Friday Fun: The Flowers We Wish We Had

Look, just because I’m a rubbish gardener and don’t like being suburnt or buzzed by wasps while reading outdoors, doesn’t mean that I cannot appreciate a beautiful garden, and the English cottage garden style which is so difficult to replicate without a lot of hard work…

Gateway to paradise, from RealHomes.com
Frith Lodge, Sussex. Lavender always a pleasure and delight to see, from My Design Chic.
Antique urns always present an interesting focal point, from ChezPluie.fr
I can never resist a secret path between the flower beds, from OC Signature Properties.
This one is open to the public, at least on occasion, from Amberley Open Gardens.
Blue heaven, from the aptly named Heaven’s Walk Blog.

Did you know, by the way, that there seems to be a trend for short filmed walks through gardens? Try The Flower World on Pinterest.

Six in Six 2021

I haven’t always been able to participate in this ‘halfway through the year’ round-up, but it’s one I always enjoy. Jo from The Book Jotter has been running this since 2012 and has a huge selection of categories to choose from. The idea is that you share some of the books you have read during the first six months, including perhaps those that haven’t had as much love and attention as they might have deserved. Some of the categories are bookish but not actual books, as you will see below.

Six new authors to me

I’ve been spoilt with new author discoveries this year, but here are six which really stuck in my mind (and which I therefore reviewed)

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water

Raven Leilani: Luster

Hoda Barakat: Voices of the Lost

Elias Khoury: White Masks

Marian Engel: Bear – liked it so much that I then read another by her Lunatic Villas

Ioanna Karystiani: Back to Delphi

Six authors I have read before

At least three of these are among my favourite authors, so it’s no surprise that I’m always happy to have an excuse to read or reread them.

Dazai Osamu: A Shameful Life (new translation of No Longer Human)

Shirley Jackson: Hangsaman

Naguib Mahfouz: Palace Walk

Robert Seethaler: The Field

Arthur Schnitzler: Plays

Karel Capek: War with the Newts

Six books that have taken me on a journey

You know how much I love travelling through literature – this year, more than ever.

Mishima Yukio: The Temple of the Golden Pavilion – Kyoto, Japan

Alfonso Cruz: Kokoschka’s Doll – Dresden, Paris, Marrakesh

Gelu Diaconu: Sebastian – Bucharest past and present

Margie Orford: Gallow’s Hill – Cape Town

The Book of Cairo – self-explanatory

Nicola Upson: The Dead of Winter – St Michael’s Mount

Six books I have read but not reviewed

Quite a few of those have been read with a view to possible future translation for Corylus, so they are mostly Romanian crime fiction. The remaining two I enjoyed but was too busy at work to give them a full-length review:

Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)

Teodora Matei: Afaceri de familie (Family Affairs)

Tony Mott: Toamna se numara cadavrele (Count the Bodies in Autumn)

Lucian Dragos Bogdan: Panza de paianjen (Spiderweb)

Rebecca Bradley: Blood Stained – a new series set in Sheffield, by the author who is also the ‘instigator’ of our monthly Virtual Crime Book Club.

Allie Reynolds: Shiver – can never resist a book about skiing (or, in this case, snowboarding)

Six blogging events I enjoyed

These don’t all take place during the first six months of the year, but they are my favourite events throughout the year and I try to join them if I possibly can

6 Degrees of Separation – Kate at Books Are My Favourite and My Best monthly series of bookish links

January in Japan – Meredith at Dolce Bellezza – spending some time in Japan is always a pleasure and a privilege

#1936Club – April 2021 – the year might change, but twice a year we read books published in a particular year, and 1936 is one of my favourites in literature – the brain child of Simon from Stuck in a Book and Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings

Women in Translation Month – August – simply the best – and still much needed – initiative by Meytal Radzinski, who blogs at Bibliobio.

