This is the second of Christos Tsiolkas's earlier novels to emerge in Britain on the back of the success of The Slap, his multi-award winning bestseller that was recently adapted into a powerful television drama.
Dead Europe has more in common with The Slap than the Australian author's debut, Loaded, published earlier this year, and it shares with The Slap a rather bleak view of humanity. Indeed, it picks even more at the scabby wounds of human behaviour, and anyone who thought The Slap was too downbeat should probably not pick this up.
Which would be their loss, because despite the pervading darkness, Dead Europe is a compelling read. The book switches between two narratives. In the first, 36-year-old Australian photographer Isaac visits Europe: first Athens, for a small exhibition of his work; then rural Greece to trace his family; then a general tour taking in Prague, Paris and eventually London. Isaac has a loving partner, Colin, waiting for him in Australia, but that doesn't stop him getting involved in ever more seedy and depraved activities, as he descends into the underbelly of a continent seemingly drenched in bodily fluids, violence and evil.
All of which dovetails elegantly with the second narrative, a historical tale stretching onwards from the Second World War; essentially a history of Isaac's mother's family, set in the remote Greek mountains at a time of shocking poverty, paranoia and superstition. The mindsets and traditions of the Greek villagers are rooted in centuries-old anti-Semitism and blood feuds, which interact with wartime deprivation to make for a desolate environment.
At times, Dead Europe is harrowing. Any book which early on features a father beating his beautiful daughter senseless then telling her "I am a saint for not raping you" is unlikely to be one of Richard and Judy's Summer Reads, let's be honest. But it's an intelligent and thought-provoking read. Whereas The Slap was mostly about the war between the classes in Australia, and by extension the world, Dead Europe is about race and religion and our inability to escape the weight of centuries of hatred bearing down upon us.
This is not only explicitly discussed in conversations that Isaac has with various people he encounters, but very subtly emphasised by the overlap between the two narratives. As the story progresses, we are left in no doubt that Isaac still carries the curse of his family, that he cannot escape a kind of supernatural malice, no matter how much he likes to think of himself as separate from that; as part of the modern world.
There is one tiny niggling flaw. Despite some evocative description, the early scenes in contemporary Europe are a tad repetitive and episodic, and it's only once Isaac begins his descent that it really takes off. But there is some truly wondrous writing here, and a braveness to the eye Tsiolkas casts on the world that is at times breathtaking.