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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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Translated from Icelandic by Brian FitzGibbon

My latest read for #Witmonth comes from Iceland a country I am rather fascinated by as it’s a place I visited in 2017. I now really want to visit again. While reading I was googling pictures of the incredible landscape.

(It’s yet another book that I’m not counting for #20booksofsummer as I am trying to get the last four from my original list read now.)

At the heart of Butterflies in November is a free spirited woman, whose life it set on an entirely new course, thanks to an Icelandic road trip and deaf-mute four year old. It’s a charming novel full of colourful characters, long empty roads and self-discovery.

On the day that our unnamed narrator is dumped by both her lover and her husband, she runs over a goose and kills it. It’s not the best of days, she’s a thirty-something woman, a proof-reader who delivers her finished work to her clients by hand. Suddenly she is on her own, moving into a new apartment with her estranged husband dropping round every five minutes. What she wants is to get right away, far away – and she starts dreaming of a tropical get-a-way. However, her plans are thwarted when her best friend, expecting twins is hospitalised for the last three months of her pregnancy. The friend already has a four year old son – Tumi, a deaf child who communicates with a mixture of sign language and sounds difficult to decipher.

“The only thing mothers have in common with each other is the fact that they slept with a man while they were ovulating without the appropriate protection”

When Tumi’s mum asks our narrator to take care of him while she is hospitalised, she is suddenly thrust into a maternal role she is not very comfortable with. With no real idea how to care for a young child, much less one with Tumi’s needs – she can’t sign – there’s a difficult start for both of them. Tumi chooses some numbers for a big lottery draw and they win. Needing a break, and having charge of Tumi for three months, our narrator decides to put some distance between herself, her ex-husband and his new partner.

“You bid your husband farewell forever with a vigorous handshake and then meet him the next morning buying sesame seed bread rolls in the local bakery, queuing in the bank at lunchtime, swimming in the pool in the afternoon, or at the registry office later in the week, and then, the weekend after that, at the theatre with his new significant other – always inevitably bumping into each other.”

So, setting aside her previous tropical plans, she and Tumi set off on a trip across Iceland with a glove box stuffed with lottery winnings. Her destination a summer cottage over on the East coast near to where she grew up, a prefabricated cottage with no electricity she won in another competition (I wish I had such luck). More unusually (for Icelanders) is that she and Tumi set out in November.

Along the way our narrator encounters long, lonely roads, storms and the haunting rugged landscape of the Icelandic Ring Road. Tumi sits quietly in the back, and initially it is easy to forget he is there. She and Tumi have various overnight stops along the way, and as they travel and get to know one another better, they also meet a handsome falconer, an Estonian choir, stop at a cucumber farm and little Tumi comes away with a kitten. As the unlikely duo travel an understanding between them begins to develop, the author depicts their changing relationship beautifully. We can feel out narrator’s focus start to shift, she makes mistakes but has more understanding for Tumi than she realises.

“It’s difficult to gauge distances in the dark; there are no landmarks here. If there were anyone else around I’d ask for directions. I can see through the rear-view mirror that Tumi is tired and feel such an overwhelming responsibility, it’s worse than being alone – I’m responsible for another person’s happiness. The area is incredibly black. No echo of life disturbs the silence of this wilderness.”

Throughout the novel in italicised sections we get flashbacks to our narrator’s past – things that help us understand what has brought her to where she is – and her attitudes to relationships and motherhood.

I really enjoyed this novel – I loved the setting especially, and Tumi is a delightful little character. My only grumble comes right at the end of the novel, which seems to end rather abruptly. I actually thought there was about 40 pages to go – when it all ended – and there were instead a lot of recipes (food mentioned in the book) that follow. I was quite taken aback – I reread the last two or three pages and yes, it works and hangs together – but still feels very abrupt.

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Translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette

When I bought this little collection of stories, I did so because I wanted to learn something about a country that I don’t know much about. I also wasn’t aware just how small a collection it was. As it was, I read it in the car on the way home from Devon last Saturday.

Before I started reading Thirteen Months of Sunrise, I had to ask myself what I knew about Sudan – and the answer was not much. My impressions of the country coming almost entirely from BBC news reports. I found myself googling pictures of the cities in Sudan so I could at least have some realistic images of the places I was reading about.

Rania Mamoun is a Sudanese author, journalist and activist, Thirteen Months of Sunrise is her debut collection of stories, though she has previously published two novels in Arabic.

“Thirteen is not a superstitious or unlucky number, it’s the number of months in a year in Ethiopia.

But that’s another story.”

There are ten stories in a collection that only runs to 70 pages, some are really very short indeed. What I found particularly fascinating was how over the course of all the stories a portrait of modern Sudan starts to emerge.

