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Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

Shortlisted for the International Booker Prize and winner of the English PEN award Hurricane Season is a Mexican novel that I have seen a lot of praise for. Ticking off both Spanish lit month and Wit month it is an intense novel, at once vivid and powerfully brutal. I found an awful lot to appreciate in this lyrically written novel, yet there were moments when I struggled to like it – the brutality is quite relentless, and it can make for grim reading.

Fernanda Melchor’s novel explores the truth of a Mexican village – the misogyny, the lives devastated by brutality and the machismo of men with little hope. Melchor writes in long, lyrical sentences – the entire book is broken up into just a few paragraphs – this style making it quite literally hard to put down, if like me you refuse to lay down a book in the middle of a paragraph, well there were moments when I did have to do just that. There were other moments when I just had to lay the book aside – to give myself a break from the onslaught.

“But the ringleader pointed to the edge of the cattle track, and all five of them, crawling along the dry grass, all five of them packed together in a single body, all five of them surrounded by blowflies, finally recognised what was peeping out from the yellow foam on the water’s surface: the rotten face of a corpse floating among the rushes and the plastic bags swept in from the road on the breeze, the dark mask seething under a myriad of black snakes, smiling.”

La Matosa a provincial Mexican village: and Fernanda Melchor thrusts us immediately into a world of violence, poverty, and mythology, giving voice to those who are rarely heard. A group of children find the body of a woman known as the Witch in an irrigation canal – and the whole village become consumed with who might have committed the murder and why. However, Hurricane Season is a long way away from being a traditional mystery novel.

The Witch herself is a confusing character – we only see her through the remembrances of others, hairy, heavily veiled and considered ugly – she grants sexual favours, her house the scene of many raucous parties. She isn’t the first Witch – her mother before her was the old Witch, no one ever knew her by any other name.

“They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.”

She performs abortions for the local sex workers and is the subject of a lot of local gossip and rumour. One of the biggest pieces of speculation centres around the gold said to be hidden away inside her broken down house.

The perspective shifts from one unreliable character to the next and through their eyes a portrait of the village emerges: squalid, brutal and tragic. Luismi, is a layabout known to have some involvement in drug taking, he was seen near the Witch’s house that morning. It is Yesenia, Luismi’s cousin who spots him by the canal on the fateful day, she loathes her cousin because of her grandmother’s preference for him, which she considers him unworthy of. Luismi’s friend Brando is tormented by his own secret desires and lusts, fuelled by drugs and an addiction to porn. The runaway Norma, Brando’s thirteen year old lover who is pregnant with her stepfather’s child, is taken to see the Witch, but ends up in hospital, chained to her bed. It was Norma’s story I found the most disturbing, the portrayal of abuse, and hopelessness was really quite upsetting.

“… they hadn’t got a word out of Norma, not even after screaming at her, telling her not to be an idiot, asking repeatedly for her boyfriend’s name, the little bastard who’d done this and where he lived so that the police could go and arrest him, because the shameless boy had just dropped her off at the hospital and bolted. Wasn’t she angry? Didn’t she want him to pay too? And Norma, who’d just began to realise that all this was really happening, that it wasn’t just a terrible dream, clamped her mouth shut and shook her head and didn’t say a word…”

I’m very aware that I shouldn’t say too much about the plot of this novel – I imagine it will be one being read by others during this #Witmonth. So, I shall leave my discussion of the novel there. I certainly can’t say I loved this novel, but neither did I hate it – I had been warned that it might be a bit much – and there were moments when it was. I can completely see why Hurricane Season has been so lauded too – the writing is searingly honest, enthralling in many ways, Fernanda Melchor is clearly a huge talent.

Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

I started my WIT reading early, so that I could get some reviews out at the beginning of the month. My first read for WIT is a VMC, ticking off All Virago All August too. Deborah is a highly autobiographical novel by Esther Kreitman the sister of two more famous younger brothers;  Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer, both of them writers, Isaac was the writer of Yentil and won the Nobel prize in literature.

Born Hinde Esther Singer into a rabbinical Jewish family in Poland in 1891. She apparently had an unhappy childhood; her mother disappointed her first child was a girl handed her over to a wet nurse for three years. Like her heroine Deborah she submitted to an arranged marriage and moved to Antwerp. Sadly, there appears to have been some division between Esther and her brothers, they decided not to offer help when she needed it and played no part in getting her work published in Yiddish journals. Her life, and that of her brothers seems to have been quite different. Having read the introduction by Clive Sinclair – it is possible to see a lot of Esther in Deborah.

The novel is set in the early part of the twentieth century (the novel ends around the start of WW1) – as the novel opens Deborah is fourteen. She is living with her parents; the unworldly, rather feckless rabbi Reb Avram Ber, his wife Raizela who is often sickly and her brother Michael. The family are living in a small Jewish village in Poland – the community here speak Yiddish rather than Polish, Reb Avram Ber is the rabbi – the family are poor, and life is very hard. The novel gets off to a pretty slow start – but the portrait of this community is instantly vivid – and I sensed this would be worth sticking with and it is, I was soon drawn into a novel in which in some ways little happens. Deborah is a bright girl, imaginative and romantic she longs for the kind of education preserved for boys, but her fate is to stay at home, to help her mother in domestic tasks, and be content with that.

