Review: HEAVEN by Mieko Kawakami

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy of Heaven provided by Picador Books

Review: SHOCKED EARTH by Saskia Goldschmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy of Shocked Earth provided by Saraband Books

Review: YOU’RE NOT DYING by Kathrin Schmidt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Recent reads: Elena Ferrante and Rónán Hession

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Rónán Hession, Panenka (Bluemoose Books, 2021)

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

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

 

 

Review: NERVOUS SYSTEM by Lina Meruane

Translated from Spanish (Chile) by Megan McDowell (Atlantic Books, 2021)

In Nervous System, Lina Meruane returns to the obsessions with a failing body that preoccupied her earlier work, the uncomfortably brilliant Seeing Red (also translated by Megan McDowell, published by Atlantic Books in 2018). In both books, Meruane explores how a body pushed to its limits clings to life: in Seeing Red, the protagonist is suffering from a degenerative ocular condition that makes her eyes fill with blood, and in Meruane’s latest novel the main character is suffering from a disease of the nervous system. If the tension between inside and outside the body in Seeing Red was almost cannibalistic, in Nervous System illness is treated differently, the interior observation of the body’s limits aligned with the infinite reach and renewal of the cosmos.

The main character, Ella, is trying to write her doctoral thesis on black holes, and feels unable to complete it. She wishes she could have an acceptable pretext for taking some time off, such as an illness severe enough to prevent her working but not dangerous enough to kill her; this wish is fulfilled when shooting pains in her arm turn out to be a degenerative disease affecting her nervous system. Ella’s doctoral research takes on new meaning as her nervous system is mapped out before her like the solar system: connected, fragile, and immensely complex. Ella comes to embody the matter that she studies: she is obsessed with “stars that had already lost their light and collapsed in on themselves”, and is herself presented as exactly that. She is at once a dreamer who “dreams of bottling shooting stars” and a fatalist, convinced of her own inability to carry out her research or to function in the world. The vocabulary consistently reinforces the parallel between Ella’s body and the cosmos, yet this is not to designate Ella as extraordinary in any way (indeed, Ella’s name means “she” or “her” in Spanish, and her boyfriend is named El – “he” or “him”), but rather to show her connectedness to everything in her universe: her family, her past, her country (both the one she was raised in and the one she has moved to), her relationships (the hole at the centre of the galaxy is “a navel so dark no-one has ever seen it”, the galaxies that cannibalise each other a subtle metaphor for Ella and El’s own relationship), and everything that formed her and that she helps to form.

Ella has always suffered from the knowledge that her mother died in childbirth, and that her older brother forever holds her responsible. She is sharp, brittle and full of self-doubt, struggling to live her life when her body fails her, but refusing to be defined by its difference. She is “always trying to mend the fracture of childhood”, orbiting around the varyingly stable points in her life as she tries to make sense of her path. The language describing these connections is rich, by turns (and sometimes simultaneously) savage and delicate: El is “skinny as a dagger”, Ella’s birth mother is “the body that had held her before sending her out into the world.” Megan McDowell maintains this tension in the translation with a rich lexical range and many memorable expressions. Right from the second page there was a sentence I couldn’t stop returning to (about birds frazzled on electrical wires), both in and out of context: “Those bodies, possessed by the light.” The banality of the everyday is tied to the infinity of the universe in both content and language: when there is a nationwide power cut, the country becomes a “giant black hole”, and the protagonist remembers a time when her house had been full of “long skinny nebulous candles, wrapped in blue paper or tied with string, ready for emergencies.” The italicisation of expressions that are either contextually or syntactically unexpected is a feature of the narrative, and McDowell excels at rendering these in ways that stand out but never seem inappropriate (for example: “Her nervous system kept the memory failed twisted useless of an injury and went on reliving it”).

