By Emma Wallace and Natalia Alvarez
Not To Be Overlooked introduces a variety of wonderful but lesser-known books to assist readers in finding their next great reads. This week’s column reviews A Good Year by Polis Loizou and An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten (translated by Marlaine Delargy).
A Good Year by Polis Loizou
The great power of storytelling, for me, has always been in those moments where the fragments of wider stories are gestured to, where characters and ideas appear, as it were, off-stage, standing for a world that exists beyond the remit of the narrator’s perspective. In Polis Loizou’s forthcoming A Good Year, it is this sense of a wider, off-stage world that gives the story its narrative power and ability to linger long in the mind.
Set in Cyprus in 1925 during the Twelve Days of Christmas, a period traditionally thought of by local folklore as a time where creatures known as kalikantzari come up from Hell to wreak havoc, A Good Year focuses on the consequences of isolation, superstition and fear on a young, recently married couple called Despo and Loukas. Paranoid, repressed and somewhat alien to one another, Despo and Loukas agonise over the pregnancy that is so central to their social identities, as well as the risks inherent in supposedly giving birth during the Twelve Days of Christmas.
They become, in essence, a fascinating window into a world steeped in age-old tradition and inherited superstition, a prism through which a broader array of stories, voices and ideas can be unearthed. Frequently shot through with a consistently believable sense of dread and terror, A Good Year is a haunting story about subjectivity and the ways in which fear and superstition affect our perception of events. Like many, I entered into this novel stubbornly determined to get answers like “Are the kalikantzari real and, if so, what do they want?” Over the course of this tantalisingly short story, Loizou converts this question into one more thought-provoking, not “Is the supernatural real?” but rather “Why does it seem real to these people? More particularly, what does this belief in decades-old myth and legend say about the society these people exist in?” By doing so, A Good Year not only revels in the generative power of storytelling and narrative perception, but demonstrates how effective a multiform story can be.
An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed by Helene Tursten (translated by Marlaine Delargy)
Who doesn’t love an old lady with a secret? Maud in An Elderly Lady Must Not Be Crossed is an eighty-nine-year-old retired language professor turned travel junkie, who has a couple big ones she might just be cunning enough to keep safe. Told with quick wit about morally ambiguous decisions, this is a crime novel that is perfect for all. The short story collection was originally published in Swedish, then translated by Marlaine Delargy and released in 2021 through Soho Press. The compact pocket book includes 255 pages with six short stories that piece together our unreliable narrator Maud’s present-day life with significant moments in her past. The first story picks up five months after the events of An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good, Helene Tursten’s first of this series, where in the final chapter a body is discovered in Maud’s apartment, ingeniously disguised as a break-in and theft gone wrong. While Maud is usually able to fool the police by feigning to be old and senile, notable detectives Irene Huss and Embla Nyström are not so willing to let their suspicions go.
This is the first time her old lady façade has not impressed investigators, who inconvenience her again when they show up right before she is set to go to her favourite travel destination, South Africa, for a last-minute Christmas getaway, asking more questions and insinuating that Maud knows more than she initially let on. Shaken by her encounter with the detectives, old memories resurface and more mysterious deaths – including that of her older sister Charlotte – are revealed. While the trip does wonders for Maud’s nerves, it seems she still can’t help intervening when she feels an injustice has been done. This leads to more cover-ups and an opportunity for Maud to live the rest of her days with somewhat of a family and the peace she has searched her whole life for.
I loved the conflict involved in this series and enjoyed getting to know Maud’s life and personality. She is a constantly confusing character, being at times both self-centred yet selfless given the right circumstances. She is always sure to keep readers guessing, but one thing about her never changes: she will do anything to live a nice, quiet life and anyone who gets in the way of this is sure to wish they hadn’t.
While this novel is second in its series, it can still be read as a standalone, though I would recommend picking up An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good for the full experience and expect a third novel is already in the works. Happy reading!