Exploring the Darker Shades of Humanity | Review of “The Crooked Maid” by Dan Vyleta (2013) HarperCollins


The thing that drives many of us to read literature is the fact is that we know humans are not just good or bad. There are complex levels in each of us depending on the situation we encounter and our station in life, etc. etc. Literature deals with the human condition and when a good writer explores the different hues of characters and leaves a reader wondering which of their characters is really moral or immoral, well, that makes for a fantastic read. And that is what Dan Vyleta has done in The Crooked Maid.

Page 6-7 There was little about him that was remarkable: a young man dressed in black, with a stiff white shirt and dark, patterned tie, holding a book closed upon his lap. He was perhaps eighteen years of age; too slender yet to be thought of as a man; rich (how else would he be able to afford the first-class ticket?); a boy very plae, with a mask of freckles sitting lightly on his face; the hair nearly black, thick and falling low into his forehead; the brows long and straight, sloping gently to the temples. There was something wrong with his eye, the one that faced the window and found its own reflection in the darkness of the pane. It looked as though it had been beaten, broken, reassembled. Its white was discoloured and it drooped within its socket, giving a new note to his face, of belligerent reproach. His shoes were made of a shiny black leather and looked as though they had never been worn.

Vyleta has skillfully woven a web around a group of characters set in post World War II Vienna.  Anna Beer has returned to the city after nine years to confront and perhaps forgive her husband’s infidelity. Eighteen-year-old Robert Seidel is coming back home to his stepfather’s sickbed and must deal with his family’s complex history.  They both encounter a war-widowed American journalist, a hunchbacked servant girl, and a former POW trying to survive. But most of all, there is a ghost of man who’s head is wrapped in a red scarf and watches them all. As Vienna rises from the bitter ashes of the war and tries to deal with de-Nazification, each one must come to terms with their lives and the lives of the people around them.

Page 85-86 Anna Beer did not notice the girl who was sitting on the stairs above her apartment when she returned home that evening, having walked for some hours in the inner city before dining in the restaurant of one of the hotels. She was a young girl, unremarkable if rather pretty, save for a craped and painful twist that held in lock the shoulders, neck and spine. One her head there perched a red, outlandish hat that did no favours to her complexion Had Anna been less tired from her long walk in the city, and less preoccupied with the sense of anticipation that rose in her every time she approached the apartment door (for was it not possible that this time, at long last, she should find her husband home and they would finally go through with their long-deferred greeting and be free to explore what remained of their marriage?), she might have noticed that the girl kept her face averted as she stepped into her line of sight, then stared after her with ill-masked curiosity. Indeed there was something impatient, unsettled about the girl. She had been sitting on the stairs for more than an hour, rising periodically to stare out the window at the sagging ruin of the building’s back wing and starting at every step that sounded in the stairwell, and at every voice that carried from below. Periodically she had lit a cigarette and calmed herself by blowing rings into the air above her head before crushing the fag end into the stone of the stairs. there were three such shreds of paper and tobacco dotting the space between her feet.

Vyleta is an expert in describing a scene or telling of an action. His writing in this book was a pleasure to read and re-read.

Page 147

While Robert lay, tracing metacarpal bones beneath the white of Eva’s skin, too shy even to press them to his lips, elsewhere in the city a man and a woman, long married and as such familiar with each other’s hands and mouths (and much else besides), sat up in bed discussing a letter, hand-delivered that afternoon, which pertained to their youngest son. Encrypted as it was in a densely bureaucratic German, and as such illegible to both husband and wife, the letter’s only assailable point came in the form of an underlined heading that read Ladung, a word that, depending on contest, might be translated as “ammunition,” “load,” or ‘”summons,” and seemed to absorb the more sinister aspects of each meaning with successive reading.

A crow watched their argument (for an argument it quickly became, split along lines of gender, in which the woman’s role is to protect her child, and the man’s to toughen him up) with considerable interest, the jerked, pecked at its feathers, converting parasites to food. a moment later it dropped from the windowsill, fell groundward then skyward, with an ease that might have startled Newton. High up it fell in with some brethren. They flew into the failing moon.

While The Crooked Maid by Dan Vyleta is a complex book, it explores the human condition in all its hues. Vyleta has written a complex story that weaves characters in and out of each others lives but it is a story well worth the time to read and understand.

Link to Dan Vyleta’s website

Link to HarperCollins Canada page for “The Crooked Maid”

2 thoughts on “Exploring the Darker Shades of Humanity | Review of “The Crooked Maid” by Dan Vyleta (2013) HarperCollins

  1. I learned of his fiction with The Quiet Man’s nomination for the Writer’s Trust a couple of years ago, so I was excited to see this one appear on last year’s Giller list. Just terrific style and terrific storytelling too: winning combo. I’ve yet to read Pavel & I but just found a copy, so have that to look forward to now.


    1. I keep hearing great things about Pavel & I but I have yet to find a copy. I have to make a better effort to find one. The Quiet Twin was amazing too.


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