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Posts Tagged ‘translated fiction’

 

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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I have had a much better reading month this month (hooray) but more of that in my monthly roundup post in a few days. One challenge has helped me get through more volumes during November and that’s #novnov. Some of the novellas probably don’t warrant a post all to themselves – and so I am combining three reads in one post – which is also helping me catch up. Apologies for the long post.

Murder in the Dark – Margaret Atwood (1984)

Murder in the Dark, a collection of what are described as prose poems ticked another reading challenge box for me. November is MARM (Margaret Atwood Reading month) and I usually try to read a couple of things but this year have only managed this little volume. Prose poems is probably a good description, or vignettes, they are generally too short to be considered short stories. It’s always impressive how much some writers like Margaret Atwood can say in just a few paragraphs.

These little pieces are fabulous examples of Atwood’s absolute brilliance – several very bizarre – others rather funny, childhood reminiscences and observations of life. I just the love the way Atwood has of looking at things. She exposes the frailties of human nature, the balance of power between the sexes is a theme we come across many times in this little collection.

In Making Poison a group of very young children mix up a big pot of poison – adding all kinds of noxious substances having little idea what they will do with it. She recalls stealing Horror comics from the drugstore – reading them with her friend on the street outside the funeral home. She recalls Boyfriends, Liking Men and the Victory Burlesk. She discusses something as mundane as Bread – but gives it a little Atwood kick – and we suddenly see it differently. Men and women swap roles in a piece titled Simmering and it the titular piece knowing when to call a halt to a game of Murder in the Dark is vital.

“Men’s novels are about how to get power. Killing and so on, or winning and so on. So are women’s novels, though the method is different. In men’s novels, getting the woman or women goes along with getting the power. It’s a perk, not a means. In women’s novels you get the power by getting the man. The man is the power. But sex won’t do, he has to love you. What do you think all that kneeling’s about, down among the crinolines, on the Persian carpet? Or at least say it. When all else is lacking, verbalization can be enough. Love. There, you can stand up now, it didn’t kill you. Did it?”

(from Women’s Novels)

These pieces are full of Atwood’s wisdom and wit, her feminism and intelligence shines through – but those who dislike very short pieces may want to swerve this one.

The Story of Stanley Brent – Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This sweet little hardback of only about 80 pages, The Story of Stanley Brent is published by Michael Walmer has been on my tbr for well over a year. Simon’s recent reading of it – reminded me it was one I intended to read this month I’m delighted I did, I rather loved it.

It is the portrait of a very ordinary man – a very ordinary life. Although this novella is very short – Elizabeth Berridge does a wonderful job of portraying a whole life – a marriage, a career neither of which are particularly unique. It’s in Stanley Brent’s very ordinariness that the poignancy lies for me – there must have been countless men like Stanley in that generation.

Stanley proposes to his Ada in 1907 – after which follows a long engagement. Finally they marry – and suffer an excruciatingly awkward honeymoon with Ada utterly ignorant of the realities of married life – Stanley is left feeling terrible – suddenly seeing Ada as a stranger. A young man horribly unsure of how to fix things.

“The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless.”

It’s an inauspicious start – but they find their way in time.

 Stanley works in a firm of land agents in London, an old fashioned firm – when he is made a partner he and Ada can buy a house in the suburbs. Two daughters are born. He and Ada have different ideas – and while Ada thinks her husband should have some ambition, get himself into one of the new estate agent firms springing up in the suburbs – Stanley is content to stay in his old fashioned firm, that just don’t do the business it once did.

It’s hard to convey just how good this is – what Berridge achieves in this tiny volume is very impressive indeed. She presents us with a very realistic portrait of a couple often struggling to understand one another. She reveals their hopes, fears frustrations, parenting and frailties.

This is the sort of very short novella that really packs a punch, the characters and atmosphere of the piece are so memorable I am convinced it will really stay with me.

Under the Tripoli Sky – Kamal Ben Hameda (2011) translated by Adriana Hunter.

Another novella I have had tbr for a long time. One of the Peirene Press coming of age series Under The Tripoli Sky is set in the Tripoli of the 1960s. I love a coming of age story – and so that’s what drew me to it initially – no idea why I waited so long to read it.

