Category Archives: Review

REVIEW: No. 91/92: Notes on a Parisian commute by Lauren Elkin

Les Fugitives, 2021

No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute is the first book Les Fugitives have released that wasn’t originally written in French. It is, though, steeped in both the language and the context: Lauren Elkin explores Paris in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo terror attacks from her seat on a commuter bus, and intertwines the common experience with an extremely personal one of loss and searching for place.

I’ll come out and say straight away that I loved this book – it’s my favourite from Les Fugitives since the wonderful Selfies in 2019 (Sylvie Weil, tr. Ros Schwartz and reviewed here). It has in common with Selfies its focus on snapshots, on personal experience as connected to (but never representative of) a universal one, and its subversion of the memoir as a genre. It also subverts expectations of the way in which we use mobile phones: instead of looking down at her phone to close herself off from what is around her, Elkin deliberately points it outwards, using it to record her observations of the everyday and the extraordinary, and how the boundaries between the two are blurred in the face of personal and collective tragedies.

The first thing that struck me about No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute was how familiar Elkin’s descriptions were. My commute used to be on the 95 bus, and I was swamped by memories of past times. Normally this wouldn’t necessarily be a selling point to me – I don’t particularly want to see myself reflected in what I read – but there was something very emotional about reading experiences so familiar to me and yet now so far in my past. Yet I don’t think the book would be less easy to connect with if you didn’t have this sense of familiarity – it is very personal, but not to the point of introspection that excludes the reader. On the contrary, it is intimate and inclusive, as Elkin invites us into her tiny space on public transport and the vast space of her thoughts.

There are some amusing and borderline philosophical observations about “bus etiquette” (my personal favourite was an interrogation of the guilt experienced when sitting while others stand). There are also some very honest reactions to the outfits and behaviour of fellow passengers, and exasperations with the shared experience of the bus (not to mention with the efficiency of the network itself). Yet although these are necessary for the full experience of the text, they are not its main interest: this, for me at least, was in the searching to articulate the unspeakable, and to make sense of the incomprehensible, to “pattern the world” through repeated journeys and so give structure to the chaos of senseless tragedy. In the immediate aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Elkin writes:

“We’re all thinking the same thing, it’s the first day back to work since it all happened …
we try to get on with things even though there are seventeen fewer Parisians than there were this time last week”

The sense of solidarity is palpable, as is Elkin’s own searching need to connect with her fellow passengers, or perhaps with her adopted city (or maybe the two are inseparable). “Ah Paris”, she laments, “I want to make it all better, smooth your rumpled pavement, kiss the hot forehead of Sacré Cœur”; the quasi-maternal longing to soothe away the pain endured by the city and its inhabitants is achingly entwined with the experience of an ectopic pregnancy.

The use of the everyday to understand the unimaginable is not arbitrary: as Elkin reflects, it was precisely the right to an everyday that the terrorists robbed their victims of. This kind of profound observation is simultaneously what draws together the reflections on the people encountered and the experiences traversed during the “dead time” of a daily commute, and what elevates this text beyond a diary and into something altogether more universal in its significance. In the epilogue, Elkin comments on the timing of this book’s publication, and her decision to revisit the “bus journal” during lockdown: it is prompted by a kind of nostalgia for “the days of sharing space and air with strangers.” Within the pages of her No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute, she makes this possibility come alive again.

Review copy of No. 91/92: notes on a Parisian commute provided by Les Fugitives

Women in Translation month 2021: a belated round-up

August has come and gone, and with it another Women in Translation month. Instigated by Meytal Radzinski in 2014 to encourage more people to read women’s writing in translation, Women in Translation month has grown in both reach and momentum each year (and now has a brand new website!) I always enjoy looking through the #WiTMonth hashtag on social media, but this year I participated much less actively (or perhaps I should say much less visibly) as I haven’t had time to record publicly the things I’ve been reading. So here I am well into September, writing (a little belatedly, a little shamefacedly) about what I read in August…

At the start of August I was reading The Frightened Ones by Syrian author Dima Wannous, translated from Arabic by Elisabeth Jaquette. This was sent to me by Harvill Secker over 18 months ago, and I had intended to read it in August *last year*. For an entirely inexplicable reason (possibly the guilt of leaving it languishing on my shelf for so long?) I wasn’t particularly expecting to enjoy this book, but I was very wrong indeed. The Frightened Ones is a carnal, horrifying account of hunting love and fleeing fear as conflict rages in Damascus: Suleima meets a mysterious writer in her therapist’s waiting room, and they fall into an intense yet brittle affair. The writer, Naseem, later sends Suleima a copy of his manuscript, narrated by a woman whose life is disturbingly similar to Suleima’s own. The narrative switches between Suleima and the narrator of Naseem’s book, until both stories collapse into one another and Suleima can barely tell the difference between the two. The Frightened Ones is experimental in form but grounded in a horrifying reality in which “one aching version of humankind” lives, dies and endures.

