Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (tr. Adam Morris)

Title:  Quiet Creature on the Corner
Author:  João Gilberto Noll
Translator:  Adam Morris
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2016)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 51 1

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a weird tale told from the point of view of an adolescent boy being punished for the rape of a young girl.  The assault occurs in an abandoned lot behind the slum-like apartment building where they both live and the boy describes the event so casually that we do not immediately absorb the import of what he is saying.  Our subsequent feeling of horror is subdued, perhaps because he is so young and lacking in self-awareness.  He has no direction and no future – abandoned first by the father he never knew and then by a mother overwhelmed by poverty. He is not a hero to like or relate to, but neither does he elicit a strong enough response for readers to entirely despise him. Everything about the character, by the author’s design, invites ambivalence.

For his crime the narrator is first jailed and then sent to a large country estate.  There he is cared for and kept in relative comfort (far more comfortable than in his previous existence) by an elderly couple named Kurt and Gerda.  He spends his time writing poetry in the solitude of his room. He carries on a secret, consensual relationship with a woman who acts as a servant at the main house. He comes to view Kurt as a father-figure and comes to subconsciously crave his approval. Days, months and (possibly) years pass unnoticed and unmarked upon  – occasionally he is surprised to realize that those around him, and he himself, have aged. In truth very little occurs to disrupt the groups quiet rhythm of existence until Gerda falls ill and must be taken to a hospital in Germany for treatments.  The trip serves as a catalyst for… well… for something

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

Noll plays with time and memory throughout the novella, inviting comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro (who gets a mention on the back cover). His narrator is filled with unspecified yearning and crippled by a total lack of introspection. The lens through which the boy sees the world is fogged.  The plot is further confused by the absence of contextual markers  that are usually assigned by the passage of time.  Noll is a complicated and challenging writer. Exactly what is going on always seems to lay just beyond the reader’s ken, but trying to solve the puzzle is surprisingly enjoyable.

I had affixed to the wall of my room an image that appeared nothing like the one I imagined when I first arrived at the manor: I’d recently found an old engraving in Amália’s shed, rolled up in a corner, yellowed in spots, likely by the drops of rain that came through the slats, depicting a boat setting sail. It was signed by the name Wilhelm Müller.

Kurt let me hang it up.

“That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland,” he said, as if half asleep.

The poem I was writing spoke of a farewell, and in that farewell exploded a hatred that tore through everything: ripped curtains, the walls to sawdust, blood on the lapel. One thing was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find.

The tone in which events are relayed, the sense that there is an underlying meaning, is designed to make readers uncomfortable.  João Gilberto Noll writes in  a muffled and detached narrative voice – as if the events that occur do so in another place and period,  – as if his narrator exists in a fugue state. Sentences run on for pages, an attempt by the author and translator to mimic “the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.” This use of an adolescent, first person narrator, one who feels no remorse and unencumbered by a moral conscience,  forces readers to enter and inhabit an alien mind… which may be the ultimate reason for the aura of weirdness that hangs about Quiet Creature on the Corner. We are unable to relate to, or even understand, the protagonist. Or is it ultimately his inability to relate to and understand us which we find so unsettling?

There is a plot. Things do happen, even if they initially seem to happen without reason or explanation.  Quiet Creature on the Corner is a book which benefits from re-reading (it is short, only 109 pages) and some understanding of Brazilian society in the late 80’s and 90’s. I definitely found this interview with the translator on Guernica’s website helpful. But the novel can also simply be read as a modern-day existential text. A boy/man disconnected from society is not a new device, or tied to a specific period of history.  And Noll’s narrator might easily call Meursault Uncle.

