Even though the number of Polish crime novels has increased considerably in the last few years, there have been relatively few stories written by younger female authors. But Joanna Jodełka is one of the most promising women crime writers today. Her first novel Polychromy, published in 2009, made a real splash and was very well received by the critics. The author won the prestigious “High Calibre Award” for this book. So what is the essence of Jodełka’s superb prose? Her writing goes beyond the conventions of the genre by skilfully combining an urban crime novel (the city of Poznań is ever-present in her writing) with elements more commonly found in novels about contemporary society or focusing on human psychology. This combination continues in her second novel The Rattle. The main storyline revolves around the trafficking of newborn babies. A young woman wakes from a deep, uneasy slumber to find the baby she was carrying inside her has… disappeared. She cannot remember giving birth — in fact she cannot remember anything about the preceding couple of days. The officer in charge of the investigation suspects she has abandoned her newborn child, or even killed it. He is assisted in his investigation by a lady psychologist, who is reluctant to get involved as she herself has only just begun to recover from the trauma of losing her own child.
The Rattle does not actually have a central character. The author constructs her narrative like a mosaic telling the stories of a dozen or so characters (some more to the fore, others less so) all at the same time. As well as those already mentioned the characters include a solicitor who is hen-pecked by his mother and wife, a depraved alcoholic gynaecologist and a thug who was previously beaten by his mother and now takes it out on other women.
In this new novel Jodełka fluidly intertwines the theme of baby trafficking with narratives about highly damaging family interactions, dysfunctional human relationships turning daily life into a living hell, and the problems of parenting. The in-depth psychological portraits of the protagonists contribute to the startlingly evocative portrayal of contemporary society in The Rattle.
Saying Jodełka’s book is a superb crime novel does not do it justice. This book is not just for fans of stories that send a shiver up the spine — it’s not just genre fiction. It would be more accurate to say she writes superb prose that has elements of suspense and mystery.
- Robert Ostaszewski
Joanna Jodełka (born 1973) is an art historian by training, but her passion is writing film scripts, song lyrics and crime novels.
Her car was warming up now, but that didn’t change Weronika Król’s feelings about the day ahead. She had no wish to deal with strangled, starved or abandoned newborns, not on a day like today, or any other day.
She didn’t have the strength to cope with such nightmare scenarios as five children stuffed into a freezer among the Brussels sprouts or babies pickled in cabbage barrels. She also knew she would not find that strength again in a hurry and she didn’t intend to force herself.
There were several possible routes to the city centre from her home in Dąbrówki, once a village on the outskirts of Poznań, but now – she noted – a place to which half of Poznań intended to move. It was a deserted Sunday morning, so she could pick and choose among the routes. She drove past the church in Skórzewo, which had once been able to accommodate all the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, but was now packed out by the inhabitants of the terraced houses nearby. She passed two schools, one more modern than the other. She could have passed yet another school further on, in Poznań itself, and then turned at any point to get across to Grunwaldzka Road, which would take her to her destination. However, by mistake or perhaps guided by a macabre instinct she turned into Owcza Road in order to get to Grunwaldzka Road. It was one of those options she ought not to have chosen.
It’s easy to be misled. Patches of woods and fields criss-crossed Owcza Road, so if it were not for the cemetery on the way, the road would have no reminder that its name had changed to Cmentarna – Cemetery Road. In the same fashion the tall pines were unaware their pine cones had long stopped falling to the ground, and instead fell onto the densely packed gravestones of the Juników district.
Weronika Król had not taken this shortcut for a very long time. She had not visited this cemetery at all since the burial of the child she had borne who had lived only a moment. She hadn’t even visited on All Saint’s Day, when everyone in Poland goes to the cemeteries to pay their respects. That day she had shut herself up at home with some wine and twenty comedy shows rented for the occasion. She hadn’t dared to switch on the television because it would have meant partaking of the atmosphere of mourning. She just watched the comedy shows, not laughing very loudly, but not crying either.
But now, driving alongside the cemetery, tears welled up in her eyes. She turned her head away from it, taking care not to crash on the bend. She couldn’t calm herself down until she pulled onto Grunwaldzka Road’s wide dual carriageway.
