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Zeh, Juli - 'The Method' (translated by Sally-Ann Spencer)
Trade Paperback: 240 pages (Apr. 2012) Publisher: Harvill Secker ISBN: 1846554276

"It's like this." Mia reaches suddenly for the judge's hand, a clear violation of courtroom procedure. Sophie sits up with a start and glances about, before allowing the defendant to grip her fingers.
"No one," says Mia, "no one understands what I'm going through, not even me. If I were a dog, I'd growl at myself to keep me at bay.

Sometime in the mid twenty-first century in Germany, in a clean town beneath unpolluted skies, a court is in session. A young man with raised caffeine levels in his blood gets a written warning; a father with previous nicotine and ethanol offences accused of ignoring early signs of illness in his child gets two years of correctional measures at home and a medical guardian appointed for his child. At this point Heinrich Kramer enters the courtroom. Kramer is the celebrated journalist, theoretician, and author of "The Method", the state's political system based on legislation for absolute health of its citizens including their duty to maintain their health. The court officials are surprised and perhaps a little anxious to see his interest in the next case, that of Mia Holl, a healthy young woman and scientist who has failed to submit her medical data for the month. At the end of the proceedings Kramer reminds the judge, Sophie, that she has come across Mia before - at the trial of Mia's brother Moritz. Later Kramer visits Mia who accuses him of "having murdered" her brother who was tried for rape and murder and subsequently convicted on DNA evidence alone under the justice system authored by Kramer. But Kramer counters that Mia herself smuggled the fishing twine into the prison where Moritz was found hanging in his cell, so it is in fact Mia who is the "murderer" having supplied Moritz with the means to commit suicide. Kramer encourages Mia to get her life back on track, to attend her court conciliation meeting when summoned, and to allow him to write an in-depth profile of her for his paper "The Healthy Mind". When Mia attends the meeting she successfully argues her case that she is currently healthy and simply needs some time to herself. The court grants her request but makes it clear that she is receiving a formal warning. Kramer and The Method hasn't yet finished with Mia Holl.

With THE METHOD, the reader travels forward in time to the mid-twenty-first century and to a society where health is the primary principle of government, a contract between State and Citizen. Each citizen must submit regular medical and exercise data, marriages are based on immunological compatibility, and a walk in the woods is a walk into a zone open to bacterial attack and the height of irresponsibility. The book's principal character, Mia Holl, lives in a "monitored" house - one of those exceptional households considered so reliable that they carry out some of the public health duties that would otherwise be carried out by the Hygiene Board. In return for these duties the household is granted a reduction in its water and power costs. As Mia's actions and her brushes with the law grow more conspicuous she becomes increasingly unpopular with her housemates.

THE METHOD is not crime fiction as such, although a crime and the judicial system is at its heart. Nor would I describe it as science fiction, but a "what-if" novel set in a future society in order to examine the workings of that society, more Orwell than Asimov. In truth I found THE METHOD somehow difficult to read. The main character, Mia, varies in personality between cold analyst and a woman brought to the edge of insanity by events. Perhaps this is intentional; Mia Holl is a "logical" scientist and it is possible that the death of her brother Moritz has propelled her into an emotional crisis. Certainly the presence of a figure called the Ideal Inamorata adds to the confusion. Referred to by Moritz and bequeathed to Mia by him, it becomes evident that only Mia can see or hear this character. But I also found Kramer a puzzle. Described as a journalist but equally credited as founder of the state system known as The Method, there is no explanation as to how he came to be in such a position of power. And I admit that I found Mia's trust in him and fascination with him equally inexplicable. It feels as though their relationship has been established in order for them to trade polemics about the Method, the State and the Individual.

Nevertheless THE METHOD is the kind of book that lingers. Successful author of DARK MATTER, Juli Zeh is a prize winning writer and a lawyer specialising in International Law. And perhaps it is this last fact that informs THE METHOD, essentially a study of the relationship between individual freedoms, responsibility and the state. As such my first reaction was that the idea of a legislative system founded on principles of health was far fetched. But I recall past conversations with people who expressed the view that smokers should accept some kind of treatment penalty if they fell ill because they had "brought their disease upon themselves by smoking". Leaving aside issues of addiction to drugs and alcohol, it also seems that obesity has now gained a similar "moral" twang. In a translated interview Juli Zeh has expressed her concern that not only "...the state, but also other agencies such as insurance companies increasingly try to get a grip on the living habits of people." So I stand corrected, this is a feasible proposition and The Method in this book is the dreaded "Nanny State" fulfilled. For me THE METHOD is a novel for discussion rather than diversion; one to be read for its ideas about law, the state and the individual - rather than for emotional engagement, suspense, and mystery.

Lynn Harvey, England
June 2012

Lynn blogs at
Little Grey Doll.

Details of the author's other books with links to reviews can be found on the Books page.
More European crime fiction reviews can be found on the Reviews page.

last updated 24/06/2012 16:14