The Mattress House By Paulus Hochgatterer

 

Should psychological thrillers play by the rules? Surely the best entries in the field stay within certain parameters?

 There must be strongly developed central characters, with whom we identify, who take a journey into the darkest reaches of the human psyche. Yet Paulus Hochgatterer, who has a parallel career as a child therapist, seems to have carved out a literary career by breaking (or at least bending) these rules. He has proved that it can be profitable to throw received wisdom out of the window.

His previous novel, The Sweetness of Life, was the Austrian recipient of a European prize for literature, and marked out Hochgatterer as a writer prepared to employ unorthodox effects. With a cast of troubled individuals in a village in Austria, the author detonated a series of literary incendiary devices following the discovery by a traumatised girl of the mutilated body of her grandfather. Detective Superintendent Ludwig Kovacs joined sensitive psychiatrist Raphael Horn to open a particularly nasty can of worms. The book encountered criticism for its dyspeptic vision of Austrian village life, but events in the real world have proved that (if anything) Hochgatterer had underplayed the horrors beneath the placid bourgeois surface.

That novel employed a variety of perspectives and narrators, as does The Mattress House (translated by Jamie Bulloch). Here, the divorced Kovacs is saddled with the well-worn accoutrements of the literary copper (including the de rigueur difficulties of relating to a daughter). He contrasts satisfyingly with the psychiatrist Horn, who has his own familial problems. The Alpine retreat of Furth Am See sports a collection of damaged individuals. A young man dies after a fall from scaffolding. Then a rash of children all bearing signs of abuse comes to the attention of the police. Yet Kovacs can't break through the children's wall of silence.

There is a not-so-hidden agenda here: a provocative engagement with the rights and wrongs of the physical punishment of children. But Hochgatterer never forgets that his most urgent imperative is to deliver another forceful novel moving to a gruesome conclusion. His unsettling books read like those of no other contemporary author.

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