In a bid for a better life – the family move twice, Reb Avram Ber taking up new appointments that he believes will enhance his family’s fortunes. The first takes them to R- (that’s as close we get to a name) – where Reb Avram Ber takes up a position in a school that is part of a Tsadik’s (spiritual leader) court.

“Deborah found more variety in life than ever she had done in Jelhitz. There the days used to pass with a great sense of security, with no expectancy of strange things to come; from morning to night and from night to morning time used to go its irksome way with unbroken monotony. Now life was unsettled, harsh circumstances played havoc with it. Trouble and cares descended on the family from all quarters, came swarming in like vermin from the walls of a rotten building creeping forth from every chink, and each time one chink as stopped up, two others appeared in its place…”

Life here is not any easier – the Tsadik’s promises seem empty ones, and often the family are left with no money. When freed from her duties, Deborah watches the students hurry across the courtyard coming to and from the school where her father is employed, and it is in this way she first catches sight of Simon – whose name she will not learn for some time. Disillusioned by their experiences in R- they family move again – this time to Warsaw.

Deborah has begun to grow up – she sees the world differently; her brother is allowed all the freedoms denied to her – and she longs to better get to know this city she is living in the midst of. Her father is asked to pass judgement on all kinds of spiritual and family difficulties that are brought to his door – including divorcing a gangster’s wayward daughter from her furious young husband. It is in Warsaw that Deborah begins to understand more about the inequalities in her world – she finds socialism and a group of young radicals, who inspire her. Amazingly, she meets again that student from R- Simon, with whom she falls hopelessly and silently in love with. It is not to be however, and Deborah is heartbroken. Numbed and hardly knowing what she is doing, she agrees to an arranged marriage to a young man in Antwerp – we sense that this will not be the happy ever after that Deborah deserves.

“When they presented Deborah with a long, golden chain and hung it round her neck, she shivered at the touch of the cold metal and at the thought that the most vicious of dogs might safely be tied up with a chain such as this.”

I can’t say too much more about what happens to Deborah from here – but the ending of the novel is powerful – heralding the horrors that were already unfolding in Europe when Esther Kreitman was writing and that would get worse.

Deborah is a vivid and poignant story of a world which we might not see very often in literature, her characters are real – and we know they came from life. Esther Kreitman writes with an unsurprising anger for the wasted lives and the horrifying fate that awaited so many of her community. It is a book that deserves to be better known than I believe it is.

July in review

The last day of July! Gosh, that really went quickly. The sun is shining today at least, and on these rare and glorious days I do take advantage of the sun and read outside. Let’s hope for a bit more of it.

So, then this is what I read in July, the final book of the month finished just this morning in the garden. Oddly, this last week has been a very slow reading week – no idea why – still my total stands at ten, which considering the last week isn’t too bad – two of this month’s books read on kindle.

My first read of the month was Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles – which was picked at my suggestion by my book group. The novel follows the decline into debauchery of two very different women, Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering. I enjoyed it, Bowles’ straightforward narrative voice is very engaging and rather mischievous.

Read for Spanish Lit month, Carlos Manuel Álverez’s debut novel The Fallen tells the story of an ordinary family living together in Cuba. It’s a short novel, tender and at times painful. An enjoyable and honest portrayal of Cuban family life.

The Matchmaker by Stella Gibbons was certainly the post that received the most views and comments this month, it seems people love her books. In the first early winter of peace, after the end of the Second World War, Alda Lucie-Brown and her three young daughters move to Pine Cottage in rural Sussex uprooted by the bombing of their family home near London. Alda then involves herself just a bit too much in the love lives of some of her neighbours.

Quicksand & Passing by Nella Larsen – two novellas in one volume. I first read Passing some years ago, but not Quicksand, I decided to read them both back to back. What an extraordinary pair they are. So much to think about.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo came in my Books That Matter subscription box. It’s a marmite book that’s for sure, and though it gave me a lot to think about and while I didn’t hate it, I did have some issues with it.

Miss Plum and Miss Penny by Dorothy Evelyn Smith a lovely Dean Street Press book I had been looking forward to a lot. What I really enjoyed in this novel is that beneath the story of a spinster’s disrupted village household there are some dark undertones and a slightly subversive tone. This is as far as I have got in reviewing July’s books, but that’s ok, as some of my next reads are for August’s #Witmonth anyway.

Deborah by Esther Kreitman translated from Yiddish by the author’s son. The story of Polish Jews before the First World War. A slow start, but I thoroughly enjoyed this evocative, fascinating novel that took me right into the heart of a community.

Hurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor translated from Spanish, this Mexican novel is shortlisted for the International booker prize. A fairly no holes barred account, often brutal and very intense. I can see why it made the shortlist. There were moments when I struggled to like this one.

A House in the Country by Ruth Adam – another of the new crop of Dean Street press books. Not to be confused with the Persephone book of the same name. The story of a group of friends taking on a large (33 room) house in the country after years of wartime deprivations.

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs by Elsa Triolet translated from French. Four stories of differing lengths about the French resistance. This turned out to be a slow read, but very evocative for all that.

