Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford

My book group chose Sworn Virgin as our March read, the premise is instantly fascinating I thought, and it is certainly a good compelling read. It also provided some interesting discussion points about gender for our little feminist book group.

“There’s something heroic about running away: you lose yourself, you fade away, you turn into a cloud, or maybe a man.”

In this novel the author (Albanian by birth but living in Italy) explores a little known tradition, still practised, in remote northern Albanian villages. Here, women who have no wish to marry, and with no male heirs, can declare themselves to be a ‘sworn virgin,’ thereafter, living their lives as men. Adopting a man’s name, clothing and undertaking the work that in these regions are traditionally male. From then on everyone in the community recognises them as male.

“If you don’t look pain straight in the face, it will take you over. It will inhabit you, a grubby black mass, a messy bundle. If you deal with it full on, on the other hand, there’s a chance that it will leave you alone.”

The novel opens in the US in 2001, Hana has arrived from Albania at the invitation of her cousin Lila who has been nagging her for years to join her family in America. On the plane she finds herself sat next to Patrick, a journalist with an interest in Albania. Only Hana arrives in America as Mark – she has been living as Mark in her remote Albanian village for the past fourteen years, after deciding to become a sworn virgin when she was nineteen. Now in America she can become Hana again – though it’s a process that will have its challenges after fourteen years in baggy male clothing. Initially Hana settles into the home Lila shares with her husband Shtjefën and their thirteen year old daughter Jonida. Shtjefën has only known Hana as Mark, Jonida has never been told the truth about her Uncle Mark, but now Hana has arrived in the US she has to be told.

The narrative then takes us back to 1986, Hana is studying in Tirana – where life is very different to the mountainous village of Rrnaje in the north where she grew up. She loves Tirana and it is here she meets Ben, another student who seems attracted to her too. However, before anything can progress between them, Hana is forced to give up her studies and return home. Since childhood Hana has lived with Uncle Gjergj and Aunt Katrina who took her in when her parents died. They have been as parents to her ever since. She loves them and knows what she owes them, though she has so much she wants from life that they can’t give her. Hana loves poetry, has a copy of Walt Whitman poems that she carries with her, she loves language.

“Albanians write a lot of poetry, they’re crazy about poems, but they’re scared of telling stories. You need persistence to narrate a story, as well as discipline. Full sentences don’t allow you to cheat or be lazy. Poetry does: it’s more worldly-wise, more fleeting, more musical. Narration is for monks, inscribing manuscripts all day until they’re hunchbacks.”

When her aunt dies suddenly, Uncle Gjergj is left alone, his health is poor, and Hana is obliged to return home to help him. As her uncle’s health worsens and knowing he won’t be around for long, Uncle Gjergj begins to talk of Hana’s marriage, desperate to have his adopted daughter settled before he goes. It is at this point that Hana makes her extraordinary decision and becomes Mark.

Buried in a remote mountainous region of Albania Hana begins to change, the way she dresses, the way she walks, she takes up smoking like the other village men, and works alongside the men of the village. As the years pass, she hears from Lila in America and meets a former classmate from Tirana, who is making a documentary. The real world though seems to be a long way away.

“All of us women back there in the mountains were basically workers and available bodies for our husbands; no one ever asked us our opinion, and we always obeyed. You hid yourself away instead of fighting for your cause. You became a man. Surprise, surprise, you took the easy choice! It’s easy to be a man! The real problem out there was being a woman, not being the usual jackass who kills himself with alcohol and tobacco.”

In October 2001, Hana finally makes the journey to America, to live with the only family she has left. Now Hana must negotiate a new way of living, shrugging off a male persona and becoming the young woman she was born to be is only part of it. She needs to get her driving licence, find a job, improve her English and eventually strike out on her own and get her own place. However, she is also a woman in her thirties who has never had a boyfriend, has no idea how to go about dating – and she feels rather ridiculous about it.

