Sunday, October 19, 2008

Leonie Swann - Three Bags Full ****

Whenever I read translations, I always wonder what may have been lost or gained as the story was transferred between languages. Leonie Swann is a German author and graduate of the Munich University (with degrees in philosophy, psychology and communications) who released her first novel last year to significant praise from critics and readers alike. Whether I owe my thanks more to Swann or to translator Anthea Bell, I certainly owe it to someone for having delivered one of the sweetest and yet most sharply philosophical books I've read all year.

The story is that of a flock of sheep in Glenkill, Ireland who find their shepherd dead one morning with a spade jutting out of his chest. Each sheep has its own opinion of what happened (or, more often than not, their own outrageous fears or utter indifference to the whole goings-on). I did not know how I felt following a flock of sheep through a mystery when I began, wondering if it would be a novel little device that would wear thin before the story ended. I couldn't have been more wrong. The sheep's adventure to help solve the mystery ends with almost a hundred pages left in the book, and only then did I realize I had been so invested in the sheep that I had forgotten about the whole overlying mystery itself. Because of that, the ending felt almost surreal and removed from the rest of the story, wrapping up loose ends that had been all but lost in the fray. Only after the story came to a final close did everything feel connected, the ending less tacked on. But that's just the thing--the ending wasn't tacked on at all, it was just set up so subtly behind the amazingly rich personalities of the sheep, that you barely considered what was happening outside the flock.

I'm not sure yet how I feel about the ending and how it fell into place, but it goes to show how strongly the sheep are presented. From Miss Maple (a great Agatha Christie reference, I must add) to Othello to Mopple the Whale, each has a distinct personality and take on the world around them. Still, they all remain absolutely sheep, their personalities focused sharply through what I can only describe as a "sheepy" lens. The result is so cute that it made me want to cuddle each and every member of the flock (except for maybe Melmoth, who kind of creeped me out), and yet I still respected each sheep as a wholly complete character, not just as separate parts of a humorously assembled ensemble cast. What's more, with their misunderstandings of human words and concepts, the sheep graze into the turf of philosophy, religion and social commentary. No small feat for a novelist writing solely from such an intellectually limited point of view.

The Guardian wittily called the book, "The best sheep detective novel you'll read all year," but I'd be willing to extend that to "the best detective novel you'll read this year, period." With undoubtable originality, Swann has penned a truly wonderful book, so clever and poignant that should not be soon forgotten.

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