Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

Popping up with a longish post, proof I am still around. It’s been nearly a fortnight since my last post as again I have been hit hard by RA symptoms and crippling fatigue. This is clearly going to happen a lot, so I suppose my blog posting will continue erratically at least for now.  

I began January joyfully reading at quite a decent pace, however that has slowed down now, as I have been sleeping so much, and watching loads of TV. I had wanted to join in several of the reading challenges that are around in January, and started reading Heaven for the Japanese reading challenge as the New Year came in. So far, that is the only book I have reviewed from this month’s reading.  

Following that I sat down with The Old Boys by William Trevor for Cathy and Kim’s year of William Trevor. A marvellous novel full of excellent characterisation and sharp observation. I had hoped to move on to Cheating at Canasta, the short stories that are selected for this month too, but I haven’t even managed to buy a copy yet much less read it. (I might cheat and read it in February, as I have read both of February’s William Trevor titles before).  

I then moved back to Japan with Yūko Tsushima’s Woman Running in the Mountains – a pricey NYRB edition I bought with book tokens just after Christmas. Having so loved Territory of Light back in November I was really looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed, so glad I treated myself to that particularly nice edition too.  

So, in a bid to catch up a little, forgive me for these mini reviews of two novels that are not only quite different to one another, but really deserve proper full-length pieces.  

The Old Boys – William Trevor (1964) 

The old boys of the title are a bunch of septuagenarians who were once, public schoolboys together, and now make up the Old Boys Association. High on the agenda as the novel opens is the election of the new president. Jaraby is sure of his success, this is a position he has been waiting to take up, feeling it is his proper due. He has however not reckoned on the bitter resentment of Nox – who Jaraby was particularly awful to during their schooldays, but for Jaraby that is long past and forgotten. The rest of the wonderfully named old boys are General Sanctury, Ponders, Swabey-Boynes, Turtle and Sole and Cridley. The latter two having more recently taken up residence together in a boarding house, where they get up to all kinds of mischief sending off for catalogues and getting quotes for home improvements, they have no right to request. When Jaraby’s wayward son Basil gets arrested by the police, Nox immediately sees it as a way of upsetting Jaraby’s plans for his election. His memory of the past is clear and for him it isn’t over.  

“Jaraby, who was a stickler for detail and discipline, was determined that Nox should do what was required of him; quietly contentedly, and with the minimum of nonsense.” 

Jaraby is the main character here, one of Trevor’s brilliantly drawn, though not very likeable creations. The best scenes in the book I think are those between Jaraby and his wife. She, no doubt long suffering with this fussy, pompous old bully – who is currently trying to persuade his doctor that he needs help drugging his ‘mad’ wife, to keep her quiet – lovely man! However, the worm has turned, and she is quietly, but determinedly fighting back, and Jaraby can’t work out what’s wrong with her. Two things they fight about most is Jaraby’s cat and their son Basil – who Jaraby won’t have in the house.  

Warning cat lovers, there is a very bad thing with the cat – which Trevor manages to not make very upsetting however a lot of cat lovers would really dislike it.  

The Old Boys is an excellent novel with a lot going on beneath the surface, Basil for instance, is a brilliant creation – we only latterly realise what a disturbing character he is. Trevor is good at these kinds of sinister characters, and he slips them into his writing a lot and I have to say I find them fascinating.  

Woman Running in the Mountains – Yūko Tsushima (1980) 

Translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt

This is a beautifully written novel full of atmosphere, quiet, subtle and thoroughly engaging. It is the story of Takiko who as the novel opens on a hot, midsummer morning leaves her home, her family asleep and walks to the hospital by herself to give birth to her son. Her pregnancy is the result of a brief liaison with a married man she met through work and is a cause of great shame to her parents. She has no shame about her situation, for her it is perfectly natural, she is to become a mother, a fact she can hardly believe. She would rather not have to return to her parents’ house where her child is unwanted, but she will have no choice when the hospital discharges her. Takiko thinks this baby will be hers, just hers and she longs for independence and to be able to direct her own life fully. Takiko enjoys her time in the hospital, enjoying the company of the other new mums, however the time is short and soon she accepts she will have to go home with her mother to the house with her young brother and abusive father, where there is little space and no enthusiasm for a new baby. 

Takiko’s son is called Akira and the novel follows her first year of being a mother. From those first difficult days with a newborn, living in cramped conditions in the heat of summer coping with all the associated pain and difficultly of new motherhood – through to her accessing of childcare and finding work. A series of poorly paid, unsatisfying jobs, waitressing, door to door make up sales make life difficult for Takiko as she juggles that with paying for childcare. Then she sees an advertisement for a male employee at a nursery supplying plants to businesses – knowing she can do the job as well as a man she applies and gets the job.  

Work sees her exploring new things, new neighbourhoods and finding things she can do she had never dreamed of. It also brings her closer to the mountain that has captured her imagination. Her mother grew up in the mountains and Takiko carries the images and ideas of the mountains with her, part of her longing for freedom, for a different life. Takiko meets another older, married man at work, the father of a disabled child, they are drawn together by their parenthood and the mountain.  

I am so glad I finally discovered the writing of Yūko Tsushima I found this to be every bit as good as Territory of Light

So, two challenges ticked off and thoroughly enjoyed – I had intended to read another Japanese book, but I seem to be running out of time in one way and another. I have watched and absolutely loved Tokyo Vice on BBC iplayer though which seemed appropriate this month.  