The collection opens with the title story, in which a young woman working in a computer shop meets an Ethiopian man. She fixes his computer and they start to get to know each other. They talk about Abyssinian culture and start spending more time together.

“We laughed a lot that day, and when he said, ‘I feel at home in this country,’ I was filled with joy that I’d managed to ease his sharp loneliness.”

In Passing, a young woman mourns her father – hears his voice asking why she never became a doctor. She remembers Eid, the day her father became ill. It’s a poignant reminder, should we need it, that whoever we are, wherever we may happen to live, the loss of a parent is always seismic, whatever it is that roots you to this earth is severely shaken.

“Your scent opens channels of memory, it invades me without warning, like armies of ants stinging me fiercely, chaotically: on my eyes, my skin, in my pores, my blood, even my ears, as they pick up the vibrations of your voice drawing closer. I’m flooded with memories: I feel the warmth of your embrace; the warmth of the bed where as a child I slept beside you instead of Mother; you coming home from your errands, me sticking to you like glue. Mother tried to separate me from you, but I didn’t listen. ‘He’s going on a trip tomorrow,’ she’d tell me, and I’d say: ‘But he’ll come back.’”

In Doors, a man leaves his home for a new job. The water isn’t on that morning, he hasn’t paid the bill, the bathroom door is riddled with holes, but nothing can spoil his good mood. A new job, things are looking up. I read on with a sinking feeling.

“He reached the businessman’s office on the second floor, and gazed at the beautiful door, solid and well made. It must be from a factory that makes doors and windows and other things, or maybe it’s imported, he thought to himself. At any rate, it definitely hadn’t come from a workshop in the nearby industrial zone.

A sleek, elegant plaque was affixed up high, engraved with the word DIRECTOR.

He felt the door, how cold it was, and took a deep breath. He grasped the handle and said to himself: I’ve done it; at last I’ve made it into the world.”

In A Woman Asleep on Her Bundle a woman wonders about the elderly woman who appears to have chosen to sleep on the ground near the mosque wall. She’s made a home of sorts under the neem tree, but other people in the neighbourhood said she used to own a house, has children and was tricked out of her money by ‘Madam Cash’. Some people call her a mad woman, the narrator wonders why she is all alone here, why does she keep running away from her family.

In other stories; a woman goes to a charity office day after day to beg for the money needed to help her dying son, children go hungry, a woman travels by bus from one city to another watching a fly on the window. They are stories of ordinary people, the destitute and the lost, in the midst of which we witness those things which make life so difficult for people in Sudan.

Rania Mamoun’s thought provoking collection explores isolation and estrangement within Sudanese urban life. Here is the deep love of a woman for her country and she writes about it with a complete understanding.

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Translated from French by Faith Evans.

With thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy

It’s not very long since I last read Madeleine Bourdouxhe but this little collection from Pushkin Press was just so perfect for #Witmonth I couldn’t possibly hang on to it any longer. I love the cover image – what a fabulous attitude.

Seven of these eight stories have a woman right at the heart of them, just one story concerns a man. Taking place in Belgium and France just before or just after the Second World War, the period during which most of them were written these stories depict ordinary women. Women who are reflective, lonely or locked in unsatisfying relationships. Three of the stories were written much later as Faith Evans explains in her introduction. The occupation overshadows many of these beautiful stories – with two of the stories, the first and the last based quite heavily on Bourdouxhe’s own experiences.

In the title story; A Nail, A Rose Irene walks homeward through the icy and darkness, ruminating on her failed relationship. Suddenly, she is attacked by a man from behind, he is wielding a hammer somewhat half-heartedly. Irene engages the man in conversation – he helps her stem the bleeding, walks her home – he is oddly childlike in his eagerness to please.

“He got out his handkerchief and tried to clean her hair, to staunch the wound. She was standing up, her heart racing. A man was wiping blood from her hair – and although he was doing it gently, she was in pain. He was holding the torch on a level with their faces, and she could see his pale greyish skin and the lock of brown hair that fell on to his forehead. He’d pushed his cap back and his face looked young and very thin. It was the face of an archangel or a fool: that look could belong to either one or the other.”

From here the attacker seems to begin to romantically pursue Irene – who appears less alarmed by this behaviour than one might imagine. The whole story has a bizarreness that can only come from real life. It’s a fabulous opening to an excellent collection.

Five of the stories are titled with the names of their central characters; Anna, Louise, Leah, Clara, Blanche and René. Here we have housewives who dream about the possibility of another life; one of them Anna is fascinated by the woman across the road – who like Anna is living above a garage, serving petrol to travellers who come along, but the other woman has a fancy chignon in her hair. Leah is involved with strikers; Leah finds herself taking drastic action to help the strike achieve its desired ends. Louise is a maid who longs to escape the drudgery of her life, she spends her day looking forward to the evening when she will go out, have a drink and maybe speak to men. She dreams of being friends with her employer – Madame – and tries on Madam’s coat. René is a hairdresser – who has an odd slightly dreamlike, fantastical encounter with one of his clients.

