Bar Balto by Faiza Guene and Sarah Ardizzone

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Bar Balto by Faiza Guene and Sarah Ardizzone

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: A funny, cleverly-observed who-dunnit. A really good, unusual and fast read!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 160 Date: January 2011
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
ISBN: 978-0701184223

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Joel, 'The Rink', is the owner of the local bar in town and has been found murdered, stabbed and naked in a pool of blood. He's an opinionated, racist, lecherous busy-body, so there's no shortage of suspects. Faiza Guene creates an intriguing, interesting murder-mystery as we hear from each suspect in their own voice and follow the story through to its conclusion to discover who really murdered 'The Rink'.

I really enjoyed this book. More of a novella than a novel, its brevity makes it a fast read. However, it has a lot to say within a short space of time. Faiza Guene's previous novel, Dreams from the Endz, was full of social commentary and this is the case again here. Her range in storytelling is wonderful - dark and disturbing through to laugh out loud comedy. The story is told through a series of monologues, as each character tells us what happened, in their own words. It's very contemporary, and the style might grate with some readers as there is some swearing, youth-speak, and there is also one character who speaks in 'text' so throws in LOLs and other such delights. Yet each character is quite clearly drawn and has a unique voice. I actually groaned a little when I saw the text-speaking girl, Magalie, but she ended up being one of my favourite characters as she's so ridiculous; enamoured with Paris Hilton, following a crazy set of dating rules she got from a magazine, taking herself so very seriously and yet making herself utterly laughable.

Guene manages to evoke feelings from empathy to disgust, and her social observations are smart and funny. Even the most despicable characters manage to have something human about them. Within the murder plot, there are also other stories, of a school drop-out and his girlfriend and a man-made redundant who is brow-beaten by his wife who, in turn, is being marginalised in her job. I loved that the reader is left to follow the trail through the book to discover what happens. Everything unfolds as you read, and opinions you form swap and change from chapter to chapter until you finally discover what actually happened.

Written originally in French, the translation, I thought, was excellent. There's even a small glossary at the back for any peculiarly French references. Guene is a very talented writer, and I'm really looking forward to seeing what she writes in the future as hopefully, she will just continue to get better and better!

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Faiza Guene's earlier novel is worth a look. Companions by Christina Hesselholdt and Paul Russell Garrett (translator) has a similar style.

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