I was afraid that too many of my reading challenge choices were by male authors, so I made a point of introducing a female quota. So here are four very different women authors, showing the variety and richness of what is sometimes disparaged as ‘women’s literature’. As it happens, I personally know three out of the four women writers whose books I feature below. However, this has not influenced my reviews of their books – although I have refrained from giving stars on this occasion. Sadly, the first two are only available in the original (Romanian and French, respectively).
Claudia Golea Sumiya: În numele câinelui (In the name of the dog)
Not really a novel, more of a straightforward account of the true but surprising story of a man called Takeshi Koizumi, currently facing the death penalty in a high-security prison in Tokyo. Back in 2008, the 46 year old unemployed man admitted his involvement in fatally stabbing a former vice welfare minister and his wife, and also wounding the wife of another former health and welfare minister in a separate incident. The reason for his crime? Punishing the people who had ordered the detention and extermination of his pet dog, his childhood friend, in a local dog pound. In Japan, these dog pounds are under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health and Welfare. An animal lover herself, the author began corresponding with Koizumi in prison and this book combines his letters with her own impressions of the man and her growing understanding of (if not condoning) his actions. There are probably good (legal) reasons why the story could not have been written in any other way, but I cannot help feeling that it would have been so much more powerful as fiction.
Hélèna Villovitch: Petites soups froides (Little Cold Soups)
Artist, filmmaker and writer, Villovitch experiments with form, style and content in this collection of short stories. The title story is written as vignettes in the shape of the ‘little cold soups’ which serve as nibbles at cocktail parties nowadays, a commentary on the inability to connect to others and the separate conversations going on in people’s heads. Other stories capture celebrity culture and obsession with appearance, cross-cultural misunderstandings and little cruelties or envies between friends. The author has a dry humour and unsentimental style which really suits the everyday subject matter. Although the stories were rather uneven overall, I admire this author for being brave and trying out new ideas. Sometimes it feels like there is too little ‘radical newness’ in literature nowadays.
Carmen Bugan: Burying the Typewriter
This is a poignant memoir of a family very nearly torn apart by the secret police of the Communist regime in Romania. The first part describes the near-idyllic childhood in the countryside, surrounded by friends and grandparents. The author is a poet, and this is obvious from the rich visual imagery and melodic phrases to describe the passing of the seasons, village life and its traditions. Then her father buys a ‘secret’ typewriter (i.e. one that has not been recorded by the secret police and traced to its owner) and starts writing and distributing pamphlets with the rather modest basic requests: “We ask for human rights. We ask for freedom of opinion. We ask for hot water and electricity. We ask for freedom to assemble.” The safe, happy childhood is shattered as the author’s father is imprisoned, her mother is forced to divorce him, and they become subjected to constant surveillance and harassment. The horrors of the regime are not fully revealed, as it is all presented through the eyes of a child: far more shocking to her is the sudden loss of friends or having neighbours inform against them. A book that moved me not just for its shared cultural language and memories, but because it brings compassion, warmth and understanding to an area and a time which is usually so bleak and unforgiving; its ghosts and echoes are still haunting Romania today. What remains after reading this book is the clear picture of the luminous, redeeming power of love, of family and of literature.
Nicky Wells: Sophie’s Run
Just what the doctor ordered, when I was running hot and cold during the night and couldn’t sleep. An engaging heroine who never quite falls into the ditziness which can sometimes plague chick lit, mostly adorable men (despite the odd rat or two) and a story line filled with surprises and humour. In fact, my main point of contention with the story is just how caring and supportive the men seem to be – could this qualify as fantasy? The story opens two years after the end of ‘Sophie’s Turn’ and the characters have matured a little. The story too has become a little deeper and darker, with topics such as depression, loneliness and forgiveness all being addressed. I also like the travelling theme which seems to feature heavily in the Sophie novels: in this book we can undertake vicarious trips to Berlin, Scotland and a remote German island in the North Sea, as well as spend a day sightseeing in London. Escapist literature, yes, but what is wrong with that?