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Archive for the category “Reviews”

Parenthood, Loss and Grief: Reading with a Theme

It’s typical of my reading: I have a higgledy-piggledy collection of books on my night-table, get distracted by someone’s urgent recommendation, read with a fine disregard for the original plan… and nevertheless find a pattern. This time, it’s about a parent learning to deal with the loss of a much-loved only child and finding ways of grieving and coping.

katehamerThe first book is Kate Hamer’s ‘The Girl in the Red Coat’, published by Faber and Faber today. You know how I’ve been objecting to ‘Girl’ titles, especially when they refer to mature women? Well, in this case it is not just annoying marketing to cash in on the ‘Gone Girl’ fever (with echoes of ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ thrown in for good measure). In this case, it is justified: the girl is just eight years old. Her name is Carmel and she is the daughter of Beth, a woman who is still trying to come to terms with single motherhood and her husband’s leaving her for another woman. Carmel and her mother have a very close relationship, but there is something slightly odd about Carmel’s dreaminess, her other-worldly charm and ability to understand what other people are feeling.  She sometimes blurts out funny little statements, mature beyond her age, which cast a chill on any mother’s heart. Hamer is excellent at playing on our most primitive fears as a parent, on our fierce protective instincts:

‘You realise, Mum, that I won’t always be with you,’ she said, her voice small and breathy in the fading light.

Maybe my heart should have frozen then. Maybe I should have turned and gathered her up and taken her home. Kept her shut away in a fortress or a tower. Locked with a golden key that I would swallow, so my stomach would have to be cut open before she could be found. But of course I thought it meant nothing, nothing at all.

Carmel has a tendency to fall into a daydream and wander off. Very near the start of the book, Beth loses her in a maze, so we are not surprised when the mother becomes overly anxious about letting the girl out of her sight. Luckily, the little girl likes red things, so when they go to a local storytelling festival, her mother is reassured that she can easily pick her daughter out in the crowd by her bright red coat. Unfortunately, so can others and very soon Beth’s worst fears are realised: Carmel disappears and is tricked into believing that she is not being kidnapped. Beth has to cope with her overwhelming sense of grief and guilt, her ex-husband’s accusations of not having looked after their daughter properly, the endless not knowing.

This is being marketed as a thriller, but, despite the ‘will they won’t they find the child’ element, the focus of the story is neither on the police investigation nor on actual crimes. The timeframe is much longer than the one to which crime fiction readers may be accustomed – a matter of years rather than days. This is very much a book about the process of grieving, coming to terms with all that has been lost and trying to find a reason to go on. We alternate between the points of view of Beth and Carmel and see how they both fight to keep hold of their identity and their memories of each other. They each find support and friendship in the most unlikely of places.

Written in a very oral, often breathless style, liberally sprinkled with lyrical passages, it’s a book you have to surrender to and just go with the flow. It starts out as a familiar British domestic thriller, and then morphs into a tale of poverty, miracle healings, deceit and a need to believe which seems to come out straight out of ‘True Detective’. Child narrators can be tricky to handle, but on the whole Carmel’s voice rings true: she is, after all, a very precocious eight-year-old. It is Beth, however, who is the most moving, whom  I can identify with, and she has pushed through her pain to become a philosopher and a poet:

I have a strange image of the two of us. That all these years we were tiny insects and the world was made of a huge beast – some kind of cattle. That we roamed and roamed across its back and even climbed up, one on the tip of each horn, and from there we tried to wave to each other. But being tiny we could not see, and the chasm was too great, and there wasn’t anything that could bridge that gap.

routeMingarelliIn the second book, Hubert Mingarelli’s ‘La route de Beit Zera’ (my translation: ‘The Road to Beit Zera’), set in present-day Israel, Stepan has lost his son Yankel because of a shooting at a border crossing into Palestine. He knows exactly where his son has fled to: New Zealand, and he writes to him every day, ruining his eyesight to make little boxes that he sells for a pittance, trying to save up enough money to visit his son. His only companion is his faithful dog, now grown old and incontinent, although he receives occasional visits from his old friend Samuelson, who used to be a border guard like him, and therefore understands the mix of shame, fear and compassion of his old life.  Israeli novels tend to avoid describing the Arab-Israeli conflict and mutual distrust, and it could be argued that Mingarelli is French and therefore not able to understand the complexity of the situation, but it seems to me he describes those ambiguous feelings very well:

…every night he’d fall asleep in the company of all those that he’d stopped and searched, on the street, at the barriers. He took with him in his sleep their empty gaze, disguising their hatred. And when he woke up, he was afraid of all these men and hated them just as much as they hated him. This fear grew, night after night, but whenever he had to search an Arab who was the same age as his father, he tried to impress upon him, with his hands, that he had no wish to humiliate him, and in patting him all along the body as cautiously as possible, he expected some kind of gesture, something impossible, a small flicker of gratitude in his eyes. But his gaze remained resolutely empty and later, in his sleep, turned murderous and full of hatred.

A young Arab boy comes into Stepan’s life. He appears wordlessly from the edge of the forest and forms a deep bond with Stepan’s dog, although the two of them barely exchange any words. He comes and slips away at night, doesn’t reappear for days, but gradually Stepan starts to look forward to his visits.  They are united in their suffering as they watch the decline of the dog, a decline they are powerless to stop. Perhaps the boy or the dog or both represent Stepan’s son, or maybe they are ways in which he can expiate his past.

