Ilze Berzins

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LATVIANS ONLINE

TITLE: Critic’s worst nightmare is start to mystery

DATE: 01 Mar 2008

AUTHOR: Andris Straumanis

Isadora Purins, the main character in Ilze Berzins’ latest mystery, Freedom, dreams of putting a bullet into the head of the critic who ravaged her novel. If that’s a warning, so be it.

“Izzie” Purins is, like the author, a Latvian-Canadian artist and writer. She lives in rural Freedom, Maine, with her boyfriend Nick Andersons and her old Aunt Marija. Freedom is a real place, as is Belfast, the port town where some of the action takes place.

Freedom is Berzins’ eighth mystery novel. Her first book, published in 1994, was the autobiographical Happy Girl, which focused on the author’s yearlong attempt at repatriating to Latvia. Shades of her experiences in Happy Girl are found in Freedom.

Freedom starts off with the frustrated author day-dreaming about planning the murder of the critic. It is a better start to a Berzins novel than I’ve read in a while, grabbing my attention right away. Purins is angry with Roberts Kauls, a writer for The Baltic Times who has ripped her novel, Riga House. Coincidentally, the real-life Rīga-based weekly newspaper in 2005 bashed Berzins’ book, Kolka.

The next several chapters delve into the psychology of Purins, the doubts she faces and her personal history.

At the same time, Berzins piles on the characters. Besides the protagonist, her partner and her aunt, there are the neighbors, Ricky and Bonnie, whose son disappeared a while ago; psychotherapist Edith Halton; the ex-hippie Larry, Ricky’s father; the Art Student, who is stalking Purins for a film class project; the critic Kauls; Dzintra Birzgale, a caretaker from Latvia; and several others.

That’s where the novel drags a bit, a problem encountered in a few other Berzins mysteries. Berzins tries to build the plot in the first third of the book—foreshadowing some of the coming tension—but at times the development seems too abbreviated, overwhelmed perhaps by too much time being spent in the protagonist’s head. The fact that a number of chapters are very short may be part of the problem (Chapter 19, for example, is not even two complete pages of text, while Chapter 23 is just about two).

But then it gets better. Larry, the guy whose attentions Aunt M craves, takes the elderly woman on a boating excursion, falls overboard and drowns—or so it seems. As a story, Freedom takes off, adding a number of twists and getting darker in the process. Revenge and child abduction are just some of the variables introduced by Berzins.

Like several other Berzins books, the close is a bit abrupt. Resolution is important in any novel, but the end of Freedom leaves a few questions unanswered. To raise them here would give away the story, so the reader will have to judge for themselves. I would have preferred Berzins to provide some deeper exploration of motive, delving more into the darkness of certain characters. However, I do like how the very last sentences on the very last page add just one more twist.

In reviews of earlier works, I have criticized Berzins’ books for a lack of proofreading. Happily, Freedom is free of the typographical errors that in past dogged her stories. The Baltic Times, in its review of Kolka, picked on too many “wearisome references to God,” as in “Oh for God’s sake.” While reading Freedom, I looked up that review and immediately wished I had not, because the similar “wearisome” references suddenly seemed to jump off page after page. But perhaps Berzins meant to do that. In any case, if the character of Izzie overuses references to God as part of her exclamations, that is part of her nature.

Freedom, despite its rough spots, is a good read. Those familiar with Berzins’ ethnic mysteries should enjoy it.


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