Spanish and Portuguese Literature Month – July – hope to still be able to read and review at least one book for it this year – launched by Stu Jallen back in

German Lit Month – November – another that I cannot bear to miss – a coproduction between Caroline from Beauty Is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy Siddal.

Six books that are great when self-isolating (escapist reads)

Escapism for me does not mean happy-clappy or romance, but simply books that will have me reading until late at night, no matter how tired I might feel. A good many of these also made me chuckle.

Isaka Kotaro: Bullet Train

John Boyne: The Echo Chamber

Stella Gibbons: The Swiss Summer

Simone Buchholz: Hotel Cartagena

Carol Shields: Mary Swan

Sergei Lebedev: Untraceable

Learning to Go Out Again

After a particularly fraught and busy period at work, I had been looking forward to this week of annual leave. I was going to do so much (Cardiff, writing, day trips to London, editing translations, reviewing, major cleaning blitzes around the house) – but I should have realised that all my poor battered body and brain wanted to do was relax.

My older son vetoed Cardiff last weekend, because he wanted to watch the Euros Final in England rather than Wales. I’d been having second thoughts about travelling anyway, with the rising cases of Covid and the possibility of being pinged about going into self-isolation (which happened to a friend of mine when she went away for a mini-writing retreat in Eastbourne the week before). So we cancelled the hotel and instead wandered a little closer to home. Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park no longer had the glorious rhododendrons, but there was still plenty to admire there.

On Wednesday we braved a trip to London – the first time I’ve been into town since 16th March 2020. It felt like a good time to go, before the breakdown of any and all restrictions on 19th July. Needless to say, GWR lived up to my bad impression of it: there was no accurate or up-todate information about how busy the trains were, nor about changing trains and platforms. I booked tickets and was told I had to reserve seats for part of the journey, which I initially thought was reassuring. If you reserve seats, you at least know that it’s not going to be crowded, right? Wrong! Turns out that every single seat had been sold – so there was no social distancing. Although on some of the trains there were big signs saying not to sit facing other passengers, we had to sit facing other passengers, including those who did not wear masks.

We went to visit the newly-opened Japan House on Kensington High Street, so we could walk there from Paddington via Kensington Gardens. In the morning, the park was quite quiet, partly because of the cloud cover. In the afternoon, however, when the sun came out, it was a typical London summer day: dog walkers, sports activities, children playing. The streets and shops were busy too (perhaps not like Oxford Street in the pre-Christmas frenzy, but busy enough). I struggled to see what people were complaining about in terms of restrictions or having their personal liberties curtailed.

The Japan House itself was slightly disappointing – or perhaps our expectations for it had been too high. According to the website, it is one of only three such centres around the world, set over three floors, housing exhibitions, a library, a restaurant and all sorts of other things. You had to book in advance for the library, but we ended up having the whole place to ourselves, which was just as well, since it was just one small room: interesting books, but simply not enough of them (and not enough variety – mostly design or visual arts). The ground floor exhibition/shop was beautiful, but a bit too heavily curated, upmarket and expensive. The afternoon tea we had at the restaurant was delicious, but expensive and not very filling (especially with two teenage boys – they had to buy sandwiches to eat immediately before and after).

Of course, for a Japanophile such as myself, it was still very interesting and I discovered some fascinating historical Japanese photos. But do not plan to spend the whole day there, as we thought we would. There simply isn’t enough to do and the chairs in the library are not that comfortable. Still, it was not a wasted afternoon, because we managed to do some clothes shopping, which is nearly impossible to do in our town, which has only a smallish M&S and a SportsDirect. We did not go into any bookshops, although I later found out there is a Waterstone’s a little further away on High Street Kensington.

Sunset over Hammersmith Bridge.

The very next day, I ventured into London again, this time in a friend’s car to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, to see Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days. I don’t think I was too popular with my friend for choosing such a pared-down, depressing play which feels very apposite for the loneliness of lockdown. But I rather enjoyed its bleakness, and the multitude of ways in which it could be interpreted: the humiliation of old age and impotence or amnesia, the burden of caring responsibilities, the grinding down of personality in a long and not very happy marriage, the need to be seen and appreciated.

