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Translated from Swedish by Silvester Mazzarella, David McDuff and Kingsley Hart

The Summer Book by Tove Jansson came into my life because of my very small book group, it was one I already had had tbr for a long time. Tove Jansson is beloved of many because of both her tales for children and her stories for adults. Somehow, I didn’t hear of the Moomins until I was an adult, they completely passed my childhood by. Yet, I was assured that I would love Tove Jansson, and I did, though of the two Jansson books I have read to date, A Winter Book is definitely my favourite.

Ali Smith writes a wonderful introduction to this edition. Her affection for Jansson’s storytelling is obvious.

“The very thought of it made me feel giddy. Slowly, slowly, the world was turning, heavy with snow. The trees and houses were no longer upright. They were slanting. Soon it would be difficult to walk straight. All the people on earth would have to creep.”

(from Snow)

I love short stories, and these are definitely the type one can read in great greedy gulps – there is a delicious calmness to Jansson’s prose. Heart-warming and vividly described – Tove Jansson brings the landscape and people of her childhood and old age to life, though largely autobiographical these pieces are stories not memoir. There is a lightness of touch here, a quiet wisdom and gentle humour – a real joy of a read.

Parts one and two of A Winter Book; Snow and Flotsam and Jetsam come originally from The Sculptor’s Daughter, stories inspired by Tove Jansson’s childhood in Helsinki. Her family part of the Swedish speaking minority in Helsinki. Beautifully, depicting the mind and imagination of a child, the collection opens with The Stone – in which a young girl finds what she believes to be an enormous rock of precious metal. With extraordinary strength and grim determination, she rolls the rock homeward.

We catch some tantalising glimpses of Tove Jansson’s bohemian household – the parents of her child characters here a sculptor and an illustrator like her own, clearly drawn from life. In Parties – a young girl delights in listening to her father’s parties from her bedroom.

“I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music, and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes.

It’s not worth looking, because if you do everything you’ve imagined disappears. It’s always the same. You can look down on them and there they are sitting on the sofa or the chairs or walking slowly up and down the room.”

(from Parties)

In other stories we meet Annie – who revers the work of Plato, and who helps the young narrator collect bird-cherry branches, as the gypsy had told her to. Poppolino, a family pet monkey, Albert a childhood friend, and Jeremiah a geologist, and an old fisherman Charlie.

There are stories of the sea, boats and flotsam and jetsam of the shore, and of course the island made famous in The Summer Book. In, The Boat and me, the girl describes the boat she was given when she was twelve, and the first solo trip she took in it.

In part three; Travelling Light, Jansson turns her attention to matters of maturity, ageing in particular. In probably the longest story in the collection; and one of my favourites, The Squirrel, an elderly woman living in isolation on an island, becomes obsessed with a squirrel who has most probably drifted over to the island on a piece of drift wood. The squirrel is not a reliable visitor – but the old woman watches out for him and discovering he has been nesting in the wood pile – divides it up between them.

“The logs must be carried, carefully, to the exact place where they were needed. The person carrying them must herself be like a log: heavy and ungainly but full of strength and potential. ‘Everything must find its place and one must try to understand what it can be used for…I carry more and more steadily now. I breathe in a new way, my sweat is salt.’”

(from The Squirrel)

Correspondence is told in letters, based on the real life correspondence of Tove Jansson with a young Japanese fan.  

These stories are pretty much little pieces of perfection, exquisitely told. I shall not wait too long before reading my other collection of Tove Jansson The Listener. I see from the contents, that the two collections have one story in common – but that doesn’t matter.

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Translated by Enid Mcleod and Una Troubridge

I bought this volume just last weekend at Second Shelf books while paying a quick visit to London to see friends. This American first edition from 1953 contains La Maison de Claudine and Sido – with former translated as My Mother’s House.

