Category Archives: Review

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

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.

 

Review: Donatella di Pietrantonio, A Girl Returned

Translated from Italian by Ann Goldstein (Europa Editions, 2019)

A Girl Returned is an intense and affecting account of how a life can change forever in a single day. The unnamed teenage narrator leads a happy and harmonious existence with her affluent parents in a nice neighbourhood of an Italian city. Or, rather, this was her life: it is recounted in flashback, as we meet the narrator when she arrives at a rundown house in the country. This is her new home – though, as we learn, it was in fact her first home. Her parents were living in poverty when she was a baby; they had three older children already, and then found out that the mother was pregnant again. Meanwhile, the refined Adalgisa, wife of the father’s cousin, was miserably childless and wanted a little girl of her own… you can fill in the gaps. Indeed, this narrative is pieced together in half-conversations and the silences between them: the narrator finds herself suddenly transplanted back into the heart of the family who gave her away, unwanted on both sides, and with no idea why her existence has been uprooted so suddenly. She is hampered in her desire to understand by the adults who decide for her that she is too young to know the truth: she is left wondering why her mother gave her up and when she might come to take her back, constructing her own less painful version of reality in the absence of a truth that will be revealed in two key scenes towards the end of the novel.

Meeting the “girl returned” at this pivotal point plunges us straight into the most turbulent moment of our young narrator’s life: “I was thirteen, yet I didn’t know my other mother”, she tells us by way of introduction to her story. Gone is the happy bourgeois life of music lessons, elegant meals, a nice apartment and a full social life – now the girl is sharing a bedroom with three siblings she never knew she had, awakening to the rhythmic sound of her older brothers masturbating and sharing a bed with a younger sister who has yet to master night-time bladder control. Attitudes from the new family range from indifference to overt hostility, and in the village and at school there are frequent displays of resentment towards l’arminuta, the girl returned. She finds an unlikely ally in her older brother Vincenzo, a tearaway who frequently runs away with the gypsies, and he awakens in her the first flames of adolescent desire. Yet he too is wrenched away from her in one of the most painful episodes of the story, and she is left with only her younger sister Adriana for companionship. Adriana is wild and impulsive, but capable of great compassion, and gives depth to a family unit that could otherwise potentially fall into clichés of “rich girl meets poor family who despise her for having opportunities they never had.” Indeed, in a book where the narrator feels so little love and warmth, one of the most remarkable feats is that it spills over with warmth and heart. Donatella di Pietrantonio gives depth and substance to an eclectic cast of characters, many of whom (including l’arminuta herself) remain unnamed. The “other mother” speaks infrequently, and when she does it is in a rural working-class dialect that l’arminuta barely understands. She is “the mother”, “the woman who conceived me” or “the other mother” – always distanced from and by the narrator, who explains that “from the moment I was given back to her, the word “mamma” had stuck in my throat like a frog that wouldn’t jump out.”

One of the reviews on the book cover describes the author’s “feverish prose”, so I was expecting this to be a defining feature of the narrative, but this wasn’t my impression of A Girl Returned. I found it much more considered and languorous, though of course this may be a difference between the original and the translation. Ann Goldstein is, as the blurb notes, Elena Ferrante’s translator: this is marketed as a selling point, and for long stretches, in fact for the majority of the book, the translation is pitched beautifully. I liked the less frenzied pace and delivery, and Goldstein strikes an excellent balance between the intensity of the narrator’s feelings (“she reopened my memory with a lash of the whip”) and the understatement with which certain scenes are narrated (“I was an orphan with two living mothers. One had given me up with her milk still on my tongue, the other had given me back at the age of thirteen.” The occasional flash-forwards that show us the resolution of particular characters’ stories are also offered with a detached melancholy that is all the more moving for remaining unembellished. However, I was frustrated at times with calques from Italian that disrupted the syntax for me or stood out as unusual (second-verb infinitives rather than gerunds, use of nouns where English would use a noun phrase, and some literal translations of vocabulary that do not have the same general field of usage in English). It’s possible that I’m more attuned to such nuances in translations from romance languages, which are my language area, but if the translator is mentioned as one of the reasons why the book is so excellent, then it does invite certain expectations. I imagine that Goldstein has to produce translations under time pressure as she’s so prolific, and if my appreciation seems mitigated, then let me be clear: I loved A Girl Returned. I even loved most of the translation. I hope that other readers will just skim over the words and phrases that made me pause, and I certainly hope that this book will find its way into your hands: it’s a gripping story, a fascinating telling, and will linger in my mind a long while.

Review copy of A Girl Returned provided by Europa Editions

Review: Europa28 – Writing by Women on the Future of Europe

Edited by Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave (Comma Press, 2020)

Europa28 is a ground-breaking anthology of women’s voices from across Europe, commissioned in response to the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Bringing together reflections on Europe’s future from women in each of the 28 member countries (or, as things stand now, 27 plus one), it reflects the radical, engaged approach that Comma Press is known for, and is Comma’s first anthology written entirely by women. Europa28 is a visionary project, the strength of 28 voices – plus 16 translators, two editors, and the indefatigable team at Comma Press, along with their collaborators Hay Festival and Wom@rts – coming together to discuss Europe in all its diversity, complexity, beauty and fallibility.