Who wouldn’t want to run on such a beautiful path?

Most of the rest of my holiday was relatively humdrum. I slept nearly eight hours most days (a record for me), read a lot of undemanding books (which is not to say badly-written – just not heavy topics), only logged onto my work email once to check if I still needed to help out a colleague with a Zoom call. I had quite a bit of school and car-related admin to do, ordered a new sofa, gave the porch a thorough clean and even went to the gym and for a run. I also tried not to get angry about news and politics and news, about not losing a gramme of weight in spite of my best efforts to eat healthily and follow an intermittent fasting programme. I have watched just two films this week, mostly because my son’s laptop (which we connect to the TV to watch things) is on its dying legs: The Battle of Algiers, a powerful documentary-style Italian film about French colonialism and the war in Algeria, and Midsommar, about which I might write a whole blog post re: the misappropriation and misinterpretation of religious cults and folklore.

Instead of feeling guilty about ‘vegetating’, I call this a ‘fallow field’ period, which, as all farmers know, is so necessary to improve the yield of future crops. As part of my ‘three field rotation’ programme, next week I start the BCLT translation summer school, after which I probably will require another week of annual leave to recover. There is no doubt that I would rather be doing that than the day job (aka ‘main crop’), though!

Friday Fun: Country Homes in Ireland

I’ve discovered there are some beautiful country homes in Ireland as well that I might consider for my future reading/writing retreats… although they are somewhat more expensive than my beloved French chateau (and possibly slightly more rained upon?)

How about this little beauty, nestled among the hills in County Dublin? From MyHome.ie
This one in County Kildare has an indoor swimming pool – well, it would have to be indoors, wouldn’t it? From MyHome.ie
Needless to say, I much prefer a library, such as this mansion in Tipperary, from MyHome.ie
They all seem to have really endless grounds too, such as this one in County Wexford, also from MyHome.ie
Not all of them are for sale, you might have to be content to just visit some of them, converted into hotels, such as this one from the Irish Tourism Board.
This one reminds me of Sanssouci Palace in Potsdam, Powerscourt House in Enniskerry, from Home Stratosphere.

Friday Fun: Still in the Garden

Yay! Finally some time off for a week! I might even do a spot of emergency gardening (aka ‘keeping things under control’), but I doubt that my garden will ever look as pretty as the ones below, unless I bring a proper professional gardener in.

I have that slightly neglected flagstone look down pat though… From Southern Living.
What a dreamy little place for afternoon tea, from the Tumblr account of A Little Bit of Silliness.
I do have some roses in my garden, but it would be glorious if I could get them to trail around the door like this. From Gardenista.
Now that’s what I call a border. No lupins in my garden though, as they are poisonous for cats, but what a riot of colour, shapes and sizes! From Judy’s Cottage Garden.
Sitting and dining with friends until late… My dream life. From Dreieckchen on Pinterest.

Two Tough Reads: Endless and Very Much Numbered Days

I’m not sure how wise it was to read these two books over the past week or so, as they were both quite harrowing in terms of subject matter. Luckily, both of them were well written and very much worth my while… but I think I will be relaxing now with some less demanding, frivolous reads.

Claire Fuller: Our Endless Numbered Days #20BooksofSummer No. 8

This is probably the oldest book I have on my Netgalley shelf (2015). It was Claire Fuller’s debut novel and in the meantime she has published three others (of which I read one, Bitter Orange) and her latest, Unsettled Ground, is shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

It is the story of Peggy, an eight-year-old only child of eccentric parents – a concert pianist German mother and a survivalist English father – who is abducted by her father after a family quarrel and taken to a remote cabin in the German woods. For the next nine years, her father manages to convince her that the world has ended and all the people they know have died. They have to fend for themselves – and those descriptions of the seasons and living that close to nature, with no back-up whatsoever, is miles removed from the lyrical nature writing we might have come across in recent years. This is nature at its harshest – and Peggy is completely at the mercy of her tyrannical father, whom she adores… but very gradually starts to question.