It isn’t often that I read a new book so soon after buying it, but this one called out to be read straight away. I had seen a few things just before this about Colette – and been reminded that I had only read one book by her, which I had loved. So, knowing I was overdue reacquainting myself with Colette – I dived in just the day after I bought it. It kept me company during some difficult days this past week, it was somehow great comfort – good writing often is, I find.

My Mother’s House and Sido – two, novellas? memoirs? I’m not sure how to refer to them – Colette seems to have styled them as novels and yet we know they are very biographical. They were written by the great French writer when she was in her forties and fifties. In them she is looking back to her youth, to her village childhood, telling stories of her mother; Sido, her father the Captain, her brothers and half-sister and the Savage – her mother’s first husband. It is gloriously nostalgic, but never sentimental. In these reminiscences Colette writes with a glorious lyricism, bringing to life the time and place of her childhood – a time that clearly remained very important to her.  

“Both house and garden are living still, I know; but what of that, if the magic has deserted them? If the secret is lost that opened to me a whole world – light, scents, birds and trees in perfect harmony, the murmur of human voices now silent for ever – a world of which I have ceased to be worthy.”

The childhood recounted here was one of country wisdom and good food, wild flowers and animals. A childhood of games with village children who enjoy more freedom than modern children. Colette writes in a series of delightfully vivid vignettes – stories of villagers, siblings, politics and her parents’ marriage, but above all of a place, the place of her childhood – where she was loved.

“A smell of crushed grass hangs over the unmown lawn, where the lush new blades lie trodden in all directions by the childish games, as if laid flat by a heavy shower of hail. Fierce little heels have dug into the paths and scattered gravel over the flower beds; a skipping rope dangles from the pump handle; dolls’ plates the size of marguerites star the grass; and a long feline wail of boredom heralds the close of day, the cats’ awakening and the approach of dinner time.”

She writes with a particularly palpable affection of Sido, her mother – in both these volumes. It becomes clear that Sido was a woman capable of great love, a woman of strength and good sense, who refused to dismiss a pregnant servant girl to the scandal of the village. She kept a large spider in the corner of her bedroom as a kind of pet – and feared, unreasonably, for Minet-Chéri’s abduction when the child was moved into the recently vacated first floor bedroom. In all her reminiscences, Colette talks of her mother with extraordinary warmth.

In the second novella/memoir; Sido, Colette also recalls her father, the Captain – his absolute adoration of Sido. In her middle age she realises that she really hadn’t known him quite so well.

“It seems strange to me, now, that I knew him so little. My attention, my fervent admiration, were all for Sido and only fitfully strayed from her. It was just the same with my father. His eyes dwelt on Sido. On thinking it over I believe that she did not know him well either. She was content with a few broad and clumsy truths; his love for her was boundless – it was in trying to enrich her that he lost her fortune – she loved him with an unwavering love, treating him lightly in everyday matters but respecting all his decisions.”

The Captain, with his amputated leg, occasional rages and money troubles. When he died there was found a shelf of journals – every page blank – in which he had intended to write, though never had.

We then, inevitably see Sido in her seventies – her daughter visits from Paris, a doctor son lives nearby. She is still bright eyed, clear headed but stubborn – resisting the curtailments of her advancing years.

Colette’s prose breaths life again into these people – her family – the people she knew and loved best. Her memories of them almost become part of her readers’ memories – for from the page these long dead people emerge – very much not forgotten.

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Translated from Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Türedi

Review copy from the publisher

In the end I actually ended up with two copies of this book, one kindly sent by the publisher as stated above – the second as part of my Asymptote book club subscription. I passed on the second copy to a friend.

I was interested in this novel primarily because I know nothing about Turkish history, yet it is such a colourful and vibrant culture, that I was keen to learn more. Like a Sword Wound is the first book in the Ottoman Quartet – which has been described by professional reviewers as being Tolstoyan in its scope. An historical epic isn’t usually my thing these days – though I have loved historical fiction in the past. There is great drama here though – and I was quickly swept up by the characters and the setting.