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Translated from the Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd 

The Japanese reading challenge has totally passed me by in previous years, so having discovered it (finally) I was able to get to read a couple of books that had been on my radar for a while. Hosted by Dolce Bellezza it’s clearly been going for years. The first book I read was Heaven by Mieko Kawakami a short novel shortlisted for the International Booker prize. My first read of 2023 and it was brilliant.  

A tough read in many ways, it could be quite triggering for those who have ever experienced significant bullying – so it might sound odd to say I enjoyed it, but I did. I think perhaps that the way the author approaches the subject is key, she makes us care about the two central characters very quickly, and that of course draws us in. School days stay with us I think in some way for many years, we never entirely throw off the old little insecurities that were exposed in those days. We never quite forget what it was like to be side-lined or laughed at, school was not a happy place for me, I wasn’t one of the uber popular or cool kids, I experienced the usual rough and tumble of school, some of which was unkind, but I was never seriously bullied. However, for most people school days remain a significant easily remembered time, and maybe that is what makes this novel work so well, we can all of us put ourselves right there.  

In this novel we meet an unnamed fourteen-year-old boy, a pupil at what appears to be a typical Japanese school. He is relentlessly and horrifically bullied – choosing to stay silent about his misery, he goes to school each day, knowing what he’ll face. He is sure the one thing that makes him stand out, the thing that has made him a target is his lazy eye – the other boys call him ‘Eyes’. He is as bound up in hating his eye as he is in hating his tormentors. This situation never gets any better, the bullies never let up, he is psychologically worn down as well as physically attacked time and again. ‘Eyes’ spends long hours thinking about his situation, worrying about what might happen next, analysing why he was selected. This daily torture becomes his whole world, eclipsing everything else. One evening on the TV news is a story about a schoolboy who has killed himself because of bullying, and ‘Eyes’ begins to think about this a lot. 

One day, totally out of the blue, he finds a small note folded up in his pencil case. The note says: ‘we should be friends.’ The note turns out to be from Kojima, a girl in his class, who herself is also subjected to bullying at the hands of her classmates – it appears to be the boys who targets ‘Eyes’ and the girls who torment Kojima. 

“But I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I guess I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world. Crying because we had no other world to choose, and crying at everything before us, everything around us.” 

 The two are able to provide each other with much needed support and consolation, they have a secret meeting place, and even meet up during the summer holidays. They communicate often through notes, and bit by bit the two become closer, they are each the only friend the other has. In time they begin to talk tentatively about the bullying. It is through these conversations that the author is able to explore the psychology of bullying, why it happens, how best should a victim react, is retaliation or passivity the best way to deal with this kind of daily torment? 

“For people to actually live by some golden rule, we’d have to be living in a world with no contradictions. But we don’t live in a world like that. No one does. People do what works for them, whatever makes them feel good. But because nobody likes getting stepped on, people start spouting crap about being good to others, being considerate, whatever. Tell me I’m wrong. Everyone does things they don’t want people doing back. Predators eat prey, and school serves no real purpose other than separating the kids who have what it takes from the ones who don’t. That’s the whole point. Everywhere you look, the strong walk all over the weak. Even those fools who think they’ve found the answers by coming up with perfect little sayings about how the world ought to be can’t escape it. Because the real world is everywhere.” 

 Gradually we see that the two see their bullying rather differently, while our narrator is certain all he should do is remain passive, that any kind of retaliation would make things worse, Kojima feels that there is a strength in their suffering that will serve them well through life – and for which they will be rewarded.  While he feels that if only his eye could be fixed, he would be accepted everywhere just as others are, Kojima likes his eye – says it makes him, him, and views fixing it or wanting to fix it as a betrayal of all they are enduring.  

This is a beautifully written novel, compelling and heart-breaking, a poignant exploration of a fragile friendship that has a shared torment at its heart. Can a friendship based on such things really survive?  

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Translated from the Icelandic by Brian Fitzgibbon

There are several books I read toward the end of 2022 that I would like to review properly, though I don’t think I will be able to manage that. Animal Life by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was in fact my final read of 2022 and probably not a book I would have reviewed had I not been reading it for Annabel’s Nordic Finds reading event. 

This is the most recent novel by the author of Butterflies in November, which I really enjoyed a couple of years ago. Telling the stories of a family of midwives it also includes many thought-provoking musings on birth, death, human beings, the natural world and even the universe beyond. There is little in the way of plot, and I was left not really sure what my feelings about it were.  

Set in Reykjavik in the days leading up to Christmas, as a great storm approaches the city, we meet Dómhildur, who has just delivered her 1,922nd baby.  

“In order to be able to die, a human first has to be born.” 

Dómhildur, is a midwife, who comes from a family of midwives and undertakers. One of these former midwives was the woman she calls her grandaunt (I would assume that was Great-Aunt in English, but it doesn’t really matter). The grandaunt now deceased is a woman long remembered at the hospital, for her unconventional methods.  

“It is almost noon when the Artic night finally begins to dissolve and the ball of fire rises over the horizon, or just about, a pink streak piercing through a slit in the curtains of the delivery room, barely wider than a pocket comb, landing on the suffering woman on the bed.” 

Dómhildur is living in her grandaunt’s old apartment, nothing has been done to update the furnishings or décor, it has the look and feel of somewhere an elderly person has recently vacated. The aunt’s possessions are still in the apartment, as are the manuscripts the aunt worked on for many years and the letters she received from her pen-pal in Wales.  