“Stop it!” she said to herself, feeling hatred towards the woman flooding through her head, along with her own pain. “A woman who killed her own child,” she thought, and the words rang through her head again and again. She would just give an expert opinion about the woman’s sanity or her lack thereof – her sanity at the moment of course, as Weronika would only stay a moment – and after that somebody else could deal with it. She had made up her mind that was what she would do.
She turned off Grunwaldzka Road and arrived at Rycerska Road. She hadn’t been there for over a year, but it seemed the policeman at the front desk remembered her. He gave her the room number. She found it. She knocked and pushed the door open a little, expecting naturally to find an officer or the person who had phoned her. She was mistaken.
There was no-one in the room. No-one apart from something bundled up in a brownish-grey blanket rocking on a chair, which looked like a frantic pendulum bereft of its clock, which had vanished somewhere. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards.
The bundle briefly turned its head towards her. She saw only a pair of huge eyes, terrifyingly huge eyes.
She shut the door.
She closed her eyes, but could not stop herself seeing the rocking eyes, which seemed to lack a face around them, as if rocking alone in the void.
Stunned, she remained in the same position for a moment, propped up against the doorframe.
“Are you Mrs Król?”
“Yes.” She was shaken out of her momentary stupor by a thin, pale man, who came out of nowhere and loomed up in front of her. He was of a similar age to her, and he had bags under his eyes and a stretched jumper. The tussled tuft of hair standing up the wrong way at the back of his head, was evidence that he had probably not got up for work as normal, but that work had dragged him out of bed, without asking his opinion, and stood him in an upright position.
“It was me that rang you. I’ve seen you here a couple of times before, but we haven’t had the pleasure of meeting.” He smiled slightly, stretching out his hand towards her.
“In these circumstances it’s hardly a pleasure,” she snapped, cutting him short.
She knew it was possible another such sentence might make him lose his temper and he would not take her on and then she could go. But she did nothing.
“Please carry on,” she said, demanding clarification of the un-Sunday-like situation.
“A couple of hours ago the people letting the room to her, to Edyta Skomorowska, that is, heard screaming,” explained the policeman in a matter-offact tone, avoiding her gaze. “The screaming was terrifying, apparently. They thought she had gone mad and phoned for an ambulance at once. The ambulance service then contacted us. We can’t communicate with her. We don’t know what happened, we assume it was something bad.”
“Do we know whether she actually gave birth?” On her way there she had been wondering whether it was simply a case of delusions, which would explain the absence of a child.
“She did,” answered the policeman in a tone of voice that indicated it wasn’t the first time he had explained this. “She was taken to Polna Street hospital.
The doctor, a decent sort of fellow, confirmed all of that. He was in a hurry, but he was very civil all the same.” He glanced at her, but she didn’t bat an eyelid, so he continued, “I understand this weather is enough to make a person want to stay indoors, but why should it stop a person going about their business?
We had to remove her from Polna because she reacted very badly to being in hospital: there were babies crying and she wanted to rush over to them…”
“When did she give birth?” she said quickly because she didn’t want to listen to what he had been going to tell her next.
“Apparently two, maybe three, days ago. The doctor said everything was fine, everything’s healing. That’s all.”
“And what does she say?” asked Weronika, although she was certain there was no chance she would be writing a doctoral thesis on infanticidal mothers.
“She keeps repeating the same thing: someone stole her child, she doesn’t remember anything.”
“Is she on any medication?”
“Yes, she’s on powerful tranquilisers. The drugs tests were negative, but we’ll have to wait for the more detailed evaluation. We have several theories. The best-case scenario is she left the child in a hospital, but it can’t have been in Poznań, as we’ve checked that out. A worse scenario is she may have sold the child to someone; we may get evidence of that later. However, it is most likely she killed or abandoned the child. He took hold of the handle, but he didn’t intend to open the door yet.
He carried on. “Perhaps she really doesn’t remember what happened,” he said, “or perhaps she’s pretending. Sooner or later it will all become clear, but we called you out to try and find out now.”
Weronika registered regret, as well as evident doubt, on the part of the policeman as he spoke these last words.
Translated by Kasia Beresford