In honour of books, food and the awesomeness that happens when they are combined, Eating Between the Lines will be a new Friday segment on Considerablespeck. Since Giller Prize season is upon us, the next few weeks will be dedicated to the Giller Shortlist titles, starting with Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid. So pull up a chair, check out these great books and why not have a snack too?
The Crooked Maid: Assumptions Aside, a Killer Read
Following a cast of characters who are mysterious, unreliable, spiteful and at times wholly evil, a subtle mystery begins to unfold in Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid. Even desolate, ghost-ridden Vienna, with its bombed out streets becomes a character as we follow Robert and Anna on a quest to uncover what happened to their loved ones while they were away during the war. While it is slower-paced than other mysteries that I have enjoyed, the visceral imagery, fascinating characters and surprising twists make this story a worthwhile read.
What I loved the most about this narrative is the way that Vyleta artfully layers his mystery by frequently switching point of view. There is a large roster of characters that Vyleta allows his reader to step into the minds of—too many to name, in fact. It works, because the characters are so well interconnected that the reader will see many of the scenes from a variety of viewpoints, each time exposing a small answer to the quandaries Vyleta raises at the beginning. When, for example, we learn that Anna’s husband knew—and was searching for—Eva, the crooked maid, the suspense mounts and we begin to discover just how many of the once seemingly isolated characters are linked by the tiniest of details. In any other book, it might have been disorienting. In The Crooked Maid, it is enlightening.
Set in post-war Vienna in 1948, much of the story unfolds around the alleged guilt of Wolfgang Seidl, Robert’s stepbrother. He is suspected of pushing their father out of the window and throughout the story we are urged to ask the question: is he good or bad? Guilty or innocent? But at the heart of the narrative is a coming of age story about Robert, who is lead into the adult world as he learns about love, sex and human nature. Although all of Vyleta’s characters are fascinating, Robert’s flawed, yet lovable charm kept me reading on to find out the truth about his father. Maybe it was the way that he doggedly believes in his stepbrother’s innocence despite the mounting evidence, or the way that he dotes on the sometimes cruel and vicious maid, Eva, that makes Robert endearing. In any case, his plight infuses the often-macabre narrative with a much-needed burst of young innocence and charm.
The Crooked Maid is not what you’d call a fast-paced, heart-in-you-throat kind of read. There were times when Vyleta mentions Robert’s darn black eye once too many. There are moments, such as the beginnings of each numbered section where a narrator zooms out and tells the reader interesting factoids about Vienna during and after the war that cause the exposition to trip up the flow of the otherwise engrossing narrative. In any case, there is an abundance of sharp, meaty dialogue to keep the story interesting.
Late in the narrative, Eva exclaims: “I refuse to be responsible for your assumptions” (289). In many ways, this statement suits the overarching tone of The Crooked Maid. As many times as Vyleta and his characters seems to circle around to the notion of villainy, I too found myself asking the question: is it good or bad? Of course, I was talking about the book. What sold me in the end were the characters. Many of whom, I was sure were rotten criminals turned out to be quite different. I found myself making assumptions about many of the characters only to have them challenged later on. This is what is golden about this book: Vyleta skillfully sets the reader up with a set of assumptions and then carefully picks them apart. Even the Nazi-supporting mother, Frau Seidl is humanized in a way that is deliciously shocking.
If you like reading books that are gritty and full of vicious prose, this book is for you. Not only does Dan Vyleta take us along for a winding and eye-opening narrative, but he also builds for us a world that is so real and fascinating that it is hard to leave when it is over. Though they might be vile on many counts, Vyleta’s characters make for a read that is killer.
And now for the recipe: Viennese Crescent Cookies
I’m a huge cookie fanatic–especially ones that include almonds, so when I saw this recipe I knew I had to try it. (This particular recipe is adapted from one that I found on the Food Network).
Here is what you will need:
1 cup butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 cup ground almonds
How you do it:
Cream the butter, adding the sugar and vanilla until it gets fluffy. Mix in flour and almonds, then let the dough chill for at least one hour. (If you want them to stay the size they are when they go into the oven, you might want to chill them for longer).
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Using approximately one teaspoon of dough for each cookie, shape them into crescents. Put them on an ungreased sheet pan in rows (leave some space in between) and bake until golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.
Let cool 5 minutes, then dip them in confectioners sugar, or chocolate.
Ta-dah! Some Viennese cookies–a guilty pleasure–to go with The Crooked Maid.
Note: Eating Between the Lines Sequence photo taken by Lin Pernille.