Before I get on to the book though, a word about the author – Ahmet Altan – his story is a sobering one. A prominent journalist and author, Ahmet Altan has been an advocate for Kurdish and Armenian minorities. When he was imprisoned on false charges in 2016 there was widespread international outrage, but despite that he is serving a life sentence – and I read somewhere that he continues to write from his prison cell.

“True love is like a sword wound, and even when the wound heals a deep scar remains.”

The novel begins towards the end of the Ottoman empire – around the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Altan brings the ancient city of Istanbul to glorious life – the scents and sounds; lemon, figs, the sea and the call to prayer. Here Sultan Abdul Hamid II holds absolute power, believing he is anointed by God. No criticism of the sultan is permitted, and the city is one almost paralysed by fear, suspicion and paranoia. In various corners of the city however dissent is already being whispered, there are those who seek to end the tyranny dished out by the sultan and those who do his bidding.

“The big roundup began the following morning, and a number of pashas and hundreds of officers were picked up from their homes and brought to Balmumcu barracks; in town, whispers of “they’ve caught the plotters, and some of them will be hanged” began to spread, and the fear that lurked beneath Istanbul like a monster and emerged from time to time began to stalk about like an epidemic. Civilians were arrested as well, those who had been denounced, and everyone was denouncing their enemies as “Fuat Pasha’s loyal followers.”

The story is narrated by Osman a middle-aged man living alone in modern day Turkey. He is visited by the spirits of his ancestors – who tell him their stories. In this way Osman becomes the omniscient narrator of events which happened long before he was born. It is an unusual device – and one that I didn’t feel got in the way of the main narrative, and perhaps serves to remind us how close in fact the modern era is to these seemingly distant events.

like a sword woundAs the novel opens Sheikh Yusuf Efendi is marrying Mehpare Hanim, the daughter of a customs director. Sheikh Efendi is the leader of the tekke – a dervish monastery. Despite still being quite young, he is seen as a wise man – his wisdom sought by people from all over the city – he is a gentle, religious man, often embarrassed and confused by his own more human feelings and desires. Mehpare Hanim is an extraordinary beauty, sexually adventurous and quite unsuited to the man she married. After their daughter is born the marriage breaks down and the couple divorce.

Mehpare Hanim re-marries, her second husband is Hüseyin Hikmet Bey, the son of the Sultan’s physician and his estranged wife Mihrişah Sultan. Mihrişah Sultan is an Egyptian beauty, she enjoys the affect her looks have on men – though is uninterested in remarrying, still only in her early forties, she unleashes a fierce jealousy in her new daughter-in-law, and scandalises Istanbul when she visits the city from her home in Paris – walking around with her head uncovered.

“From the moment Mihrisah Sultan and her daughter-in-law met, the two women’s beauty collided with all their force like two trains; in that fleeting moment, of which none but the two of them were aware, they looked at each other in terror, admiration, jealousy, and hatred, and felt the magnitude of the collision in the depths of their souls. Each believed that no one could be more beautiful than herself, yet both suspected that the other might be more beautiful.”

Hikmet Bey is a very Europeanised young man having spent several years in Paris. Mehpare soon draws her husband into her sex games and in time they draw the French governess in too. This all struck me as being fairly typical male fantasy stuff – though Altan never goes too far – it’s pretty tame. However, I was a little concerned about his view and portrayal of women. A discussion on the Asymptote members Facebook group suggested that all the characters are caricature of a type – which I can see – but it still left me feeling uncomfortable. These women are strong though, and the author doesn’t appear to be vilifying them in any way.