 

My next book was Suiza by Belgian debut writer Bénédicte Belpois, translated from French by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions). The narrative perspective is that of Tomás, a terminally ill and rather unreconstructed (okay, misogynist) Galician man, who “rescues” illiterate waitress Suiza from her abusive employer by punching said employer and dragging Suiza off with him. After some pretty aggressive sex, Tomás takes Suiza home and “keeps” her. The two do fall in love, and Tomás does come to realise that their relationship shouldn’t be about ownership, but nonetheless it was a bit disappointing to read so much of Suiza’s story from his perspective. When Suiza herself does speak, there are hints of a backstory that I would have loved to see developed further, and in particular I would have liked to understand why Suiza was so happy to renounce her agency and rely entirely on Tomás and his (questionably motivated) benevolence. While there is plenty to enjoy in the story itself, which is very immersive and kept me wanting to read on to find out what would happen next, the ending slipped back into the power dynamic that I found frustrating; I think I’d have clicked better with Suiza if it had been Suiza herself narrating.

 

My main holiday read was The Pear Tree by Nana Ekvtimishvili, translated by Elizabeth Heighway (Peirene Press). This is only the second novel I’ve read from Georgia (the first was The Eighth Life, which long-term readers might remember I loved deeply), and if these two are representative of contemporary Georgian literature then I don’t know why we’re not seeing more of it. Lela has been raised in a “school for idiots” on the outskirts of Tbilisi, and has survived systematic abuse by one of the teachers by channelling her energy into planning her revenge. Now old enough to leave the school but offered a job there as warden, Lela takes under her wing some of the more defenceless children so that they do not have to endure the same experiences she did. When an American couple want to adopt a Georgian orphan, she sees the opportunity to give abandoned boy Irakli a new life, and so two tense and intertwined narratives develop together as Lela and Irakli edge closer to their respective futures and freedoms.

And to bring August to a close (this is going to be a bit of a teaser as to what you can expect in my next couple of reviews) I had a Parisian double whammy with Lauren Elkin’s Notes on a Parisian Commute (released by Les Fugitives this week) and Ketty Rouf’s No Touching (translated by Tina Kover and coming soon from Europa Editions) – I’ll be back talk to you about those soon!

 

Review: ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro

Translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Frances Riddle (Charco Press, 2021)

This is the Charco book I was most looking forward to this year (and, if you know my love of Charco Press, you’ll know this is no idle hyperbole). Elena Knows is Charco’s first publication by Argentinian crime writer Claudia Piñeiro, and follows a single (and very long) day in the life of protagonist Elena as she treks across Buenos Aires in search of help solving the mystery of her daughter Rita’s death.

Rita had been found hanging from the belfry of her local church, and the case has been closed as a straightforward suicide. But Elena knows that it couldn’t have been suicide, because it was raining on the day of Rita’s death and Rita was deeply superstitious about never going to church in the rain: “But it was raining. She’s the mother, and it was raining. That changes everything.” This fact, dismissed by the police, is one of many things that Elena knows, yet everything that she is so certain of will become destabilised in the course of the narrative, as Elena learns painful truths about her daughter, and realises how much she doesn’t know.

So yes, Elena Knows is crime fiction, but in many ways assigning it to a genre does it a disservice. It is so much more than a mysterious death: it is an unflinching exploration of aging and illness, of the Catholic church and the way it uses its influence in Argentina, and of the multiple ways women’s bodies are controlled.

Elena has Parkinson’s disease, and every step she takes in her quest costs her an immeasurable effort; every moment is counted according to the length of time since her last pill, and how she becomes less in control of her body as the effects of the medicine wear off. It’s quite rare to cast as protagonist an elderly widow suffering from a debilitating illness, and the way in which Piñeiro describes the ordeal that Elena experiences when attempting the most basic physical tasks is perfectly observed: what should be a relatively simple journey becomes an arduous task for a body that simply will not do what the brain tells it to. Every moment of every day is a struggle against an illness that is ravaging Elena’s body, leaving her helpless and drooling inside a carcass that feels alien to her.

But don’t think for a moment that we’re supposed to pity Elena, beyond basic human empathy for her infirmity and her bereavement. She is objectively a rather unpleasant protagonist, convinced in her dogmatic beliefs that what she knows equates to objective truth, and in her own way just as complicit in the continued repression of women’s bodies as the (few) men in the narrative. When Rita fails to provide her with a grandchild (“her duty to the species”), she subjects her daughter to a humiliating and invasive medical examination to check she has a womb, and the object of her quest is to call in a favour that amounts to using another woman’s body to carry out the investigative tasks that her illness prevents her from fulfilling.

So now perhaps you pity Rita, for the abject humiliation inflicted on her by her mother, and by a society that deems her not to be fulfilling her basic role as a woman? Or for the way in which she is cast unwillingly into the role of carer for her cantankerous and drooling invalid mother? Yet Rita too exercises a dogmatic control over another woman’s body, so convinced of her own rightness that she fails to see that what she considers as “saving” an unknown woman from making a terrible mistake (or, as it is presented within the context of religious dogma, committing a mortal sin) actually condemns that woman to a life she did not want.

So this story is as much about the lives of its characters as it is about understanding the truth of Rita’s death. It is also a masterpiece of storytelling, contained within the limits of one day in an expert representation of the hundreds of thoughts that go through a mind every minute when we react to surroundings and memories, and all the ways in which our minds jump from one thing to the next. It is a subtle yet breathtaking exposure of the prejudices against women, age and illness, and a fierce indictment of everyday sexism and the ways in which women’s bodies are controlled and manipulated by using religious teaching as justification for gendered restrictions. Indeed, the resolution to the mystery surrounding Rita’s death eventually seems less important than the veil lifted from Elena’s eyes when she finally “knows” the truth she has been seeking.