The narrative switches between two time frames. We start with the present-day, when seventeen-year-old Peggy tries to reintegrate into society and re-establish a connection with her mother and the younger brother born after she disappeared. Then we move to the child’s view of the world, the limited understanding and naivety of eight-year-old Peggy. There are hints of the shocking denouement of the novel throughout, but – call me a far too trusting reader, or else wanting to believe the best of everyone – I was completely misled by the author, believed everything she was saying, and was caught by surprise at the ending. Yet, unlike so many recent psychological thrillers that deliberately withhold information, simply to create that much-publicised ‘twist’, it felt very organic in this case and central to the story. Peggy is not an unreliable narrator because she wants to mislead us or justify her bad actions or run away from the police (as would be typical in crime fiction). It feels psychologically spot on: she is disassociating from her own experiences and still trying to figure out her own past and how she feels about it.

Quite a tour de force for a debut, and an uncompromising tale. Brutal at times, yet also hinting that so much more could have been said, that whole swathes of story or characterisation have been left out, that each character has a shady hinterland (yes, even the nine-year-old brother).

Hervé Le Corre: In the Shadow of the Fire, transl. Tina Kover

Long-time readers of the blog will know that I remain fascinated by the Paris Commune and its failures, and have read a whole array of books, both fictional and non-fictional treatments of those few months in the spring of 1871. Le Corre’s ambitious (and lengthy – 509 pages) account of the last ten days of the Commune, the so-called Bloody Week at the end of May, is soaked in blood, sweat and despair, a gruelling continuation of Zola’s Debacle, picking up just where Zola’s work tapers off.

There are so many deaths in this book, so many relentless descriptions of poverty, hunger, exploitation and killing that you need to stop every now and then and catch your breath. I admire translator Tina Kover for being able to stomach it and render Le Corre’s dense prose and vast cast of characters into something coherent. I am also really grateful that I could read it in translation, as reading it in the original French would probably have taken me a couple of months (like the Zola did).

Some of the individual stories worked better than others – the enigmatic Clovis, who has lost all belief in society and people; the loyal lovers Nicolas and Caroline who spend most of the book undergoing horrific experiences but never giving up hope that they might find each other; the brotherhood between the three comrades-in-arms Nicolas, Red and Adrien. However, that whole thread about the photographer of pornographic images and girls being kidnapped by a man with a half-destroyed face (very Phantom of the Opera, that!) felt a bit gratuitous. I suppose the intention was to add a criminal investigation to a narrative that would otherwise have been extremely depressing and predictable: we all know that the Communards got thoroughly thrashed and killed en masse (or else imprisoned and sent into exile).

Although I love crime fiction in general, I didn’t really need that particular strand in this book, as I was quite happy to read about all of the other personal and collective stories. And yet the author clearly knows what he’s doing, because in many ways, Antoine Roques, the investigator, is the most interesting character of them all.

They put the sash on him before he left the police station, assuring him that his way, his authority, conferred by the people, would be clear to all… Elected police delegate to the Sûreté only a month ago. A bookbinder by trade. He hadn’t wanted the job, given his longstanding, deep-seated loathing of anything to do with the police. But the assemly had judged him the most sensible, the most astute.

Yet this accidental policeman becomes devoted to the idea of justice and saving people, even in the mess and confusion of the last few days of the Commune. When he hears about the abducted woman, the latest in a series to disappear from the streets of Paris, he makes it his mission to find her. What does one more dead woman matter in a landscape littered with corpses and dying ideals? That is perhaps the whole crux of the story – that kindness and respect for the individual has to matter, even in the new revolutionary world order.

