Ava is fleeing husband Lawrence, but he’s nowhere near the kids and seems devastated that they’re missing, and it is unclear at first whose story can be trusted. Somebody is unreliable, neither parent is without fault, and Ava is foggy-headed about details. Tension develops as Ava becomes more terrified that something has happened to the boys. People ask why someone doesn’t leave a domestic abuse situation, but in Sheerwater – fiction that cleaves closely to current news stories – Ava’s own mother doesn’t take much of it seriously and as soon as Ava tries to leave, the drama escalates – proving that the matter is far from straightforward. The truth is difficult to uncover, complications develop, and authorities act too slowly.
This is literary crime fiction, but the tension is derived less from attempting to figure out who is responsible, and more from the uncertainty of the situation for Ava and her two boys. The arc of the narrative develops smoothly from the first page to the last with no lags, propelling forwards quickly, with flashbacks to fill in the gaps wherever needed. Swann’s language is sinewy and pointed; the book is trim and every sentence is necessary.
Because we hear from different perspectives including Ava, Lawrence, and oldest son Max, it becomes clear what is going on, but this serves to increase the drama rather than diminish it, as we forage for ways it could get worse.
The book shows obsessive behaviours, self-deception and delusion in an illuminating way. Stories are twisted, lies are absorbed, and attempts at manipulation pile up. Swann is not telling an easy story and does not relish in the gritty reality of it. She has taken a critically important contemporary issue and developed a complex and horribly believable story with tremendous flair.
The Deceptions, Sydney lawyer Suzanne Leal’s stunning third novel, also has trauma at its heart, although it is trauma with very different origins. Inspired by true events, this story reaches back more than 70 years and explores the manifold ways families can be affected by events of the past, and the lengths a person will go to in order to survive.
The book begins in 2010 with Hana, in Britain, thinking back over her life to Czechoslovakia in 1939, the moment when she stopped being identified as a Czech girl and instead was seen simply as Jewish.
Next is Karel, 89, in Sydney now but recalling a past as a gendarme, a past with secrets. The moving backwards and forwards in time, and particularly as it features Czech migrants, is reminiscent of Favel Parrett’s There Was Still Love; the setting, and the questions of identity, are reminiscent of Liam Pieper’s The Toymaker.
In Leal’s deft hands, Hana’s wartime story, similar to so many others, is unique. By showing the day-to-day existence of a young Jewish woman surviving those six war years with careful emotional restraint, with clarity and detail, and with ferocious honesty, Leal gives a singular voice to a tragedy that is still too large to comprehend.
While we know details now, there was a time when much was still unknown, when being transported to a camp might have been understood to mean a place where there could be square meals and beds with blankets, rather than a shaved head, insufficient clothes, crowding to suffocation, working long days, watery soup the only sustenance – and all that only for the lucky ones.
Soon enough, sections of the narrative are devoted to Tessa, a fascinatingly complex character at a crucial juncture in her life. Tessa is Karel’s granddaughter, and, at 32, she has a secret of her own.
Then there is honest, thoughtful Ruth, a minister like her father. Another standout character, Ruth also has a secret. As with all of Leal’s characters, she is fully realised as soon as she is introduced. With authorial confidence, Leal drops us into each life without preamble. It is an extraordinary skill, and we will go wherever she takes us.
The forensic plotting of a novel is a craft Leal has already perfected. The strands of the story fall together by virtue of the development of character. These people and their stories converge without contrivance, their actions propelling the narrative compellingly; and the story builds to a conclusion that is a work of astonishing imagination, empathy and skill.
The biggest deceptions of the book’s title are not dwelt on – they happen quickly during wartime. Later, they are harder to explain. To live for a day is to discover that the truest stories sound farfetched, and the strangest stories contain the greatest coincidences.
This is a novel of noticing, of documentation, concerned with memory, survival, family, love, the awful complications that transpire, and the colossal amount of energy and small and large acts of love that are required to sustain people. With remarkable novelistic intelligence, in The Deceptions Leal makes this story both credible and absolutely unforgettable.