In her impassioned introduction to the volume, Laura Bates explains the importance of hearing the perspective of women: according to analysis cited by Bates, 90% of the discussion of Brexit in the Houses of Parliament was carried out by men. Women were left out of the debate, leaving “the certainties presented by the loudest voices” to remain enshrined as fact. “To move forward”, writes Bates, “we need new ways of seeing the world around us”, and this is exactly what Europa28 offers. There is, of course, a potential danger in selecting one woman to represent each country, but to be less even-handed about the representation would generate its own problematic hierarchies. And so while one voice cannot and should not speak for an entire country (indeed, this is a position challenged by the Europa28 project), more important is that this collection offers the space to speak, setting the perspectives of all 28 women – and the nations they represent – in dialogue with one another. It brings spoken-over voices to the fore, challenging the “default setting” of seeing the world through men’s eyes and gathering together women’s perspectives from each country within a union that, though imperfect, until recently represented our closest ally.

Editors Sophie Hughes and Sarah Cleave have brought together a fascinating and diverse collection of expositions on what Europe can, could, or should mean. Some of the contributions are reflections based on personal experience or perspective, while others are fantastical or allegorical. Some are essays, some written from an imagined future, some struggling to find the light ahead while mired in an all-too-present now. There are profound reflections on humanity, from Apolena Rychlíková’s claim (translated by Julia Sherwood) that intolerance is not buried deep in human nature but is the mindset of powerful individuals, to Janne Teller’s pronouncement that “no happiness is possible where misery abounds.” Many pieces focus on what Edurne Portela (translated by Annie McDermott) defines as “the demonisation of the different”; surveillance, silencing and “fake news” also come under fire repeatedly, as does the complicity of silence and the danger of becoming so immersed in the virtual world that we risk sacrificing our relationships with one another.

Where did these problems, barriers and divisions spring from? Rychlíková believes them to be the result of “a boiling over of long-term frustrations for unfulfilled, even if unarticulated, demands for a dignified and well-rounded life,” while Maarja Kangro points to “a new norm of ignorance, intolerance, and exclusion”, which Yvonne Hofstetter (translated by Jen Calleja) expands on in her claim that “reality is currently taking a detour through populism, protectionism, nationalism and a good dose of arrogance.” Tereza Nvotová (translated by Jakub Tlolka) suggests that we have not learned from our past (“We scale the cold neon mast and then drop back down, again and again and again. But each time we climb to the top, we forget about our previous fall”), a position advanced by Gloria Wekker, who cites “the bitter continuities and the utter lack of shame manifesting in European political attitudes towards the non-European Other” as one of the problems within the continent and the union.

The very notion of “union” is another key focus for many of the writers, who highlight the increasing disconnectedness of our – ironically – ever more connected world. Žydrūnė Vitaitė (translated by Rimas Uzgiris) cautions against the “like and re-share cemetery” of digital activism as opposed to real activism, and from a different angle Caroline Muscat warns that this digital world that we welcome as liberating can in fact be used to control us, making us complicit in the problem: “Technology fed into this populism as digital platforms – which held so much democratic promise for opening up access to information and debate across communities and countries – ended up being used as tools of repression.” If our increasing disenfranchisement is so widespread, then it is surely no coincidence that Ana Pessoa (translated by Rahul Bery) describes loneliness as “the biggest epidemic of the 21st century”: in our obsession with being “connected,” we have lost sight of what we want to connect to. To counter this, Hilary Cottam urges us to leave old models behind and “start instead with who we really are: people who are driven as much by a desire to connect and belong as by our individual goals.”

Cottam is not the only one to propose ways of moving forward, and of working towards greater understanding and deeper connections: the ability for empathy, suggests Julia Rabinowich (translated by Katy Derbyshire), “is what might help humankind survive.” Like Nvotová, Kapka Kassabova implores us to “hear the urgent message of the past” and refuse to let the past – with all its errors and misunderstandings – endlessly repeat itself, for as Ioana Nicolaie (translated by Jean Harris) warns: “If we do not learn from the mistakes of the last century, we will find ourselves alone without freedom or hope, enclosed between walls we ourselves have allowed to be built.” The possibility for change lies in our own hands, say so many of these women: we need to break through the walls we have allowed to be built and create what Lisa Dwan refers to as “a different narrative, to overcome the oppressive voices that threaten us from without and from within.”

Many of the contributions, then, suggest what we need to do to reject structures that restrict and oppress us, but others go further still to offer models of how we might set this in motion. Leïla Slimani (translated by Sam Taylor) exhorts us to be more open to others, indicating that prejudices surrounding migration could be at the root of a damaging isolation: “still today, the question of migration is fundamental, central, because the future of our continent will be decided in terms of our capacity to welcome and also to think about the Other.” Tuning out the certainties presented by the loudest voices is essential here, and Sofía Kouvelaki encourages us to do this by looking up from ourselves and outwards towards our world: “I simply want to ask people not to look away, not to look away and remain passive about the violence that is also taking place on our doorstep as Europeans.” This commitment to making connections involves us looking up and reaching out: Hofstetter advocates for exactly this in her provocation for each of us to “breathe life back into Europe, build a better future and live humanely and democratically with others.” Reading Europa28 is a fitting place to start this engagement: throughout the anthology, the personal and the local are cast as inseparable from the collective and the global, with an emphasis on sharing stories as a key to mutual understanding and tolerance. As Annelies Beck notes, “stories … can unlock hearts and minds and lay bare the shared humanity of all … They can put a wedge in shrill sounding certainties that are sold as unassailable truths.” It is important to listen to diverse stories, to understand the fullness of humanity (and specifically, to return to a key point of my last post, the “full humanity of women”), and to topple inherited or self-perpetuating certainties that threaten not only our sense of where we belong, but of who we are. As Europa28 shows us throughout, we do not need to rely on a nostalgia for what we have lost, but instead think about what we want to become.

