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Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

This week is the novellas in translation week of novellas in November and A Girl Returned is a novel by an author I have read before during Novellas in November – I believe this is the third of her books to be translated into English.

So many of the books in my house have been bought because I have seen other people online talking about how good they are. This novel is one of them, a novella I saw Claire from Word by Word talking about on Twitter, and as I had read two books by the same author previously I knew I wanted it immediately. I bought it in October so that I could read it during Novellas in November – it slips in just under the 200 page limit at 170 pages – and manages to be both heart-rending and brilliantly compelling at the same time. It is a novel about mothers and daughters, family secrets and the nature of belonging.

“There was no longer any reason to exist in the world. I softly repeated the word mamma a hundred times, until it lost all meaning and was only an exercise of the lips. I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen. I was a child of separations, false or unspoken kinships, distances. I no longer knew who I came from. In my heart I don’t know even now.”

As the novel opens a girl drags a large suitcase up the stairs to an apartment she has never been to before – the door is opened by her younger sister – the two girls have never met before. With no warning, and virtually no explanation a thirteen year old girl is taken from the people she has always believed to be her parents and sent to live with strangers. This is her birth family, mother, father, and siblings of whom she had no previous knowledge. They turn out to be relatives of her adoptive father – an arrangement had been made between the two families when she was a baby. Now she is thrust into a totally new world, where they even speak differently, in a town a long bus ride away from the coastal city where she had previously grown up, gone to school, and made friends. The woman she thinks of still as her mother having retreated from her in the weeks before her departure – had become something of a shadowy figure spending more and more time in bed. The girl numbed by shock hopes that when her mother is well, she will ask for her to go home.

“I was the Arminuta, the one who’d returned. I spoke another language and I no longer knew who I belonged to. I envied my classmates in the town, and even Adriana, for the certainty of their mothers.”

The household the girl arrives in is one utterly different to the one she left behind – where she was an only child growing up in sight of the beach, with her own room. Here there are a number of noisy, squabbling siblings, Adriana is a few years younger than her, they connect almost immediately – though the girl is shocked that she must share a bed with her sister – while her older, teenage brothers occupy the other side of the bedroom. Not all the siblings are kind and welcoming. Adriana wets the bed constantly – there is an awful lot to get used to straight away. There is a kind of loneliness here that is terrible, I’m sure most of us could imagine ourselves thrust into an unfamiliar environment like this – and know how destabilising that would feel.

She thinks of the woman who bore her as ‘the mother’ – unable to call her that by name – she finds ways around ever using the word. She stands out in the family, a curiosity to people from outside the family – and treated differently by those within it. Her eldest brother Vincenzo is drawn to her in a way that’s not altogether appropriate – all in all it is a time of readjustment and confusion. She doesn’t feel like someone who was wanted – she feels her return was forced upon this family who are clearly struggling financially.

“I wasn’t acquainted with hunger and I lived like a foreigner among the hungry. The privilege I bore from my earlier life distinguished me, isolated me in the family.”

She also stands out by virtue of her scholastic abilities – soon marked out by the teacher as someone who should go on to high school in the city she has just left. This possibility a beacon of hope on a shaky horizon – though as Adriana comes to rely on her new older sister’s presence, clinging to her and reacting with jealousy to anything she thinks might take her sister away, the girl has a new responsibility to consider for the first time. Adriana’s fierce love for her sister is one of the few joys for the girl – and while it has the potential to be a little destructive – the narrator is clearly looking back on it from a distance of years with a lot of affection.

As time goes on, the girl’s assumptions about the reason for her return are shaken – it is something she is keen to get to the bottom of.  Her sense of self having been so severely rocked is gradually re-built amid the tension and conflict of a new family.

Of the three novellas by Donatella Di Pietrantonio I have read to date, this is undoubtedly my favourite.

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Translated from German by Katy Derbyshire

With thanks to the publisher for the review ebook and inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

Paula is one of three titles that have been chosen to launch V&Q books – an English language imprint of the German publisher Voland & Quist Verlag. This new imprint was launched earlier this week, so a big congratulations to all those involved. Translator Katy Derbyshire is heading up the imprint, which intends to publish up to five or six books a year, those books being, literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.  From the publisher’s website I can see that the intention of this imprint is to publish books telling the stories of complex relationships, migration, and its impact on people’s lives. These are definitely the kinds of books I find fascinating – and I suspect those readers already interested in the publishers like Fitzcarraldo will find plenty to like here.

