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Translated from French by Francis Golffing*

Sitting down to write this review and it suddenly seems to be a very long time snice I read the book – it is about 2 weeks. I really should be better organised with reviews – and make proper notes.

A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is a book of four stories – one of them the length of a novella – each telling tales of French resistance. Written at around the time theses events would have been happening, these stories are an incredible chronicle of a unique period in French history. However, the woman behind these stories is herself a fascinating figure. Russian born Elsa Triolet was an author and essayist of many books as well as a translator of Russian literature. She emigrated to France on her marriage in 1918 and was later decorated for her heroic role in the French resistance. She was a major literary and political figure in Europe – the first woman to win the Prix-Goncourt and became a peace activist after the war.

These stories were originally published illegally – the title of the final story and the collection is taken from the code used to signal the Allied landings in Normandy.

The Lovers of Avignon tells the story of Juliette Noël a beautiful young typist who lives in Lyons with her beloved aunt and the young Spanish boy she recently adopted. The war is a big disrupter of family life however, and following the death of her brother, Juliette has become involved with the resistance. She is asked to go to Avignon, an important message must be delivered – it is risky – but Juliette shrugs away the danger – telling her aunt and the child she will be home soon. In Avignon she meets Celestin – the man she is tasked with connecting with. It is Christmas time, and they have a few precious hours to spend together – pretending to be lovers – walking the ancient walls of Avignon reading the inscriptions left by recent real lovers in the years before the war.

“They had Christmas dinner in a restaurant. The whole country had made a desperate effort to dine well, or merely to dine, this Christmas. They ate Turkey with chestnuts. The waitress wore a starched apron. There were carnations on the table, bits of mistletoe overhead, and a little Christmas tree in the corner. The room was heated, and the garden behind the windows was celebrating Christmas. When they had finished their coffee they went up to Fort Saint-André.”

I think many of us can appreciate the poignancy of trying to make things as normal as possible during times that are anything but normal.

When Juliette returns to Lyons it isn’t long before she is faced with real potential danger – when Celestin turns up again. The fear here is palpable, the sense of being watched of everything being at risk.

The longest of the four stories is The Private Life of Alexis Slavsky and it isn’t until late into the story that any mention of the resistance is made at all. This is the story of an artist – drifting from Montparnasse to Lyons to the Alps – often in the company of his wife Henriette, he must hide his Jewish blood (a grandmother) while he attempts desperately to ignore much of what is happening around him and continue with his work. His bohemian lifestyle is little suited to wartime, and Alexis is often an irritated and frustrated man. Elsa Triolet is said to have based this character on Henri Matisse who apparently complained about the interruption to his work the war brought. Alexis continues to drift through France and through these days of war, he manages to have an affair – an infatuation that hurts Henriette a good deal before his eyes are finally opened to what is happening all around him, the risks that others are taking so that people like him can be safe. The woman who helps open his eyes is Louise – a journalist he knew in Paris, now working with the resistance. Part of Louise’s story is told in the next story in the collection.  

In Notebooks Buried Under a Peach Tree Louise, who we met towards the end of the previous story, has survived Nazi interrogation, and even escaped from a concentration camp. She is now lying low, at a safe house in the French countryside waiting to re-join the maquis. Louise passes the time reminiscing about her childhood in Russia, recalling her relationship with her mother and sister- and the world of their childhood. It’s a wonderful portrait and one I suspect is quite autobiographical, like Triolet, Louise writes her thoughts and memories in a notebook and buries them for safety under a peach tree when the time comes for her to leave.

The final story, termed the epilogue – A Fine of Two Hundred Francs is also the shortest piece. Like the previous three stories though it is rich in detail and enormously atmospheric. The story recreates the action that was undertaken when that code was broadcast on the radios that were being listened to in secret all over France. A small village in France and the resistance are ready for action, there is a parachute drop and everyone is ready to do their part. The Germans retreat but only after having left a trail of devastation and violence in their wake. The villagers suffer terrible reprisals for their resistance and Triolet brilliantly portrays the shocking realities of these times for ordinary people.

“They left havoc behind them; yawning doors, windows smashed by rifle butts. Everyone suffered his share: those who liked the Boches and those who didn’t, those who had ‘nothing to reproach themselves for’, and those who had.”

Throughout this book Elsa Triolet reveals a reality that can only come from someone who was there. It is an extraordinary testament to war and the unbelievable courage of those who were caught up in the occupation. I couldn’t help but wonder – what would I have done? Who would I have been?

* The translator is unacknowledged in my old VMC edition, so I took to Twitter to ask for help. Francis Golffing was the name suggested to me – and it looks probable it was. *

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Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Translated from Yiddish by Maurice Carr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Well #Witmonth is nearly upon us, and again I am gearing up to join in with what has become a huge annual reading event. As many of you will know – for members of the Virago readers group on Librarything August is also when we do AVAA (all Virago all August – though no one expects to do that literally).

