Not one of these novels is a classic mystery, yet all are mysterious in that the characters are not what they seem. In one case, the author deliberately manipulates the story to befuddle the reader and other characters in the novel; in another the story hinges on a main character discovering something about herself that changes everything and in the last the main character is forced to live in two worlds at the same time.
“13, rue Therese” by Elena Mauli Shapiro, published by Little, Brown and Company is the first and most enigmatic novel. When Trevor Stratton, an American professor, starts his tenure at a Parisian university, he discovers a box of unusual objects in an old filing cabinet. The reader is aware that the secretary, Josianne, has placed this box as a way to trick the visiting professor into believing that he has discovered a record of someone’s past life. Trevor appears to fall for the trick completely as he reconstructs the life of Louise Brunet, a woman who is born in the late 1800’s whose father, cousin and brother all fight in WWI. She and her cousin plan to marry but he dies in battle and her brother dies later of the 1918 flu, leaving Louise and her father alone. She marries Henri Brunet, an employee of her father’s, and her life centers on an unfulfilled desire for children and her satisfactory but unexciting marriage.
The story becomes an enigma, as Trevor’s own life seems to become enmeshed with the woman of the past. He becomes an apparition who appears as Camille is dying and even encounters Louise in a railroad car and later appears to her, as she lies delirious with a fever. In doing his research, he discovers that Josianne lives in the same apartment building as did Louise and when he knocks on her door, he is soon in her bed with her.
Meanwhile Louise’s life unfolds, revealing a sensuous woman who has an affair with her neighbor and whose young female piano student develops a crush on her. Louise enjoys shocking her confessor with fabricated stories intended to upset him and often crosses the line of normal behavior, such as when she illegally enters the former house of her mother-in-law when she momentarily leaves her husband.
History, reality and the paranormal blend in the story and the ending is hard to fathom, but the author deliciously pulls it all together at the end. In the Afterward, the author reveals that she was an old box filled with seemingly meaningless artifacts that the author is given when an old woman in her apartment building died with no heirs and her neighbors are given her belongings and she cleverly builds her novel around it.
“Children and Fire” by Ursula Hegi, published by Simon and Schuster, is the story of a small town that goes through an imposed transition during Hitler’s rise in power in Germany. Thekla is a young teacher who gets her teaching position only because her own beloved teacher is forced out of her job because she is Jewish. Thekla convinces herself that she is preserving the position for her teacher. She loves her students and she encourages them to join “Hitler-Jugend” and to participate in other government sponsored activities because she believes it will give them a better chance in life. In spite of her friends arguing against Hitler’s government, she takes the path of least resistance. As we learn more about her current life, information about her parents and her own birth slowly come to light and what she discovers at the end of the novel changes her perspective completely. The story is a rich blend of details about the people of the village and how their lives slowly and almost imperceptivity change until the world around them seems completely different.
The last book is “Daniel” by Henning Mankell, published by The New Press. Set in the 1870’s, it is the story of a Swedish explorer, Hans Bengler, who goes to South Africa in pursuit of scientific specimens that no one has seen before. While he was looking for insects, he also encounters a young San boy who was put in a crate by other settlers when his entire village was slaughtered. He names the 8-year-old boy Daniel and takes him back to Sweden where he puts on shows of insects and the boy. Daniel learns Swedish, but never completely understands Swedish ways as his African civilization keeps coming back to him. He has visions of his parents whom he saw slaughtered but who apparently are living a meaningful existence in their own world and want Daniel back. When Daniel gets in trouble, Hans spirits him out of town and places him in a farmhouse with a kind couple and he leaves. Daniel’s plan is to learn to walk on water to make his way home. (He gets this idea from the Biblical story.) He also befriends a young girl who is considered slow and strange and they make an escape. The twist in the story comes in the Epilogue, which takes place in the Kalahari Desert in 1995.
All three of these novels are intriguing and all three are set in interesting times and places. While all novels depend on plot twists, these three use them extremely well.