I think it’s important for us all to know where we come from. Most families have those little stories often repeated of people long dead, things that happened many decades earlier – these stories are part of our make up, we love to tell them because they are a part of us.

Paula is a piece of autofiction in which the author seeks to explore and understand her relationship with her grandmother Paula. It is a delicate, intelligent piece of writing in which the author uses fiction to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about her family. Paula, the author’s grandmother was a devout Swabian Catholic born in 1915. She was a woman who the author was to go on to have a complex relationship with throughout her life. Paula refused to reveal who fathered her daughter (the author’s mother) in the 1940s – her silence on this, and the life she led during this period was absolute and was to have a profound effect on the following two generations.

“My grandmother Paula died on 10 November 1997 at the age of 82. She never talked about herself, not to the very end. She took her whole life to the grave, all her secrets and all her troubles.”

The child Sandra spent a lot of time with Paula, she recalls them regularly sitting together on the sofa watching Bonanza. She became concerned as a child that her mother didn’t have a father – and would ask why that was. Nothing was explained – she would listen carefully to what was said by her great aunt Marie and by her mother – but the truth of her grandmother’s past was always something out of reach. Sandra became determined to get to the bottom of it – to unravel the little mystery at the heart of her own family. Sandra is darker skinned than the other people in the village where the family live, and she wonders if in that there is a clue to who her grandfather was.

She discovers her grandmother’s photographs hundreds of them in homemade boxes and albums, – and starts to study them for clues. The photographs are full of people Sandra doesn’t know, pictures of men standing next to ships or motorbikes, posing in forests or fields. Many of the men are in uniform, some are dark skinned. Then there were the pictures of Paula and her sisters Marie and Theresia, photos of weddings and so on. These photographs are tantalising little glimpses into the past, and Sandra becomes sure that one of the unknown men in the photographs must be her mother’s father.

“I am an unreliable narrator. I’ve done talking therapy. I’ve reflected on my life. I’ve tried to trace the paths I’ve taken, to understand the past storms inside of me so that I can weather the storms to come.”

There is a deep affection for the woman Paula was when Sandra was a child, she remembers her scent – the feel of her skin, of her grandmotherly body lying next to her at night when she had had a bad dream. There is a deep poignancy to these tender recollections – especially when we consider the difficulties that were to come as Sandra got older.

As Sandra grows older her grandmother begins to annoy her more and more – Sandra is infuriated by her constant presence as if she is following her round the house – appearing in her room, not respecting her privacy. Sandra’s brother though doesn’t seem to have the same issues – isn’t watched in quite the same way – it makes the reader wonder – did something happen to Paula that made her so hyper-vigilant of her young granddaughter, or did she witness things in the war? – was that part of her silent past.  

“What makes a person? And how can a woman add up, build up to a real live individual if she’s done her utmost to reveal nothing of herself? Her voice, to find out what her voice adds up to, you have to imagine yourself so close you can feel her, hear it her inner murmur, her silent conversation, her thinking through prayer. Groping for understanding, it is impossible to get close enough if you don’t start with your own memories.”

We see how over time both Sandra’s and her mother’s mental health are affected by this strange, strained silence about the past and their relationship with Paula. Sandra does her best to piece together what she can from things she hears or are told to her by others like her father – but ultimately the silence her grandmother brought to their family is total, and far reaching.

Paula is a tenderly written book – whether you could call it fiction or memoir is debatable – it certainly has elements of both. The whole works beautifully – a blend of fiction and memoir, which tells the story of a family, and the writer it produced.

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Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder

This will be my final post for this year’s #Witmonth – I haven’t read quite as many #wit books as I had originally intended but isn’t that what always happens? The Memory Police was my sixth read for #wit – and they are all too different to pick a favourite but this one will stay with me for a long time I think. I was captivated from the first page.