When she isn’t at work, Dómhildur, begins to go through the mass of writings left behind by her grandaunt. She discovers three manuscripts that are rather chaotic and jumbled but which point to a near obsession in their writer. The natural world, animal life and its connection to human life, the aunt has spent years compiling and analysing information about a host of subjects, from light, to environmentalism, to the life span of an oak tree and everything in between and beyond – musings on the comparisons between animals and humans and the coincidences which need to be present for a human child ever to be created and born. Alongside the manuscripts are forty years’ worth of letters she exchanged with her pen-pal.  

“I wake up on the shortest day of the year into the longest night of time. It will be a long time before the light dissolves the night and the world takes on a form.” 

Light and dark is important, perhaps not surprisingly. It is the darkest time of the year in Iceland, and as Christmas draws nearer and the forecast storm gets ever closer Dómhildur meets her new temporary neighbour. An Australian tourist is staying in the apartment on the floor above, her other frequent contacts are her sister, and an electrician – who doesn’t like the dark. Dómhildur’s sister is a meteorologist with concerns about the coming storm, she phones often to ask where her sister is and what she is doing. The electrician comes to fix some lights, he is the husband of a woman whose baby Dómhildur delivered. 

So, that feels like pretty much all that happens. The novel is beautifully written, there’s plenty of thought-provoking ideas within it too, but the author never allows it to get too dry or serious, providing moments of lightness too. There is a slightly fragmentary nature to this narrative, which can be harder to engage with, I was left feeling a little underwhelmed.  

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I have not done well with the reading challenges lately – there are loads in November. However, after wrestling for some time with a rather heavy book that made my poor hands hurt, I decided I would get some of the novellas on my tbr knocked off and thereby join in with Novellas in November. Going for three translated works because I hadn’t read anything in translation since #Witmonth. 

All three are wonderful novellas in their way, nuanced, spare and atmospheric. The thing that so often makes a novella great is that understated economy of language, beautiful writing and the ability to pull the reader in instantly. These novellas all have those qualities.  

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray – Dominique Barbéris (2019) translated from the French by John Cullen. 

As so often happens, it was a review written by Jacqui of Jacquiwine’s Journal that put this delicate little novella on my radar. I bought it when spending gift vouchers earlier this year.  

This extraordinarily atmospheric novella takes place on a Sunday in that period between the end of summer and the start of autumn. Our unnamed narrator travels from her home in the centre of Paris to visit her sister in Ville-d’Avray, a quiet suburb. The sister is Claire Marie she lives in a comfortable home with her doctor husband and daughter. This is somewhere where the pace of life is slower, there’s a sense of stillness and quiet – the two sisters sit in the garden as the light of the afternoon begins to fade, Claire Marie’s daughter has been playing the piano, the smell of newly cut grass drifts over the fence.  

In flashback we glimpse the sisters as young girls, highly imaginative and romantic influenced greatly by Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester. As the sisters spend the afternoon talking and reminiscing, Claire Marie begins to tell her sister about a rather strange encounter she had with a man several years earlier, when her daughter was still quite young. She met the man while covering for the receptionist at her husband’s surgery, a man named Marc Hermann who we immediately sense is a little mysterious. He says he is Hungarian, but we get to know little else about him.  

Claire Marie’s narrative takes us and her sister back to that time, a time that had never been spoken about before. Not much happens between Claire Marie and Marc, they meet up from time to time, go for walks in the forest or local parks. Something has clearly drawn these two together that is unexplained, and feels slightly dangerous, there is an edge to Marc or perhaps to the risk the Claire Maire is taking in having this time away from her normal life. There is a sense that she wants to pull away from him but can’t quite.  

A lazy Sunday afternoon of a novella, atmospheric and hugely readable. A smart little edition published by Daunt books I highly recommend it.  

Twelve Nights by Urs Faes (2018) translated from the German by Jamie Lee Searle. 

I feel as if there isn’t a lot I can say about this novella – it certainly hasn’t much in the way of plot, and it is the shortest of these three that I picked to read this month. It is the one I bought most recently too, originally thinking I might read it over Christmas – but decided November was close enough after all.  

It’s a beautifully evocative piece however set in the period between Christmas and twelfth night.  

As the novella opens, we meet Manfred, who is walking through the snow towards the village where he grew up and where he hasn’t been back to for forty years. The landscape is both familiar and strange after all this time – and Manfred recalls his mother’s traditions at this time of year, a period wrapped up in superstition and folklore.  

“The ill fate their mother had feared, and hoped to prevent with all her precautions, did occur. But it wasn’t the work of demons. They had conjured it up, he and Sebastian: the fraternal feud in Hullert. Or had it even been a war? No wind chime could prevent it. No sprig of mistletoe, no St John’s wort; motherwort and sweet seneca were powerless, as was the Yule log smouldering in the yard.” 

Manfred had grown up with his brother Sebastian, but a bitter family feud erupted when Sebastian inherited the family farm. Manfred had considered his brother inferior to the role and when the woman he loved also chose to marry Sebastian Manfred cut all ties with his brother and left. Manfred’s furious act of revenge, before leaving still haunts him, an act he regrets still.  

Now seeking some kind of redemption before it is too late, Manfred is returning to where he grew up, not even knowing if his brother will see him.  

I still think this would make a lovely little Christmas read, one to be devoured in an afternoon by the fire. This little hardback edition from Harvill Secker is beautiful too.  

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (1978) translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt. 

Read on my kindle – I have had Territory of Light tbr for ages – I keep meaning to read it for #Witmonth and forgetting I have it. I absolutely loved this and will read more by this author.  

Light is a recurring theme in this novella, and the author uses it to brilliant effect. Sunlight streams through windows, or is dappled in the park, there are fireworks, shining flood water, the altered light of an apartment where the windows have suddenly been covered by blue mesh.  