Review copy of Europa28 provided by Comma Press.

Review: Yolande Mukagasana, Not My Time To Die

Translated from French (Rwanda) by Zoe Norridge (Huza Press, 2019)

Not my Time to Die is the true story of a woman whose overwhelming courage and tenacity help her survive the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: it is an anthem to love and compassion, a tribute to those she lost, and a story of survival. Originally published in French in 1997, the English translation was published by Kigali-based Huza Press in 2019.

Rwanda, 1994. Yolande Mukagasana is a nurse working in a medical centre in the Nyamirambo neighbourhood of Kigali. She heals people. She has a passionate relationship with her husband, and is mother to three children. She is well respected in her local community. She is happy. She is Tutsi.

When political events begin to spiral out of control, Yolande’s husband Joseph does not listen to her desperate entreaty that they should try to flee to safety. After all, who expects a massacre? As an incredulous Joseph laments, “Who could imagine that in such a small country, where we speak the same language and have the same traditions…” Faced with the implausibility of their new reality, he is unable to complete his sentence. It is only when it is too late that the family, like so many others, realise that they are trapped, about to be hunted down by the Hutu state-sponsored vigilantes, and slaughtered by their own neighbours, people alongside whom they had lived their whole life, people “who smiled at us just a few days earlier.” The family abandons their home and Yolande ends up separated from Joseph and their children, unable to get news of them. When she does, it brings an image that will change her life forever: her children lined up in front of a ditch and felled in turn by a machete blow to the back of the neck. This memory, given to her by another as she could not even witness it herself from her hiding place, will haunt her always: “Until my dying day, every time I think about the death of my children it will be as if I’ve just found out.” How can a human being bear so much sorrow? How can it even be articulated? With the Tutsi population almost wiped out in 1994, there are few left to tell their story, and Mukagasana steps up to that responsibility with a fortitude and empathy that I can only admire.

Not My Time to Die is a painful and beautiful book that had me holding my breath, fearful of turning the page and yet compulsively wanting to do so. Human brutality is exposed in horrific detail, strewn before us like the decomposing corpses that litter the paths of Mukagasana’s neighbourhood. This is a story of “intolerable cruelty” and indomitable hope: the story of a woman who lost her entire family, her home, her livelihood and her place in the world, and yet finds help, support and hope in surprising places. Though for the most part Mukagasana writes without judgement, her most scathing comments are reserved for the international community: the indecisive UN leadership of Boutros Boutros Ghali, for example, or the western minister who insisted that Rwanda would need to repay its national debt (“Yes, Mister Minister, if a few of us survive this genocide, we’ll pay you back for the weapons that killed us”).

Zoe Norridge has taken great care with the translation – this was evident even before I reached the Translator’s Note at the end, in which she details her meetings with Mukagasana and their discussions about the translation. The result is a translation that shows an intimate understanding of Mukagasana’s story, a retelling in which Norridge never takes over, but harnesses all of her knowledge – of Mukagasana’s life, but also of the Rwandan context, for this is her research area – to render the text in an urgent yet never sensational prose. Norridge has grappled with some significant linguistic challenges, not least in the title. She discusses the decision to render “La mort ne veut pas de moi” (literally, “death doesn’t want me”) as “not my time to die” throughout, reflecting the phrase’s function as both prophecy and talisman throughout the narrative, and reinforcing Mukagasana’s will to survive even if it might lessen the implication about this decision not being hers to make. It is clear throughout how invested Norridge is in telling this story, and this is a story that needed to be told. It is brave, beautiful, and extraordinary in its resilience and compassion. We need to know these stories in the west, to witness the human experience not represented in press coverage of international tragedies, to question our own complicity in the blind eye turned to far-off crises. Mass killings might make for sensational headlines barely remembered decades later, but the eye-witness account of watching a husband’s hand being casually lopped off by a machete, the representation of the abject horror of hiding beneath a sink for eleven days and emerging to the news that your children have been massacred while you survived – these images will remain. They cannot fade into the annals of international historical atrocity, because of the determination of the author, translator and publisher in bringing this book into being. This memoir gives a name to the dead, while refusing to name the living: murderers or survivors, they will, says Mukagasana, recognise themselves. In her hiding, she makes a vow to write down her experience, to bear witness, to write in the name of the Tutsi people, and she lays down a challenge: “May those who don’t have the strength to read it denounce themselves as complicit in the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.” Reading Not My Time To Die is akin to standing up and taking responsibility for knowing, to revoke “the cowardice of the international community who have abandoned us”; it is refusing to look the other way. That Zoe Norridge’s translation makes this book available to English-language readers is a gift, and one we should have the courage to accept.