Ella’s illness is not only aligned with the cosmos, however, but also to life on Earth: “infection” from immigration is life, whereas immunity to it is death, and there are warnings that seem medical, but are really social comments. Observations on immigration (“It’s no longer a state secret that the cadavers belong to recent immigrants and that they aren’t the only ones: others are discovered during the excavation for the foundation of a building, and in a mass grave beside the river with shovels swastikas knives banners proclaiming death to migrants”) sit alongside important perspectives on gendered violence (“because even before that night another man had come at her. In a bend of the past. In her own country … He held her neck, pressed her face against the wall crushed snails warm slime. On her thighs some rough fingers multiplied and tore at her underwear, went into her like slippery worms, covered her nose so she’d open her mouth”) and on the inhumanity of the healthcare system (“Into the trash went the tattered crab and the whole maternal breast”). Connections and consequences are also foregrounded in comments such as this one on the unseen effects of social rehabilitation and progress:

“The tower rebuilt after the attack that brought it down had powerful beams pointing up to the sky, to illuminate the route of so many lost souls. Those rays interrupted the migratory routes of birds, and thousands of them got tangled up in the light, whirling around drugged hallucinating interrogated by bright spotlights, noisily flapping their arrhythmic wings. Trapped in the light, they finally fell from the air at dawn.
Birds with failing hearts exploding on the pavement.”

The alternative perspective shown here is characteristic of Meruane’s writing: accepted narratives are questioned and subverted without being overly political or moralising. The perspective throughout Nervous System is, simply, one of connectedness: though it has an almost linear story at its heart, it is forever circling and returning to its primary preoccupations of the apparent dualities of health and fragility, enormity and banality, violence and tenderness. Its great accomplishment is that the connection between the individual body and the cosmic one is maintained throughout without ever seeming forced, and this carries through in McDowell’s translation: Nervous System is clever without being pretentious, introspective without being self-indulgent, and grand without being grandiose. This is an intelligent and profound follow-up to Seeing Red, and is sure to appeal to admirers of Meruane’s work as well as those discovering her for the first time.

Review copy of Nervous System provided by Atlantic Books

Review: POETICS OF WORK by Noémi Lefebvre

Translated from French by Sophie Lewis (Les Fugitives, 2021)

I have to start this review with a confession: I was a bit nervous about reading Poetics of Work. The nerves stemmed entirely from the knowledge that Lefebvre is not known for being an “easy read”, and I read Poetics of Work at a time when ease seemed as desirable as it was unattainable. Yet my fears were unfounded: yes, this is a challenging book, one that made me think deeply about the issues it tackles, but this happened in an exhilarating, uplifting way. I want to kick off by quoting from the beginning of the book, as in the first paragraphs there is a perfect crystallisation of its main concerns:

“The wind was in the north and the planes were circling, the shops were open for the love of everything under the sun, riot police were patrolling four by four and junior officers by threes out in the street.
There isn’t a lot of poetry these days, I said to my father.”

Poetic expression, social comment, anti-establishment feeling, and an omnipresent father. These are the key elements of Poetics of Work, a manifesto on the value of being a writer and thinker in an age of commodification, in which Lefebvre attempts to carve out the possibility of “work” not having to be measured by hours in an office, salary earned, or “usefulness”.

The father thinks that poetry is of no earthly good when wars rage, suicide bombers detonate, debt abounds and society is merrily heading to hell in a handcart. The narrator manages his patronising tirades with admirable sang-froid, and deftly deflates his hubris without ever being cruel: “My father was about to leave for Notre-Dame-des-Landes or for the Larzac or Calais or the Vercors or Ventimiglia, basically for somewhere to do something.” The father might be considered “useful” in this modernity that has no place for poetry, but the narrator has the measure of what this “usefulness” really is.