Another character; Ragip Bey – destined to be Osman’s grandfather – is a young army lieutenant in the Ottoman army. He is a childhood friend of Sheikh Effendi – to whom he often goes to for counsel. Following some trouble at the military college where he teaches – Ragip Bey is sent to Germany – from where, through his brother he joins the organisation plotting to overthrow the sultan’s regime. This part of the story moves the time frame forward a little to the Bulgarian anarchist bombings in Salonika where Hikmet Bey and his wife and children are currently living. Hikmet Bey has become dissatisfied in his marriage – his wife is impossible to please – and as time goes by, he too begins to take an interest in revolutionary politics. Ragip Bey’s story is particularly gripping – and one I assume will continue in the next book.

I’ll admit, I hadn’t quite expected to be as gripped by this novel as I was, and I flew through its nearly 400 pages pretty fast. I will definitely want to read the rest of the quartet – when and if it becomes available in English.

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white hunger

Translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

For the 2012 slot in my A century of books, I chose White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, a Finnish novella which has won itself a string of awards. Peirene Press publish little nuggets of European literature, of under 200 pages. I think this must surely be my first Finnish novel.

Running to less than 140 pages, White Hunger is a story which feels surprisingly epic. A novel about survival, White Hunger takes us to the heart of the Finnish famine in 1867. Despite the distance of years, this is a story that is still enormously relevant, for here Ollikainen tells the story of all refugees. The turned backs, suspicion and hard, blank stares which greet those in the most desperate need – that, has sadly never changed.

In a small Finnish town two brothers are managing to survive fairly well despite the crippling winter and lack of food that has brought so much misery to much of the country. Teo is a doctor, his brother Lars some kind of local politician. Ollikainen also gives voice to ‘the senator’ who shows us the callous disregard of the government to the people in their hour of need.

“one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases. People would talk about the coming of spring, the melting of the ice. About the swans someone spotted on the Holy Lake. About the neighbouring fields being flooded.”

As the cruel winter continues to bite hard, with blizzards and snow laying deeply all over the country, people begin to add bark to what passes as bread these days. A farmer’s wife, Marja from the north prepares to leave her home. Her husband is dying, and Marja, banks up the fire and places a bowl of snow at his side. She can do no more. She must leave and take her two children; Mataleena and Juho with her. They are not the only ones on the move, many people have set out from their homes in a desperate search for food. Marja believes that if they can make it to St. Petersburg they will find real bread. That far off city takes on an almost mythical quality – as in time Marja becomes subject to hallucinatory visions.

“Far away she sees the trees edging the open space; they change into the silhouettes of spires and palaces in the Tsar’s city. They flee, fluttering, into nothingness, and towards this nothingness Marja crawls, Juho in her arms. The Tsar himself descends to the crown of the biggest spruce, but dressed up as death, as a black raven.”

The odds are stacked against Marja and the children, the weather is appalling, and they are on foot, weakened already by the lack of the food. The country is rife with beggars, and there are few who welcome them. No one has anything to spare – and those who don’t slam the door in the family’s faces, offer little in the way of hospitality; a little rest, a bowl of thin gruel.

This novella is brutally uncompromising in its descriptions of hunger and desperation. The loneliness and isolation that comes with such desperate need and vulnerability makes for grim reading. This is certainly not a book to pick up if you are already feeling a bit down. However, the writing is absolutely beautiful, and while the images left behind are raw, it is the beauty of the prose which saved the novella from being unremittingly depressing.

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love anger madness

Translated from French by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokur

My final read for August’s Women in Translation month was a book of three novellas, Love, Anger, Madness: a Haitian triptych. Knowing nothing about Haiti – expect that voodoo comes from there, I was fascinated to learn more. I didn’t know what to expect from it really – and had never heard of the author at all.

“Fear is a vice that takes root once it is cultivated. It takes time to recover from it.”

Marie Vieux-Chauvet was born in 1916 in the Haitian capital, part of what was called the ‘occupation generation’ – it was the year after the US invaded Haiti. She grew up in a tumultuous period in Haiti history, and this is very much reflected in these three novellas. In 1968 following the publication of this novel and the resulting furore Marie Vieux-Chauvet was exiled to the United States.

