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Women in Translation month 2019: 8 books reviewed

As many of you probably know, August is Women in Translation month, an initiative started and championed by Meytal Radzinski. In honour of this year’s Women in Translation month, here are my thoughts on the eight books I read in August.

Ece Temelkuran, Women Who Blow on Knots, translated from Turkish by Alexander Dawe (Parthian Books)

In Women Who Blow on Knots, four women escape and find their shifting fate(s) on a madcap road trip across the Middle East as the Arab Spring breaks. It’s full of action, cliffhangers and social comment, and maintains a lightheartedness while dealing with weighty issues regarding women’s roles and representations in the Middle East. The title is from a sura from the Qur’an that refers to witchcraft, and there is indeed something mystical about this story. There is something of the cinematic too: several of the implausible feats pulled off by the larger-than-life Madam Lilla felt like a film in the sense that the hows and whys of breathtaking turns of events are edited out in favour of the more watchable final result. The characterisation is what stood out for me the most: though the three younger women could easily have fallen into stereotypes or tropes of femininity, Temelkuran invested each of them with heart, fallibility, and a destiny that each must fulfil in her own way.

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, The Yogini, translated from Bengali by Arunava Sinha (Tilted Axis Press)

The latest release from Tilted Axis Press is an absolute gem: Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay’s third novel The Yogini is a tale of fate, illusion and self-destruction, offered in a sumptuous translation by Arunava Sinha. Homi is a young woman who, on the face of it, has everything she could wish for: a high-powered and exciting job, a full life, and a passionate marriage. However, a chance encounter one day with a silent man with matted locks imperils everything she holds dear, as fate “sinks its claws into her” and prompts her to reflect on contingency, on choice, and on inevitability. Fate is the driving force of the narrative, stalking Homi and gathering in her heart “like unshed tears.” Merciless and inexorable, fate – or is it  her own will? – guides and pulls Homi through increasingly self-destructive situations, until she risks exiling herself from happiness and losing everything that ever meant anything to her. Powerful, explosive, and utterly compelling.

Nayrouz Qarmout, The Sea Cloak, translated from Arabic (Palestine) by Perween Richards (Comma Press)

Regular readers will already know how much this book moved me, from my review last month. Nayrouz Qarmout is a Palestinian author writing about life – and particularly women’s lives – unfolding on the Gaza strip. Expect a violence that has become commonplace, but also a universal experience that is utterly irresistible: Qarmout writes with warmth and compassion, never instructing but always teaching. The translation by Perween Richards revels in the richness of language to convey all of the atrocity and humanity with which Qarmout’s writing swells: these are stories of the everyday violence, restriction and terror of living in Gaza, but above all they are stories of everyday humanity. This one is not to be missed, and is one of my top recommendations of 2019.

Ursula Kovalyk, The Equestrienne, translated from Slovak by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (Parthian Books)

Set in 1984, The Equestrienne is a coming-of-age story about two misfit girls, “dangerous bitches, disruptive females who disregarded all the rules.” The girls forge their future in a riding school in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and the narrative combines the personal story of identity and survival with comments on socialism vs capitalism (“we swapped our barbed wire cage for one made of gold.”) I was a little surprised by this novella, as it wasn’t quite what I was expecting (though that’s not a bad thing): I thought it would focus on the elderly character looking back on a life narrated in flashback, but on reflection it works better as a coming-of-age story. I also very much enjoyed the collaborative translation by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood; every word is perfectly placed.

Tea Tulić, Hair Everywhere, translated from Croatian by Coral Petkovich (Istros Books)

This book was longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation in 2018, and I’ve been meaning to read it since then. I came to it after having enjoyed a recent release by Istros Books (Singer in the Night, reviewed here), and Hair Everywhere is harrowing and challenging, but well worth the read. Tulić offers a fragmented narrative about one family coming to terms with cancer, following their daily life after the mother is diagnosed with an aggressive tumour that will ultimately kill her. By turns delicate and brutal, it’s also a story of female legacy: “While I watch her lying in bed, I can feel the umbilical cord between us. Something I have tried to cut a thousand times already. And now I hold onto that invisible cord as though I were hanging from a bridge.” As well as a reflection on loss, this is also a lyrical hymn to love and a painful testament to our failure to love enough before it’s too late.