There are some timely reflections on the role of art: can it ever entail true freedom of expression if there is so much expectation on the function it ought to perform, and what it should “do”? Yet this is not an introspective or self-indulgent essay: firstly, a dry humour underlies every observation (look out for the “conspicuous hat with a radical bobble”), and Lefebvre has much to say about modernity, rape culture, and the notion of “freedom” (“imagination was being blocked and thought paralysed by national unity in the name of Freedom, and freedom co-opted as a reason to have no more of it”). In this vein, there are several observations on the insidious nature of state control, with more than a hint of wry humour in the expression, as in this dialogue between the narrator and their father:

“‘Are we at war, Papa?’
‘What makes you think that?’
‘I don’t know, all these soldiers outside the shops.’
‘Then it must be war.’

‘But people are still shopping in the sales.’
‘So we can’t be at war.’

‘The police are checking handbags and ID cards.’
‘That means it’s war.’

‘But there are no tanks or any shelling on our good city of Lyon.’
‘It’s not war, then.’

The father is a repellent figure, an egocentric, bombastic, soul-crushing misogynist who is quick to point out the narrator’s “chronic hopelessness” owing to an inability to fit in with capitalist society. Lefebvre’s narrator never explicitly questions why this inability should mean that they are reduced to being “unfortunately and perhaps incurably nothing but a sad loser”; the success of this treatise is that it never tells its reader what to think, or how to interpret it.

Lewis recently published an interesting piece in PEN Transmissions, in which she admitted a “dirty secret” that she had translated the entire text without realising that the narrator was not given a gender. The immense work that must have been done by Lefebvre to write a gender-neutral narrator in French must have been so delicately done to appear this effortless, and there is nothing in Lewis’s translation that diminishes this. In fact, my own dirty secret is that I spoke with Sophie a couple of months before that interview was published, and she said that she had recently translated a text in which she didn’t notice the un-gendered narrator – and I *still* didn’t realise while reading Poetics of Work that this was the text she had been referring to. When I read the interview I was about half-way through the book, and was able to switch from blissful ignorance to an active admiration of the careful non-disclosure of gender throughout. For this is not a book about being (or not being) a woman, or about whatever we might understand that to mean: it is a book about finding poetry in a world that seems hell-bent on destroying it, a modernity “whose beauty will be revealed in the smog of its exhaust, in its everyday privations, in the dogs that chase their living in the soughing rain or the sinking glare of the unimportant streets…” That Lewis captures the poetry in the banality is a testament to just how accomplished this translation is: Lefebvre is an extremely agile writer, and Lewis has kept up with every move in her translation. In particular, the final two lines are absolute perfection: clever, shrewd, and amusing. Poetics of Work is as political as it is philosophical; it engages with authority and influence, questioning how we become what we are both individually and collectively. It manages to be simultaneously laid-back and urgent, and is a gorgeous manifesto of poetic resistance.

Review copy of Poetics of Work provided by Les Fugitives

Review: SIMPLE PASSION by Annie Ernaux

Translated from French by Tanya Leslie (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021)

Simple Passion is the story of an all-consuming love affair: in it, Ernaux details the way in which her obsession with her lover takes over every aspect of her life, so that both daily events and more significant ones become no more than moments that punctuate the rhythm of this obsession. The original French (Passion Simple) was the first book by Ernaux I ever read, during my first years working at university twenty years ago. I remember finding it challenging to present the story in a class: its focus on the (willing) near-enslavement to a man’s availability (“I would have liked to have done nothing else but wait for him”) seemed to run counter to every feminist awakening I was undergoing, and I felt then that it was in danger of falling into a cliché Ernaux herself points out (“I couldn’t watch television or leaf through magazines; all the advertisements, whether for perfumes or microwaves, show the same thing: a woman waiting for a man”). Many years later, I approached the newly-released English translation with more nuance, and certainly with more empathy and compassion. Part of this comes from being more familiar with Ernaux’s oeuvre as a whole: her exposure of what it is to be a woman from a particular background at a particular time in history (A Girl’s Story), her chronicling of the twentieth century in The Years, her intimate portraits of her family (A Man’s Place) and her own experience of illegal abortion (Happening), calling attention to the experience of so many women who suffered in the same way because of a lack of autonomy over their own bodies. Like these other texts, Simple Passion is, quite simply, an account of a certain recognisable personal or collective experience.

