The thing about clever, ambitious books is that so many of them forget the story. You’re happily thinking the big thoughts that the author wants you to consider, but you keep crashing to earth because of a plodding narrative. Big Sister isn’t like that. It’s clever and ambitious and stylish with a well-crafted plot.
The big sister is that of veteran PI Varg Veum. Veum we know, his sister we don’t – but he doesn’t either. It is as much her appearance that sets the theme for the novel as the disappearance of her god-daughter the finding of whom is Veum’s official task. In this latter pursuit Veum pursues some desultory leads that find him looking into a case that dates back nearly 30 years, but it is the truths he uncovers about his own family – stemming from even earlier – that will have a greater effect.
We’ve come to expect from Gunnar Staalesen that we’ll be presented with plenty of detail, and an understanding of Veum’s thought processes. Intriguingly, much of the inner monologue this time is missing, as Veum tells us that he has thinking to do, but he doesn’t let us in. It’s wise story-telling as we can guess the circles in which his mind will be racing, as he tries to re-interpret clues from his childhood and what they mean about who he is.
For Big Sister is a novel that explores issues of identity. Who are we? What if the bulwarks of that identity are stripped away – and what are they anyway? What happens when that identity – in terms of our personality – is taken from us? Or we suppress who we are because of fear of a third party? What happens when the building blocks of an identity are damaged by actions of a different generation (because of lies they tell or because their moral compass overcomes the well-being of others)? Each of the characters in this novel has a slightly different relationship with their own identity and it’s frankly amazing that they are assembled in this way for our benefit and consideration.
The title Big Sister is an homage to Chander’s The Little Sister, and it’s great to report the return of the Marlowe-esque wisecracking: ‘[the coffee] was as bitter as a row over a family inheritance in Sunnmøre.’ I hope Don Bartlett had some fun with the translations.
That’s not to say that this is a light read. Some of the crime described is disturbing and the obligatory violent scene is not pleasant (and I’m not sure how Veum recovers so quickly). But there is huge pleasure in engaging with a novel that sets out so boldly to entertain and to provoke and succeeds so well at both.
You can get Big Sister here (affiliate link). The paperback is out next week but you can pre-order; and as at 14 June the Kindle edition is available in the UK for just 99p.
Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy. And please check out the other stops on the blog tour.
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