The Woman From Bratislava

The Woman from Bratislava is a novel by Danish writer Leif Davidsen.  It was originally published in Denmark in 2001 under the title The Good Sister.  The English translation was published in 2009.  The book was highly recommended in a number of blogs I read, so I decided to add it to my list of books to read and have now finally got round to reading it.  And a very good novel it is too.  Davidsen is referred to as a crime writer and the blogs that recommended it are blogs about crime novels.  However The Woman from Bratislava is much more than a crime novel.  I am not sure I would even classify it as one.

As the Danish title suggests this is a novel about family relationships, in this case the Pedersen family and a most complex set of relationships is revealed.  The novel starts in 1999 on the eve of the NATO led bombing campaign against Serbia, allegedly to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Kossovo.  Teddy Pedersen, a successful lecturer on the former Soviet Union is on a tour of Eastern Europe.  In Bratislava he does meet a woman, who claims to be his long lost half sister.  This revelation shocks Teddy, who was unaware of any half sister and thought his father had died in the early 1950s.  Teddy doesn’t at first believe this news, but as  a series of unexpected events occur – the murder of one of his travelling colleagues, followed by the arrest of Irma, his sister back in Denmark as a Soviet spy – Teddy is forced to re-examine his family’s past.

This leads both Teddy and us into a dark and murky web of deceit.  The story goes  back to the Second World War and those Danes who volunteered to fight for the Nazis against the Soviet Union and on to the Cold War world of spies and double agents.  With the fall of the old Communist regimes we come across a murkier and even more dangerous world of the various East European mafias.  Though unwilling at first, Teddy agrees to help Per Toftlund of the Danish Security Intelligence Service find out just who is the mysterious woman from Bratislava.

Though crimes take place and some at least are solved, the main focus of the novel is not on the crimes themselves, but on the people involved in the whole messy business from the 1940s to 1999.  Why did they do what they did and for whom?  This is a fairly long book, just over 400 pages, which allows Davidsen to develop the main characters into real people and time to reflect on the past and its relation to the present and the future.  The Woman from Bratislava explores the messy and ambivalent world we live in.  Very good book and highly recommended.

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