Mingarelli has endless compassion for each one of his characters: we enter the cheerful world of the Palestinian man who is accidentally shot, as he returns from work, trying to find a name for his soon-to-be-born son; we see how Samuelson’s drunken stupor momentarily relieves his pain; towards the end of the book, we even become acquainted with the boy’s mother, who trembles with fear every time her son goes away she knows not where, yet learns not to ask questions; and, of course, the nameless dog, who can’t quite gambol through the forest anymore to enjoy her greatest pleasure in life: drinking water from the pools formed at the roots of trees.

From babelio.com

From babelio.com

Sadly, Mingarelli’s book is currently only available in French. His deceptively brief yet very moving novellas are ripe for translation, however, and I don’t just say that because he is practically a neighbour of mine, living in a tiny hamlet in the French Alps.  If you do want to try him in English, Portobello Books published ‘A Meal in Winter’ (transl. Sam Taylor) in 2013.

 

 

 

Also Read: Dept. of Speculation

OffillJenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation was one of those books that I really expected to like. If I just quote the blurb, you will realise that it sounds exactly like my existentially angsty cup of tea or coffee:

Dept. of Speculation is a portrait of a marriage. It is also a beguiling rumination on the mysteries of intimacy, trust, faith, knowledge, and the condition of universal shipwreck that unites us all.

And it is, indeed, beautifully written in parts, certainly thought-provoking, with glimpses of universal recognition. It’s the story of a nameless woman (initially narrating in the first person, then gradually distancing herself to become ‘she’ or ‘the wife’), who dreams of becoming a great writer, but becomes domesticated, married, a mother instead. Maternal love surprises her with its intensity, the pain of being a betrayed wife is ferocious (yet much more civilised and philosophical than the raw cry of abandonment of Elena Ferrante’s heroine). There is something of the tragicomic musings of Jewish introspection of the early Woody Allen movies – or is that just the New York style? A layer of wit to make the pain more bearable. It is a very personal and often funny story of how, little by little, we get snowed under by life’s demands. We compromise and dead-end. In the end, life is made up of these small everyday emergencies such as bedbugs, soul-destroying jobs that pay the rent, a colicky baby, trying to keep up with the organised mothers at school. At some point, however, we stop to ask ourselves: is this what I really want? How did I end up like this? So, in many ways, this book is an extended description of mid-life crisis

There are whole passages that I want to underline or keep in my quotations folders:

My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.

I would give it up for her, everything, the hours alone, the radiant book, the postage stamp in my likeness, but only if she would consent to lie quietly with me until she is eighteen.

Enough already with the terrible hunted eyes of the married people. Did everyone always look this way but she is just now seeing it?

The wife reads about something called ‘the wayward fog’ on the Internet. The one who has the affair becomes enveloped in it. His old life and wife become unbearably irritating. His possible new life seems a shimmering dream… It is during this period that people burn their houses down. At first the flames are beautiful to see. But later when the fog wears off, they come back to find only ashes. ‘What are you reading about?’ the husband asks her from across the room. ‘Weather,’ she tells him.

And yet… and yet…

Much as I admire the courage to experiment in literary fiction (and wish publishers would allow more of these books to reach us readers), I do wonder if a daisy chain or even a string of pearls makes for a satisfying book. I’m probably being too severe here, but, even though there is a narrative arc here, the apparent random clustering of one idea after another just feels slightly lazy to me.

Have you read this book? And what did you make of its style?

 

 

Holiday Reading (and Snowy Pictures)

A rather unusual Monday post for me – as I’ve just come back from completely offline holidays, so have had no time to plan or prepare a thorough post. My ‘What got you hooked’ feature will have to wait until next week, and my more in-depth, ‘impeccably researched’ reviews (at least to my mind, although I inevitably think of the best things AFTER I publish the review) will appear later during the course of this week. Children’s additional week of holidays permitting.

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It was great to disconnect completely and to worry only about physical things. Will I be warm enough? Have I forgotten any goggles, gloves, boots, socks, hood, ski-helmets? Will my knees hold out for a full day’s skiing? Can I bear to carry those heavy skis a step further? And I promise you: there is nothing better than the sound of silence when you are the first down a piste, when you can feel the cold air on your face and hear the swoosh-swoosh of your skis turning in the fresh snow.

 

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There may not have been an open fireplace in the evening to savour a hot chocolate with a dash of Chartreuse (the local speciality)… but turning in early in the evening and reading in bed was equally delightful.

My reading matter could hardly have contrasted more with the view outside. I was reading Eva Dolan’s two novels about present-day Peterborough, rife with poverty, immigration problems, prostitution and crime. Eva deftly describes a small town overcome by its social problems, and the resulting picture is grim, dark, with few glimmers of hope. Perhaps best read when you can look up from the page and see a sunny landscape, where the shadows are only picturesque.