Our narrator is Hadachinou a lonely boy – who undergoes a circumcision ceremony as the novella opens. In this segregated society, Hadachinou is able to slip through the sweltering streets virtually unnoticed, listening to the whispered conversations of the women, hearing their stories, a witness to their desires.

“They forget about me but I’m there, catching glimpses of them through the gaps where the tented awnings cross, watching.”

His friends are all young girls who don’t yet have to be segregated – he also likes the company of his aunts, his mother and her friends. This is a society where many woman are discontented with their lot, they have lots to complain of stories of violence meted out, for the slightest thing. He is a strange little witness to their lives – a boy who soon enough will soon take his own place in this patriarchal society.

His mother shares her own secrets with her best friend Jamila. A woman this adolescent boy finds an extraordinary presence in their home, when she comes to stay. Jamila is a woman much talked about in the community – gossip Great Aunt Nafissa tries to put a stop to. Jamila fuels his imagination at time when he is discovering his own desires.

This is an engaging little story of pre Gaddafi Libya, full of cultural insight of a society on the brink of change.

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Translated from the German by Sinéad Crowe

Daughters is the fourth novel by Lucy Fricke, published in the UK by V&Q books. Passed on to me by a friend with whom I often share books of fiction in translation. Although I read this at the end of October it was with the intention of reviewing it for German lit month which is hosted again by Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.

This is a novel that tells the story of two women, one nearing forty, the other just over forty. Together they set off on a mad-cap road trip across Europe, a delightful evocation of friendship, and exploration of death and family.

Betty and Martha have been friends for years, Betty is unmarried, Martha married and undergoing IVF treatment for the child she is desperate to have before it is too late. Our narrator Betty has been struggling with her mental health for a few years, and regularly takes anti-depressants that she has been warned not to stop taking suddenly. As we meet her she is in Rome, intending to make her way to the grave of a man who was a sort of father to her years before. However, her mission is interrupted when she receives a call from her friend Martha that sends her hurrying back to Germany – recognising her friend is having a crisis.

Both women have had difficult fathers along the way. Betty had a couple of terrible fathers/father figures in her life, the one good one, she still remembers with great fondness the man her friend Martha refers to as The Trombonist. He was a man who lived with Betty’s mother when she was a child, a man who showed her great kindness. It is many years since he disappeared from Betty’s life, and about a decade since she heard that he was dead. Martha’s father is still alive – just about – Kurt – who for the first thirty years of Martha’s life had barely been around, especially not when he was needed. Now, old, sick, and widowed Kurt is back in regular touch with Martha. A few years into a cancer diagnosis he has floored Martha with his latest request – resulting in a crisis call to her best friend. Kurt wants Martha to drive him to Switzerland – where he has announced that he has an appointment – an appointment to die.

“Even if everything was exactly the way Martha had described it, I couldn’t picture it. How did you drive someone to the place where they would die? What were you supposed to talk about on the way? What were you supposed to eat? Was he even able to eat? Was it okay to listen to music? To enjoy the scenery? What the hell was it okay to do during someone’s final days and hours?”

Only following an accident – in which both women were involved, Martha can’t face driving any more, so she asks Betty to drive them all to Switzerland, it’s hard to refuse a father’s last request. So, with Betty driving Kurt’s old car, the three set off for Switzerland. Only, it seems that Kurt hasn’t been entirely transparent about his plans for this trip – and is soon directing them on a little detour through Italy, where he plans to look up an old flame – a woman he never really got over. Once in Italy, Betty is reminded of her original quest to find the grave of The Trombonist – who Betty remembers with such fondness, recalling him as she saw him then, with the eyes and mind of a child.

“… a gambling-addicted Italian, a devastatingly handsome macho, he’s put me on his shoulders and carried me through the good half of my childhood. I’d loved him to distraction.”

Both women are searching for their missing fathers – though in clearly different ways, they both have things to come to terms with about these difficult men. Betty is a lively, engaging narrator – her slightly sardonic narration making this a novel that beautifully balances humour and pathos.

As they leave Kurt in Italy with his old girlfriend – the two friends set off again – only Betty hadn’t planned on being away quite so long and has no more of her anti-depressant medication with her. As she starts to withdraw from her medication, Betty’s behaviour starts to become a little erratic. In the small town where The Trombonist is buried – Betty is surprised by the reaction she receives to his name – which sets her off on yet another journey – this time to Greece.