Although we see events almost exclusively through the eyes of those fighting for the Commune, the author does not idealise the revolutionaries. There are profiteers and opportunistis on both sides, cowards and empty idealists as well, and we get to hear different points of view from secondary characters who have become disenchanted with the whole process. In the words of a doctor trying to deal with vast numbers of fatal injuries:

I’m afraid we’ve proclaimed a republic of words that will soon be a repbulic of he dead… It’s a bit like we doctors tried to heal injuries simply by shouting obscenities, or to cure disease using magic spells. They talk and talk at the Hotel de Ville, they gossip on the barricades; they hem and haw about what reinforcements to send against Versailles, and in the mentime Monsieur Thiers is planning his onslaught… Perhaps that’s why I’ve taken more care of the dead than the living, because at least I don’t have to lie to them about what’s coming and my inability to stop it.

The research that Le Corre has done for his book is fantastic; having myself read several history books about the Commune, I am impressed with how effortlessly he blends all that (and more) into an exciting narrative. The individual stories are less important than the vast fresco of a city in turmoil. The crowds are unruly, not everyone is truly committed to the cause, there are far too many people willing to betray them, but there are also others who put their own lives at risk to help them.

At times, some of the passages and speeches verge onto the unrealistic and didactic, but there are others where the character’s idealism and courage even in the face of defeat shines through as rather beautiful and inspiring. Here is Roques wondering if he should sneak off, leave Paris behind and join his wife and children in the countryside:

He knows the insurrection will be crushed, that this undreamt-of moment will soon come to an end. Still… This city has a unique genius for revolt and revolution. It has been starved, bombarded, humiliated, and when the powerful ones thought it was dead, it rose up, rebellious and generous, defying the old world and calling, beyond the besieged ramparts, for public well-being and a universal republic… There’s no question of leaving this city of infinite tomorrows, especially now… Paris, teh city-world where anything will always be possible.

The book is at once a eulogy to ideals whose time had not yet come, and a love story to the city of Paris, a mistress who may be old and wrinkled, full of dirt, blood and grime, but remains defiant and unbowed. Impossible to tame permanently, even if you can defeat her temporarily.

#6Degrees of Separation July 2021

Hurray, it’s time for another monthly Six Degrees of Separation journey! Hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best, you start at the same place as other imaginative readers around the world, add six books that link in various ways with each other, and see where you end up.

This month’s starting point is Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, a book for grammar and punctuation fiends. As a former English teacher, you can imagine that this is a subject dear to my heart and I can be quite severe about it. But at the same time I don’t want to discourage young people from writing, which is why my first link is Kate Clanchy, who is also a teacher, one of the most inspiring kind. Her book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me is so compassionate and humane, all about approaching children with love, patience and poetry, and demonstrates that education can indeed change lives.

You’re going to laugh at my next link (and I’ve probably used it before) but I loved school as a child and dreamt of going to a boarding school like the Chalet School. (Since I grew up in Vienna, the setting didn’t seem at all far-fetched to me.) The first book in the series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer that I came across at the school library was The Princess of the Chalet School, which had a double resonance for me, since Princess Elisaveta was from a small Balkan state (as well as the Austrian school setting), so I completely identified with her. (Never mind the ‘royal’ part!)

I really do not like royalty or monarchies as a form of government in general: an antiquated concept that has no place in the modern world. But I will stick to it for my next link, because it is about the Meiji Emperor of Japan, who was the ruler at the time of the opening of Japan to foreign powers and the extremely rapid modernisation that followed. Donald Keene is an eminent scholar of Japanese history and literature, and his biography Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912 is probably the only exhaustive study on this topic that we have in the English language.

Keene was so devoted to Japan that he moved there after the tsunami in 2011 and became a Japanese citizen. He was also a prolific translator of Japanese literature, both classical and modern pieces. One of my favourites is The Narrow Road to the Deep North/Oku (Oku no Hosomichi), the travel journal of haiku poet Bashō from 1689.

