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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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Translated from Arabic by Marilyn Booth

Over the last few years, I have slowly been increasing the amount of translated fiction I read – (mainly fiction, because I read so little non-fiction). However, during this whole lockdown period I haven’t read anything in translation – it certainly wasn’t a conscious decision, it’s just the way my reading mood and the books I read fell. The last time I read anything in translation was the beginning of March – so over the next couple of months I would like to try and redress the balance a bit. It isn’t as if I don’t have any lovely books in translation waiting tbr – I do. With Spanish lit month starting in July and women in translation month in August I hope to get inspired and get back to reading some fascinating works that take me away from my own little world. Celestial Bodies was a good place to start – thrusting me straight into a world I knew practically nothing about. I bought it last year, intending to read it for #WITmonth but didn’t manage to fit it in.

Winner of the Man Booker International prize 2019 – Celestial Bodies is the second of three novels by Jokha Alharthi (though the only one made available in English) who has also published three collections of short stories and some children’s books. Working as a professor in Oman Alharthi’s was the first Arabic novel to win the International Booker, and she was also the first Omani woman writer to be published in English.  

Celestial Bodies is a beautifully layered novel – told from several viewpoints and with a fairly large cast of characters readers may find the family tree in the front useful – though I didn’t find myself referring to it that often. The story of a well to do Omani family and the society within which they live is told in alternating chapters, an omniscient third person narrator and Abdallah the husband of one of the sisters at the heart of this novel. The narrative moves back and forth in time, using the memory of various characters to reveal the story of three sisters, their parents, and in time their husbands.

Woven through the story of this traditional Omani family is the story of another family – a family descended from slaves, for this is a traditional slave owning community. While the practise of slave owning has been outlawed – old traditions hold firm, and the children of those once bought in slavery still remain in service to the descendants of the slave owners.

In the village of al-Awafi, three sisters, Mayya, Asma and Khawla, live with their parents Salima and Azzan. The eldest sister Mayya; silently consents to marriage with Abdallah the son of a rich merchant. Asma wishes to be educated – and marries a relative, an artist. She looks forward to the status and freedom marriage will give her.

“She’d be one of the women now, and finally she would have the right to come and go, to mix freely with the older women and listen to their talk, to attend weddings, all of them, near and far, and funerals too. Now she would be one of the women who sat around their coffee in the late mornings and then again at the end of the day. She would be invited to lunch and dinner, and she would issue her own invitations, since she was no longer merely a girl. Marriage was her identity document, her passport to a world wider than home.”

Khawla insists on waiting for her cousin who throughout their childhood spoke of the two of them being promised to one another. He has gone to Canada and the family want her to marry the brother of Asma’s future husband – but Khawla stands firm. Khawla waits for her cousin to return from Canada for her.

Abdallah is a sensitively portrayed man, in love with his wife, sadly though his feelings are not returned. He allowed Mayya to give their daughter a name that causes much comment and disapproval in the village. His life has been overshadowed by his mother’s death – and the question of what really happened to her. His father was a man whose wealth came largely from the slave trade, and it was his slave Zarifa who was the maternal figure in Abdallah’s life. His father was a hard man, a man whose punishment he still recalls, dished out because he was shooting magpies with the other boys.

“The clouds fold up. Suddenly through the small airplane window the sky is clear. Abdallah, son of Merchant Sulayman, dozes off for a few moments. As he wakes up he is still half-talking in his sleep. Don’t hang me upside down in the well, don’t. Please, no! Don’t!”

The stories of these people are told through one family’s loves and losses – those who have died remaining very much a part of the present for those who loved them. They all walk a fragile line between Oman’s past and present – a line separating the superstitions of a previous generation with the modern world, the slave owners and the free.

“She received the news of his death in silent submission. She arranged the funeral rites as well as she could in her modest circumstances, for his uncle refused to offer the slightest help or to mourn. She died, though no one knew she was dead. Every day and every night, for ten years, she died a little more. She breathed and ate and drank but she was dead. She spoke to people and walked among them, dead. Only much later did her body give up its already-deceased spirit, its dead spirit, no longer forced to pretend, to play at being alive.”

Throughout the novel there is a strong sense of the past, a feeling of time moving on while still connected to everything that has gone before. In moving forward there are challenges for this most traditional of communities’ things the younger generation must reconcile and accept.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel – and it has really whetted my appetite for more fiction in translation soon.

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Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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Translated from the Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Well here I am reviewing things out of order – so that I can properly join in with #Fitzcarraldofortnight. I have wanted to read Olga Tokarczuk’s work for a while and have had two novels by the 2019 Nobel winner for some time. Drive your Plow over the Bones of the Dead was the one that appealed most as a place to start. The title comes from William Blake’s Proverb’s of Hell. It’s a literary novel presented as a kind of mystery – although it is much more than that.