Part of the reason I struggled with this two decades ago is that Ernaux and others of her generation suffered from a lack of control over their reproductive bodies, and fought to gain this control – and it seemed to me that Ernaux did this only to then submit control of her emotions to a man (a married man at that, and who had no intention of leaving his wife). But emotions, by definition, defy logic or ideology. This is not necessarily an un-feminist story, but rather an excruciatingly honest one that admits human fallibility and complexity, qualities that Ernaux fears will be judged when exposed. This fear illustrates a vulnerability in her writing that I now find extremely moving, particularly in reflections such as this one: “Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal.”

There are certain aspects of this story that will be familiar to anyone who has experienced strong emotions (which, I would think, means everyone): songs taking on new meaning because the lyrics seem to articulate the experience of the listener, being caught between the conflicting emotions of wanting to escape a difficult situation and the reality that living without it is unthinkable (“I longed to end the affair, so as not to be at the mercy of a phone call, so as not to suffer, and then realising at once what this would entail, seconds after the separation: a succession of days with nothing to hope for”), and elaborate plans are laid just to have the objective of finding some kind of connection to the lover (“On the plane, on the way back, I reflected that I had travelled to Denmark simply to send a postcard to a man”). It is not only clichéd representations of women that Ernaux feels herself reflected in, but also “the outcasts lying on benches, the clients of prostitutes, or a passenger engrossed in her Mills & Boon romance”: this is not a passive role that she has accepted, but something stronger than her and which leaves her adrift from “normal” everyday experiences.

Simple Passion is also a very engaging story: though it’s not an intricate or plot-twisting narrative, it’s a compelling and intimate revelation of human emotion and passion. For the time that she and A. are lovers, there is simply nothing else of consequence, and her obsession becomes potentially destructive: pastimes are “a means of filling in time between two meetings”, the all-too-brief encounters mean that “I experienced pleasure like a future pain,” and she even wonders fleetingly whether A. might have given her AIDS because “at least he would have left me that.” Tanya Leslie’s translation is, as usual, extremely accomplished. Ernaux has a very distinctive style: if I had to sum it up, I’d go for the seemingly oxymoronic term “expressive objectivity”. By this I mean that Ernaux writes deep and intense emotions with an observational composure that borders on detachment; both Leslie and Ernaux’s other regular translator into English, Alison L. Strayer, are delicately attuned to this, and both render it very well in English. Indeed, Ernaux likens the way she approached this love affair to the way she approaches writing: “the same determination to get every single scene right, the same minute attention to detail.” Such minute attention to detail is evident in the translation, which clearly and carefully conveys the core of the original: Simple Passion is not about A., who in fact seems entirely generic and unremarkable from the little we discover about him. Rather, it is about the feelings he awakens, the power he exerts, and the impossibility – at least for a time – of imagining life without his touch. A. is the part that Ernaux keeps to herself, but she gives her passion in both its senses – her desire and her suffering – in this brief, raw “offering, of a sort”.

Review copy of Simple Passion provided by Fitzcarraldo Editions

Review: THE PEACOCK by Isabel Bogdan

Translated from German by Annie Rutherford (V&Q Books, 2021)

A funny, feel-good comedy of errors featuring characters ranging from the eccentric to the neurotic, a rambling castle in the Scottish Highlands, and a peacock gone rogue? Yes please. The Peacock felt like the book I’ve been waiting for – something to lift me out of the difficulties of the year, and into a hilarious world of well-meaning duplicity, guilty consciences aplenty, and team-building gone awry.