I did find this a fascinating and involving read, well written certainly, though I do think it lacked a little depth. The sections set in Albania were my favourite parts of the book, as I love reading about different societies. I was really drawn to Hana as a character, the relationships between her and Lila and also with her niece Jonida are really well captured though I would have liked the characters in these sections of the novel to be more deeply explored. Overall, Sworn Virgin is an engaging quick read (I read on kindle, which seems to make me read faster) about an unusual tradition that I was completely unaware even existed.

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Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund 

I don’t know about other bloggers, but I find I have to force myself a little bit to write about a book I was disappointed by.

Will and Testament by Vigdis Hjorth is a novel that’s been reviewed very positively by other bloggers and has won all kinds of plaudits since it was published. Not without controversy however, given its subject matter it left me rather cold. I’m still frustrated by that, as I had expected to really enjoy it. It was chosen by my book group as our February read (it rather divided the group, so perhaps I am not alone). I know a couple of members found it very uncomfortable reading, and now I think about it, I think that might have been part of my problem too.

“Funny how random it seems, our meeting people who later prove pivotal to our lives, who will affect or directly influence decisions that will cause our lives to change direction. Or perhaps it’s not random at all.”

I don’t really feel compelled to finish a book I’m not enjoying, even when they are book group reads. Life is far too short, quite frankly. Yet something about this novel interested me just enough to keep going to the end, though I’m not entirely sure I was rewarded for doing so.

Will and Testament is a novel about a seriously fractured family, which explores painfully the nature of trauma and memory.

Bergljot is in her fifties, a mother to grown up children and already a grandmother, she has broken relationships in her past, and a new man in her present. She receives word that her father has died, immediately plunging her into a complicated emotional turmoil. For Bergljot has had almost nothing to do with her family for twenty-three years. She had been withdrawing from her family before that, but therapy in her thirties revealed that something terrible had happened to her as a young child in her parents’ home. Her family had refused to entertain the possibility that her revelation could be true. Most readers will guess what this ‘secret’ is, but it’s sometime before it is spelled out.

“Then I reminded myself that the father I pitied wasn’t my dad, but an imaginary dad, the archetypal father, the mythical father, my lost father. I reminded myself that my actual father, the person I knew, wouldn’t be moved by Bård’s letter, but would instinctively go on the offensive. Dad’s final words to me, the last time I spoke to him on the telephone seven years ago were: If you want to see a psychopath, just look in the mirror.”

Her family had declared her a liar, and ever since Bergljot has only had infrequent email contact with one of her sisters. She is one of four siblings, one older brother and two younger sisters. The siblings seem divided into two groups. Bergljot and her brother a few years older than the two younger women, it would appear their childhood experiences and memories differ considerably.

Even before her father’s death, Bergljot had been drawn back unwillingly into her family as emails begin pinging back and forth between the siblings. The matter of most concern the ownership of two much loved and coveted summer cottages. Years before it had been agreed that the cottages would be shared between the four siblings, with each of them having a half share in one of them. Now it appears that the cottages will be willed to the two younger sisters. While the older two siblings will receive an equivalent amount in money – though Bergljot’s brother insists the cottages have been deliberately undervalued. While Bergljot is less interested in the cottages now, she regrets the fact that her children and grandchildren will not have the opportunity to use the cottages in the future. Now, her brother Bård is keen to get Bergljot over to his side – and she agrees to meet him. Slowly she begins to see that her brother’s memory of their childhood is not all that rosy either.

Hjorth’s narrative moves back and forth in time, revealing various aspects of Bergljot’s life bit by bit, exploring her relationships, friendship with Klara and withdrawal from her family in adulthood.

“Being an outsider makes you resourceful. Loss makes you resourceful. Poverty makes you resourceful, as does fighting with the tax office, being oppressed makes you resourceful. If you’re lucky enough to be successful, you mustn’t forget that, the skills you acquired when you were utterly miserable.”

