One nervous night in Iceland

Sunday Times, 7 August 2016

A chilling tale of lethal retribution opens Joan Smith’s round-up

Iceland is a small country but it has produced some outstanding crime novelists in the past few years. Yrsa Sigurdardottir is one of the best-known, and she made her name with a series of tense psychological dramas. Her latest, Why Did You Lie? (Hodder £16.99), translated by Victoria Cribb, is a tour de force.

Four strangers gather to spend a nervous night on a rocky outcrop off the Icelandic coast. A family returns from a house swap in Florida to find no sign of the American couple who are supposed to have stayed in their home. And a young policewoman searches through dusty files, trying to discover what drove her husband to attempt suicide.

The only thing that links these apparently unconnected characters is a series of anonymous notes. In an atmosphere of growing unease, they start questioning themselves and each other, desperately trying to work out what the writer wants. The answer is retribution in an almost biblical sense, sought by a killer who has been nursing a lethal grudge for many years. Sigurdardottir handles the different plot strands brilliantly, bringing them together in an unforgettable climax.

Val McDermid’s engaging new novel, Out of Bounds (Little, Brown £18.99) begins with a joyrider causing a fatal accident. A DNA sample provides a match to the unsolved rape and murder of a hairdresser in Glasgow two decades earlier, even though the driver wasn’t even born at the time.

The blood sample suggests he is a close relative of the murderer, presenting an apparently straightforward case to DCI Karen Pirie of the Police Scotland historic cases unit. But getting the evidence she needs to establish the murderer’s identity involves persuading a sceptical judge, and DCI Pirie finds herself distracted by another unsolved case. Back in 1994, four people died when a light aircraft blew up and the IRA were the chief suspects. Now the son of one of the victims has been found dead on the shore of a loch, and Pirie thinks two suspicious deaths in the same family is more than a coincidence. McDermid’s 30th novel offers fascinating insights into the ethical dilemmas thrown up by advances in forensic science.

Laura McHugh’s stunning first novel, The Weight of Blood, was set in an isolated community in the Ozarks.  Her second, Arrowood (Century £12.99), takes place in southern Iowa where decaying 19th century mansions line the streets of a historic town that’s dying on its feet. Arden Arrowood returns to Keokuk when she inherits the family home, bringing back painful memories of the disappearance of her twin sisters 17 years earlier. Arden was only a child when she witnessed this event and new evidence challenges the accuracy of her recollections. McHugh’s slow exposure of an old crime is a pitch-perfect example of Southern Gothic.

Leif G W Persson is a criminologist and psychological profiler as well as one of Sweden’s leading crime novelists. The Dying Detective (Doubleday £20), translated by Neil Smith, begins with a retired chief of police suffering a stroke. Lars Martin Johansson chafes at being in hospital and he’s intrigued when one of the consultants asks for his advice about an unsolved murder.

The doctor’s late father was a vicar. Shortly before his death, the priest heard a confession from a woman who knew the identity of the killer of a nine-year-old girl. The knowledge tormented him but he did nothing about it, and now the doctor wants to know if Johansson can use this tenuous piece of information to find the murderer. The bored detective promptly launches an unofficial investigation, using a lifetime’s expertise in a profoundly moving novel about endings.

Inside the horror of ISIS

Farida Khalaf’s harrowing account of sadism and sexual torture is lifted by her bravery

The Observer, 31 July 2016

First, some good news. The young Yazidi woman whose story is told in this harrowing book is now safe in Germany, where she is finishing her education. She has been reunited with her mother and younger brothers, who were taken from their village in north-eastern Iraq and kept prisoner by Isis for months. Despite what has happened to her, she is determined to fulfil her long-held ambition to become a maths teacher.

But Farida’s father is missing, presumed dead, and her best friend is still a captive of the self-styled caliphate in Iraq. Even Farida’s name is a pseudonym, adopted to protect her from Isis sympathisers in Europe and the “shame” of having been repeatedly raped by her captors. The book is an unflinching account of the sadistic beatings and sexual torture imposed on a 19-year-old girl by one of the most misogynistic terrorist organisations operating anywhere in the world.

The fact that Isis explicitly encourages its fanatical followers to buy, sell and rape women is well known. Most of the girls enslaved in this way are from Yazidi villages near Mount Sinjar, where their families have lived side by side with Muslim villages for centuries. The Yazidi religion is wrongly regarded by hardline Muslims as a form of devil worship, and in August 2014, Isis fighters gave the inhabitants of Farida’s village three days to convert to Islam or suffer the fate of “infidels”.

What is extraordinary about Farida’s story is the way it goes behind the headlines, offering first-hand testimony of what it is like to be subjected to ethnic cleansing and sexual slavery. She offers a chilling account of how the men in her village were loaded into lorries at gunpoint and driven away to almost certain death. Her 16-year-old brother Serhad was one of only four survivors of the massacre, playing dead among a pile of corpses belonging to neighbours and friends.

Farida and the other unmarried girls were separated from the older women and taken first to the occupied city of Mosul and then to the slave market in Raqqa. “Are all of these girls really still virgins?” an excited “customer” asked the guards. When a Saudi prospective buyer stuck his fingers into Farida’s mouth, she bit him and was beaten senseless.

This terrible story is told in the first person, transcribed from lengthy interviews conducted by a German journalist, Andrea C Hoffmann, while Farida was living in a refugee camp near Dohuk in Iraq. Hoffmann met Farida a few weeks after she and five other girls managed to escape from an Isis military camp near the Omar gas field in eastern Syria, where they had been kept prisoner in shipping containers. At the time, Farida was still recovering from the physical injuries, psychological trauma and malnutrition she had experienced as a captive.