The novel is told in twelve standalone fragments telling the story of an unnamed woman’s first year parenting her daughter alone after separating from her husband. She moves herself and her daughter – who turns three during the course of the story – into a fourth-floor apartment that is filled with light.  

“But once you got the door open, the apartment was filled with light at any hour of the day. The kitchen and dining area immediately inside had a red floor, which made the aura all the brighter. Entering from the dimness of the stairwell, you practically had to squint. ‘Ooh, it’s warm! It’s pretty!’ My daughter, who was about to turn three, gave a shout the first time she was bathed in the room’s light. ‘Isn’t it cosy? The sun’s great, isn’t it?’ She ran around the dining-kitchen as she answered with a touch of pride, ‘Yes! Didn’t you know that, Mommy?’” 

Here she must come to terms with the end of her marriage, face the future and parent a lively young child alone. The child is portrayed delightfully, and realistically, the mother doesn’t always make the best choices, and her daughter unsettled or disappointed can fly into rages. Negotiating work, childcare and limited contact with her estranged husband, take their toll and this lonely young mother looks for entertainments elsewhere, often finding being alone with her child challenging and frustrating.  

There is a lovely, dream like quality to this narrative which I really enjoyed, the whole story suffused with light and colour like the apartment where most of it is set making for another wonderfully atmospheric read.  

Sorry for the long post, but I wanted to write about all three of these before the end of the month – just made it. 😉  

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Things have continued to be pretty difficult here – and that’s an understatement. I am not expecting things to improve hugely in the next couple of weeks, so all I can do is battle on. All this has affected my blogging, not just because my hands are often too painful for typing, but because I have just completely lost my mojo. Today I wanted to get something pulled together in a bid to say hello to you all – so I thought a post about some of the books I have read might be in order. I have at least been able to read, though perhaps not as much as I would have liked. Only now I feel quite overwhelmed at the number of books I still have to write about (eight) so although several of these books I had really wanted to review in full, I think I shall have to compromise with mini reviews instead. 

Whatever reading I have been doing I have really enjoyed because I have stuck to going with my mood and not putting myself under pressure to read more than I have been able to cope with. It’s helped me appreciate just being able to sit and read even if it is just for a short time.  

If you follow me on Twitter, you might have seen me talking about the joy of kindle – my Rheumatoid Arthritis affects my hands and shoulders as well as my knees. So often holding a book is really difficult, kindles are easier (though not entirely without issue). It has allowed me to read when I have been in a lot of pain, and that is a comfort.  

Transcendent Kingdom – Yaa Gyasi (2020) – the author’s second novel though the first of them I have read. I thought it was absolutely outstanding, I shall definitely read more by Yaa Gyasi.  

It’s the story of an American-Ghanaian family and their life in Alabama. Gifty is doing a PhD in neuroscience, studying reward seeking behaviour in mice, determined to find an answer to the suffering she sees in people around her. Gifty’s mother is hugely depressed, suicidal and living in the bed in Gifty’s apartment. Gifty’s father had left the family when she was young, returning to Ghana, while her brother Nana had become a high school sports star but following an injury became addicted to painkillers and later heroin. The heroin finally killed him, and his death killed something in their mother. 

Despite having a life rooted in science, Gifty finds herself drawn to the memory of the faith she had had as a child. She wrestles with the evangelical church in which she was raised.  

This is a stunning, intelligent novel about family life, grief, addiction, science and faith. I hadn’t known to expect the vivisection stuff – it took me aback a bit and made me wince – but it’s not too gratuitous.  

An Elderly Lady is Up to no Good (2018) & An Elderly Lady Must Not be Crossed (2020) – Helen Tursten translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. Read for #Witmonth two collections of quirky short stories about an elderly lady who has an interesting way of sorting out people who cause her difficulties. I didn’t read these back-to-back, but the second book was definitely calling to me after finishing the first, so they were read close together.  

Maud is 88 years old, though certainly not feeble (but she can act it when necessary). She lives alone in the large Gothenburg apartment, where she had grown up with her parents and older, disabled sister. She lives a contented life, now that she is retired from teaching, travelling widely – there aren’t many places in the world she hasn’t visited.  

Every now and then though, someone comes along intent on causing problems, or taking advantage. They are no match for Maud, as she is not averse to a little murder, where it’s necessary.  

These stories are laugh out loud at times, the second volume telling a couple of tales from Maud’s past.  

Things do get a little sticky for Maud when the police call to investigate a death in her apartment building, but Maud is sure she can evade suspicion, she is just a little old lady after all.  

Green For Danger – Christianna Brand (1944) – It was Jacqui’s recent enthusiasm for this that made me pull this from the shelf, a rare non kindle read. I wasn’t disappointed an absolutely enthralling wartime mystery, and it really kept me guessing.  

Set in a military hospital during wartime, this is an intriguingly plotted mystery with a smallish circle of suspects. A patient dies under anaesthetic and then later a nurse who was present on that occasion is murdered. Inspector Cockrill (a detective Brand wrote several novels about) is brought in to investigate – sure initially that the first death is nothing more than an unexplained tragedy. With the murder of the nurse and an attempt being made on another, Inspector Cockrill has quite a puzzle on his hands, and all his suspects are the nurses and doctors who were attendant when the patient died so unexpectedly.  

A thoroughly enjoyable Golden Age type mystery – with the kind of setting I find particularly pleasing.  

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (2007) translated by Frances Riddle – another excellent read for #WITmonth. Published by Charco Press who produce a range of literature from contemporary Latin American authors. Beautifully written, heartfelt and poignant I really loved this.  