So, that was my July in books. Here’s to whatever August brings – August of course, as I talked about in a previous post is all about #Witmonth and All Virago All August. I will juggle the two – although the book I am about to start is for neither challenge. It seems I can’t help but get distracted/attracted by other things. So, following a lovely author event via Zoom the other day, my brand new copy of Miss Benson’s Beetle by Rachel Joyce arrived on Wednesday and I am about to dive in. It is just what I am in the mood for. I definitely have more lovely books for Women in Translation month and All Virago all August ready to go too – so I am hoping for a good month of reading ahead.

What lovely things did you read in July? Are you joining in with Women in Translation month or All Virago All August – if so what will be on top of your pile?

With thanks to the publisher for the ebook

It is probably not much of a surprise that after my last read – Three Women by Lisa Taddeo – I needed something totally different, by way of a palate cleanser, something I could rely on. I turned therefore to Dean Street Press, and the first of two of the new releases that Dean Street kindly sent me. The new batch are out in August – and this was one I had been especially looking forward to.

Miss Plum and Miss Penny is my first book by Dorothy Evelyn Smith – someone I had heard enough about from others to know I wanted to read, but whose books are difficult to find. Hooray therefore that Dean Street have re-issued this one, and The British Library women writers’ series will be bringing out another in a couple of months or so.

What I really enjoyed in this novel is that beneath the story of a spinster’s disrupted village household there are some dark undertones and a slightly subversive tone. I also rather liked the fact that in this late 1950s village – it isn’t all flower arranging and good works, but people actually sit and watch tv in the evenings – just like us! It also makes a rather fun companion to another Dean Street novel I reviewed recently – Not at Home – another story of household disruption.

This novel opens as Alison Penny wakes up on her fortieth birthday. She is a contented single woman, living with her long time faithful servant/companion/friend Ada. Ada is fiercely protective of Alison, and we get the impression that she would happily work for her for free. Alison has never married – and she is quite happy with the way her life has turned out – her one near miss was George – who her protective (controlling?) parents disapproved of and sent packing.

“Love isn’t safe. Love is a blinding flash in the dark. It is a leap over a cliff. It is a breathless dive to the bottom of the ocean…”

Now, each year on her birthday Alison receives a letter from George sent from which ever far flung corner of the globe he finds himself in. She looks forward to the letter – it is a tradition, part of the natural rhythm of her life. This year however, there is no letter from George, Ada is indignant on Alison’s behalf, but Alison tries hard to take it philosophically. She decides to go out, to have lunch and see a film.

Later, walking in the park near the duck pond, Alison sees a young woman in some obvious distress, and walks away to give her some privacy, however on glancing back she sees the woman appears to be about to throw herself into the duck pond. Alison acts at once, racing to drag the young women away from the water and back to the safety of dry land – where she immediately takes her in hand, making sure she is fed and dried off at the local YWCA. However, when the YWCA can’t take in the poor sad creature Alison decides she must take her home for a day or so, from where she will be able to help her back on her feet.

The young woman is Miss Plum; Miss Victoria Plum (don’t laugh she’s quite sensitive about her name), and once installed, she becomes surprisingly difficult to shift. Ada is certainly none too impressed with the resident of the spare room – Miss Plum, spends several days unwell in bed – looked after very well indeed by both Alison and Ada – although later, Alison is suspicious about just how well Victoria knows the house layout and whereabouts of things downstairs when she has been apparently bed ridden upstairs since her arrival.

“It was not until she was just on the verge of sleep that a sudden and rather frightening thought smote Alison.

Today was Miss Plum’s first day downstairs. How, then, had she been aware of the sofa bed in the breakfast room? How had she been able to lay hands with such unerring precision on teapot and tea caddy, milk, sugar and biscuits? How had she known where the spare hot-water bottles were kept?

The all too obvious answers sent her shrinking farther under the bedclothes.”

Victoria has soon got her feet well and truly under the table. Alison turns to two of her village friends for some advice on how best to ease her out of the house. They are Hubert, the local widowed vicar, and Stanley. Stanley is a man rather set in his ways, he has a very comfortable home, and is ministered to by the marvellous Mrs Platt. Both these men have considered whether they shouldn’t just marry Alison – though whether they would make her happy has never much entered their heads. While Stanley’s life is very much one of order, elegance and routine, Hubert is a man whose has never got over his wife’s death. His life is far from ordered, the main disruption in his life is his fourteen year old son Ronnie. Ronnie is particularly obnoxious and annoying in way teenagers can be at times. The fact of the matter is neither of Alison’s friends take her problem very seriously, and before anything much can be put into place, Alison falls ill with flu, just as Ada sprains her ankle. There is only one person therefore who can look after them both and she does so with obvious joy.

As Alison and Ada recover – more and more things seem to get in the way of getting Miss Plum out of the house. Christmas approaches, snow falls, and an unexpected visitor descends on the village. Meanwhile, Miss Plum manages to ingratiate her way into the life of the village – making quite an impression it seems on young Ronnie.

