Joanna Biggs: A Life of One’s Own

Joanna Biggs: A Life of One’s Own. Nine Women Writers Begin Again, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2023.

It is reassuring to see that other readers examine the lives and works of certain favourite authors as a sort of guide or inspiration for their own lives – or perhaps as a constant conversation with their own lives. Perhaps there is also solace to be found that in this day and age we have more opportunities as a woman than many of our forebears did, and also anger and sadness on their behalf – and perhaps a little for our own sake, that things have not progressed more since.

I was not surprised to see a blurb on the cover of this book from Francesca Wade, whose Square Haunting treads similar ground, exploring women’s aspiration to be financially and creatively independent. However, while that one was linked to a particular place (Mecklenburgh Square in London), this one is linked by Biggs’ own life. When her mother started suffering from early-onset dementia and her marriage fell apart, Biggs reassessed her life and revisited some of the most influential women writers as she was growing up. This was always going to be a personal, idiosyncratic selection; while I share some of her favourites (Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir and Sylvia Plath), I can’t help wishing she’d included some less widely-known authors, although I suppose Mary Wollstonecraft is nowadays mostly known as Mary Shelley’s mother. The other chapters include George Eliot, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Elena Ferrante, so there’s an attempt to introduce some diversity in terms of language, race and class.

Having said that I too mine other women writers’ works and lives for comparisons with my own life, I don’t think I’d have written a book about it. You’ll notice that the book only has eight chapters featuring eight women writers, but the subtitle mentions nine: the ninth being of course Biggs herself. She weaves her personal story throughout each chapter, which can sometimes be quite repetitive. It requires a certain amount of ego to draw parallels between herself and these women writers many of us have idolised. To be fair, I’m not sure that Biggs has that tremendous ego, but was probably advised by agents or publishers that this was a more unusual and interesting angle to approach what would otherwise be simply short biographies. Or add a hook to a memoir that might otherwise feel quite banal.

It is certainly a trend at the moment in literature: the auto-fiction of Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk, memoirs that feel like essays and link up with the author’s other interests (nature – Amy Liptrot, languages – Polly Barton and Mireille Gansel, travelling and property – Deborah Levy, health and community building – Tanya Shadrick and Polly Atkin), fiction that feels like memoirs (Jenny Offill). And on and on the list goes and I have to admit I like reading most of them. I wonder if blogging and appearing on social media has made the ‘I’ so much more interesting in narration. Instead of the long-vaunted (and perhaps mourned) ‘death of the author’, we have the author front, back and centre of any work.

Does it work? Well, a couple of times I felt the comparisons were a little forced and would have liked to see less of the author’s own tribulations. (Perhaps I’d have liked it more as a separate memoir, although the author chooses to remain relatively discreet about the details of the breakdown of her marriage.) Her personal reactions to these women, what they meant to her, and a more in-depth reading of some of their work (Maggie Tulliver as a heroine, or Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, for example) are the most successful sections, to my mind. I resonated most with Biggs when she expresses her own relief at regaining her heroine Simone, freed from her concrete block as an icon, allowing her to be a flawed, real woman rather than an example to others. When she leaves enough room for the readers of her book to place themselves in that landscape, it is quite a powerful and enjoyable read, but does not add much that is new to our knowledge of those writers.

P.S. Thank you for Rohan Maitzen’s comment below, which reminded me of one book that combined the personal with the biographical and sensitive analysis in a way that really moved me and did bring a lot of new knowledge: Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which I reviewed for Shiny New Books.

Deconstruction of the American Western: Winter Counts

David Heska Wanbli Weiden: Winter Counts, Simon & Schuster, 2020.

A break from the Far East in May with this book, which I had to instantly acquire and read after hearing the author speak at a fascinating panel on social justice at Bristol CrimeFest. The author is descended from the Sicangu Lakota people, although he did not grow up on a reservation. His mother, however, was raised on the Rosebud reservation and he is a frequent visitor there, so he knows what he is talking about (and I’m not for a minute suggesting that authors have to write exclusively from their own experiences, but in this case you can feel that additional layer of depth – both of description and of feeling). Wanbli Weiden manages to sneak in social commentary and cultural references without making it sound like he’s just blurting forth all his research. It all feels like an integral part of the story. For example, here is a succinct yet very powerful description of the culinary delights on the reservation:

There were only three restaurants on the rez. A sandwich shop, with perpetually soggy cold cuts and wilted vegetables, the grill at the Depot bar, and JR’s Pizza, a shack selling something that vaguely resembled Italian food. I had a few bucks left… and wanted to treat Nathan, so I took him to the pizza place, which was his favorite. There was a flyer tacked outside the restaurant with a picture of a smiling young woman: MISSING, DONNA FLYING HAWK, HAVE YOU SEEN ME?A grungy rez dog sat on the sidewalk outside the place, eating what looked like a dead bird.