These stories depict families and artists struggling to survive, find love and safety in Haiti while living under some of the most terrifying and hostile conditions.

The first novella, Love is told in the form of a journal, by Claire, the eldest of three sisters, who has never married. Her younger two sisters, and her brother-in-law share the old family home with Claire – but there is jealousy and resentment at the heart of this family. As the novel opens, Félicia; the middle sister married to Jean Luze is in the early stages of pregnancy. The youngest sister Annette only twenty-two, is openly conducting an affair with her handsome brother-in-law. Claire is driven to distraction, not at the betrayal of her other sister, but because she too has developed a passion for Jean Luze. In time, Claire becomes devoted to her little nephew when he comes along, and as Félicia becomes more and more fragile and less present in the house, Claire begins to feel as if he is almost her own. With Jean Luze soon tired of Annette, this youngest sister, vain and self-serving, leaves, marrying someone else – and Claire’s fantasies about her brother-in-law increase.

“Jean Luze plays a record in the living room. The notes penetrate me as he listens to them. My senses begin to vibrate so much that I rush to lock myself in my room. The sound explodes like a scream and then lingers in a caress. The entire house is suffused with it. What a hymn to life, this work born of suffering.”

This story of domestic disharmony takes place within a small, frightened community. The commandant, whose jail is across the street from Claire’s house, holds the community in thrall. We are witness to cruelty, fear and tales of sexual violence metered out to neighbours. Claire can hear the screams from her room.

In Anger, we meet the Normil family – with the story is told from multiple perspectives. One morning this large middle-class family wake to find militia men in black uniforms driving stakes into the ground around their home. This act of land seizure terrifies and intimidates the family, who have been proud landowners for many years. Rose, the pretty twenty-year old daughter becomes central to the crimes committed against this family and focus of much of the anger. For a month Rose must submit to the attentions of one of the militia leaders. Rose seeing herself as a martyr, goes to her fate in scenes which make for very uncomfortable reading. Meanwhile her mother, father, brothers and grandfather each deal differently with the unfolding situation. Their anger manifesting in various, destructive ways.

“Louis Normil felt his father’s anger rising in him. The shock was what saved him. He instinctively tilted his head to take his leave of the lawyer and made for the exit. He thought he caught a glint of mockery in the guard’s eyes, but he paid him no mind and went to work.”

The third novella Madness is harder to talk about without completely ruining it. It is that shortest of the three novellas, and the one I liked the least. The story is narrated by a young poet; Rene. Trapped for days inside his house, he watches ‘the devils’ as he calls them through the shutters of the windows, as they rampage their way around the town. There is a body in the street outside and flies have started to gather on it. Opening the door to two friends, brothers and fellow poets Rene encourages them inside to hide from ‘the devils’ who are invading their town. Isolated and terrified – Rene is suffering from a lack of food and water, stealing himself for a last stand against authority.

Despite the fact not all of Vieux-Chauvet’s characters are likeable this triptych remains sympathetic. It is however, also brutal and uncompromising in its depiction of Haitian society, and the reality of a country in turmoil. It is brave and terrifyingly honest.

It really was no wonder that I needed a palate cleanser after this book – which runs to almost 400 pages – and began reading something entirely different a couple of hours after finishing it.

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cof

Translated from French by Sandra Smith

I have been wondering how I would review David Golder for several days. I enjoyed this novel – but it was an enjoyment that felt distinctly uncomfortable.