Lord and Lady McIntosh live in a remote and dilapidated castle, making their living from the Laird’s academic work (though, as Bogdan gleefully reminds us on several occasions, his Classics specialism is no match for the Lady’s engineering background when it comes to dealing with the pragmatic reality of a house crumbling around them) and the rental of holiday cottages on their estate. When a group of bankers from London want to rent out a larger space for a weekend of team-building, the McIntoshes’ housekeeper dusts off a ramshackle wing of the castle, but inadvertently breaks her ankle while dancing to ABBA with her Henry vacuum cleaner, rendering her incapable of finishing the extensive cleaning operation. This is the kind of slapstick that abounds in The Peacock, and with the housekeeper incapacitated, the Laird and Lady must prepare for their guests from the Big Smoke alone, with hilarious consequences.

So the housekeeper needs help tying her shoelaces, the shower in the guest wing emits the barest trickle of water, the goose leaves her droppings everywhere, and one of the peacocks sees anything blue and shiny as a rival that must be attacked instantly. The uptight bank boss arrives in an immaculately polished blue car (you can see the imminent peril) and promptly steps in goose poop. Her team are dismayed to find they are sharing not only the inadequate shower but also bedrooms (and must navigate – with varying success – the hazards of bunk beds: “Lying on the floor in his pyjamas in front of the boss and blubbering because he’d fallen out of a bunk bed and couldn’t get up. It didn’t get much more mortifying than that”), but at least the cook they brought with them provides a steady stream of comforting food. Just don’t ask too many questions about the plucked bird hanging in the larder. The young psychiatrist charged with leading the team-building exercises has a tough task ahead of her, and it’s about to get even tougher when there is a mutiny, the discovery of a hastily-concealed shotgun, a murdered bird and a snowfall so severe that they are stranded in the castle. With a power cut. Thank goodness for the al fresco hot tub, where new complicities will be formed…

The atmosphere is one of wild abandonment, but it is carefully constructed, full of ironic one-liners and to-the-point character sketches (“the boss had a particular knack for making her opinion extremely clear”; “Andrew didn’t speak about his inner conflicts. Jim didn’t have any”) and well thought through to make the improbable and the absurd entirely believable. Annie Rutherford’s translation is spot-on: it has meticulous attention to language in context (I was particularly delighted to see the phrase “a lick and a promise”, an expression I remember so vividly from childhood), yet maintains the glorious mayhem that characterises the story. I also really enjoyed the translator’s note at the end: this is a feature of V&Q Books, and a very welcome one, offering insight into the challenges and resolutions of the translation process. The Peacock is a best-selling, blockbusting book that sits well within the V&Q catalogue and is translated with humour and versatility. If you’re looking for some escapist enjoyment, then look no further.

Review copy of The Peacock provided by V&Q Books

Review: NIGHT AS IT FALLS, Jakuta Alikavazovic

Translated from French by Jeffrey Zuckerman (Faber & Faber, 2021)

Night as it Falls is the debut novel by French-born Bosnian-Montenegrin writer Jakuta Alikavazovic, and follows its main characters Paul and Amelia through a passionate relationship, an abandonment, a reunion, and a final separation. Amelia is the “official” mystery of the novel – a woman so remarkable as to be almost mythical, but whose personal struggles and destructive tendencies render her incapable of fully experiencing contentment. Amelia is an almost unremittingly selfish character; I didn’t warm to the description of her given in the blurb (“one of those people who destroy everything and call it art”), instead preferring later descriptions of Amelia (“the woman who had grown up too fast”; “caught in the walls like a bullet shot many decades ago, a bullet which still pressed on, imperceptibly”).

If Amelia is a mystery, there are also plenty of silences with respect to Paul’s past: we learn that his father had given him this name so that it would sound completely French, a camouflage to go unnoticed, and that Paul knows little about where he comes from other than that it is “a place that he both was and wasn’t surprised to hear regularly invoked as an example of an urban disaster.” There is also an incident later on, when Paul overhears a conversation between his daughter and his father that at first he thinks is baby talk, and then realises is his father’s first language, a language he never passed on to Paul, a language he deems safe for his granddaughter, a generation later.

