Monthly Archives: April 2020

Review: Pauline Delabroy-Allard, All About Sarah

Translated from French by Adriana Hunter (Harvill Secker, 2020)

All About Sarah is Pauline Delabroy-Allard’s powerful debut novel about love: love as an all-consuming force, love as a lit match that can burn itself out, love as a sickness. To “just” call it a love story, though, would be to downplay its intensity: it is all about love because it is all about Sarah, the object of the narrator’s affection. The nod to All About Eve is a clever rendering of the title by translator Adriana Hunter; above all, it made me think of my favourite line from that film: “Where Eve goes, life goes”. Where Sarah goes, life goes, and when Sarah is no longer there, life ceases to have any meaning.

Straight away we know that Sarah is loved by the narrator, and that she is sick. This sets up the two parts of the novel: the background, including the narrator’s first encounter with Sarah, and the aftermath. The first part I found engaging and absorbing: Sarah crashes into the narrator’s life like a tornado, an impetuous violinist who laughs too loudly at the theatre, cares nothing for decorum or good manners, and whirls the narrator up and sweeps her into her world – a world that had hitherto been regimented by social expectation and doing the right thing. Our formerly uptight narrator experiences the full force of Sarah’s attention,  noticing how Sarah listens to her when she talks, asks her questions, and creates intimacy. Sarah’s declaration of love is a “gift” that comes early in the novel, a visceral confession, accompanied with the smell of sulphur as she strikes a match to light her cigarette. The moment and the smell will always be entwined, embodied by “Sarah the sulphurous”; indeed, the awakening of the senses is one of the powerful features of the love story, whether it is scents or soundtracks (particularly the narrator’s newfound obsession with string quartets, inspired by her love’s musical profession).

Such an intense love, though, cannot last: like the match that burns until it is consumed by its own flame, their desire becomes so powerful that it obliterates everything around them. Where until now Sarah’s defining feature has been her humanity (“she’s alive” is one of several recurring phrases), her portrayal shifts to vampiric: cruel, unfamiliar and murderous. The lovers part, but then Sarah falls ill: this development sets up the second part, which is dominated by Sarah’s illness and the narrator’s response to it. Here I didn’t find myself swept along with the narrator’s emotions in quite the same forcible way (perhaps I needed Sarah’s tornado presence?): she retreats into herself, abandons Sarah because she can’t face watching her die, and cuts herself off from the world and from life, neglecting everyone who cares about her, including her daughter (who has little more than a walk-on part in this scenario).

The translation by Adriana Hunter is mostly excellent, particularly in conveying the ferocity of emotions and reactions. The text poses some knotty problems: there are frequent references to French literature, the narrator writing herself into a specific literary and cultural tradition, and Hunter deals with these unobtrusively. If you don’t spot them, I don’t think you would lose anything from your reading of the book. There are, occasionally, some words I perceived as slightly anomalous – always quite banal words (apart from the repeated use of “snatch”, but I racked my brains and came up with a total deficiency of non-offensive and non-childish alternatives).

Snatch aside, there is much to love in All About Sarah: the thought that has particularly remained with me in the months since I first read it was the narrator’s longing to remember the second before Sarah came into her life, before she knew Sarah existed, which encapsulates the focus on the dual nature of passion as both desire and suffering. Above all this is a book about life, love, and how messy they both get: it manages to be both intense and detached, urgent and languorous, and is an extremely engaging more-than-just-a-love-story.

Review copy of All About Sarah provided by Harvill Secker

Reading recommendations: the coronavirus edition

In my recent open letter, I talked about my belief that literature from other cultures – especially from marginalised voices – can be a crucial means of fostering empathy in times of crisis. As I watch news coverage of the coronavirus pandemic I become ever more convinced of this, and so here are five books by women in translation that I’m recommending for the global crisis.