The story features Virgil Wounded Horse (how is that for a charactonym?). The classic lone ranger of the American Western is a vigilante but he is not the stereotypical white man. He is the local law enforcer on the reservation when the tribal council fails to act and the American legal system refuses to act. I was stunned to hear that Native American nations are not allowed to prosecute serious felony crimes that are committed on their own lands, but that federal authorities usually can’t be bothered to deal with these cases. So justice gets stuck in a no-man’s-land and criminals soon realise they can get away with rape, domestic violence, GBH or even murder, and the victims’ families’ only hope is to pay Virgil to enact some ‘eye for an eye’ type of justice.

Our first impression of Virgil is not really a positive one, as we assist at quite a visceral scene of him beating up a man. In fact, we might be tempted to agree with his former girlfriend Marie and her family that he is little more than a thug. However, as the story goes on, we realise that Virgil has a much softer core and even a certain moral compass. He is raising his orphaned nephew Nathan and is very worried about the future the boy might have on or outside the reservation. When a group of external drug-dealers start targeting the reservation, and he finds out that Nathan might be involved, Virgil is determined to eradicate that danger to his community. Along the way, he struggles to come to terms with his Native American heritage, which he considers more often a curse than a blessing. He has distanced himself from the Lakota traditions, while Marie is trying to bring them back for a new generation.

The plot itself is exciting and at one point nail-bitingly tense, where you aren’t sure who is going to survive. But that wasn’t my main reason for reading this – I was fascinated by the insight into an entirely different world and way of life, and angered by the discrimination that Native Americans face. The author doesn’t sugarcoat the corruption, drunkenness, drug-taking and sense of hopelessness on the reservation, but he also shows how some individuals still believe in making a difference. But then you know that I like my crime fiction to be full of social commentary and to make me think without being too preachy. This novel achieves that in spades.

A very moving story, and the writing often transcends its action-heavy roots; the language, although deliberately simple, becomes poetic and powerful:

I sat there, and the wind stopped. The sun set, but I remained. I didn’t want to get up and face what I’d almost certainly lost. What I’d lost and still had yet to lose. The country of the living was gone to me, and I knew that I’d entered a different space, one that offered no solace but only the wind and the cold and the frost. Winter counts. This was the winter of my sorrow, one I had tried to elude, but which had come for me with a terrible cruelty.

The title, Winter Counts, refers to the traditional Lakota calendar system, where each year is represented by a pictograph showing the most significant event that occurred during the past four seasons of the year, with winter often being the most difficult and cruel season for the community.

Lone Dog’s Winter Counts for the period 1800-1871, from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

Emma reviewed the book last summer, which made me put it instantly on my TBR list on Goodreads, but it took seeing the author in person to actually push me to do anything about it. I’m so glad I read it and I can’t wait for the next book in the series, which should be out by the end of this year.

Far East in May: Papua New Guinea and Japan/Singapore

Clarissa Goenawan: Rainbirds, Soho Press, 2018.

I get a little tired at times of how many foreign writers set their stories in Japan – it’s quite a different matter if it’s a memoir of living in Japan for a while like Polly Barton or Florentyna Leow, or fiction featuring someone visiting Japan from abroad (like Jessica Au). But it can feel ever so slightly like cultural appropriation when it is set in Japan and features Japanese characters, as it will inevitably be perceived as representative of that culture. Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands irritated me tremendously, for example, while Nicolas Obregon’s crime novels set in Tokyo are ok but nothing exceptional. It’s just me being grumpy, but there are so many Japanese authors out there that give us a real insight into that culture – or write about other interesting things, maybe even about life in the West?

Anyway, please ignore me when I get on my ranting-podium. This was Goenawan’s debut novel, but given that her two subsequent novels are also ‘Japanese’, we might assume that she actually lives in Japan now and is fully immersed in that culture (her author bio only says ‘an Indonesian-born Singaporean writer, so I really don’t know).

