‘Stars, he thought, stars everywhere – a distraction which is not getting me anywhere’ – The Sweetness of Life & The Mattress House by Paulus Hochgatterer

Both The Sweetness of Life and The Mattress House are set in the fictional Austrian town of Furth am See, although one is arguably more successful than the other.

The Sweetness of Life opens with a grandfather playing ludo with his granddaughter. Someone comes to the house, he goes out and never returns. He is later found by his granddaughter, Katharina, his head smashed into the snow. From that moment, Katharina refuses to speak or to let go of two ludo pieces. Kovacs investigates the crime whilst Horn, a paediatric psychiatrist, treats Katharina.  As he does so, he too is drawn into the investigation. 

Hochgatterer is a child therapist and has obviously drawn on his own experiences in writing this book. This novel definitely has pretensions towards the more literary end of the crime fiction genre and in many ways it is successful.  He’s said in interview that this is a crime novel but also a book about children and cruelty and the way children deal with that.  That may have been his intention, but for this reviewer it wasn’t always successful. Others disagree though, as he won the European Literature Prize 2009. 

Hochgatterer’s depiction of time and place is the strongest element of this novel which examines not just the psychology of perpetrator and investigator, but of the whole town.  The novel is set in the winter and Hochgatterer manages well to recreate the sense of cold echoing the extreme chilliness of the crime itself.  The characters are multilayered and have interests outside their professions, a life in other words.  Hochgatterer has a talent for observation, particularly of the psyche, and that comes through well in the story. 

Where this novel fell down for me though was in the amount of extraneous detail and backstory Hochgatterer gives us.  Of course in a crime fiction novel there should be red herrings that allow the identity of the murderer to remain hidden until the great reveal at the end and in this book your reviewer was genuinely surprised and that in some ways made the novel for me.  But there’s no room to breathe for the reader; it’s just too dense.  This reviewer found it irritating that she was made to watch characters meandering around doing stuff that felt (and was) irrelevant and pointless.  Unfortunately in the end there were just so many incidents, sub-plots and characters that I began to switch off and didn’t pay enough attention to the real clues.  At one point Kovacs says, watching the sky, ‘stars, he thought, stars everywhere – a distraction which is not getting me anywhere’.  I’m afraid your reviewer’s margin comment on that section was that it wasn’t getting us anywhere either.  Amongst all the extra detail which Hochgatterer seems to think is essential to build character, the murder and the mute girl seemed overwhelmed and lost.  In reality this isn’t novel about an investigation, but rather a study of the minds of the people in this town who seem extraordinarily predisposed to mental illness.

The story is told in multiple point of view with each of the characters given a separate chapter in a regular pattern.  To begin with the switches were confusing as there were no real signposts for the reader as to where we were at, but I was prepared to go with this as it seemed in the nature of the aftermath of a crime like this that everyone would be confused.  Once the pattern was established, however, it was possible to relax into the story.  For me it was the voice of a young boy, Bjorn, who was the most authentic because in the main his point of view relates directly to the story.

I found the character Horn, the psychiatrist, hardest to like as he makes amazing assumptions without us seeing any real evidence for them.  This comes in part from Hochgatterer having given himself a character who can’t speak for herself and so he has to put words into her mouth via Horn and this just didn’t work.  Hochgatterer didn’t allow himself the story space to deal with this more interesting aspect because he’s too busy setting up storylines that lead nowhere.  At no time did he really explore the impact on the family of the grandfather having been murdered in such a brutal way.  Instead we were given more information about Horn’s wife and the struggles she had with both her children and her ability to play the cello.  Neither of which advanced or even added to the story.