Review: Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Sophie Hughes (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2020)

Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season is a torrential vision of people on the margins of society, and a rage against a world that abandons them there. The narrative opens with a rotting corpse found floating in an irrigation canal: the Witch is dead. Like a clanging gong announcing the event, the news reverberates throughout the village, and thus begins a kind of murder mystery. Yet to pigeon-hole Hurricane Season as “just” a murder mystery would be to do a great disservice to a narrative that is so much more than that. It’s an unsparing account of femicide, machismo, tribal terror and social destitution, and for me it was less about uncovering the “truth” of the murder and more about delving into the psyche and circumstances of the characters, to understand what led them to the pivotal moment that simultaneously connects them and creates deep divisions between them.

The premise is based on a real-life story in which a body was found floating in a river, and the justification for the murder was the victim’s alleged sorcery: Melchor takes this true story and casts it in the fictional Mexican town of La Matosa, a godforsaken place riven with violence and superstition, and on the margins in every way. We follow the events from the perspectives of different inhabitants of La Matosa: each principal character has his or her own chapter, and each story is woven with the others to form a richly grotesque tapestry of lives forgotten by the state and left to rot in their own squalor, the interconnections not always evident until the end of a chapter or a seemingly throwaway comment within it.

The Witch herself never speaks through the narrative, but pulls all the other stories together. She is constructed for us only in the minds and exaggerations of others, adding to the “small-town” patina:

“They called her The Witch, the same as her mother … 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.”

The Witch is defined by hearsay and gossip, her power feared and so expunged in the only permanent way possible (although even then, death quite literally has no dominion: “They say she never really died, because witches don’t go without a fight”). As for how she ended up floating in a canal with her throat slit, we only find out through third party reconstruction: this is a novel in which nothing is as it seems, where one person’s freeloader is another person’s saviour and the most flamboyant of characters can have the most banal of ends. We meet memorable characters in wretched circumstances: from Luismi, who “might have looked like a stupid prick (but) wasn’t one, because he always managed to give his crazy-ass cousin the slip before he went off to fumble with his butt-boys”, to Norma, compelled by society and circumstance to take her fate into her own hands with horrific results, and Brando, embroiled in a violent chain of events that he barely understands and that will ultimately destroy him. The personal tragedy wrought by universal inhumanity is almost intolerable: this is not just about Mexico and its demons, but about the monsters we make with global indifference.

There are no paragraph breaks in Hurricane Season; each chapter is one unbroken torrent of narrative wrath. In a recent feature in Publishers Weekly, Melchor explained that the first two chapters came out that way, and then she set herself the technical challenge of maintaining this style and momentum throughout the novel. She writes with undisguised and undiluted fury, raging against the lack of future for her characters and the people they represent. It’s violent but never gratuitously so, foul-mouthed but authentically so, relentless but compellingly so: you know how sometimes you wish you could unleash all your anger on a person or phenomenon that has injured you, but you know you could never come up with the flawlessly crafted surge of put-downs at the perfect moment (think Fleabag and her lambasting of her brother-in-law that is going so well until she ends it by calling him a “weakie”)? Every inch of Hurricane Season is that perfect diatribe, and not just in Melchor’s hands: Sophie Hughes translates with her trademark verve, her unparalleled sensitivity to characterisation and register, and a linguistic agility that, quite frankly, left me stunned in admiration. Sugar cane “fissles”, “glistering hot coals” fire the cauldron, we meet “skanks” and “gobshites” and people “getting their rocks off”. Hurricane Season is a broken dam of words unleashed in a deluge of profanity: it is, in every sense, a force of nature, and Hughes offers a blistering translation. She conveys all of Melchor’s brutal lyricism in a way that manages to feel effortless: all of the intense labour, the insecurity, the angst of translating such a novel vanishes in the execution. I cannot imagine a more perfect blend of authorial voice and translatorial mastery: this is the yardstick by which many other books will be measured. The threat of a hurricane swirls over La Matosa, and leaves in its wake “a searing pain that refuses to go away”: Hurricane Season is a linguistic and emotional whirlwind, bewitching and almost unbearably addictive, quite simply one of the best books I’ve ever experienced. Indeed, to say I “read” it feels somehow inadequate to convey the way in which I was drawn into the centrifugal force of this particular narrative: I highly recommend that you too give in to its pull.

Review copy of Hurricane Season provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

 

Review: Intan Paramaditha, The Wandering

Translated from Indonesian by Stephen J. Epstein (Harvill Secker, 2020).

The Wandering is an innovative, thought-provoking twist on the Choose Your Own Adventure genre. Written in a compelling second-person narrative, it is based on the following premise: You are bored with your predictable life in Jakarta, and you wish to escape. A demon lover comes to tempt you with a gift that could be cursed: a pair of red shoes that will take you wherever you want to go. But be careful what you wish for, because you may not like where you end up – and you will never be able to return home. What do you do?