 

Spring Crime Spree: Murder Most Serene by Gabrielle Wittkop (tr. Louise Rogers Lalaurie)

Title:  Murder Most Serene

Author:  Gabrielle Wittkop

Translator:  Louise Rogers Lalaurie

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2015)

ISBN:  978 1 939663 14 6

Murder Most Serene is a study in contrasts.  It is a tale of two cities, one above and one below, during the month and years preceding Napoleon’s invasion of the then Republic of Venice. The inhabitants, fully cognizant that history is catching up to them, distract themselves with frenetic celebrations and debauchery. Venice is an empire staring down its final days – like a garishly made-up prostitute at the end of a long night staring silently at her reflection, powder caked and lipstick smeared,  in the mirror.

In Venice, everything is different. Different from what, if not Venice?… A city that shows only one-half of herself, held aloft on millions of felled trees, upon the forests of Istria, the great trunks cut down, dragged, floated, flayed, and sawn into piles, planted in the mud, bolt upright and tarred like mummies, chain-bound oaks, hooped in iron, held motionless in the sand for all ages, doubly dead, etiolated corpses encrusted with lime, dead mussels, putrefied seaweed, swathed in nameless debris, decomposed rags and bones. A twin city beneath the city, inverse replica of its palaces and domes, its canals metamorphosed into the skies of Hades, a response but not a reflection, for this is the city of darkness, the city whose skies are forever black, the city below, on the other side.

Murdercover4As Venetian society whirls through candlelit ballrooms they whisper about the trials and tribulations of Count Alvise Lanzi, a hapless Bluebeard, who can’t seem to keep a wife alive. His brides’ untimely ends – punctuated by black bile, violent spasms and agonizing pain – blend together into one macabre death scene which plays across the entire novella. Alleviated only by occasional digressions into the candlelit glamour of Venetian society, the narrative bounces back and forth between an omniscient (if somewhat reticent) narrator describing the evils as they befall the Lanzi brides and a delightfully gossipy correspondent writing to his or her “dear Siren” about all that is happening in the city.  

The wives, of course, are being murdered. A seasoned mystery reader will suspect by whom very early on, but that isn’t the point.  The prose is the star of this dark little book. When Wittkop introduces Felicita and Teresa, two sisters destined to follow Lanzi to the altar and each other to the grave, they are pretty little dolls frozen in a miniature diorama.  

Felicita is a tall girl with a pure, olive complexion, capable of playing the harp and turning a compliment in Latin. People say she has an austere temperament. Teresa is quite as tall and slender, but of a paler hue. She plays the harpsichord and loves nothing so much as to shine, and shine…

In just four sentences Wittcop conjures the two young ladies – one regal and serene, the other vibrant and effervescent. But the glamour is fleeting and this image is quickly replaced with another. Death, when it comes, is not pretty or charming.

The room, near the kitchens at the back of the Mendicanti, is grayish white like a wall eye. To counter the smell, the pathologists don the old beaked mask once worn by doctors purporting to treat sufferers of the plague. Beside the table, a valet holds the flaming torches. The stench of butchery again, as at the birth. A fly – a fat blue gem covered in fine, downy hair – wanders across Felicita’s face.

Back and forth, back and forth Wittkop drags her readers. And, despite ourselves, we enjoy every minute of it. Like her previous novella, The Necrophiliac, the darker and more depraved the story gets the more playful the prose becomes.  Much of this little novella’s perfection comes from the cinematic handling of the imagery – cut scenes, close-ups and pan shots, fade ins & outs – it’s very easy to imagine a Tim Burton screen adaptation of Murder Most Serene inspired by 16th century still-life paintings (imagine exquisitely painted depictions of skulls, dead animals and rotting food). The archness of the prose belies the unsavory nature of what it describes. Like the white-eyed, too wide smile of Anne Hathaway’s powdered sugar portrayal of Carroll’s White Queen which leaves the audience unsure of whether she’s going to stroke or snap the fluffy white kitten’s neck, murder has never appeared so charming.