For the most part, Frances Riddle’s translation is everything I would have expected it to be. A regular Charco translator, I’ve waxed lyrical about her translations of Carla Maliandi’s The German Room, Andrea Jeftanovic’s Theatre of War, and my personal favourite, though (shockingly) I’ve never yet reviewed it here, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s Slum Virgin. Perhaps because I am so used to Riddle’s flawless translations, I noticed a very occasional choice that felt a little odd, but I feel it’s almost unfair to point them out as I’m pretty certain I only noticed them because I wasn’t expecting them. The vast majority of Riddle’s translation is excellent, though, with sensitivity to pace, register, context, and the tone that always questions yet never moralises. As I read back over my notes to write this review I realised that there is so much I haven’t even begun to touch on, such is the richness of the storytelling and the breadth of topics covered within one day of one woman’s life. Elena Knows is an unmitigated treat; I recommend it unreservedly, and can’t wait for more from Piñeiro.

Review copy of Elena Knows provided by Charco Press

Review: THE FOOL AND OTHER MORAL TALES by Anne Serre

Translated from French by Mark Hutchinson (Les Fugitives, 2021)

After publishing the uniquely provocative exploration of unconventional sexuality The Governesses in 2019, Les Fugitives return with another collaboration between Anne Serre and Mark Hutchinson: The Fool and Other Moral Tales. The Fool in question is from a tarot pack, and this was my stumbling block: I have no knowledge of or interest in tarot, and I felt rather lost in the first two stories. In fact I felt a little ignorant: I was able to appreciate how stylistically accomplished both the tales and the translation are, but beyond that I didn’t find any connection. In a bizarre twist, this turned around completely in the final tale, “The Wishing Table”, which was the one I thought I’d struggle with the most (“The Wishing Table” is narrated by a woman who grew up in an incestuous family, and it’s safe to say this is not a premise I found particularly appealing – but read on, because that’s what I did, and it was worth it!)

“The Wishing Table” is the longest story in the collection and when, near the start, I read the section that followed the announcement “They did things to us that it’s absolutely forbidden to do with children”, I did wonder whether I would make it to the end. There’s nothing comfortable about this story, but that’s where its brilliance lies. If I found the first two stories a little hard to follow, I think it’s because they’re deliberately destabilising, entwining the mundane and the magical, the philosophical and the fantastical: in the end I realised that this destabilising, shifting quality is precisely intended to reflect the shifting of the tarot cards, changing fates and paths as they are revealed and obscured. I didn’t revisit these first two stories in light of the third, but I do think that “The Wishing Table” is the one that really makes this collection.

The daughters are certainly not presented as victims: they are fascinated with their parents’ sexual bodies and the pleasure that can be gained from them (usually as willing recipients of sexual acts, occasionally as instigators). Nor are the parents depicted as immoral or sadistic: the narrator says of her mother that “As I’m sure you’ve understood, the idea that anything untoward was going on in her house had simply never occurred to her. She thought that this was what life was like.” A series of minor characters also join in the family’s “love feasts” (whether on solo visits or partaking in orgies), including a man the narrator repeatedly cavorts with in his car. There is something quite dark and disturbing about the parents sending their daughters off in the cars of men they barely know, but Serre disrupts any conventional reading of this by detailing the pleasure the narrator takes in the sexual acts in which she and her family engage. Indeed, her voracity for sexual pleasure is mirrored by her voracity for reading, connecting the two in ways that are harmonious with the collection’s focus on the union of the carnal and the cerebral.

“The Wishing Table” is full of polished surfaces: the large mirror in the hallway where Maman contemplates herself for hours, and especially the vast dining room table on which much of the incestuous activity occurs. This surface is the anchor that keeps the narrator sane while the other members of the family lose their minds, but it is also the surface that, years later, cracks and leaves her feeling “as if that table, instead of being a thing of joy and of frenzied, passionate delight, had been a sacrificial altar, as if I’d been amputated there, tortured and dismembered, but back then had somehow dreamed my way through it all.” This realisation is prompted by the movement towards a more orthodox relationship, yet Serre refrains from making pronouncements on the narrator’s psychological development.

The story unfolds in a compelling way, drawing us into the family’s unorthodox homelife and then describing how it all disintegrated, small shifts preventing the individual members from sinking single-mindedly into the “wishing table”. The darkly fairytale scenario then twists to a more recognisable coming-of-age story, but the movement between places is always vaguely magical or dreamlike, recalling again the shifting of the cards. After the enchanted state of childhood, the early adulthood is much more grounded in a world outside the family home, the latter becoming locked in the bois dormant of the narrator’s memory (and which her sister locks away even more deliberately, as the narrator discovers when the two women meet later and try to salvage some kind of relationship with one another).

Hutchinson’s translation is full of lexical gems, and the style, which is at times deliberately arcane (and always shamelessly literary) is very reminiscent of The Governesses – the French original is (to my mind, at least) almost visible beneath the text in the register and syntax, but in a way that offers the stories as simultaneously very rooted in their source yet entirely portable. There is the occasional reference that you’d have to know French language or literature to fully appreciate, but not “getting” these references wouldn’t mar appreciation of the stories. Hutchinson and Serre worked closely together to bring this collection of “moral tales” (published separately in French) into one volume in the English translation. The result of their collaboration is a stylistically accomplished and thematically explosive collection of stories that are at once contemporary and timeless.

