You by Zoran Drvenkar

you zoran drvenkarThe demon in the darkness…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Back in 1995, a massive snowstorm brought traffic to a halt on the road between Bad Hersfeld and Eisenach. As people huddled in their cars overnight, trying to keep warm, The Traveler stepped out of his vehicle and worked his way along the line of cars, murdering the people inside. By the time the snowploughs got through, twenty-six people were dead and there was no trace of The Traveler. (Excuse spelling – the book goes with US English throughout.) In the present day, Ragnar Desche has found the frozen body of his brother Oskar and is out to get revenge against whoever killed him and stole the massive stash of heroin he was keeping for Ragnar. And four teenage girls are worrying about the fifth member of their little clique who has been missing for nearly a week…

If you only read one crime thriller this year, please make it this one! Grim and brutal, darker than black, and written almost entirely in the second-person present tense, so I should have hated it. But it’s brilliantly written, with language and imagery that would easily fit into the ‘literary’ category, and with a depth and range of characterisation that is rare in any kind of fiction. Although there’s no supernatural element to it, it feels strongly like a particularly savage fairy-tale. Fundamentally, it’s about evil…

And then in every darkness there dwells a demon who was born without a heart and eats other hearts to assuage his insatiable hunger. The demon hides in the shadows, you can find him in the corners of the mouth of a cruel child, and even if you close your eyes out of fear, he lurks behind your lids and stretches his fingers out for your heart.

Drvenkar used second person very effectively in his previous novel, Sorry, but only in short bursts. I doubted very much if he could pull it off as the primary viewpoint in a 500-page novel. But in fact he uses it wonderfully to put the reader deep inside each character, seeing through their eyes and feeling through their hearts. By my reckoning there are a total of thirteen viewpoints rotating throughout the book, and as each takes over the reader becomes that person. It seems to me that this could only possibly work if the characterisation is convincing and individual enough to ‘fool’ the reader’s brain into acceptance. Somehow Drvenkar manages this feat. At first when we don’t know the characters it can be confusing but as he develops each into a separate entity it becomes easy to know who ‘you’ are at any point, and for avoidance of doubt each section is clearly headed with the name of the particular ‘you’ you are at that moment. What I found amazing was that he could not only make me identify with the ‘yous’ who were the girls, but at different times he made me be a ruthless gangster, a psychopathic serial killer, and an even stranger one that I won’t reveal for sake of avoiding spoilers. Sometimes at the start of a chapter I felt I couldn’t accept being this other person, but within a page or two Drvenkar had pushed me inside their character and my cynicism had retreated in defeat.

Berlin noir...
Berlin noir…

I understand from the author bio in the book that Drvenkar has written extensively for the YA market before turning to dark, very adult thrillers. This shows through in his characterisation of the girls – I found them entirely believable, both in speech and in their actions. The rotating viewpoint lets us see all of the main characters from each other’s viewpoints as well as their own, and this makes them very rounded. But the second person perspective makes even the minor characters come to life. There’s also a narrative voice, for which he uses first person plural – this has the effect of making it feel like all of the other characters who are not currently ‘you’, or perhaps like an all-seeing Greek chorus commenting on the action. And he uses foreshadowing superbly to add an ever-increasing air of tension and menace…

Don’t worry, you don’t need to talk, you don’t need to think or, for a while, exist, we’ll find out everything about you anyway. Why you became a shadow, why you don’t want to exist anymore. Invisible. We’ll open a window into your life and let the light in, and we’ll shake you awake until you scream with fury. But there’s time for that, that comes later.

Zoran Drvenkar
Zoran Drvenkar

Sounds like it should be dreadful, doesn’t it? But it isn’t! His skill carries it off brilliantly, making this one of the best and most original thrillers I’ve read in years. The translation from the original German is by Shaun Whiteside, which means that it’s flawless – it never feels like a translation, which is the highest praise I can give. I’ve deliberately said very little about the plot, because it’s so intricate that it would be almost impossible to avoid spoilers. The interest is in seeing how it all works, how all the various parts fit together. It’s noir dark shot through with just enough gleams of light to keep it bearable, pacey and tense, grim and disturbing, no punches pulled – and quite stunning. It gets my highest recommendation.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “You by Zoran Drvenkar

  1. Glad you liked this as much as you did, FictionFan. Like you, I’d not have thought that the second person would work for a full-length novel. And normally I’m not one to get drawn in by a story about a mass murderer. But I respect an author who innovates, and it sounds as though Drvenkar does here. Hmmmm……interesting.

    • It was only partly about the mass murderer – not enough to kill the story for me. Like you, that’s not something that would really interest me. But the storyline about the girls reminded me in lots of ways of Megan Abbott’s books. And the writing is brilliant – not many people could have pulled this off, I suspect.

  2. This one sounds a bit disturbing at best, FF, but the writer in me would be interested in seeing how this author pulled off writing in the second person and holding a reader’s attention through something so dark! Thanks for your review!

