January 12, 2016
A ghost is this highly original novel’s second protagonist; its’ first is Wang, a taxi driver in contemporary Beijing who is the recipient of a series of mysterious letters purporting to be from a soul he has encountered in past lives. Barker weaves a seamless and gripping narrative between the modern-day and a dozen brilliantly realized pasts, from the brutal days of a sorceress, to the might of Genghis Khan, the giddying cruelty of the despotic Emperor Jaijing, a pirate ship during the Opium Wars, and the treacherous climate of the Cultural Revolution. Betrayal of one sort of another colours all of the stories, even if both souls feature as friends or lovers; at some point they are always at enmity.
This book is not for the squeamish. It portrays unimaginable, nightmarish cruelty, often and graphically. But the barbarity is not pointless. It shows the depths of horror human beings can sink to and how any one of us could be perpetrators of such horror, depending on when we are born and whom we are born to. Barker also suggests that evolution and transformation, however slight, requires some degree of awareness; though she leaves us very much in the dark as to whether any of her characters actually succeed in securing their personal freedom and reading their own destiny – a destiny that has already been spelt out in their incarnate lives.
October 20, 2015
Arcadia Books, £8.99, paperback out now
“Still half asleep, Chief Inspector Frank Stave reached an arm out across the bed towards his wife, then remembered that she had burned to death in a firestorm three and a half years ago. He balled his hand into a fist, hurled back the blanket and let the ice-cold air banish the last shades of his nightmare”.
So opens The Murderer in Ruins, a gripping historical crime novel set in Hamburg in 1947. The city is experiencing the coldest winter anyone can remember, and refugees and displaced residents are living in the ruins. Hamburg is occupied by the British after being destroyed in the conflict, and it appears that a serial killer is leaving unidentifiable naked bodies in the frozen ruins. Stave has his own problems – his young soldier son is missing, and he is a frequent visitor to the Red Cross reunification office, without success.
The description of the barely-functioning city is completely convincing, and the mystery is satisfyingly gripping and surprising. The lingering poisons of the Third Reich and the war are shown to touch relationships and power structures in post war life. Translated four years after its German publication, and released here by a small press with the support of the Goethe Institute, it is intended to be the first part of a trilogy. I hope Arcadia Press crack on and publish the next two, as I can’t wait to read more from this author.
Review by Bethan
March 8, 2014
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