Review copy of The Fool and Other Moral Tales provided by Les Fugitives

Review: ACROBAT by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

Translated from Bengali by Nandana Dev Sen (Archipelago Books, 2021)

Acrobat is a collection by Bengali poet Nabaneeta Dev Sen, some translated by the poet herself before her death, but mostly translated into English by her daughter Nandana Dev Sen as a poignant and passionate exchange between mother and daughter. As a collection, the poems are vibrant and full of longing – whether for love, for children, for lost youth, or for prolonging life.

As I was reading Acrobat, I felt I probably wasn’t the “right” reviewer for it. I don’t know whether this was because of the point at which I was reading it, or whether it was more to do with my own lack of confidence in understanding poetry. In any case, in my review I’ve decided to focus on the poems that I liked best, the ones I found most beautiful or moving, with the acknowledgement that this constitutes an entirely subjective and inexpert response, and might cover only a fraction of what the collection could mean or represent.

The first stanza that made me stop and read again was this ending of “The Lamp”:

“Just one more page left
one more paragraph, one more sentence—
give me one more word, dear nurse,
just one more day.”

Many of the poems deal with this desire to hold on to life, to live each moment fully and to catch it in a poem; “Time” talks of five minutes stretched into a lifetime, “Unspoken” understands “forever” as “today”, “Right Now: Forever” exclaims that “Time has not the power to extinguish me”, and “In Poetry” urges us to “Stay alive … Stay awake in every line”. This was the theme that most stood out to me through the collection, and it is particularly plaintive given that this is a posthumous publication: time is also presented as relentless, a snatcher of youth and a cruel harbinger of decay.

This multifaceted approach to theme is also present in the representations of love: it is by turns joyful (“Beyond it all,/ Stands a mountain of laughter, of joy./ On that mountain, I will build a home with you/ One day”), painful (“He leaves his footprint in my eye”), tender (“Let my heart/ nurse your aching body”) and wistful (“We would meet, that was the plan. /Look, my love, I am still here”).

If love is a celebration, a tenacity, and an emotion experienced in the present, it is also a fear, a bitterness, and the painful awakening of memory, such as in the very brief poem “Sound: Two”:

“Like an old alarm clock
You start ringing in my heart
I shut my ears tight”

This rejection of love, or closing of the heart, is echoed elsewhere in the collection: “That Girl” is a case in point and was one of my particular favourites, but also epitomises what I mean when I say I’m not sure I was the right reviewer for this collection. I think “That Girl” is beautiful, profound, and extremely moving, but every time I try to write why, my words feel inadequate. My best attempt is to say that it’s about youth and the conflicting sensations of fear and power that it brings, about the walls we build around ourselves and what we lose because of it, and it’s about time catching up with us, a life breathed out and sighed away in the space of a couple of pages.

I think the conclusion I’ve reached is that for me poetry is something I respond to with my gut rather than my mind. Overall I preferred those poems where a rhyme wasn’t sought in the translation, and I liked best the pieces that blend the ferocity and tenderness of love and yearning that for me defines the collection. Acrobat is moving in both content and context: translated with great heart by the poet’s daughter and published posthumously, it is a two-way love story between generations and a celebration of life in all its complexity and contradictions.

Review copy of Acrobat provided by Archipelago Books

Review: THE SON OF THE HOUSE by Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia

Europa Editions, 2021

First of all, subscribers might have noticed that the blog posts have been coming less frequently lately, and I’m sorry for this. As long-term readers will know from my open letter last year, I had hoped to carry on as normal during the pandemic, despite the added time restrictions that came with balancing work and homeschooling. As the months have gone by and things haven’t eased up, I’ve had to significantly reduce the number of books I read and review. I have my reviews backlog down to four books, so there will be a few in quick succession now and then a break again for part of the summer; I’m grateful for your patience while the posts are less regular.

I hope you’ll enjoy the review I’ve got for you today: it’s a slightly different review than usual, in that the book isn’t a translation. It’s by Nigerian debut author Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia, and is written in English. This actually raised some interesting questions as I was reading it, as there were frequent turns of phrase that stood out to me as a different kind of English than UK English, and this made me fall down a rabbit hole: I asked myself whether if it were a translation it would come under easy fire for not being “authentic” in English, whereas authenticity can be just as much about the source context as the target context. Anyway, I didn’t reach a conclusion on that, but it made me think about how translations are judged in terms of linguistic quality (including by me) and what biases we might bring to it when we talk about “quality”, and so I thought I’d throw it out there so you can join me down the rabbit hole!

The Son of the House follows the lives of two very different women who, for the most part of the narrative, are entirely unaware of what binds them together. Three separate stories unfold: first there is the framing narrative, in the present day, when Nwabulu and Julie find themselves together in a sticky situation. Then as they tell their stories to one another, we are transported back first to Nwabulu’s miserable and abusive childhood, then later her attempts to find autonomy and her love affair with Urenna, the son of a rich family, and the pain and humiliation that relationship ultimately brings her. Next we delve into Julie’s past: she is educated and therefore respected as a professional, but single and therefore not valued as a woman. This state of affairs, and the age she finds herself at, force her to resort to desperate measures in order to marry a man she barely tolerates. Finally, the two back stories come together when the women fall victim to what the blurb for Son of the House describes as “dramatic events straight out of a movie.” I confess this wasn’t a line that pulled me in (I’m not a fan of improbably sensational tales), but the dramatic events referenced were, I thought, entirely believable – the bigger suspension of belief has to come regarding the connection between the two women. I managed not to be too cynical, though, as I reminded myself how often “real life” brings enormous coincidences of people and place, and the coincidence in question is well thought through in terms of narrative development. I don’t think it’s intended to be any significant mystery or revelation, as I guessed it almost instantly (and I am notoriously terrible at guessing correctly when it comes to plot intrigue). So although I still won’t mention the details because NO SPOILERS, I suspect you’ll figure out fairly swiftly what connects the two women, and then you can just enjoy reading about how they each arrived at the point they find themselves when the narrative opens.