This was such a good read – I really appreciated that characters weren’t perfect and very relatable – not everything is tidied up in the traditional way. There is humour and pathos here, and I do love a story that isn’t as cosy as it may look from afar. Really looking forward to reading more by Dorothy Evelyn Smith soon.

Recently, I bought myself a Books that Matter book box – a feminist themed box which each month contains a book and three gifts. I don’t want to waste too much time writing about the subscription box itself – but I was pleased with my first box – and having been convinced I would get a book that I had already read or had on the shelf I was just pleased that I received a book I hadn’t got. Everybody gets the same book, and the same gifts each month. The book was Three Women by Lisa Taddeo – which I had heard of and seen reviewed, and to be honest wasn’t really on my radar to buy for myself, but once it had arrived I was intrigued enough to read it straight away.

This is where reviewing this book becomes hard – I didn’t absolutely hate it, but there were times when I really found it hard to like. It is a book which has had so many plaudits, the back cover and inside pages are covered with glowing testimonials. However, with a quick glance at Goodreads – and following a Twitter thread I initiated while reading – it soon becomes apparent that is also a book that divides opinion fiercely.

“It’s the nuances of desire that hold the truth of who we are at our rawest moments. I set out to register the heat and sting of female want so that men and other women might more easily comprehend before they condemn. Because it’s the quotidian moments of our lives that will go on forever, that will tell us who we were, who our neighbors and our mothers were, when we were too diligent in thinking they were nothing like us. This is the story of three women.”

Three Women is book about women’s desire. It is a non-fiction book – though the cover looks like a novel – and in fact, the author uses a narrative style throughout the book that is immediately compelling, deliberately so I assume. It is literally a book about three women – a book that took eight years for the author to research and write. It is clear to me that Lisa Taddeo is committed to the women whose stories she tells here – she has told their stories faithfully, with great honesty and no judgement and that is to her credit. The three women are three white, straight, American women – two of whom appear to be of a similar age – and in that we have my first problem. There is a narrowness here that I couldn’t get away from, I was unable to identify with any of these women – a few people I have spoken to who have read this book said they couldn’t either. I don’t think this narrowness is in any way deliberate, it’s just the way it turned out – there is mention in the epilogue of another woman who dropped out of the project – a bi-sexual black woman originally from Dominica. In alternating chapters Lisa Taddeo tells us the stories of Maggie, Lina and Sloane.

Maggie – was a confused teenager, desperate to be understood she turned to a teacher for help – and at sixteen found herself in a relationship with him (the age of consent in many US states is eighteen). This is a relationship driven by her obsession – but controlled absolutely by this married teacher. A few years later – Maggie brings him to court – where she finds herself unbelieved, a target for sneers and ribald jokes in the town where she lives.

“Her whole life stretches out before her, a path of imprecise but multiple directions. She could be an astronaut, a rap star, an accountant. She could be happy.”

Lina wanted to be desired, to be seen as attractive. Suffering sexual assault as a teenager – she is later married to a man who never touches her. A mother with two children, she embarks on an affair with a man who she was obsessed with in her teens. Here again, the man is the one who calls the shots – her desire for this man eclipses everything else – their meetings hurried and passionate lack any kind of care or affection.

“Later she will text him, thank you for taking the time, for spending so much time with me today.

If you ask her how long it was she will say, Gee, I’d say it was almost thirty minutes.”

Having battled an eating disorder, Sloane has been successful in the restaurant business she and her husband have worked hard to establish. However, she is married to man who likes to watch her have sex with other men and women. She wants to make her husband happy; she wants to be admired and she tells herself that her husband will always want her. Compelled by the love of her husband Sloane finds herself acting out her husband’s sexual fantasies and telling herself its okay.

Supposedly a feminist work about women’s desire – and I’m not saying it isn’t – for me though, it was more a book about destructive sexual obsessions and oppression. Lisa Taddeo’s writing is good – she is particularly candid in the discussions of these women’s sexual experiences – the candid nature of which I had no problem with, but the frequency I found more wearisome. While these desires do come from the women themselves, there is no empowerment here and no doubt that is the point, and that I found rather depressing. Of the three stories, only one of them is really interesting, the other two I was drawn into by the compelling nature of Taddeo’s prose – and I was always just interested enough to read on and find out what happened to them. I’m still not one hundred percent sure what I think of this book, I can see why it is loved by some and I can see why it is so disliked by others. It would make a marvellous book group choice; it was actually suggested at my book group a few months ago and not picked – it would have kept us talking for hours!

A few years ago, I read Passing by Nella Larsen with my book group, I was blown away by it. However, despite having this convenient edition containing both Larsen’s famous novellas I never managed to get around to Quicksand. When I read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett recently, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Passing – and I decided I would re-read it, but not before I read Quicksand as well.

Nella Larsen did not produce a large body of work which is a shame, these two short novels and a few short stories appear to be it – yet what she has produced is extraordinary in its discussion of race in the United States in the early part of the Twentieth century. The heroines in these two slight novels are complex, their desires and frustrations palpable.

Quicksand was the first to be published – it appears to be particularly autobiographical. Helga Crane is an attractive, genteel young woman, the daughter of a white Danish mother and a black West Indian father. When her mother died, Helga at fifteen years old was thrust upon the mercies of her mother’s relatives, who objected to having the child of a black man reliant upon them. Only one uncle; Peter was ever kind to her.

