Juli Zeh is considered one of the brightest of contemporary young writers in the German language. Following on from the dark, cocaine-fuelled Eagles and Angels , another of her works is now available in an excellent translation. On the surface Dark Matter resembles the earlier novel. Here, too, there is a grisly murder and the language is as sharp, the humour as wry – but the narrative, set in Freiburg by the Black Forest, plays out in a milieu a world away from that of cut-throat dealers.
The obsessions of these characters are for the mysteries of physics: Sebastian, husband and doting father, is a professor as excited by his subject as in those student days in the company of compelling Oskar. His friend dressed in a morning-coat and yearned for the days of the Enlightenment, abhorring the half-truths of popular science. A falling-out has driven the men apart. Sebastian opts for the role of family man and academic, while Oskar heads an influential research institute in Geneva. But they still meet on the first Friday of every month, and debate deep into the night. Sebastian's wife, Maike, and little Liam glean pleasure from these tempestuous visits.
When Liam is kidnapped, and Sebastian told he must kill a man to get him back, his life careers out of kilter. Friendly professor or killer, schoolboy larks or deadly intent, professional jealousy or the jealousy of a lover?
When Detective Schilf steps into the mire, the book shifts in gear: what has been clever and mocking becomes a character study with emotional clout. The heart of this novel lies with the detective on death row – a brain tumour leaves him weeks or hours – and one final case. The unconventional sleuth will use unorthodox methods to solve it, in an attempt to absolve the man who has committed the crime.
Schilf is the novel's winning ingredient. He lost everything dear to him by his own hand in his earlier police life, "the fracture", and is damaged. He is not a handsome man. Great bags beneath his eyes and wrinkles give him something of an "elephant face", and "it's not easy to be charming" with that sort of mug. No stranger to loneliness, he has seen his last months lightened by a younger lover and a passion for chess. With these as his crutches, he sets out determined to do justice to his final case, with morality rather than red tape as his compass.
In a bold gambit, the author reveals from the outset who has killed whom, and why. The surprise lies in the roles of coincidence – which, according to physicists, does not exist – and misapprehension.
Zeh also plays with the reader by setting out, in the style of old serialised novels, what will transpire in each chapter, and teases that this is not the definitive version of events: "It went, we think, something like this" – the "we" being the birds of the mountains, forest and town. The leitmotiv of birds as observers – titmice, macaws, snowy barn owls, crows – convinces, while descriptions of nature bring some passages of poetic beauty.
An additional engaging strand is the reflection on the nature of time, elegantly debated by the two physicists and the detective. Greeted euphorically by critics abroad, this novel ought to find favour in its graceful English guise, too, as a clever and truly entertaining read.
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