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‘The Crooked Maid’ by Dan Vyleta, Bloomsbury Circus, 427 pages, `499.
‘The Crooked Maid’ by Dan Vyleta, Bloomsbury Circus, 427 pages, `499.

Book Review | The Crooked Maid

Set in Vienna after World War II, the novel follows the lives of characters across socio-economic segments as they try to rebuild their lives

Broken images

There’s a vivid description of a prosthetic eye in author Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid. Crafted during World War II for a prisoner of war, it takes on a life of its own—first in the hands of its creator, a glass blower who takes pride in its detail; then as it inspires envy among others in the prison camp; then as a source of wonder in a murder investigation, where it becomes “the only human thing" in the face of a mutilated corpse; and finally as it arouses suspicions of treachery by the Russian officer who commissions it.

“It was very intricately worked," writes Vyleta. “The iris structured into layers, clear amber grains embedded in three shades of blue, each a snowflake pattern radiating from the pupil’s central well. In the bright light of the morgue, the eye’s milky glass had turned transparent, become infused with something like an inner glow. A root system of capillaries spread from the depths of it: tender, light-pink tendrils fanning out towards the surface and the light. The lid that clung to its outer edges gave it a frame of amber lashes, each gently curving outwards, away from the glass. It was a lovely human eye, alive with an intelligence intrinsic to its design."

This layering, and attention to detail, is evident throughout The Crooked Maid. And though the book is action-packed—there’s a murder trial, a Nazi sympathizer losing her mind, a long-drawn-out police search for a missing doctor, an orphaned, teenage girl who has learnt through the war to live by her wits, as well as a love story—Vyleta’s pace is unhurried.

One can see this again in the trial of Wolfgang Seidel—a member of the secret police service at the height of Adolf Hitler’s popularity—who is accused of patricide. There is drama, almost a kind of frenzy, as the crowd in the well-attended courtroom sways between favouring and disliking this good-looking but brash young man who seems to believe he’s doomed. That Wolfgang has come somewhat unhinged after a lifetime of Nazi indoctrination which he must now denounce becomes clear by and by. In the courtroom, the ladies swoon over how handsome he is. The district attorney drags in his past in the services, ostensibly to establish his preferred mode of torture by threatening to throw his victims out of windows and his callous brutality—to read Vyleta’s descriptions is to almost see them.

Vyleta’s strength in this book lies in building up, scene by scene, a montage that you can almost see. He recreates a post-war Vienna torn apart, bombed-in in places, and with its people picking up the pieces of their lives slowly, painfully. It’s a place where the children cannot even go out to play without uncovering a corpse or hearing a murderer confess to them. It was a bizarre time, and The Crooked Maid captures this bizarreness through a mound of detail that somehow never feels superfluous.

The Crooked Maid: By Dan Vyleta, Bloomsbury Circus, 427 pages, 499.

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