As the novel opens Helga is teaching in a black boarding school in the South and is engaged to be married. Yet, Helga is far from satisfied, strongly disagreeing with the philosophy of the school where she works, Helga decides to leave, and head back North to Chicago where she grew up and where her mother’s family still live.

“This great community, she thought, was no longer a school. It had grown into a machine. It was now a show place in the black belt, exemplification of the white man’s magnanimity, refutation of the black man’s inefficiency. Life had died out of it. It was, Helga decided, now only a big knife with cruelly sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern. Teachers as well as students were subjected to the paring process, for it tolerated no innovations, no individualisms, Ideas it rejected, and looked with open hostility on one and all who had the temerity to offer a suggestion or ever so mildly express a disapproval. Enthusiasm, spontaneity, if not actually suppressed, were at least openly regretted as unladylike or ungentlemanly qualities. The place was smug and fat with self-satisfaction.”

This is just the first of several journeys Helga will embark upon in a bid to find the life she is comfortable with. Helga has never felt a part of the black communities that she has encountered in her life, but neither is she entirely comfortable in white communities. Over time, Helga begins to think the way that race is viewed in America is the problem.

Rejected by her Uncle Peter’s new, bigoted wife – Helga takes the opportunity to travel to New York where she later gets a job as a secretary to a black woman who is enormously concerned with the ‘race problem.’ Helga’s restlessness takes her to Copenhagen, and the home of her maternal aunt, in Denmark, she discovers she is treated entirely differently, a woman of colour she is desirable suddenly and exotic. Eventually, Helga begins to miss the black people she once thought she was anxious to go away from, and she returns to America. The decisions she makes thereafter are questionable – and the novel’s ending is far from optimistic.

Passing was published just a year after Quicksand, for me it is just on another level – absolutely brilliant, unforgettable, and quite heart-breaking. It portrays what the realities were for middle-class African-Americans in the United states of the 1920s. Irene Redfield and Clare Bellew are two light-skinned black women who grew up together and were childhood friends.

“The trouble with Clare was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.”

They meet by chance in a restaurant – where neither of them would be allowed to go, were the management aware of their heritage. While Irene is ‘passing’ for mere convenience – to have tea somewhere elegant and refined near to where she was shopping – Clare spends her whole life passing as a white woman. Married to John Bellew – a bigoted white businessman, she also has a daughter – neither of whom know of her heritage.  Irene is married to a black doctor – with whom she has two sons.

“She wished to find out about this hazardous business of “passing,” this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly.”

Having met again, the lives of the two women become entwined again – rather against Irene’s better judgement. Irene realises that Clare is living a dangerous existence – and deep down wants no part of it. When she is brought face to face with Clare’s husband and his sneering racism and hears the vile nickname he has for his wife – Irene vows to have nothing more to do with her childhood friend. So, when Clare turns up at Irene’s door and invites herself to a charity event Irene has been arranging – we sense that this will not end well.

Two slight novels with big themes, Quicksand and Passing are still enormously relevant today. I found these two novels made for fascinating companions to some of the modern novels which explore similar themes – notably of course The Vanishing Half.

Well #Witmonth is nearly upon us, and again I am gearing up to join in with what has become a huge annual reading event. As many of you will know – for members of the Virago readers group on Librarything August is also when we do AVAA (all Virago all August – though no one expects to do that literally).

So, this year I have got together a few titles that will tick off both challenges at once. A close look at the photo above will reveal many of the titles I have waiting for Witmonth – embarrassingly, a few of them were on last year’s pile. I won’t go through all of them now – but there are several I am really looking forward to. I have started my WIT/AVAA reading early by starting Deborah by Esther Kreitman (1936) – a novel of Jewish life in Poland in the early part of the twentieth century – translated from the Yiddish by M. Carr. Some of the others I am looking forward to include A Fine of Two Hundred Francs by Elsa Triolet, Waking Lions by Ayelet Gunder-Goshen and The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa – not pictured because I have the paperback on pre-order. There are also some excellent looking titles on my kindle including, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and Paula by Sandra Hoffmann.

Last year I posted my top ten #Witmonth books (to date) so if you follow the link that will lead you to a few more recommendations from me. However, if you’re are still after some inspiration, here are some more recommendations for some great books by women in translation.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970) translated from Hungarian.

I have loved everything I have read by Magda Szabó – this was the most recent. It is 1943, and in Germany, Hitler is becoming frustrated by the direction the so called ‘Jewish question’ has been moving in Hungary. A senior army General in Budapest, sees the way the wind is blowing, knowing that their allies Germany will surely invade soon, he decides to send his fourteen year old daughter Georgina Vitay, across Hungary to a boarding school in Árkod, an old University town in Eastern Hungary. She has a lot to learn about others, and about what is really going on in her country.

The Artificial Silk Girl – by Irmgard Keun (1932) – translated from German.