Fleur Jaeggy, Proleterka, translated from Italian by Alastair McEwen (And Other Stories)

This is the third of Fleur Jaeggy’s novels to be published by women in translation champions And Other Stories, and in it a teenage daughter dissects her emotionless relationship with a father she barely knows. The girl and her father embark on a cruise to Greece, aboard a ship called the Proleterka: this is their “last and first chance to be together,” during which the girl experiences a violent sexual awakening and an increasing neglect of her father (some children, she reminds us, “have the gift of detachment.”) Jaeggy’s examination of relationships strikes a skilful balance between perspicacity and silence: every word seems to have been weighed before being offered, and McEwen ably renders this in the transation. An unsettling narrative that cuts like a razor.

Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, The Adventures of China Iron, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre (Charco Press)

I was able to get an advance copy of this forthcoming title from Charco Press at Edinburgh International Book Festival, and I can only urge you to read it as soon as it is available. This is an epic and subversive dialogue with Argentine history and literary canon: told from the perspective of China, the abandoned wife of José Hernández’s eponymous gaucho poet Martín Fierro, The Adventures of China Iron reinscribes female experience in a male-dominated context. With a luscious and rhythmic prose, Cabezón Cámara subverts and queers one of Argentina’s great literary texts in an unforgettable journey across the pampas, but also offers profound reflections on industrial progress, women’s experience, colonialism, and sexuality. Fiona Mackintosh and Iona Macintyre truly entered Cabezón Cámara’s universe, and have translated the cadence and atmosphere of the text beautifully.

Tomoka Shibasaki, Spring Garden, translated from Japanese by Polly Barton (Pushkin Press)

This Japanese novella is an unhurried tale of quiet obsessions and missed opportunities that nonetheless manages to maintain suspense: divorcé Taro lives in a condemned block of flats, and meets his neighbour Nishi, who is obsessed with the sky-blue house across from their block. Little by little this obsession starts to take over Taro’s life too, as the story edges towards a conclusion overshadowed by the threat of demolition. Will Taro and Nishi uncover the secrets of the house before they have to move away? Will they allow themselves to fall in love before they are separated? An excellent translation by Polly Barton manages to convey the wistful yet tense heart of the story.

20 books to inspire your summer reading

I’m off on holiday for a couple of weeks, and by the time I return Women in Translation Month will be in full swing. This is an online event that happens every August, and is the brainchild of women in translation advocate Meytal Radzinski, encouraging everyone to read women writers from across the world for the month of August. So I wanted to share some reading recommendations: I’ve selected ten categories with two books in each, so there is something for everyone. Whether you’re a seasoned reader of women in translation or just diving into Women in Translation Month for the first time, I hope you will find something on this list that excites you and makes you want to read more.

Horror:

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan McDowell, Portobello Books
A collection of spooky, supernatural stories that blur boundaries between reality and horror. Ghosts and demons abound in post-dictatorship Buenos Aires, where women defy tradition and expectation. Perfectly crafted short stories, and utterly terrifying in their ability to slip so deftly from normality to nightmare. Full review.

Fever Dream, Samanta Schweblin, translated from Spanish (Argentina) by Megan MacDowell, Oneworld Books
A frighteningly real supernatural tale; a reflection on – or a warning about – environmental damage, and a terrifying story of power and pain, loss and love. This is a hypnotic novella in which a mother is led inexorably towards an event that will explain why she is lying in a clinic with her life spilling out of her, struggling with her last breaths to save her son from a fate that truly is worse than death. Full review

Experimental:

Flights, Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft, Fitzcarraldo Editions
A genre-defying masterpiece about movement, both outside and inside, physical journeys around the world and psychological journeys within oneself, nomadism, spirituality, connections – with places, people, ideas – and a rallying cry against capitalism and consumerism. Not an easy read, but an extraordinarily beautiful one. Full review

Brother in Ice, Alicia Kopf, translated from Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem, And Other Stories
A profound reflection on writing, relationships and self that juxtaposes the inward processing of living with an autistic brother and polar expeditions. It sounds as though it shouldn’t work, but it does: if epic expeditions seem ridiculous – journeys to the most inhospitable reaches of the planet in order to “lay claim” to a space no-one will ever visit – then Kopf turns them around, seeking to understand rather than to conquer, and charting new territory of her own.

Short stories:

Fish Soup, Margarita García Robayo, translated from Spanish (Colombia) by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press
Two novellas and a collection of short stories present female characters determined to take control of their bodies but corseted in the norms of a society they cannot escape. In “Waiting for a Hurricane”, the narrator despises her home and is increasingly desperate to leave; the collection of short stories “Worse Things” offers snapshots of disintegrating families and bodies; the novella “Sexual Education” is a bitingly hilarious account of sex education at a Catholic girls’ school in 1990s Colombia. Uncomfortably and uncompromisingly brilliant: a gloriously grotesque reinvention of the “anti-heroine”, and a pitch-perfect translation. Full review.

