The motives of a serial murderer operating during WWII come to light years later when a man uncovers his grandmother’s diary.
In the late ’90s, a man puts to rest his maternal grandmother after her long battle with Alzheimer’s. He never knew her when she wasn’t in the grips of mania, but he was drawn to her by their shared left-handedness. She left him only a smattering of news clippings and a personal diary, wherein she reveals herself to have “punished” seven individuals, killing them—often in overly contrived ways—for their crimes against women. Delving deeply into his grandmother’s dark memoir, the man discovers the story of a forgotten murderer called the “Leftist Killer,” who was active in Kitchener, Ontario, near the end of World War II. It was theorized that the murders were politically and racially motivated, but the true impetus behind his grandmother’s vigilantism is more complex and far-reaching: Apparently, she was urged on by reports of rapes in Nanjing, the German invasion of Russia and the first inklings of the depravity experienced during the Holocaust—seemingly all the violence women faced in patriarchal wars. Both sympathetic and appalled, the man must determine what responsibilities come with these revelations, and if it’s his place to let his grandmother’s true motivations be known. Though only a novella, Arbelaitz’s debut is similar in tone to early European literary thrillers—i.e., the compelling voyeurism of the grandmother’s diary recalls Stoker’s Dracula—or the works of Edgar Allen Poe. The short book pays proper tribute to these influences, stuffing much murder and mystery into a visceral, first-person narrative with a humanistic bent. Little period flourishes help to set the events of the diary firmly in 1940s Canada, with the narrative’s attention to detail as keen as the vigilante’s. The sections focused on the present-day narrator aren’t as sound, though, and the story struggles to connect his emotions with his grandmother’s proselytizing, often making it sound like he’s merely parroting her. Furthermore, the nuance of his grandmother’s worldview, including her railings against a “male war machine,” obviously doesn’t jive with her own violent methods, and there are some thorny narrative issues, both period-specific and not, that aren’t fully explored. Despite these shortcomings, however, Arbelaitz’s tale finds a unique way of tackling the connections between gender and the horrors of war, while still telling an entertaining, if fragmented, story.
Starts strong, but meanders to a vague finish.