Introducing Kim Hays, new author of Swiss crime fiction

Kim Hays at the launch of Pesticide in Bern (photo credit: Bettina Vollenweider Stucker)

There are lots of reasons why I would like to recommend the work of Swiss-American author Kim Hays. First, she writes great crime fiction, and if you like her debut novel Pesticide, there are more to follow soon in the Linder & Donatelli series. Second, her authentic, clever and gripping police procedurals are set in Bern, a city I know well. Third, she has served her time in the writing trenches and is now enjoying well-earned success. And, finally, she is my friend.

Kim’s heroine in the series is homicide detective Giuliana Linder, ably assisted by her younger colleague Renzo Donatelli. Both characters are sympathetic and have depth and realistic married lives. They grapple with the moral questions thrown up by police work, and the little, or not so little, complication of being attracted to each other. I particularly like Urs, the character of Giuliana’s husband, who is a freelance journalist, working all hours and keeping the home fires burning. Nice to come across a male character in this role.

Swiss noir

The murders are brutal and gruesome as murders inevitably are but the violence is not the focus, nor is it there in any way to titillate – something that puts me off a lot of crime fiction, especially with female victims and sadistic killers. Kim writes the kinds of murders that could happen to people you know, involving murderers you might meet in the corner shop or a Dorffest (village festival).  

Kim has a flair for dramatizing the investigation in a really interesting and human way, building momentum, unravelling all the knots, as her heroes doggedly search for the truth, and hopefully justice.

The suspense-filled stories take place in a Switzerland I recognise, an ordinary, gritty, diverse, and complicated place with secrets beneath the surface. The settings are pleasingly far from the clichés of bankers and Alps.

Double murder

Pesticide. No flowers were harmed in the taking of this picture.

Here’s what you need to know about the opening action of Pesticide …

When a rave on a hot summer night in Bern erupts into violent riots, a young man is found the next morning bludgeoned to death with a policeman’s club. Giuliana Linder is assigned to the case. That same day, an elderly organic farmer turns up dead and drenched with pesticide. An unexpected discovery ties the two victims together.  

If you want to order the book, you can find it in the usual online places. For Swiss deliveries I recommend Books Books Books in Lausanne or Stauffacher / Orell Füssli. The book is in the system so you should be able to order it anywhere in the US or Switzerland. Published by Seventh Street Books and distributed by Simon & Schuster.

To find out more about Kim Hays, check out her website and blog or read this interview on the Cosy Dragon website. I’ve known Kim since 2016 when I sat beside her at a writing workshop in the Geneva Writers’ Group and we got on like a house on fire.

Summer reads

A little more about my summer reads, which also fall into the category of liking the author before discovering their work. I am just about to start Mother’s Boy by Patrick Gale about the life of the enigmatic British WW2 poet Charles Causley. Before that I read the wonderful Edith by Martina Devlin about the life of Edith Somerville around the time of the Irish War of Independence. I keep finding treasures in this booming genre of historical biofiction.

I have another book on the go about real-life conflict but I’m working through it slowly. It’s much harder to read because it’s set in (recent) present-day Ukraine and it brings the reader straight into the horror of what Russia has perpetrated there. The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan is visceral, depressing, eye-opening, staggering. If you think that’s too much to take, Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees is a gentler version of blighted lives in the occupied zones, more sweetly devastating but still hard hitting.

Finally, Voting Day was mentioned on this list of summer reads put together by Isabel Costello on her literarysofa blog, which I’ve been following for years. She found my novella “very moving and beautifully written”. I still can’t believe it when I get a reaction like this. Feeling very grateful.

You’re bound to find some reading inspiration on the list. Lest I forget, Isabel Costello’s highly enjoyable new novel Scent is the quintessential summer read, set between Provence and Paris. A heady summer affair from her youth comes to the surface for Clementine in a disturbing way just at the moment when her own marriage seems to be grinding to a painful, empty halt. Clementine is a successful perfumer with her own shop but the time has come to confront the façades in her life.

Happy summer reading, folks! Do report back if you pick up any of these titles.

Making a better world, fuelled by friendship

They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes but I can assure you that you are safe with Ece Temelkuran. When I heard the celebrated Turkish writer was coming to speak in my back yard – not literally, the event was about ninety minutes’ drive away – I knew I had to be there.

Temelkuran took part in the Bibliotopia festival on May 15, hosted by the Jan Michalski Foundation in the beautiful setting of Montricher in the foothills of the Jura mountains. The Bibliotopia programme is in French and English with simultaneous translation. It’s a great place to discover international voices.

