Dan Vyleta's The Crooked Maid has been short-listed for this year's Giller Prize. It is one of those novels that has the feel of a timeless classic; it reads as though it could have been written at any point in the past 60 years.
Ambitious in scope, it recreates Vienna in 1948, peoples it with a sizable collection of well-drawn characters, connects them all in a myriad of brilliant and unexpected ways, then throws in a murder mystery, a missing person case, a courtroom trial, several love affairs and a scandal or two. I loved its breadth and its scope, and found myself swept up by a dark drama that covers everything from love and loyalty to betrayal and corruption.
A vast cast of characters
The book opens with a train journey. Anna Beer is returning to war-torn Vienna from Paris for the first time in nine years. She's hoping to rendezvous with her estranged husband, a psychiatrist, who has spent most of the war as an inmate in a Russian concentration camp. The couple's marriage crumbled after Anna caught her husband with another man, but she is now prepared to forgive him, so that they can start their lives afresh.
Travelling in the same carriage is Robert Seidel, an 18-year-old boy, who has just finished his schooling in Switzerland. He has been summoned home to Vienna, where his step-father, a wealthy industrialist (rumoured to have collaborated with the Nazis), now lies in a hospital bed on the brink of death. He supposedly "fell" out of an upper storey window, but Robert's older step-brother, Wolfgang, has been charged with his murder.
It is around these two characters — Anna and Robert — that the story largely revolves, but there are many other characters who enter the frey and add to the multi-layered, interwoven narrative that Vyleta has so expertly crafted.
The "evil" hunchback
Chief among these is Eva, the "crooked maid" of the title, who works for the Seidel family and has a distinctive hunchback resulting from an injury caused to her as a child. She was raised in an orphanage and has spent most of her life looking after herself. As a consequence she is rather feisty and outspoken. She also likes to play up to her wicked reputation — "You're evil," Robert tells her at one point. "I'm a hunchback. What did you expect?" she retorts.
And then there is Karel Neumann, a large Czech man, who claims to have been a POW with Anna's husband, Anton Beer. Anton, however, can't vouch for him, because he never returns to Vienna — instead Anna must go to the police to report him missing.
There are more characters, all bumping and rubbing up against one another, but to the author's credit, the reader never loses track of who is who despite the seemingly never-ending cast. Oh, and how could I forget — the city of Vienna — grey, oppressive, war-torn — is a character, too:
The northern part of the inner city had not been subject to direct attack and had only been hit by strays. Most of the rubble had been cleared. There were buildings, upper storeys, that were missing. Her eyes stared up at gaps into which her mind would paint a row of windows; a stuccoed gable perched atop a brass-shod door. Here and there torn walls had been patched: dull, artless plaster clinging like a canker to ornate facades. Men and women walked the streets, hungry, threadbare, dressed in shabby clothes; blind to the pockmarked beauty of a capital whose empire had been mislaid.
While I couldn't possibly outline the rather complicated plot in just a paragraph or two, let's just say it embraces everything from patricide to suicide, vagrancy to prostitution, and piles incident upon incident so that there's never a dull moment and you're never sure what's going to happen next.
In his Afterword, Vyleta says the book's structure — and its reliance on coincidence — owes much to Charles Dickens, particularly "of his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance". Which is pretty much the perfect description of what The Crooked Maid achieves so beautifully. I rather suspect the entire narrative was expertly planned in advance — much like a grand chess master plots his moves — because for such an ambitious, wide-ranging story, Vyleta ties up all the loose ends in a pleasing, satisfying way. Nothing feels forced or rushed.
And while it's not an easy read — it's too dense, too claustrophobic, too dry and oppressive for that — it's an absorbing one, because it throws you into a completely all-encompassing world and lets you walk its streets, climb its staircases, breath its air and forget about your own life for a bit. It's an impressive achievement.
Note that it is not yet published in the UK, but at the time of writing copies are available from the bookdepository.co.uk.
I read this book as part of the Shadow Giller Prize 2013. For a different take on it, please see KevinfromCanada's review.