This one has been billed as ‘a spellbinding mystery’, since it opens with the murder of a young woman Keiko Ishida in the small town of Akakawa. Her brother Ren, who is about to graduate from university and also seems to be the only one from the family who cares about what happened to her, comes to pick up her belongings and to discover what happened to her. It appears that he didn’t know Keiko as well as he thought he did, and he is riddled with guilt that he wasn’t there for her. The mystery, however, is not really the point of the story. Instead, it’s about Ren spending six months replacing his sister at the cram school where she was employed and meeting all sorts of people who played a part in his sister’s life.

I found the family secrets a bit tedious, to be honest, and the book overall felt a little bit as if it were trying too hard to portray the quirkiness of Japanese culture and the melancholy/whimsical style of contemporary Japanese authors like Murakami and Kawakami. Nevertheless, it was a good enough read that I finished it in 2-3 days, just not very memorable. Also a peeve about the book cover (not the author’s fault at all, of course): why are there fish on the cover rather than birds or rain or a dreary Japanese provincial town?

Drusilla Modjeska: The Mountain, Vintage Books, 2012.

You might also accuse Modjeska of cultural appropriation for this book set in Papua New Guinea. However, this author (Australian now, although she was born in England) grew up in Papua New Guinea and lived there through most of the period described in the novel (1968-71) as the country seeks to gain its independence (which it finally did in 1975). Furthermore, several of her main characters are Australian or European, anthropologists and their wives, who have come to do fieldwork and teach at the newly-established and only half-built University of Papua New Guinea.

The book has two timelines – the present (set in 2005) and the past (1968-73). In the past, Martha, Rika, Leonard, Aaron, Milton, Jacob, Laedi are friends and a mix of nationalities, including natives of the island – they befriend each other, fall in and out of love, help each other, annoy each other, betray and hurt each other. In the present, Jericho is their son and protégé, who was raised in the United Kingdom and now decides to return to Papua New Guinea for the first time since his childhood and reconnect with his mountain village. I can see why the author included a prologue set in the present, dropping just sufficient hints to make us want to read about the past and how it got to the situation in the present, but it wasn’t necessary for my enjoyment of the book.

As with the Rainbirds book, I did not find the family secrets aspect of the story the most compelling. I was far more interested in the cultural differences and racism, the satirical eye cast upon some of the anthropologists, the descriptions of local traditions. Although the isolated village high up in the mountains described in the novel is fictional, the fjords do exist, as do the bark-cloth artefacts which the villagers try to make a ‘biznis’ of at some point. And I’m certain that many of the traditions the author describes are derived from anthropological materials, such as the description of the dance ritual lasting all night which Jericho has to participate in to win the trust of the villagers and prove himself a worthy descendant.

There are many discussions and arguments in the book about what colonialism has done to the local culture, and what independence might look like, all fascinating and only occasionally erring into the more educational rather than entertaining. But how else can you show the tensions between cultures, between the older and the younger generation?

‘I suppose it’s what happens when you’re caught between two cultures,’ Martha says when they leave. ‘Two epochs.’

‘Does that mean we take the worst from each?’ Bili snaps.

It’s easy enough for you, she says to Martha, living in Sydney, to buy the liberal version. Easy enough to say that all these cultural manifestations are equally valid, equally important. It’s another form of racism to say it’s fine if a young man dies for a cultural belief that wilfully prefers witchcraft over medical science. Is that what Martha wants? For us to say, fine, you go on believing the world is flat and the stars are made from the souls of dead ancestors and we’ll say you’re just as right as anyone else, and in the meantime those who have good hospitals will reap the rewards of your ignorance and make off with your resources.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters written from the viewpoint of the Papuans or New Guineans themselves (and I didn’t even know that the different tribes don’t consider themselves homogenous). For example, this is what Milton the writer (who studied in Melbourne) says about white people, and about his white girlfriend Tessa:

All his anger poured onto the page as he banged away at the keys: anger against Tessa for when she’d turned her back as if he’d never been there. He’d made a scene, that’s what Tessa called it… Anger at the playwright who arrived back in Melbourne from New York boasting about having met Allen Ginsberg, swaggering around with a joint in one hand and Tessa in the other. The arrogant shit. It turned out he was a cousin of Tessa’s sister’s godmother, whatever that was. These white people who wander the world peddling their belief in the artist freed from the primitive demands of kin and clan, they’re as highly regulated and interconnected as any Papuan. It turns out to matter as much to them who their families are, and who they have engaged in obligation and the play of status. It’s just not as obvious, and they don’t admit it. You’d need to be an anthropologist to make sense of it.