Temelkuran played a prominent role in public life as a critic of the Erdogan regime until it was no longer safe for her to stay in Turkey. In her 2019 book How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, she passes on her hard-earned wisdom as a dissident who experienced first-hand the slide towards right-wing authoritarianism. I found the book fascinating and reviewed it for the Dublin Review of Books.

Having listened to the author yesterday speaking about her new book, I have high expectations for my newly-purchased copy. Entitled Together: A Manifesto Against the Heartless World, the book offers a roadmap to a better present and future. She gives us 10 guiding principles and each one is a choice, such as ‘choose dignity over pride’ and ‘choose strength over power’.

I was very interested in what Temelkuran had to say about friendship, which she considers the best medium to redefine our political connections. “Citizenship is not working, political party membership is not working, comradeship is not really working – it sounds so retro now. So how about we become friends?”

There is a chapter in Together about the unique role that friendship, with its lack of hierarchy, obligation, duty or power dynamic could play. It is the only type of relationship where, as Temelkuran says, absolute justice can be found.

“When friendship has a solid foundation that allows it to mature, friends and conversations with friends eventually become the gravitational force in one’s life. Friendship is the most profound confirmation of the individual as a human being. It is the confirmation that you are able to see the beauty in humankind and the ultimate recognition of the fact that you are, as well, human.”

She goes on to talk about enlarging this kind of “warm regard” to the scale of humanity. Just to give you a little bit more …

“What stands at the core of such wide-scale friendship is not sentimental love but a moral stance; a commitment to acquire and maintain a certain perspective on life and humankind.”

Living in a time where the word friend has been stripped of much of its meaning by social media, I find this exploration of the theme of friendship really important and encouraging. I will read more and report back. Or you could start reading Temelkuran yourselves.

Temelkuran spoke about a lot of other things, ably interviewed by Patrick Vallélian of Sept Info. She said that representative democracy had failed in its fundamental promise which was equality. This has left it hollowed out and vulnerable to right-wing populism. When there is no social justice, it is easy for a ruthless leader to come along and exploit the system, manipulating people into making choices against their own interests.

When asked to describe Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she used the words tragic, absurd, incomprehensible and frightening. However, she cautioned against demonising the Russian people, who, she says, should not be equated with Putin.

Temelkuran wrote Together because, “I wanted to heal my politics and my faith in people.” Here’s hoping that her message of faith and courage will travel far.  

Three words for Voting Day on publication day

Voting Day in its natural habitat

If I could describe Voting Day in one word, it would be dignity. That’s what each of my characters has in common, despite all the limitations and frustrations they face. Not that I set out with this theme in mind but this is what Vreni, Margrit, Esther and Beatrice brought to the story.

I only came to this realisation when I had to answer the question in this interview for Fairlight Books. You can also read an extract from the book at the end of the interview. The other two words that sum up the novel are solidarity and hope.

Today, April 1 2022, is publication day for Voting Day with Fairlight Books in the UK, the US, Ireland and beyond. I am over the moon that the novel is going to find new readers outside Switzerland. Though it is a quintessentially Swiss story, the dignity of oppressed women and solidarity between them is a universal phenomenon. As is hope for a better life.

I’d like to share links to some of the reviews I’ve seen so far for the book. This lovely review by Anne Goodwin includes a bonus piece of flash fiction inspired by Voting Day. Anne writes: “Clare O’Dea’s fiction debut is one to savour, with beautiful language and convincing characterisation.”

This one by Craig Smith for the Mechanics’ Institute Review is pretty amazing too: “Each tale is beautifully told by first time author, Clare O’Dea, who skilfully depicts the character of each woman and spins the connections between them into a compelling, coherent narrative.” 

And you might be interested in this opinion piece I wrote for The Local Switzerland about the Swiss response to Ukrainian refugees (there may be a paywall, not always). As the horror of the war drags on in Ukraine, I admire the dignity of the Ukrainian people and I hope for a swift and just end to their ordeal.

To find out about the inspiration behind Voting Day, check out this essay I wrote for the Women Writers website. I’m going to steal the closing paragraphs of that essay for today’s post.

“When I covered historical injustices in the care system as a journalist, I felt deeply sorry for the survivors. Even in the less severe cases, where ‘nothing bad’ happened, there was the pain of being looked down upon, of growing up without love or protection. I ended up writing about one such child in Voting Day.

By the time I sat down to write, I felt familiar with the life and times of my characters. I knew what their homes looked like inside, what they ate, how they spoke and what their worries were. I was also able to borrow from the traces of the past that are still visible today.