The blanks in Amelia’s past are, however, more explicit: her mother was more committed to her resistance poetry than to parenthood, leaving as legacy a box of documents that is Pandora-like in its housing of “every horror, every injustice”, and which Amelia refuses to open. The blanks are also the impetus for Amelia’s flight to Sarajevo, as she goes in search of a history that belongs to her and from which she is distanced; yet we do not learn much about this time or her discoveries. Much in Night as it Falls is about what’s not said, and this left me feeling shamefully ignorant: overall, the novel is not as instructive about Bosnia’s recent history as I was expecting, but perhaps that’s my failing for unconsciously expecting that. Just because a woman goes chasing her ghosts in Sarajevo, it doesn’t mean that the book should be about the war those ghosts inhabit. I did, however, really appreciate occasional insights such as this one: “A city shelled for nearly four years, snipers on the roofs, blood in the streets, and, ten years later, cemeteries everywhere, in the stadiums, in the parks; cemeteries and oddly healed wounds; children who would become adults unable to sleep with windows open, or with windows shut.”

Much is left unsaid between the characters too: silence generates some fundamental misunderstandings that are painfully believable. This is also true of the characterisation more generally, which is extremely consistent: all of the characters behave believably, however disappointing that might be to the others. Landscapes throb with a pain that mirrors the internal struggles of the characters, and if Paul and Amelia are closely tied to the cities they inhabit, then it is appropriate that another fascinating character, Albers, makes her living (and her notoriety) studying the notion of the city. Indeed, the supporting characters are easily as fascinating as the protagonists: the other character I really warmed to was Louise, the daughter of Paul and Amelia, whose transition into adulthood is intimately connected with Albers’ fate.

Amelia’s end is announced in the early pages of the book (indeed, the opening line is “Paul was in bed with Sylvia when he found out what happened to Amelia Dehr”), with the means revealed in the early chapters and so it’s no spoiler to mention it here: she jumps out of a window. Despite knowing this from the outset, the development of how she came to that point is full of tension, and is mirrored by a mid-novel announcement of Albers’ fate, the details of which shift into sharper focus later on. I enjoyed this storytelling technique, but the thing I found most interesting while reading Night as it Falls was the slippage between the novel itself and my own expectations. In the end, it wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated: it was very western European in its focus and form, whereas I had assumed it would be more about Bosnia; despite living through historical atrocity, the characters are mostly introspective, whereas I had expected them to be more outward-facing. But why shouldn’t Alikavazovic write about a privileged woman having an internal crisis? It was my own expectation that this novel would be about historical tragedy, and if I experienced some disappointment in the divergence between my expectations and the reality, this is not a criticism of the book itself. The wars in the former Yugoslavia remain a blurred backdrop to the narrative, yet someone who is better informed about them than I am might find more of a connection between the circumstances and the characters. Night as it Falls is a formally exquisite book, each word carefully balanced and with many echoes throughout the narrative, and Jeffrey Zuckerman’s sensitivity to this in the translation makes it worth reading for its formal properties alone. It is also well worth reading for the psychological portrait of its characters, the relationships between them, and the ability to maintain tension when the dénouement has been announced at the start. This is a book to be read for what it can offer in terms of human portraits rather than geographical or historical insights, but no less impressive for that.

Review copy of Night as it falls provided by Faber & Faber

Choose to Challenge: International Women’s Day 2021

***Don’t miss an exciting Women in Translation giveaway to celebrate International Women’s Day!
Details at the end of the post, or directly in this tweet***

Translating Women: challenging an “invisible mechanism”

The challenge for this year’s International Women’s Day, “How will you help forge a gender equal world?” foregrounds a simple, brutal reality: we do not currently live in an equal world. Women have legal equality in many cultures, but all too often legal and theoretical equality do not map onto real equality of opportunity and experience. This is magnified for women in non-dominant world cultures, as well as for women of colour, working class women, non-cis women, and those embodying other non-normative or non-privileged characteristics – such as sexuality, age and health – that intersect with gender. This social inequality is the fundamental root of the gender imbalance in translated literature: it is widely acknowledged that less than one-third of literature published in translation in English is by women, and this mirrors a more pervasive gender imbalance that has become so normalised that most people no longer even notice it. In an excellent Guardian long read a few years ago, Charlotte Higgins exposed how patriarchy thrives on this normalisation of social hierarchies, functioning as “the invisible mechanism that connects a host of seemingly isolated and disparate events, intertwining the experience of women of vastly different backgrounds, race and culture, and ranging in force from the trivial and personal to the serious and geopolitical”.