This is the perfect match of theme and genre, and is impeccably executed. With every choice I made I was curious about the alternative, where it would lead and whether I’d end up with the same destiny, whether the ending is the same whichever path you take (it’s not), and whether you experience the whole book but in a different order (you don’t). I loved Choose Your Own Adventure books when I was a child, but I never had much luck with them. I’d usually end up sacrificed on a jungle altar by page 20 (and it seemed every path led back there), so I really wanted to be a survivor in The Wandering. In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought: in this magical literary world where I’ve made a pact with a devil for a pair of red shoes, I tried to make the choices I really would make, or at least would make in a dream, since the reality is fairly unlikely to come to pass – so yes, go on, let me always move forwards instead of playing it safe, give me a magic mirror that allows me to see my true self, bring it on!

I met a sticky end before I was halfway through the book.

I went back to the last big choice: the magic mirror. Maybe I should have gone back further, to a previous choice: in my second adventure I had a banal but steady life, I was even something like happy. But what if I hadn’t settled down with the handsome yet uninspiring illegal immigrant? I went back to that choice and tried again. Another mundane relationship, another settled existence with neither great drama nor great happiness. So my first choice about the mirror wasn’t the problem, but this must mean that somewhere earlier on I made a false step.

You’ll notice I’m talking about my character in the first person. This is one of Paramaditha’s great achievements: making me believe in the story, become invested in it, wanting to know all my possible fates in this crystal ball of a novel. Part of this is down to her second person narrative: addressing her readers as “you” is designed to create an intimacy that I found entirely successful. Part of its triumph lies in the constant suspense, which is excellent – I suspect that a cynic might occasionally find it a little melodramatic, but I threw myself into it (I mean, if I’m going to have a pair of magic red shoes gifted to me by a Mephistophelian lover, then I’ve got to expect a little melodrama) and so it didn’t bother me at all. In fact, there is only one sentence that I found slightly heavy-handed, when we are told that “you sense that your decision will determine your path from here.” This is one of several conscious references to the genre (“You began to suspect that your failure to transcend mediocrity stemmed from a wrong turn in your life”; “Adventures don’t always offer unlimited choice”; “If you’re having an adventure you always want to know what would have happened if you chose a different road”; “Did you make the wrong choice?”), but in over 400 pages was the only one that felt a little forced to me.

As for the translation, it is both playful and dramatic, acrobatic without ever losing clarity. Reading the author’s acknowledgements and the translator’s note, I learnt how closely Epstein collaborated with Paramaditha, and the editing debt he acknowledges to Paramaditha’s friend and champion, author and translator Tiffany Tsao. It’s clear how closely and passionately they have all engaged with this work: Epstein makes stunning choices of verbal adjectives (“You felt as if your limbs were lashed to the bed”; “the lanes clogged with traffic”), offers pithy renderings of epigrammatic philosophical observations (“as befits a journey, happiness is a terminal, not a destination; nobody stays there too long”) and perfectly captures the darkly mischievous voice that directs, admonishes and tempts: “Forgive the imperiousness of this adventure, but you know that sometimes life takes away all options. Choice is a luxury. Marrying Bob is your emergency exit” (forgive the spoiler; marrying Bob is only one of a great number of options!); “If you want to know the fate of the red shoes, turn to the next page. If you don’t want to know the fate of the red shoes, well, who gives a damn? Turn to the next page”; “If you want a final adventure that might only create a spectacular mess, turn to page 405” (and yes, OF COURSE I turned to page 405). I’m curious to know how Epstein translated – whether he followed a thread through to its conclusion and went on the journey too, or whether he did it in a more linear fashion, jumping between stories while advancing chronologically through the pages. I can’t help but hope that he went on the wandering as he translated.

This book is escapism taken to the next level, while still making serious and significant comments about modern societies. Intertexts range from well-known literary works, popular songs and films to more subtle (and, I’m ashamed to say, over my head) references to Indonesian literature which, when they were pointed out to me, made me feel very acutely the question posed by one of the characters: “why don’t we hear of Indonesian writers outside the country?” Alongside such mirrors (magic or otherwise) held up to her adventurers, Paramaditha also excels at mordant observations about migration, the brutality of Trump’s America, the falsehood of the American dream, and the personal dimension of the “refugee crisis”, and many of the stories reprise the refrain, also discussed in the afterword, “good girls go to heaven, bad girls go wandering”. As befits the theme and genre, reflections on movement versus stasis abound (“For some, the world is indeed very small. But a small world such as this is not – or hasn’t been – yours. So far, the world you know is vast and random”), but above all, The Wandering is about relationships – their integrity, their contingency, their familiarity and their failures. As I was turning though pages to get to my next instalment, I would see names that were unfamiliar, and know that another choice meant different encounters: this made me think about the world, about chance and fate and the choices we make: some of these are just detours, different ways of ending up at the same place. But others change our direction, leading to different encounters, places, and life paths. When you’ve read enough of the possible stories you realise you don’t always meet Meena, or Yvette – it is your choices that bring you to them or let them pass you by. You might end up in the same place – even on the same flight to Peru – but with an entirely different life, observing the people who would have been close to you if you’d made a different choice.