It has taken almost two decades of living in Switzerland to bring me close enough to inhabit Swiss characters. Once I set the story in motion, I only had to follow and see what they would reveal. What have I learned? How difficult it is for us as humans to truly see and accept each other. How easy it is to make a difference when we do.”

Many thanks to the team at Fairlight Books for believing in my book and giving it wings, especially to Laura Shanahan, Daniela Ferrante, Sarah Shaw and Louise Boland. And congratulations to my Fairlight Moderns twin Polis Loizou whose fantastic novel A Good Year, set in Cyprus in 1925, is also published today.

Ps. If you’re in Dublin on April 21st, come along to Hodges Figgis at 6pm for the launch of Voting Day with Anne Griffin!

The crooked Christmas tree and other problems

View from Gantrischseeli, canton Bern. Those little dots near the top of the mountain are skiers hiking up!

I’m going to see if I can write a blog post while I’m on hold to Swiss airlines. It’s been 53 minutes already and I can’t sit here any longer doing nothing.

This week hasn’t gone very smoothly. I mean I got all the presents wrapped and under the tree on time and I cooked a wonderful Christmas dinner, as stipulated in my mother contract, but an uninvited and most unwelcome guest is causing havoc at home. Guess who?

It all started with the crooked Christmas tree. A little bit of imperfection is fine, I thought. No need to fix it, everything else will be just right. Little did I know, I was opening to door to all sorts of calamity!

Monday was spent making trips to the local Covid testing centre. My youngest had said she was cold on Sunday afternoon and I told her to put on a cardigan. She put on her winter jacket. It was an everyone-do-their-own-thing sort of day (living with four people, I need and encourage days like these) so I didn’t pay too much attention until I saw her later, still wearing her jacket. Alarm bells rang and I checked her temperature. A fever. Her rapid antigen test was positive, confirmed by a PCR on Monday.

This development brought a surprising amount of admin. Calling, emailing, texting, filling in forms online, researching, cancelling things. The big disappointment was cancelling our post-Christmas visit to Ireland to see family. That’s why I’m on hold to Swiss now, into my second call, now at 15 minutes. I’ve chosen German this time, hoping it will be picked up faster.

Monday was also the day that my husband, after several days of bad back pain suddenly had an episode of such severe pain that meant he couldn’t move from the floor for 15 hours. It proved impossible to get a home visit from a doctor so he just had to ride it out. He’s gradually recovering since then.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been waiting to hear about a grant I applied for to support my next writing project. If I received the grant, I could take a break from freelance work and concentrate on writing for six months. It would have also meant recognition in the Swiss literary establishment. I got the news on Wednesday – no grant.

Christmas Eve is when the Swiss have their festive meal and exchange gifts. Despite everything we managed to go ahead with our family celebration in a safe way. It was different but still felt special. I think it will make us appreciate future Christmases all the more.

‘May all your troubles be little ones’ is what you can except to hear in Ireland when you complain about anything less than tragedy. With only two more days to go in this isolation regime at home, no sign that the rest of the family has caught Covid, and my husband well enough to take short walks, things are looking up.

My 11-year-old daughter has light symptoms and she’s been a trooper all week, staying mostly in her room and keeping herself occupied without complaint. She can expect a lot of hugs on Monday evening.

I am somewhat back to the drawing board for 2022, both professionally and creatively. But I’m not short of ideas. Since I went freelance almost seven years ago, I have based my career on the Mr Micawber principle that ‘something will turn up’ and, thankfully, it always does.

Miraculously, a human being just answered the phone and is sorting out the flight rebooking problem (child changing age category) while putting me on hold again. So I will very soon have one definite thing to look forward to next year – Easter in Ireland.

Things could be worse. I could be working in a call centre on Christmas Day! Thanks for listening and I wish you all a happy and healthy Christmas break. See you in the New Year full of new possibilities!

Kilruddery Gardens in Co. Wicklow. One of the highlights of the year was an afternoon spent here with my mother and daughters.

An online reading, a vintage setting and gift ideas

This month I’ve had a flurry of book-related activity, some of which required learning new skills. Like video editing! We’ve all come a long way with video communication in the past year and a half, haven’t we?  

I remember back at the start of the pandemic when members of my book club suggested holding our next meeting online. That’s not going to work, I thought. Too many people on screen, too addling. How could you possibly have a discussion?

Soon after that I was asked to do a live online interview about my books. I declined because I was pretty overwhelmed at the time with the children off school and a new temporary job. I also didn’t think I could bear to be live on screen for a whole hour.