Thirteen Months of Sunrise, Rania Mamoun, translated from Arabic (Sudan) by Elisabeth Jaquette, Comma Press
The first major translation of a Sudanese woman writer. Urgent, thoughtful, occasionally surreal short stories reflecting on love, contingency, broken promises, despair, religion and corruption. Mamoun offers a rich fresco of life that is at once deeply embedded in her culture and universally recognisable: we meet women struggling to support their families, people cast out to the margins by love, by society or by illness, and relationships in many different forms. Full review.

Whimsical:

Memoirs of a Polar Bear, Yoko Tawada, translated from German by Susan Bernofsky, Portobello Books
Three generations of polar bears talk about their lives in this offbeat gem. From the self-reflective memoirist grandmother who narrates the first part, on to her dancing circus performer daughter whose life is chronicled by her trainer in the second section, and finally to the baby polar bear whose first months are recounted in the final part, Yoko Tawada blurs boundaries between human and animal, reality and fiction, love and ownership. Full review

Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, Portobello Books
Quirky in the best possible way. A woman who cannot fit into society finds her place working in a convenience store, but her happiness there is threatened by the pressure from the world outside to conform to “normality.” Funny and shrewd, this was rapturously received last summer, and if you haven’t yet read it you’re in for a real treat.

Social comment:

Tokyo Ueno Station, Yu Miti, translated from Japanese by Morgan Giles, Tilted Axis Press
A haunting novel about the fate of those on the edge of society: a homeless man dies in Tokyo’s largest park, and finds himself trapped there in the afterlife. His story is intertwined with that of the Imperial family in this sharply observed account of the radical divide between rich and poor. Magical, poetic, beautifully translated, and with a searingly exquisite ending.

City of Jasmine, Olga Grjasnowa, translated from German by Katy Derbyshire, Oneworld Books
City of Jasmine – the title referring to Damascus – is a moving novel of resistance and refuge in the Syrian civil war, following the entangled lives of three young people whose fate is changed forever by the Syrian uprising as they each in their own way oppose the regime and pay the price. A superb story but also a challenge, a wake-up call, a reminder not to be complacent or to think we understand something just because we have seen a version of it on the news. Full review

LGBTQI+:

Disoriental, Négar Djavadi, translated from French (Iran) by Tina Kover, Europa Editions
A sweeping family saga set in twentieth-century Iran, this epic tale of a family dynasty, political asylum and murder is also a personal story of exile and (dis)integration in Europe via narrator Kimiâ’s coming-of-age and her realisation regarding her sexuality (foretold in the coffee grounds read by her Armenian grandmother). During interminable periods of waiting in the relentlessly cheerful waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic, Kimiâ composes a narrative that is witty, intimate, ambitious, and exceptional in both style and scope.

Tentacle, Rita Indiana, translated from Spanish (Dominican Republic) by Achy Obejas, And Other Stories
A psychedelic voodoo Caribbean Genesis story collides with science fiction and eco-criticism in a furious explosion of colour and poetry. In a dystopian mid 21st-century Dominican Republic, an ecological crisis has turned the sea to sludge and killed most ocean life: an androgynous maid inadvertently holds the key to survival, but to fulfil the prophecy she must become a man with the help of a sacred anemone.  Brutally poetic, experimental, explosive. Full review.

Memoir:

The Little Girl on the Ice Floe, Adélaïde Bon, translated from French by Ruth Diver, Maclehose Press
Adélaïde Bon was a happy, privileged child living a sheltered life in the smartest area of Paris. She was nine years old when a stranger raped her in the stairwell of her building. In this brave and deeply affecting memoir, Bon pieces together the incident that shaped her life, and tries to come to terms with the devastating consequences, to reconstruct the events and so reassemble herself. This stunning book is a quest for truth and for self-love, and an anthem to compassion, humanity and overcoming.

Selfies, Sylvie Weil, translated from French by Ros Schwartz, Les Fugitives
A thoughtful take on a modern obsession that crosses from the visual to the verbal: Weil offers a series of vignettes inspired by self-portraits of women throughout history. Each snapshot describes a self-portrait that evokes for Weil a comparable tableau in her personal memory; she describes this before offering intimate insights of its importance in her life, and weaves in often profound observations on human nature and the difficulties of existence. Full review.

