Andreï Makine, a Russian academic who defected to Paris in 1997, received rave reviews on the publication of The Crime of Olga Arbyelina. It is easy to see why. Reading this beautifully written novel is a bit like lucid dreaming. Each sentence, each word is imbued with poetic meaning. It is, by turns, sensual, intriguing, horrifying and disturbing.
The narrative, which steps backwards and forwards in time, takes the reader awhile to get used to. It's particularly unusual in that it starts at exactly the point at which it ends: two Russian émigrés washed up on a riverbank, one of whom is dead and the other, Olga Arbyelina, whom is suspected of being the killer.
From this dramatic starting point, Makine jumps back in time to the year prior to the murder. Here, he shows us Olga's day-to-day life at the end of the Second World War. A White Russian princess, she moved from Paris to a small provincial French town after the dissolution of her marriage. Within the town's Russian émigré community she raises her young son, a haemophiliac, and fills her days working in the local library.
But this normal-on-the-surface life conceals a monstrous secret that sneaks up on Olga and takes her by surprise. When she realises that this dark side of her existence could be exposed by a man she has grown to trust, it seems that Olga has the motivation needed to commit murder.
The beauty of this very evocative novel is the questions it throws up. Can we trust the narrator who appears to be slowly sinking into madness? And what is her crime? The murder? Or the dark secret with which she becomes complicit in keeping hidden? And, of the secret, does she enjoy what is being done to her or does she remain quiet in order to protect her son?
While I struggled to maintain my interest at the beginning of the book (I was ready to abandon it by the second chapter), I'm glad I persisted. Before long I was hooked and wanted to know what would happen next. And as soon as I finished it, I wanted to turn back to the front to begin again, just to analyse how Makine had put this intriguing and unique story together.