 


 

Murder Most Serene was longlisted for the 2015 Best Translated Book Award. It’s author, Gabrielle Wittkop, liked to refer to herself as the heir to the Marquis de Sade. And Murder Most Serene is a book de Sade would have delighted in. A woman of strong principles and beliefs, Wittkop committed suicide in 2002 when she learned she had lung cancer, preferring to meet death on her own terms.

 

Spring Crime Spree! – Betty Boo by Claudia Piñeiro, Miranda France tr.

Title: Betty Boo

Author:   Claudia Piñeiro

Translator:   Miranda France

Publisher: Bitter Lemon Press, London (2016)

ISBN: 978 1 908524 55 3

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There are three epigraphs at the beginning of Betty Boo, the highly enjoyable mystery novel (her fourth to be translated into English) by Argentine author Claudia Piñeiro. One is a quote from Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night.

“The story goes on; it can go on; there are various possible conjectures; it’s still open; it merely gets interrupted. The investigation has no end; it cannot end. Someone should invent a new literary genre, paranoid fiction. Everyone is a suspect; everyone feels pursued.”

The epigraph is a nod to the sense of unease (a sense that never materializes into the actual paranoia and fear Piñeiro valiantly tries but falls short of  conveying) that the murder of one of their own creates among the sheltered residents of  an exclusive neighborhood in Buenos Aires – where all who enter and exit the premises (guests, domestics, residents) are closely monitored at the gates. The victim is a rich and influential man and the murder scene staged to appear as a suicide. What makes the events newsworthy is that this man, Pedro Chazarreta, buried his wife five years before under equally suspicious circumstances. He had initially been, and in the eyes of the public remained, a chief suspect in her death.

The protagonist and, for the novel’s purposes, lead “investigator” is Nurit Iscar – the titular Betty Boo.  Her nickname is inspired by her physical resemblance to the 1920’s cartoon character.  Nurit is…  rather was… a successful mystery novelist dubbed “the Dark Lady of Argentine literature” up until five years ago (right around the time of the death of Chazarreta’s wife) when a disastrous affair with a married man, her subsequent divorce and a series of scathing reviews of her most recent novel led her to withdraw from the literary world.  That last novel had been a departure from the crime stories readers had come to expect from her.  She’d written a much more personal work – a love story based on her affair. Since its public rejection she has stopped writing her own material and survived financially by ghost writing the memoirs of society ladies with illusions of grandeur.  She is fifty-four and her two sons will soon be graduating from university.  She is not unhappy, but has allowed her creativity to become dormant. There is a hole in her life.  She is surrounded and sustained by a small group of women friends – all of whom understand this and want her to return to publishing her own work.

And so when her former lover approaches and asks her to write a series of columns on the Chazarreta murder for his newspaper Nurit, after some convincing, agrees.  She will move into a house in the gated community where the murder occurred.  From there she will observe and report on events from the inside, using the proximity to tap into the residents’ paranoia for her stories about the case.  As far as an angle goes, it’s a good one.

At the same newspaper Jaime Brena, a journalist who sat behind the crime desk for decades, has recently been replaced by a young, wet-behind-the-ears upstart who knows more about social media than about actual reporting. When a call comes about this latest turn in the Chazarreta case Brena grudgingly hands it over. And yet… old habits die-hard and he forms an alliance, a friendship even, with the Crime boy. They – Brena, the Crime boy and eventually Nurit – will come to pool their resources and together attempt to follow the trail of a murderer with a very specific list of victims.

Jaime Brena tidies his desk, gathers up his papers, switches off the computer then notices just as he’s about to go that the ruler with which he instructed the Crime boy to simulate his own throat-slashing is lying on the floor under his chair. Jaime Brena has had this ruler ever since he first came to El Tribuno. He has a tendency to form slightly fetishistic attachments to certain objects. He picks it up and puts it back in the drawer. Looking up, he sees that the Crime boy is still working at his desk, and he goes over to him. How’s it going? Fine, says the boy. I’m just finishing up. OK, I’ll see you tomorrow. Jaime Brena starts to walk away but after a few steps he turns back and says: Can I ask you something? Yes, of course, says the boy.Who would you like to be like? What? Says to boy. Who would you like to be like, who’s your role model, your favorite journalist? Ah, from here or anywhere? From here, kid, here, and in Crime, because if you’re going to write about Crime that’s where you need to look for your role model. I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it. I got into Crime a bit by chance; my role models are in other areas. It shows, kid. Not to bring you down, but it shows.

