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Pickle Me This

March 20, 2018

New books by Elisabeth de Mariaffi and Nathan Ripley

Hysteria, by Elisabeth de Mariaffi

The week I was reading Hysteria, I was a bit all over the place, and in the beginning was having some trouble following the novel. “Is it you or me?” I wondered, which was kind of fitting, because the protagonist is wondering the same thing about everybody around her. The novel wasn’t what I’d been expecting either—from the jacket copy, I’d been picturing Gone Girl, domestic suspense, and girls on trains. But then I began reading and found myself in the land of Betty Draper—although not before a prologue with fairy tale elements, a girl lost in the woods and even in the land of Grimms, not far from Dresden near the end of World War Two. But de Mariaffi’s Betty and the girl in the woods turn out to be the same person, just a decade apart. Heike, rescued from a Swiss convent by her American doctor husband—she’d been for a time his patient—who has delivered her to America, and now to a lake house in New York State near the mental hospital where he is working and where Heike will spend the summer caring for their four-year-old son. All of which isn’t to say that I wasn’t enjoying the book—I adored de Mariaffi’s previous novel, The Devil You Know—but instead that I found it disorienting, and I soon realized that I was supposed to. Because Heike, like I felt as a reader, is also out of place and unable to trust her own senses—she’s fragile from her wartime trauma and her husband keeps giving her pills that make her dozy. So that when she starts seeing ghostly images of a young girl, it generally seems in keeping with the spirit of things. And then her son disappears, and Heike’s husband won’t tell her where he’s gone, and it’s around this point when Heike’s agency becomes apparent and she takes up with a television writer inspired by the creator of The Twilight Zone, and I was thinking about The Turn of the Screw and the mechanics of ghost stories. Hysteria was excellent, even before I found my feet, and now I want to go back and find my way through it again.

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Find You in the Dark, by Nathan Ripley

Once you’re reading enough books about murder, your standards for gruesomeness start to change, so that all of the sudden you’re on the radio saying, “Oh, yeah, it’s a book about a man obsessed with serial killers and digging up the long-lost remains of their unclaimed victims.” Like that isn’t weird at all, right? Which is the point of Find You in the Dark, by Ripley (a pseudonym for the award-winning Naben Ruthnum), the way that it’s easy to be swayed by the protagonist, Martin Reese, a retired tech millionaire whose hobby just happens to be unearthing remains. Plus, he’s married to the sister of a woman who disappeared twenty years ago, and begins to slip comments about nasty deeds committed in his youth. Is Martin—loving husband and father, albeit a bit weird—really such an ordinary guy? The reader begins to discern that his intentions aren’t as honourable as he’d have us suppose. And we aren’t the only ones who are suspicious, because someone else has found out what he’s up to and there’s a fresh body buried in a decades-old grave, and Martin Reese’s carefully constructed reality is seriously under threat. There’s also a kick-ass police detective who is smarter than he is, so Martin has to figure out something fast. But do we want him to? Is he a good guy or bad? That moral ambiguity is one of the most compelling parts of the novel, whose creepiest aspect turns out not to be the unearthed bodies, but instead the experience of being made to feel so sympathetic to such a messed up mind.

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