The Bottom Line: An astonishing debut novel that establishes Ronald Niezen as one of the most exciting new voices in historical fiction.
Peter Dekker, fresh off a fellowship at Cambridge, takes a job as an investigator for the International Criminal Court in The Hague. A trained anthropologist with Dutch-Canadian ancestry, Peter learns that he’ll be assigned to the civil war in Mali. It’s a truly dangerous job that comes with a lot of pressure. “We want an indictment,” he’s told, “and beyond that a conviction.”
But a visit with Peter’s long-lost Aung Julia, who happens to live in The Hague, leads him down an unexpected path. During a series of visits between Peter, Julia and his girlfriend Nora, Peter discovers that he knows little about his family history. Eager to know more about his family’s experience during the Nazi occupation in World War II, Peter goes with his aunt to visit a former Nazi prison. In a wing reserved for those awaiting execution, Peter discovers his own family name scratched into the plaster wall. The finding sparks an obsession with discovering the truth about his family’s association with Nazi occupiers and potential war crimes.
It’s no surprise that someone with Niezen’s credentials – he’s a Cambridge-educated professor who taught at Harvard prior to becoming the Distinguished James McGill Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Associate Member of the Faculty of Law at McGill University – would deliver such a thoroughly researched work of historical fiction. Particularly fascinating is the court’s strategy in going after Malian rebels en route to potentially prosecuting “bigger fish,” such as government leaders, as well as the myriad political factors encountered along the way. Complaints about a poor return on investment for investigations into war crimes in the Congo add to the already hefty weight on Peter’s shoulders.
In addition to an engrossing plot, what is astonishing is just how gifted Niezen is at making every setting, gesture and event come alive on the page. Scenes in which Peter finds himself in clear and present danger are as palpable as one would expect, but so too are the “small” scenes. For example, Peter’s agonizing conversations with his own father (“It’s very nice that you’re investigating a war in Mali. Nice that you’ve met a Catholic girl”) add emotional resonance to what is already a murky family history. These are beautifully juxtaposed by moments of everyday life with Nora, which could not be more intimate. All the while, fleeting glimpses of sensory minutiae – a vase of dying flowers, the vibration of keystrokes on a laptop – are deftly woven into each setting without ever bogging down the pace.