I *think* I had every possible adventure in the end. Some of them were against my instincts and turned out satisfactorily. Some were instinctive and pretty ill-fated. If I learned anything about myself, it’s that I’m better at decisions in real life than in a dramatic alternative universe where I’ve made a pact with the devil for a pair of magic shoes. And what about you? I recommend that you don these glorious red shoes and see where they take you…

Review copy of The Wandering provided by Harvill Secker.

Follow the “Red Shoe Odyssey” on Intan Paramaditha’s website, and view the shoes’ adventures.

Review: Ivana Dobrakovová, Bellevue

Translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Jantar Publishing, 2019)

Bellevue is the first novel of award-winning Slovak writer Ivana Dobrakovová, and it is a harrowing account of one young woman’s psychological unravelling. Dobrakovová sets out from the start what will happen in terms of plot, and so it is the journey towards that point that maintains narrative momentum.

Blanka is bored of spending her summer waiting around for her steady yet zealously studious boyfriend to look up from his textbooks and spend time with her, and so she applies for a summer job at a care home in the south of France. When Blanka first arrives in Marseille she is greeted by young interns of various nationalities, all of them escaping their lives in their home country just as she is. So far, so L’Auberge Espagnole. A carefree, sun-drenched summer awaits, but things soon go awry. That the deceptively serene name of the care home, Bellevue, is taken as the title of the novel shows the importance of this experience in Blanka’s decline: it is “the place that will transform me into someone new”, but this new self is exactly the one Blanka most fears.

When faced with the reality of dealing with people in a care home, Blanka finds herself repulsed by their lack of control over their bodies, whether this is owing to morbid obesity, constant drooling, a need to urinate in a tube, or shriveled limbs. Lack of control of her own body is Blanka’s greatest fear, but the things she is afraid of and tries to avoid by extreme behaviour are the very things that her extreme behaviour causes to come about. This is foreshadowed early on when she confesses that “For a moment I almost wished I were like them, wheelchair-bound, or at least not sticking out like a sore thumb”: Blanka’s feelings of paranoia about the way the residents view her, her conviction that they resent her because of her healthy body and want her to be reduced somehow, is exactly what leads her to behave so erratically that she ends up losing control of her own bodily experience.

This unravelling seems to happen very quickly (Blanka is only at Bellevue for a few weeks), but there are plenty of hints towards a past illness. She has a history of depression and prescribed medication, and so although comments such as “I’m unhappy and I want to die” might seem to come very suddenly, we are made aware in the way she explains her feelings that they are not without precedent. Her rapid decline is mirrored in subtle shifts in the writing style, and particularly in the punctuation, which fails gradually. Commas replace full stops at paragraph ends, then they start to appear before the end of clauses; after that, the sentences gradually lose any punctuation that makes sense of them. This is not the only stylistic shift: co-translator Julia Sherwood comments in her introduction to Bellevue that “The narration changes from the past tense to the present, creating a sense of immediacy; direct speech is no longer marked, erasing the difference between Blanka’s utterances and her feverish thoughts” – these features are not only important to notice, but also to convey, and this fragmented style is superbly conveyed in the translation.

Although there were a few references in the translation that I initially thought were a bit out of place, some quick research soon corrected me. For example, I had assumed that references to Tesco and to the Avon catalogue were adaptations, but when I checked online I discovered that these companies do indeed operate in Slovakia, and so presumably these references were in the original text. Similarly, though phrases such as “there’s a good girl” made me uncomfortable – there is so much patriarchal assumption in this phrase – perhaps they too were in the original, and indeed maybe they’re meant to make us feel uncomfortable: my reaction prefigured the discomfort I felt later when Blanka is force-fed by her former friends, reduced to a dribbling mess and becoming what she most despised.

Bellevue interrogates our notions of “wellness” – both physical and mental – and presents us with a flawed narrator who, though frustrating in her constant inability to empathise or connect with the people around her, is a believable representation of the isolation caused by mental illness. We see enough of Blanka’s inner thoughts that we can come to understand her, but we cannot get through to her: this encouraged (and thwarted) intimacy is one of the most striking features of the book. I don’t think that Blanka is supposed to be likeable (“I’ll be out of this place in two weeks’ time but you, dear Marie, you’re going to rot here for the rest of your life”), but this does not mean we cannot feel compassion for her. Blanka’s inability to believe in the goodness or niceness of people is presented as the very thing that pushes them away, but there is more to it than this: Drago presents himself as caring, as wanting to help Blanka, but his sanctimonious attitude persistently reinforces her instability, his own inadequacies cast convincingly as altruistic helplessness. Perhaps, though, this is Bellevue’s key message: what good is it to treat the symptoms if we ignore the underlying cause? If Blanka is held responsible for her own solitude and isolation, isn’t this an indictment of a society all too adept at blaming the victim instead of questioning itself? Bellevue is not a comfortable read, but nor is it meant to be: it is a brave and unflinching account of mental illness, and an unsparing critique of a world that fosters it.

