The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta

Purchased at Indigo.ca

Purchased at Indigo.ca

In his Acknowledgements at the conclusion of the Giller Prize shortlisted novel, The Crooked Maid, author Dan Vyleta offers some thoughts that I feel supply potential readers of the novel some valuable context — and in no way do they spoil the book:

When I set out to write The Crooked Maid, I had contracted the Balzacian bug: I wanted to write a world, not a book. All the same, the world must be assembled piece by piece. The train ride came to me early, as did the theme of patricide, both in conscious homage to Dostoevsky, whose books I love. Other, less conscious, Dostoevskianisms have crept in, further proof that books are dangerous things: you read them and they impose on you not just their words but a whole sensibility; not incidents but a mode of seeing reality.

Vyleta goes on to cite Dickens as another influence: “[his] daring in stacking incident upon incident (and coincidence upon coincidence); his ability to connect characters high and low through crime, family scandal, and the brittle threads of chance…”

(In offering those quotes, I hasten to add that Vyleta is not comparing himself or this novel to Balzac, Dostoevsky or Dickens. He is merely citing some well-known authors with well-known styles whom he feels had an impact on his writing. I do think knowing that in advance is helpful, not harmful, to the reader.)

11shadow logoThe “world” that Vyleta is writing about is Vienna, 1948 — a confused, disrupted city that is trying to find not just its own post-war character but also a community in “moral transition”. While the abuses of the Nazi regime have ended, the code that will replace them is still a work in progress. Like Berlin, the four Allied powers each have their own sector — unlike Berlin, the central sector is jointly administered. Most of the novel’s action takes place here, a neighborhood run sometimes by four powers, sometimes by only one and all too often by none as the challenging circumstances of postwar daily life simply fall through the cracks.

Like Dostoevsky and Dickens, however, the author does not address that big picture directly — rather, he creates a sprawling cast of characters and an equally sprawling series of incidents which take place in that “work in progress” world. I’ll offer thumbnail sketches of the circumstances of four of those characters as the basis for this review.

  • We are introduced to Anna Beer on a train from Paris to the city (that’s the train ride in Vyleta’s quote above), nine years after fleeing it when she discovered her psychiatrist husband was having a homosexual affair. She is now in search of him — he may or may not be in Vienna. He was sent to a concentration camp during the war (Freud, sexual preference or politics would each supply a reason) where he apparently survived by “treating” the camp commander. While Anna wants to confront him, she does not even know if he is alive, let alone back in Vienna.
  • Anna is sharing a compartment with an eighteen-year-old boarding school boy, on his way home after spending the war years at school in Switzerland. As an example of Vyleta’s prose style and attention to detail, here is how he introduces us to Robert Seidel:

    In fact, there was nothing about his person or his clothes that have marked him as a boarding school boy — he might have been a clerk, or an apprentice undertaker — had not the satchel and cap that were stowed in the netting above his head proclaimed him as precisely that, the student or recent graduate of an institution that thought highly enough of itself to affect a crest with lions and a motto in Ciceronian Latin. He also owned a knapsack and what looked to be a lady’s hat box. At intervals he would stand up on his seat and pull a wrapped sandwich out of the former, then sit eating it with obvious relish. He was tidy and handsome and really quite short.

    Robert thinks he is returning to his stepfather’s sickbed — in fact, the stepfather is already dead. A wealthy factory owner who collaborated with the Nazis to survive and prosper, he either fell or was pushed to his death from an upper storey window in the family’s luxurious villa. The authorities not only believe he was pushed, they have arrested Robert’s stepbrother Wolfgang and charged him with murder.

  • Eva Frey is the “crooked maid” of the title, working for the Seidel family:

    It was her back that was twisted: not hunched, but spun like a twist of hair around a finger. It was as though she’d been caught in a perpetual pirouette, one hip higher than the other, the right shoulder leading, an odd sideways prancing to her ever-shuffling feet. If she could but unscrew herself: throw her chest out, gain some range of movement in that stiff and leaning neck; tuck in the shoulder blade that stuck out like a broken flipper.

    Given the novel’s title, the reader suspects from Eva’s first appearance that her back is not the only thing about her that is “twisted”. Vyleta takes some time revealing just what the other twists are so you will have to read the book to find out.

