Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction

I’ve fallen very far behind on my reviews, so will write brief ones for four books I’ve recently read in a vain attempt to catch up. Besides, although they are all good books, they did not quite bowl me over. I suspect that may be because I wasn’t reading the best efforts by these authors. I do want to revisit each one of them in future.

AttentatYasmina Khadra: L’Attentat (The Attack)

Absolutely terrifying and intriguing premise for this book. A suicide bomber attacks a Tel Aviv restaurant. Dr. Amine, a respected surgeon of Arab origin (but now an Israeli citizen) is working in a nearby hospital and spends all night trying to save the lives of the victims of the ensuing carnage. Then he is called in by the police: the suicide bomber turns out to be none other than his wife. Devastated by his loss and apparent blindness to his wife’s real feelings, he tries to understand what could have driven her to such a terrible action. There is no real final message from his wife, except for the one question about how we can enjoy personal happiness when the whole community is suffering. There are many descriptions of the humiliations of daily life for Palestinians living in Israel, but the book offers no simple answers, it merely raises more and more questions. I liked the even-handedness of the depiction of both Israelis and Palestinians – there are good and bad people in each group, there are friends and enemies that the narrator makes in both camps. It’s a powerful book in its depiction of the sources of anger amongst the Arabs in Israel, even though the points are sometimes made in a rather heavy-handed way.

TeenSpiritVirginie Despentes: Teen Spirit

A French author recommended by Emma, although for a different book. But this was the only novel I could find at the local library. She has a very natural internal monologue style and a great ear for dialogue. Bruno is a failed writer, sponging off his girlfriend. He believes he suffers from agoraphobia and has been unwilling to venture outside for well over two years. But then one of his first girlfriends from high-school contacts him and tells him that they have a thirteen year old daughter, Nancy, who wants to get to know him. This is the bittersweet, often funny story of how father and daughter find each other – in a way that is not at all sentimental. The story is not terribly original and the ending felt a bit abrupt, but the characterisation was very good. The teenager Nancy is suitably stroppy and impressionable, but also touching and naive at times, while her father Bruno is lazy, contradictory, selfish but increasingly protective and paternal. A quick and fun read, with perhaps some more profound messages about self-absorbed parents.

BetrayalKarin Alvtegen: Betrayal (transl. Steven T. Murray)

This was an author that both John Grant and Margot Kinberg had mentioned recently, so I followed their recommendations. The book was a bit of a surprise, not quite what I expected. It started out relatively conventionally, with the discovery of a husband’s infidelity. Eva’s feeling of betrayal and hurt turns into a desire for revenge. But then it took a darker twist, not just because the characters were for the most part unlikeable and unreliable as narrators, but also because they were making some very bad choices. Most people have said they did not like the ending and I could say things about it feeling unjust, undeserved – like real life, I suppose. It was a cleverly constructed book, that took well-worn tropes and managed to inject a note of freshness in them – as well as constant creepy menace. But there was something about the style which did not quite appeal to me; it felt too cold, detached, perhaps a reflection of Eva’s own desire to cope. Something did not ring quite genuine. But I’ll be looking out for more novels by this author.

MaisonatlantiquePhilippe Besson: La maison atlantique (The House on the Atlantic Coast)

Another author recommended by Emma (again, not this particular book). This was a rather predictable story, but the author did make the most of it. He has a limpid, clear style, very pleasant, elegant and easy to read, although with more internal musing of the first person narrator than one might expect. It’s a coming of age story, a son thwarted by his father at every turn, with predictably tragic consequences (that we’re alerted to from the very beginning, although without giving away any of the details). It would have been interesting to hear alternative points of view (and I don’t often say that about books), as it all seems to be speculation and self-justification.

So four foreign writers, three of them French-speaking, two women, two men. Luckily, they’ve all been translated to some extent.

Karin Alvtegen has had 5 psychological thrillers translated into English, all with snappy one-word titles. The best known is perhaps ‘Shame’. Yasmina Khadra’s so-called ‘extremist trilogy’ has been translated and is very thought-provoking: ‘The Attack’, ‘The Swallows of Kabul’ and ‘The Sirens of Baghdad’. Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’ and ‘Apocalypse Baby’. I’ve only found two Philippe Besson books in English: ‘In the Absence of Men’ and ‘His Brother’.




26 thoughts on “Quick Reviews of Foreign-Language Fiction”

  1. Thank you for the kind mention, Marina Sofia. I’m glad you enjoyed Betrayal, even if it didn’t exactly blow you away. The rest of these books really do look interesting too. And a couple of them seem to get at larger issues too, which can work very well. I like the variety here, too.

    1. Some writers I just need a little longer to warm up to – or perhaps I went in expecting something slightly different. But I’ve read many, many authors based on your recommendations now, and they never disappoint.

  2. I struggle reading translations, somehow I have the (probable) illusion of missing something! But of course I must, as most of us. After French, English, and, not perfectly, German, I have to accept defeat. My ambitions: one day to read the great Russians “dans le texte”, and, of course, my beloved Murakami… I admire your eclecticism! 🙂

    1. I wanted to learn Russian to be able to read their great writers in the original – but a Russian friend of mine disillusioned me recently, saying how difficult Dostoevsky is even in the original, for instance. I used to NOT read poetry in translation but then I realised I was closing myself off from so much of the world. So I now read and compare different translations – which is fascinating in itself!

  3. An interesting selection. Like Margot, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Betrayal as much as I did. I know what you mean about it not being what you’d expected: the first time I picked up an Alvtegen novel I was assuming it’d be yer standard Scandi-noir, and was quite startled to discover it was anything but.

    Two rather controversial books by Virginie Despentes are available in English: ‘Baise-Moi’

    I keep meaning to get hold of that book.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head – it wasn’t Scandi noir (and I don’t like all of those, either) and therefore not quite what I imagined. Have you seen the film version of Baise-Moi?

    1. It is a bit of an ‘issue’ book, and the style is not always beautiful, but I am planning to read other books by him, as I think he’s a really interesting writer.

  4. interesting.. i’ve read none of them… some sound def. interesting… and i too need time sometimes to get warm with some writer’s style…maybe i will check out the first one

    1. I like the Khadra book, but it was a book where ideas sometimes trumped the story/fiction side of it. I don’t think all of his books are like that, though.

  5. Thanks for the two mentions and for the four reviews

    I’m going to review Teen Spirit in a couple of days, I hope. I really liked Apocalypse Baby and I have Vernon Subutex on the shelf.

    This doesn’t seem like Besson’s best book. I’ve read three by him, my favourite one is Un homme accidentel (not available in English) followed by In the Absence of Men.

    I have an upcoming review of a Khadra book.

    1. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction, even though I have to depend on whatever the libraries have in stock at that particular moment in time. All of them worth another go, most definitely!

  6. My book choice (en français) Philippe Besson: La maison atlantique.
    Thanks so much for the reading suggestion. I hoped to find it on Kindle…I guess I’ll have to wait for a while until it is available.

    1. It’s a fairly quick and easy read, although several other book bloggers have told me it’s not his best. I’ll be reading more of him, though, so will keep you updated with any further recommendations.

      1. I will give P. Besson a try. I like the situation of father and son confronting each other. Sparks are sure to fly!

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