In the end, I wonder if my (by no means perfect, but still, reasonably good) knowledge of Japanese culture lowered my rating for Rainbirds, while my complete ignorance and therefore curiosity about Papua New Guinea increased my enjoyment of The Mountain. Still, I don’t think I’ll keep either of them on my bookshelves.

Far East in May: A Korean Crowd-Pleaser

Baek Sehee: I want to Die But I Want to Eat Tteokbokki, trans. Anton Hur, Bloomsbury, 2022.

This book is a very modern type of memoir. It originated as a blog and features the transcript of interviews with a psychiatrist from when the author was in her 20s, interspersed with her personal reflections, conclusions and lessons learnt. It became a massive bestseller in South Korean when one of the members of BTS recommended it, and I think it speaks particularly to millennial or Gen Z readers who are looking for an honest non-fictional account of what it feels like navigating your professional and personal path in today’s world.

Although outwardly successful (working as a social media manager for a publishing house, pretty, popular, often in a relationship), Baek suffered from a persistent low-level depression, a sense of hopelessness and lack of self-esteem. She was perhaps not in immediate danger of suicide, but she found it hard to motivate herself to keep going, was often hypercritical of herself and found herself in co-dependent relationships which often drove her to despair.

The therapist was perplexed when Baek asked for consent to record the sessions, and was embarrassed when they read the book, as it made them regret some of their counselling choices. Certainly from my experience of Western-style coaching, CBT and Samaritan-style listening, it felt quite interventionist, but I have to admit that I’m not familiar with how psychologists/psychiatrists work. I did like the very candid comment made by the psychiatrist at the end of the book:

This is a record of a very ordinary, incomplete person who meets another very ordinary, incomplete person, the latter of whom happens to be a therapist. The therapist makes some mistakes and has a bit of room for improvement, but life has always been like that, which means everyone’s life has the potential to become better. To our readers, who are perhaps down and out from having experienced much devastation or are living day-to-day in barely contained anxiety: I hope you will listen to a certain overlooked and different voice within you. Because the human heart, even when it wants to die, quite often wants at the same time to eat some tteokbokki, too.

Written in plain, sometimes quite clichéed language, but with a candour and immediacy which is refreshing and compelling, particularly in East Asia, where mental health issues and feelings of failure are very much still swept under the carpet. It feels quite revolutionary because it preaches individualistic values which run counter to the traditional collectivist values of Korean society.

What matter isn’t what people say but what you like and find joy in. I hope you focus less on how you look to other people and more on fulfilling your true desires.

…but I really don’t know how to tell the difference – between what I really want and what others want for me.

Of course, you could argue that a lot of misfits appear in fiction from China, Japan and Korea, but it takes a lot of courage to discuss directly what authors often portray aslant via their (often quite problematic) characters – I’m thinking of Dazai Osamu here, for example. Hearing the following said aloud (or written on paper) feels quite brave even in Western society:

It is impossible to fathom the sadness of those who are left behind, but if life gives one more suffering than death, shouldn’t we respect their right to end life? We are so bad at mourning in our society. Maybe it’s a failure of respect. Some call those who choose their own death sinners or failures or losers who give up. Is living until the end really a triumph in every case? As if there can be any true winning or losing in this game of life.

Although this sounds very dark – and I’d have hesitated to share this with my recently deceased niece or with my younger son when he was going through the worst of his depression – the author does finally figure out a way to live with her possibly lifelong condition. It may seem very obvious, but after her therapy, she realised that she should share her feelings and thoughts not just with one paid person, but also with family and friends, to balance out her own self-pity and self-consciousness, while also listening to their own concerns and stories. She also learnt to move away from her black-and-white thinking, and to accept that we are able to experience contradictory feelings simultaneously. It is a message of hope, but not unrealistically upbeat – everything will be fine now – either.

