Book review: Verse in Arabic by Birgitte Rasine

When I was a child, we had a collection of Edgar Allan Poe‘s works, which had belonged to my father when he was young. I read those stories over and over, fascinated, by their language and structure, and the horrors described or implied. When I heard that Birgitte Rasine‘s style has been compared to his, I was eager to read this novella. I was not disappointed.

Verse in Arabic, which Rasine says is based upon a true incident, takes us back into Spain in the 1960s. It is a story within a story, since the narrator, an American journalist working for a Spanish paper, is assigned to interview a famous doctor, who was imprisoned for the murder 21 years previously of the daughter of an important family. The setting is Franco’s Spain, with all of its darkness and intrigue. The story begins as the journalist is driven through the city to a mysterious house, where he meets the doctor, and hears his version of events.

Her language, and the style of having a story told by one of the participants, reminds me of that old volume. I loved the way Rasine sets up the mystery, from the unmarked house where the narrator meets the doctor, to the dark corridor he walks down to meet the doctor, and even the out-of place mint tea brought by the housekeeper. Rasine’s language is lush and perfect for the time period. Just read a quote like this

Spain had forged her reputation with the blood of her own sons and daughters, and dragged her honor through the mud of political convenience and moral hypocrisy. And as any persona carrying an excess of her own importance, she was bloated with a blind and incompetent bureaucracy— its clerks and administrators made Don Quixote look like a professor of nuclear physics.

Rasine does a beautiful job of using the doctor’s formal manner of speech to bring us into a time when educated people spoke formally.

The story drew me in as it built, layering one strange fact after another. I read this novella twice. The first time, I felt disappointed by the ending, but now I am not so sure that I need to know everything. Just as Poe left so much to one’s imagination, so Rasine leaves me wanting to read it yet again, to search for the little clues dropped here and there about who the murdered girl was, and what happened to her.

Only two tiny details bothered me a little. At the beginning, she used a narrative device: the journalist says he was too absorbed in his thoughts to notice the scenery as the driver takes him to his destination. But, if he’s so absorbed, how can he describe this scene? And later, the journalists comments that he’s very observant. The other tiny detail is that way too many characters have ‘olive skin.’

I could easily read this over and over, it’s so beautiful and interesting. This story should appeal to anyone over the age of six or seven. I can’ t wait to read more of Birgitte Rasine’s fiction.

I received a free copy of this novella from Storycartel in exchange for my honest opinion and review.

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