The focus on women underlines the many cultural and social restrictions they face in their daily lives, and how these change (or not) in the course of several decades: this focus reflects Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s work as a lawyer working against gendered violence, and shows how social status and wealth can never truly protect women from being reduced to objects and targets. The women are helpless in the face of men’s lies and machinations, and too often other women are complicit in their condemnation, the frustratingly facile phrases “because he is a man” or “because you are (just) a woman” so frequently used to legitimate life-altering injustices. The civil war and its aftermath is an omnipresent backdrop, but cleverly woven into the narrative without any obvious agenda. Similarly, the perilous circumstances in which the women find themselves is not just a narrative device to entangle their fates, but also a comment on the fragility of freedom for women in Nigeria. The Son of the House is an extremely enjoyable novel: it offers intrigue without relying too much on mystery or suspense, and the humanity of “two women doing their best in their world” radiates as much in Nwabulu and Julie’s moments of ignominy as in their moments of glory.

Review copy of The Son of the House provided by Europa Editions

Review: HEAVEN by Mieko Kawakami

Translated from Japanese by Sam Bett and David Boyd (Picador Books, 2021)

Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs (also translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd and released in the UK by Picador Books) was one of my favourite releases of 2020; prior to that I had loved the offbeat humour of her novella Ms Ice Sandwich (translated by Louise Heal Kawai, Pushkin Press 2017), and so a new Kawakami was guaranteed to be an exciting event for me.

Heaven was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it does not disappoint. It is a spare yet complex portrayal of teenage bullying, told from the perspective of a an unnamed male narrator with a lazy eye who is subjected to horrific physical and psychological torment from a group of boys in his class. He begins to receive anonymous notes slipped inside his pencil case or taped to the lid of his desk, the first one simply reading “we should be friends” (as a particularly nice touch, Picador sent out with the review copies pencils with this motto engraved on them). Curious and a little nervous, eventually the narrator agrees to meet up with the author of the notes, and from this strikes up a friendship with Kojima, a girl who is also bullied at school, and in whom he finds a kindred spirit, a friend in need, and someone who finally understands both what he suffers and why he does not fight back.

In addition to the wonderfully written relationship that develops between the narrator and Kojima, there are plenty of other aspects to the characters’ lives (an impressive amount, actually, given how slim this novel is). The narrator lives with his (absent) father and his stepmother, who is more of a parent to him than his father seems capable of or interested in being; Kojima also has an interesting and non-standard family story, and with both teenagers there is a subtle analysis of how we become who we are, and how events, circumstances and afflictions shape us.

Kawakami does not shy away from the cruelty that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and nor does she offer any crass kind of redemption in which the bullies realise the error of their ways. If anything, the only kind of resolution that we get about Ninomiya and his gang is that they are cruel for the sake of being cruel, and that no amount of attempts to make them realise the consequences of their actions is going to make them suddenly develop the empathy they lack. Apart from two notable scenes, we don’t see the bullies outside the school environment – they don’t need to be multifaceted characters with problematic lives of their own, because we see this story through the eyes of the bullied child, and to him they are simply the perpetrators of his daily misery. He has one attempt at a reckoning with one of the ringleaders when he bumps into him in a different location, but his efforts to make the bully aware of the effects of his actions are met with indifference. And the second time that the bullies enter the fray outside of the school setting is the almost-final scene, the apex of their crusade of humiliation, in which the narrator will be stripped of everything he cared about.

The teachers all seem entirely unaware of (and unwilling to notice) the drama that is played out in the schoolroom each day: this is a daily nightmare from which the narrator has no escape. His desperate private wishes that Ninomiya might not notice him, or might forget him, are heartbreaking (“I was crying because we had nowhere else to go, no choice but to go on living in this world”): this boy wants to be invisible, to blend into the background, and yet both his physical defect and the way in which he has been singled out as a target make this impossible.

There are scenes in Heaven that made me wince, and feel a terror at the simple fact that such deliberate humiliation can and does happen: the callous brutality of the teenage bullies is something that Kawakami excels at portraying. Even more impressive, though, is the way in which she communicates the reactions of the bullied child. It must be incredibly hard to write from the perspective of an adolescent without conferring on the character the wisdom and experience the adult author has gained, and Kawakami manages this superbly. There is something very real about the depth and intensity of their thinking process and their attempts to articulate what is happening to them, and the co-translation by Sam Bett and David Boyd is believably adolescent but never in the cringe-worthy manner of how an adult thinks a teenage boy would speak.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about Heaven is how different it is from Breasts and Eggs, and how versatile Kawakami is as a writer. There are recognisable traits, such as the focus on characters who don’t fit into standard expectations of “normality”, and the ability to convey so much detail in relatively few words, but the situation and plot are entirely new (which, however much I might love what an author has done before, is always a good thing in my view). Similarly, Bett and Boyd translate in a way that communicates the stylistic similarities or idiosyncrasies, but without producing a “flat-pack” translation, showing their understanding of and attention to what makes this book both recognisable and unique (including the particularly beautiful short sentences the narrator uses to try to understand his reaction to his growing intimacy with Kojima: “She liked my eyes. The memory stood on my chest. It was good and bad at the same time”). There is also a superb translation of wordplay involving the phrase “someday best” (a term I want to adopt and use regularly); in fact, the only negative point about reading Heaven was the way the Bryan Adams power ballad with the same title would not leave my head every time I picked up the book.

