Part of being a better writer is being a better reader. This is something I’ve been working on over time, and is, in itself, part of my shift of habits over the past few months. I just wanted to read more. So I did! So far, I’ve managed to read 15 books, and I’ve been logging them all on Goodreads to keep track. I’m aiming to get to 24 by the end of the year, which will probably be the most I’ll have read in a year since 2015, when I was doing coursework for my MA.
Today, I’ll be reviewing Marc Raabe’s thriller, Homesick, which I finished last weekend.
Where did I get it?
Honestly, I’m really looking forward to when I feel comfortable enough to a) go to the charity shops and buy some more trashy/quick/low-barrier-to-entry lit and b) go to an actual physical library, gawsh.
I am so looking forward to both of these things so much. I feel like I previously didn’t want to buy any trashy books, because, well, I should only spend money on Literature with a capital L, but buying books supports so many people along the way. And you can always donate them again when you’re done. I may have had one or two less highbrow titles that got left behind in the big trans-continental ‘what, is that another book’ episode of life. Now I am determined to have books piled around the house everywhere. The library will also be so great, because I will be able to get some heftier items that I may well one day want to buy, to read them now and buy later when there is more bookshelf to accommodate them.
In line with being a corona-hermit that is still too scared to use public transport, I found a way of getting books to come to me, with a subscription-style box of books that gets delivered by Royal Mail. The service is called A Box of Stories, and can be tailored to suit any reading taste. You can choose a variety of genres, including historical lit or young adult lit, or else just get the mixed fiction box, like I did. For the very reasonable price of, like 14 quid, they send you a box of books that all have good reviews, but for one reason or another aren’t selling. So it’s kind of like saving books, right?
Homesick was one of four books in my first box. I’ll review as I go, although I admit I’ve stopped reading the second title from the box after only 40 pages.
Homesick is a thriller, set in Germany and told across two timelines, the present and the 1980s, when one of the main characters was a child.
The story is largely told from the point of view of Jesse, a doctor who grew up at a children’s home in the mountains. When his ex-wife is murdered and his daughter is kidnapped, he returns to the home to find Isa (the daughter) and some answers. The story track that traces his childhood in the home is complicated by an accident he had, which altered his memory, essentially removing all memories he had before that time. As a character, the younger version of Jesse is considerably more compelling than the adult reflected in the present-day timeline. The scenes reflecting his horrible treatment at the hands of his abusive father evoke strong sympathy for this poor child, who is then taken to a home, only to experience further bullying. His response to the bullying is complex and richly-told. His status as an unreliable narrator is repeated several times, with various references to ‘the accident’ and the gaps in his memory. Unreliable or not, his pain and frustration comes through richly. In contrast, Adult-Jesse seems much flatter, and has fewer deeply evocative scenes in the present; the scenes that work best usually revolve around memories or encounters with the past at Aldershof. The conflict in his life seems rather straightforward, in terms of finding and rescuing his daughter, up until the moment of the novel’s big twist (I won’t ruin it, though).
The character I most enjoyed reading was Artur Messner, the previous head of the home at Aldershof. The characterisation builds between Jesse’s memories of Mr M, who knew a lot about the bullying at the time but was not interested in stopping it, and Artur’s own reflections of his life and actions. His dominant and driving emotion throughout the book is guilt over the past, which confronts him in manifest human form in the shape of his gas-mask-wearing kidnapper. He shows considerable development through his guilt as he cares for and looks after Isa, who is kept in the same space as him. His guilt at past actions and protection of Isa makes him well-rounded and compelling.
Reading in translation
I don’t know if this is a bias that I have, but I often get a weird sense of differing texture from a book I’m reading in translation from its original text. I know that there are thousands of excellent books written globally every year, and lots of them are written in languages other than English, and it would definitely do me a lot of good to add some to my ‘to-read’ list, but sometimes, the translation itself breaks my reading experience. This is something I’ll need to give more thought to over time as I figure out what this piece of stone in my shoe is while I read. I don’t get the ‘reading a translated text’ feeling from Cornelia Funke’s excellent Inkheart series, which was also initially written in German.
What are your favourite translated books? I’ll add them to my list.
Reading in an unfamiliar genre
The other thing that got me a bit is that I’m quite unfamiliar with the thriller genre in general. My MA in literature largely steered clear of genre fiction (which was a huge pity, in my consideration). Thrillers are immensely popular, so I should get stuck in and read a few of the greats. I think that reading in an unfamiliar genre gave me the chance to challenge my preconceptions about it – the characterisation was richer than I was expecting, and the prose, not as fast-paced.
I am a bit of a sucker for mystery novels (especially those set in the past), and I enjoyed the drive in Homesick for me to figure out the secret before the author had to tell me. I saw it coming, but only a few pages ahead of the big reveal. I think I will definitely add more thrillers to my to-read list after this experience.
Ultimately, it’s not a bad book, and was a relatively enjoyable read. I found it less gripping than I think it could have been, and I put this down to the characterisation of adult-Jesse in the present-day storyline. It’s a worthwhile holiday read, and I’d recommend it if you like thrillers.