My initial thoughts while reading the book was that it felt rather simplistic both in term of ‘teachings’ and language. Less memoir and more self-help book (which are never stylistically ambitious). But after some conversations with my sons and others of their generation, I realised that they perceive the complexity and subtlety that my generation appreciate and take for granted as needlessly vague at best or insincere at worst. There are many, many more reasons to have low self-esteem nowadays, when everything is up for scrutiny and comparison online. This book addresses the younger generation’s concerns in their own language. It might not be entirely to my taste, but if it can help them forge their identity and get through the dark times, then I’m all for it.

I am always at war… Life is as messy as a bag whose owner never clears it out. You have no idea when you might reach in and pull out a piece of old trash, and you’re afraid someone is going to look through your bag someday… Their eyes seem to be looking down right at my phone screen. I’m afraid they’ll be reading my thoughts… I consider my public persona as the cover for what is underneath, a membrane no light can seep through.

By the way, I asked Anton (the translator) when I saw him at London Book Fair what tteokbokki was exactly, apparently it’s a popular street food, a kind of pasta (chewy rice cakes in fact) stewed in a spicy sauce.

Bristol CrimeFest and Far East in May

I’m not blogging as frequently as I used to, and I even forget to thank people for sharing my blog posts on social media. This is because I’ve been busy with so many things, but at some point I hope things will quieten down again.

Not the best picture, but a really fun panel, moderated in a very interesting and original and humorous way by Stephen Edger (standing)

In the meantime, I went to Bristol on Saturday for a flying visit, to see our Icelandic author Jónína Leósdóttir at Bristol CrimeFest. She was on a panel that might just win the prize for the most uncompromising title ‘Kicking Against the Pricks’ and her fellow panelists were just as fascinating as her: Emma Styles from Australia I already knew from Bloody Scotland and loved her book No Country for Girls. Antony Dunford’s Hunted addresses the subject of hunting and wildlife poaching in Africa, a subject I feel very strongly about. And the revelation to me was David Heska Wanbli Weiden from the Sicangu Lakota Nation, whose debut novel Winter Counts had sold out (so I couldn’t get it signed), but I ordered it as soon as I got home.

Jonina signing books at the festival.

Ovidia Yu: The Mushroom Tree Mystery, Constable (Little Brown), 2022.

An author I did not manage to meet in Bristol but could not resist buying a few of her books was Ovidia Yu. As if she knew that I was reading the Far East this month, there is an entire crime series set in her native Singapore. She has a cosy crime foodie series featuring Aunty Lee, but it was the historical series with determined young woman and aspiring journalist Su Lin that captivated me. The series starts in 1936 in a Singapore that was a British Crown Colony and covers the very murky and shameful period when Britain was unable to defend Singapore, but I couldn’t resist reading The Mushroom Tree Mystery first, since it takes place in 1945 just as the war is ending, when Singapore was under Japanese occupation and in very real danger of being utterly destroyed in an attempt to gain more favourable terms for surrender.

You know how much I enjoy crime fiction set in different locations, especially ones I am not very familiar with, and how I love to learn more about the past or the present society while also being entertained. This series fits the bill perfectly and I look forward to reading more. Su Lin is an engaging heroine: very smart, ambitious, able to hold her own despite her youth. Dismissed by most people (and even her own family) as ‘the Chinese girl with a limp’, she is in fact well-educated and multilingual. In this book she is part of a Japanese household that is sheltering a prestigious blind Japanese scientist, who was supposed to build a bomb similar to the atomic one. When the professor’s assistant is found dead, Su Lin herself comes under suspicion as the only foreigner in the household, but there are far deeper secrets going on, not least major disagreements about whether to end the war or not.

Enigmatic characters, an international cast, a vivid backdrop and a good mystery (even if I rather guessed the outcome). Above all, I loved the observations and wry asides of the narrator, Su Lin:

One good thing about the Occupation: there were so many real threats that we stopped imagining what could go wrong. There just wasn’t enough energy to go on worrying about everything. Instead, unless there was actually a gun pointed at you, you got on with your life. And if there was a gun pointed at you? Then either you got shot and died – or you got on with your life.

The Japanese were less aggressive towards Eurasian and Indian locals then they were to Chinese and Malays. It was part of their trying to sow dissent between the different races in Singapore. The Japanese didn’t understand that most or all of use were descended from people who’d left their old ancestral lands to make new lives for themselves. Being a Singaporean wasn’t about having a certain skin colour or religion. It was about whether you were willing to survive, and for your family and the island to survive.