So, this year I have got together a few titles that will tick off both challenges at once. A close look at the photo above will reveal many of the titles I have waiting for Witmonth – embarrassingly, a few of them were on last year’s pile. I won’t go through all of them now – but there are several I am really looking forward to. I have started my WIT/AVAA reading early by starting Deborah by Esther Kreitman (1936) – a novel of Jewish life in Poland in the early part of the twentieth century – translated from the Yiddish by M. Carr. Some of the others I am looking forward to include A Fine of Two Hundred Francs by Elsa Triolet, Waking Lions by Ayelet Gunder-Goshen and The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa – not pictured because I have the paperback on pre-order. There are also some excellent looking titles on my kindle including, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree by Shokoofeh Azar and Paula by Sandra Hoffmann.

Last year I posted my top ten #Witmonth books (to date) so if you follow the link that will lead you to a few more recommendations from me. However, if you’re are still after some inspiration, here are some more recommendations for some great books by women in translation.

Abigail by Magda Szabó (1970) translated from Hungarian.

I have loved everything I have read by Magda Szabó – this was the most recent. 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. She has a lot to learn about others, and about what is really going on in her country.

The Artificial Silk Girl – by Irmgard Keun (1932) – translated from German.

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.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997) translated from Norwegian.

Beautiful but brutal, this unforgettable novella, had me thinking me about it for weeks after I had finished. Love is the story of a mother and son, and one long, bitterly cold night of their lives. Vibeke is a single mother, she and her eight-year-old son have fairly recently moved to this Northern town in Norway.

Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi (2010)– translated from Arabic.

A book I read quite recently; Celestial Bodies is a beautifully layered novel – told from several viewpoints. 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.

Drive your plow over the Bones of the dead by Olga Tokarczuk (2009) translated from Polish.

This is an 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.

Marie by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (1943) translated from French.

This short novel by Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe is a beautifully written story about a woman’s passion for life. In this novella, Bourdouxhe subtly combines, tenderness, humour and sensuality in her exploration of a woman’s experience of life.  

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (2004) translated from Icelandic.

Despite its rather abrupt ending – I really enjoyed this novel last Witmonth. At the heart of it 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.

A world Gone Mad – the diaries of Astrid Lindgren 1939 – 1945 translated from Swedish.  

Throughout the war, Astrid Lindgren documented the war as she saw it, felt about it and feared it, as well as what she read about it in the newspapers. Sweden had elected to remain neutral from the war – and given their precarious geographical position that probably saved a great many Swedes. However, their neutral position was one Astrid sometimes felt uncomfortable about – as she read about devastating occupations, war crimes and food shortages. The diary of a truly fascinating and intelligent woman.

Liar by Aylet Gundar-Goshen (2018) translated from Hebrew.

I persuaded my book group to read this last year – and though it divided us a little I think, I enjoyed this novel about a teenage girl caught up in her own terrible lie. 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.

Maman, What are we Called now by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar (1957) translated from French.

Persephone book number 115, first published in French in 1957, it was re-issued by Persephone in 2015. It is the diary of a few weeks in 1944, after the author’s husband was arrested. It depicts the last weeks of the German occupation of Paris.

So, there we are, what are you planning to read (if anything) for Women in Translation month?

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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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Women in Translation month is fast approaching, and just as with the last few years, as soon as I see people on Twitter talking about what they might read I get totally over-excited.

My problem is having too many challenges – and not having planned properly. I am currently doing #20booksofsummer, and the LT Virago group have our All/Virago/All August during the same month. I can’t do everything – and yet I want to try.

My dilemma with 20 books is that I might have put the wrong books on my pile. I’m currently reading my twelfth book off the pile – so I definitely won’t have finished my 20 books by August, but I would like to be at about fifteen. One of them I tried starting a few days ago but couldn’t get into at all, the others I do want to read – and some will fit with All Virago/All August. So, I might have to swap one or two of my #20books – I’ll decide later, because, despite all the other challenges I am juggling, I really do want to read some books for #witmonth. Now, I won’t get as many read as some #witmonth readers, because I will be reading other things too – but you might be able to help me pick which ones I try and go for. Here are some of what I have to choose from.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (original language French) A collection of short stories by the Belgian author of La Femme de Gilles and Marie.

“Muslim” A novel by Zahia Rahmani (original language French) A meditation on identity, violence, persecution and loneliness.

The Listener by Tove Jansson (original language Swedish) A story collection from the author of The Summer Book and Winter Book which I so loved.

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (original language Polish) winner of the Man Booker International prize 2018, I have heard this is challenging. A novel about travel and human anatomy, life, death, motion and migration.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk  (original language Polish) An eccentric woman recounts the events surrounding the disappearance of her two dogs. Then members of the local hunting club are murdered.

Liar by Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (original language Hebrew) I suggested this to my book group and it’s our September read. A teenage girl who feels invisible, tells a terrible lie.

Thirteen months of Sunrise by Rania Mamoun (original language Arabic) A collection of short stories about the human experience in urban life.

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (original language Icelandic). The story of a free spirited woman who reaches a life changing juncture and embarks on a whimsical road trip.

Night School by Zsófia Bán (original language Hungarian) A short story collection masquerading as an encyclopaedia on life.

They all look totally fantastic to me – and I plan to read them all eventually, though I will probably only get to perhaps five of them during #Witmonth  – which five should that be?

Are you joining in with #Witmonth? What are you planning on reading?

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