1. Was anyone else less than sympathetic to Mike Pence’s complaint that the coronavirus nasal swab test is “invasive”? For those who feel conflicted about a potentially life-saving rapid sweep of the nostril with a cotton bud, I recommend:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe
Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press (available in the US in Tina Kover’s translation for Europa Editions).
This account of living with the trauma of child sex abuse is as urgent as it is painful. In 1980s Paris, Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged nine-year-old living a charmed childhood, until the day that a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and powerful memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, in an attempt to come to terms with its devastating consequences. In her determination to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself, Bon confronts the man who defined her life by taking her childhood. A brief nasal swab won’t seem quite so melodramatic when you read what it is to keep living after every intimate orifice has been penetrated by a paedophile.

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2. I’ve seen some scaremongering (and, as far as I can tell, unsubstantiated) clickbait speculating about fatal disruption to the food chain: before propagating sensationalist news, want to know how bad that really could be? I recommend:

Tender is the Flesh
Agustina Bazterrica, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Sarah Moses, Pushkin Press.
This chilling, gripping study of the cruelty humans are capable of inflicting on each other by artlessly following those who peddle lies and trade in fear is the ultimate dystopian novel: this is a world in which it is legal to breed and slaughter humans whose vocal chords have been cut so that you won’t have the inconvenience of hearing them cry out in pain as they are dismembered for your dinner party. The most terrifying thing about this superb debut novel is how believable Bazterrica makes the circumstances: it really doesn’t feel like a massive leap from the discovery of a deadly virus that led to the extermination of all animals and paralysis of the food chain, to the legalisation and normalisation of eating human flesh. After you read this, finding alternatives to pasta/ eggs/ flour won’t seem like much of a hardship (and a plant-based diet will never have seemed so appealing).

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3. Described in various (sometimes dubious) contexts as a “great leveller”, this virus hits us all and doesn’t differentiate. It will attack Hollywood stars, world leaders and heirs to thrones indiscriminately, but make no mistake about it: some social groups will suffer from it more than others. To help us remember our common humanity, I recommend:

Tokyo Ueno Station
Yu Miri, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press.
The radical divide between the very wealthy and the very poor is shown in this lyrical meditation on loss and home as a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park and finds himself condemned to haunt the park indefinitely in his afterlife. Tokyo Ueno Station is a sharply observed and extraordinarily beautiful novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a man who has lost everything watches the living carry on making their mistakes, unable to warn or help those he once knew and loved. His story is intertwined with that of the Japanese Imperial family: in his life, he was sporadically relocated during imperial visits so that his very existence would not be an eyesore to those who needed to believe in the prosperity of their nation. A magical and poetic novel, which reminds us to be kind to the people who are most vulnerable, and to be the community we want to see.

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4. Much of the supposedly “reassuring” narrative around coronavirus deaths rests on the majority of fatalities being people who are over 60, or who suffer “underlying health conditions”. Though I know this is meant to offer relief that the majority of those affected will recover, a death is a death – a personal, irreconcilable loss – no matter what the age or state of health of the deceased. As a reminder that the life of an older person is worth no less, I recommend:

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Antonia Lloyd Jones, Fitzcarraldo Editions.
This tale of vengeance, murder, and retribution is also a powerful reflection on ageing and perceptions of “usefulness”. Through her inimitable narrator, Mrs Duszejko, Tokarczuk offers profound insights into the human condition, the isolation of the non-conformist, the lack of equality for women, and the daily impatience faced by the elderly. Drive Your Plow is also an indictment of animal cruelty, and a reminder not to stand in judgement or to dismiss those who are different from ourselves. By turns hilarious and profound, Drive Your Plow is a book that can be read and enjoyed at any time, but which has particular resonance right now with its philosophical reflections on life and death, acute observations of ageing and invisibility, and poignant reminders about the luxury of being able to cross borders.