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You may think this sounds similar to J.K. Rowling’s ‘The Casual Vacancy’, which has just been adapted for TV. But it’s far better than that. First of all, both of Dolan’s books are proper crime novels, with suspense, pacing, mystery and enough twisty turns to keep any fan busy guessing. Secondly, they are pitch-perfect in describing the difficult social mix in present-day England: the tensions between the older and newer waves of immigrants; the anxiety about the overburdening of the social services, schools and hospitals; blatant and hidden xenophobia, as well as an increasingly nasty discourse about the undeserving poor and scroungers. It expresses all the fears that are beginning to haunt those of us who have not been born in the UK but have come there because of its reputation for tolerance and fair-mindedness.

tellNoTalesYet the immigrants described by Dolan are by no means all angels or innocent victims. Horrendous things happen to some of them (especially in the first novel ‘The Long Way Home’, which looks at unscrupulous companies employing foreign workers in inhumane conditions). But fear, distrust of the police force, misplaced national loyalties and the sheer desperation of survival makes them all act in dangerous ways, often not helping themselves at all in the process. So the characters are complex and flawed, and their views of the English are often quite funny (and not very complimentary).

The two investigating detectives are fascinating characters as well. Zigic was born and bred in England, but is of Croatian descent. He is usually the rational voice of the enquiry, patient, compassionate, a man sensitive to psychological and cultural nuances. And happily married, even though he wishes his wife weren’t quite so keen on an upwardly mobile lifestyle. His partner is the volatile, sparky Mel Ferreira, who came to the UK aged seven and whose Portuguese family run a pub in the local area. She relies heavily on gut instinct, is quick to flare up and take offence, yet it’s impossible not to fall in love a little with her ardent desire for social justice.

 

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But what I love best about Dolan’s books is the depth of her writing. A multitude of voices – often voices that are never heard in English fiction – are present here. Every sentence is rich with nuance, with multiple layers of meaning. It’s like hearing a complex piece of music with many instruments, after the rather monotonous strumming of simple bands.

One small descriptive passage is enough to set up all the background and contrasts of Peterborough: the cathedral town visited by tourists and the rather more scummy underbelly.

There were pop-up stores selling cheap clothes and pound shops all with the same plastic tat outside them, four different gold-cashing places which would have been based in council flats in Bretton a couple of years ago. Now they were respectable, or near enough, fences with business cards and backstreet accountants, legitimised by austerity.

She turned into the Wheelyard, a few morning drinkers sheltering under the budding cherry blossoms ont he corner, then turned along a cobbled alleyway into the cathedral precincts, high stone walls rising above her, spackled with moss and noxious yellow lichen. A loud woman with a Home Counties accent was leading a group of tourists across the cathedral green…

DolanLongThese two books should be required reading for those who laugh at UKIP and other nationalist parties, believing that they could never come to power today. They should also be read by those who fear the unknown and who find themselves sympathising with hard-core immigration policies. They are not comfort reads, but extremely thought-provoking and realistic, in their unsettling depth and refusal to find easy, neat solutions.

In the last two years, there are only a handful of writers I encountered on the page for the first time got me so excited with their perfect blend of subject matter and style: Stav Sherez, Denise Mina, Louise Penny. Now I can add Eva Dolan to this group. And one more gratuitous picture to remind me of the perfect downhill descent.

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Sometimes You Gotta Bend the Rules…

I’ve had such good intentions for this TBR Double Dare challenge and have a whole pile of books lined up on my night-table, ready to be read (not to mention my tablet).

But something always comes up and sidetracks me. I blame mostly myself and my inability to turn down a book. But the following institutions or websites or people or publishers are also partly responsible. Yes, I’m naming and shaming them. And no, they do not pay me for the publicity, but I feel they deserve it when they go above and beyond the call of duty.

Dolan1) Eva Dolan: Tell No Tales

Eva Dolan was once a fellow reviewer at Crime Fiction Lover and I always enjoyed her book recommendations (or at least hotly debated them with her). She was going to send me her well-received first novel, but somehow publicists got mixed up, it ended up in the wrong place, others were keen to get their paws on it… so I bought it myself on Kindle. When the second one came out, she was adamant that this time I would get a review copy. As time passed and there were still no signs of it being sent to me, Eva took matters into her own capable hands and posted one to me herself, with a lovely note. And, bless her, I haven’t even got around to reading the first one yet! So of course I’m leaving everything else to one side and will be binge-reading her two books these upcoming holidays.

Will I be slightly biased? You bet! But her topics of immigration and grittiness sound just up my street…

Hardisty2) Paul Hardisty: The Abrupt Physics of Dying

Some publishers are just so tireless on behalf of their authors that they carry you along with them on the crest of their enthusiasm. Karen Sullivan is such a woman. Previously a managing editor at Arcadia, where she introduced me to Tore Renberg, Jaume Cabre, Dominique Manotti and Domingo Villar, she left the company in 2014 to set up her own publishing house Orenda, following a strategic review which led to a severely slashed 2015 list of books at Arcadia. With a particular fondness for crime thrillers and literature in translation, Karen is a warm, loud and personable defender of each and every one of her titles, and she is great at building a loyal following of book bloggers and reviewers. She sent me a copy of this book, even though I warned her that I would not be able to participate in a blog tour at this moment in time. I may keep this one to read in April, but it looks like an interesting eco-thriller meets big business meets international action (and frighteningly plausible).

3) Charlotte Otter: Balthasar’s Gift

This book was reviewed over at Smithereen’s blog . This is a blog I’ve enjoyed for a couple of years now and, since the author lives in France too, we’ve exchanged a few personal messages. So I mentioned that it looked interesting and, hey presto, she kindly sent a copy to me, saying that she had got two by accident. Such a lovely gesture – and just goes to show what good friendships we can build online. Another one that I will leave until April/May, though!