The novel was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize – it didn’t win – the winner was announced yesterday as being The Discomfort of Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translated by Michele Hutchison. It’s a book I really want to read though I am slightly put off by some reviews describing it as tough or harrowing (not sure I have yet recovered from Hurricane season) but as I do own a copy I may just give it a try. Sorry I digress.

I do occasionally enjoy dystopian fiction (as opposed to sci-fi which I tend to avoid) I find the depiction of altered but still recognisable worlds to be fascinating, the imagination that goes into creating a credible society, with all its strange rules and procedures is incredible. The Memory Police combined all the things I enjoy about dystopia; spine tingling fear, an uncertainty about what is happening, that fascination of a changed society with a deeply poignant, rather haunting story of memory and loss.

“Memories are a lot tougher than you might think. Just like the hearts that hold them.”

Our unnamed narrator is a young novelist on an unnamed island where things have bit by bit begun to disappear, sometimes people disappear too, like her mother. Random objects no longer exist – hats, ribbons, birds, roses – have disappeared from this world as have many other things. When something disappears it simply has no meaning for the people of the island and can be disposed of easily and unemotionally, burnt or handed over to the memory police. The world moves on and everyone continues to live without that disappeared thing – as if it never was. Hats and ribbons are one thing – but what about calendars, photographs, books – and what will be next?

“My memories don’t feel as though they’ve been pulled up by the root. Even if they fade, something remains. Like tiny seeds that might germinate again if the rain falls. And even if a memory disappears completely, the heart retains something. A slight tremor or pain, some bit of joy, a tear.”

Our narrator is an intelligent, caring young woman – she empathises with her friends and neighbours, worries about people getting picked up by the memory police, but she has little nostalgia for the past, except for when she is remembering her mother. Her mother had had drawers full of strange and inexplicable things in the basement of their house – objects that she would weave stories around – but her daughter can’t really remember those now. There is a sense of loss when she thinks about her mother, a wish to know what happened to her.

There are some people who retain their memories of things that have disappeared – those are the people who are at risk of being taken away by the memory police. When our narrator learns that her editor R is one such person – she is desperate to help him. Her best friend is an old man who lives on a boat near her home – he used to operate the ferry before the ferry disappeared – she gives him copies of the books she writes – but he doesn’t read them.

“…he has never read a single page of any of my books.
Once, when I told him I’d love to know what he thinks of them, he demurred.
“I couldn’t possibly say,” he said. “If you read a novel to the end, then it’s over. I would never want to do something as wasteful as that. I’d much rather keep it here with me, safe and sound, forever.”

Together the young novelist and the old man hatch a plan to save R from the memory police. They hide R is a tiny secret room between the floors in the young woman’s home – the old man rigs up ventilation and plumbing and a speaking tube – and R leaves his family and takes up a new life, hidden from view. He tries to teach his host about the things he remembers, to ignite her memory – but all that returns are meaningless flashes that have no emotional significance and immediately start to fade.

Meanwhile the novelist is working on her latest book – a novel about a woman taking typing lessons. Bit by bit the woman in the novel relinquishes control of her words to the teacher – until she has no voice left. It’s a powerful little allegory in itself.

As R desperately tries to hold on to the things that disappear – the novelist lets them go without a pang – even when novels disappear.

The Memory Police is a compelling and powerful novel – in it there are of course echoes of classics such as 1984 – although this novel is less about a regime and its bureaucracy and more about the impact on people – their survival especially. We never find out why things disappear – they just do – and to keep a disappeared thing or to retain the memory of what is disappeared is dangerous. A novel of memory, loss and control The Memory Police is hauntingly written and will no doubt encourage me to explore more by this incredible writer. I was surprised that this novel first appeared as long ago as 1994 – not only does it feel very current, frighteningly relevant – but I was puzzled as to why it’s only now been made available in English.

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Translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

The Listener was Tove Jansson’s first collection of stories for adults. A recent read for #witmonth it proved a good choice for a period when I was in a very strange reading mood. Jansson’s clear, crisp prose, clear vision and her delicate philosophy was a delight to dip in and out of.