So, why didn’t I enjoy this? I think there was just something about the writing style I didn’t engage with. I found the majority of the characters to be rather flat – the exception I think is Bergljot’s mother. She is a very well defined character, delusional, confrontational and quite chillingly cold toward her eldest daughter. I think I suffered a little too from a lack of description, I wanted a little more Norway – a little less arguing siblings maybe. There is a fair bit of repetition within the narrative too – which I am sure is deliberate and helps to create the atmosphere of conflict within the family – that conflict is certainly keenly felt by the reader. However, there were moments when I began to feel it was all a little tedious. Other readers have liked it much more than I did, but it didn’t hit the spot for me which I felt was a real shame. Aspects of the writing are excellent, as I hope the quotes I have pulled out show, but I was clearly just the wrong reader, or maybe it was the wrong time.

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Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

My second read for #Fitzcarraldofortnight was Dark Satellites – a collection of short stories by contemporary German writer Clemens Meyer whose novel Bricks and Mortar has received a lot of praise. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys contemporary short stories.

This is modern Germany, busy, multi-cultural – Meyer’s settings are the satellite towns away from the shiny heart of the modern city landscape. We have tower blocks, fast food restaurants, stations and industrial units. The people in these stories are wonderfully real, they too are rather out on the edge of things, marginalised people, the unseen and forgotten. These are people with memories of Germany before unification, their pasts are tied up with the coming down of the Berlin wall.

“Sometimes you lose yourself in time, you know, and it takes a few seconds to work out where you are.”

Meyer’s writing is brilliant, past and present are fairly fluid, always connected the minds of his characters moving between now and then. There are nine longish stories, each prefaced by a shorter opening piece.

Broken Glass in Unit 95 A guard spends his shift recalling the affair he had with a refugee woman several years earlier.

In Late Arrival, which was one of my favourite stories, two women meet and strike up a friendship. One is a cleaner on trains, she works through the night and one day she meets a hairdresser in a bar, sharing a few drinks. Two lonely people, connect.

“It was just after six in the morning, the end of the night shift on the trains, the start of the early shift in the salon. She’d swept and wiped all night, her workmates taciturn in the morning hours and everything difficult, and it seemed as though the trains they worked on got longer and longer, a new carriage waiting after every one they’d cleaned.”

A middle aged man in – The Beach Railway’s Last Runtakes some time away from his normal life when he visits the western breakwater. Here he meets an elderly man whose memories of wartime when he was a teenager remain ever present. The old man, recounts his story of those times, haunted by his actions and the split minute decision he was forced to make.

In the title story, Dark Satellites, we meet a young man who runs a burger bar. His business partner Mario has recently left – gone up the coast to run a floating fast food restaurant. It is in his burger bar, that he first meets Hamad who lives on the fourteenth floor of a nearby high rise with his girlfriend. The burger bar owner and Hamad’s girlfriend have become friendly, meeting up to smoke in the hallways – looking out the windows at the lights in the other high rise flicking on and off through the dark.

A train driver in The Distance has his life completely devastated when, while driving his night train he hits a laughing man on the railway tracks.

This is a collection of stories that perfectly illustrate the odd romanticism that comes with urban nights – perhaps that’s just me. One of my favourite things about my city is travelling in a taxi at night – looking through windows and glimpsing tiny bits of other lives. The part of the city I live in is old, industrial, very urban, others don’t look at it closely I don’t suppose, but I do, it’s like people watching, a little addictive. Meyer highlights chance, fleeting encounters between strangers – loneliness and memory.

“The nights were dull and endless, started at six and ended at six, they were like dark days that touched in the middle, and when they stopped being dull they got even darker and more endless and we wished we were bored again, hours half-asleep between our inspection rounds, our heads never allowed to touch the table top, we’d doze sitting up…”

Katy Derbyshire’s translation is superb (incidentally I discovered her Twitter the other day, and on it are photos of some of the places Mayer writes about/was inspired by).

I am so glad that I was prompted by Karen and Lizzie’s reading event to take this off the shelf, it was an excellent, deeply atmospheric reading experience.

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Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

This is the fourth of Magda Szabó’s to be translated into English by Len Rix, and for me it is an early contender for my books of the year list – which is a very long way off I admit. I have previously loved each of Magda Szabó’s other novels available in English, The Door, Iza’s Ballad and Katalin Street, and it is quite hard to pick favourites when the books are so different, but Abigail might just be it. I found Abigail to be such a fully immersive novel – I was glad it was a fairly chunky 440 odd pages because I didn’t want it to end.