Sous le pont Mirabeau is the longest story in the collection, published here for the first time in English. The illustrations which first accompanied it reproduced with it. It is a story, which like the opening story is based on events in Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s own life.

“There were people everywhere, men, women and children, twenty or twenty five in a lorry, seven or eight in a vehicle meant for four. She was stretched out in the back of a lorry, her tiny baby on top of her, looking straight ahead with impatience in her eyes. She’d brought it upon herself, she thought, getting caught up in this escape – yet she wasn’t really fleeing or abandoning anything, she was merely responding to an appeal. The clarity of her memories guided her like a star.”

Set in 1940, it depicts the desperate flight of Belgians trying to get to France at the time of the occupation. A woman gives birth to a daughter just as the evacuation begins. She has no option, but to take her tiny daughter on the perilous journey, travelling in jeeps with soldiers, staying with kind-hearted strangers along the way.  It is an extraordinary reminder of the times, just what hardships people had to face in the midst of the fear and disruption of occupation. There was clearly much uncertainty and yet despite that, there is hope.

This is an excellent collection – I do hope there is more Madeleine Bourdouxhe novels and stories to be discovered and translated into English. If you’re yet to discover her short novels; La Femme des Gilles and Marie are both wonderful.

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Translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

My first read for this year’s Women in Translation month was Liar – chosen by my book group for September, I decided it was would be a perfect holiday read – it was.

Lies are tricky things – they have the habit of multiplying, taking on a life of their own – getting out of control. This novel explores the nature of lies and how quickly they can travel – what those lies might mean to the liar, and what the consequences could be.

“After all, more lies remain undiscovered than are revealed. Harmless little lies absorbed into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from the truth. Time kneads all of them into a single lump of dough, and does it matter what really happened and what didn’t?”

Summer is nearing its end and soon school will be starting again, it will be Nofar Shalev’s final year at school – a year before she will have to join the army. For now, Nofar spends seven hours a day working in an ice-cream parlour – wishing the hours away and mourning the fact her former best friend recently just threw her over, so she could hang around with the cool kids. Nofar is an average seventeen year old, she lacks confidence, worries about her appearance, never learning how to make the best of herself, overshadowed by a prettier younger sister. She has become almost invisible – and she thinks she knows how she appears to others, and this makes her feel even worse – (I wouldn’t be seventeen again for anything).

One day a fading TV reality star comes into the ice-cream parlour – he is rude and Nofar, not knowing who he is, unthinkingly corrects his grammar which enrages him further. Avishai Milner unleashes a torrent of abuse at Nofar – personal and nasty, playing into all the awful things poor Nofar already thinks about herself. Nofar is deeply distressed, and so when in the midst of her hysteria, Avishai follows her and merely touches her on the arm Nofar’s screams bring the whole neighbourhood running. Nofar is surrounded by kind people asking what happened – and so she tells a lie – and it’s a pretty big one.

The media frenzy that blows up around Nofar’s story takes everyone by surprise, particularly Nofar. Avishai Milner is arrested and remanded in custody, the press is positively salivating over the story. She thinks no one can ever know about the lie she told – but she is wrong. Two people know that she lied. One of them is a deaf-mute homeless man – who it turns out isn’t as deaf or as mute as everyone thinks, the other; Lavi Maimon, who had witnessed the whole thing from his bedroom window.

“Some plants must be watered once a day, others don’t have to be watered at all, the more they are left alone the more they thrive. That applies to lies as well; some must be reinforced by a constant stream of words, others are better off left alone, they will grow on their own.”

Like so many boys his age Lavi finds it almost impossible to express himself, like Nofar he lacks confidence. Having already noticed Nofar but been unable to speak to her, he now seizes the opportunity to get to know her – blackmailing her into spending time with him. However, Nofar finds she rather likes this awkward young man, his ‘blackmail’ becoming something of a nonsense as they each develop feelings for the other, each of them incapable of admitting how they feel. Lavi sees beyond Nofar’s lie – he likes her for who she is – if only he could tell her that.

Everything begins to get out of control as the mainstream media begin to talk of Nofar as a heroine, a role model for young girls and women speaking out against men. Nofar is invited on to TV shows, given new clothes invited to a glittering reception. The TV people do her makeup – cover up the pimples that worry her, making her look so different, Nofar barely recognises herself. At school, Nofar is a little less invisible and that is driving her popular sister crazy. All the time, the lie is getting bigger, becoming more impossible to recant.