In one of the most chilling vignettes in the book, Farida describes how Amjed, a portly fighter from Azerbaijan, always made a point of praying in front of her before he assaulted her. “Each time he would carry out his religious ritual beforehand,” she recalls. A much younger girl called Besma, who eventually escaped with Farida, was beaten within an inch of her life after she used a pair of scissors to stab the Isis fighter who was raping her.

What these men are doing is not a side-effect of fighting for Isis but an essential element of their ideology. Misogyny is as encoded into the idea of the caliphate as religion, and no doubt all the more attractive to its followers as a result. It allows utterly selfish men who reject modern notions of gender equality to revel in their power over women, deliberately making the sexual act as violent as possible and leaving their young victims bruised and bleeding.

Even when Farida and her friends escaped and were helped by a people-smuggler to reach the refugee camp, their ordeal was not over. Yazidi culture regards rape victims as “defiled”, something confirmed by an elderly woman who cruelly observed that none of the girls would ever be able to marry. Her words had a devastating effect on Farida, who felt as though they “had severed the artery providing me with the will to live”. It is one of many reasons she was ready to leave the camp and start a new life in Germany.

This is one of those rare volumes that offers astonishing insights into the human spirit. Farida resists her captors from the very first moment, fighting them with every ounce of strength she has. Even after months of beatings, she is still fighting and encouraging her friends to look for ways to escape. A catalogue of horror is made bearable only by her extraordinary courage, and the solidarity among girls who literally keep one another alive.

The Girl Who Beat Isis: My Story by Farida Khalaf with Andrea C Hoffman, Square Peg (£14.99)

The Born Identity

Literary Review, August 2016

In the Darkroom, Susan Faludi (William Collins £16.99)

In 2004, the American author Susan Faludi received an email from her father, a retired commercial photographer. They had had little contact for the last quarter century and Steven Faludi had been living in Hungary, the country of his birth, for several years. That was not the cause, however, of the long estrangement between Faludi, a well-known feminist, and her 76-year-old parent. She records matter-of-factly in this harrowing book that her father was a violent abuser, describing how he almost killed her mother’s new boyfriend after their marriage ended in 1976.

Even before the attack, which put the victim in hospital with multiple stab wounds, Steven Faludi treated his family appallingly. When his wife suggested she might get a part-time job, he swept the dishes to the floor and slammed his fists on the table. When his daughter did something that displeased him, he dragged her out of bed and banged her head against the floor. When his wife filed for divorce, he picked up a dining chair and brought it down on her back.

Susan Faludi describes these incidents as manifestations of a rage ‘so ancient it seemed foundational’, long preceding the breakdown of her parents’ marriage. At first sight, they make what happened in 2004 all the more unexpected: in that email to his daughter, laconically entitled ‘Changes’, Steven Faludi revealed that he had undergone sex reassignment surgery and was now called Stefanie. ‘I have decided,’ she explained, ‘that I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside.’

This startling event marked the beginning of a kind of reconciliation between Faludi and her father, as she refers to Stefi (her father’s preferred name) throughout the book. Over the next few years, Faludi visited Stefi many times in Budapest, getting to know her and trying to answer questions about how the two of them came to be in this strange situation. Right at the beginning, Stefi challenged Faludi to write a book about her, a task she completed shortly before her father’s death in 2015.

Naturally the book is about identity, that most current of pre-occupations, although not perhaps in the sense that Faludi’s father would have expected. The transformation of Steven into Stefanie was not the first big change in Faludi’s father’s life; his birth name was Istvan Friedman and he was known to his wealthy Jewish family in Budapest by the diminutive ‘Pista’. At the end of the Second World War Pista changed his name to Steven Faludi and settled in the US, where he built a business re-touching photos for some of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the period. He raised his family in a Catholic neighbourhood in New York State, hiding his Jewish identity behind showy celebrations of Christian festivals.

The fate of Hungary’s Jewish population is one of many tragic stories in this book. Faludi offers a history of the country’s anti-Semitism in the 20th century, which led to the deaths of 56 members of her Hungarian family in the Second World War, as well as its alarming resurgence in the 21st. In one of the book’s most startling episodes, her teenage father saves his parents, who were at risk of imminent deportation in 1944, by pretending to their guards that he was a fellow-member of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s version of the Nazi party.

Faludi tells the story in her father’s words but points out immediately afterwards that Stefi is an unreliable narrator: ‘How could I begin to assess the truth of a story whose very point was to confirm the storyteller as an extremely effective liar?’ Her father’s subsequent reluctance to have anything but the most cursory contact with his parents suggests he had complex, hostile feelings towards them, something Faludi ascribes to her grandparents’ bitter separation before the Second World War.

The problem with the book lies in this matter of character. Much of it consists of conversations between Faludi and her father after 2004, when they are engaged in a project with very different aims: Faludi wants to understand the past, while her father is intent upon showing off her new, thoroughly feminine identity. Faludi is generous and accepting throughout, researching the history of transsexuality in an attempt to understand Stefi better, but even she baulks when her father tries to give her some unwanted bras.

It is evident from these pages that Faludi’s father adopted and abandoned identities at will, but never stopped being a narcissistic bully. The physical violence Faludi witnessed in her parents’ marriage no longer features in their resumed relationship but her father is as prone to psychological abuse – what we now know as ‘coercive control’ – as ever. That makes the book a disturbing read, not because Faludi’s father is transsexual but because she is still a deeply unpleasant human being.