“That afternoon, we were stranded somewhere between partings and passings, between memories and fresh hope. It was time to go our separate ways now. I’d go to an island, and Martha would spend her last few days with Kurt the way they deserved to, true to their ideas of happiness and belonging. I was sure I saw something lighting up within her, a faith she had abandoned long ago but at that moment was almost palpable: a fleeting trust that everything does have meaning after all.”

This is definitely the kind of translated fiction I love, a bit quirky, written with feeling and humour, while exploring those things that at the end of the day matter to us all. I loved the friendship depicted here and Kurt was a brilliantly drawn character too. This novel was an absolute winner for German lit month – and has reminded me I should look out for more from the V&Q list.

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Translated from the Italian by the author

The last book I had to review from my September reading pile – I had to start reviewing out of order – back on track now.

I first encountered Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing in 2006 when I read her much anticipated first novel The Namesake, a couple of years later I read her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies. I didn’t encounter her again until 2018 and this time as a translator – when I read a novel by Domenico Starnone that she had translated from Italian. I was intrigued. In 2011 Jhumpa Lahiri had moved her family to Italy, where she immersed herself in the language and culture of her adopted country. Incredibly, she began writing in Italian, she has translated two novels by Starnone, as well as writing two of her own books of non-fiction in Italian. Whereabouts – first written in Italian, was Lahiri’s first novel since The Lowland in 2013.

Not a great deal happens in Whereabouts – but that shouldn’t matter – unless you’re looking for a plot driven novel I suppose. The writing is incredible, elegant and minutely observed. Not a word is wasted, an evocation of a city and one woman within it.

“Solitude: it’s become my trade. As it requires a certain discipline, it’s a condition I try to perfect. And yet it plagues me, it weighs on me in spite of my knowing it so well.”

The unnamed narrator of the novel is a single woman in her mid-forties, in whose company we move through the city where she lives. She walks along the streets, over bridges through restaurants or shops, she notices the people around her. She stops to have a coffee in a little square, she recognises people she knows, or merely those she has seen on the street before.

The story of this woman is told in a series of short vignettes, chapters are titled for the places and situations in which we find her, In the Piazza, On the Street, At the Beautician, In the Sun, At My House etc. There is an incredible sense of belonging to this place, to this unnamed, acutely observed city, but also a sense of isolation.

“The city doesn’t beckon or lend me a shoulder today. Maybe it knows I’m about to leave. The sun’s dull disk defeats me; the dense sky is the same one that will carry me away. The vast and vaporous territory, lacking precise pathways, is all that binds us together now. But it never preserves our tracks. The sky, unlike the sea, never holds on to the people that pass through it. The sky contains nothing of our spirit, it doesn’t care. Always shifting, altering its aspect from one moment to the next, it can’t be defined.”

Cities are wonderful places from where to tell stories, such numbers of people, anonymously brushing shoulders as they venture forth. Yet, within cities there are neighbourhoods, where residents may see the same people at the bus stop or in the coffee shop, strangers become more recognisable and we develop relationships with some of the people around us. Lahiri portrays that relationship we can have with parts of the cities where we live beautifully, recreating those small everyday moments that happen everywhere.

We share small moments with this woman, getting coffee, talking to the barista she knows, bumping into her ex in a book shop, getting a manicure at the beauticians. There are also some awkward social encounters too, a get together at her home, where the husband of a friend proves himself to be something of a pompous idiot, who consumes all the best cakes. She also attends a baptism of a colleague’s child – but overwhelmed finds an escape at the local beach.

As she moves through the city, we become privy to the woman’s thoughts, as well as her observations, her reminiscences, and her current concerns. Three of the chapters are called In My Head – and are concerned with her inner thoughts, memories of her parents, reflections on her own solitude or reluctance to face the day. She is moving toward a finale of sorts. She has decided to leave this city – to start again elsewhere, leaving is never easy. Through each short chapter we move closer to the time when she will leave the place she seems attached to, but wants to shake off.

