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The Fig Eater    by Jody Shields order for
Fig Eater
by Jody Shields
Order:  USA  Can
Back Bay, 2001 (2000)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The Fig Eater is set in pre-World War I gaslit Vienna. Dora (based on Freud's famous patient) is a young woman from a respectable family found strangled in the Volksgarten near a seated statue of the assassinated Kaiserin Elizabeth ... 'The body is poised like a still life waiting for a painter.' The Inspector (who remains nameless), his assistant Franz and photographer Egon are at the scene and continue to pursue an investigation through the novel. Their story is a police procedural, made fascinating by the details of early forensic science and quotes from a 1904 police manual, System der Kriminalistik.

Interweaved with their police investigation is a parallel one undertaken by the Inspector's Hungarian artist wife Erszébet. To the modern reader Erszébet seems to be an eccentric, obsessive and very superstitious character, whom the Inspector clearly loves but also seems to fear. Erszébet's helper in this is the English governess Wally, who is dominated by her. Wally does the legwork and takes the risks, while her friend pulls her strings. Erszébet also plays mind games with her husband, perhaps a way of exercising power in a society in which women have demonstrably little.

The Inspector's team and Erszébet's track down a series of clues in parallel, only sharing information inadvertently. There is the partially digested fig found in Dora's stomach, the excrement left near her corpse, an exhumed thumb, photos of an injured woman and a burned diary. Strange sexual liaisons are uncovered between Dora's family and the Zellenka's, and there are macabre hints of revenants and wolfmen, part of the belief system of the time. The story shows how much the observers are affected by what they find and see. If it's a race, the finish seems to be a tie, though only one group gets to mete out justice.

Descriptive details give a true feel for the city and the depth of its history. Erszébet and Wally meet regularly over luscious desserts and there is incredible imagery, as in the Inspector's sighting of the woman sponge seller. 'The thick sponges are threaded on strings wound around her body, so she's completely covered with the weightless, shaggy brown shapes, like an ancient statue pulled from water, overgrown with sealife.' Disease abounds - cholera, syphilis and tuberculosis - and people die from it. The telephone is a recent invention and a rare marvel. Gypsies are convenient scapegoats.

This is an intelligent mystery, with a dreamlike feel and an atmosphere that is somewhat reminiscent of David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars, though more bizarre. Why is Erszébet obsessed with the Inspector's case? Perhaps it's a power game. In some sense she seems to be carrying out an imaginative, intuitive search that complements the Inspector's rational approach, acting as his other (Freudian) half. It's not for everyone, but if you enjoy the historical context and a book that will really make you think, try The Fig Eater.

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