I came to Tove Jansson quite late – the Moomins completely passed me by as a child – and I only ever heard of Tove Jansson as an adult. I adored The Summer Book and A Winter Book, and I fully intend to explore more of her work – and while I enjoyed The Listener a lot I didn’t think it was quite at the standard of those other two. One story in this collection – The Squirrel is also in A Winter Book – as it was one of my favourites from that collection, it was lovely to encounter it again.

There are eighteen pieces in this collection – which only runs to 157 pages, so some of these stories really are very, very short indeed, and so rather difficult to write about. I shall attempt therefore to just give a slight flavour of the collection – but I certainly feel as if there is a limit to what I can write about this one.

Jansson’s stories portray a city ravaged by storms, the beauty of the start of spring, childhood, old age and love. There is some quite lovely imagery here – and as ever her prose is a simple joy. Characters are introspective, thoughtful, and philosophical. A couple of stories veer towards the supernatural, but with a delicacy that never strays too far from reality. Artists feature prominently, as does light and scenery – Jansson’s descriptions are always spot on.

“In this naked light, all of winter’s traces are visible not least in a face. Everything becomes distinct and turns outwards, exposed, penetrated by the light. People come out of their holes. Perhaps they’ve survived the winter in flocks or maybe alone, willy-nilly, but now they appear and make their way to the harbour, the way they always do.”

(In Spring)

The Collection opens with the title story. Aunt Gerda is a good listener, but old age is impacting on her memory, she fears what this might mean for her. Her solution to her forgetfulness is to create a unique artwork that will record the secrets that have been confided in her, but while it preserves these secrets it will also betray them.

“It seemed to her the window was a great eye looking out over the city and the harbour and a strip of the gulf under ice. The new silence and emptiness was not entirely a loss; it was something of a relief. Aunt Gerda felt like a balloon, untied, soaring off its own way. But, she thought, it’s a balloon that’s bouncing against the ceiling and can’t get free.
She understood that this was no way to live; human beings are not built to float. She needed an earthly anchor of meaning and care so she didn’t get lost in the confusion.”

(The Listener)

In The Birthday Party – two sisters throw a birthday party for their young niece – inviting a number of local children to their home. The niece herself doesn’t arrive – and the bemused aunts, clearly unused to children – or how to behave around them – try desperately to keep the party going. The way Jansson portrays these clueless women, so out of their depth is just brilliant.

“‘Come in,” said Miss Häger. “Please, go right on into the sitting room, where there’s room for everyone. Don’t stand in the doorway, go right on in …” The children went into the sitting room. She clapped her hands and cried, “Now you can start to play! What game would you like to play?” They stared at her without answering. Vera Häger went out into the kitchen and said, “You’ve got to come, right now, right away. It’s not working.”
        Her sister lifted the platter with the decorated ice cream and said, “What do you mean? What’s not working?”
         “The party. They’re just standing around. I don’t think they like me. And Daniela hasn’t come.’”

(The Birthday Party)

Black-White – is one of the longest pieces – and one of those I liked the most. It is a homage to the artist Edward Gorey. The artist in the story is an illustrator – married to Stella, they live in the house she designed. The artist is working on a collection of fifteen black and white illustrations for a book – he is inspired to use darkness in the illustrations – yet all around him in the house where they live there is just too much light. Stella suggests that he use her aunt’s old house which is standing empty in which to work. The artist packs up this things and goes to the house, where he will be alone.

In Letters To An Idol a woman writes often to an author who she admires. In time, he actually writes back – and soon after that they meet. A story which demonstrates perfectly that meeting those we admire can be problematic.

In The Wolf an elderly woman meets a Japanese man Mr Shimomura who is an illustrator for children – he specialises in drawing animals. He has asked to see some dangerous animals; he draws a wolf to demonstrate what he would like to see. So, despite the cold, and her advancing years, the woman accompanies him to a zoo – to show him a real wolf.

I mentioned The Squirrel above – the story I read before – it is still a thoroughly beautiful piece of writing, so delicately observed. An old woman living in a small house on an island, looks out of her window one day and sees a squirrel. She muses about how it came to be on the island, probably drifting over on the driftwood that washes up on the shore. Her life becomes oddly caught up with that of this little creature – her fascination in it increases. The squirrel affecting her quiet, ordered little existence on the island in unexpected ways.