Watch my 3-minute International Women’s Day video here!

A key component of this inequality, or of the invisible mechanism of patriarchy, is what Caroline Criado Perez describes in her award-winning Invisible Women: Exposing Gender Bias in a World Made for Men as the “default male”, a way of viewing the world that always uses men as the baseline indicator, the universal “norm”, and which is harmful to women (not only socially and psychologically, but also in some cases physically). There are also less quantifiable characteristics, such as class, and simply less quantified characteristics, such as race or sexuality, that intersect with gender and are further marginalised. Women writers – particularly non-white, non-middle-class women writers – face hurdles in their own country, and these are amplified when it comes to translation. It is more likely that publishers will promote their more successful authors to English-language publishers, and with the invisible mechanisms of patriarchy at work across the globe, the chances are that these prize-winning or best-selling writers will be men. It is, therefore, crucial, that we challenge this system instead of passively allowing it to perpetuate itself for, as the organisers of International Women’s Day remind us, “a challenged world is an alert world”. By not questioning existing structures, we both perpetuate and normalise the inherent bias they carry; if we stop at an argument about the inequality being in the country of origin, then we can only ever reproduce and enable structures that represent only half a world.

From challenge comes change

Translation by its very nature invites communication and understanding between peoples and cultures. At a time when “culture” is too often reduced to nationalism and stereotype, it is essential to advocate for greater diversity and inclusivity: when women are left out of “culture”, the notion of culture itself is impoverished. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states in her brilliant manifesto We Should All Be Feminists, “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” If culture preserves a people or nation and ensures the continuity of civilisation or nationhood, then any culture that does not offer true equality to women, or that does not actively seek to achieve diversity and inclusivity, can only ever perpetuate harmful notions of what humanity is. Ngozi Adichie’s insistence on “the full humanity of women” is also key here: “women” cannot only be understood as heterosexual women, cis women, white women, straight women, or any other dominant characteristic that can be conflated with “womanhood”. Rather, the “full humanity of women” must include minority groups that stretch beyond gender – while women are not a minority, they are still secondary, but we must also remember that within this secondary group are minorities that are often overlooked in feminism and gender politics. What is published in translation, and which books into translation make it onto literary prize lists, is a means for writers from other cultures to enter the Anglophone literary ecosystem, influencing English-language readers and writers and enriching our cultures. So it is vital that there is diversity of representation in what makes it through in translation, otherwise we allow the inequality to persist.

Choose to Challenge: we can all make a difference

You don’t have to wait for amazing books by women from other cultures to come to you; why not actively seek them out? As And Other Stories’ Nicky Smalley reminds us, after all the hurdles they’ve had to overcome to make it into English, the chances are you’ll be rewarded with an amazing read. You can read about my favourite books of 2020, or check out the reviews section. If you’ve enjoyed a book by a woman writer in translation, talk to people about it: pass on your recommendations whether it’s to one friend or to hundreds or thousands of social media followers. And when you ask others – friends, family, teachers, booksellers, social media contacts – for recommendations, if no women are suggested then ask explicitly for them. The more we gently challenge perceptions of “normality”, the more these perceptions are likely to shift towards greater inclusivity, and the more these books appear on bookshelves, the more normal it will be for them to have their place there. If we all make active and conscious changes in our own small corner, then we might get closer to an equal world.

Twitter women in translation giveaway!

I have teamed up with my friends at Europa Editions to offer a FREE bundle of FIVE books (hand-picked by me!) by women in translation to one lucky winner!  You can head over to my Twitter account to enter.