I have a confession to make… just less than half way through my crime-filled year and I’ve made a discovery. I keep sitting down with these crime titles, getting part way through and thinking ‘this is great, but is it *really* a crime novel?’
But I’ve thought that about all five books I’ve read so far and, looking at my future book list, this is something that is certain to remain a theme within my crime reading. Not everything that I associate with crime – troubled detectives, devious criminals, gritty cities, a high body count, the whodunit aspect powering the narrative on – is always present (although it isn’t always missing). These novels are crime novels, but I’m figuring out that a crime novel is not exactly what I, or any novice to the genre might expect: they are all different from each other and from my expectations for what I perceive are the genre conventions. I probably should have realised this before!
Now, ‘what is a crime novel?’ is a big question – too big – but perhaps it’s also a question that doesn’t really need an answer. Any novel in which a crime, any crime, is committed could be labelled crime fiction, but it could equally be labelled regular fiction (not that there is anything regular about good fiction).
Rather than tackle this question, let me start by telling you why my initial thoughts about What My Body Remembers provoked me to this realisation. First and foremost the central narrator, Ella, is neither a detective/member of any police division nor criminal… well, ok, she does steal the odd bottle of vodka! If I had to define her within the crime novel framework I’d, reluctantly, have to say she’s a victim – although, initially, the reader doesn’t know what she is a victim of, other than social services…
Set in Denmark, the novel focuses on Ella – a young, troubled, single mother to eleven year-old Alex. They live in a social housing complex in Hvidovre, a suburb of Copenhagen. Alex has terrible nightmares during which he screams so loudly the neighbours complain. Ella also has problems: she describes herself as a freak, has no friends or family, and is constantly struggling to care for her son and with life on welfare. She also suffers from anxiety induced tremors – of varying severity, some incredibly bad – bad enough to put her hospital and jeopardise her future in terms of her ability to take care of Alex.
Several chapters in, during which time the reader has been given enough information to be able to deduce that Ella’s panic attacks are some form of post-traumatic stress, we suddenly get a new narrative view-point: Helgi, 1994. We don’t know how far back in the past this is, as the book has a contemporary feel but without specific dates being mentioned. A chapter later we get another point-of-view: Anna, 1994. I was still wondering how this constituted a crime novel, but, from Anna’s first chapter on a sense menace has begun to pervade.
An aspect of this novel that really appealed to me was the way in which, via the lack of police/detective characters that I’d always considered a hallmark of crime fiction, it is the reader who comes to inhabit the role of detective. Very cool. The reader is privy to much more information than Ella – as we see past events through Helgi and Anna, although Ella comes to work out some details gradually – but the reader is a step ahead.
One difficulty I always have when talking about crime books is that I’m aware, much more so than with other novels, that saying anything might give away too much about the plot…. I am often guided by the synopsis on the back cover so, I don’t think I’m revealing too much because all this is there: it becomes apparent that Ella’s PTSD is the result of witnessing a horrific crime (finally, the crime!), but one which she can no longer remember – in fact she cannot remember anything of her childhood before she was put into care herself – the murder of her mother, by her father.
As she flees from social services, who want to take Alex away from her, she goes back to her childhood town on the Danish coast. Once there, although she resists them at first, her memories slowly start to come back. What My Body Remembers is a surprising and subtle story. It’s quietly compelling in his dark and nuanced portrait of Ella and the people she encounters, as well as of Denmark’s social welfare system.