s harder to read the book right through as the clunk is constantly in the background. Celebrated works across the years from Jules Verne to Philippe Djian don’t clunk. They may or may not have been better authors but they did it differently.
It’s quite a hard thing when a pointless amateur book reviewer who deserves to be ignored recommends a major change to an author, but here goes: The first thing to do is convert this into a screenplay because cool characters from several countries speaking their second language (the only one they all have in common) would be radical and convey a sense of their travels and experiences in addition to the lines they are delivering. Imagine Reservoir Dogs with the membership coming from many countries. It’s interesting to hear this style spoken when it originates from the characters. It’s not effective when written in a book because it will all be blamed on the narrator. The second recommendation, the painful one, is to change the way the book is written. Write it in flowing Italian (to avoid the frequent short sentences) and then translate it into English word for word and then find another writer who is a native speaker of English to re-write the story so it flows fluidly as if it were written by a natural. I don’t expect the author to do this as it’s like letting someone else ride away on your new bicycle but I think it is what it will take for this author to be accepted and recognised for the good story and imaginative content he has written, at least in the ignorant English speaking markets. A thriller, no matter how worthy, that isn’t easy to get into will have a hard time against all the competition I’m seeing nowadays. I could be sarcastic and add there are more authors that readers but the thriller genre it isn’t quite that saturated yet. Noteworthy: it has to be an easy read to break through.
There you go. I’ve written way too much about the style and hardly touched the content. It’s a thriller with reasonable pace and intrigue that makes you think about city-hopping to see the little bridges, canals and houseboats, to speculate on their shady secrets and quiet occupants who act calm in the face of adversity. It’s a fun ride, as these thrillers should be, which is why it deserves three stars anyway.
These quotes are included as examples of text that I don’t think sounds natural: “with the intent to steal the formula at all costs, thus the gun explaining that”, “wool sweater that showed off out her form”, “the nickname mad detective fit her like a glove, and…”, “was man of apparent age thirty-five years”, “the police have opened an investigation examining the evidence found”, “you spurt happiness from every pore” [Pygmalion?], “But why get into this circle when she was already in high class one, to what purpose?” and “they just spoke ear to ear”. It’s the language of your friend from the café but I would clean it up for publication. Buy it anyway and read the book for the story. Fall in love with Holland and die. It’s more fun than pedantic old London.