  • And finally (at least for the purposes of this review, since there is a host of supporting characters), there is an enormous stranger whom Anna first glimpses from the window of her flat when she arrives and thinks might be Anton, the husband she is seeking. Shortly after, he invades it, stumbles about and fall down snoring.

    It wasn’t Anton.

    Distraught, not daring to wake him, she slipped down next to him; sat on the floor, with her back leaning against the sofa, and measured herself out against his long and sprawling legs. The man was enormous, a full foot taller than herself. Something gave in her, physically gave, a sense of tension that had run from rib cage to the dimple at the base of her throat; snapped, recoiled onto itself, pushed out a hoarse, impatient grunt. Her husband could not have grown this much: there wasn’t a rack (not even in Russia!) that would account for the extra height. All at once she grew angry, jumped up, and started kicking him awake. She wore no shoes, bruised her toes upon his greatcoat’s buttons; put a heel into his face and pushed it over, startled him awake.

    “What?” he asked, shook himself, tried to focus, eyes gone bleary with the booze.

    “Who the hell are you?”

    It will be a few hundred pages before that question is answered — suffice to say that along the way, Anna, Robert and Eva each find it convenient to give the very large stranger a particular identity.

  • Those sketches should offer some hints about the Dostoevskian elements that will come into play in the story — and yes there are lots of Dickens-like incidents and coincidences that Vyleta draws upon to fill out the body of his narrative.

    A number of crimes, not just the death/murder of Robert’s father, occur along the way and most of them get resolved, if not solved. The author uses each one to develop the details of another piece of the puzzle that is the morality, code of behavior, new rule of law that Vienna 1948 is in the process of developing.

    For this reader (who likes Dostoevsky but is not a Dickens fan), Vyleta succeeds in creating a sense of “world” that he says he aspired to when he sat down to write the novel. The Crooked World is a challenging read, but a rewarding one — as confusing as the narrative gets, the characters are fully developed and consistent. In the final analysis, the book is not about the incidents, events or even the people who populate it — it is a picture of the city and society to which each of them has come on a search. The Vienna of 1948 is every bit as much involved in a collective search for what it is to become as they are in their individual quests.

    It should be noted that Vyleta’s last novel, The Quiet Twin, set in Vienna in 1939, features some of the characters who appear in this book. I have not read The Quiet Twin and did not find that to be a problem, although I am sure I would have found some additional elements in this book if I had. I do plan to pick it up and am sure that I will find elements of this novel useful when I do — from reviews that I have read, I get the impression that the two are “companion” works, rather than successive ones.

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    10 Responses to “The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta”

    1. Deborah Says:

      I’m curious as to what your opinion was of Crooked Maid, Giller – wise. Do you think it is worthy of being on the Giller short list? I read and enjoyed The Quiet Twin by the same author and very much enjoyed it.I close to the end of the Crooked Maid and while overall I’ve enjoyed it, the Quiet Twin is definitely the better of the two.

      Though the plot is convoluted in the Quiet Twin it was a great read. The Crooked Maid seems to have a plot that moves more slowly and is less rewarding of a read then The Crooked Maid.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        I don’t want to give away my ranking (you’ll have to wait a few days for that) but I certainly think The Crooked Maid belongs on the Giller shortlist.

        Your comment (and David’s) have left me somewhat glad that I did not try to hastily read The Quiet Twin first. While the two books seem to have some things in common, they also seem to take very different points of view and have quite different ambitions. I will get to The Quiet Twin in a few months.

    2. David Says:

      I chose to read ‘The Quiet Twin’ prior to ‘The Crooked Maid’, purely because both sounded good and I was reading them for my own enjoyment primarily rather than to judge the second book as part of the Giller shortlist. And I’m glad I did. Whilst the two definitely work independently (there is no continuation of plot from ‘The Quiet Twin’ and only two characters – Anneliese and Anton Beer – directly carry over from the first book) viewing them as a pair adds another dimension to Vyleta’s achievement.

      ‘The Quiet Twin’ was set in 1939, a time of fear and suspicion which Vyleta brilliantly evokes by setting almost the entire story in one block of Vienna flats where everyone is watching everyone else – it is almost claustrophobically tense. With ‘The Crooked Maid’ the focus shifts to 1948 and Vyleta flips the set-up on its head, opening the book out to encompass the whole sprawl of Vienna with many characters spending much of the book searching for people or hiding themselves away: it lends the book a completely different atmosphere, still shadowy and ripe with suspicion, but very different to ‘The Quiet Twin’.