It’s human instinct to want to fit in. If you can’t fit in with the majority, you try to persuade others (but mostly yourself) that you are superior to them. If you try hard enough, you may actually become superior. But you will find you still don’t fit in. The British looked different enough to feel superior just from the colour of their sunburned skin. The Japanese looked more like us so had to work harder to put us down.

There was something of a precocious child and endearing about Su Lin (although she is in her early 20s in this book), which reminded me of Flavia de Luce. I liked her experimentations with growing mushrooms, and the way she mothers the two young houseboys, her curiosity, stubbornness and courage. She is cautious at times and at other times quite impetuous. I certainly look forward to reading more about this place, this period in history and this heroine.

Far East in May: Kyoto and Shanghai

My reading plan for May was to tackle the rather scanty tomes of Far Eastern literature other than Japanese that I have on my shelves. I have some Chinese authors, but I was hoping to go a bit beyond that – and, although the two first volumes I picked are set in Japan and China respectively, they are written by authors who are originally from Malaysia, so I consider that close enough.

Tash Aw: Five Star Billionaire, Fourth Estate, 2013.

The author was in fact born in Taiwan but grew up in Malaysia, before moving to London. The characters in his novel set in Shanghai are likewise immigrants and wanderers, with links to Malaysia but trying to make a go of it in the megacity of opportunity that is Shanghai. Gary is a pop idol whose career has taken a downturn, Phoebe is an illegal immigrant but hopes to improve herself and snare a wealthy man, Justin is the heir to a powerful estate mogul who suddenly develops a conscience, Yinghui is a former student activist now turned into a successful businesswoman, and Walter is the billionaire who operates from the shadows and has mysterious links to all of them.

It’s an energetic if somewhat pedestrian piece of prose, a fast-paced story that is very easy to read. I have to admit that the mystery element of the story – what links all of those stories together – was perhaps the part that captivated me least – and it felt ultimately quite predictable, a lot of foreshadowing. I mostly liked the individual stories of hustling in the big city, with Phoebe’s story perhaps being the most compelling and sad. The description of Shanghai, the city that chews you up and spits you out, was very well done:

Yinghui recognised a restlessness in the banker’s face, a mixture of excitement and apprehension that people exhibited when still new in Shanghai, in search of something, even though they could not articulate what that something was – maybe it was money, or status, or God forbid, even love – but whatever it was, Shanghai was not about to give it to them. The city held its promises just out of reach, waiting to see how far you were willing to go to get what you wanted, how long you were prepared to wait. And until you adjusted your expectations to take account of that, you would always be on edge, for despite the restaurants and shops and art galleries and the feeling of unbridled potential, Shanghai would always seem to be accelerating a couple of steps ahead of you… You arrived thinking you were going to use Shanghai to get what you wanted, and it would take time before you realised it was using you; that it had already moved on, and you were playing catch-up.

This reminded me of my business trip to Beijing in 2015, delivering training for a major international corporation. There were so many smart young people in that room, but many of them had commutes of 2-3 hours each way and worked really long hours. In the hotel lobby, there were members of staff sleeping in armchairs, because they wouldn’t have enough time to get home before their next shift started. In the noodle bar of a posh shopping centre where I had lunch, I’d come across exhausted workers trying to have a nap during their lunch break. People were working really, really hard for the Chinese economic miracle, and those images stayed with me.

Business opportunities picture of Shanghai produced by WE Communications.

I thought this book described the relentless brutality of this Far Eastern capitalism (and the greedy land grabs in Malaysia for high-rise developments) very well. It was a fun read, if somewhat too long, and with insufficient differentiation between the five voices. But it certainly captures a particular time and place.

Florentyna Leow: How Kyoto Breaks Your Heart, Emma Press, 2023.

The author is a food writer originally from Malaysia, who lived in London before moving to Japan. She has lived mostly in Tokyo, but moved to Kyoto for nearly two years with a friend that she didn’t know very well. This book is a sort of memoir, describing the way that she and her housemate grew apart when she thought they were growing closer, and her bafflement about the end of their friendship. But it also a love song to Kyoto and the places there that she was able to make her own.