Review copy of Bellevue provided by Jantar Publishing

Review: Loop, Brenda Lozano

Translated from Spanish (Mexico) by Annie McDermott (Charco Press, 2019)

This debut novel by Brenda Lozano is a clever, innovative book, an erudite observation of the everyday, a genre-smashing static journey. It’s fair to say that I admired it rather than enjoyed it exactly; mostly, I suspect, because of the point at which I read it. Loop is a series of connected fragments, and I probably jumped into it at the wrong moment: I read it on my train journey to and from the Translating Women conference, when my mind was pitching from one thing to the next, not staying anywhere for long, and returning to the same things repeatedly. This fitfulness was exacerbated by reading a book that was doing much the same thing, and so my reaction was affected by the circumstances of my reading. Nonetheless, objectively I can see all of the things that make Loop brilliant, and those are the features I’ll focus on here.

The unnamed narrator of Loop is waiting. Her boyfriend Jonás has travelled to Spain after his mother’s death; the narrator awaits his return, journeying in her mind while sitting in her armchair waiting for Jonás. As she waits she vocalises their usual routine, alternating between longing for his return and resenting his absence. She is also waiting in an airport for a delayed flight: this is the ambiguity of the literary form, as the narrator reminds us that it doesn’t matter how long passes between her notebook entries, because it will be read as if no time has passed between them: “Part of the magic of the ideal notebook is that hours, days and weeks can go by from one paragraph to the next, but because the paragraphs live side by side like neighbours, it’s as if only a few minutes have passed. Amazing – something that takes years to write could be read by someone else in a couple of hours.” Time is suspended, just as the narrator herself is suspended in her vigil, awaiting the return of Jonás. In this sense, she says, “my notebook is my waiting room” – the notebook becomes the loop, the contracted space where time expands.

The (mildly but endearingly obsessive) narrator has had some kind of accident in the recent past, though we are not given details beyond her waking up on a hospital gurney with a Shakira song playing in the background (thus alerting her to the fact that she is not, after all, now inhabiting the afterlife). This patchy detail is consistent with the “diary” narrative – in a diary, why would you painstakingly write out details of something you already know? Rather, this is an exploration of the narrator’s inner world and thoughts. Many references recur repeatedly: the Shakira song is an intermittent soundtrack, as is David Bowie’s “Wild is the Wind” (this one features as a choice on the narrator’s part, rather than as an intrusion), and a Shakespeare quote spotted on a fridge magnet becomes the narrator’s refrain to describe herself: “Welcome. A hundred thousand welcomes! I could weep, and I could laugh; I am light, and heavy. Welcome!” This becomes an invitation to us to enter her world of weeping, laughter, lightness and weight, all encapsulated within the pages of her “ideal notebook”. In this notebook she performs a kind of taxonomy of the everyday, chronicling experiences and observing objects, but she also identifies herself as a modern-day Penelope: “I’m Penelope. I weave, unravel, weave and unravel again. Will the day ever come when the waiting stops? Is there anyone who isn’t waiting for something?” “I wish. I weave. I unravel.”

It is not just The Odyssey that features as a literary reference – these are broad-ranging, from Fernando Pessoa to Marcel Proust via Oscar Wilde, and many more besides (there is a handy index of references at the back of the book). These can’t have been easy to spot and incorporate into the translation, but Lozano is in safe hands with Annie McDermott: there was not a single word, reference or turn of phrase that jarred in my reading of Loop. I had already admired McDermott’s work as editor on Ariana Harwciz’s Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff) and as co-translator with Orloff on Harwicz’s Feebleminded, and am very excited for her forthcoming translation of Selva Almada’s next book with Charco Press later this year. Her choice of title for Loop is intelligent and sensitive: it is more ambiguous than the original title, Cuaderno ideal (“ideal notebook”), which would mean very little in English. It’s a play on words in Mexican Spanish: not only is this the ideal form, but also a reference to the near-obsolete brand of notebook that the narrator uses to write down her thoughts. Lozano’s narrator describes her text as “an infinite queue”, and this is reflected in the English title: a loop has no defined beginning and end, it goes over on itself, turns around on itself, repeats itself – the refrains that punctate the narrative are played as if on a loop; the fragments of narrative loop back and return to where they started; by reading the narrator’s intimate thoughts we are in the loop, and her verbal acrobatics – energetically but unobtrusively rendered by McDermott – loop the loop.

There were some observations that made me laugh out loud, such as this from the very first page: “As a girl I thought that the electric pencil sharpener was what separated me from adult life.” But Loop is also shot through with pain (the narrator knows intimately “those depths where only pain can take you”), and some profound observations seem almost carelessly tossed in (except in Lozano, as I came to realise, nothing is careless). As well as the repeated refrain “Change. Unknowing yourself is more important than knowing yourself,” she makes delicate proclamations such as “we make the world to the measure of our hands” and “the way we relate to everything, especially when it comes to love, changes after we hit rock bottom,” as well as a list resembling a modern-day secular Beatitudes, in which she observes that “those who talk too much reject themselves; those who listen carefully accept themselves.”

When I went back to my notes to write this review, I felt far more drawn into Loop than when I actually read it, which makes me think that I should revisit it to experience it at a less stressful moment. But for now I’ll leave you with this meditative remark, which epitomises our mordantly observant narrator and her writing project: “I think telling stories is a way of putting a scar into words.”

