This Giller short-listed book by a Quebec author is hard to describe. It is epic story-telling told with great detail, so there is much content about many many topics. Sometimes I wished that some of the content had been edited out as this is a very long book. Part of the book takes place in Quebec and it is very French-Canadian, with complex family dynamics, wicked nuns, etc. The last half takes place in Berlin and Rome, albeit with characters that are linked by family to the first part of the book. The Lamontagne family is always surprising; the writing is imaginative and often dark.
This is the 27th Leon novel set in Venice with Commissario Brunetti solving crimes, and each one is a joy to read. The key is context. Venice is a delightful setting, and the crimes, although serious, are not desperate (no blood spatter analysis, for example). The pace of the investigation is relatively relaxed (Brunetti only seems toward on one case at a time), and Brunetti has a normal happy home life (unlike so many conflicted and tortured detectives like Harry Hole and Wallender). Finally, the women in this story, specifically Ms. Elletra and colleague Griffoni, are becoming increasingly important to the story and plot. Importantly, this story centres on moral ambiguities when characters do something wrong (illegal) but for the right reason. As an example of fine writing, this is a description of a Brunetti encounter with his hapless superior (page 253): “Brunetti applied psychic botox to his smile and nodded while turning his attention to Saint Antonio, patron saint of lost things and lost causes”.
This is an excellent book for two reasons. The first is context: Italy in 2001, specifically a town on the west coast across from Elba, dominated by soul crushing work in a steel factory. The description of drug-fuelled workers in the paralyzing heat of summer is incredible. And the second reason is the author’s description of emotion, particularly in family and friendships. There are breathtakingly horrible husbands/fathers but the key relationship is between two young girls, best friends forever who undertake a remarkable coming -of-age transition at the age of 14. Their actions are both risqué and innocent while navigating the emotional pitfalls of adolescence. Overall, a powerful, gritty and captivating story.