Camille4) Pierre Lemaitre: Camille

I’ve reviewed both of Lemaitre’s previous novels and interviewed the author for Crime Fiction Lover, so it’s not surprising that the publisher Quercus automatically sent me the final volume in the trilogy. I am really looking forward to this one. I have a weakness for this author: he always manages to surprise me: a consummate storyteller, despite his rather graphic content. I also really enjoyed his WW1 novel. So this one will be read and reviewed before the end of February.

5) Michel Bussi: After the Crash

Michel Bussi is a huge bestseller in France, but I’d never read any of his books. However, when I heard that he would be published for the first time in English by Orion Books in March, and would I like to take a look at this book and perhaps interview the author, how could I refuse? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t count for my TBR challenge, as it’s a review (i.e. ‘work’) book. And besides, I’m always a fan of translated fiction, especially French fiction, especially crime fiction. I’m currently reading this and will review it by the end of February on Crime Fiction Lover.

6) Netgalley and Book Bloggers:

Yes, I apportion the blame equally: on book bloggers such as Lonesome Reader and Crime Reader Blog for making these books sound so enticing, and on Netgalley for making it so easy to access these latest releases. So now I have added SJ Watson’s Second Life and Clare Mackintosh’s I Let You Go to my TBR pile…

One of my local libraries.

One of my local libraries.

7) Library:

How dare these village libraries stock so many tempting titles, both in French and in English? They have no business enticing me through their doorway under the pretext of returning the children’s books and then whacking me over the head with irresistible stuff such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or Karim Miské’s Arab Jazz. Both books dispell the myth of successful racial and cultural integration (at least on a larger societal level, rather than the individual one) – and they do it with wit, verve and sadness.

 

 

The Euphoria of Anthropology

euphoriaThis is a long overdue review of Lily King’s ‘Euphoria’, a novel based on the life and loves of Margaret Mead and her two anthropologist husbands, Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson. It is also a life-lesson for me: don’t leave it too long before you review a book you liked, just because you think you’ll be able to write something wiser, wittier, more in-depth about it.

You won’t. And you’ll have forgotten most of the reasons why you loved it in the first place.

Margaret Mead’s autobiography ‘Blackberry Winter’ is one of the reasons I decided to become an anthropologist. She was one of the superstars of anthropology and, no matter how much subsequent debate there has been about her conclusions, no one doubts her passion and unabashed curiosity for other people and cultures.  Outspoken and candid in most personal matters, she is nevertheless coy about the few months she spent in what must have been a tense relationship triangle with Bateson and Fortune in 1933 in New Guinea. I was somewhat worried that Lily King would romanticise and sensationalise the situation to the detriment of the real people and the anthropology. Would I love a book that reimagined my childhood heroes beyond all recognition?

But love it I did, although I struggled to find my bearings in the opening chapter. Who is doing the observing and the talking? The woman is not named at first, and there are two other women to add to the confusion. Are these characters heading out or coming back? Perhaps this is a deliberate construct, to give the reader an example of what it is like for an anthropologist going into an unknown culture, where none of the usual rules or landmarks make sense.

After that, however, the narrative settled down, and the action is perceived largely through the eyes of Andrew Bankson (the Bateson character), including what he imagines Nell Stone’s (the Margaret Mead character) life in the field to be like, interspersed with extracts from her diary. The rather repulsive husband Fen (the Fortune character) is only ever described by these two main protagonists, so does not get his say. He appears to be struggling to make a lasting impression in anthropology, is envious of his wife’s fame and constantly belittles her work ethic. ‘Got your Novel Prize yet, Nellie?’ he asks whenever she receives her long-delayed mail, and hurts her in rather symbolic ways (damaging her glasses, her typewriter, her body).

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.

Bateson, Mead and Fortune in 1933. Library of Congress.

Atlhough the author imagines a completely different resolution to the story of this explosive trio, I was surprised how closely she stuck to some of the biographical elements. The characteristics of the tribes they visited are accurately described; the Ruth Benedict and Franz Boas mentor characters reappear as Helen and  himself respectively. Bateson was indeed as much affected by the death of his two older brothers as the fictional Bankson is in the book.

The four-fold scheme of cultural ‘temperaments’ were indeed formulated by Margaret and Bateson at the time, based on the manuscript of Benedict’s work ‘Patterns of Culture’, which they received in the field. Although this theoretical model has since been discredited (partly because of the misuse the Nazis made of such models), King does a great job of describing the excitement, the beauty of frenzy, which overcomes researchers when they think they might be on the brink of a great discovery. This is the ‘euphoria’ of the title, although it is also described elsewhere in the book as the moment, typically two months into fieldwork, when a culture suddenly begins to make sense.

It’s a delusion — you’ve only been there eight weeks — and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Another aspect of the novel which I enjoyed was the implied contemporary reassessment of the way anthropology was conducted back in the 1930s. Although they mean well, there is an unspoken ‘white man’ arrogance about the way in which the researchers descend upon a village with all of their belongings, rope people into building a treehouse for them, attempt to impose a schedule on them for interviews and observations etc.