The Mattress House takes place two years after the events described in The Sweetness of Life.  The story revolves around many of the same people, but they have moved on in that time and developed.  The psychiatrist Horn is having family problems and Kovacs’s relationship with Marlene has grown. Kovacs also has to face the return of his daughter who he hasn’t seen since his divorce and he doesn’t know how to handle her.  There are two problems to solve this time: a man falls to his death from some scaffolding and murder is suspected and then a beaten child is brought to the police swiftly followed by others all claiming to have been attacked by the mysterious black owl.  Again, this isn’t a typical crime novel, but more an exploration of the character of the town and its inhabitants.  The central theme of the story revolves around the physical punishment of children and how society reacts to that.  Both Kovacs and Horn, when faced with the abused children, question their own history as fathers and the punishments they may or may not have dealt their children.

This story follows a similar structural pattern to the first book in that the chapters rotate in a regular pattern through the point of view of four characters:  Kovacs, Horn, an unnamed woman who is friends with the mad priest Bauer from the first book and another unnamed girl (we learn later who she is, but I won’t say any more).  It is a little frustrating that a couple of these main characters are left unnamed (whereas a myriad of details including names and backstory are given for characters we really don’t need to read about) and we are, therefore, a little at sea as to who the characters are and how their viewpoint affects what they’re describing.  The prose alternates between past and present tense which I’m happy to go with if there’s a point to it, but here I was left wondering at the end what that point was.

Another, perhaps smaller point, is that both books are labelled as ‘A Kovacs and Horn Investigation’ which led me to think that the two of them would work together more this time to solve these crimes.  This certainly isn’t the case and they barely even speak to each other.

Your reviewer’s main complaint about the first book was that Hochgatterer failed to tell the story he promised.  In The Mattress House, however, the promised conundrum is in the main the one presented in the story.  On the whole this story felt calmer from the start, as though Hochgatterer was more relaxed and had less to prove.  The result is a much better book and in some ways I wish he’d ditched the first one and just gone with this book as the beginning of the series.  In this story, there’s room for the reader to explore for themselves what they think is going on.  As I’ve said The Sweetness of Life had far too many irrelevant characters whose lives and stories constantly distracted from the main event.  Here he’s almost overcome this.  I say almost because there are still too many underdeveloped characters who don’t play a vital part in the plot, other than to distract the reader, but far less than his earlier work.  The main culprit is Bauer the mad priest who’s had a large section of both books devoted to him, but for me hasn’t yet earned the space.  I presume that Hochgatterer has plans for him in future books, but this reviewer thinks he should have been given a larger role in this story if he’s to be worth reading about. 

I still found Horn a difficult character.  I’m not sure if there are editing mistakes, but Horn constantly seems to be trying to remember something and we never really find out what it is.  He also seems to be strangely passively violent, something which is never fully explored, yet I wanted it to be.  Kovacs has developed and I found myself warming to him and his story.  One of his colleagues, Demski, is abroad for the whole story and yet is quite important.  I found myself unsettled by his absence and felt that he should have returned at some point, especially when there are a lot of other characters doing nothing.

The best part about these books is Hochgatterer’s ability to evoke setting.  Furth is an imaginary Alpine village, but having read both books I feel as though I’ve been there.  He’s changed the season for this second story and the effect is quite dramatically different and that shows a real skill.

Just a little word at the end for Jamie Bulloch, the translater.  He’s done a good job with both books and there wasn’t the clunkiness that can result from not reading in the original language and I managed to forget that I was reading a translation.

Any Cop?:  I feel quite torn about deciding this on this occasion.  In respect of The Sweetness of Life I’d have to say give it a miss.  It won’t make a great deal of difference to your understanding of the second.  As for The Mattress House, yes I enjoyed it, but did I understand it all?  I’m not sure I did in the end, as I just don’t think he successfully brings everything together so we can see why we’ve read some of the storylines, particular the sections dealing with mad priest Bauer and the mysterious unnamed woman.  The themes he presents are interesting and worth considering in detail, but he’s too easily distracted as a writer and focuses too intently on irrelevant details at the expense of the real story.  There’s bound to be more involving Kovacs and Horn and I may give him another chance, but then again I may not.

Julie Fisher


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