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Usually I'd thank an author or publisher that had supplied me with a review copy of a book at the end of my review but I am so delighted to have read Michelle P. Granas's 'Zaremba: or Love and the Rule of Law' that feel compelled to offer my thanks immediately; had I not been offered a review copy, this little treasure would likely have passed me by.
This quirky novel tells the story of Cordelia, a shy thirty-something who lives in a crumbling Warsaw villa with her elderly parents and her brother Antek. Physically disabled as a result of polio, Cordelia works from home as a translator but also cares full-time for her mother who suffers from dementia. Her father is a highly intelligent academic who has no practical skills to speak of and, during any crisis, tends to quote Shakespeare rather than offer any sensible advice or solution. Antek is a grown man with a tendency to withdraw into his own little world; a keen photographer he spends his days taking photographs of the insects that inhabit the dusty recesses of a house that is filled with books but leaks water through the roof and has chilly draughts coming through the window frames.
Cordelia's life changes in the most surprising way when she meets Dariusz Zaremba, a wealthy businessman who has made his fortune in construction. Zaremba saves Cordelia's father's life when he has a heart attack far from home. Zaremba is, at the time, being hunted by the police due to allegations of corruption; in a split second Cordelia, grateful to the stranger for having saved her father's life, agrees not to reveal his whereabouts. She doesn't necessarily believe his claims of innocence but gradually she starts to accept his story. Such matters are a far cry from Cordelia's sheltered existence and each decision she makes sees her fall deeper and deeper into a world she knows nothing of.
The story starts with a series of quotes describing ways in which the political and security institutions in Poland have been misused and the ease with which this has been possible. These precede a number of chapters and their relevance becomes clearer as the story progresses. I found this a turn off at first because I'm not a fan of political thrillers but this is not really a political thriller even if politics and the way that governments (particularly in post-communist countries) are able to bend the rule of law to suit their motives is a crucial point of the plot.
Cordelia is not a politically minded person but she has firmly fixed values and she struggles to counter what she knows in her heart to be right with what she knows to be legal or even practically necessary. Although she has a poor opinion of herself and how she thinks others see her, she is an immensely capable woman in possession of great inner strength; the story sees her plunged from her lonely life as the family drudge into an alien world where she has to deal with covert surveillance, corrupt journalists and even pursued by the CIA. An overview of the plot may seem far-fetched but Granas does well to keep things credible and in doing so demonstrates how simple situations can be manipulated into something sinister.
At the heart of the novel is a beautifully crafted love story which is made all the more touching for its seemingly mismatched protagonists. Cordelia's transformation is an absolute joy yet tempered by her frequent bouts of conscience and self doubt that make her even more endearing. Michelle Granas's depiction of this intensely passionate relationship is all the more notable because it is conveyed without a reliance on sex. The story is told from Cordelia's point of view which makes for the best story because the reader knows only as much about Dariusz Zaremba as she does and so we have no idea whether he is being truthful or not. Like Cordelia I fell for Zaremba and I was delighted by the way he charms not only Cordelia but almost anyone he needs to endear himself to. Cordelia's pleasure at finding someone who sees a real person and not just a cripple is almost as lovely as seeing the usually monosyllabic Antek finally step out of the shadows after years of what we have to assume is a deep depression.
'Zaremba: or Love and the Rule of Law' is a humorous and memorable novel that makes its very serious point in an enjoyable way. At the heart of it is a serious message and Granas is certainly not afraid to highlight the abuses that threaten democracy; towards the end of the novel this is perhaps hammered home too severely but overall the theme is well balanced against the romantic aspect of the story and the two sit surprisingly well together.
Though I recognised details of contemporary Poland in the novel I did struggle to reconcile the serious political thriller side of this story with the almost fairy tale atmosphere that comes from the isolation of Cordelia and her family. There's an aura of other worldliness about Cordelia and her family and I felt this most of all in the scenes where Cordelia ventures into the world outside the villa.
Michelle P. Granas has come up with a highly entertaining novel that had me hooked within a page or two and continued to surprise me until the very end. I can't wait to see what this very original writer comes up with next.
Many thanks to author Michelle P. Granas for providing a review copy.
This review first appeared at www.curiousbookfans.co.uk