The balance between love affair and professional fulfillment is just about right. The author manages to make anthropology – or perhaps just intellectual quest for excellence and meaning – sexy, despite the flies, the malaria, the self-doubts and the lack of plumbing.

lilykingThe ending, however, diverges sharply from the real life stories – and the love story between Nell and Andrew is perhaps all the more beautiful for it. Back in the real world, Bateson married his princess, and they did do some successful fieldwork together in Bali and they had a daughter (who also became an anthropologist). However, they got divorced ten years later and their grand unifying construct of cultural patterns amounted to nothing.

Fiction! It trumps reality every single time.

 

The Rhythm of Paris 19eme: Arab Jazz

From Telerama.fr

From Telerama.fr

The book’s title references James Ellroy’s novel ‘White Jazz’ (the main protagonist’s favourite crime read), but this is a very different kind of story.

It’s not just Arab music in the 19th district of Paris, it’s also mosques, Jewish barbers, black youths hanging out on street corners, Armenian shopkeepers, Turkish kebab shops… It’s this frenetic bustle of people which documentary film-maker Karim Miské potrays so well in his first novel Arab Jazz. And it’s at  this level – capturing the sounds, smells, food, jargon, eccentric characters – that the book succeeds. The crime thriller element of it is secondary – and those who are expecting a thundering ride of a rollercoaster mystery will be disappointed. However, it succeeds as a fascinating social study into the roots of fundamentalism (of whichever religious stripe) and the urban turmoil of present-day Paris.

Ahmed Taroudant has all but retreated from normal life.  He tries to go out as little as possible, stocking pasta, crackers and a few bottles of wine in his flat, which is by now so full of books that he can barely find his way to the fridge. He never knew his father, his mother is in a mental hospital and he himself is clinically depressed. His only two joys in life are: buying crime fiction in bulk from an Armenian second-hand bookshop and his pretty neighbour Laura. Laura is an air hostess and he looks after her orchids when she is away on her frequent travels.

Then, one evening, he finds Laura killed and displayed in a grotesque fashion, strung up above his balcony. There are disturbing elements to this murder which suggest it may have been a religiously motivated killing. Ahmed is terrified he will be a prime suspect, but the shock jolts him out of his lethargy and he starts collaborating with the police to find the real culprits.

P1020817You could argue that Miské leaves no stone unturned in his quest for diversity: the two main investigators are Jewish and Breton, and there is a steady parade of imams, rabbis, Jehovah’s Witnesses, blacks, whites and everything in-between in the pages of his book. We find out relatively early on who the baddies are, certainly before the police do, and it all becomes a bit of an international conspiracy with drug links. From that point of view, I did not find the plot hugely exciting.

However, the local colour and atmosphere kept me reading on. I have a soft spot for the 19th arrondissement, as we stayed there during our most recent holiday in Paris. It contains the beautiful park Buttes-Chaumont (featuring in the latest series of ‘Spiral’ too), as well as multi-ethnic shops and restaurants, which give it a cool, happening vibe for tourists. Beneath the scrubbed up veneer, it has its fair share of social problems and the author does not shy away from those. Above all, I enjoyed the relationships between the young people who grew up in the same area, went to the same schools, formed a hip-hop band together and then lost hope and started listening to hate-filled preachers.

karim-miskeTalk about great timing: MacLehose Press publishes this just as the Charlie Hebdo and subsequent Paris attacks turned the spotlight onto the French capital. The debates will rage on about the causes of radicalisation of Muslim youth in France, but in his book and interviews, the author makes clear that not much has changed since the banlieues (suburban) riots in 2005. If  you live in those ghettos, ‘your chance of getting a job if you are a young man is very limited. That is true if your name is  Mohamed. It is probably also true if your name is Michel.’ The one slender glimmer of hope is in the friendship across racial and religious divides between the young girls in the neighbourhood

 

 

 

 

The Fiction of Abandonment

Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment and Tamaz Chiladze’s The Brueghel Moon are both about the breakdown of marriage and the disastrous effects this has on the psyche of the person who is left behind. Both of them also show, with devastating clarity, how the abandoned partner then proceeds to wreak havoc on the people around them as they struggle to come to terms with their new situation and identity. They are anything but dry reads with a thesis, however.

BrueghelMoonChiladze is a Georgian poet, novelist and playwright and comes from a notable literary family: his mother was a poet, his younger brother was also a poet and journalist, credited with playing an important role in the resurrection of Georgian literature in the post-Stalinist era. Have you ever read a Georgian author before? No, neither have I – so it’s kudos to Dalkey Archive for opening up this chapter and this world for us. And it’s clearly a very different world indeed.

However, I can now add Georgia to my Global Reading Challenge – as an unexpected (and controversial) entrant for Europe. Yes, there has been some debate whether Georgia, which is located on the Caucasian peninsula, is in Europe or in Asia, but the population certainly considers itself more European than anything else.

‘Ultimately, the function of literature is to intensify mystery, not to solve it,’ Chiladze says in an interview – and he certainly succeeds in that. It’s the story of a psychotherapist, Levan, who is suffering a mid-life crisis and starts blurring the borders between his personal and his professional life. His wife leaves him just as the novel opens. Levan is baffled but emotionally frozen, yet soon embarks upon illicit relationships with not just one but two of his patients – the enigmatic Nunu (an astrophysicist who appears to know some state secrets and who perhaps was involved in her husband’s death) and the fragile, depressed Ana-Maria, wife of the French ambassador, who attempted to commit suicide. The points of view shift between these three main protagonists, sometimes within the same chapter, from 1st to 3rd person, so it’s not always easy to tell who says what. The voices themselves are not distinct enough. These are all intellectually gifted people perpetually on the edge of a breakdown.