    • That was what I found so fascinating about it myself, Debbie – I love to see a really skilled writer at work. The story is excellent in itself, but in this case the style and structure are at least as important. I’m one of these picky people who doesn’t see why we should ever settle for second-rate writing just because it’s ‘genre’ fiction…

  3. Oh dear, oh dear you are tempting me. I’m really interested in this one as intrigued by the fact you liked the second-person present tense writing style as much as anything else! I’ve yet to read a book that has me convinced by the use of this (although FPPT is fine as far as I’m concerned) but I do like the idea of revolving viewpoints – this is going to have to be added to the wishlist 😉

    • As always, it depends on the quality of the writing with me and this one’s done brilliantly. I can even cope with FPPT when it’s done really well. 😉 This is twice now that I’ve expected to really dislike one of Drvenkar’s books and ended up loving it – an author I originally found via Amazon Vine. I think you’d enjoy it…

  4. Second Person! Unbelievable, I think. I mean, I’ve never read a book written like that. I imagine it would be somewhat hard to make it convincing, too.

    So, when the snow storm hit, stranding them all…what did they do? Many options, see: they could’ve sent off a small party for help, and they could’ve went sledding.

    I’m thinking he’s Zorro.

    • Me neither! I’d bought it before I realised, which I’m glad about because if I’d known I’d probably never have touched it. Brilliant though – and now on the Professorial TBR. You’ll love it… *nods confidently and tries not to laugh*

      They’d forgotten to bring their sleds sadly, and Rudolph had a cold so couldn’t bring the sleigh. You’d think they could have fought the guy off with snowballs though…

      *laughs lots* Doesn’t he look beautifully wicked? Ponytails must be in fashion…

      • Yes…but I can’t see a 500 page book…well, I can’t see the professor reading such a thing. And I’ll just have to add one to your TBR, you know…

        Or…their fists! I would’ve busted him up nicely–and taken his coat, I think. Which is mean, since it was cold and all. But he started it, see.

        He does! I suppose they are. But…they’re girly!

        • But Dune was longer than that! And there’s lots of violence and guns – and girls. Don’t worry – you’ll love it! *scared face* OK, I admit it might be your turn… what?

          That would have been mean but he’d have deserved it. And it would have made the book much shorter…

          *laughs and secretly agrees* Yes, you should definitely go for the Ronon look instead. It’d go brilliantly with the katana…

            • Oh, stuff and nonsense! Cassie, Ringer, Chani!! You’ll love these girls, they’re supercool – and their are young men too, young gangsters! *sits down with smelling salts at the ready* Go on, then… I’m ready!

              Maybe my hair is like that… *scratches*

            • Young gangsters…that’s sounds okay. But the girls…no! *gulps* You’re really not ready yet… I’m too nervous, see.

              Long or itchy?

              *laughing lots* There is no green or PURPLE starburst! You’ve got the wrong colors there, madam!

            • But one of the girls is called Stink! Don’t try using the ‘no’ word with me, sir! Who’s in charge of this TBR anyway?? *lies down in a darkened room with a cool cloth over her brow and thinks of fluffly little kittens* I’m so calm now nothing could possibly upset me… could it?

              *nods*

              Is too!!! The proof is there to see! I win! I win!! I win!!! *cackles madly and does a victory dance*

            • Stink! *laughs* Now…if that was your name, wouldn’t you be quite insulted? Double-no! You’ll just have to tempt me more. Haha, well, nah, this will probably do the trick. Plus…you’ve got 135 on your TBR as of now!

              You did not win…you Brits have it all backwards! There’s a yellow, orange, pink, and red. That’s it!

            • But she’s called that for a reason – you’ll have to read it to find out why! Tempt you – hmm! None of the girls really like to dance! And the mad serial killer person does much worse than just the cars in the snow thing. And there’s a car chase! And surely you want to know why Ragnar’s brother’s body was frozen? 137 – another 2 arrived in the post this morning… *buries head in hands* But I’m intrigued now! I must know! You must tell me!!

              Sore loser! Where’s your proof, huh? Pink, indeed! Tchah!

            • *laughs* You’re just trying to tempt me! Should I fall for it, that’s the question? Ummmmmmmmmm…..you have to tell me something else good. The car chase is a goody…but there has to be something else. *laughing* 137! Well, then, how can I possibly recommend one? I’m not that mean.

              You’ve never had pink?! Goodness. Now I’m beginning to think you didn’t hoax me.

            • Hmm…one of the girls steals a Vespa. Oh, and none of the guys have round butts! You must read it – I’ve told you practically the whole book now!! *sobs* 139! But oddly, I’m disappointed…

              Well, actually I think there did used to be pink ones, but there don’t seem to be now. I’m sure we used to have yellow ones too. Things just ain’t what they used to be!

  5. This one sounds very interesting. Usually I don’t like 2nd person narration, but I can see myself making an exception for this one. It’s always interesting to read something in a different style. The only other book I’ve seen as 2nd person all the way through was a Goosebumps “Choose Your Own Adventure” that I read in grade school. 😀

    • I’ve rarely come across second person, except in Drvenkar’s previous book, but there he uses it sparingly. I really doubt many writers could pull it off, but once I’d got into the swing of it in this one, I thought it really added to the feeling of being involved. Haha! This one might give you goosebumps too…

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