Now of course, that’s completely routine. I’ve been part of umpteen ‘Team’ and zoom meetings with different organisations. Our book club did well for a year online. My extended family ran a monthly quiz with three generations taking part. And the online launch of Voting Day in February of this year was an amazing experience, almost better than the real thing!  

Drink and the Irish

Which brings me to a new date for the diary. I’ve been invited to give an online lecture as part of the ‘Ireland and the World’ series hosted by the University of Zurich and the Swiss Centre of Irish Studies. These are free public lectures, and my topic, on December 1st at 6.15pm (Swiss time), is ‘Conquering the world, one Irish pub at a time’. You can find the link by clicking through on this page. For this lecture I’ll be returning to the chapter in The Naked Irish on the Irish relationship with the demon drink.

Translators Aloud

The video editing I tried is pretty rudimentary but it’s a start. To make this video for the Youtube platform Translators Aloud with translators Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi, I had to research how to get the record settings right on zoom, and I figured out how to add a title page and photo at the end. So here it is, Corinne, Anna and I reading from the opening of Voting Day.

December event

One last date for the diary for Zurich people. I have a free public event in German coming up on December 5th in a vintage furniture shop on Ankerstrasse called WOW Props. The ambiance will fit nicely with the 1950s storyline of Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten (Voting Day). I’d like to thank Andrea Maurer for hosting and Yolanda Pantli of Ouï-e Communications for organising the event. There are two time slots – 11am & 1pm and coffee and croissants for everyone. Register by email: pr@oui-e.com and tell your friends!

Christmas presents

Now is a good time to beat the Christmas rush by buying books from your local bookshop or online. The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths is the perfect read to demystify Swiss culture and politics. Available in Swiss bookshops or direct from Bergli Books (French and German translations from Helvetiq).

The Naked Irish: Portrait of a Nation Beyond the Clichés is a timely reflection on what it means to be Irish a century after independence. Available from Irish retailers, like Kennys in the above link.

Voting Day is currently available to buy in Switzerland in English, French, German and Italian, either through a bookshop or directly from me at this link (free delivery).

And finally, the UK edition of Voting Day, to be published by Fairlight Books in 2022 is available to pre-order at this link: Voting Day by Clare O’Dea – Fairlight Moderns | Fairlight Books. I’m delighted to share the quote on the back cover of the novel from a writer I really admire, Jonathan Coe.

It’s lovely to come across such kindness in the publishing business. I hope you all have a peaceful time between now and Christmas. Be careful out there!

Colm Tóibín works his magic in Zurich

Marriage is great fodder for fiction. Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, The Magician, tells the story of the life of Thomas Mann. In a sweeping narrative, it takes in German culture and politics of the first half of the twentieth century, Mann’s creative life, as well as his family and erotic life. But most of all, according to the author, it’s the story of a marriage.

Tóibín came to Zurich this week, and I jumped at the chance to hear him talk. He was interviewed on stage in a gorgeous venue, the 100-year-old Kaufleuten, a legendary nightclub, pub-restaurant and cultural space. It’s the kind of place Mann might have frequented when he lived in Zurich. James Joyce once had a play staged there.

The character of Mann craves a lot of things – stability, routine, recognition, young men’s bodies. He was one of many homosexual men of his time who married for convenience or safety. Yet his marriage to Katia Pringsheim, a student of physics and mathematics from one of the wealthiest families in Germany, was no less interesting for that.

“The marriage was intense, and the loyalty between them was intense, and the love was intense. It was in many ways a great relationship,” Tóibín said.

I agree, at least in how Tóibín depicts the relationship. But Katia remains a bit of a mystery. Once in the book, there is a scene where she is pressed to justify why she married Mann and she says it’s personal. All she reveals is that her father was a philanderer and she knew she would never have that trouble with Mann (who obviously fancied her beautiful twin brother). Marriage to Mann gave Katie a certain freedom. Coming from a rich, cultured, high-achieving family, he was a prize for her too.

Katia Mann is shown tolerating her husband’s roving eye and infatuations for boys and young men. More than that, she is quite magnanimous about it. Mann’s sexual life was mainly lived in his head and he rarely dared to follow up on these feelings. She seems to have understood that. Now I’m making the same mistake as the moderator on Wednesday night, treating the book as if it were a biography, and Tóibín the biographer.

A rich tapestry

Mann’s life is so interesting – a gay man, literary genius, dissident, exile, father of six extraordinary children, the most famous German voice in the United States during the war – it’s easy to get sucked into only thinking about him.

