Coincidence; I think not!
As humans I think that we are predisposed to find connections. We love coincidences and finding meaning behind them just like we always search for a familiar face in a crowd. Is this how we create meaning of situations and experiences?
Anyway, take all of those years of connecting things and be prepared to have coincidences laid out for you and played with in Dan Vyleta’s novel The Crooked Maid.
The Crooked Maid is a novel set in Post-WWII Vienna. We are introduced to two characters whose families drive this story: Anna, the wife of a released POW and Robert, the son of typical denazified family. The characters mingle together and their lives collide in violent and heartbreaking ways. Vyleta creates a bleak emotional landscape for the characters that is as confusing and damaging as the destroyed and ruined city landscape. Both Anna and Robert were away for the war and spend time trying to understand the changes that have occurred in the city and in the people around them.
One of the things that I enjoyed the most in this novel, besides the Dickensesque characters and incidents, was the description of the city of Vienna.
I spent a week in Vienna after graduating University on a tour with my University Choir. We stayed close to the Ringstrasse (Ring Road) and I loved that while I was reading I could imagine exactly what the buildings would have looked like. The Palaces, the Opera House, the Parliament, the narrow and winding streets, and even the courtyard and balcony where Hitler made some of his famous speeches.
But the glamorous and impressive Vienna I remember is not the Vienna of the novel. For the characters in Vyleta’s novel, Vienna is bombed out, in ruins, and full of rubble and empty hiding places.
Vyleta’s novel is not something that I would normally pick up (violent, dark, full of birds and taxidermy, bloody). Yet I wanted to read this novel because it was a finalist for the Giller Prize. In an interview with the CBC, Vyleta talks about his book and describes his process of writing as putting together pieces. He talks about different observations, problems, dialogues overheard and how they become part of his book. When asked “why is this the book you had to write?,” he replies by talking about how all of these pieces wanted to be written down and how writing the novel was discovering the story. He describes sitting down and writing the first three pages and “you just know this is good.” This makes sense because the entire novel is about putting pieces of peoples’ lives together to make sense of what happened in the past and guess what will happen in the future.
This books exists in shadows, in cellars, in attics, in rubble, in memories, and in dreams. In fact, the only bright spot is the red wool scarf warn by a seeming ghost who wanders the streets of Vienna and remains a mystery throughout the entire novel. In fact, this ghostly character in the red scarf becomes a motif in the novel: he is present in all situations and is the ultimate observer. Characters try to recognize him in hopes that he may be a lost loved one. He is a curious character and I can’t help but wonder if Vyleta used this mystery man as a means of observing and seeing his characters and allowing Vyleta to maintain a distance from his characters, just as the ghost-like man seems to be present, yet distant in the novel.
Reunions. Guilt. Atonement. Fear. Pain. Anger. Hope. Love. Hate. Confusion. Vyleta allows his characters to experience a range of emotions and experiences that always seem to just be on the surface because the characters do not have the strength to meet the past in the light. This was a heart-breaking, yet page-turning novel. I couldn’t wait to read what would happen next!
Let death take my enemies by surprise;let them go down alive to the realm of the dead, for evil finds lodging among them. (Psalm 55:15)
In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world. (John 16:33)