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Book review- A masterful exploration of guilt: The Living and the Dead in Winsford by Hakan Nesser
Revenge is a dish best served cold, goes a well known proverb. Swedish writer Hakan Nesser's The Living and the Dead in Winsford (2015) is a tale of revenge and a masterful exploration of guilt set in the haunting ambience of the English moors Dark, forbidding and mysterious, the moors have long provided writers with a perfect setting to explore tales of betrayal and revenge, murder and mayhem.
Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles are but two of the finest literary works that exploit the moor's eerie atmosphere that seems tailor-made for tragedy and crime. The treacherous bogs, brooding ruins, desolate landscapes and harsh, inhospitable weather mirror the bleak mindscapes of the characters and evoke a sense of gloom, mystery and foreboding which hovers over the narrative and casts a spell on the reader.

Nesser's novel is about a crime but it goes beyond the conventional thriller format and chooses to dwell on the moral and existential crisis of the main protagonist and narrator, Maria Holinek. In that sense, one can also call it a tragedy.

The novel begins with Maria, a television presenter, mother of two and wife of Martin Holinek, Swedish academician and 'literary colossus', taking a decision to outlive her dog, Castor. Maria, who was driving to Morocco with her husband, finds herself in the village of Exmoor in Winsford, England, carrying a burdensome secret with her. A thoughtless act has shaken the very foundations of her life and when she reaches Exnoor, Maria has few illusions about where life will take her.

She is more concerned for her dog and all she desires is to outlive him so that he will not be orphaned. Maria has managed to survive by keeping her emotions in check and passively submitting to the will of others, chiefly her husband Martin. But when Martin is accused of raping a young waitress, she is forced to take stock of her life and the way she has lived it. Among the many questions that the novel poses is how much of one's life is determined by fate and free will.

Nesser's works are often suffused with philosophical musings on life and death, the nature of truth, reality and illusion, free will and fate. The great existential themes of the futility of existence, the constant presence of death in the midst of life and the overwhelming loneliness of the human condition run like a constant refrain in his writings.

Maria Holinek is one of the most complex and fascinating female characters in crime fiction. The novel is written in the first person. Initially, her voice is guarded and reveals very little of what has transpired and why she is in this desolate town so far away from everyone she knows, and most importantly without her husband. But as the novel progresses and her mind begins to unravel, we realize what she is seeking to escape from.

Actions have consequences and they tend to catch up with us sooner or later. As the narrative loops back and forth in time, we sense that she is closing in around her secret which cries out to be exposed. As Freudian psychology has it, what is suppressed perforce has to come out.

In a world that refuses to acknowledge one's existence, sometimes murder becomes a way of saying, 'I exist.' Maria's sense of self is very tenuous and she feels that she doesn't exist for others. Martin's act of raping the waitress makes her realize how inconsequential she is to her husband and though she tries to repress her rage and disgust, it does find its way out when an opportunity presents itself.

The theme of infidelity is mirrored in the story of Tom Herold and Besssie Hyatt which takes place in the 70s, when Martin was part of a writers' commune. When Maria uncovers the mystery behind the earlier incident, it brings with it another opportunity - to discover her own voice as a writer.

Martin had been commissioned to write an explosive book about certain incidents that happened long ago, concerning the writer couple (who recall the star-crossed writer couple in real life, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath), that culminated in the suicide of the talented Hyatt.

Meanwhile, new complications arise. A fresh chance at love, a mysterious stalker, the increasingly fragile and beleaguered state of her mind and spooky happenings around her threaten to push her to the edge. The disappearance of Castor whose presence plays an important role in keeping her sane seems like an ominous portent of things to come.

This is one of the most powerful and poignant incidents in the book where Maria braves the cold, darkness and the mist to find her missing dog, almost getting lost on the treacherous moors herself. But Castor is found after two days and Maria rallies, making new plans and strategies to reclaim her life because she feels that life does go on whatever happens.

The novel reveals how, despite the feminist movement, the institution of marriage continues to be a site of patriarchal oppression. Sometimes, more than the physical abuse, it is the subtler forms of emotional abuse that leave the deepest scars. Like water dripping on rock, they wear away a woman's soul until nothing remains of the self.

The narrative style recalls Karin Fossum, the Norwegian writer, known for her psychological explorations of the human psyche and the language is very literary and tinged with philosophical overtones that lift it several notches above the usual crime novel.

Sample this: 'I listen to the wind in the treetops, and it occurs to me that as long as we live we shall never be able to ignore the passage of time, nor the Christmas decorations in Dunster, nor what we are guilty of having done. That is why we need the door of death through which we can take our leave.'

Such felicity of expression is rare in a crime novel but then again, can this novel be classified as one? There is no doubt that it aspires to be more in its tragic delineation of a soul wracked by guilt and seeking to find some meaning to life despite the overwhelming futility of it all.

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