These kind of poetic travel journals are like catnip to me – both for the places they describe and the insights they give you into the mind of a talented and observant creator. Rebecca West‘s travel journal Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is far less interior meditation and far more a description of a particular time and place (Yugoslavia in 1937, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two), but it is very interesting for all that – although MUCH longer than Bashō’s.

The final link is via ovine creatures – from lambs to sheep. Famously, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick was the basis for the film Blade Runner (a loose adaptation which has rather overshadowed the book). There really is an electric sheep in the book, but what the main protagonist aspires to is a living animal as a pet for his wife to help with her depression.

We have once more travelled all around the world this month: from Britain to the Austrian Alps, from Japan to Yugoslavia, and finally to a dystopian San Francisco of the future (not so futuristic nowadays, since the adjusted date was 2021, I believe). Where will your six links take you?

Friday Fun: Who wants to read on the balcony?

Many of you have complained that reading outdoors has its downsides: creepy crawlies, hayfever, too much glare from the sun, the heat… So how about these balconies for a tolerable compromise? I should add that it’s a shame that not very many British homes have usable balconies, possibly because the weather is not that conducive to sitting outside to read and write… or else developers are trying to cut down on costs.

Not all balconies are strong enough to take large container plants, but when they do, the results are gorgeous. From shakemyblog.fr
Great to socialise, although I would demand plenty of quiet time for just me and my cat to read here, from Home Art Mania.
Some balconies are really an extra room, especially with such a dreamy view. From Home Art Mania.
Tropical look is what I adore, and this Brazilian designer is truly fantastic: IvaniKuboPaisagismo.br
It doesn’t have to be huge, as this inside/outside space in Paris demonstrates, from Gardenweb.com.
Even if there is no room to actually sit on the balcony, this charming flower arrangement is worth it. From Design Cafe.

June Summary

June is typically a joyous month in my household: two birthdays and a nameday, as well as Midsummer Day to celebrate; summer plans to be hatched; end of school and exams beckoning. This year has been slightly different. The boys have been on holiday but the older one has started a summer job, while the younger one has had induction days for Sixth Form College (partly online) and homework assignments, while I have been busier than ever at work. The weather has been rather changeable, making me almost want to switch the heating back on. Nevertheless, we had a once-in-a-lifetime birthday treat of high tea at Oakley Court Hotel, where the Rocky Horror Picture Show was filmed.

We were lucky with the weather, too: it was the one day of the week when there was no rain or gusty wind.

Reading:

I have read six of my 20 Books of Summer, and a total of 10 books this month. June has been the month of the most recent acquisitions on my Kindle, so the 20 Books of Summer choices are recent releases and include a Japanese thriller and a satire about social media, two books with tenuous links to Romania and two books that capture the millenial experience in Britain in the past few years. I also read a few bonus books linked to these: Mamie Luger by Benoit Philippon, which is certainly unlike anything else I have read before, a chilling story about a child murderer and rehabilitation by Fiona Cummins: When I was Ten, and Lucy Caldwell’s second collection of short stories. For the Virtual Crime Book Club, I had a good time reading Tom Bradby’s Secret Service, which had the interesting (and not all that implausible nowadays) premise that the future PM of the United Kingdom might be a Russian agent.

Films and TV:

Although most of the month has been given over to football watching with my older son – I remember bonding with my father over sports and enjoy doing so with him, even if I am not normally a huge football fan – I have also managed to watch some films and TV series.

The Outsiders was the kind of film I would have loved to watch in my teens and it was fun to see all of the child actors who then went on to become household names, but it was a little too sentimental for my taste (said the person who cries every time she watches West Side Story).

Sound of Metal was a tour de force of acting by Riz Ahmed and the first half was particularly interesting in his denial and fight against identifying with the deaf community, but the film then lost its way a little in the second half.

Billy Liar was every bit as funny, irreverant and poignant as I remembered it, with Tom Courtenay doing an excellent job of appearing at once infuriating and vulnerable.