Other Szabó novels hark back to the war and how it has impacted on people – though from a distance of years, this theme is continued here, though Abigail by contrast takes place during the war. 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.

Gina is rather spoiled, having had her father’s undivided attention for years, and with a doting aunt nearby who only encourages her romantic aspirations. Despite being only fourteen Gina already has her eye on a handsome young officer, only in his late teens his uniform gives him an irresistible glamour. Her French governess Marcelle has been sent home, because of the war, and Gina finds all the changes happening in her life overwhelming. Always able to persuade her father of things she wants in the past, she can’t imagine why he is determined to stick to this plan of a boarding school so very far away from home. She can only imagine he wants her out of the house, perhaps he is going to be re-married. As she and her father start out on the journey to Árkod Gina descends into a hopeless misery.

The school Gina’s father takes her to, is a fanatically puritanical school – compete with a black wholly enveloping uniform – and dozens of rules. It’s an environment unlike anything Gina has experienced before – the building itself more like a fortress than a school is impenetrable from the outside world. Her father promises to telephone each Saturday, explaining he will be too busy to write letters, then he leaves her with Sister Susanna, a Deaconess with whom Gina is destined to have a sometimes difficult relationship. Gina is shown to the year 5 dormitory (each year group stays together almost all the time, having little to do with other year groups) where all Gina’s belongings are taken from her and replaced with school issue – including her extraordinary uniform.

“As she pulled on the black ribbed stockings and the tall black boots she thought that that would be all. But she was wrong. What came next was, in its own way, even more horrifying than the new outfit. Susanna teased out her long tresses with the new wooden-handled brush that had replaced her old silver backed one, then chopped them short to match the other girls’ and added a parting down the middle and plaits, tied by the same black shoelace. Gina was now trembling with shock. They have swallowed me whole. I am no longer myself, she thought, and her breathing became a rapid pant.”

She meets the first of the girls with whom she will be spending her time. Gina; devastated at being separated from her father – is completely at sea in this new and strange environment. Gina starts to learn something of the strange traditions that exist in this place – several she decides are absurdly childish – and in her disdain she makes an early serious error – which puts her at serious odds with her classmates for weeks. During this period, Gina is horribly isolated and miserable – and she knows now she made an error of judgement, she has in fact a lot to learn. Gina begins to plan to run away. However, that won’t be quite as easy as she thinks. Gina’s superior attitude doesn’t always go down well with her teachers either. The school Director is Mr Torma a forbidding, inflexible presence whose niece is one of Gina’s classmates.

One of the most important traditions at the school centres round a statue in the gardens. The Abagail of the title, where since the First World War girls have been leaving notes asking for help with their problems and receiving advice in return. No one knows which adult in the school is ‘Abigail’ but in time Gina starts leaving her own notes.

“…she saw that they had reached the end of the garden, where a high stone wall marked the school boundary. A curving recess had been cut into its considerable depth, and in it stood a statue, the statue of a young woman. Curly locks spilled out from under her headband, over a gentle brow, and she held a classical-style stone pitcher.”

One of the school’s ‘old girls’ who became romantically engaged during WW1 lives nearby – and sometimes girls are invited to tea parties at her home. To most of the girls Mitsi Horn is a generous, glamourous intriguing figure – but Gina is not so easily beguiled and is irritated by the adoration shown towards the woman. She has several battles with Susanna who she loves and loathes alternately, and early decides Latin master Mr Kőnig is an idiot, while the handsome, patriotic Mr Kalmár she casts as a kind of hero.

One day Gina’s father appears for an unscheduled visit. He takes her out for cakes, and urges her to settle down, trusting her with a desperate secret. Filled with a new purpose Gina returns to school after waving her father off again with a new determination to make him proud and do as he asks. She involves herself in the life of the school as much as she can, building bridges in time with her classmates, making friends and learning that not everyone is as privileged as she is. Confronted with some of the more sinister aspects to the war, Gina keeps her father’s secret – but there are darker forces at work outside of the school gates.