Page-turner:

Waking Lions, Ayelet Gundar Goshen, translated from Hebrew by Sondra Silverston, Pushkin Press
A thriller set in the Israeli desert: a promising young doctor is speeding along in his SUV in the middle of the desert after a long shift, when he hits and kills a man. No-one has seen him. Knowing his life will be over if he reports it, he gets back into his car and drives away. But a woman shows up at his door: she is the wife of the man he killed, and she saw what happened. This tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement is a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read. Full review.

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, translated from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy, Oneworld Books
A compelling and dystopian debut novel: Dorrit enters the Second Reserve Bank Unit, a luxury retirement home where she can live out her final years free of financial worry. The catch: residents must donate their organs one by one until the “final donation”. Just when she thinks she has accepted her fate, she falls in love and finds reasons to cling to life. Full review

Non-fiction:

Second-Hand Time, Svetlana Alexeivich, translated from Russian (Belarus) by Bela Shayevich, Fitzcarraldo Editions
Subtitled ‘The Last of the Soviets’, this is an unforgettable polyphonic witness to the tragedies of twentieth-century Russian history: Alexievich interviews and listens to her compatriots as they talk about the history of their country, and reconstruct a painful past through memory. This is an 800-page tome about human suffering, but don’t let that put you off: Nobel prizewinner Alexeivich is an essential read.

The Years, Annie Ernaux, translated from French by Alison L. Strayer, Fitzcarraldo Editions
This ambitious and innovative autobiographical endeavour is a “collective autobiography” that starts from the premise that every memory of every life – from historical atrocity to TV adverts – will vanish at death, and so we must remember, document, and claim a place in the world. This witness to twentieth-century French cultural history told through the life of one woman is a tremendous, poignant, necessary book. Full review

Dystopian:

The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoko Tawada, translated from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, Granta Books
In the near future, Japan has closed its borders following an environmental disaster: the elderly are immortal and the children are frail. An old man raises his great-grandson, who may be the only hope for the survival of the young. Winner of the National Book Award’s inaugural prize for literature in translation in 2018.

One Hundred Shadows, Hwang Jungeun, translated from Korean by Jung Yewon, Tilted Axis Press
Set in a condemned electronics market in Seoul, this is both a sweet alternative love story and a chilling horror story. Eungyo and Mujae both work in a slum electronics market earmarked for demolition, and draw closer together as the shadows of the slums’ inhabitants start to rise. Eerie and atmospheric, this is a unique social commentary on the divide between superficial modernity and individual expendability.

Resistance in the everyday: Madeleine Bourdouxhe, A Nail, A Rose

Translated from the French (Belgium) by Faith Evans (Pushkin Press, 2019)

A Nail, A Rose is a collection of short stories by Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe, written in the twentieth century but previously untranslated. Bourdouxhe was born in 1906 and lived through two world wars; she was admired by Simone de Beauvoir but has been largely forgotten by literary history, a neglect “partly explained by her diffidence but even more by the catastrophic disruptions of modern European history” (translator’s note). Translator Faith Evans has undertaken a labour of great love and dedication, rescuing these stories and with them Bourdouxhe’s talent, for a new readership.

The stories in A Nail, A Rose tell of daily life for women in the mid-twentieth century, and so in one sense there is very little plot development. Yet bubbling beneath the surface are all sorts of subtexts, particularly regarding the second world war – the stories were written in the aftermath of the Nazi invasion of Europe – and the social role of women. The women in the stories carry out quiet acts of resistance: they are housewives, mothers, lady’s maids, and their reality (a life of servitude and submission) is laid bare and turned on its head in surprising ways. These ordinary women have extraordinary experiences: in the title story the protagonist is wandering alone, nursing a broken heart. As she walks along thinking of her lost love (“She was living through a present without a future, she was carrying inside her a love with no tomorrow”), Irène is unexpectedly and brutally mugged. She survives the attack only to remonstrate with her assailant, divide her possessions up between them, and leave him utterly mesmerised by her. He later turns up at her door to check that she is not still suffering from his attack, and to offer his services in any way he can. This hilariously absurd turn of events showcases the message of this and so many of Bourdouxhe’s stories, as Irène tells him not to rob her of her only pleasure – self-sufficiency. You can take my meagre possessions, she implies, but you will not take my independence. Don’t let the quiet and traditional settings fool you: this is a text with a powerful feminist message.