The Listener is beautiful little collection of stories, Jansson’s prose is the star of the show – and I am reminded once more how I really must explore more of her work.

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Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Last year, I read Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen with my book group – I really enjoyed it – a novel about the nature of lies and lying. Waking Lions is an earlier novel – and one which also examines morals and responsibilities. I thought this was an even better novel than Liar, there’s an almost thriller like nature to the storytelling (that I don’t always like) which makes this a pacey and gripping read from page one.  The kind of novel about which I really can’t say too much.

Dr Eitan Green is a family man, a good man who once stood up for what he believed in and paid the price. He is also an arrogant man, one sure of his place in the world, and quite able to ignore that which is unpalatable. A neurosurgeon, he has recently moved his family from Tel-Aviv to the town of Beersheba on the edge of the desert – a town he hates.

One night having worked late at the hospital – Eitan decides to take his SUV through its paces, something he ever gets a chance to do – driving at speed along a deserted, moonlit road. He hits someone.

“Somewhere beyond the next step the man he hit is waiting for him; he can’t see him from here, but he’s there, another step and he’s there. He slows down, tries to delay that final step, after which he’ll have no choice but to look at the man lying on the side of the road.”

Eitan immediately sees two things, one the man he has hit is beyond help, as a doctor and a neurosurgeon he understands that instantly, and secondly the man is an African migrant. Everything he holds dear immediately feels under threat – Eitan gets back into his car and flees the scene. He is wracked with guilt – but convinces himself he did the only thing he could.

The following day at home, waiting for his wife and two young sons to return for lunch, he is visited by the wife of the man he ran down – she has his wallet – she knows everything. The man Eitan ran down was an Eritrean called Asum, Sirkit his wife is dry eyed and unemotional – and asks him to meet her that night at a deserted garage in a remote roadside location.

“emigrate is to leave one place for another, with the place you’ve left tied to your ankle with steel chains. If it’s difficult for a person to emigrate, it’s only because it’s difficult to walk in the world when an entire country is shackled to your ankle, dragging behind you wherever you go.”

 Eitan assumes she will want money – a lot of money – so he withdraws a large sum with which to pay her. Sirkit doesn’t want money – though she takes what is offered – instead what she wants is for Eitan to set up a make-shift clinic for refugees in the abandoned garage. Eitan has little choice, he feels, but to comply.

Eitan’s wife Liat is a police officer, trying hard to make her way in a male dominated world. They are called in to investigate the hit and run of an Eritrean, though it seems as if it is only Liat who cares about it. She talks about the case to her husband and is a little surprised when he takes an interest.

Eitan’s life is no longer his own – juggling long shifts at the hospital with family life and endless, gruelling nights at the garage – under the watchful eye of Sirkit – the lies start stacking up. He starts to steal medical supplies from the hospital, and at home, Liat begins to wonder who or what is taking up so much of her husband’s time. This world Eitan has entered is a long way from the privileged world he is used to, slowly he must start to set aside the prejudices he was barely even aware he had. This is a world of intense poverty and violence, a world in which criminal gangs operate, feeding off the poor and desperate. It isn’t long before Eitan himself is in real danger.

“You think this country returns our love? Nonsense! She vomits us up time and time again, sends us to hell, beats us down without mercy. With the Romans and the Greeks and the Arabs and the mosquitoes. So you think that someone here says, ‘If she doesn’t want me, I should go?’ Someone here says ‘There’s no point in holding a country by force if she’s been trying to get rid of you from the minute you came to her?’ No. You hold on to her as hard as you can and you hope. You hope that maybe she’ll finally look around and see you and say – that one. That’s the one I want.”

Gundar-Goshen portrays the lives of the sad, poverty stricken migrants that come to the garage for treatment at night faithfully and realistically. There seems to be an anger in the author’s view of their reality, their invisibility – the danger they are constantly in, living as they do on the edge of a society that barely sees them.

This is a novel clearly asking questions about a person’s moral responsibility, guilt and how we reconcile ourselves to the things we are ashamed of. We also see clearly the privilege of one part of society co-existing alongside another that is practically invisible, voiceless and poor.

