Magda is a criminal.
She is a drug dealer. She is Polish, but she chooses to carry on her business in London. She is funny, strong-willed and engaging. And, by her own admission, she is a world class liar: " It is one of my best qualities. Never forget that."
Magda has returned to Poland for a funeral (whose we do not know), and she is explaining her life in a long self-justification. Perhaps it is easier to gve her a sympathetic hearing because she attributes the bad bits of her activity to part of her personality she treats as another person; it is 'she' not me who uses bribery, lies, and blackmail as part of her trade.
Whatever the means, she is successful, building an impressive business from her cannabis farms and network of dealers. Naturally, Magda deals in a soft, recreational drug, rather than something nasty like heroin; her clients include a Booker-shortlisted writer, who recorded his thanks to "a very special guardian angel who breathed life into this book when I couldn't..."
"You see, I am very proud to be part of the creative process."
Another loyal and useful client is the undercover cop, who warns of police activity, such as thermal image scans looking for growing lamps, and how using her own generator can eliminate the risk of attention-raising energy spikes.
All this is cleverly handled by Bakalar, who has a sharp eye for detail, be it the business of smuggling or the tragi-comedy of the migrant experience.
Magda tells us she feels a stranger in her own country:
"I could not bear to live under the commands of society or my family, who believed in the traditions of this land (Poland) .... I had become a chameleon, displaying a combination of accents and faces depending what suited me. I was too British for the Poles, too Polish for the British."
She has a great deal of fun with the superstitious Catholicism of her mother and family, and the archaic traditions of the emigre community she is keen to avoid.
I did not leave Poland to end up imprisoned with a Polish husband, preferably a Catholic, with me staying at home cooking and breeding in a frenzy to please my grandchildren, preferably boys. I am sick of Polish men... The men I sleep with are as far possible from the the ideal husband material my mother conjures up in her mind.
Amid the many symmetries of the novel, Magda has a twin sister Alicja, who has stayed in Poland, and is wealthy, and is married to Krzysiek (who, of course, is a former lover of Magda). By staying in her home country, the affluent Alicja offers a springboard for some very enterianing commentary on Polish life, from singing vulgar and coarse wedding songs, drinking endless vodkas, peppered with less amusing observations on entrenched racism.
Bakalar is also good at skewering British institutions, not least when she loses an endless succession of cover jobs, designed to disguise her wealth, usually for lapses into 'inappropriate behaviour'.
"Eight months later I was still working for the same company... then it happened. Human Resources with their big brother attitude, a bunch of overzealous individuals desperate to pretend they knew what they were doing in managing others, was never my cup of tea. As far as I am concerned they are a redundant category of people, creating unnecessary tensions among staff in any office...
Cynthia Fisher, the brightest star in HR, was a prime example of a person I could happily obliterate from my presence if we had met on different ground. You are probably wondering what I mean by obliterate her. I admit it is not an accurate choice of word. In my business getting rid of people - or, to be precise, having people who for a certain amount do it for me - happens sooner or later. It's simple. I must protect my business.
Madame Mephisto is a very promising debut novel, which I enjoyed a great deal. It is not perfect, but AM Bakalar is a writer to watch, as is the publisher, Stork Press, who provided my review copy, and are putting together what promises to be a fascinating catalogue.