Betty Boo is a better than good book. Piñeiro is a solid storyteller who avoids gimmicks and tricks and instead concentrates on the careful plotting, character development and psychological insight that distinguishes the best mystery writers.  Her plot reminds me a little bit of the British writer Anthony Horowitz (who wrote sequels to Sherlock Holmes and James Bond under the auspices of both the Doyle and Fletcher estates). Both authors explore issues and ideas, even politics, but only as far as it serves the story.  Their plots are meticulously constructed, built block by block like a case for the prosecution, and frequently stray into lurid (but not ridiculous) territory.

As for characters, Piñeiro has managed to populate Betty Boo with multi-generational cast – Nurit, her girlfriends and Brena are in their 50’s. Their thoughts and concerns ring true to their age, as do their actions.  And the same can be said for the younger characters, like the Crime boy and Nurit’s sons.  They possess the clichéd “arrogance of youth”, but their self-absorption makes them no less likeable. The dialogue is sharp and interesting.  Individual voices stand out.  Quite an accomplishment, since Piñeiro compresses and contains her dialogue within the same paragraph as the action, abstaining from the use of quotation marks. This simple, little stylistic tick transforms the rhythm of the text into the rapid patter of old pre-code Hollywood movies. These are wonderfully engaging characters who are fun to be around. Their conversations are genuinely interesting, not just for the information, but for their humor and warmth they convey.  

Claudia Piñeiro’s currently has three other novels translated into English.  All three are published by Bitter Lemon Press. None appear to be or have sequels.

 

Spring Crime Spree! – Target In The Night by Richard Piglia, Sergio Waisman tr.

Title: Target In the Night

Author:   Ricardo Piglia

Translator:   Sergio Waisman

Publisher: Deep Vellum Publishing, Dallas (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 941929 16 9

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When Toni Durán, a handsome Puerto Rican-American, arrives in Madariaga, a small town in the Argentine Pampas, he definitely shakes things up.  He romances the beautiful twin daughters of the richest man in town, befriends the local Chinese waiter, charms all the gentry and, a few weeks later, turns up dead under suspicious circumstances.  Ricardo Piglia’s Target In the Night seems a straight-forward case of “find-the-murderer”, but soon becomes about much more than solving the mystery of Toni Durán’s death.

Luca Belladonna, along with his late brother Lucio, owned the town’s only factory which once employed most of the townspeople. Now the factory stands empty, production stopped by an economic downturn and the death of Lucio in a car crash.  Luca has become something of an eccentric, living in the crumbling building with an assistant, continuing to work on his inventions in hopes of re-opening for business. His red-haired twin sisters Ada and Sofia (who can’t help but remind readers of Bolaño’s Garmendia sisters) are beautiful and wild – “The sisters were like replicas, the symmetry between them was so similar it was almost sinister” – and local gossip has both girls engaged in a ménage à trois with Durán, who they met on a visit to the States.  He followed them back to Argentina with a suitcase full of money.  

The Belladonna patriarch is still alive, but estranged from Luca.  The siblings’ mothers (one for the boys and one for the girls) are both dead.  Piglia’s novel portrays the decaying aristocratic family and all that goes with it: betrayal, disillusion, archaic codes of honor, sexual deviance and the loss of the wealth which buttressed its illusions of grandeur through generations. He has, in short, clothed a Faulknerian tragedy in the guise of a detective novel.