An evocative portrait of the roaring Weimar Berlin of the 1920s/30s – it is also a wonderfully poignant story of a quirky, radical young woman, whose voice I found immediately captivating. The Artificial Silk Girl was Irmgard Keun’s second novel – banned by the Nazis it had been an instant best seller when it was first published. With the Nazis coming to power in 1933, this novel depicts life just before that tumultuous time.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997) translated from Norwegian.

Beautiful but brutal, this unforgettable novella, had me thinking me about it for weeks after I had finished. Love is the story of a mother and son, and one long, bitterly cold night of their lives. Vibeke is a single mother, she and her eight-year-old son have fairly recently moved to this Northern town in Norway.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (2010)– translated from Arabic.

A book I read quite recently; Celestial Bodies is a beautifully layered novel – told from several viewpoints. The story of a well to do Omani family and the society within which they live is told in alternating chapters, an omniscient third person narrator and Abdallah the husband of one of the sisters at the heart of this novel. The narrative moves back and forth in time, using the memory of various characters to reveal the story of three sisters, their parents, and in time their husbands.

Drive your plow over the Bones of the dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) translated from Polish.

This is an extraordinary, and endlessly readable novel Olga Tokarczuk is exploring lots of things at once. Examining traditional ideas of ‘madness,’ animal rights and the hypocrisy of religion Drive your Plow… is also a wonderful portrayal of the lives of those living in isolation who don’t conform to everyone else’s way of thinking. These are big themes, and they are presented in a very thought provoking, intelligent way, wrapped around a mystery, this can’t be seen as a traditional crime story.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (1943) translated from French.

This short novel by Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe is a beautifully written story about a woman’s passion for life. In this novella, Bourdouxhe subtly combines, tenderness, humour and sensuality in her exploration of a woman’s experience of life.  

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2004) translated from Icelandic.

Despite its rather abrupt ending – I really enjoyed this novel last Witmonth. At the heart of it is a free spirited woman, whose life it set on an entirely new course, thanks to an Icelandic road trip and deaf-mute four year old. It’s a charming novel full of colourful characters, long empty roads and self-discovery.

A world Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939 – 1945 translated from Swedish.  

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. The diary of a truly fascinating and intelligent woman.

Liar by Aylet Gundar-Goshen (2018) translated from Hebrew.

I persuaded my book group to read this last year – and though it divided us a little I think, I enjoyed this novel about a teenage girl caught up in her own terrible lie. Lies are tricky things – they have the habit of multiplying, taking on a life of their own – getting out of control. This novel explores the nature of lies and how quickly they can travel – what those lies might mean to the liar, and what the consequences could be.

Maman, What are we Called now by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar (1957) translated from French.

Persephone book number 115, first published in French in 1957, it was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. It is the diary of a few weeks in 1944, after the author’s husband was arrested. It depicts the last weeks of the German occupation of Paris.

So, there we are, what are you planning to read (if anything) for Women in Translation month?

It seems a long time since I have read anything by Stella Gibbons. Best known of course for Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons was in fact a very prolific writer of novels short stories and poetry, she even wrote a children’s book. The Matchmaker was her eleventh novel – and it’s a fairly chunky one. There were moments when I felt the novel maybe could have been shorter – the narrative certainly slows down a little in places, but really that is a small thing. Overall, this was a novel that was a pleasure to spend time with – and what I really appreciated was that Stella Gibbons had the ability to surprise me – she doesn’t always go down exactly the route you think she will.

In the first early winter of peace, after the end of the Second World War, Alda Lucie-Brown and her three young daughters move to Pine Cottage in rural Sussex uprooted by the bombing of their family home near London. As the novel opens Alda’s husband Ronald arrives home on leave – and together they explore the little cottage that the family will move into in the following days. It’s far from ideal – and it is really a case of making do.

“Alda had been homeless for so long that she had almost ceased to grieve (or so she told herself) for the elegant homely double-fronted house in the old quarter of Ironborough which she and Ronald had been carefully, lovingly filling with furniture and books. Home, for her, was now wherever Ronald and the children and she herself could gather together in front of a fire or about a table…”

The cottage is quite remote, their nearest neighbours are the Hoadleys at Naylor’s farm, and just behind Pine cottage is a small chicken farm. With no car, and no bicycles, the youngest child just three years old getting out and about will become challenging for Alda as the winter takes hold. She is certainly used to a busier life – she’s also used to having her girls around her all day – with the move to Pine cottage, the older two girls, Jenny and Louise will be attending the convent school each day. She really needs something to do – something to liven up her life at Pine cottage.

Alda’s friend Jean arrives to stay following the death of her father. Jean is quite a wealthy woman having inherited her father’s business and having grown up in a well to do family. She is a kind, loyal friend, she adores Alda’s girls – for what Jean really wants – and has always wanted is a family of her own. At around thirty-two she is about the same age as Alda – they were friends at school. Her most recent romantic disappointment the latest in a long line. For fifteen years Alda has supported her friend through numerous trials and disappointments – offering advice whenever she can. Here, the reader begins to wonder whether Alda’s advice is always good. There is just a suggestion of the smug married here – Alda who married young for love – who could have had her pick – and went on to have three lovely daughters – surely, she must therefore be a dispenser of good, sound advice on matters of the heart. If you’re already thinking Emma Wodehouse – you’re not far from the mark.