So, more about the writing. It’s a linear narrative from childhood in Lübeck to the end of his life in Switzerland, divided into chapters entitled the year and place. Overall, a rich tapestry. After lingering in Lübeck, the story skips along through Mann’s career and home life. We enjoy dinner party conversations with a great number of clever and unconventional people, there are terribly poignant scenes of Mann receiving tragic news, his imaginings and travels, moments and settings where he got his ideas – the Davos sanitorium, the famous Lido in Venice – and regular interactions with (mostly negative) political events.

We see the marriage in action, in their conversations and habits, getting to the point as readers where we know what is unsaid between Thomas and Katia. But Tóibín never shows us any physical intimacy between the pair. I wish I’d had a chance to ask why he shied away from the marital bed but there were no questions from the audience.

I managed to scribble down a few notes in the dark. “There’s a difference always between what we think we feel, what we feel and what we say. A novel can show that gap,” Tóibín said.

The German question

The Irish writer had plenty of research material at his disposal to fill that gap. The lives of the Manns have been exhaustively documented in diaries, contemporary accounts and biographies. We even heard Thomas Mann’s voice in the Kauflauten theatre from a 1942 broadcast in English, one of several speeches he made railing against the Nazis. A nice touch.

Mann’s brother Heinrich and three of Thomas Mann’s children were also writers, so we also have their body of work to add to Mann’s oeuvre. Many of the Mann circle were the subjects of biographies themselves. Tóibín credits 35 works in the back of his book. It must have been quite a struggle to stop researching and start writing.

Interestingly, all of the titles Tóibín mentions are in English and I wonder how Germans feel about an Irish writer (researching in English) speaking for Mann who is after all a national treasure. But Tóibín didn’t want to be drawn on this. The interviewer Blas Ulibarri tried to ask about the German reception to the book but Tóibín just said, “the Germans are very nice” and pointedly put his microphone back down on the table. Because he came straight from a book tour in Germany, we would all like to have heard more.

Anyway, I loved the book. A lot happens, there are many scene changes, just as there were in Mann’s life – from his staid home city of Lübeck to Munich, Lugano, South of France, Princeton, Los Angeles and back to Switzerland.

The Nazis’ rise to power is the dramatic engine of the middle part of the book, not just because it forces the Manns into exile but because of the delay before Mann publicly denounced Hitler. His timidity almost cost him the love of some family members. But Tóibín makes this conflict between Mann’s private views and his public position an understandable failing.

Mann’s routine is dull and unchanging, working every morning in his study wherever he lives, taking meals and having conversations with his wife and children, receiving visitors. This lack of action presented a challenge, Tóibín said, but he clearly overcame the challenge. There is ample external drama in between the quiet days: complications with Mann’s mother and siblings, the horror of the Second World War and the unruly behaviour of his children.

Three out of six younger Manns were gay, two of them openly and joyously so, in the years before Hitler choked all the joy out of German life. The same three – Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann – were also prolific writers. All the Mann children were damaged by the experience of losing their homeland, however much they were protected by their parents’ great wealth.

Other gems

Tóibín’s The Magician (Penguin) is the third great work of biofiction I’ve read this year, all by Irish writers. If you want more after finishing The Magician, I highly recommend Nora (New Island) by Nuala O’Connor, a banquet of a novel written in the voice of James Joyce’s wife Nora Barnacle. Covering the same era, it’s another story of fame, genius, an unconventional marriage, the peripatetic life and difficulties with grown children.

A Quiet Tide by Marianne Lee is the third title, a masterful debut, also published by New Island Books. It tells the story of the great Irish botanist Ellen Hutchins, a solitary and tragic figure. A fascinating and moving novel that depicts the complexity of early nineteenth century Ireland in exquisite detail.

That should be enough reading to keep you occupied when the clocks go back. I have no decent photos from the Kaufleuten venue so I opted for this street view of the famous Bahnhofstrasse nearby. It was fun travelling to another city for a night of culture and meeting writing friends, especially with Thomas Mann’s story so fresh in my mind.

Have you been to a reading recently? If you’re in the mood, the Dublin Book Festival is running until November 12with a fantastic online programme. Have a great weekend!

Book club questions for Voting Day

Do book clubs have a natural shelf life? I’ve been a member of the same book club for about ten years. We started out as work colleagues and now more than half the group work in different places so the club has become a way to keep in touch. The most far-flung member of the group lives in Joshua Tree.

But, I must admit, we are beginning to lose our book club mojo. The number of no-shows and did-not-finish-on-time readers is growing and the gaps between meetings are getting longer. During Covid we had a few video sessions and they went very well. Maybe that’s the way forward.

