It’s a real pleasure today to share my review of Wasteland by Anna Jaquiery, the third novel in her Serge Morel series: independently published on 4th April, the book is now available for kindle (also through Kindle Unlimited) and in paperback. My thanks to Anna for providing my e-copy for review.
While I’ve repeatedly said that crime fiction isn’t really my usual choice of reading these days, this was a book I just couldn’t resist – and have been awaiting for rather a long time. I first discovered Anna Jaquiery’s wonderful writing back in 2014 with The Lying-Down Room: you’ll find my review here, but I can still remember the strong characterisation and the extraordinarily vivid depiction of the French settings through a stifling summer, coupled with the finest of writing and a gripping story of the pursuit of a serial killer. Then – in 2015 – came Death in the Rainy Season: Cambodia this time, that same depth of characterisation, a strong sense of place, and a story I might have enjoyed even more (you’ll find my review here, together with a guest post from the author). So when Anna got in touch, I was so delighted to have the opportunity to spend time again with Serge Morel and his team…
A Roma boy is killed on a housing estate, in a suburb outside Paris. Shortly afterwards, a young man of Algerian origin is killed. Amid rising social unrest on the estate, Chief Inspector Serge Morel, a star of the French criminal brigade, is brought in to investigate.
Paris, Cité des Fleurs – it sounds so very lovely, doesn’t it? But this is a side of Paris you won’t find on the tourist trail – a Utopian vision destroyed by many years of neglect, its apartments occupied by a melting pot of the poor and dispossessed, rife with drug dealing, ruled by gangs, racism ever present, and there’s always that threat that violence will erupt and flow out of control. When a young boy from the nearby Roma camp is found dead there, it barely raises a ripple – the fact that he’s almost always referred to as “a Roma boy”, rather than by name, is a stark representation of the low value placed on the lives of individuals living on society’s margins. But a second death – the murder of a young Algerian boy, Samir – draws a little more attention from the authorities, particularly when it becomes the trigger for mayhem as rioting breaks out and control begins to be ebb away.
The setting is dark, the environment ugly, and there’s a grittiness in the way people’s lives are portrayed – but the author’s focus is always on the individuals caught up in the maelstrom. Aisha is an exceptionally well-drawn and sympathetic character, a young girl both perceptive and intelligent, surviving in its midst, pursuing the truth about her brother’s death. And she’s not the only well-drawn character on the margins – the less savoury characters have a real depth to them too. And I particularly liked El Chino, another of life’s survivors, and a glimmer of light and goodness amid all the darkness.
But had that been the book’s substance, I’ll admit it might not have been one that would have had personal appeal – it’s quite wonderfully done, dark and contemporary, with important messages, but not an environment I’d often choose to read about. It’s always the characters and their complexities that draw me into a book, and they really don’t come much better than this.
Morel’s initial involvement in the escalating situation is personal – an approach from a friend involving him in Samir’s initial disappearance – but with his strong sense of right and wrong, and his indignation at the low value others place on the loss of an apparently insignificant life, both he and his team find themselves at the heart of the ongoing investigation. It’s a distraction from their current investigation – the death of a tennis pro, with a few intriguing and unexpected twists and turns – and that’s a thread that provides a few moments of relative lightness as his team is split between the two investigations.
If you’ve read the author’s earlier books, you’ll particularly remember Lila – and I loved the way her impetuousness and forthrightness contrasts in this story with the calm philosophical approach of Morel. The relationships between the various members of the team were quite fascinating too – their jostling for importance, their feelings about each other, their personal situations.
But it was Serge Morel himself who constantly drew my eye. We see him in his professional role – pulling strings here and there, assiduous in his pursuit of justice, his innate sense of right and wrong, his quiet anger about every failing of the authorities. But we also see the man behind it – his home situation, his father’s worsening mental health and its impact, his internal debates about what the future may hold. There’s his continuing yearning for Mathilde, his married ex-lover, poignant and touching – and his family relationships, his engagements with is father’s carer, even his interactions with his loyal dog Descartes. There’s less origami this time – it’s always been the way he thinks and unwinds – but the snowflakes at the window are enough, and just one of many lovely touches.
The investigation itself made this a compelling read, the vividly drawn backdrop made it a less than comfortable one – but it’s the characterisation that I particularly enjoyed, and that made this a book I loved. In many ways it was very different from my usual reading, in other ways it really wasn’t – but this is a book I’d really urge people to try.
About the author
Anna Jaquiery is of French-Malaysian descent and lives in New Zealand. Wasteland is the third novel in the Serge Morel series, following The Lying-Down Room and Death in the Rainy Season.