Elena’s daughter Rita had been found dead in the bell tower of the church. The official investigation ruled it suicide and was quickly closed. Elena doesn’t believe that can possibly be true – but she is the only person who believes this. Elena is battling Parkinson’s she relies on medication to be able to leave the house.  

Elena sets out on a difficult journey across the city, to call in an old debt. Going in search of a woman she met only once many years earlier. Someone who will help her get at the truth.  

Slowly this enthralling narrative reveals hidden truths about the characters and shows painfully the reality of being at the mercy of an illness, needing care and contemplating greater deterioration.  

So that’s all for now, more soon, I hope.  

I have just downloaded the first Cazelet chronicle by Elizabeth Jane Howard to my kindle, only about 80 pages in, but I am wondering why it took me so long.  

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Well, I am horribly behind in my reviewing (and blog reading too, I’m afraid) still clawing my way back to feeling more like normal. I simply wasn’t up to blogging last week at all. With seven books still to write about I am kicking off the catch up with a combination post.  

Both of these were read during July; I had no plan to get ready for #WITmonth it just happened to be what I read.  

Vivian – Christina Hesselholdt (2016) (translated by Paul Russell Garrett)  

A lovely Fitzcarraldo edition that Jacqui kindly sent me for Christmas. Danish writer Christina Hesselholdt examines the life of enigmatic photographer Vivian Maier. This is a wholly fictionalised examination, an imagined life of a woman about who little seems to be known. The real Vivian Maier died in 2009 – after which her work became widely appreciated and left many wondering about the woman herself.  

It’s always challenging to write a fictional account of the life of someone who lived – yet I suppose as so little was known about Vivian it gave Hesselholdt the space to fill in the gaps about this woman who during her lifetime took more than 150,000 photographs, mainly with a Rollieflex camera. Her photographs were extraordinary street scenes of New York and Chicago from across four decades. She hoarded her photographs, negatives and newspapers and it was only shortly before her death that the photographs were discovered in an auction.  

“Viv – Today I photographed a pigeon resting on a cornice, blinking down at the streets. In my version it became heroic. Because it took in the streets with its small gaze.” 

Vivian Maier lived a quiet life – working for many years as a nanny for wealthy families in New York and Chicago. She had been born in New York in the 1920s, the daughter of French and Austrian immigrants, it was a very dysfunctional family, with alcoholism, abuse and mental health issues just part of the landscape Vivian grew up in.  

Hesselholdt’s narrative is told in a chorus of voices – including the questioning, non-objective narrator. We hear from Vivian herself of course, a child she cared for, the parents who employed her, Jeanne Bertrand another photographer who had lived with the Maier family when Vivian was a young girl, and various members of Vivian’s family.  

We see Vivian at different points in her life – the narrative of this very modern novel is not chronological, which I rather liked. Slowly an indistinct picture begins to emerge – a little like a photograph in a tray of chemicals in an old-fashioned dark room. Hesselholdt allows Vivian to remain enigmatic, and we will never know how close to the truth this fictional life might be. It is however a fascinating portrait and a beautifully written novel.  

After Midnight – Irmgard Keun (1937) (translated by Anthea Bell) 

After Midnight is the third novel I have read by Irmgard Keun. Written while Keun was living in exile, having left Nazi Germany, this deceptively straight forward novel is a brilliantly subtle critique of life in Nazi Germany.  

The plot takes place over a couple of days in 1936, at a time when Hitler was paying a visit to Frankfurt. The novel is narrated by Sanna a nineteen-year-old girl who like anyone her age wants a little fun – but Sanna and her friends must do their socialising to a new and frightening back drop – a world full of rules, where saying the wrong thing at the wrong time could be life threatening. Sanna spends her time with her friend Gerti, her stepbrother Algin and his beautiful wife Liska the group often joined by journalist Heini. A group of young people for who the world is not as carefree as it once was. Sanna is naïve, though sharply observant of what is going on around her, she is not at all political, happy to drink and flirt with anyone. The changes that have come to Germany are evident though, journalist Heini has fallen foul of the authorities and Sanna’s writer brother is already on the blacklist.  

Sanna recalls how she left her home to travel to Cologne to stay with her aunt and cousin. The aunt is a suspicious, difficult woman and denounced Sanna to the authorities – after which she hurriedly left for Frankfurt. She had fallen in love with her cousin Franz though, and now as the narrative moves toward its climax, Sanna is determined to find a way for them to escape Germany together.  

“And more and more people keep coming in. This Gestapo room seems to be a positive place of pilgrimage. Mothers are informing on their daughters-in-law, daughters on their fathers-in-law, brothers on their sisters, sisters on their brothers, friends on their friends, drinking companions on their drinking companions, neighbours on their neighbours. And the typewriters go clatter, clatter, clatter, all the statements are taken down, all the informers are treated well and kindly.” 

Keun recreates this world brilliantly, a world where people happily denounce one another, a world in which Sanna despairs that her friend should chose a ‘mixed race’ (a person with a Jewish father) as her lover when there are so many other men around. It is a stark reminder of what ordinary Germans lived with in the years before the war, and how much was known at the time by the populace. Three years before the war would break out and yet everything is here – Sanna’s straight forward narrative highlights the horror that existed alongside ordinary life. 

As Liska throws a lavish all-night party, the mood darkens – and there is a real sense of what is to come, though Keun could not possibly have known just what was ahead.   

Two fantastic novels got my #WITmonth reading off to a great start this year. 