At the invitation of a friend, I visited a very lively book club last week, a group of mostly Americans living in and around Bern. What made the evening special – apart from the amazing snacks and hospitality – was that the book they were discussing was Voting Day.

I’ve done quite a few author talks recently but mostly to an audience of potential readers, such as the image above with the Zurich International Women’s Association. This was different. The book club members had read my book and seemingly enjoyed it very much. They were brimming with enthusiasm and questions and I was impressed to see how many aspects of the story resonated with different readers on an individual level. It sparked a discussion about Swiss life, women’s role in families and society today, what has and hasn’t changed.

I left the group with a promise that I would put together a list of questions for book clubs, something they said they always looked for online. So here it is, my list of book club questions for Voting Day. I hope you find them useful and if you have any more suggestions, let me know in the comments.

Book club questions

  1. In Voting Day, what is the most important difference between the characters – generation, class or personality?
  2. How well do you think Vreni knows Margrit and vice versa?
  3. Is Peter a good husband to Vreni?
  4. Who is the strongest character?
  5. We see different types of marriages and views of marriage in the story. To what extent do the four characters’ understanding of marriage overlap or differ?
  6. What are the blind spots of the four protagonists?
  7. Which character appealed to you the most?
  8. How does motherhood impact the lives of Vreni and Esther?
  9. How important is family to each of the main characters?
  10. What do we learn about the place of foreigners or minorities in Swiss society at the time?
  11. If there is a message to the book, what would you say it is?
  12.  Switzerland was an outlier with regard to women’s suffrage, with women remaining disenfranchised until 1971. Do you think the situation of the four main characters is therefore very different to the situation of women in your country in the 1950s?
  13. What is the most significant change in women’s lives between then and now, as depicted in the book? Is there anything that hasn’t changed?
  14. What does the boy Ruedi symbolise or represent in the novel?
  15. What scene in the story did you find the most moving?

Book news

The last month has been busy on the book front. I put in an application for a grant to support the writing of my next novel next year. Will keep you posted on that. Even if nothing comes of it, I was still motivated to start writing again and I welcome that very much!

At the end of August, I met the Swiss Ambassador to Ireland José-Louis Touron to plan an event in Dublin in November. Also part of the meeting was Abigail Seran, a Swiss writer whose latest book D’ici et d’ailleurs is partly set in Ireland.

In the first weekend of September, I had a wonderful opportunity to take part in Le livre sur les quais festival in Morges. I spent the whole of Sunday in the authors tent meeting readers and signing books. And I got to meet some amazing writers, including the Flemish author Stefan Hertmans who is a genius as far as I am concerned. Caroline Bishop (author of The Other Daughter) and I shared a stage for our event, Stories of Women’s Suffrage in Switzerland.  It was all over too soon!

Also this month, Fairlight Books revealed the cover of their edition of Voting Day, to be published next April. I think it’s beautiful (see below). There was even an article about Voting Day in The Bookseller. And finally, the Swiss book blog, Mint & Malve, ran a glowing review of the German translation of Voting Day, Der Tag an dem die Männer Nein sagten.  

A reminder that Voting Day (distributed by Zytglogge Verlag) and the three other language versions are available to buy or order in all Swiss book shops or here on my website (Switzerland only). Happy reading this autumn!

A fairy-tale ending for my first novel

Schloss Heidegg (image from heidegg.ch)

Actually, it’s more of a beginning than an ending – I hope! This Sunday I have my first in-person book event since Voting Day was published. The event is taking place in a fairy-tale setting, Schloss Heidegg in Canton Lucerne.

The castle, overlooking Lake Baldegg, dates back to the Middle Ages. It has a rose garden and a park and a museum. I would go there gladly anyway. But to be invited by the Seetaler Poesiesommer festival to talk about my book is amazing.

I’ll be there along with Barbara Traber, the German translator of Voting Day (Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten), who also wrote the foreword of the book. Barbara was a translating match made in heaven. Not only is she a Swiss-German author who has written and translated dozens of books, she also remembers the vote in 1959 when she was a teenager. She has given me wonderful encouragement and guidance since we met exactly a year ago.

The event in German begins at 11am and you can find more details on the castle website here. It’s organised by Ulrich Sutter and there is an Irish theme with music from Irish composers and readings from the poetry of Franz Felix Lehni who lived in Ireland.

UK publisher

Last month on social media I shared the news that I’ve signed a publishing deal for Voting Day in the UK. Fairlight Books came back to me with a yes at the beginning of this year and they will publish their own edition of the book in the UK and Ireland under their Fairlight Moderns novella series next April. If you like your literary fiction on the short side, check out their titles.