Irène Némirovsky has become better known in recent years due to the publication of her lost novel Suite Francaise, and the story surrounding its recovery. However, at the time Irène Némirovsky began to write Suite Francaise she was already a well-known writer. David Golder was her second novel, first published in 1929 when its author was just 26, it was a big success. In more recent years the novel has been viewed quite controversially, due its depiction of Jewish characters, some of who could be said to be caricatures. Here we have wealthy Jewish businessmen sacrificing everything in the pursuit of more money, and an elderly Jewish man who walks on tip-toe to save shoe leather. It is such portrayals that have led many people to accuse Irène Némirovsky of anti-Semitism. Born into a Jewish family in Ukraine, she lived most of her life in France, she wrote in French and had converted to Catholicism. None of this was enough to save her under the race laws imposed by the Nazis who occupied France in 1940. Many people seem to believe – and this seems likely to me – that Némirovsky’s antipathy towards Jewishness was turned more inwards than outwards. She did have a famously terrible relationship with her mother. None of that makes reading David Golder any less uncomfortable – and yet, as I said I enjoyed it.

Némirovsky’s characters are so well crafted, that they become far more than caricatures, she is writing about capitalism, the reckless pursuit of money that was so prevalent in the twenties. Despite identifying as a Frenchwoman first and foremost, throughout her writing Némirovsky returns to her roots in the communities and people she portrays. Perhaps in this we see something of the complexity of the woman she was.

David Golder is an ageing businessman – born into poverty in Russia, he has amassed a great fortune. The days of easy money are numbered, and the financial markets of the world are starting to crumble, business is bad. As the novel opens Golder is refusing to help Marcus; his partner of twenty-six years, who is facing bankruptcy.

Days later Marcus is dead, having killed himself – and Golder visits his widow – who he can’t help but notice is wearing an enormous pearl necklace wound three times around her neck. Golder is a hard man; his success has been at the expense of others. Golder gets a train to travel to Biarritz where his wife Gloria and daughter Joyce live in luxurious splendour.

“ ‘Oh!’ Joyce said suddenly, ‘it’s just that I have to have everything on earth otherwise I’d rather die! Everything! Everything!’ she repeated with an imperious, feverish look in her eyes. ‘I don’t know how others do it! Daphne sleeps with old Behring for his money, but I need love, youth, everything the world has to offer…’”

Joyce is Golder’s one Achilles heel – he adores her, and Joyce uses that. Like her mother, Joyce is only interested in the money that her father can give her – and he gives her thousands. Joyce runs around with her boyfriends spending money like water – careless and superficial. Gloria is particularly dreadful, she cares only for the money her husband brings in, she has her own life, her own friends and lovers and no relationship with her husband.

Golder’s health is failing – as he travels through the night to Biarritz – he experiences chest pain. In the loneliness of the long dark night, Golder is briefly afraid – vulnerable, feeling his increasing age.

“The thick darkness flowed into his throat with soft, insistent pressure, as if earth was being pushed into his mouth, as it was into his… the dead man’s…Marcus…And when he thought finally of Marcus, when he finally allowed himself to be taken over by the image, the memory of death, the cemetery, the yellow clay soaked with rain, the long roots clinging like serpents deep inside the grave, he suddenly felt such a tremendous need, such a desperate desire for light, to see familiar, ordinary things round him… his clothing swaying from the hook on the door… the newspapers on the little table…the bottle of mineral water… that he forgot about everything else.”

In Biarritz, in the sumptuous apartment he owns there, Golder is taken ill again. Fearing that her pot of gold may run dry Gloria takes steps to ensure her husband is not persuaded to stop work – for as soon as he does – the money will stop. It is for Joyce though, ultimately that Golder continues to chase money – during days of increasing financial insecurity.

Némirovsky shines a light on a world she would have seen something of through her father – a wealthy businessman in Russia – he had started again as a banker when the family fled the revolution for France in 1917.

There is a chilling atmosphere of dark, claustrophobia throughout the novel. As Golder recalls incidents from his past he travels through Europe, retracing in part the steps he took as a young man setting out to make his fortune. He revisits an old Jewish neighbourhood with an old friend, and finally nearing the end of his life, meets a poor young man, who like he himself once did, is setting out in hopes of a better life.

davidgolder

Némirovsky’s portrait of Golder is not without sympathy, in his ageing ill health – as he struggles to make money for the daughter he loves but who cares not one jot for him, he is vulnerable and rather tragic. However, in her portrayal of Gloria and Joyce – she is merciless.