      I thought the way Vyleta introduced a largely new cast in the second book was a wise move – not only do they represent the reader who is coming to the second book cold with no knowledge of what has passed before, but it also means he can take stories from ‘The Quiet Twin’, which we thought were resolved, and turn them into fresh intrigues. A perfect example of this is the picture of the woman on Dr. Beer’s wall – readers of ‘The Quiet Twin’ (just like Anneliese/Eva in the novel) will know the relevance of that picture, but Anna Beer doesn’t. Nor does she ever find out, and rather than offer up an explanation which would just recap the events of ‘The Quiet Twin’, Vyleta instead uses her ignorance as a strength: even though that picture isn’t part of her life, she chooses to respect and to honour its history, which seems to me to be very much what Vyleta himself is doing with these novels.

      In terms of the Giller I’m having trouble trying to assess ‘The Crooked Maid’ on its own merits as the two books are now inextricably bound together in my mind; and though in many ways – especially in the plotting which Vyleta seems to have become even more adept at juggling – this is a more skillful book than ‘The Quiet Twin’, I do slightly agree with Deborah’s comment above: there was something about the first book that I preferred. Still, I think either this or ‘Cataract City’ would be my favourites from the shortlist.

      Anyway, do read ‘The Quiet Twin’, Kevin – reading ‘The Crooked Maid’ first won’t spoil anything, and there is one thing that a character is told in ‘The Crooked Maid’ that seems like the truth, that you will discover is actually only half the story. As most things are in these two books.

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        Thanks for that concise comparison and discussion of how this book relates to The Quiet Twin — I obviously could not do that but I am sure those who have read both novels appreciate it.

        You tend to confirm my impression that the two are more side-by-side novels with some overlap rather than chronological volumes in an ongoing story. And from what you say, it strikes me that a reader preference in the two is going to mainly be based on taste since both are well-executed — those who like Dostoevskian sprawl would lean to this one, those who prefer a more intense, contained narrative The Quiet Twin.

    3. sharkell Says:

      Your review is both intriguing and foreboding. I have this book on my bedside table, waiting to be read. There are not many Giller-shortlisted books available in Australia but this is one of them. I’m finding it difficult to read challenging books at the moment as work is all-consuming at present but I will give it a good go. Perhaps I will start it on the Melbourne Cup weekend this weekend…

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        You may find the “challenging” aspect of this one a positive, rather than a negative. I used the word because of the complexity of the plot as the author introduces it which makes the first section a bit confusing until all the story lines have been developed. On the other hand, Vyleta does that in relatively short chapters that are fairly self-contained — so he is actually putting together a number of stories at once which come together late in the book.

        • sharkell Says:

          I did start reading this on Melbourne Cup weekend and have just finished it. I didn’t have any trouble getting into the book but I agree that the plot took some attention – as you say, in a positive way. I loved the scope, the characters, the story line and the sense of place. I felt like I would recognise the characters if they passed me in the street! A great read and now I must get my hands on The Quiet Twin!

    4. Buried In Print Says:

      The way you’ve pulled out quotes for each character is an enticing way of approaching the discussion and showcasing his style. I was thrilled to see this one advance to the shortlist; the intricacies of the storytelling are wholly satisfying and I was swept up into the story as completely as I had been with The Quiet Twin. I wish, now, that, like David, I’d read them in closer succession (I read TQT upon publication) but even though I can tell that I’ve lost track of a lot of the plot details, I still recognized relationships between the stories that brought another layer of enjoyment/depth to the reading of TCM. This is a definite favourite for me, too, but I can’t say much more than that at this stage, with both Moore’s and Hamelin’s novels ahead of me yet. Did you find that it read more quickly or slowly than some of other G books this year?

      • KevinfromCanada Says:

        For me, it was certainly one of the “slower” reads. The novel features a number of story lines, each of which is important, and Vyleta moves from one to the other so I found myself frequently having to engage in some mental reminders. Also, in Dostoevskian fashion, he is quite deliberate in what he lets us know about the major characters and their individual stories — that too slowed the reading down somewhat. I don’t mean that as a criticism — indeed the contemplation and reminding helped to underline the depth of the story.

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