Kyoto is in many respects the exact opposite of Shanghai – where ancient tradition matters a lot and change and newness are not idolised. It has also, sadly, fallen victim to its tourist status, and the author has a lot to say about the crowded conditions at all tourist sites (which makes my heart sink at the thought that this is what we will face when we go to Japan this summer – when I went there in the early 1990s, it was nothing like that, but it’s been deliberate government policy to increase the number of visitors to Japan)

Another place I grew to dislike was Ryoan-ji, a Zen temple famed for its rock garden. The rock arrangements are supposed to facilitate meditation, but in spring and autumn it feels about as contemplative as an ice cream shop… Arashiyama was even worse. Don’t be taken in by photos that show its famous bamboo forest as a people-free piece of paradise, unless you’re willing to wake up at 5am when no one else is around. None of these places were designed for the sheer volume of visitors to Kyoto today.

Tourist picture produced by Japan Airlines.

There are a lot of interesting points made in this memoir. Leow compares the experience of white people in Japan and foreigners those like herself, who might be mistaken for a Japanese. She talks about the way she strove so hard to blend in that she began to lose her own personality.

Not only did this society encourage blending in, but serving customers was another way I had to learn how to disappear, which only reinforced my propensity for passivity and avoiding confrontation… It would take me years to unlearn the compulsion to bend, to shrink myself, to bow in the face of other people’s needs and desires. It would take many years for me to stop being a doormat.

She expresses the pleasures and frustrations of being a tour guide and making visitors’ dreams come true. She riffs on the many, many words and onomatopoeia to describe the different types of rain in Japan. Above all, she notices the small, neglected details of the beauties of Kyoto, the persimmon tree in the garden, the veins of a golden gingko leaf, the joys of a little jazz kissaten (bar/cafe) where she becomes a regular. It is an enchanting and unexpected portrait of a town that we all think we know so well from the many, many photos we have seen.

#1940Club: The Secret of Dr Honigberger

Mircea Eliade: Secretul doctorului Honigberger (The Secret of Dr Honigberger)

Original cover of the novella.

Before Mircea Eliade became a philosopher and historian of religions, he was primarily known as a fiction writer (and playwright) in his birth country, Romania. 1940 was a bit of an odd year for him – he had recently been released from prison for his support of the right-wing Iron Guard, but was then rehabilitated and even sent to London and then Lisbon as cultural attaché when Romania lurched to the right and later became military dictatorship during the Second World War.

This slim novella was written during this troubled period and perhaps that’s why it contains hardly any references to the politics of its time: it is pure escapism, with the future professor of religions very much in evidence. It is a story within a story and features mysterious disappearances, dusty and potentially dangerous manuscripts, time shifts and surreal/ghostly elements that are now common-place in fantasy literature, but which were perhaps rarer at the time.

The narrator is a young scholar of Oriental Studies (like Eliade himself), who has recently returned from a lengthy trip to India. He is invited to the house of Mrs Zerlendi, a widow, who would like him to examine her husband’s extensive library of Oriental treasures and determine if it might be possible to complete the monography he was writing about Dr Honigberger, who had travelled throughout India and the Arabic countries in the first half of the 19th century and was believed to have attained a transcendental state and special psychic powers.

The narrator is somewhat sceptical at first, and considers the deceased Mr Zerlendi a rank amateur. However, as he grows familiar with the valuable collection and even stumbles across a secret journal, he realises that things are not quite what they seem. Zerlendi did not die, but mysteriously disappeared all of a sudden in 1910, without a word to his family or friends, without taking any of his papers or clothes or money with him. From his journal, it emerges that he was following many of the ascetic and yogic practices described by Dr Honigberger in an attempt to reach the hidden world of Shambala, which some scholars thought was an actual location somewhere in the north of India, but which the narrator is starting to think is something like Enlightenment.

Just as the narrator thinks he might be uncovering the secret, he is suddenly kicked out of the house and library (under the pretext of spring-cleaning and that Mrs Zerlendi has fallen ill). He keeps trying to get past the gatekeeper, the fierce, limping housekeeper, but no luck. And then, when he passes by the house again after a few months, he discovers something very strange indeed: the Zerlendi family (still without the father of the household) in something resembling the future or perhaps an alternative universe.

There is no resolution to the mystery of what actually happened to the narrator or to Zerlendi, and readers often asked Eliade for an explanation, which he refused to give. Clearly the author’s professional interests in esoteric practices got the better of him, for there are far too many lengthy descriptions of those. There are times when the narrator seems to be critical of the fascination with all things Oriental that Zerlendi displays, but I wonder if Eliade the author is aware that he and his narrator are displaying all the same symptoms.