It was the first time I watched Nightcrawler and I was chilled not just by the subject matter but by the charmingly psychopathic way in which Jake Gyllenhaal spouts inspirational slogans from self-help books – he is capitalism personified, the shameless go-getter we’ve been told the world (or is that just America?) needs.

Days of the Bagnold Summer was rather sweet and very relatable: a single mother having to spend the summer with her grumpy teenager, who had wanted to go and visit his remarried father in Florida. There was nothing grandiose or startling about the film, just a tender and very realistic observation of the mother/son relationship, which I am naturally rather partial to.

If you like sinister, not fully explainable TV series, then I can really recommend the Icelandic quasi-supernatural thriller Katla on Netflix. It has echoes of the French series The Returned, mixed with small-town Icelandic village feel of a Ragnar Jonasson novel The Katla volcano near the South Iceland settlement of Vik has been spewing ash for over a year and most of the inhabitants have been evacuated, but there are some foolhardy people who are staying on there. Then suddenly some strange clones or dead people reappear from underneath the glacier and turns their lives upside down. I found this far better paced and not as far-fetched or graphic as Fortitude. The characters are a lot more relatable and well acted throughout, although they might not have the big names of Fortitude. And the landscapes are just beautifully photographed throughout. You should also know that one of the writers on the show is none other than Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir. I’m not a box set binging kind of person, but I watched all eight episodes in just 2-3 days (alongside the football matches).

#20BooksofSummer Nos. 5 and 6: The Tribulations of Youth

What is it like to be young, sensitive, well educated but struggling to make ends meet, particularly in a big anonymous city like London in the past few years? The two recent titles on my #20BooksofSummer list address this question from a female and male ethnic minority perspective, while a bonus book that I borrowed from the library has a slightly older protagonist with one foot in Northern Ireland and another in London.

Caleb Azumah Nelson: Open Water

A short novel, more like a novella, that is a love song in more ways than one: a love story of boy meets girl which on the surface seems conventional enough; a loving description of London and its black communities; a celebration of what it means to be young and hopeful, but also wounded and fearful. The prose has all the rhythm and syncopation of poetry, an idiosyncratic delight, written in second person which for once did not jar or feel pretentious.

Two highly educated, beautiful, creative young Londoners meet, become friends, fall in love: he is a photographer, she is a dancer. Her boyfriend is one of his friends at the time when they first meet. They are both still living with their parents, so it is not easy to be together in private. She returns to study in Ireland. He is traumatised by countless microaggressions because of his race – and several much more serious incidents. They hardly dare to allow themselves to fall in love, to trust each other, to hope in a common future, no matter how comfortable and safe they might feel with each other. The world around them does not feel safe or kind, especially towards him as a young black man.

You know that to love is both to swim and to drown. You know to love is to be a whole, partial, a joint, a fracture, a heart, a bone. It is to bleed and heal. It is to be in the world, honest. It is to place someone next to your beating heart, in the absolute darkness of your inner, and trust they will hold you close. To love is to trust, to trust is to have faith. How else are you meant to love?

The author manages to capture the universality of the exhilaration and magic of youthful love and finding your ‘soulmate’, but also brings us back to earth with a jolt, showing how abruptly this magic can be curtailed if you happen to inhabit a black body. There are certain quotes in the book which reminded me very strongly of James Baldwin (a clear influence), and which are heartbreaking in their restrained but clear anger:

You hide your whole self away because you haven’t worked out how to emerge from your own anger, how to dip into your own peace. You hide your whole self away because sometimes you forget you haven’t done anything wrong. Sometimes you forget there’s nothing in your pockets. Sometimes you forget that to be you is to be unseen and unheard, or it is to be seen and heard in ways you didn’t ask for. Sometimes you forget to be you is to be a Black body, and not much else.