Later, Nofar meets Raymonde – an elderly woman she is an unlikely friend for a seventeen year old. Raymonde has also told a lie – but her lie won’t hurt anyone – she just wants to keep the memory of her dearest friend Rivka alive a little longer.

“Raymonde knew that Rivka would have wanted someone to tell her story. The way an olive tree wants you to take all the fallen olives and make oil from them. So she took those olives from Rivka, added them to her own and pressed them together really well.”

In time, both Nofar and Raymonde will have to face up to their lies and their consequences.

Gundar-Goshen writes with great understanding, portraying the awkwardness and misery of teenagers who feel on the outside. She shows the complexity of different relationships and the power they hold; familial relationships, relationships with authority, our peers and ourselves.

Liar was my fifteenth book of my #20booksofsummer – another swap – this time swapped for Spring by Ali Smith – which I will probably still read fairly soon.

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Meytal who is the inspiration behind Women in Translation month has been trying to compile a top 100 women in translation titles and so has been asking for us to each nominate ten.

I originally posted my choices on Twitter -but not everyone uses Twitter. So for those who like lists (and I know you’re out there) in no particular order, here are my top ten titles. Click on the titles to take you to my review.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum – (German – translated by Basil Creighton)

Set in the post World-War One world of the Weimar era. Berlin of the 1920’s, and here we meet a host of remarkably well drawn characters, who are explored in astute and searching detail. The lives and various concerns of these characters are woven together brilliantly by Vicki Baum, exploring their hopes, fears, secrets and regrets. There are shades of light and dark in this novel, moments of black comedy, and others of great poignancy. The life, atmosphere of a German hotel in the late 1920’s is brought to life with breath-taking clarity.

Into the Whirlwind – Eugenia Ginzburg – (Russian – translated by Paul Stevenson and Manya Harari )

An extraordinary memoir. In the 1930s Ginzburg was a loyal communist party member, a university teacher and journalist. A wife and mother, living a life surrounded by people who thought as she did, Eugenia (Jenny) found herself caught up in Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937, accused on trumped up charges.

My Mother’s House (Claudine’s House) – Colette (French – translated by Enid Mcleod and Una Troubridge

A novella/memoir of childhood, delightful and exquisitely written. 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.

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante (Italian – translated by Ann Goldstein)

My Brilliant Friend is the first novel in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series of novels – I loved them all, and this is where it all began. This is a novel of friendship and discovery, a coming of age novel in which two girls grow up to young womanhood with an ever gradually expanding realisation of their potentialities.

Dimanche and other stories – Irène Némirovsky ( French – translated by Bridget Patterson)

Dimanche and other stories were all written in the 1930’s and 40’s but not published in English until 2000. This is a truly wonderful collection, beautifully written, atmospheric stories, breathtakingly observed, some are almost like short novels in themselves, and peopled with memorably complex but very real characters.

The Door – Magda Szabó  (Hungarian – translated by Len Rix)

The narrator of The Door is unnamed – sometimes titled ‘the lady writer’, struggling to cope with both her writing and her domestic tasks she appears to be a thinly veiled portrait of Szabó herself. Having been silenced for years for political reasons, she is now able to write again, and seeks help with running her home from the caretaker of nearby apartments. Set over a period of about twenty years, The Door is the story of the relationship between the writer, and the woman who becomes her housekeeper.

TheDays of Abandonment – Elena Ferrante (Italian – translated by Ann Goldstein)

The Days of Abandonment is on the face of it the story of a woman’s descent into despair following the ending of her marriage; however it is much more the portrayal of her actual breakdown, in all its ugliness and misery. I was ill prepared for the anger and gut wrenching raw intimacy of this novel – at times that anger is almost visceral – and there are moments when the reader really would rather look away. It is brilliant though, and very memorable.

Iza’s Ballad – Magda Szabó (Hungarian – translated by George Szirtes)

Set in around 1960. The novel opens in a traditional small town in Hungary, later moving to the rapidly changing city of Budapest. For people of the older generation, the war and earlier government oppressions live long in their memory – their world was shaped by such events. So many of these past events are shrouded in silence – and the reader only gradually pieces together the history of these characters – very ordinary people, who we find have done small extraordinary things.

The Bridge of Beyond – Simone Schwaz-Bart (French – translated by Barbara Bray)

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. 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.

Farewell, My Orange – Iwaki Kei (Japanese – translated by Meredith McKinney)

Set in a small Australian, coastal town the novel concerns two immigrant women, their journey with language, and their struggle to make a home in a strange land. The sunrise is a constant for Salimah, something familiar among all that is strange.

So those are my top ten – it was difficult to choose, there were several books vying for those last couple of places. If you’re joining in with #Witmonth during August I hope you read some wonderful books, I will be following the reviews with interest.

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