Possessions and reappropriation also play a key part in ‘Louise’, in which a maid borrows her mistress’s expensive coat to go and meet her lover, but finds herself not only enveloped in the scent and experience of “Madame”, but also suffused with intimate fantasies of the woman who normally wears the coat. Acts of resistance against male domination are also echoed elsewhere in the text, as women rise up against their life of servitude: in ‘Blanche’ the heroine is dismissed as a “stupid woman” but in reality she just does not recognise herself in a life of cooking, cleaning and ironing (“This is me, Blanche, and I shall never know who I am”). The resistance takes on its most explicit (and murderous) form in ‘Leah’, in a scene that sums up all the poetic simplicity and unassuming brutality of Bourdouxhe’s work:

“Three or four times, at long intervals, I was assailed by deep breaths from his big open mouth. Finally he was still, and I was confronted by its abyss. As I closed his jaw with my hands there rose in me an overwhelming grief, heavy with poisonous dregs. I sat there for a long time, my hands pressed against his face, while my heart slowed down and my hands became accustomed to the stillness and coldness of death.”

These stories take us to unexpected places, and show women breaking with tradition and expectation even when they seem to be submitting to it: for example, in ‘René’, a young male hairdresser instinctively kisses a female client, and invites her to meet with him. She agrees, but his desire for her is met with impassivity, with a sense of fulfilling expectation, and his disappointment is so great that, “consumed with anger in every inch of his being”, he ends up smashing her face against a rock. He runs off but then relents, and comes back to find her only to discover that she has pulled herself up. These women are unbroken and unbowed, never allowing themselves to be dependent on men even if the circumstances in which they find themselves seem traditional – after all, this is rural Europe in the mid-twentieth century. Indeed, history beats at the heart of Bourdouxhe’s tales (“the mould was rising in layers, on the world and in her heart”), and the influence of the Second World War on her writing is evident: the final story in the collection (and my personal favourite) is ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’, the title borrowed from an Apollinaire poem. A woman gives birth to the sound of a foreign invasion, and finds she must flee the city, taking her newborn baby with her on the back of a truck. Blood is streaming down her legs, and her swollen breasts ache as she tries to produce enough milk to feed her baby, yet there is no melodrama here: Bourdouxhe describes her heroine’s experience (which is based on her own) in pragmatic terms (“She took a few steps around the room; she seemed to be all right. After all, she couldn’t always have a stretcher and three soldiers to help her”). It is this understatement that I most appreciated about the collection, along with the evocative musings that connect the everyday stories to universal truth and experience, such as solidarity in resistance (“All around she perceived the world’s splendour, its pain and its joy”) and living through a war for the second time (“All the past had to be lived again”).

The translation by Faith Evans has received universal praise, and for the most part deservedly. Evans communicates Bourdouxhe’s insight with extraordinary clarity and candour, but I was less convinced by the dialogues. Predominantly held between working-class characters, at times they were rather formal and affected (particularly in ‘Leah’ and ‘Sous le pont Mirabeau’). However, what is evident throughout is Evans’s commitment to bringing Bourdouxhe’s writing into English, and her translations show the depth of understanding that she has for these stories and for the woman who wrote them. Bourdouxhe’s women have almost untold depths of feeling and trauma: they are alone, they are heartbroken, they are attacked, they are abandoned, they are displaced, they are bleeding and they are downtrodden. But they are never bowed: they love, they mourn, they desire, they dream, they take risks. Above all, they never lose their sense of self: they withhold their core and their forgiveness, and thanks to Evans’s efforts they emerge to claim their place in the canon of European literature.

Review copy of A Nail, A Rose provided by Pushkin Press

Holiday reads 2018: One Night, Markovitch; We That Are Young; The Dead Lake; Pure Hollywood

I took four books on holiday with me this year; though only one was a woman writer in translation, I wanted to showcase the diverse stories that accompanied me through the glorious heatwave of 2018…

I chose one novel from an author I already liked (Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch), one debut novel (Preti Taneja, We That Are Young), one recommendation (Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake) and one that came as part of a subscription (Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood).

Image from pushkinpress.com

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, One Night, Markovitch (Pushkin Press, 2015), translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston

Earlier this year I read and loved Gundar-Goshen’s Waking Lions, so was fairly certain I’d enjoy her first novel, One Night, Markovitch, and chose it to kick off my holiday reading. One Night, Markovitch is the tale of two friends – the eponymous and “gloriously average” anti-hero Yaacov Markovitch, a man no-one looks at twice, and his larger-than-life best friend Zeev Feinberg, lover of women, teller of tales, owner of a magnificent moustache. Whereas no-one remembers Markovitch, Zeev Feinberg leaves legends in his wake: he is a man “whose mustache filled the valley and whose laughter reverberated throughout the entire country.” The two men have to flee their village in Eretz Israel when the butcher discovers that Zeev has been sleeping with his wife, and so Zeev’s friend, the deputy director of the Irgun, secures them places on a boat bound for Europe, where they and eighteen other men will marry Israeli women fleeing a world on the brink of catastrophe. Once safely in Israel, the new couples are to divorce; Yaacov Marcovitch, however, falls in love with his new wife, Bella, a beauty who belongs to “the Olympus of goddess-like women which would never admit Yaacov Markovitch, even as a servant.” He refuses to go through with the divorce, and this decision sets in motion a chain of events that unfold over decades, weaving together the destiny of all the characters and the choices they make. Lovers and foes are entangled and underestimated, and tragedy is never far away: “Bella Zeigerman’s mistake was more terrible than Yaacov Markovitch’s. For she was like someone who wants to cross a river she knows, saying, ‘I know it flows slowly’ and, taking no care, walks into it and drowns because it is winter and the water has risen.” Gundar-Goshen deftly blends humour and pathos – I laughed out loud at some points, but was choking up at others – and the storytelling is a thing of beauty, as is Sondra Silverston’s translation. I can see why it’s described as a fable; there is a lot about it which is a little fantastical, and on a bad day I might have found it slightly twee in places. There were no bad days on holiday, though, and so I found it utterly charming. I shall be keeping a close eye on what Gundar-Goshen publishes next.

Image from galleybeggar.co.uk

Preti Taneja, We That Are Young (Galley Beggar Press, 2017)

Next up was the debut novel from Preti Taneja, who won the 2018 Desmond Elliott prize for this modern-day re-telling of King Lear, set in the palaces and slums of India. I can only speak about We That Are Young in hyperbole: it’s epic, turbulent, majestic, furious… Jivan Singh returns to India after more than a decade spent in America. He is the illegitimate son of the right-hand man of Devraj Bapuji, the head of “the Company”, a powerful corporation at the core of Indian life; on the night of Jivan’s return, Bapuji announces his shock retirement, dividing his company up between his daughters. The two eldest are the power-hungry Gargi (“Such a shame she’s getting so plump these days”) and PR-savvy Radha, ”polished to a Delhi-girl shine”, and Jivan watches on security monitors as the family is brought together to celebrate the arranged engagement of the youngest daughter, Sita, “a barefoot girl in loose, rolled-up jeans”, the most beautiful of the three daughters, and Bapuji’s favourite. But Sita absconds, for her heart lies with environmental issues and women’s education, not with the corrupt Company that pollutes India both literally and figuratively.

Taneja has grappled with every aspect of Shakespeare’s King Lear: nothing seems forced, despite the centuries and cultures that separate the two stories. In fact, the attention to detail is so meticulous that if you thought you might be spared the scene of eyes being gouged out, think again – even that gets worked in. We That Are Young will sweep you away into another world, but there is one small thing that gnawed at me: there are a number of typos and editing errors, and these dragged me back into the everyday, taking away from that glorious feeling of being transported elsewhere while the book is open. Nonetheless, this is an ambitious and urgent novel, and an incredible debut: We That Are Young is dark, frenetic, chilling, and it swept me along like the floods in the Napurthala basti, where Jeet (the legitimate son; Edgar to Jivan’s Edmund) is reborn. Taneja is one to watch.

Image from peirenepress.com

Hamid Ismailov, The Dead Lake (Peirene, 2014), translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield

I discovered Hamid Ismailov’s work earlier this year, when I read The Devil’s Dance: when I was talking to my husband about it, he mentioned Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, which he had read and greatly enjoyed while judging the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015 (The Dead Lake was longlisted). He recommended that I read it, and I pass on that recommendation unreservedly: The Dead Lake is haunting and understated, and pulled me in right from the opening line (“This story began in the most prosaic fashion possible”). Yet there is nothing remotely prosaic about the story of Yerzhan, a young boy growing up in a small village on a bleak steppe in Kazakhstan, right at the heart of Soviet nuclear testing sites. Yerzhan is in love with his neighbour, Aisulu, and one day, on a school trip, to impress Aisulu he undresses and walks into the forbidden Dead Lake – a pool of radioactive water. Although nothing happens immediately, Yerzhan has cursed himself by entering it: he will never grow, and will remain trapped in his twelve-year-old body forever. We meet Yerzhan at the age of twenty-seven, a man in a child’s body, playing violin on a passenger train making its way across the steppe. The unnamed narrator is travelling on the train for reasons unknown, and Yerzhan tells the narrator his story; the narrator then re-tells the first-person story in the third person (from the two novels I’ve read, Ismailov’s original use of narrators seems to be a feature of his writing). The short introductory section ends on this reflection: “‘Does anything make any sense?’ he retorted, suddenly prickly again, and his question seemed to be addressed, not to me, but to this train galloping across the steppe, to this blazing steppe spread out across the earth, to this earth, adrift between light and darkness, to this darkness, which…” One individual’s experiences are set against the immensity of a majestic yet rapacious earth, and from this introduction Yerzhan’s story is set out in three parts: “Before”, “The Destiny”, and “The Salt of the Myth” – each with an alternative title composed of musical notes that echo both Yerzhan’s prodigious skills with a violin and dombra and his onward march to the final act of his story. It’s impossible not to admire Ismailov: The Dead Lake is tragic, yet never descends into melodrama, it’s a horror story without the hamming up, a star-crossed romance that has nothing trite about it. Andrew Bromfield’s translation is sensitive and stark, and Ismailov a force to be reckoned with.