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Translated from the French by Louise Rogers Lalaurie

My book group chose to read The Braid by Laetitia Colombani in June, it was a novel I hadn’t heard of. Suggested by one of our two book group members who live in Bordeaux.

It is the story of three different women, from different countries who each face unique challenges. These women’s lives are destined to be intertwined by a single object. The stories of the three women are told in alternating chapters, and this way of telling their stories made this a really quick and involving read.

I suppose with a premise like that, the reader is always going to be looking for the connection – and I have to say I worked out very early what the connection was likely to be. In fact I was irritated by how obvious I thought it was – though overall I enjoyed the novel immensely. However, talking to the book group on Monday night’s zoom get together, two of the group said they hadn’t work out the connection at all – so perhaps it isn’t that obvious after all and just my brain racing ahead. The wonderful thing about book groups is hearing how other people experience and respond to the same book. Incidentally, our book group has become fairly international now. Due to the pandemic we went over to zoom, and are still meeting that way. So while five of us are from here in Birmingham UK, we have two member in Bordeaux and two in Canada. I must say I think I prefer book group by zoom – but I digress.

Bradlapur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Smita is a Dalit woman (a so called Untouchable) she has spent her life from childhood clearing out the village latrines by hand, it’s horrific, degrading work, which she has never got used to. This is the life she was born to, and is expected to pass on to her daughter.

“Smita wakes with a strange feeling. Urgent, gentle, new; butterflies in her stomach. Today is a day she will remember her whole life. Today, her daughter will go to school. School, where Smita has never set foot. Here in Badlapur, people like her don’t go to school. Smita is a Dalit. Of those whom Mahatma Gandhi called Harijan, the Children of God. ‘The oppressed.’ Untouchable. Unworthy. A species apart, judged too impure to mix with others, rejected and separated, like the chaff from the wheat. Millions like Smita live outside the villages, outside society; on the margins of humanity.”

However, Smita is determined her daughter won’t have the life she has had. She wants her to go to school, to escape the humiliation of her caste and live an entirely different life. Her husband agrees to pay the schoolteacher to take their daughter into school – but when the child is treated badly by the teacher, made to sweep the classroom, Smita insists it is time for them to leave the village and make their way to the city where there will be more chance to escape the traditional rules laid down for their caste. This carries great risk, for if they are discovered trying to run, the consequences for Smita and her daughter especially would be horrific. Smita is brave, and has great determination, she won’t allow her daughter to live as she has.

In Sicily, Giulia works with her father at his wig factory, once part of a thriving industry it is the last of its kind. Giulia has learned the trade from her father and the other women he employs, washing, dyeing and bleaching the hair they buy from regular customers and hairdressers. When Giulia’s father is seriously hurt in an accident, Giulia uncovers the truth about the business’s financial situation and it begins to look like the factory’s days are numbered. However, Giulia is not ready to give up her father’s beloved business, she can’t bear to be the one that sounds its death nell. When she meets a man who is an outsider within the Sicilian community he tuns out to be her potential saviour – in more ways than one. She will need to overcome her family’s fierce hold on the traditional way the business has been run, and convince them to adapt their ways in order to survive.

In Montreal, Canada Sarah is a very successful lawyer. Twice divorced, with two children and a male nanny, she has sacrificed a lot to get where she is. She works in a very competitive environment, she has no personal relationships among her colleagues, many of whom are just waiting to jump into her shoes whenever the chance may come.

“Untouchable: that was what Sarah had become. Relegated to the margins of society. And so no, she would not go back there, to the arena that had condemned her to death. They wouldn’t see her fall. She wouldn’t make a spectacle of herself, offer herself up to the lions. She still had one thing – her dignity.”

Any sign of weakness, Sarah knows would be the end for her. When Sarah faces a personal health crisis, she decides to soldier on, no one will know what she is going through, she will not allow her career and the position she has worked hard to achieve to be compromised. Only, as Sarah finds, this is easier said than done.

Each of these woman though living very different lives are each incredibly determined, showing great fortitude and resilience. Sarah is possibly the hardest one to sympathise with, though her story is just as fascinating as the other two. Aside from these three strong, interesting women, it was really nice to see a couple of lovely positive male characters too.

Next month I have persuaded my book group to read Our Spoons Came From Woolworths by Barbara Comyns and I am equal parts excited and terrified. I love Barbara Comyns so much, what if everyone else doesn’t?

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Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Mrs Mohr Goes Missing is the first of two mystery novels by Maryla Szymiczkowa to have been translated into English. This was passed on to me by my friend Sian, who has previously been the source of good, quirky fiction in translation. Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pen name for writing duo Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczyński. In this novel they write with some gentle, wry humour, which I thoroughly appreciated.

This novel is more than just a mystery story though, it is also a wry glimpse into turn of the century Polish manners. Set towards the end of the nineteenth century, a time when Poland didn’t exist as an independent country it was partitioned by three empires. Cracow however, where this novel is largely set, had special status, it was semi-autonomous at this period, under the control of all three empires. The author’s preface at the beginning, explains all of this in more detail, quite fascinating.

Cracow, 1893. Zofia Turbotyńska is a bored housewife, married to Professor Ignacy Turbotyńska of the medical faculty at the university, of whom she is very proud. Nevertheless, Zofia has her own ideas about certain medical conditions and how to keep them at bay, ideas that clearly don’t tally with those of her husband.

