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brother in ice

Translated from Catalan/Spanish by Mara Faye Letham

When this genre defying novel (?) first arrived from the Asymptote book club I had a flick through it, and somewhat confused, felt it might not be for me. Well I was wrong, we should never judge these things too quickly. Certainly, Brother in Ice took me a little outside my comfort zone, both in style and form but I found myself reading it quickly with great enjoyment. I was particularly fascinated by the way Alicia Kopf had chosen to structure her book, after a while it started to make sense. It all works wonderfully well, what an interesting writer this woman is.

Having won awards in both its Catalan and Spanish editions, this edition is published by And Other Stories.

“I placed my foot on very thin ice. First I slipped. Now I’m sinking…
Moments of sun alternate with gusts of pain and longing that cut through my chest with the whimper of a dog that’s been run over.”

polarexplorersPart research notes, part first person fictionalised account, part travelogue, Alicia Kopf uses the stories of famous polar explorations to explore her narrator’s family and coming of age. Our narrator becomes fascinated by the tales of these long-ago explorers, Shackleton, Peary, Admundsen, Cook and Scott, so throughout the book she scatters little bits of internet research about these men, their triumphs, controversies and failures. These are stories of heroism of survival and loss. We quickly get drawn into these often well-known stories that still have the ability to fascinate.

“My brother is a man trapped in ice. He looks at us through it; he is there and he is not there. Or more precisely, there is a fissure inside him that periodically freezes over. When he is present, his outline is more clearly defined; other times he’s submerged for a while.”

In the narrative sections our narrator explores her difficult, fragile family and her own artistic life. Like Kopf herself the narrator has an older brother who is on the autistic spectrum, although he remained undiagnosed until well into adulthood. She sees her brother as a man trapped in ice – and strives to understand how his mind might work. When he is tired he doesn’t go to bed unless he is told to, he needs to be told to do most things otherwise he remains frozen, trapped. Her mother is sometimes distant, caught up with her own work and caring for her son. Still processing her parents’ separation years earlier, our narrator is a thirtysomething artist, lurching through a series of unsuitable job and unsatisfying relationships.

“The desires frozen for lack of money or unrequited love are different from the ones we freeze because we’ve given up on them. The latter have the gleam of stoic heroism. Even though we might be renouncing our desires out of fear, and we’ll spend our lives blind, without feeling or seeing anything…On the other hand, if we obey our desires we could end up lost.”

She lives in an unnamed city, working in a cold, white studio – one of many metaphors for cold or ice. Later she travels to Iceland, and I must admit this was probably one of my favourite sections of the book, as I had a short holiday in Reykjavik in February 2017, and I am sure I will go back.

I couldn’t help but wonder where our narrator ended, and the author Alicia Kopf began, there is so much that feels autobiographical. I understood completely the author’s fascination with polar exploration and stories of survival – her use of these stories in exploring her unnamed narrator’s brother’s condition is surprisingly powerful. Kopf captures the mood of strained family relationships against the struggle of a woman searching for an artistic independence of her own.

My main reason for joining the Asymptote book club was to take me outside me comfort zone, and this book has done that brilliantly. I heartily recommend these subscriptions – book six has recently arrived and this time we shall be travelling to modern China with The Chilli Bean Paste Clan by Yan Ge – another English Pen Award winner published in English by Balestier Press.

 

 

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