Image from andotherstories.org

Christine Schutt, Pure Hollywood (And Other Stories, 2018)

There had to be a Year of Publishing Women book in my suitcase! Pure Hollywood is a collection of short stories by American author Christine Schutt. I confess that the short story genre isn’t generally my favourite (though Fish Soup may have converted me): I invest in the characters and then the page is turned on them; I start a new story still filled with thoughts about the last one; there’s always a disappointing one that I like less than the others.  I’m full of excuses for avoiding them, but I’m glad this one found me: Pure Hollywood is the antidote to vapid, happy-ever-after tales. It introduces, among others, a young widow left penniless after her (much older) comedian husband dies and leaves his wealth to his children, a fractious child whose desperate parents resort to a babysitter with tragic consequences, a snooty woman whose rudeness to a younger woman on a horse ride has (wait for it) tragic consequences, two ageing men coming to terms with the past and imminent loss of their respective wives, and a newly-wed couple who befriend a misanthropic painter with (you guessed it) tragic consequences. But though I may joke about Schutt’s penchant for eschewing a happy ending, the stories are refreshing and invigorating: they are not neat, at least not in the sense of being tied up with a pretty bow. They leave you to think and to wonder, they are written in a brutally poetic style (“He fell over the railing and cracked his skull and many other bones that gave him shape”), sharply observed (a white stucco wall, corsaged in bougainvillea”) and all too believable (“Mrs Pall-Meyer, the name suggesting a hyphenated importance, merely snorted and rode ahead”). But despite the bleak undertones of Schutt’s stories, they are far from depressing; rather, they showcase a pithy candour:

“Oh.”
The little oh was all that was left of Dan’s story, the one that played out in his head about a husband with a ponytail and his purposeful, dying wife. As far as Dan was concerned, Nancy Cork was a woman needful and deserving of more love than her self-absorbed husband could give, whereas he could give… oh.
He could not put a name to it or perhaps ever find it again.

Without a subscription, I probably wouldn’t have chosen this book, and so it highlights the valuable ways in which independent presses can influence reading choices.

So that’s my holiday reading rounded up for 2018. If you have any recommendations for summer 2019, I’m all ears!

A thriller in the Israeli desert: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen, Waking Lions

Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston (Pushkin Press)

If ever a book has taught me not to judge it by its cover, this is the one. Not because there’s anything wrong with the cover, but because I nearly skimmed past this, thinking that a male doctor suffering a crisis of conscience wasn’t a great fit for this project. The blurb begins: ‘Dr Eitan Green is a good man. He saves lives. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road in his SUV after an exhausting hospital shift, he hits someone. Seeing that the man, an African migrant, is beyond help, he flees the scene’. Though it sounded quite intriguing I initially passed over it, but thank goodness my curiosity couldn’t resist the intrigue indefinitely… because in Waking Lions, a tale of secrets, lies, extortion and atonement, I found two women as captivating as they were complex, whose relationship to Dr Eitan Green has inhabited my mind for weeks and who, I suspect, will stay with me long after I might forget the protagonist himself.

Image taken from https://www.pushkinpress.com

One of the women is Eitan’s wife, Liat, a senior detective in the Israeli police. She is an ambitious professional, a loving mother, and has a keen sense of what is right. The other is Sirkit, a taciturn Eritrean who sweeps floors for a living, and who Eitan would not look at twice if he passed her in the street. She is the wife of the man Eitan killed: she saw what happened, and she comes to demand atonement. Suddenly Eitan’s life is divided between these two women, between intimacy and veneer, between truth and lies, between Eitan Green the medical prodigy and Eitan Green the murderer. In her second novel (following her critically acclaimed debut, One Night, Markovitch), Israeli author Ayelet Gundar-Goshen writes a perfectly flawed anti-hero and two compelling women between whom he is torn, and Sondra Silverston translates so beautifully that I forgot I was reading a translation. There was only a single sentence in over 400 pages that I could nit-pick about (but I shan’t, as it would give away a twist in the tale!)