I found the perpetual shifts confusing: just as I was warming to one particular voice, I had to acquaint myself with a new one. I also found the monologues of Levan at times a little too self-referential, too didactic. For example:

My composure is an act, a ploy. My professional mask. The questions asked by my patients might sound abnormal, but are deeply human and only someone hiding behind the mask of composure can ward them off… I have erected a lofty wall around myself, which means not only that it’s impenetrable for others, but that my essence can’t get out either, being confined within, unable to splash in the stormy waves of what’s called Life…

A contrast to the ‘splashing’ in emotional and stormy waves in Ferrante’s book, obviously. There was something a little arid about The Brueghel Moon, which didn’t quite allow me to fully engage .I’m not sure if it’s the translation or the lack of contextual knowledge on my part. Nevertheless, this was an interesting depiction of a country and period in recent history about which I know very little.

daysabandonFerrante’s book has the upper hand when it comes to reader engagement: by focusing on just one narrator, one side of the story, we have a coherent, undiluted dramatic monologue. And what a monologue it is! It sweeps the reader (and all else before it) away in a relentless turmoil and maelstrom of emotions. This is bold, brassy, uncensored description of wallowing in self-pity, anger, desire for revenge, confusion and loss of self-esteem. And it’s all described in Technicolor, not in a genteel, quiet way. This way of handling emotions is not that unfamiliar to me coming from a Latin culture: we are noisy and expressive and shameless. Think of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or All About My Mother - or indeed pretty much any Almodovar film. Think of the impassioned gesticulation of Camilleri’s characters in his Montalbano novels.

Yet the narrative is tightly controlled. It all starts in a matter-of-fact way. “One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave me.” Olga is thirty-eight, tidy, neat, precise, the kind of woman who always puts in commas and avoids the melodramatics of her family back in Naples. She is married to Mario, lives in Turin and has two young children, a girl and a boy. So Olga’s descent into a messy hell of bereavement is all the more shocking.

The author knows exactly what she is doing, however, how much to reveal and how she wants us to view her main character, even though the language and thoughts seem to flow so naturally and uncensored. Olga behaves erratically, sometimes descending into farcical situations (the shards in the pasta sauce) or tragicomedy (being locked inside the house, unable to open the door, with a dying dog, a child with a high temperature, and no telephone connection).

Her  internal monologue appears to be captured in a literal transcription, with no filter, admitting even her most bizarre, unsayable thoughts: what if she just left her children in the park? what if she were to use her neighbour as a sexual prop? I could not help but feel sorry for her, deeply empathetic to her plight, yet also faintly repulsed and wanting to shake her out of her stupor. Olga has given up her own ambitions and career for marriage and motherhood, and now is furious at the double betrayal: by societal expectations, but also by biology. Her chilling condemnation of maternal instinct is miles away from the cosy pictures we get to see elsewhere.

I was like a lump of food that my children chewed without stopping; a cud made of a living material that continually amalgamated and softened its living substance to allow two greedy bloodsuckers to nourish themselves, leaving on me the odor and taste of their gastric juices. Nursing, how repulsive, an animal function.

Ultimately, both of the main protagonists of these novels are self-centred, self-absorbed, but not really self-aware. That’s why I suspect they are quite credible descriptions of the despair of abandonment, even if they manifest themselves in different ways. I would certainly pick the Ferrante book over the other, partly because I can relate better to a female character, but also because on this occasion I prefer my emotions out in the open.

 

Reading Challenges Update

This is a bit early for a monthly reading update, but I seem to be currently stuck in three books which will take me through right to the end of January and beyond, so it is fair to say that the ten books below are the only ones I read through January.

My only New Year’s resolutions have been my reading challenges. I have signed up for three of them – how have I fared this month? Well, it’s a mixed picture, but I’m not quite ready to give up on my resolutions just yet.

2015global_reading_challengev21) Global Reading Challenge hosted by Kerrie over at Mysteries in Paradise: I’m making it easy on myself this year and opting for the Easy Level – one book from each of the 7 continents (Africa, Asia, Australasia/Oceania, Europe, North America, South America, plus a new continent – Antarctica or a new threshold you are willing to pass – paranormal, historical, space, sea). The reason I have pulled back a little is because I want to choose really brand-new settings/authors, rather than falling back on my usual French/German/Scandinavian/South African staples. So, although I read 3 French books, 1 Japanese book, 1 German book, 1 Irish and 1 Swedish book and 1 ‘vampirish’ novel this month. I am reluctant to put any of them down as my European component. Because none of that would be new to me. Mission not accomplished. Have to do better next month!

