A spellbinding tale of murder

The Dark Meadow
Andrea Maria Schenkel (translated by Anthea Bell)
Quercus, £14.99
Kindle: £4.89 Review: Billy O’Callaghan 

Andrea Maria Schenkel’s short, dark and utterly compelling fourth novel presents the grim tale of a murder that has been concealed or ignored across almost 20 years of life in an isolated Bavarian village.

In the summer of 1944, after losing her job as a waitress because of a carnal dalliance with a Frenchman, young Afra Zauner has no choice but to return to the small village of her birth, the place she left at just 14 to make her own way in the world, and the questionable and impoverished sanctuary of her parents’ home. The situation becomes exacerbated when it emerges she is pregnant.

Life is hard. The child, a son, is viewed as a mortal sin, nights are spent in desperate wait for the Frenchman’s response to a letter he has in fact never received, and the days are long and defined by tedious, menial labour. Even the snatched moments of respite are full of toil.

And then, one afternoon, Afra is found murdered, with her head split open. Her son, also present, will die shortly after being hospitalised. Her father, Johann, who has struggled to bear the shame she has brought upon them all and who seems to be suffering the onset of dementia, is found at the scene stained with her blood. It is well known in the village that the pair had a difficult and often volatile relationship, and during a long bout of questioning he is confused into a confession. But there is more to this one than the surface would imply, and when, some two decades later, the whole story is dragged back into village consciousness due to a brittle newspaper clipping and the drunken ramblings of a passing drifter, the full implications of what has occurred start to become frighteningly apparent.

In recent years, largely on the back of the Scandinavian movement, European crime writing has enjoyed a dramatic popular resurgence. Since her début in 2006, Andrea Maria Schenkel has established herself as one of her country’s most compelling voices, and is the first writer to have won the prestigious German Crime Fiction Award in consecutive years. As with her other works, The Dark Meadow stands at the extreme literary end of the genre, eschewing even the most insistent or natural stereotypes and formulaic leanings in favour of a complex non-linear structure and staggered narrative.

The result is technically spellbinding. Multiple perspectives, all delivered in a hard, cold and impressively atmospheric prose, present the story as a case file, of sorts. There are no guiding hands here, no one with the authority of a Wallander, Martin Beck or even Maigret, though we find ourselves in similarly amoral territory.

The mental brusqueness of the local psyche is subtly fed by the choice of time-and-place setting, one that abounds with hypocrisy, prejudgement and an ability to turn a blind eye to abject horror. The scars of war don’t heal with a ceasefire or surrender.

But if the characters are shaped by history, landscape, culture and the simple desperate need to survive at all costs, the page contents itself in presenting the story as it is known to be.

The shifting points of view and the minutiae, blurred somewhat by the passage of time, cause the details to often contradict, but the confusion and uncertainty are in perfect keeping with the hard realism of the facts. These are presented in raw fashion, which brings the reader that much closer to the killing and its consequences. And for this reason, the impact is all the more harrowing.


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