#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success

Also my #20BooksofSummer Nos. 16 and 17. I can count the abandoned one, can’t I, since I gave up on it about two thirds of the way through? By complete coincidence, the main protagonist in each of these novels is called Violette or Violeta.

Valérie Perrin: Fresh Water for Flowers, transl. Hildegarde Serle

There was something rather endearing about the Violette in this novel, a much put-upon woman with a good-for-nothing husband, who suffers that most unbearable of losses, the death of her young daughter. With her patience and openness to helping others (even when they take advantage of her), she reminded me of Felicité in Flaubert’s Un cœur simple. Yet the author has to give the protagonist a chance at remaking her life, learning to love and live again, because the story is set in the present-day (or thereabouts – with talk of the automation of the barrier at the train crossing, which Violette was originally operating).

This is the second book about a cemetery that I’ve read in the last year, after The Field by Robert Seethaler. Although I complained that one was a little overlong, it was certainly more interesting in format, with the voices of the dead speaking to us directly. Here, the story is resolutely Violette’s, although we do get the occasional chapter from the perspective of some of the people around her.

Although I enjoyed parts of the book, I simply did not feel the urge to pick it up, and really struggled to read more than a few pages at a time. It felt predictable, the characters simply refused to come to life for me (with the exception of Violette herself) and the little philosophical observations often felt trite. I had read so many good reviews from bloggers I love that I probably stuck with it for far longer than I should have, and it impinged upon my ability to read and enjoy other books for about a week. I felt relieved when I finally gave myself permission to leave it behind.

Dulce Maria Cardoso: Violeta Among the Stars, transl. Ángel Gurría Quintan

This is more familiar territory for me: a dark, sardonic, unlikeable main character, an uncompromising experimental style that pulls you right in if you are in the right mood. I guess I just don’t do well as a reader on the more ‘charming’ side of the spectrum!

Much has been made of this being yet another example of a novel in one sentence… except that there is a reason for it in this case , for these are the jumbled up thoughts of Violeta, who has just overturned her car in an accident and sees her life flash before her eyes. Trains of thoughts come and stop abruptly, going nowhere; there are certain verbal tics and repetitions; we circle further and further back to unpick Violeta’s past and how she ended up driving so fast and recklessly. We discover that recklessness is part of Violeta’s nature, as if to counteract the image people might have of her as an overweight, plain, middle-aged woman. She is a travelling saleswoman, hawking all sorts of depilatory waxes to beauty salons (nobody wants to buy the much more expensive eco-friendly brand). She gets her kicks with lorry drivers or other strangers in the service station car parks or toilets. She is bored to death of Angelo, her dull husband ‘who never did anything exciting in his life’; she has a fiery relationship with her daughter Dora who doesn’t seem to want anything that her mother wants for her.

Alcohol and preying on strangers dull her pain momentarily, but she is all too soon brought back to earth by the disdain of others. She is regarded as a freak, but it’s not the laughter of strangers that fills her with self-revulsion and hatred of others. As we delve deeper into her family history, we find a troubled relationship with her own mother, the dreams she had to compromise early on in life, the patterns of abuse that she herself perpetuates. And throughout it all, we have Violeta, larger than life in all sense of the word, with her refusal to apologise for her sexual appetites, her relentless candour, her inability to sugarcoat anything. Yet, if we listen closely, beneath her justifications and patter, we discover all the things she is not telling us – the things she refuses to acknowledge even to herself.

There are references too to revolution and changes in the social order, as well as children out of wedlock with black men. This refers to Portugal’s not that distant past, when Angola was a Portuguese colony (until 1975) and Portugal itself was in the grip of the Estado Novo dictatorship of Salazar and his followers (which collapsed in 1974).

A breathless tour de force, which must have posed serious translation challenges. This book won’t be to everyone’s taste, but to this particular fan of dysunctional mother/daughter relationships, it rang very true.

21 thoughts on “#WITMonth: The Two Violets – One Abandoned, One Success”

  1. Sorry to hear you didn’t ‘get on’ with Fresh Water for Flowers. I loved it but like all books it’s such a subjective experience. Glad you found another book you enjoyed!

    1. I know you did – and your review was one of the reasons I persevered with it as long as I did. I think I’m just not cut out for ‘happy’ or ‘uplifting’ books – although this one was certainly not happy throughout, it was one of those redemption type narratives, if you know what I mean…

  2. I’ve heard that Violeta Among the Stars is very good, Marina Sofia. I can see, though, how it’s probably best enjoyed if one’s in the mood for that sort of main character and for the writing style. I’ve read other books like that, where the thoughts just build on themselves, and it can work well if it’s done with a deft hand. I’m glad that one drew you in, since the other didn’t.

    1. Maybe some day I should analyse why I like bleak books – even when I am not necessarily in a happy place? They do say that ‘noir’ outlook on life is perhaps something you are born with, right?

  3. I think I’d have to be in the right mood for Violeta Among the Stars as it does sound very dark, but it’s definitely tempting! I know I’ve read a one sentence novel although the name escapes me now, I found it fell into a rhythm and was much more readable than I expected.

    1. I think the expectation makes a difference, indeed. I thought Fresh Water for Flowers would be a nice easy read, and Violeta more challenging, so perhaps got my expectations a bit mixed up!

  4. I thought ‘Violeta among the Stars’ was good, but not quite as good as I’d expected. Certainly wasn’t much taken with her or her family, anyway!

  5. Re-Fresh Water for Flowers, I’m totally baffled that I had never heard of Valérie Perrin before this UK translation. This happens regularly with French-to-English translations. Not sure this says something about me, or about publishers’ choices.

    1. Yes, I am sometimes surprised by what gets translated. I think it’s a little bit of everything, to see what will stick. Because, let’s face it, even French literature doesn’t have a resounding success in English translation, with a few small exceptions.

  6. Of the two you’ve covered here, Violeta Among the Stars sounds the most appealing despite the darkness. I can imagine the breathless feel of the novel being enhanced by the ‘one sentence’ approach.

  7. I rather enjoyed Fresh Water for Flowers, in fact I devoured it. I found it a great summer reading romance in lockdown sunshine last summer – it needed the sunshine. I would like to read Violeta Among the Stars though, as I love darker reads and you’ve made it sound fascinating.

  8. Violeta Among the Stars sounds much more appealing to me.
    It’s tough isn’t it when you have a book that has come highly recommended yet you struggle to engage with. In years gone by I would have struggled through to the end , resenting every hour I spent with it that I could have used reading other books. But now I’m much more inclined to give up at an earlier stage

  9. On translations, I believe European readers are much more likely to read books translated from languages other than their own than people in the U.S. It seems that U.S. readers usually read books by U.S. writers, secondarily books from Britain. Maybe it’s the prominence of U.S. publishers’ works in bookstores and at online sites. Or maybe it’s the isolation of the U.S. from European, Asian and other cultures. The U.S. is oceans away from other continents except for South America. So there isn’t as much interaction with people from other countries.

    1. I believe that even UK books are sometimes edited for the US market. It is a different philosophy of reading, isn’t it, always seeking out the familiar. I prefer to seek out the adventure, even if it’s not always successful.

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