2) January in Japan Challenge hosted by Tony Malone at Tony’s Reading List. Not quite good enough. I only managed to finish one book: Kanae Minato’s Confessions and am still in the midst of reading Natsume Sōseki’s last, unfinished novel Light and Dark. As for my ambition to read the new(ish) translation of Tales of Genji (Royall Tyler version): well, this will have to wait, but will hopefully be my epic undertaking for the year.

tbr-dare-20143) TBR Double Dog Dare  hosted by James at James Reads Books. This is a last-ditch attempt to bring some order into the chaos which is my TBR pile – overflowing on shelves, on the floor and threatening to inundate my laptop and tablet as well. The aim is to not buy any new books until I have made a sizeable dent in my pile of ready and waiting books. With a little cheating. i.e. borrowing from libraries just before the holidays and last minute purchasing of books in 2014, I managed to do quite well with this challenge – victory!

The three library books I borrowed were all in French, so they don’t count, because it’s like work (improving my vocabulary, making the most of my current location etc. etc.) They were:

  • Patrick Modiano: L’Herbe des nuits

Given the blurb on the back, I was expecting more of a crime fiction type mystery, but it’s the usual Modiano fare about the reliability of memory, how well we really know people, trying to recapture the past and whether nostalgia really lives up to its name.

  • Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls

poubelles-girls-jeanne-desaubyA touching Thelma and Louise type story of two women living on the margins of French society and the unlikely friendship which arises between them. A depressingly realistic story of the poor and downtrodden, but also quite funny, with fascinating, well-rounded characters and juicy dialogue.

  • Daniel Pennac: Comme un roman

An essay about the joys of reading and how schools, parents, teachers and book snobs are in danger of killing off the joys of reading for young people. Contains the famous Ten Comandments of Reading (or the Rights of the Reader)

1. Le droit de ne pas lire. The right to not read.
2. Le droit de sauter des pages. The right to skip pages
3. Le droit de ne pas finir un livre. The right to not finish a book.
4. Le droit de relire. The right to reread.
5. Le droit de lire n’importe quoi. The right to read whatever you please.
6. Le droit au bovarysme (maladie textuellement transmissible). The right to Bovaryism (textually transmitted disease).
7. Le droit de lire n’importe où. The right to read wherever you please.
8. Le droit de grappiller. The right to dip into books.
9. Le droit de lire à haute voix. The right to read out loud.
10. Le droit de se taire. The right to shut up.

The other books have all been from my existing shelves and most of them have been reviewed elsewhere:

  • Tana French: The Likeness – bought second-hand last year . My first, but certainly not my last Tana French book. Although the plot did seem implausible in places, I really enjoyed the engaging writing, poetic at times, and the genuine sadness of the failure of any idealistic community.
  • Lynn Shepherd: The Pierced Heart  – ebook sent to me by the author in exchange for an honest review (having reviewed a previous book of hers). The vampire story for those who do not like vampire stories (which I don’t).
  • Jonas Karlsson: The Room  – Netgalley ebook sent by publisher way back in November. A perfect modern fable about corporate life and the death of the imagination.
  • Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train – downloaded from Netgalley several months ago. The life of others always seems more attractive when we are making a mess of our own… and when we see them from a distance. A psychological thriller full of unreliable narrators and domestic claustrophobia.
  • girlwhowasntFerdinand von Schirach: The Girl Who Wasn’t There - copy sent by publisher for review on CFL. Not really a crime novel, more of a ‘coming of age’ story, plus a courtroom drama debating issues of justice, art, trial by media and much more – beautifully written.

The final book I read this month was Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, which I bought in the last few weeks of 2014 following the review by Jacqui. I had previously read the reviews by Tony and Bibliobio, but kept putting it off as far too depressing a subject. Then Jacqui gave me the final nudge. A very emotional read, engaging all your senses – abandon all rationality ye who enter this maelstrom! Will review in more depth shortly.   

 

 

January in Japan: ‘Confessions’ by Kanae Minato, trans. Stephen Snyder

ConfessionsJapanese literature has more than its fair share of unsettling tales of dark motivation and devious revenge. This latest addition (new to English, at least – it was originally published in 2008 in Japan, where it became a bestseller and was turned into a film) is particularly horrific, since it deals with the teacher/pupil relationship and the psychology of thirteen year olds in middle school. When I was training to become a teacher, my fellow students and I only half-jokingly referred to the class of 13 year olds as ‘the monsters’. They were too old to believe anything that their teacher said, but too immature to have a clear understanding of the impact of their actions. They were also very vulnerable to peer pressure and herd instinct, something William Golding (himself a former teacher, like Kanae Minato) understood only too well and fully explored in ‘The Lord of the Flies’.

This is a ‘Lord of the Flies’ for the modern age, transposed to Japan and to the supposedly civilised and structured confines of a school.

The story starts with one of the most compelling chapters of 2nd person POV that I’ve read in a long time. Well, not quite 2nd person: it’s a teacher addressing a class on the last day of school, as she announces her retirement and the reasons for it. We find out quite a bit about Moriguchi sensei’s rather sad life: not able to fully pursue her passion for science, she moves into teaching for job security.  When her engagement ends in tragedy (she discovers her fiance has AIDS), she nevertheless goes ahead with her pregnancy and pours all of her love and devotion into her daughter. Life as a single mother is not easy, especially in Japan, and she occasionally has to bring her daughter to school with her because of lack of childcare. One day, when her daughter is on the school grounds, there appears to be a dreadful accident and she is found drowned in the pool. Moriguchi, however, calmly informs the class that she knows it was not an accident and that she believes two of the pupils in her class were to blame. She does not trust the criminal justice system to punish these minors, so she has devised a diabolical revenge plan of her own.