“Zofia had felt as if cholera were standing at the gates, and that it was time to protect herself from it. Unfortunately, her husband had his own tiresome medical opinion on how to treat this illness, which was that wine may well taste good, and might even fortify the organism as a whole, but wouldn’t keep cholera at bay; he droned on tediously about the comma bacillus and hygiene, insisting that the only cure was to build proper waterworks. But Zofia knew her facts: washing one’s hands was not half as effective as wine recommended by the medical authorities.”

Always keen to improve her own social standing whenever possible she can’t help but make reference to her husband’s new exalted status whenever she has the opportunity. With the habit of dispensing with her cook at regular intervals, her current employee Franciszka has been with her several months. For whenever Zofia is tempted to fire her, she remembers with pleasure how she poached the girl from her cousin who she detests.

“Like a true member of the Cracow bourgeoise, Zofia Turbotyńska was not a fan of the day off; spare time could be devoted to something useful, such as cleaning the silver or washing a few windows. But so be it – half a day once a week had to be relinquished, as a guarantee not only by contract but also by custom, that is the rules of the Dutkiewicz house, which Franciszka had brought with her from Floriańska street to St John’s.”

Having decided to organise a charity raffle, Zofia plans to enlist the patronage of some elderly, aristocratic ladies. With this in mind she accompanies Franciszka to Helcel House, a retirement home run by nuns. While Franciszka goes round to where the almsmen and women are housed to visit her aunt, Zofia finds her way inside, to speak to one or two of the nuns she knows. Hoping for an introduction to the grander old ladies who live in their own small apartments within Helcel House, and even keep their own maids. Zofia is immediately aware of an unusual flurry of activity with nuns bustling along the corridor at speeds seldom seen before. For it seems that Zofia has walked straight into a little mystery, one of the ladies from Helcel House has gone missing. The poor woman is eventually found, dead, hidden in an attic, the first of two deaths to occur.

Having once discovered a maid was stealing sugar from her, Zofia considers herself adept at investigation, and throws herself whole-heartedly into finding the killer. The watchman is arrested and taken away, but Zofia knows he is innocent, and she doesn’t mind telling the investigating magistrate that he has got it wrong. Zofia goes into full investigative mode, all while keeping her activities a secret from her husband, who is afraid won’t think it quite seemly. The mystery does take a much more serious turn when the second death occurs, and Zofia finds herself in quite a complex mystery, but one she is determined to solve – and she does, of course, bringing everyone, suspects and police together for the big reveal.

Outside of the mystery element there is a lot of lovely detail about late nineteenth century life in Cracow. There is a grand opening of a theatre to attend, and the traditions associated with All Souls Day and All Saints Day, and a funeral to be attended. Zofia is a social climber, she is a bit of a snob, but she is clever and sparky and I liked her despite her obvious flaws.

I think readers of Golden Age mystery novels would enjoy this as I did, the style is very much in that tradition, with good character development and matters of the society as a whole creating a fascinating backdrop to the main events.

I am definitely going to get myself a copy of the second book Karolina, or the Torn Curtain, soon, as I want to see just what Zofia gets up to next.

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Translated from the French by Frank Wynne

I read The Mad Women’s Ball for my book group, the week before my Daphne du Maurier reading week – it turned out to be a good book for us to discuss. It is a slight novel that examines the horrors endured by women placed in institutions in the nineteenth century. It has, amazingly already been made into a film, though I have yet to see it.

The thing that I feel I must say first and foremost is that I didn’t find this novel as depressing as it could have been. There are some disturbing scenes (including one of sexual assault) that really do make the reader catch their breath – but it is also a novel of friendship and of finding a sort of freedom in unlikely places.

The setting is The Salpêtrière Asylum: Paris, 1885, here the renowned Dr Charcot thrills certain sections of Paris society with his demonstrations of hypnotism on women who have been cast out by society and their families. Women from all sections of society, deemed mad – but really in the main just inconvenient, outspoken, unconventional.

“The Salpêtrière is a dumping ground for women who disturb the peace. An asylum for those whose sensitivities do not tally with what is expected of them. A prison for women guilty of possessing an opinion.”

Genevieve is the head nurse at the asylum, called ‘the old Lady’ behind her back – though that has nothing to do with her age. She hangs on Dr Charcot’s every word, believing in him and his work, and the rightness of the women in her care being incarcerated as they are. Her opinion however, naturally worth about as much as that of the women incarcerated. There are some harrowing scenes of women paraded before an audience, attending one of the doctor’s lectures, he hypnotises them, inducing fits that the assembled men (because of course they are all men) can ‘study.’

Once a year there is another great spectacle at The Salpêtrière Asylum, the mad women’s ball – properly called the Lenten Ball. This is the hottest ticket in town for the Paris elite. Only those fortunate enough to be invited get into the ball where they will get a chance to see the mad women all dressed up. For the women of the asylum themselves it is the best night of the year, the excitement begins weeks before, the great question for each of them of course, what they will wear.

Eugénie is a young woman from a conventional, proper, middle class family. She particularly adores her grandmother. She knows her father only looks at her in terms of what kind of marriage she might make, and when she attempts intellectual debate with him he calls her insolent. Eugénie, has a secret – sometimes she can see and hear the dead. She knows what it could mean if she tells anyone – but she has heard about a book about spirits that has scandalised all of Paris, and she is determined to get hold of it. She asks to accompany her brother Théophile to salons where all sorts of things are discussed without fear. Eugénie is an intelligent inquiring young woman, she wants to understand this strange ‘gift’ she has been saddled with. She decides she can trust her grandmother, and one evening decides to take her into her confidence. You can probably guess what happens next. The betrayal is huge.

“Truth be told, whether free or incarcerated, women were not safe anywhere. Since the dawn of time, they had been the victims of decisions that were taken without their consent.”