In fairness, though, the earworm isn’t Kawakami’s fault. And it would be a bit mean of me to blame Bett and Boyd, especially since the title is important in more than one way.

The ending of Heaven is not at all what I was expecting (also a good thing in my opinion – I don’t like predictable narratives): it made me see certain key sections and dialogues in a new light, and left me thinking about both the narrator and Kojima well after I closed the cover. This is a truly wonderful book: discomfiting, unsettling, and entirely unique.

Review copy of Heaven provided by Picador Books

Review: SHOCKED EARTH by Saskia Goldschmidt

Translated from Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett (Saraband Books, 2021)

I’m going to go out on a limb straight away, and declare this one of my favourite books of 2021: it was one of those rare books that I kept thinking about while I wasn’t reading it, and couldn’t wait to get back to when I had some reading time. It’s an absolute cracker, and I’m excited to tell you why.

Shocked Earth is the story of a farming family in Groningen province. We meet three generations of the Koridon family: Zwier, the grandfather, a quiet and undemonstrative man who nonetheless is capable of deep affection; Trijn, his daughter, who never wanted to work on the family farm but after an ill-fated bid for freedom returned and never left; Femke, Trijn’s daughter, who wants to move into organic dairy farming but meets intransigence from her mother. After some background about Trijn’s childhood, her disastrous bid for independence via an ultimately abusive relationship with Femke’s father and her subsequent return to the family farm, the main focus is on Femke in more or less the present day. Femke wants to turn the farm into an enterprise that will “work with nature rather than against it”, while Trijn is adamant that this would be a sure path to financial ruin, and Zwier is reluctant to abandon the traditional methods that have shaped his life’s work. Femke is introverted and reserved, but when she meets Danielle, an “offcomer” who shows her what desire is, it is “as if a small animal had broken free inside her.” Needless to say, Trijn is about as enthusiastic about Femke’s romantic choice as she is about her plans for the farm, and the two women skirt around each other with shards of resentment and unarticulated reproaches constantly driving between them.

As well as the generational conflict, there is an ever-present threat in the form of quake damage caused by gas extraction: the government has realised that it can make a significant profit from gas that has been discovered beneath the clay lands, yet refuses to acknowledge – let alone compensate – the damage to lives and livelihoods caused by its actions. The Koridon family has lived in fear for five years, ever since “that evening when the joists and rafters cracked and the tea whirled in the cups, that evening when the floor tiles cracked, the ceiling lamp lashed wildly back and forth, and the pull bell moaned as if the devil himself was shaking it,” and yet the painfully slow process of trying to get official recognition of the damage they have suffered is stymied by bureaucratic red tape and administrators doggedly insisting that the farm is subsiding owing to poor maintenance. The threat of the next quake hangs over the narrative, and when it comes it’s going to turn the Koridon family’s lives upside down (more than once).

The two main threads – tension within the family and the threat of losing the farm – are delicately interwoven throughout. The family’s story is also closely connected to the land, and so to questions of ecological sustainability and damage to the earth. This is a book that is simultaneously about big issues and everyday people, and in which profound truths appear when you least expect them, whether in Zwier’s comment to Femke that “People always need to make others feel smaller. So they can look bigger” or in Goldschmidt’s observation in a particularly harrowing episode that “too much importance is placed on money and not enough on care … the individual is defeated by the system, compassion by self-interest, imagination by inflexibility, quietness by tumult, love by fear, humanity by cruelty”). And if the frustration with the administrative procedures, the inability of the Koridons to articulate their emotions when it most matters, and the disappointing behaviour of the minor characters are not enough to draw you in, you can also look forward to a Dead Bird Museum, a rebellion, and an unexpected outcome when a law is inadvertently broken. The thing that pulled me in most, though, was the heart of the story. Despite the characters’ coldness and their difficulty expressing emotions, and despite the almost unremittingly bleak landscape, Goldschmidt manages to make Shocked Earth full of warmth and feeling. It takes quite a lot for me to cry at a book – welling up isn’t so rare, but needing to put the book down because I can’t see the pages through my tears doesn’t happen often (The Eighth Life and The Little Girl on the Ice Floe are recent exceptions) – but there was one part when I wept so much my seven-year-old daughter got out of bed to check I was okay. No spoilers, so I’ll just say that it was page 266, and hope you read it for yourself.