I loved every bit of this novel – I had seen some readers say that not enough happens in the novel until quite near the end – where the drama is racked up – but I like that kind of narrative. Fantastic characterisation and brilliant storytelling, no wonder that this was Magda Szabó’s most popular novel in Hungary.

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Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

With thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.

The woman in the photograph which adorns the cover of The Girl with the Leica is Gerda Taro, a German-Jewish war photographer and activist. The photograph was taken by her partner, André Friedmann, who later adopted the name of Robert Capa. I think it’s a rather lovely portrait, it made me want to know more about Gerda Taro, and it was probably, partly that photo that attracted me to the book in the Europa catalogue.  However, The Girl with the Leica is a novel, not a biography.

Gerda Taro (also an assumed name, she was born Gerta Pohorylle) is regarded as being the first woman photojournalist to have died while covering a war on the frontline. It was 1937, the war; the Spanish Civil war, she was buried on the day of her 27th birthday. Her funeral was held in Paris, the procession led by Friedmann (Capa). Paris had been a home of sorts to Gerda and an assorted group of friends and lovers, refugees from the prejudice and political turmoil that had begun to sweep across Europe. Each of these people have experienced a different Gerda, in this novel, the author imagines what these relationships might have been like, and how Gerda might have been remembered by those she left behind. The novel is told in three main sections, told from the perspective of a different friend or lover, from different points in time.

Gerda is never present in the novel; we see her only through the eyes of others and from some distance in time. She is central to the novel and at the same time remained for me quite frustratingly enigmatic. A short prologue sees her in Spain with Capa (I’ll stick to that name now) and sets her against a backdrop of some of her photographs. Later, following her death some of her photos were wrongly credited to Capa, but if you’re as interested in her as I was, a simple google search will unearth some extraordinary images.

Part one, is told from the point of view of Dr Willy Chardack, his memories of Gerda stirred by a phone call. It is 1960, and he is living in Buffalo, New York. Willy Chardack was a former lover of Gerda, he is nicknamed ‘the Dachshund’ and had to content himself with the role of companion. In Buffalo he walks the familiar streets with his mind in the past, a Jewish bakery and is assailed by nostalgia and reminded sharply of his conflicts with his religion.

“Dr Chardack often repeated that he was a man of science, and therefore detached from every religious practice and belief, until he understood that his important formula, validated by centuries of enlightenment, had no purchase there in America. Science is science, they allowed, but the community you grow up in will never be a conference in California.”

Part two takes place in Paris, it’s 1938, told from the point of view of Ruth Cerf, Gerda’s friend from Leipzig with whom she moved to Paris. In the months since Gerda’s death, Ruth has been looking out for Capa. There is a strong sense of his grief through her eyes. She remembers Gerda’s elegance.

“Did Gerda really believe that her little smiles and her finery would serve as an armour, and had that conviction been strong enough not to be damaged? Or was she truly impervious to fear, to anguish (in the torture chamber, good God!), and to the inexorable sense of defeat?”

She also recalls the early days after they heard the news, and the time before Gerda and Capa went to Spain.

We return to 1960 for Part three, told from the perspective of another former lover of Gerda’s, Georg Kuritzkes in Rome. He is writing a letter to Ruth as this section opens, and it was Georg who had called Willy Chardack in Part one. Georg’s mother Dina, is a part of this group of stateless refugees, often disliked by their Parisian neighbours. In 1960 she is an elderly lady, but she too recalls the enigma that was Gerda Taro.

“Dina would never have dreamed of washing the glasses because you were going from a dry wine to a sweet one. She can ignore it now, strong in the license of age and a venerable history, she can fail to remember what her daughter was like as a girl: a good savage, more good but no less savage than her brothers. And so, recalling ‘our Gerda,’ she can superimpose a non-existent heroine on the girl with bare feet, blouse unbuttoned over the slip, who worked beside her in the garden, pulling up weeds, hoeing, planting roses and salad greens.”