By then the story had changed. No longer a Don Juan, no longer a fortune seeker who had come after two South American heiresses, he was now a new kind of traveler, an adventurer who trafficked in dirty money, a neutral smuggler who snuck dollars through customs using his North American passport and his elegant looks. He had a split personality, two faces, two backgrounds. It was impossible to reconcile the versions because the other, secret life attributed to him was always new and surprising. A seductive foreigner, an extrovert who revealed everything, but also a mysterious man with a dark side who fell for the Belladonna sisters and got lost in the whirlwind that followed.

The whole town participated in fine-tuning and improving the stories. The motives and the point of view changed, but not the character. The events themselves hadn’t actually changed, only how they were being perceived. There were no new facts, only different interpretations.

As every good reader knows, a murder needs an investigator.  Detective Croce, a Lear-like figure working from the brink of madness, is determined to discover the true killer and exonerate the scapegoat.  A man who has been falsely imprisoned by those who find an expedient solution to the case more politically beneficial than justice.  Emilio Renzi, a big city journalist who appears in a number of Piglia’s books and is a satisfactory (and satisfactorily cynical) foil provides the objective outsider’s view of events. They form a dynamic partnership – Renzi the superego to Croce’s ego.

Piglia’s work is both clever and unusual.  At first glance Target In the Night reads as if it were three or four stories, ideas even, mashed together into one. The transitions between scenes are fuzzy, making the plot difficult to follow at times.  The story doesn’t follow the narrative we expect and as a writer Piglia can come across as a bit schizophrenic.  But the writing, itself, flows beautifully and the threads sort themselves out by the end. And some of those scenes with the fuzzy transitions between them can be very funny. When Renzi visits Croce in an asylum he gets to know some of the inmates.

Renzi gave them a cigarette and the two men started smoking it right away, taking turns, standing near them. The fatter of the two broke a one-peso bill in half and gave half of it to the other for a drag of the cigarette. Every time they took a smoke they would give the other patient half of the bill, and when they exhaled they would take the other half of the bill back. They paid with half a bill, took a smoke, exhaled, accepted half of the bill, the other would smoke, blow out the smoke, they would pass the half-bill back, the other would smoke – and the cycle accelerated and went faster and faster as the cigarette was consumed…

Ricardo Piglia is an Argentine transplant who now currently teaches Latin American Literature at Princeton University. It might be worth noting that the Belladonna/Garmendia sisters coincidence isn’t the only Bolaño parallel to be found.  Piglia incorporates fictional footnotes into his text as well. And while Bolaño doesn’t own the patent on twins and footnotes, they might be something an Argentine author who isn’t specifically intent on paying homage might want to avoid. Sometimes, though, these glimpses of the familiar work in an author’s favor and add to the readers pleasure. Fortunately for the author, they do that here.

Target In the Night seems to be part of the ongoing trend towards the domestication of the crime novel. Crime/detective fiction is the one category which (seemingly) has managed to entirely escape the genre ghetto – skipping back and forth across the line between its sensationalist roots and literary aspirations. Latin American authors, in particular, seem to have the most fun with the fusion, injecting a bit more humor, experimental prose writing and unusual story structures into their endeavors. In fact, the defining characteristic of these existential crime novels seems to be exactly how little a satisfactory resolution of the crime actually matters to the overall trajectory of the story.

 

Memory At Bay by Evelyne Trouillot, tr. Paul Curtis Daw

Title:  Memory At Bay
Author:  Evelyne Trouillot
Translator:  Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 8139 3809 7

Trouillot_Memory_Select.inddExtensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history.  The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path.  And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation.  By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.

Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people:  “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds.  They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet.  With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated.  They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence.  I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”

Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home.  She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty.  The daughter of a Haitian intellectual &  lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops.  Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.  

Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes.  Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women.  Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique.  She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.

While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.

As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for.  Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.

These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about  a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history.  Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother.  Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.

Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed.  Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling.  Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to  justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted.  Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.

On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a  child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.

As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti?  Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality.  Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece:  a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.