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by Sascha Arango and Imogen Taylor, trans.
Atria, June 2015
245 pages
ISBN: 147679555X

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

For a famous author, one whose work has salvaged the fortunes of a sinking publishing house, Henry Hayden seems unusually self-effacing. Of course, he has much to be humble about - those books that have shored up the press and bought him a dark blue Maserati and a nice seaside house were actually written by his wife Martha. Not that she appears to mind the deception. Her passion is writing, not publishing, and certainly not fame. Once she finishes a book, she tosses it aside to begin another and leaves the marketing to Henry and his editor, Betty, with whom he's been having an affair for years.

But now Betty is pregnant and Henry must deal with it. His immediate response is characteristically split. He reassures Betty, momentarily convincing even himself, that he will tell his wife all and support Betty and the coming child. Simultaneously, his mind runs to other possibilities - bashing Betty's head in with a rock, for example, or running the pair of them off a cliff in the car. In the end he does none of these, though he does end up a murderer, perhaps not for the first time.

Like so many other criminals, real and imagined, Henry is a sociopath, and a very stylishly presented one at that. He is clever rather than brilliant and in an odd way, curiously neutral. The reader is not invited to like or despise him, but to observe him with the same kind of cool detachment with which he deals with the twists and turns in his own life. Nor are we provided with any real explanation for the kind of character he is. It is true that his childhood was dreadful. Physically abused by his drunken father while his mother stood helplessly by until she eventually disappeared altogether, he ended up in a children's home after his father tumbled down the stairs, perhaps assisted by his son, and broke his neck. But these circumstances, grim as they are, by no means explain Henry. Gisbert Fasch, who first met Henry at Saint Renata's, one of the string of orphanages that had harboured him until he finally ran off, was both bullied and enthralled by the eleven-year-old. Thirty years later he is still obsessed and still unable to explain Henry in any convincing way. "It's quite possible that the career of every psychopath begins with a tragic event, but often that event is birth itself. Evil is born innocently. It grows up, seeks shape and form, and begins its work playfully." Such an insight does not deter Fasch, himself a failed writer, from trying to unravel the mystery of Henry's literary success. And Fasch is only the first of the detectives on Henry's trail.

In general, the reader is discouraged from developing any kind of sociological explanation of Henry. Presumably he is German, but where he lives is a blank - an "undistinguished seaside town" somewhere on the North Sea coast, it would appear. Most of the characters close to Henry have, like him, English first names: Martha, Betty, Honor, and so on. And Imogen Taylor's admirable translation conveys Arango's cut-glass prose into idiomatic and placeless English, which further deters any quick socio-economic interpretations of Henry as a product of a particular morally bankrupt society.

One would imagine that such distancing would put the reader off, but the opposite is true. The book is dark and witty, the protagonist inscrutable and unpredictable, and the reader is hooked almost from the opening sentence. The publicity material evokes Patricia Highsmith and even Paula Hawkins, but the closest I can come to a recent similar protagonist is Phil Hogan's creepy real estate agent in A PLEASURE AND A CALLING.

In the end of course, the sociopath, from the unsubtle brute with his face hidden behind a chequered scarf and his long knife drawn to an elegant literary construction like Henry Hayden remains incomprehensible, perhaps even to himself. All the same, contemplating the type when he is safely confined between hard covers remains fascinating when he is as stylishly presented as Arango's non-hero.

Yvonne Klein is a writer, translator, and retired college English professor who lives in Montreal.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, July 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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