23rd May 2012
The Scent of Lemon Leaves by Clara Sánchez
Clara Sánchez’s latest novel has already been a bestseller in Italy and Spain, and has now been translated into English by Julie Wark.
In The Scent of Lemon Leaves, Sandra has found herself pregnant, and run away from her family to her sister’s villa in Spain to decide what to do with her life. There, she meets Fred and Karin, an elderly couple who seem fond of her company, and the threesome form an unlikely friendship.
So far, so chick lit, but this is miles away from your average holiday read. As Julian, the central character of the novel, quickly informs Sandra, this sweet old couple are far from innocent, having been key figures in the Nazi concentration camps, responsible for the massacre of thousands.
Julian is a concentration camp survivor, and has been a Nazi hunter ever since he was freed. Now as old as Karin and Fred, he is sometimes bleakly fixated on the inevitability of his own death, but he remains a brave if somewhat frail hero.
As he discovers a larger and larger circle of ex-Nazi Guards who seem to be hiding a big secret, he and Sandra decide they have to do something. They just never seem to work out what.
If you’re thinking this sounds a little far-fetched, you’d be right. This was one of the oddest books I’ve ever read – the translation is stilted and a little clinical in places, and the characters aren’t particularly empathetic as a result.
The plot tends to be quite repetitive – Sandra and Julian meet, Sandra goes to stay with Fred and Karin and feels uncomfortable but pokes around a bit for information, while Julian wanders aimlessly around in his car following various ex-Nazis, seemingly waiting to die without any real idea what he plans to do before then. Then he meets with Sandra again, and the cycle continues.
Yet somehow, this is an interesting story and I couldn’t quite put it down. Despite the monotony, there’s an air of menace throughout, and some intense scenes that lingered in my memory for weeks after finishing the book: in particular, when Julian rescues the Nazi widow Elfe from her attempted suicide.
The ending seems anticlimactic albeit pleasingly realistic, with some of the most impressively poignant moments of the entire book. A worthy read, I can’t help but thinking perhaps something was lost in the translation.
Recommended for: WWII enthusiasts (of course), lovers of atypical fiction, people who enjoy thrillers but don’t mind them on the softer side.
Other recommended reading: I’d recommend getting hold of other Clara Sánchez novels to see what else she can do. Perhaps also, on the complete flipside, What Did You Do In The War, Mummy? by Mavis Nicholson.