These people connected forever through their friendship with and memory of Gerda Taro. Of course, each section covers at least some of the same period – although each person remembers Gerda in their own way. Initially I had really liked this premise, but to be honest it begins to drag, and there were other problems in the novel for me too. By the time I was two thirds of the way through the novel I found my attention drifting quite a lot, and I skipped bits in the final section. There are some nicely written passages throughout (my favourite section was the first one) yet there is also a lot of long rather unwieldy sentences, and the narrative can become a bit disorienting. In places there just wasn’t enough happening to keep me interested.  One thing I did really like was the use of memory, that sense of being held in the past is very strong.

So, all in all I was really rather disappointed in this novel, which I had been really looking forward to. I don’t know if the problems stem from the original text or the translation – though Ann Goldstein is a well-known, literary translator, considered a safe pair of hands, I’m sure. I had thought it might just be me, so I did look up some other reviews, and it seems I may not be the only one. I am still fascinated by Gerda Taro, who I hadn’t heard of before – I rather wish this novel had led me to know her better. This is a novel I felt should have been better.

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Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum

I had meant to read The Artificial Silk Girl back in the summer for Women in Translation month, but as usual I had more books than I could possibly read. However, it meant I had the perfect book to read at the start of #Germanlitmonth. I remember seeing several glowing reviews of this book from other bloggers, and I can see why they liked it so much. Irmgard Keun’s classic takes us back to a time and place that many still finding fascinating, maybe as much because of the times that followed it.

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.

“And I think it will be a good thing if I write everything down, because I’m an unusual person. I don’t mean a diary — that’s ridiculous for a trendy girl like me. But I want to write like a movie, because my life is like that and it’s going to become even more so. And I look like Colleen Moore, if she had a perm and her nose were a little more fashionable, like pointing up. And when I read it later on, everything will be like at the movies — I’m looking at myself in pictures.”

Our narrator is Doris – living in a mid-sized German town in 1931, working in an office for a boss she loathes but must flirt with to keep on the right side of. She is barely able to keep up with her duties, commas being a particular stumbling block. What little money she earns doesn’t last long; she hands over most of it to her hard drinking father. She manages to buy herself a new green hat – but Doris longs for the finer things in life – she is quite conscious of her own good looks and feels she must somehow become a star.

Doris is a fabulous creation, there is a streetwise vulnerability about her, on one level she understands the pitfalls of the world for a young woman, on another level she is heartbreakingly naïve and ripe for great hurt and disappointment. The reader is in her corner from the start, looking for the same happy ending as Doris herself.

Life has already been something of a disappointment for Doris – romance has been a let-down so far. Doris had had her hopes pinned on Hubert, but Hubert married someone else. She does manage to secure some extra work with a theatrical company, upgrading to a part with one speaking line by artifice, Doris wants more than this. There is nothing much left for Doris in her hometown.

When she is finally, and inevitably sacked from the job she is so ill suited for, Doris takes a night train to Berlin, where she hopes she can make it in the movies. Wearing a stolen fur coat, she spots in a cloakroom and wants for herself, she leaves her disappointments behind her and sets out with optimism. The coat is a kind of talisman for Doris, she feels it will bring her luck, or at least make her look the part.

“They have courses teaching you foreign languages and ballroom dancing and etiquette and cooking. But there are no classes to learn how to be by yourself in a furnished room with chipped dishes, or how to be alone in general without any words of concern or familiar sounds.”

What she finds in Berlin however is not the fame and fortune she craves, but a world of seedy bars and seedier men, a world where the options for women are limited and unattractive. Staying in a series of temporary rooms, she is often hungry. Doris resorts to increasingly desperate measures in order to survive. She has lots of encounters with men, using her looks to get drinks or meals. Yet, there is an obvious goodness in Doris, she is wonderfully sympathetic to a blind neighbour, and deep down she wants a boyfriend who will last longer than a day or two and care for her. She understands, as so many women before her, how the rules for men and women differ.

“If a young woman from money marries an old man because of money and nothing else and makes love to him for hours and has this pious look on her face, she’s called a German mother and a decent woman. If a young woman without money sleeps with a man with no money because he has smooth skin and she likes him, she’s a whore and a bitch.”