Eugénie becomes another woman locked away with little hope of ever being released when there was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It is just a few weeks before the mad women’s ball – and Eugénie finds herself surrounded by women who can talk of little else. At first Eugénie is locked up by herself, but once she has stopped raging and calmed down, she gets to meet some of the other women, given a bed in a dormitory. She meets Louise, young and vulnerable believing herself in love with one of the male orderlies and Thérèse an older former prostitute who has been at the asylum for many years, and doesn’t want to leave – it’s her safe place, she knits shawls for everyone.

Eugénie sees something in Genevieve – she recognises the grief she carries still for her adored younger sister who died. Determined not to succumb, to find a way out of the asylum, Eugénie thinks she knows how to get Genevieve to help her get out. Eugénie represents the world of faith and Genevieve the world of science that were so often at odds at this time, but can these two women find a common ground and work together?

This is a wonderful little novel – Victoria Mas does a brilliant job at exposing the double standards and inequalities in nineteenth century French society. For a feminist book group like mine, there was a lot to discuss. Women had little agency at this time, as Mas reminds us – even women’s clothes were designed to hamper them.

“The sole purpose of the corset was clearly to immobilize a woman’s body in a posture considered desirable – it was certainly not intended to allow her free movement. As if intellectual constraints were not sufficient, women had to be hobbled physically. One might almost think that, in imposing such restrictions, men did not so much scorn women as fear them.”

This is an incredibly thought provoking novel – it made me angry, it made me sad, but there is no unremitting misery, and I was surprised by several ideas – including the one, that for some, the asylum offered a kind of freedom.

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Translated by Laura Lonsdale

Another of the books I bought in the New Year with my Christmas book vouchers, The Island by Ana Maria Matute is a delicate coming of age novel, that I first heard about from Jacqui at Jacquiwine’s journal.

Set on the island of Mallorca just after the start of the Spanish Civil war, this is a beautifully written novel, with images that linger long in the mind. The story is narrated by Matia, a fourteen year old girl, who having recently been expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress, has been sent to live with her grandmother. Her aristocratic grandmother is a watchful, domineering woman, and Matia is not particularly happy with the new arrangement. She has already undergone a lot of change and upset in her young life, her mother dead, her father has gone off to fight the war. For a while she lived with her father’s old nurse, then she left for school, and now she’s been sent to the island. There’s a subtle atmosphere of oppressiveness even at the start of this narrative, a growing sense of childhood’s end, a shadow ever present.

“My grandmother’s hands were knuckled and bony, and they had some beauty in spite of their coffee-coloured stains. On the index and ring fingers of her right hand jiggled two large, murky diamonds. After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private drawing room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false -she would inspect the white houses on the Slope, where the tenant farmers lived, or she would peer out to sea, where there wasn’t a boat to be seen, not any trace of the horror that fell from the lips of Antonia, the housekeeper.”

In Matia’s grandmother’s house lives her Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja, Aunt Emilia is an insubstantial figure, cowed by her mother’s domination of the household. Borja is a year older than Matia, a sly boy, capable of malevolent spite, he manages to always be on his best behaviour when the grownups are around. The housekeeper, Antonia, her son Lauro and a parrot complete the household. Lauro acts as a kind of tutor to Borja and Matia, following them around and keeping them company outside the house. Borja is spitefully cruel to Lauro, calling him ‘Chinky’ and seeming to hold some special knowledge over his head. Matute portrays this uncomfortable and unequal relationship well, the reader knows we are only just starting to see Borja’s real character.

The teenagers on the island all seem to have their own little ‘bands’ with whom they run around – I stop short of calling them friends, they are merely allies – for a time. Matia and Borja spending pretty much all their time together, have their band of hangers on too. This is summer, they all spend long hours outside, yet there is a darkness to this unfettered freedom, and bright, blisteringly hot summer days.

“A tiny green lizard came out from under a stone. The two of us remained very quiet looking at it. Our eyes were close to the ground and, from between the grasses, the lizard looked at us. His tiny eyes, like pinheads, were sharp and terrible. For moments it seemed like the awful dragon of Saint George, in the stained-glass window of Santa Maria. I said to myself: “He belongs among the men: the ugly things of men and women.” And I was at the point of growing and changing into a woman. Or probably I already was.”

Matia meets Manuel, an outsider, and feels instantly drawn to him. Manuel and his family have long been persecuted for their Jewish heritage. Manuel’s step-father killed by other members of their own family for his politics. This is childhood’s end for these teenagers and nothing is quite as it might seem. The story of Mallorca and these teenagers at this time takes place against a dark historical backdrop of anti-Semitic atrocities – the evidence of which still exists in the town square.

“From high up in the square, where the Jews had been burned alive, the sea was like a deep, blue threat, terrifying and unsteady, mixing with the wind and sky. And it seemed that shining worlds could disappear there, and rootless echoes wander and be lost.”

Matute’s descriptions of the island and its landscape are beautiful, and yet there isn’t any feeling of idyll. This is a time of ancient hatreds and complicated allegiances – and a war is being fought not too far away. Borja hates Manuel and lets Matia know it, he is jealous of Manuel, when he learns there may be an unexpected connection between him and the powerful local landowner Jorge, who Borja clearly hero-worships from afar.

As the novel progresses, Matia starts to see things for how they are – how the real adult world is not a very nice place. Everywhere around her there seems to be betrayal or unkindness, the Fairytales she once loved so much are shown up to be lies.

This is a subtly lyrical novel, a coming of age story with a seam of darkness running through it.

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