Each chapter that follows gives us an alternative point of view, including that of the two pupils, building layer upon layer of complexity. Although not all of the voices are equally compelling – and some voices are frustratingly missing – the book makes you question all your previous notions about guilt, revenge, innate evil and criminal intent.

This Russian dolls style of narration, stories nesting within stories, shifting points of view which make you wonder if there ever is a single correct interpretation of events, appears quite frequently in Japanese literature (think ‘Rashomon’).  It works well here, showing the profound repercussions of a single event – the tumbling of domino stones – and people’s inability to understand others, while fooling themselves that they do (or expecting them to react in certain ways). Neither adults nor children behave in admirable ways here and you cannot help but feel pity for each one of the protagonists. It has that feeling of ‘inescapable fate’ of Greek tragedy.

Perhaps too dark and crazy for readers who are not used to Japanese literature, its melodrama is toned down by a cool, detached, simple style. On the other hand, fans of crime fiction, horror and psychological thrillers will find it a compelling introduction to contemporary Japanese society.

I read this as part of Tony Malone’s wonderful initiative January in Japan. For more great links, reviews and readalongs, head over there.

 

 

Review of The Room by Jonas Karlsson (transl. Neil Smith)

It’s that time of year when Christmas revelry has given way to austerity, when budgets are strained and when the daily grind of work and commuting becomes very nearly unbearable. So much so that the last or last-but-one Monday in January is frequently (though controversially) cited as Blue or Suicide Monday, the most depressing day of the year.

THE ROOM cover (1)So what better time to read this short but deadly satire against cubicle life? It is a wickedly humorous analysis of the lows (and no highs) of office life, as encountered by rather strait-laced, deadly-earnest but initially naive protagonist Björn. His organisation, which goes by the rather sinister name of ‘The Authority’, looks favourably upon those employees who are positive, efficient, ambitious and meticulous. Björn feels he has all of these qualities, but none of his colleagues or bosses seem to agree. It’s only when he discovers a mysterious room at the end of their open-plan office, that he finds a congenial place for his finicky temperament, a place where he can get his best work done, where he can really shine. Unfortunately, none of his other colleagues can enter or even see the room. Suspicion, misunderstandings and office wrangling for power abound and fester. As readers, we are swept along with the torrent of acerbic, witty observations, always seeing a little beyond Björn’s blinders, but also acknowledging the justice and sheer fun of his observations. I love the way he pokes fun at corporate jargon.

I got an email from Karl the other day. It was a group email to the whole department. The introduction alone made me suspect trouble: We will be putting staffing issues under a microscope. Anyone with even a basic understanding of the language knows that you put things under ‘the’ microscope, with the definite article. (Sadly, this sort of sloppiness is becoming more and more common as text message and email are taking over.) I let it pass this time, but knew that I would have to act if it happened again.

We suspect he might not be a reliable narrator, but his colleagues’ reactions are inexcusable, veering towards bullying. Case in point: the incident with the ‘indoor shoes’, which the well-intentioned but weak boss Karl buys for Björn. This results in a murmur of discontent around the office. This passage illustrates perfectly the author’s minimalist style:

‘Well…’ Jens said from over in the corner. ‘I’d just like to know… how much those shoes cost?’

‘The shoes?’ Karl said, stretching to his full height.

Jens nodded, with a self-important expression on his face.

‘I mean, they weren’t free, were they?’

‘No,’ Karl said, picking up a pen, which he drummed idly against the edge of the desk. ‘I took the liberty of – ‘

Jens didn’t let Karl finish his sentence.

‘So how daft do you have to behave to get a pair like that?’ he went on, to scattered laughter.

The absurd situations described with a straight face remind me of Eugène Ionesco. We find in both authors the same feeling of alienation, that step back to examine the banal everyday things we take for granted… and seeing them afresh for the ridiculous and surreal experiences which they really are.  Another way to read ‘The Room’ is as a failure of imagination, the tendency of the mainstream to fear those who are ‘different’. It is clear that the office workers object to Björn’s behaviour not because it threatens them in any way, but because he refuses to conform and fit in, because he is not part of the herd.

This book falls into a long tradition of quiet but steadfast rebellion against the tyranny of work. In Balzac’s ‘The Physiology of the Employee’, we read about personal expenses of employees being thoroughly examined, benefits being cut, and my all-time favourite sentence about the door on which ‘the sign reads “Human Resources,” which really strictly means “Human Capital,” and in practice amounts to little more than “Slave” ‘. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener is every bit as prickly, difficult and unknowable as Björn. ‘The Authority’ for which Björn works has echoes of Kafka’s faceless, relentless bureaucracy in ‘The Castle’ (and Kafka’s diaries are full of his exhaustion and revulsion for office work). More recently, Ricky Gervais as David Brent made us squirm in recognition with his mockumentary ‘The Office’.

For a taster of the book (read by the author with a wonderful sing-song Swedish inflection), try this:

 

https://soundcloud.com/vintagebookspodcast/the-room-by-jonas-karlsson-what-are-you-doing/s-IGmxT

And here is the prize-winning animation of the book’s theme by a group of students from Kingston University:

The book is published today by Vintage Books in the UK. Thank you to the publisher and to Netgalley for an advance copy of this essential reading for anyone who has ever despaired of corporate life.

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