This became a short though hugely thought-provoking novel for me during this #Witmonth – Némirovsky is a woman I continue to be both confounded and fascinated by.

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the bridge of beyond

Translated from French by Barbara Bray

I bought The Bridge of Beyond on something of a whim, while looking for interesting things to read for Women in translation month that would fill gaps in my A century of Books. I then persuaded my very small book group to read it, we meet early in September to discuss it. I am so looking forward to hearing what they all thought. It’s an extraordinary novel – I loved it. In her introduction to this edition, Jamaica Kincaid calls it…

“a seminal work of literature that cannot be contained within the usual confines of ‘the novel’ or ‘a work of fiction.’”
(Jamaica Kincaid)

It is a novel of mothers and daughters, of love and the legacy of slavery on the French Antillean island of Guadeloupe. Telumee narrates the story of her life, paying tribute to the strong line of wonderful Lougandor women who came before her. It is a narration rich in description, slow rhythmic prose which I found completely hypnotic.

“A man’s country may be cramped or vast according to the size of his heart. I’ve never found my country to be too small. Though that isn’t to say my heart is great. And if I could choose it’s here in Guadeloupe that I’d be born again, suffer and die. Yet not long back my ancestors were slaves on this volcanic, hurricane-swept mosquito-ridden, nasty minded island. But I didn’t come into the world to weigh the world’s woe. I prefer to dream, on and on, standing in my garden, just like any other old woman of my age, till death comes and takes me as I dream, me and all my joy.”

Telumee is the granddaughter of Toussine, a woman who became known in her village of Fond-Zombi as Queen without a Name. The stories of her life in L’Abandonnee, where she lived with her great love have reached legendary status even during her life time. In her heart, Toussine still carries Jeremiah with her through to old age. With the memory of her one great love – she carries the knowledge of pain, the ability to survive and the wisdom imparted by her old friend Ma Cia.

Toussine’s daughter Victory is Telumee’s mother, Telumee the second of her daughters. Victory; a laundress, is abandoned by one man and bereaved of another. So, when she has the chance of a new life with a man from Dominica she sends the ten-year-old Toussine to her grandmother who lives across the Bridge of Beyond in the village of Fond-Zombi. The bridge is very much a symbol, crossing it brings change – things not yet known, a different world.

“Life at Fond-Zombi was lived with doors and windows open: night had eyes, and the wind long ears, and no one could ever have enough of other people. As soon as I arrived in the village I knew who was aggressor and who was victim, who still held his soul high and who was on the road to ruin, who poached in waters belonging to his friend or brother, who was suffering, who was dying. But the more I learned the more it seemed that the main thing escaped me, slipped between my fingers like an eel.”

Telumee grows up sheltered and tutored by the love and wisdom of Queen without a Name. There are many things she needs to learn, including matters of the heart. Elie comes into her life, the son of Old Abel who keeps a shop and bar in a shack in the village. She crosses the bridge of beyond to go and work at Belle-Feuille, for Madame Desaragne, but returns to set up home with her love. Elie turns out to be not such a catch after all – and Queen is ageing and needing care in her final years. Telumee begins spending more and more time with Ma Cia. Telumee, like her mother and grandmother before lives in a patriarchal society, yet here, it is the women who shine. Their strength is so empowering they never allow themselves to be oppressed by the difficulties of their community.

Simone Schwatz-Bart’s novel is full of long, hot, slow days, superstition and the cruel, gruelling work of the canefields. Telumee is born into a peasant tradition; tough lives in tiny dwellings on the edge of the forest. Often repeated stories, and long memories, nestle alongside magic and romance on the lush island of Guadeloupe so deliciously described by Schwartz-Bart.

This is a wonderfully tender novel, suffused with hope and the inspiration of three generations of women.

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