Book Review: The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta

The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta

  • Method of Obtaining: My copy was provided by the publisher.
  • Published by:  Bloomsbury USA
  • Release Date:  08.08.2013

Vienna, 1948. The war is over, and as the initial phase of de-Nazification winds down, the citizens of Vienna struggle to rebuild their lives amidst the rubble.

Anna Beer returns to the city she fled nine years earlier after discovering her husband’s infidelity. She has come back to find him and, perhaps, to forgive him. Traveling on the same train from Switzerland is 18-year-old Robert Seidel, a schoolboy summoned home to his stepfather’s sickbed and the secrets of his family’s past.

As Anna and Robert navigate an unrecognizable city, they cross paths with a war-widowed American journalist, a hunchbacked young servant girl, and a former POW whose primary purpose is to survive by any means and to forget. Meanwhile, in the shells of burned-out houses and beneath the bombed-out ruins, a ghost of a man, his head wrapped in a red scarf, battles demons from his past and hides from a future deeply uncertain for all.

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My Review:

There are times I will pick up a book, read it, and then sit for a long time afterward, thinking about what I want to say about it.  It’s now December and I am still thinking about The Crooked Maid over three months after I finishing reading it.  I’m extremely torn on what I want to say, because – as so often happens with literary fiction, what I hoped for and what I got were two very different things.  The Crooked Maid deals with the time in Germany spent after the end of WWII – during the de-Nazification of Germany.  It’s such an unusual setting and I was looking forward to reading about it, but what I got in Vyleta’s story was something a bit more confusing.

I understand that a story about this time period is automatically something that is hard to understand.  It’s a subject matter that people don’t often deal with in their lives, and really never deal with on a day to day basis (I’m casting a wide net here; that’s not to say there are not things that are happening in the world today that are similar, but generally speaking, we aren’t dealing with this particular re-building set during this time period).  And while I understood that a story had to be told along with it, to show what that rebuilding actually meant, the story ended up being one that left me feeling dissatisfied – like Vyleta had tried for something out of his grasp and ended up with a warped version of it.

I think part of the problem was that I just didn’t give two figs for Anna Beer.  I wanted to sympathize with her, she was undertaking a terrible journey and her path was one that was not easy – but frankly, I just didn’t care.  The same with Robert Seidel.  Being described as a  schoolboy and, as a result, seeing the dynamics between him and Anna just left me feeling a bit sick to my stomach.  Then, there’s the hunchbacked young servant – a character that the book was actually named after but one who plays a secondary role to Anna.  I just didn’t care for any of them and, without caring for them, you can imagine how it was when I tried to care about what happened to them.  It made reading The Crooked Maid a bit of a chore.

Vyleta has a beautiful way with description, and that’s just about the only thing that really redeemed this book for me.  But, books are not all about beautiful descriptions and insightful thoughts – there has to be someone or something that the reader can connect to, so the result was that I read some beautiful words put together in pretty sentences but, like I often am when I hear a pretty piece of music on the radio, I am left with feeling like I’ve been robbed a bit when I found out the substance wasn’t worth the packaging.

The Crooked Maid is just another book that has me wonder about the awards process.  For longlists and shortlists, are various award committees looking at the packaging or are they really looking at the story?  Then again – it may just boil down to a matter of taste, and my taste just didn’t extend to enjoying this one.

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