Meanwhile, at Naylor’s farm the Hoadleys are helped on the farm by two Italian POWs – Emilio and Fabrio arrive each day from the camp. Emilio has a family back in Italy, a wife and children – Fabrio is unmarried though he sometimes gets letters from Maria who he hasn’t seen in years. Fabrio longs for his home in San Angelo. The two men struggle with their English and are viewed as lazy by Mr Hoadley. A young land-girl comes to the farm, Sylvia is eighteen, a communist with ambitions to go on the stage. Fabrio is shocked at her blowsy appearance as she strides around in trousers, her hair piled up on top of her head – she isn’t at all what he thinks of as a young lady. Sylvia is a bright, breezy breath of fresh air – and offers to teach Fabrio English.

“And Fabrio did not feel himself to be a slave. How should he? In that unbroken pride of youth which is so strong that the young man or woman who experiences it feels: I shall never die, and this warm sunny wind blows into my face while I stride against it like a lord of the earth, and then (if she is a girl) she moves her rounded neck to see her gold earrings reflected in the window of the car and feels her power, right down to the very tip of her eyelashes. Fabrio, too, was still sustained by his former close contact with the earth and the sea, though month by month, as the life of the camp held him fast, the refreshing force declined in strength.”

At the chicken farm Mr Wait leads a rather lonely life – he is a good looking man – Alda soon discovers, though very old fashioned in his views. However, old fashioned opinions aside, he is soon revealed to be a very kind man. Alda and the girls make his acquaintance soon after moving in, but with the arrival of Jean the two households begin to have more and more to do with each other.

Alda is soon on full interfering alert – she decides that Mr Wait will do perfectly well for Jean, and silly little Sylvia really could do a lot worse than marry Fabrio. The trouble is Alda makes really rather too many assumptions about people – and thinks she knows what is best for them. If that isn’t enough, Jean’s last romantic entanglement – hearing of her father’s death – comes looking for her.

Not quite everything is tidied up neatly – just like life – which I rather liked – and Stella Gibbons really allows her characters to be flawed. There are no road to Damascus moments with people suddenly realising the errors of their ways and swearing to do better – something else that never happens in life. Alda is annoying – Mr Wait needs to be brought up to date, and Sylvia can be stubborn and selfish. Some hearts get terribly bruised thanks to Alda’s interference – but the ending is something of a joy – but perhaps not the one many readers would be expecting.

Translated by Frank Wynne

My second read for Spanishlit month was The Fallen a Cuban novel from the lovely Fitzcarraldo that I bought specifically for this reading challenge. What I know of Cuba comes mainly from TV and from people I know who have been on holiday there, their experiences entirely different from those who actually live in the country of course.

Carlos Manuel Álverez’s debut novel The Fallen tells the story of an ordinary family living together in Cuba. It’s a short novel, tender and at times painful. The novel is narrated by each member of the family in turn – the son, the mother, the father, the daughter, they are Diego, Mariana, Armando and Maria. This is a family living in quiet crisis – they are struggling to adequately take care of each other, so many things are going unspoken between them.

Diego the son is disillusioned – at eighteen he is forced to endure the obligatory military service; he leaves home bitter and angry. Every minute of his service – the boredom of long hours of guard duty – he longs to have his service over with. He is a young man frustrated by the limited freedoms that his country allows him and others. He wonders how his mother is, phones and asks her how she is, has she fallen today? He wishes that he had a father who would have bribed the admissions board to get him out of the military service he so detests.

“At 10.30 pm. Insects are fluttering around the bare yellow bulb on the quad, a background hum that grows louder as the night wears on. Anything that breaks the silence clearly benefits the soldier and his mental health.”

(the Son)

His mother Mariana is unwell, her life has changed, and she is having to relinquish some of the duties of the family home to her daughter. Once she was a teacher, now she stays in the family apartment all day.

“What exactly am I, if I already know I am not this flesh? Where is my house, my home? What part of me can they kill that does not ache? What part would hurt like a distant relative? What part would hurt like a family member and what part would hurt as though it were me? I am not a corpuscle moving through my own body from crown to toe. I lie quite still, curled up behind some specific zone, trying to make sure that death does not find me. I look at my hand, move it, and it seems independent of me. I understand that I am not this hand, that I am located somewhere outside it.”

(the mother)

She has been receiving unpleasant, anonymous phone calls – on the phone shared by them and other families in their block that no one else uses. She thinks she knows who might be responsible. And recalls a long held resentment between her and a neighbour and former colleague.

Armando is a committed revolutionary, but he is frequently dismayed by the corruption he encounters on an almost daily basis. He works as a manager in a state owned tourist hotel, he was transferred there from his previous role elsewhere.

“… I am an honest and irreproachable boss, like Che Guevara, who once visited a bicycle factory where the lickspittle manager tried to give him a bicycle for his daughter and Che put him in his place, saying that these bicycles weren’t his, meaning the manager’s, that they belonged to the state and he had no right to give them away.”

(The father)

Armando tells the Che Guevara bicycle story frequently to anyone he suspects may be acting for their own interests. It’s a story that his family are very familiar with. He is proud of the ’95 Nissan that he drives, but it is constantly running out of petrol – and he can’t work out why.