Antoinette Fawcett’s translation is extremely accomplished – the ominous threat is delicately conveyed throughout, as is the tension in the farm, and in particular Fawcett excels at describing the sights and sounds of the countryside in all its lowering greyness (and occasional Spring promise). While at times the descriptions are poetic (“Then she pushes the barrow down the lonning. The sweet, heavy scent of May blossom and cow parsley, the magenta-coloured clover flowers and purple foxtails, the great tits twittering in the poplars, the yellow wagtails on the fields, the meadow pipits yoyoing, the swallows skimming along the ground, the crows cawing, and the soft summer breeze all pass her by”), at others reality crashes in (“The sharp stench of cow shit announces the spring”). The range of farming vocabulary is admirable (and, for this urban reader, extremely instructive) and the tone is dramatic enough to convey the immensity of both the landscape and the situation, but stops before getting mawkish (“And high above this apocalyptic scene, where a hundred and fifty years of history is being guzzled down, bite after bite after bite, a buzzard is circling, mewing, lamenting”). There are a couple of expressions I found a little odd (a dog’s tail “wagging without cease”, and the slightly awkwardly formulated question “what do you take in your coffee?”), but these were so few and so minor that they did not detract from the evocative and detailed storytelling. I also really appreciated the translator’s note at the end, which engages carefully with the importance of context to linguistic choices; Fawcett also makes an observation that strikes me as getting right to the heart of why this book is so moving: “the fate of one particular family in a remote corner of the Netherlands is absolutely linked into the fate of humanity as a whole.” I may have little in common with Zwier, Trijn and Femke, but the problems they face – personal and political – are the problems of humanity, and this book’s humanity is precisely where its power lies.

Review copy of Shocked Earth provided by Saraband Books

Review: YOU’RE NOT DYING by Kathrin Schmidt

Translated from German by Christina Les (Naked Eye Publishing, 2021)

Kathrin Schmidt’s You’re Not Dying is a prize-winning best-seller in Germany, where it was first published in 2009, and today the first English translation (by Christina Les) is published. The release of You’re Not Dying also represents the first foray into translated literature for independent press Naked Eye, but the “firsts” aren’t the only thing of note about You’re Not Dying. This is the story of a woman waking from a coma to find that she cannot move her right side, cannot speak, and has lost many of her memories. Helene has suffered a stroke, and You’re Not Dying is the story of her readjustment to life as a disabled person. In the many books I’ve read in the three and a half years since embarking on this project so few have dealt with disability, which in general is under-represented in literary fiction. You’re Not Dying approaches its subject sensitively, but with a ferocity of emotion that felt to me very realistic (indeed, it is based on the author’s own experience), tapping into deep-seated fears of disempowerment, dependence, and the way life can be redefined in an instant.

The narrative is arresting from the very first pages, with Helene waking up and trying to make sense of where she is, and what has happened to her. The sense of disorientation, dulled by medication, is quietly terrifying: “She’s got something in her mouth. She can’t close her mouth at all. She wants to ask the woman what she can see stuck in her mouth, but the woman takes her arm and connects it to a tube. Some kind of network? So they can control her remotely?” Helene learns that she has been in intensive care, in a coma, but the details of the damage to her body trickle through slowly, in the same way that her memories – both good and bad – return intermittently: “Her memories drag themselves along, slowly and deliberately dragging what used to be along with them.”

Helene’s mind can formulate words, but when she tries to articulate them in any kind of understandable configuration she becomes confused, the words stubbornly refusing to follow the order into which she has painstakingly arranged them in her head. That her mind is still working at her usual speed while her speech fails her is communicated powerfully, as is the loss of her days (“Twenty minutes have passed. Twenty minutes of life.”) Helene has to deal with the abjection of needing help to go to the toilet and to get dressed, of being fed or, as she gets a little movement back, of spilling food down her face and clothes when she tries to feed herself, and of realising that she has a near-constant trail of saliva dangling from her mouth that she can neither control nor wipe away.

The depiction of dependence and the stripping of dignity that physical suffering brings is deliberately uncomfortable, but one of the most stuff-my-fist-in-my-mouth horrifying episodes was Helene’s day release back home, when her husband Matthes wants to rekindle their former passion and Helene cannot physically or verbally tell him she does not consent. Indeed, as Helene starts to piece back together the various identities and relationships that defined her pre-stroke life, she remembers that she had been on the point of leaving Matthes; not only this, but she had begun a hesitant though passionate relationship with Viola, a transgender woman whose own emotional traumas and social othering are also carefully examined as Helene tries to reach a place in her memory that will explain the broken recollections of Viola to her. Though Viola’s story is interesting in its own right, the most emotional aspect for me was the way in which Helene remembers powerlessly, unable to let Viola know what has happened to her and knowing that, given the way she parted from Viola after their last meeting, her silence will be taken for a lack of care.

Christina Les translates You’re Not Dying with sensitivity and pathos: I have long believed that empathy is one of the keys to good translation, and Les demonstrates this in bucketloads. Her translation allows Helene to speak – in her newly broken way, of course – and to go to the limits of her memories, sadness and anger. The translation is written extremely carefully, but without seeming laboured: from individual word choices down to cadence and syntax, Les has perfectly pitched this multi-layered story of extraordinary events and everyday trauma. Perhaps what I appreciated the most in You’re Not Dying was the refusal to make it a redemptive narrative: Helene’s misfortune does not somehow make her a nicer or less cantankerous person, though there are some amusing episodes when we gain insight into her unwillingness to suffer fools gladly. She does not find that disability gives her a better perspective on the world, a better experience within it, or a renewed hope for the future. Her relationships do not magically mend or become less complicated, and neither is there a miraculous recovery: Helene’s progress is faltering, and there is no guarantee that she will ever return to the life she had before her stroke. Though I preferred the first part of the novel (Helene’s realisation of and reaction to what has happened to her), to the second part that goes into more detail about her life before the stroke, in the last paragraphs we finally witness the point at which Helene’s life changed forever, and it was worth the wait.