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Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated by Frank Wynne

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

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

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

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

(the Son)

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

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

(the mother)

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

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

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

(The father)

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Danish by Toby Bainton

I tend to think of Handheld press as publishing classics and forgotten works by once popular authors, I thoroughly enjoyed, What Not, Blitz Writing, Business as Usual and The Caravaners and have a couple more tbr. While perusing their website a few months ago however, I came across this novel – After the Death of Ellen Keldberg a modern Danish novel in translation. The cover – depicting a naked man standing alone in a snowy landscape is certainly arresting. So, I discovered that alongside their wonderful classics Handheld have published a couple of modern novels – and this was the first of them.

The novel is set in the Danish seaside town of Skagen, which in summer is an artists’ paradise, frequented by regular summer visitors and second homeowners. In winter though, only the locals remain, as temperatures plummet and snow piles up. There are some incredible descriptions of snow, especially right at the beginning of the novel. There’s a clear sense of place immediately, and it was somewhat oddly refreshing to be reading this novel in my garden, on a very hot day.

The artist Ellen Keldberg has recently been found dead, frozen on a bench in the street without her coat. Now, she has been laid out on her bed in her apartment, awaiting a post-mortem. Everyone in the town knew Ellen, who they called Krille, apparently a derivative of her middle name Kristine. Everyone knows she had been drinking with her friend Poul – it’s a simple enough case, so everyone believes.

“The boys almost fall through the doorway looking like inflated fledglings in their thick quilted jackets.

‘There’s a man with no clothes on lying on the beach’ cries the elder brother.

‘A what?’ asks Zeppo.

‘A man. A man with no clothes on,’ blurts out the younger brother with a troubled look. ‘Down near the Sunset snack bar.’”

The novel opens a week later from the main events in the novel, when the sons of a local Polish chef find a naked man lying on the frozen beach. They assume he is dead, but on investigation, their father sees he isn’t – quite. How did he come to be there? – and why? We return to the events of a week earlier.

Ellen Keldberg’s death brings two young people to Skagen from Copenhagen. The first is Mikkel, her nephew who only met her once when he was a child – there is a photograph proving the meeting, but Mikkel has no real memory of their encounter. With his parents out of the country on holiday it has fallen to Mikkel, an economics student – to travel to Skagen in the depths of winter to organise his aunt’s funeral. The second is twenty year old Anne Sofie who comes to find a gallery to show her photographs, but also to pursue her own interest in Ellen, and what happened to her, what was it that led her to that bench in the first place?

Anne Sofie is a strange young woman, her behaviour is erratic and often troubling she frequently tells lies, yet she is determined to learn all she can about Krille and the truth about her life in Skagen. Anne Sofie is a brilliantly drawn, enigmatic character, often infuriating yet as we get to know her, we begin to understand some of her odd behaviours, and see in her a young woman in need of some support.

“Howling and gusting, quite a wind has got up, and the snow begins to build up in drifts along the street. She takes a deep breath and shuts the gate behind her, enchanted by the light from the moon sailing at full speed across the breaks in the cloud. She runs with the wind at her back, does a quick sprint and then slides down to the main road and walks briskly along beside the whitened fences. By the time she’s got to Brøndums Hotel she feels hot and breathless. The lights are on in the dining-room, and she sees a lonely party of guests behind the thin curtains.”

Mikkel is soon drawn into Anne Sofie’s world and her preoccupation with death, which she is keen to photograph. Anne Sofie knows the town much better than Mikkel her parents have a holiday home there where Anne Sofie is staying – she spends a lot of time with a local young man Sonny, who like herself is something of an outsider in the town. Mikkel finds himself getting on the wrong side of Sonny. Other people from the town clearly know more about Ellen Keldberg’s past than they are saying but Anne Sofie is unstoppable in her search for answers, even when it becomes clear that there is someone who doesn’t want the past to be raked up.

After the Death of Ellen Keldberg is a wonderfully compelling novel, both a revealing family saga and a mystery. It is also an atmospheric portrait of Skagen in winter, weaving together stories of old and new alliances, secrets, and art.  

