Monday 9 March 2020

Book Review: Mexico Street by Simone Buchholz

I've been tackling a fair amount of German literature in translation recently: Günter Grass's The Tin Drum and Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin being the latest (both thanks to my wonderful book club). Each an absolute classic of their era and completely rewarding the time invested in reading them. But for something more contemporary - and arguably more accessible - I find myself turning to Simone Buchholz and her series of gritty Hamburg-based crime thrillers, with no-nonsense state prosecutor Chastity Riley at their core.

These books are like catnip to me - well like catnip is to a cat, but you know what I mean. I reviewed Buchholz's Blue Night and Beton Rouge last year - her first two novels, translated by Rachel Ward, to be published in the UK by Orenda Books. Now here's a third: Mexico Street sees Riley investigating a series of arson attacks on cars being torched across Hamburg and beyond.

There's an apocalyptic feel, with reports coming in of vehicles being set alight, not only in Germany but also in countries across the globe. Yet the focus is personal, as Buchholz weaves her narrative around a singular story: the burning car that contains the body of Nouri Saroukhan, disowned son of a complex Bremen clan. As a homicide is declared and facts are uncovered, the investigation moves from Hamburg to Bremen and back again. We're drawn into a dark and sinister world, from which the tender love story of Nouri and his relationship with the enigmatic Aliza emerges in tantalising fragments.

I love Bucholz's writing, from her chapter titles that read like scraps of street poetry - 'lay your head in my sand' or 'sucking on shards' - to the way spaces talk back at their inhabitants - 'hello, this is your hole of an office speaking'. I love Chastity's hard-edged voice, fuelled by her own experiences but laced with humanity: 'Stepanovic is the cold-beer from-a-can-type. You can only drink canned beer with dignity if you know what rain in the gutter tastes like'. And these Hamburg law enforcers really can drink; the plot is fuelled by beer, spirits and endless cigarettes.

Food as well; 'In front of me is grilled halloumi with a spicy sauce. I can always rely on warm cheese to stick together some of the cuts inside me, temporarily at least'. Riley is the sticking plaster sort, not wishing to analyse her flawed past nor change the way she approaches her challenging present, refreshingly sure of her own uncertainty and past hurts.

Ultimately, the plot of Mexico Street feels less resolved than its predecessors, more an intriguing slice of other lives than a narrative that neatly ties up all its loose ends. But then life isn't all about seamless endings anyway, and certainly not where Chastity Riley is concerned.

Mexico Street was published in paperback by Orenda Books on 5th March 2020. Many thanks to Orenda and Anne Cater for my review copy. 

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