Review: Jennifer Egan – The Invisible Circus

Jennifer Egan won the Pulitzer Prize  for her last novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, a series of interweaving stories set in the past, present and near future. She isn’t a crime writer per se but an earlier novel The Keep,  set in a castle in Eastern Europe had an enjoyable thriller feel to it. Her UK publishers have just re-released her first book The Invisible Circus, written in 1995, which again has a mystery at the centre of the narrative, the suicide of the idealistic Faith in 1970.

Set in 1978, eighteen year old Phoebe is living with her mother in the San Francisco apartment that she grew up in and about to take up a place at Berkeley University. She and her mother inhabit a self-contained world mourning the deaths of two family members; Phoebe’s father died on Leukaemia in the 1960s and her sister Faith committed suicide in Italy in 1970. Phoebe has an elder brother, Barry, who has become financially successful in electronics and despairs of the insular life led by his mother and sister.

Phoebe is obsessed with the life of her dead sister, who was their father’s favourite and whom he painted on canvass relentlessly. The first part of the book slowly reveals Phoebe’s obsession and in particular her constant study of a set postcards that Faith sent while travelling around Europe with her Hell’s Angel boyfriend Wolf. When Phoebe’s mother reveals that she is seeing her boss, the womanising  film producer Jack, Phoebe flees on a journey following Faith’s footsteps around Europe, leading her ultimately to Italy and the location of her sister’s death.

As I have come to expect from Egan, this is a reflective story about a naive girl’s attempts to investigate the death of her sister. Although set in 1978s San Francisco, the O’Connor family have none of the panache of Armistead Maupin’s characters but have an old-fashioned American feel to them. This is most clearly realised in Phoebe whose naivety is on occasion irritating at the beginning of the book. She travels first to London, then Amsterdam, latching onto people who may have known her dead sister trying to elicit answers about Faith’s state of mind. It is only when she reaches Munich and accidentally meets the former biker, Wolf, that Phoebe starts to grow up. Wolf accompanies her to the Italian town of her sister’s death and answers, of a kind, are discovered.

For a first novel, the writing is very assured and the language has a poetic languid feel to it. Egan is excellent at showing the dislocation older teenagers feel when they are thrown into an adult world and are forced to disentangle themselves from the security of their family. If you are able to cope with teenage Phoebe’s self indulgence in the first half of the book you will find the suspense of the revelations of the second half poignant and revealing.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher. Other reviews can be found at The Independent and at Keepcalmandreadabook.

SinC25: Åsa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath be Past

One of the things I most love about blogging is linking to other crime fiction sites. There are a wealth of good blogs out there and when I get the chance I want to compile a list of my favourites. Something I came across recently is the Sisters in Crime Book Bloggers Challenge which aims to promote the contribution of women to crime fiction. Looking at my recent book purchases I notice that about 70% were by men and to redress the balance here is my stab at the ‘easy’ challenge – a review of Åsa Larsson’s new book Until thy Wrath be Past.

A girl’s body is found in the River Torne in the north of Sweden during the first spring thaw. Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, working in nearby Kiruna is drawn into the case after the dead girl visits her in the night. The investigation soon focuses on an isolated frozen lake where a plane carrying supplies for the Wehrmacht disappeared in 1943. It is a tale of memories which refuse to be buried and of violence which spills from inside a family into the wider community.

Larsson’s Savage Altar was a strong debut for the writer and I found her follow-up books to be of consistently good quality. This new book is an excellent although sometimes discomforting read. The main body of the murder investigation is interspersed with passages which take the point of view of the dead girl. This can be a difficult area for writers. They needs to be both convincing and yet open to the possibilities that this might not be everyone’s idea of being dead. I think Larsson deals with the issue very well and the final excerpt from the dead girl is very moving.

There is a lot of Scandinavian crime fiction out there at the moment and most of it of a high quality. What Larsson adds to the genre is a strong sense of place, setting her books in a rural Swedish community where the past strongly influences the present.  Her books also have convincing female characters and it is therefore a worth inclusion in the Sisters of Crime challenge.

As part of the challenge I need to recommend five more women crime writers. My only problem is keeping the list to five so I’ve decided to go for a geographical spread:

1. Mari Jungstedt (books set on the Swedish island of Gotland)

2. Fred Vargas (pseudonym of French historian and archaeologist Frédérique Audoin-Rouzeau. Features the detective Adamsberg).

3. Jennifer Egan (US author, books often have an element of crime/thriller)

4. Ann Cleeves (UK writer author of Vera Stanhope series recently televised with Brenda Blethyn)

5. Yrsa Sigurdardottir  (author of well-written thrillers set in Iceland)