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5. One thing I’ve loved seeing in the media is stories of people who have never before interacted with their neighbours now providing them with a lifeline, and streets coming together for socially distanced exercise or dance, or to applaud frontline healthcare workers. For anyone who’s never talked to their neighbours before, I recommend:

Umami
Laia Jufresa, translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes, Oneworld Publications.
This beautiful, polyvocal novel is set in and around Mexico City, and tells the story of a group of people living in the five houses of Belldrop Mews, during a particular period of their communal lives when “the dead weigh more than the living.” The story/ies are narrated from five different perspectives, but each character in Umami is quietly struggling with grief and loss, and trying to reassemble a broken life. They interact, though not constantly, and when they do, their common grief is never far from the surface. Yet they hide this, trying to maintain an appearance of normality and of coping – but if we can learn one lesson from this global crisis, it is that we are not alone in our fear and frustration, and that solidarity and community will help us to overcome the dark times.

Review: The Beauty of the Death Cap, Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze

Translated from French by Tina Kover (Snuggly Books, 2018)

This is the final instalment in a trilogy of reviews of translations by women I met at the Translating Women conference last year (see my reviews of Bellevue and Not My Time To Die for the first two), and it’s also the first of my shorter-format lockdown reviews, a shift I discussed in my open letter a couple of weeks ago. Thank you to all those who wrote to me in response to that letter – it was deeply moving to receive your replies.

The Beauty of the Death Cap is a murderous romp through rural France, and quite unlike anything else I’ve read. Fans of crime fiction will no doubt enjoy the modern pastiche of an old-fashioned isolated genius with delusions of grandeur and nefarious intent; equally if, like me, you’ve read very little crime fiction, then this is an entertaining place to begin.

Meet Nikonor. He is an elderly and well-to-do resident of Charlanne and inheritor of its chateau, a self-proclaimed “great man” beneath whose refined exterior lies a calculated murderer. Yet this word is never mentioned: Nikonor recounts his crimes in the same way he recounts his everyday life – though the two are inseparable, for Nikonor’s everyday life is consumed by elaborate scheming to rid himself (and the world at large) of all those unworthy imbeciles who have frustrated him. Does this country gentleman sharpen his daggers? Load his pistols? Stock up on arsenic? No, for Nikonor abhors a cliché. He is a mycologist, a specialist in mushroom science, and he knows exactly how much of which species of mushroom will cause an untraceable death. Enemies of Nikonor, beware!

The characterisation and the narration maintain a tongue-in-cheek irony throughout, and though Nikonor is entirely loathsome, I couldn’t help but follow his carefully laid and executed plans with a kind of sadistic glee. If I’m honest, I prefer reading narratives that have strong female characters in the lead role (it’s not as though the literary world is lacking Machiavellian male anti-heroes…) This meant that I didn’t relish Nikonor’s relentless self-aggrandisement, and I confess that the use of phrases such as “Boys will be boys” or describing women as “hysterical” set my teeth on edge. However, I accept that this is a question of characterisation rather than misogyny – we’re not supposed to like Nikonor, after all – and in terms of characterisation it was entirely appropriate, from Nikonor’s condescending footnotes and opinions on the best cheese to his postulating on his own superiority in all things: “All those poets who have penned mawkish tributes to flowers, women and birds since the classic era are vapid fools – dreadful louts suffering from an acute atrophy of the aesthetic gland”; “it was utter madness and completely unthinkable that I would sacrifice my youthful freedom to such drivel.”

Tina Kover translates Doustessyier-Khoze’s debut with a superb blend of darkness and levity, revelling in Nikonor’s affected manner of speaking and rendering his monologue in the tone of a perfect gentleman. Despite Nikonor’s languorous and sometimes florid manner of speaking, there is still a certain urgency to the narrative, which he is committing to paper “before events catch up with me” and he arrives at “the final watershed moment of my life.” He addresses himself consciously to his reader, which is engaging and conspiratorial; his acerbic sense of humour also lends itself brilliantly to English translation, and is communicated with insouciant energy in Kover’s prose. If you’re looking for some amusing yet erudite escapism right now, The Beauty of the Death Cap is a good place to start.

A trio of Translating Women conference books: L-R Catherine Doustessyier-Khoze, THE BEAUTY OF THE DEATH CAP, tr. Tina Kover; Yolande Mukagasana, NOT MY TIME TO DIE, tr. Zoe Norridge; Ivana Dobrokovová, BELLEVUE, tr. Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood.