The flood of European crime novels in English translation — a legacy of the Stieg Larsson phenomenon — continues unabated with Zoran Drvenkar’s imposing new thriller, “You.” Drvenkar was born in Croatia, has lived most of his life in Germany, and has published many novels, both for children and adults, in his adopted country. “You” is his second adult novel to appear in English. It should go a long way toward securing him an international reputation.
The title reflects the uncommon technique — a second-person narrative voice involving multiple points of view — that the author adopts for this story. (“Above you hangs the night, below you lies the darkness, and you’re floating between the two. . . .”) Tom Robbins (“Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas”) and Jay McInerney (“Bright Lights, Big City”) have employed this technique successfully, as has Drvenkar in his 2011 novel, “Sorry.” It can be a tricky narrative strategy, but Drvenkar brings it off in high and energetic style. The various embodiments of “you” who populate this novel are all painstakingly characterized. Their shifting, sometimes contradictory perspectives lend color and substance to this sprawling mosaic of a book.
A close-knit group of 16-year-old girls sets the novel’s central drama in motion. The girls — Stink, Schnappi, Nessi, Taja and Ruth — are rebellious, sexually active, troubled in a variety of ways and fiercely loyal to one another. When one of their number — Taja — drops out of sight, the other four close ranks and set out in search of her. They find her at home in the wasted aftermath of a week-long heroin binge, her only company the corpse of her newly dead father, Oskar. According to Taja, Oskar died of apparent natural causes at the height of a father-daughter argument. Afterward, she located his heroin stash and sampled it for consolation. While attending to Taja, now suffering from intense withdrawal symptoms, the girls discover a larger stash containing heroin, hashish and prescription pills. When Stink, the boldest of the group, decides to sell the drugs for a quick and easy profit, the narrative takes a new and lethal turn.
As the girls soon discover, the drugs are the temporary property of Oskar’s brother Ragnar, a self-styled logistics expert who makes his living by storing illegal items — drugs, guns, etc. – for anyone willing to meet his price. Up to now, Ragnar has never lost a single item entrusted to his care. Determined to recover the drugs and avenge himself on the thieves — his niece included — he sets out in pursuit of the fleeing teens, accompanied by a cadre of close associates and his dim, muscle-bound son.
Rounding out the major players is an enigmatic figure known as The Traveler, whose story periodically disrupts the main narrative. A mass murderer of near mythic proportions, for decades he has been erupting suddenly in violence, terrifying the German populace. His current travels will place him on a collision course with Ragnar and the girls.
The narrative moves from Berlin to Hamburg to a decrepit beach hotel on the Norwegian coast, where all of the novel’s central figures converge, and where a very dark form of justice will be meted out. Along the way, the girls acquire — and ultimately lose — some unexpected allies and suffer devastating losses of their own. Uncle Ragnar, too, endures severe personal losses, as what should have been a simple mission proves unexpectedly hazardous. In the world of this novel, nothing is easy or predictable. And there is no such thing as a genuinely safe place.
“You” is at once a road novel, a thriller that actually thrills, and a stylish experiment in point of view. It is also a novel of character, and it’s this aspect that lifts the book above the level of most contemporary crime fiction. As the narrative proceeds, we learn more and more about the inner lives and buried histories of more than a dozen characters, major and minor. As the slowly unfolding back stories proliferate, secrets come to light, lies are revealed, and we encounter some of the darker corners of human sexuality.
Thanks in large part to Shaun Whiteside’s fluent translation, “You” is one of the summer’s real pleasures, and its author is quite a find. Drvenkar has been writing professionally since 1989, and there are many more novels, still untranslated, where this one came from. If any or all are as good as “You,” we need to see them. Sooner would be better than later.
Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”
By Zoran Drvenkar
Translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside
Knopf. 492 pp. $27.95