Review copy of You’re Not Dying provided by Naked Eye Publishing

 

Recent reads: Elena Ferrante and Rónán Hession

Over the Easter week I read a couple of books that had been sent to me as gifts, and so I’m taking a break from my formal reviews this week to talk to you about my two “holiday reads” – one of the best-known works of contemporary translation, and the follow-up to a brilliant debut.

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, tr. Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2020; originally published 2012)

Okay, I’ll admit it: I didn’t especially want to like Ferrante. I’m not generally drawn to already-famous authors, and (possibly because whenever I say I read “women in translation” the stock response is often “oh, so you must like Elena Ferrante?”) I felt obstinate and contrary about reading Ferrante’s work until Europa sent me The Lying Life of Adults last year. I enjoyed the stand-alone novel and my introduction to Ferrante, but it’s no exaggeration to say that embarking on the Neapolitan Quartet is something I’ve been putting off for years. So… how did it go?

Well, if you’ve ever watched The Big Bang Theory, my experience of reading My Brilliant Friend was something like the time Sheldon tried to ramp up his irritation levels by listening to Taylor Swift but…

“turns out I love her”. Indeed. Turns out My Brilliant Friend is entirely deserving of all the hype. The storytelling manages to be both intimate and vast, focusing on individuals and relationships but spiralling out towards an entire community and city, and locating the region within its country’s history. After the prologue (set in the present, with the narrative then rewinding by several decades – a technique I particularly enjoy) it took me a while to get properly into the story – there is an impressive cast of characters (and, mercifully, a handy character guide at the start of the book) and though the childhood sections were necessary for background and introduction to the characters, their way of life, and their place on a generational continuum within the community, the point when I really got immersed in the story was when the two protagonists Lenù and Lila start to grow up. This is when Lenù, the narrator, begins to develop an awareness of the boundaries of her world, and the ways she both does and does not want to escape. The true focus is, of course, on Lenù’s “brilliant friend” Lila, a girl whose presence makes Lenù feel that she is truly present in the world, for “only what Lila touched became important.” This is a beautiful story of friendship and rivalry, working-class hardship and middle-class aspiration, social expectation and adolescent desire: if you’ve already read it then I can only add to the superlatives attributed to it and if, like me, you’re late to the Ferrante party, then I highly recommend you head on in.

So there it is: I’m a Ferrante convert. There is a small catch: I’ve written before about Ann Goldstein’s translations, which I find linguistically rich but occasionally jarring. It was in reading My Brilliant Friend that I realised why: at times I feel as though the story is being told to me by an Italian who hasn’t quite grasped English syntax. This clearly isn’t an impediment to communication of the story (or worldwide success), but in terms of translation it’s not my preferred approach. Nonetheless, this is a beautiful and (mostly) engagingly narrated story, heartbreaking in its daily sorrows and told with a keen eye for both intricate detail and general observation. My experience of reading it was true escapism; I felt quite bereft when I reached the end, and will certainly be reading the rest of the quartet.

 

Rónán Hession, Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021)

A rare thing for me: reading a book that’s not a translation, and not written by a woman. For this to happen it has to be a pretty special book, and if you haven’t already discovered Rónán Hession, he’s certainly a pretty special writer. His debut novel, Leonard and Hungry Paul (Bluemoose Books, 2018, reviewed here), was a runaway success, and deservedly so: its gentle warmth and understated humour were absolutely delightful, and it’s no surprise that it found its way into so many readers’ hands and hearts. With Panenka, Hession gives us something very different but no less remarkable. The heart of the novel is Joseph, a former footballer whose nickname “Panenka” is “his sadness and his story.” We meet him as he is in the grip of a debilitating headache attack that he calls “the iron mask”, and it is quickly revealed that this is a symptom of a terminal illness. In the time he has left, Panenka carries on with what he has made of his rather unspectacular life – a renewed closeness with his daughter Marie-Thérèse (an anxious supermarket team leader recently separated from her husband Vincent), an affectionate relationship with his seven-year-old grandson Arthur, a (non-football-related) job that we don’t discover much about until a dazzling final scene, and a group of affectionately antagonistic acquaintances he meets with regularly at Vincent’s, a café-bar run by his ex-son-in-law. This is a small town, and Panenka stayed there even after his footballing career was cut short by a mistake to which fans – then and ever since – have attributed the decline of the local football team, whose glory Panenka had apparently been destined to secure.

Hession’s passion for football shines through, but in a way that is entirely inclusive, and not at all off-putting to those of us less well acquainted with the beautiful game. The dissection of match performances between the gang at Vincent’s is, like all of Hession’s dialogue, perfectly observed – one of the great strengths of his writing is that it always makes me feel I’m amongst friends. In fact, if there was one criticism I could make (and you’d have to push me hard to make it) it would be that the dialogues are so perfect – none of the retrospective “why did/didn’t I say that?” angst is necessary for these characters (but then, inarticulate dialogue wouldn’t make for great reading, so this isn’t really a criticism at all). In fact the characterisation is superb, with plenty revealed about the characters but much also held back, in a way that reflects how we’d get to know people in real life. When I read Hession’s writing I can’t help imagining him observing conversations and behaviour as the years go by, so recognisably human are his characters and their interactions. There would have been plenty of opportunity for facile or schmaltzy resolutions to the various broken or fragile relationships, and Hession steers clear of this in a way that shows great tenderness for his characters. And the final scene… no spoilers, as ever, but you might want to keep a tissue handy.