In Keun’s portrait of Berlin at this time, there is a slight foreshadowing of the days to come. In the dissatisfaction and selfishness of certain characters and in the poverty, we see something of the troubles that swept through Europe in the 1930s.

Doris’s voice is honestly matter of fact, she’s quite sarcastic and a little bit ditzy, but enormously likeable. This was my first novel by Irmgard Keun by I am sure it won’t be my last.

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Translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon

My latest read for #Witmonth comes from Iceland a country I am rather fascinated by as it’s a place I visited in 2017. I now really want to visit again. While reading I was googling pictures of the incredible landscape.

(It’s yet another book that I’m not counting for #20booksofsummer as I am trying to get the last four from my original list read now.)

At the heart of Butterflies in November 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.

On the day that our unnamed narrator is dumped by both her lover and her husband, she runs over a goose and kills it. It’s not the best of days, she’s a thirty-something woman, a proof-reader who delivers her finished work to her clients by hand. Suddenly she is on her own, moving into a new apartment with her estranged husband dropping round every five minutes. What she wants is to get right away, far away – and she starts dreaming of a tropical get-a-way. However, her plans are thwarted when her best friend, expecting twins is hospitalised for the last three months of her pregnancy. The friend already has a four year old son – Tumi, a deaf child who communicates with a mixture of sign language and sounds difficult to decipher.

“The only thing mothers have in common with each other is the fact that they slept with a man while they were ovulating without the appropriate protection”

When Tumi’s mum asks our narrator to take care of him while she is hospitalised, she is suddenly thrust into a maternal role she is not very comfortable with. With no real idea how to care for a young child, much less one with Tumi’s needs – she can’t sign – there’s a difficult start for both of them. Tumi chooses some numbers for a big lottery draw and they win. Needing a break, and having charge of Tumi for three months, our narrator decides to put some distance between herself, her ex-husband and his new partner.

“You bid your husband farewell forever with a vigorous handshake and then meet him the next morning buying sesame seed bread rolls in the local bakery, queuing in the bank at lunchtime, swimming in the pool in the afternoon, or at the registry office later in the week, and then, the weekend after that, at the theatre with his new significant other – always inevitably bumping into each other.”

So, setting aside her previous tropical plans, she and Tumi set off on a trip across Iceland with a glove box stuffed with lottery winnings. Her destination a summer cottage over on the East coast near to where she grew up, a prefabricated cottage with no electricity she won in another competition (I wish I had such luck). More unusually (for Icelanders) is that she and Tumi set out in November.

Along the way our narrator encounters long, lonely roads, storms and the haunting rugged landscape of the Icelandic Ring Road. Tumi sits quietly in the back, and initially it is easy to forget he is there. She and Tumi have various overnight stops along the way, and as they travel and get to know one another better, they also meet a handsome falconer, an Estonian choir, stop at a cucumber farm and little Tumi comes away with a kitten. As the unlikely duo travel an understanding between them begins to develop, the author depicts their changing relationship beautifully. We can feel out narrator’s focus start to shift, she makes mistakes but has more understanding for Tumi than she realises.

“It’s difficult to gauge distances in the dark; there are no landmarks here. If there were anyone else around I’d ask for directions. I can see through the rear-view mirror that Tumi is tired and feel such an overwhelming responsibility, it’s worse than being alone – I’m responsible for another person’s happiness. The area is incredibly black. No echo of life disturbs the silence of this wilderness.”

Throughout the novel in italicised sections we get flashbacks to our narrator’s past – things that help us understand what has brought her to where she is – and her attitudes to relationships and motherhood.

I really enjoyed this novel – I loved the setting especially, and Tumi is a delightful little character. My only grumble comes right at the end of the novel, which seems to end rather abruptly. I actually thought there was about 40 pages to go – when it all ended – and there were instead a lot of recipes (food mentioned in the book) that follow. I was quite taken aback – I reread the last two or three pages and yes, it works and hangs together – but still feels very abrupt.

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