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