There’s no waiting around for the intrigue to begin: the prologue opens with the line ‘He’s thinking that the moon is the most beautiful he has ever seen when he hits the man’. When Eitan gets out of the car and looks at the man, he realises that the man is going to die, and that if he reports his involvement, his own life as he knows it will be over. Eitan imagines his detective wife Liat looking at him the way she looks at criminals before they confess, and then ‘it leaped up and grasped him, all of him, the choking icy fear that screamed in his ears – get into the SUV. Now.’ It’s the middle of the desert, after all: no-one has seen him, no-one knew he was there. This decision sets up the uncomfortable underlying question which pervades the narrative throughout: what would you do?

“Liat’s dogged insistence on solving the case of the desert hit-and-run brings her ever closer to a truth she resolutely refuses to see, and the urgency of the narrative as it hurtles towards its conclusion is breathtaking in its brilliance.”

Eitan’s instinctive choice makes him enter a new life, in which by day he carries on as before, but Sirkit owns his nights. Liat presides over their beautiful household where everything has its place, and Sirkit dominates the long hours Eitan spends beside her in a makeshift hospital deep in the desert. Liat is both a strong-willed professional making her way in a man’s world who ‘would rather hate herself than be considered a prude’ and a bruised woman struggling to maintain a relationship with an overbearing mother, come to terms with the death of a beloved grandmother, and raise her own children in a happy home; Sirkit is portrayed by turns as a toxic she-devil existing only to torment Eitan and an intoxicating goddess, his mirror and his obsession. Though there is much of this kind of polarity in the narrative, there is nothing two-dimensional about it: the character development is excellent, and though both women are viewed primarily through Eitan’s eyes, any objectification is subtly evident in the third-person narration (‘Long after he left the garage, she still felt his gaze on her. Men can fasten their eyes on you the way people put a collar on a dog. They didn’t have to tug it; just knowing that the collar was there was enough to make the dog behave’; ‘When he turned his glance from the fence, he saw that she had been looking at him for several moments. That made him uncomfortable. It was one thing for him to look at Sirkit without her knowing it, and something else for Sirkit to look at him’). Sirkit’s ultimate unknowability is where her power lies: she is an enigma that Eitan simultaneously hates and wants to penetrate. Similarly, Eitan’s wife is no caricature: Liat’s ‘exhausting composure’ subdues even the most misogynist male prisoner, but she is still described as ‘that hot little pussy from the police’, and plays her part in a patriarchal hierarchy in which she allows herself to be patronised by her male colleagues and pretends to be impressed by them because ‘what else could she do?’ Like Sirkit, though, Liat has her own backstory: she was raised in relative poverty, is as proud as she is sensitive, and is characterised by a profound humanity that makes her want to believe her husband’s ever-spiralling lies even as she senses that their previously stable relationship is crumbling at the foundations. This is no ordinary domestic love triangle drama though: Liat’s dogged insistence on solving the case of the desert hit-and-run brings her ever closer to a truth she resolutely refuses to see, and the urgency of the narrative as it hurtles towards its conclusion is breathtaking in its brilliance.

Alongside social comment on the plight of migrants and the repeated imagery of crossing a desert, Eitan’s own journey unfolds: if, for Sirkit, ‘to emigrate is to leave one place for another, with the place you’ve left tied to your ankle with steel chains’, then when Eitan climbed back into his SUV after hitting the man, he emigrated from his ordered life of privilege, and limped away from the accident with that night in the desert tied to his ankle with steel chains. There is no moralising: right and wrong are blurred, and we are reminded that there are times when ‘being human was a privilege’. This is an ambitious novel which gives pause for thought in several ways: as a reflection on racism and otherness, poverty and privilege, intimacy and misogyny, corruption and survival, and on the way life can change in an instant. The side-stories are all connected, and if they come together a little too neatly, I can entirely forgive this in the name of a good story. Ruth Gilligan has a offered more reserved appreciation for this novel, pointing to a ‘problematic tone’ in places and some ‘awkward similes’, but I didn’t pick up on these while reading. If they were there, they must have gone unnoticed because I enjoyed the story so much. The descriptions are vivid and immersing; in some ways, reading this novel felt comparable to watching a film. It’s a powerful, suspenseful, electrifying read, an escapist joy and the literary equivalent of its own central plotline: a jolt that will shake you out of any inertia, sweep you along into a world you had never imagined, and stay with you long after it’s over.