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Translated by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre

Spanishlit month is underway, and I don’t think I have ever joined in with it before, but this time I am planning on reading two or three titles – and The Adventures of China Iron is the first of them. Here I am reviewing out of order again – I’ll be back on track with my next post.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara is an Argentinian writer whose debut novel Slum Virgin is also published by Charco Press. The Adventures of China Iron is shortlisted for this year’s International booker prize. I have acquired three more of this year’s shortlist, and I wasn’t deliberately trying to read the short list – they just all sounded so good.

I have seen this described on Goodreads as a riotous romp – and really I can think of no better description. It is a colourful, subversive re-telling of the epic poem Martin Fierro from a feminist, LBGT perspective. In this novel, Cámara tells a story of freedom, love and sex against a backdrop of the Argentinian pampas. In the poem Martin Fierro – which I had never heard of – China is very much a peripheral character, here Cámara gives her a voice and a story of her own – bringing her to life. China’s voice is naïve – but as the novel progresses she grows, in knowledge, understanding and sensuality.

It is 1872, and China (pronounced Cheena) is a very young woman living in a gaucho encampment. Having been forced into marriage at a very tender age, China takes her chance to run, when her husband is conscripted into the army. Leaving her two tiny boys in the care of an older woman. China sets off on a journey by wagon through the pampas, in the company of Liz, a woman from Scotland in search of her husband. China is accompanied by a puppy, Estreya.

Liz teaches China some of her language, the ways of the British Empire and about love.

“I took off my dress and the petticoats and I put on the Englishman’s breeches and shirt. I put on his neckerchief and asked Liz to take the scissors and cut my hair short. My plait fell to the ground and there I was, a young lad. Good boy she said to me, then pulled my face towards her and kissed me on the mouth, It surprised me, I didn’t understand, I didn’t know you could do that and it was revealed to me so naturally: why wouldn’t you be able to do that? Liz’s imperious tongue entered my mouth, her spicy, flowery saliva tasted like curry and tea and lavender water.”

As they travel they meet Rosario – a gaucho carrying a lamb on his saddle, driving his cattle toward Indian territory. Rosario – or Rosa as he comes to be called – accompanies them on their journey, glad of some company after miles of wilderness.

The novel is divided into three parts; The Pampas, The Fort and Indian Territory – within each part chapters are short. Part one, beautifully describes the landscape of the Pampas, China’s eyes are opened to the beauty of the world. This strange little group of travellers are soon a family.  

“It only took a few days of wagon, dust and stories for us to become a family. Entwined in our burgeoning love we laughed at old fears of being abandoned, of being defeated, of falling to the ground without the strength to get up, of lying there at the mercy of the caranchos, of being reduced to what we are: a structure of bones and minerals, like stones.”

In part two the travellers reach the fort, presided over by Colonel Hernández. Hernández is courteous and welcoming, keen to tell them of the progress he is bringing to Argentina. However, this world is tightly controlled by Hernández and there is little freedom for those living within the walls of the fort – they hear stories of terrible violence and punishment – this is not somewhere China, Liz and Rosario want to stay. While at the fort, China and Liz enter into a heady, sexual relationship – it seems they can barely keep their hands of each other.

“The air in Las Hortensias you could see through, but it made you choke and splutter. It was suffocating: hard to breathe in or out. It must have been because of Campo Malo, the sound of the gauchos groaning as they were punished, or the repressed desires of the others for all the things they’d been denied. Yes, freedom is the best air my darling.”

Part three – Indian Territory – the party finally arrive in the Indian territory.  I won’t say too much about what they find here, but the Indians are fully in tune with the natural world, and there is a sense of the travellers having found a utopia. The ending is really rather joyous!

I enjoyed this novel – though I much preferred parts one and three – I found part two – especially the stories of punishment and violence less appealing. China is a wonderful character though, I found her very engaging, watching her grow almost from child to woman, her gradual understanding of the world and that which lies beyond the pampas is well done. Her voice is quirky and humorous, she is wonderfully accepting of everything new she sees and experiences. Throughout the novel landscape is important and there are some lovely descriptions of the land and its animals, it’s a very visual novel, which is always helpful when reading about somewhere you have never been, and unlike your normal environment.

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