It just happens that next year is the centenary of Irish women gaining full and equal voting rights, and I think a book written about the Swiss experience should be of interest to everyone. Women have faced the same problems to a different degree in all patriarchal societies over time. A culture that gives men a disproportionate share of authority, ownership and power breaks the natural partnership between the sexes. We are stuck fighting the same fight over and over – for our safety and dignity, and against economic disadvantage. And I’m not sure we ever will find the lost Eden of true partnership and equality again. But I digress!

There is one more piece of book news relevant for Swiss readers. Up to the end of June, the distribution of Voting Day and the three other language versions was handled by Bergli Books in Basel. From now on, this role will pass to Zytglogge Verlag. Booksellers should still be able to find the book easily in their system and order it for you. Or, if you are a Swiss resident, you can order directly from this website anytime.

I wish all followers of this blog a great summer, hopefully without Covid clouds on the horizon. If, like me, you’re feeling guilty about being fully vaccinated while most of the world is still vulnerable, it might help to donate to this Unicef vaccination campaign.

Please feel free to contact me if you’d like to request a review copy of the book or to talk about possible book events or publicity. Email on contact page. 

Voting Day, ‘truly touching and enlightening’

Visiting the German edition of Voting Day in Kanisiusbuchhandlung Lüthy

This day last month, the Irish Embassy in Bern hosted the launch of my debut novel Voting Day, published in four languages. Set on the day of a failed vote on women’s suffrage in Switzerland in 1959, it tells the story of four women whose lives are connected by a foster child.

The launch evening was incredibly special, hosted by the Irish Ambassador Eamon Hickey and attended by the three translators of the book – Barbara Traber, Corinne Verdan-Moser and Anna Rusconi. You can still view the event at this link (passcode 70N?6Rq@).

I’d like to share some of the news and reviews of my novel from the past month. At the time of the launch, book shops were closed but I’m delighted to say that shops have opened in Switzerland today and I paid a visit to my local shop to see the book on the shelves – as you can see!

Voting Day is partly set in Fribourg, where I live, and on publication day, the local newspaper Freiburger Nachrichten ran a full-page interview about the book written by Nadja Sutter which you can read here (in German). Sie hat den Roman zum Jubiläum des Frauenstimmrechts geschrieben – Freiburger Nachrichten (freiburger-nachrichten.ch)

On the Saturday beforehand, the French-language newspapers 24 Heures and Tribune de Genève ran an interview by Caroline Rieder: Roman d’une expatriée – «Les Suissesses ont dû demander le droit de vote gentiment» | 24 heures

In English, there have been two videos I’d like to mention. This report by Julie Hunt on swissinfo.ch featured Voting Day along with another new novel set in Switzerland called The Other Daughter by Caroline Bishop. The report is full of wonderful archive footage.

The second video is a really enjoyable interview I did with Matthew Wake of Books Books Books in Lausanne.

When the 50th anniversary of the women’s vote came around on February 7th, I wrote this piece for Global Geneva Magazine explaining why it took so long for Swiss men to do the decent thing.

Reviews

As for reviews, they have been positive but small in number so far. The magazine for the Swiss abroad, Swiss Review, published a favourable review of the German edition of the book by Ruth von Gunten that was translated into French, English and Spanish. Another reviewer, Antonella Amodio, wrote a review of the Italian edition of the book for the Italian edition of the magazine.

It’s a wonderful review so I will quote, courtesy of online translation:

“A story that speaks of female solidarity, dignity, kindness, the search for independence and social redemption … I thank the author Clare O’Dea and the translator of the Italian version Anna Rusconi because it was a truly touching and enlightening read.”

A review of the French edition in the newspaper Journal du Pays d’Enhaut was also lovely. The reviewer, M.Z., describes some of the plot and then adds: “I won’t say any more because this novel is very moving and you have to appreciate its originality to the last page.”

If you enjoyed Voting Day and would like other people to discover it, I’d be very glad to increase the number of reader reviews on Goodreads (EN), Lesejury.de (DE) or Lovelybooks.de (DE, FR, EN, IT). Another way to help the book fly is to ask for it in your local Swiss bookshop.

Film festival

One last thing … here’s a date for the diary if you happen to have the evening free on International Women’s Day next Monday the 8th.

The Women in Film Festival, What If? will present four short films and a Q&A with the filmmakers. Voting Day will get a mention thanks to the swissinfo.ch video. The curators have chosen narratives of courage, determination and strength and I am delighted to be associated with the event. Sign up for the free 1.5-hour event here.