Review copy of Loop provided by Charco Press

Review: Ahlam Bsharat, Trees for the Absentees

Translated from Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland (Neem Tree Press, 2019)

Trees for the Absentees is the second of Ahlam Bsharat’s works published in translation by Neem Tree Press: Bsharat is an award-winning Palestinian author and activist, and Ashjaar lil-Naas al-Ghaa’ibeen (the original version of Trees for the Absentees) was a runner-up for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2013. I hadn’t noticed this “children’s literature” categorisation before my first reading of Trees for the Absentees; when I realised, the simplicity of the prose and of the approach to significant socio-cultural issues suddenly made a lot of sense.

Guiding us through this turbulent world of segregation, incarceration and historical violence is Philistia, a young woman of university age, who works in a hammam. Philistia spends her days scrubbing and buffing the naked bodies of women who come to her seeking something: whether they are escaping their grief or hiding their fears, women come to Philistia to start a new chapter in their lives. This parallels the jobs Philistia’s grandmother held in her lifetime: Grandma Zahia was both a midwife and a corpse washer, accompanying people on their journeys into and out of the world. Grandma Zahia is a guiding presence throughout Philistia’s story, and her role influences much of Philistia’s thought. Her first wisdom sets up and frames the narrative, and leads us towards an understanding of Philistia:

“Our heads are cupboards full of secrets, and our senses are the key. Everything that your eyes see becomes yours to keep safe … When someone entrusts their body to you, they open the door to reveal their secrets. That’s the time to close the door to your own cupboard of secrets.”

So I had learned to close the doors and drawers of the cupboard in my head. I could open my senses and yet keep them slightly ajar.

It was Grandma Zahia who first introduced Philistia to the imaginary world, when she taught her how to wash the bodies of the dead. The affinity that Philistia feels with her grandmother is key to the narrative: Zahia is both the greatest influence on her thinking and personality, and her means of communicating with other worlds. For Philistia’s imaginary world is as real to her as the physical world she inhabits (“reality was my imagination and my imagination was reality”), and when the boundaries between those worlds begin to collapse, life as she knows it is forever changed. The fault lines between the real and imaginary worlds start to open up, and allow us to see two periods of history at the same time. But Philistia is in danger of being swallowed up in the cracks between the worlds, and it is this almost mystical aura that lends the text its melancholy suspense.

Along with the deceased Grandma Zahia, Philistia’s father is another “absentee”, incarcerated in an Israeli prison. This is first revealed in passing (“And Mum? It seemed to me she was motivated by the desire to resist my auntie’s meddling in her life, especially since Dad was sent to prison”), but later becomes more important to the narrative as Philistia dreams of his release, talks about their relationship, and writes him letters. The relationships – especially this epistolary one – engage with universal themes of separation and loss, as well as being instructive about the specific cultural context. Light and dark are recurrent metaphors throughout Trees for the Absentees, with the dark representing uncertainty and death, and light representing the fight for life. This is a simple enough notion to fit in with the children and young adult audience, but one which is expressed in a way that I found deeply moving: we are all visitors on this earth, carrying our light through life. Sometimes we need help to carry our light. Sometimes things can happen to make the light go out. Each body’s soul has a message, and in each heart a tree grows. As you can imagine from the title, trees are an important metaphor in this novella: trees are being uprooted all around Philistia, and so she seeks a place where she can plant trees for her loved ones, creating this space inside herself.

Trees for the Absentees is very much focused on women’s experience: the female genealogy is crucial to our understanding of Philistia, though we also learn how she craves independence from her family. Similarly, Philistia wishes to be free from the expectation that she ought to be like all female university students, and wants the opportunity to forge her own path in life. What sets her apart is not only that her path is entwined with the history of one of the most volatile regions on earth, but also that her path winds through both the real world and an imaginary one, in which she meets and falls in love with the ghostly presence of Bayrakdar: “Did our souls meet first? Was it because we worked in the same place, at different times in history? Was it the similarity of our lives that brought us together: my dad, imprisoned by the Israeli occupation, and his father, who was imprisoned during the British Mandate?” Philistia’s other-worldly relationship with a shadow from the past allows two stories and two historical periods to overlap. Her imaginary world falls somewhere between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and is “mine and mine alone” – something she can call her own in a life where so much is determined for her by politics, culture and tradition, and where girls are forced to grow up too soon “because we started to make sense of things early. I mean we learned about a lot of things that don’t make any sense.”

The collaborative translation between Ahmedzai Kemp and Copeland is admirable: in particular, the dialogue reads very well – there were times when I could visualise the characters’ interchange so clearly, it read almost like a playscript. There are some evident challenges, most notably with play on words in the original Arabic. I am not a fan of cultural adaptation, and was pleased that for the most part Ahmedzai Kemp and Copeland allowed the cultural specificity of the text to remain. For example, there is reference to “the idiomatic reply, ‘from my eye’”; several proverbs feature, most of which have been left as they are rather than attempting to find an “equivalent”; the similarity of Philistia and Bayrakdar’s names to the words for bean and plum is not altered to use English words that are close to the proper nouns. I appreciate this, because I don’t want to imagine Philistia in an English-speaking world. I want to imagine her in her own world, and I believe that readers of translations should be invited to make a little effort to bridge that gap. Trees for the Absentees is a small and simple book, but its story has greater complexities if we wish to find them, and is a thought-provoking read for adults and children alike.

Review copy of Trees for the Absentees provided by Neem Tree Press