Next up on my Orenda Books feature week is another brand new review, this time for a book which dares to explore the inherent prejudices within society, and addresses a long buried miscarriage of justice which is very personal to its protagonist, Anna Fekete.
When Anna Fekete returns to the town where she was born to spend the summer with her family she has plans for nothing more than a bit of relaxation; some gentle exercise, to bit of swimming in the local river and to catch up with old friends. When her handbag is stolen while on a night out, her passport and credit card taken along with it, Anna’s dreams of a peaceful holiday are shattered. The police soon recover her bag but with one small and one rather large issue. Her passport and credit card are long gone but, more disturbingly, the man suspected of the theft is dead, his body found along the riverbank.
As the suspect, the dead man, is a local Romani and the bag has been recovered, the police don’t seem all that interested in investigating any further. They encourage Anna to let it go, to just go to the embassy in Belgrade to get a replacement passport, enjoy her holiday and move on. They tell her that the case is closed, that the man drowned accidentally and there is nothing more to be done. But that isn’t good enough for Anna. She wants more proof. Nothing seems to add up and the man, at the very least, had an accomplice; a young girl who has yet to be found.
Angry at how easily the police dismiss the case, Anna decides to investigate herself, much to her mother’s disgust. She wants Anna to walk away too, to let sleeping dogs lie and to not put herself in harms way. She has lost too much already. Not swayed by the police or her own mother’s pleas, Anna enlists the help of her friend, Réka and a young Hungarian police office, Peter, to help her trace the identity of the young man and find the missing girl.
As she looks deeper into the case, finds out more about the young dead Romani, she begins to understand the deep rooted prejudice towards Romani community and the refugees who live around the town of Kanizsa. And the case may not be as random as Anna first thought. Somebody seems to be determined to stop her investigating further, afraid that she will uncover a long buried miscarriage of justice with disturbing links to the past.
Let me just start out by saying that ‘The Exiled’ is absolutely brilliant. Set over just a fortnight of Anna’s holiday, the story is a gripping, multi-layered look into a world of deception and cover ups, in which prejudice is worn as a very thin disguise and people are declared guilty of crimes by simple virtue of the community into which they are born.
The theme of separation, of division, is rife throughout the book, from the language barrier between the Hungarian and Serbian speaking residents of Kanizsa, the distant relationship that Anna now has with her family, especially her mother, to the contempt that local residents hold for the Romani community and the growing refugee encampment on the edge of the town. In that respect it is very topical, and Hiekkapelto touches upon socio-economic and political issues which are rife across Europe, not just in Serbia but in all communities and countries affected by uncontrolled immigration and the growing refugee crisis, for example the growing support for far-right politics and nationalism.
The situation is very sympathetically written, the understanding of the refugee crisis, the exploitation and suffering they endure clearly well researched and clearly resonates with the author as it will with the reader. The prejudice on the page is not over played, it is not gratuitous in violence or abuse towards anyone, but it is abundant and it is expressed very clearly without appearing in a judgemental or preaching manner. This is achieved through the subtle, and not so subtle comments and barbs at another’s expense. The prejudgement that all of the Romani are the same; lazy, ignorant. Thieves.
While Anna does not share this view, she is but one visitor in a growing community of haters and the lack of tolerance in the town is not what she is used to. She is not without her scepticism of some of the Romani ways, but she is at the very least accepting of them. She is after all, now merely a visitor in her own country. Not quite an outsider but not truly belonging either. She understands or, should I say follows, few of the local customs anymore, being so more in tune with Finland. She is bewildered by her friends attitudes but constantly chastising herself for comparing one country, one community, one situation against another, the exact thing she criticises them for.
There are so many layers to this book that I can only describe it as being a bit like an onion (and bear with me here). The outer layer, the main premise of the story, is that of the theft of Anna’s bag and the subsequent death of the thief. But as you peel back the layers, one by one, each new layer reveals another element of deception and corruption which builds not only the tension, but the feeling of one almighty cover up. But as to how far this corruption, this blight, infects our story , it is so hard to tell. You need to cut right to the heart of it to find out.
And a bit like chopping an onion, there were times when I felt that I wanted to cry. When exploring the relationship between the young girl Dzsenifer and her brother, of how he protected her and how she missed him, it was so touching. So were the times Anna and her mother thought and spoke of the family that they had both lost. And, as throughout Anna’s investigation the startling truth of the story becomes clear, you cannot help but feel for those impacted by the lies from so many years ago.
The plot is gripping, Anna’s fierce determination to find the truth utterly compelling. Faced with the threat of the Mafia, an anonymous antagonist and so many people lying to her, she will not be deterred. She is focused only on the truth, no matter the personal consequences and I love the grittiness of her character. She has prioritised career over family, and yet her friends and her family, especially her brother, are all important to her. She is human, she is fierce, even stubborn, but she is also engaging and very likeable.
This is the third book in the Anna Fekete series, my first I’m ashamed to admit, and I can clearly see Anna has a bit of history which I am now desperate to go back and learn about. I have books 1 and 2 waiting on my kindle and as soon as I can I shall be joining Anna in her adopted home country of Finland. That said, I didn’t feel at a disadvantage to be entering the series late on. This can easily be read as a standalone. The sense of place I got from reading the way in Kati Hiekkapelto described Serbia, the language and imagery so clear, I almost felt I was there myself. I can only imagine how this will translate into setting in the first two books. And speaking of translation, a flawless job by David Hackston. The fluidity of the text is absolutely perfect.
A thrilling, corruption busting, prejudice-challenging 5 stars.
My thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books for my copy of ‘The Exiled’. It is available to purchase at the following links:
About the Author
Kati Hiekkapelto is a bestselling author, punk singer, performance artist and special-needs teacher. She lives on an old farm on the island of Hailuoto in Northern Finland with her children and sizeable menagerie. Hiekkapelto has taught immigrants and lived in the Hungarian region of Serbia, which inspired her to write her highly regarded debut crime novel, The Hummingbird. The sequel, The Defenceless, was published in 2015 by Orenda Books.