For Swiss readers of the blog, enjoy the freedom to browse for books again from today and stay safe out there! Congratulations to everyone who has received a vaccine. It makes me so happy to hear all the vaccination stories. We’re on the right path now.

Order online from Bergli Books: ​Voting Day, Der Tag, an dem die Männer Nein sagten, Le jour où les hommes on dit non, Il giorno in cui gli uomini dissero No 

A Swiss funeral, free of charge and modest

The freshly-dug grave in the communal plot lies ready. A tightly-packed flower arrangement in yellow, orange and red provides the only colour on this grey day on the outskirts of Zurich in Schwamendingen cemetery.

Though Zurich has historically been a stronghold of Protestantism in Switzerland, the proportion of Swiss residents who profess no religion is now greater than the share of Protestants (25 per cent to 24 per cent). Amid changing times, one tradition has endured in this city: plain is preferred over showy. 

The mourners, a group of about twenty, have gathered at the cemetery gate. They are waiting to be told what to do. The burial is scheduled for 11.15 a.m. First the gravedigger comes to the grave carrying the urn in a wicker basket. He lifts the lid, removes the simple wooden urn and leaves it standing beside the freshly-dug hole.

The urn is worth CHF 550.00 but it comes free of charge as part of the basic funeral package offered by the city of Zurich to all residents. There are no private undertakers in Zurich.  

No funeral service

Led by a pastor wearing a beret over her shoulder-length grey hair, the family approaches. The pastor is in conversation with an official from the municipal funeral service, Petra Paul, a kindly woman in her fifties. Her job today is to lower the urn into the grave.

The family have opted to say their farewells at the graveside. There will be no funeral service, religious or otherwise. This is not unusual any more, Petra explains later. In an increasingly secular society, there are no more certainties on how to mark the passing of a loved one.

Four generations are represented today, from the sister of the 92-year-old deceased to her great-grandchildren, two tiny tots who quickly become restless and have to be led away during the 15-minute gathering. 

There is a forest on the hill adjacent to the graveyard. The noticeboard at the entrance carries a warning that deer are eating the flower arrangements and asks for understanding. Foxes and badgers are regular nocturnal visitors to this quiet spot.

The minister talks about the deceased, a warm-hearted woman whose door was always open. She expands on the concept of the ‘life of life’, the divine life that binds us all. After Petra lowers the urn into the grave, some family members step forward to drop a single red rose in after it. Someone has pressed play on an unseen device, so that the instrumental of ‘Time to say goodbye’ plays softly at this moment.

The lowering of the urn is easy, it is encased in a length of netting. But family members are often too nervous or too upset to take on this task. What if they get it wrong? Petra feels it can be an important part of the grieving process. A symbolic separation.

As this is a communal grave for urns, the exact burial spot is not marked. By the following day, the bouquet will be moved to the metal platform nearby, available for the bereaved to leave their tributes. The name of the deceased will be engraved on a metal plaque with the others, along with her dates of birth and death.

As birds caw and whirl in the sky above, we withdraw, leaving the family alone. Schwamendingen is one of 19 graveyards in Zurich. Petra and I return by tram to the city centre. She tells me she likes her job because she can achieve a lot with very little. “People have the resources to deal with death. My job is to foster these resources.”

The right words

Back at the office Petra has some calls to make, searching for next-of-kin of deceased people who died without any known family. She must also be available to advise people who come to notify the authorities of a death in the family.

Her office is the Funeral and Cemetery Service of the City of Zurich, located inside the imposing neo-Gothic City Hall (Stadthaus) on the banks of the Limmat.

The office operates a walk-in service for the official registration of death announcements, an obligatory task. In a small waiting area, the bereaved may peruse the display of 12 different-coloured leaflets, with information on everything from fees for various grave planting arrangements to how to go about scattering ashes. There is also a catalogue of urns and coffins and a list of professionals who provide secular funeral services.

Without too long a wait, visitors will be ushered in to see one of three funeral advisors on duty, with urns on their bookshelves, who will help them make the necessary decisions.

For Petra, this is the most important part of her job. Formerly, she worked as a translator and, she observes, there is one point the two jobs have in common: the importance of the right word. “Finding the right words is so important. The right words mean so much to the bereaved but the wrong word stays wrong forever.”

I wrote this article earlier this year for a magazine but the story was dropped because it was felt that it might be depressing to read about death in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. My feeling is that death is never far away and we should know what to expect. Many thanks to the staff of the Funeral and Cemetery Office of the City of Zurich for making me welcome (especially Petra Paul) and allowing me to share the article here.