Maria has now left school and has been working in one of the state run tourist hotels. After she has been working in the hotel for a while her father is appointed as manager. She worries about her mother, devastated by her mother’s illness, she finds her own way to help. She has a boyfriend called René a chauffeur from the hotel who has become her father’s driver. Marie has started stealing from the hotel and René helps.

This exploration of family is superb – through the eyes of these four individuals we gradually begin to unravel some of the truths of this family. Álverez’s portrait of modern Cuba is a poignant one – a reminder of how simple freedoms some of us can take for granted are denied to others. Álverez shows us the clear divisions that exist between one generation and the next – the clash of idealism and cynical realism.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Fallen – what a truly excellent debut it is. Also, these Fitzcarraldo editions are just so beautiful, classy and stylish – and judging by this, my third read from their stable – the contents are rather classy too.

Two Serious Ladies has sat on my shelves unread for some time, so I was delighted when having suggested it to my book group, they picked it for our July read. An American modern classic, I quite understand why some people are bemused by this modernist novel – it perhaps takes some thinking about. All in all, I really enjoyed it, Bowles’ straightforward narrative voice is very engaging and rather mischievous. Jane Bowles was a woman who appears able to have lived the life she wanted – and in this novel she celebrates female freedom in the stories of the eccentric Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering.

The novel follows the decline into debauchery of two very different women. Frieda Copperfield and Christina Goering are social acquaintances, part of the same circle they meet at parties and such like, though in the novel they only come together twice, once near to the beginning of the novel, and again right at the end.

The novel opens with Christine Goering as a child – a child as unpopular as she will be as an adult. Disturbingly, the child Christina plays a rather odd game with another child, a friend of her sister’s – which the reader is certain will lead at any moment to the other child’s drowning – it doesn’t. The point of this incident no doubt is to highlight the oddness in Miss Goering and her inability to form normal friendships.

“I wanted to be a religious leader when I was young and now I just reside in my house and try not to be too unhappy. I have a friend living with me, which makes it easier.”

As an adult Miss Goering is living in New York with her companion Miss Gamelon – a recent addition to household. She is very wealthy, and she is in a sense trapped by that wealth and her place in society. At a party given by their mutual friend Anna – Miss Goering meets another acquaintance, Mrs Copperfield – who tells Christina she will be going away with her husband. These are the two serious ladies of the title – they are both quite staid though in different ways, one of them trapped by her money the other by a conventional marriage.

Mrs Copperfield accompanies her husband to Panama – where they stay close the red light district of Colón. Here Mrs Copperfield (as she is almost always referred to – reminding us perhaps of her supposed serious lady status) makes an unexpected bid for freedom, taking up with the ladies of the Hotel de las Palmas, a bar and hotel owned by the wonderfully bizarre Mrs Quill. Mrs Copperfield becomes greatly enamoured of the young Panamanian prostitute Pacifica, who she will later take back with her to the states. While still in the country, Mrs Copperfield moves into the Hotel de las Palmas – abandoning her husband to the cheap hotel he chose but she rejected, and his much anticipated trip into the jungle.  

Mrs Copperfield’s adventures in Panama are colourful, liberating, and hilarious. Of the two stories within this novel, this was the one I engaged with the most. Certainly, there is something joyful in the feeling that finally, Mrs Copperfield is a happy woman.

“True enough,” said Mrs. Copperfield, bringing her fist down on the table and looking very mean. “I have gone to pieces, which is a thing I’ve wanted to do for years. I know I am as guilty as I can be, but I have my happiness, which I guard like a wolf, and I have authority now and a certain amount of daring, which, if you remember correctly, I never had before.”

Meanwhile, Miss Christine Goering makes her own peculiar bid for liberation. She decides that she will live on just a fraction of her income and buys a small and not very nice house on Staten Island – where she, her companion Miss Gamelon and her friend Arnold set up home together. The three are not entirely comfortable together – and the odd arrangement is far from ideal. Soon, Miss Goering is making secret trips across to the mainland by ferry, where she starts to haunt quayside bars, meeting men and becoming what can only be described as a high class call girl.

“‘Having a nice time?’ the girl asked Miss Goering in a husky voice.

‘Well’ said Miss Goering, ‘It wasn’t exactly in order to have a good time that I came out. I have more or less forced myself to, simply because I despise going out in the night-time alone and prefer not to leave my own house. However, it has come to such a point that I am forcing myself to make these little excursions.’”

In this 1940s novel, sex is only ever really implied – and it doesn’t seem to be something these two women desire for themselves, especially, maybe not even enjoy that much – but it represents a freedom, an independence from their previous existences.   

As I write this review it is Monday afternoon, and I am a couple of hours away from my book group zoom meeting – and I am really looking forward to our discussion. What will we all think? I am anticipating that we may not all feel exactly the same about the book, that’s fine – we can’t all feel the same about books, and I am secure in my great liking for this book – and especially the character of Mrs Copperfield who I rather adored. It’s a book I like even more as I think about it afterwards, if I didn’t have quite so many books waiting I could almost sit straight down and re-read it immediately.