“The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding.”

In this extraordinary, and endlessly readable novel Olga Tokarczuk is exploring lots of things at once. Examining traditional ideas of ‘madness,’ animal rights and the hypocrisy of religion Drive your Plow… is also a wonderful portrayal of the lives of those living in isolation who don’t conform to everyone else’s way of thinking. These are big themes, and they are presented in a very thought provoking, intelligent way, wrapped around a mystery, this can’t be seen as a traditional crime story.

“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”

Janina Duszejko is an eccentric, aging woman living alone in a remote Polish village close to the Czech boarder, which during winter gets completely snowed in. As the novel opens, it’s deep into the winter and Mrs Duszejko (she hates her first name) is one of three people who choose to remain in this community while other residents return to the city for the winter. During the winter months Mrs Duszejko acts as a caretaker for the empty properties in this tiny community – tramping over the snow to check on the homes that lie empty for months.

One night, one of her two neighbours; Oddball comes over to ask for Mrs D’s help, he has found their other neighbour Big Foot dead on the floor of his house. These names are the ones Janina has given to her neighbours – she ascribes everyone names, and not just people, many things are given the status of proper nouns reflecting the importance they have for Janina Duszejko, who sees the world a little differently to other people. Mrs D and Oddball discover that Big Foot might have choked on an animal bone, he was one of a number of local hunters and the bone he choked on was from one of the animals he had killed. While Mrs D and Oddball wait for the authorities, she takes the opportunity to find out a little more about a man she never really liked. So starts the beginning of a theory, about the animals that the hunters killed, taking revenge on the hunters of the district.

It isn’t long before other local men – members of the same hunting club start to die in rather peculiar ways. Animal tracks found close to each victim only strengthens Mrs D’s insistence in her own bizarre theory. Bit by bit she becomes something of a thorn in the side of the local authorities, as she insists on presenting them with her theories, asking to be kept updated, and several times writing long and involved letters, to which she never gets replies.

As the novel progresses, we begin to learn a bit more about Janina Duszejko, who suffers from unnamed illnesses, translates William Blake and studies Astrology with great conviction in its ability to prophesy everything. She is a great believer in predestination. A conservationist and animal lover, we learn that she lost her dogs, her Little Girls sometime earlier, was once a bridge engineer in Syria before returning to Poland to work as an English teacher.

Often in the company of her friends; her neighbour Oddball, Good News (the woman from the local shop) and Dizzy; a former pupil, Mrs D gets drawn into an unofficial investigation into what happened to the men, as she becomes frustrated with the direction the official investigation has taken. Spring comes to the area, and some of Mrs D’s neighbours start to return, the natural world, life, death and the changing of the seasons are always present in the narrative, as Mrs D watches closely the people and the animals with whom she shares her world.

“Spring is just a short interlude, after which the mighty armies of death advance; they’re already besieging the city walls. We live in a state of siege. If one takes a close look at each fragment of a moment, one might choke with terror. Within our bodies disintegration inexorably advances; soon we shall fall sick and die. Our loved ones will leave us, the memory of them will dissolve in the tumult; nothing will remain. Just a few clothes in the wardrobe and someone in a photograph, no longer recognized. The most precious memories will dissipate. Everything will sink into darkness and vanish”

This was such a brilliant novel, a richly rewarding reading experience, in which while the reader may well work out the truth of ‘whodunnit’ that in no way detracts from what is a suspenseful, noir with superb characterisation and a lovely little twist in the tale.

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Translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix

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

Other Szabó novels hark back to the war and how it has impacted on people – though from a distance of years, this theme is continued here, though Abigail by contrast takes place during the war. It is 1943, and in Germany, Hitler is becoming frustrated by the direction the so called ‘Jewish question’ has been moving in Hungary. A senior army General in Budapest, sees the way the wind is blowing, knowing that their allies Germany will surely invade soon, he decides to send his fourteen year old daughter Georgina Vitay, across Hungary to a boarding school in Árkod, an old University town in Eastern Hungary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein

With thanks to Europa Editions for the review copy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from the German by Kathie von Ankum

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

An evocative portrait of the roaring Weimar Berlin of the 1920s/30s – it is also a wonderfully poignant story of a quirky, radical young woman, whose voice I found immediately captivating. The Artificial Silk Girl was Irmgard Keun’s second novel – banned by the Nazis it had been an instant best seller when it was first published. With the Nazis coming to power in 1933, this novel depicts life just before that tumultuous time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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