I heard the author speak at a Hay Festival event and was looking forward to reading this book – and it did not disappoint. By far the most beautiful, immersive and meaningful description of Millenial or Gen Z life that I have read, although my personal experiences have been so different in terms of age, time, place and race.

Jo Hamya: Three Rooms

I fully expected to love this book as much if not even more than Open Water, since it describes a more familiar type of experience: a young woman wandering from one rented room to another, trying to embark upon a career at least halfway worthy of her education.

… the end goal I wanted, through any job necessary, was to be able to afford a flat, not just a room, and then to settle in it and invite friends to dinner. I thought I had put reasonable effort into this desire through successive degrees while waiting for the economy to clear up enough to raise the median starting wage… Now, even to me, it seemed ridiculous to concede that I had accumulated substantial debt and a few degrees so that I might contractually labour for the sake of having two free days a week in which to cook a meal in a kitchen I could not actually afford to own…

This is basically the book in a nutshell, although the narrator is made to feel even worse because of Brexit, because of her race, because of the hostile political forces she senses all around her. She does not wish to compromise like the intern she sees at the magazine she temps for, simply for the sake of fitting in. In the Clore Gallery, looking at a room full of Turners, she realises the troubled relationship she has with her country, the patriotism fanned by BBC dramas and generic painterly landscapes, how much she wants to love it but how the news cycle tells her otherwise:

The whole thing was abstract enough in style to take on whatever you gave it; and so, though it was unmistakably English, it could have been Yorkshire, it could have been Sussex… Whatever bit of English countryside you could connect it to in your head to hold, and because the painting was a beautiful thing, with its warm tint, its heavy golden frame and its place in the airy, magnificent gallery, the country became beautiful too.

She recognises that this room (this country) does not belong to her, but neither does the country of her parents:

I was newly uncomfortable in the gallery, but I did not want to leave… Because the room I was in did not belong to me, I could not do this infintely. But for the moment I was in it at least, I had the dignity and freedom of a sense of self which belonged entirely to me. I wanted to keep it.

However, if Open Water was all heart, almost visceral in its portrayal of both joy and suffering, this book was all about the intellect and contained far too little joy. The style was reminiscent of Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy, although with more emphasis on the first person than on other people’s stories. The political comments felt shoehorned in, undigested rather than organic.

Bonus Book: Lucy Caldwell: Intimacies

A short story collection portraying a series of young women (some of them slightly older than the protagonists of the two previous books) experiencing their own personal epiphanies, both great and small. The twilight zone of illegality for a Belfast student having to rely on drugs ordered online to end an unwanted pregnancy. A young American woman coming with her pastor and the Youth Ministry to convince voters in Ireland to ‘make the right choice’ in the vote about legalising abortion, who starts to question her own motives. Two co-workers pondering upon the unknowability of each other. However, her most relatable ones (for me at least) are about the sheer exhaustion and everyday fears of motherhood.

The author lays bare every single shred of doubt, fear, guilt, self-flagellation of mothers everywhere, but with a fresh contemporary twist. An overwhelmed mother having to leave her baby with a stranger at a cafe so that she can take her toddler for an emergency toilet break. Being alone at night in the house with small children and suddenly hearing what sounds like a possible intruder. Having to endure a long plane flight with a baby and a helpful stranger who might just make you rethink your life choices. An endless car journey with the family – and being reminded of one’s blessings.

Nothing monumental happens in most of these stories, at least not outwardly, but, as the author says in the final story, a sort of letter to her child:

We think the test will come on the days we’re ready for them, braced and prepared, but they don’t: the come to us unheralded, unexpected, in disguise, the ordinariest of moments…

I wish I could tell you my struggles in a way that would be meaningful or even of some practical use. But the secret, most important battles we fight are almost untranslatable to anyone else; and besides, you’ll have your own seething weirs of tigerish waters to cross.

It might not be easy to translate those battles, but I am grateful to Lucy Caldwell for attempting it regardless.