“This stationery store has been one of my haunts for years. When I was a young girl I’d go there to get what I needed for school, then for college, and now for teaching. Every purchase, however mundane, makes me happy. Each item validates my life somehow.”

Her mother is an elderly, though oppressive figure, twice a month the woman goes to visit her mother, taking cat’s tongue cookies with her. Her mother can talk of little besides what is wrong with her, while the daughter sits and remembers the woman she was once, when the mother was the age the daughter is now. She remembers the loss of her father, when she was much younger, a loss she very much still carries with her. There is a sense of the woman looking back at the what might have beens, considering the choices she has made throughout her life. She seems happy to be on her own, yet she is very aware of all the people around her who made different choices, seeing those other choices reflected in those other lives.

This was such a beautiful little read – under 200 pages, and full of quotable passages. There is poetic, almost dreamlike quality to the narrative. I am reminded that I want to read much more by Lahiri – especially the book she wrote about her move to Italy and how she began to write in Italian.

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Translated from the Finnish by the author

My final post for #witmonth is a little bit of a shorter post. The Union of Synchronized Swimmers is a novella – an odd little book in some ways, though not unenjoyable.

There is a lovely poetic quality to certain sections of this novella which I particularly enjoyed, a delicate use of language to describe movement and water.

“The girls started to play, though they were too old; their movements aimless at first, like they could’ve been doing anything else. They plunged into the water and sprang up, parting the surface with their hands. They crept among the reeds and made birds scatter from their nests. They tore flowers growing by the river and drew shapes in the air. They pushed each other’s heads under the surface and kept them there, as if performing a baptism. They stood on their hands in the water, their feet swinging madly against the branches of the trees.”

In an unnamed country – though the implication perhaps is that it is a former Soviet country, a group of six young woman meet by the river. Here they mess around in the water together. They are workers from a local factory, this is where many of the local women work, so many of the men have left the country to find work. They can see across the river to another place, another country, where things are very different. Soon the fun at the river turns more serious, the women start to train – they become a team, a team bringing some Olympic hope to their poor, struggling nation. For the women though this is their chance to get away, perhaps their only chance – to discover what really lies across the river.

“In the evenings, when they fell on their beds like lumbered trees, the girls felt the movement of water inside their bodies. It rocked them to a place that belonged neither to this nor to that side of the river. The beauty of the threshold: on the other side of it, everything was still possible. Perhaps they were happier then, more complete and satisfied, than they ever have been or would be.”

In alternate chapters we see the young women in the past, as they train together and in the present as they live lives far away from where they started – each of them in different countries. In chapters named for each of the six young women; Anita, Paulina, Sandra, Betty, Nina and Lidia – we see something of what happened next. Running away can’t always bring complete happiness though as these women find out – there are difficulties ahead for all of them, and one of them will decide ultimately to go home.

Anita lives in Helsinki, when she starts a relationship with a man from her own country, she decides to hide her true origins from him – never allowing her knowledge of their shared language to escape. In California Paulina goes on a boat trip – the kind tourists and new arrivals might take, but the experience only makes her feel more of an outsider than ever. In Rome Nina orders coffee in a café, goes to work at the warehouse – she is proud of her new language skills, and is acclimatising herself to the noise of the warehouse.

“There’s nothing I can’t say in both languages, she thinks, and grabs the handles of the cart. Nothing stays inside one language. Each thought – like the one of how she will eventually grow numb to the noise and the smell of the warehouse – begets its double.”

Language is an issue for all of them in some ways, in the Pyrenees Sandra is mocked for her accent and pronunciation. Meanwhile in San Martin, Betty gambles in a casino, reflecting on the difficult time she had when she lived in Bucharest, the place she had landed in first – a place where she had once stolen fish heads out of a rubbish bin. This move has been more successful she thinks – she tells her fellow gamblers at the table how she had travelled from Bucharest to Paris with a truck driver.

Lidia is the one who goes home – worn out by the years away, finding peace in the place she came from.

Cristina Sandu’s prose can be quite spare and there is a fragmentary nature to this story of leaving home in search for freedom – and to me the ending felt very abrupt. Still, it certainly gives pause for thought about the meaning of freedom, or what home might feel like – and how for some, on the other side of the river, the grass may not be quite so green after all.

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