Monthly Archives: July 2021

Review: THE FOOL AND OTHER MORAL TALES by Anne Serre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ACROBAT by Nabaneeta Dev Sen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review copy of Acrobat provided by Archipelago Books

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

Europa Editions, 2021

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

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

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

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

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