If anyone could manage to make an exciting premise boring (even in a short novella), then it is Eliade here. After he became a lecturer in religious studies, his literary output decreased dramatically. On the other hand, his academic works often read like novels, so…

For an updated and even more intriguing take on this story, with a science-fiction twist, I would recommend Paul Doru Mugur’s short story ‘zerlendi@shambhala.com’, the first in his short story collection Psychonautica, recently published in the US by New Meridian. (And I say that not only because I translated that book).

A translation of Eliade’s novella by Ana Cartianu was published in 1992 under the title ‘Doctor Honigberger’s Secret’, as part of an omnibus edition of Eliade’s Mystic Stories. Probably only worth seeking out if you are deeply interested in the subject or in the author. However, you can see an entirely different (and funnier) side to Eliade by reading his barely disguised youthful memoirs translated and published by Istros Books.

I know that officially the #1940Club is over, but I just wanted to add this fairly obscure book to the list. It didn’t take me long to read but it has taken me far too long to review. More about the reasons for that perhaps in another post.

#1940Club: Miss Hargreaves

Frank Baker: Miss Hargreaves, Bloomsbury, 2009 (reissue)

I know that one of our hosts of the #1940Club, Simon, is extremely fond of this book, so I’d better be careful what I say…

Fortunately, I loved it: a delightful piece of escapism with a supernatural tinge (what did I tell you about 1940 being the year people wanted to look away from the horrors befalling them?). I also feel it says a lot about the nature of the average Englishman (or woman) – the social snobbery, the gossip mill of country villages, the tolerance of eccentricity and bumbling fools, but also the inability to talk about things openly, and the backstabbing that ensues because of that cowardice.

The book reminded me of Max Beerbohm’s Zuleika Dobson or David Garnett’s Lady into Fox, both earlier works but likewise taking very English scenarios, characters and landscapes, and then throwing a surrealist spanner in the works. There is much more of a concern for social niceties in all of these novels than in the French, Romanian or German surrealist tales that I’ve read, and the humour is often broader.

Two young men go on a tour of Ireland and engage in what they believe to be a harmless prank, making up on the spot the formidable 83-year old Miss Hargreaves (‘rhymes with ‘graves’, not ‘greeves’), who travels everywhere with her dog, her parrot, her dire poetry, her harp and a hip bath. To their utter astonishment, this figment of their imagination shows up in their cathedral town of Cornford on the Thames, with all the accoutrements they’ve embellished upon, and proceeds to make their life a misery.

At least, that is the official version of the story, and I could easily imagine the narrator Norman as a bashful, confused but nevertheless charming young Hugh Grant, complete with floppy hair. However, I couldn’t help but be aware of the subtext: the schoolboyish high jinks of fairly comfortably well-off young men (although they also work for a living), making fun of the vicar in Ireland who holds his church in high esteem, simply because they deem it ugly, inventing the most absurd connections for an elderly woman and then being embarrassed when these things manifest themselves in real life, above all the back-handed way in which Norman goes about discrediting Miss Hargreaves when he feels she isn’t paying him sufficient attention anymore.

Amusing though it was to witness Norman’s discomfort and madcap attempts to disentangle himself from this crazy situation, my sympathy lies firmly with Miss Hargreaves, self-important and pompous and bulldozerish though she is. And, to be fair, the author seems to be slightly in love with her too. None of this is really her fault, and the narrator comes to that realisation too. There is one poignant moment when the lady says:

For a little while, I broke into a life which I was never intended to lead. But now I know what I am… ‘a thought, a piece of thistledown, a thing of naught, rocked in the cradle of a craftsman’s story’.

There are philosophical asides about the nature of reality and the creative vs. destructive purpose which I wasn’t quite expecting in this essentially light-hearted and fun book.

Lately, I’d begun to doubt a good many things. Whether life wasn’t one long dream: whether dreams weren’t really life: whether I actually existed. Under water, I knew at any rate, that I existed; I knew that because I knew that if I stayed there much longer I should cease to exist.

While most of the book is laced with the self-deprecating kind of humour that feels quintessentially English, there are those moments of anger at one’s own hopelessness, and lashing out at others in a quite nasty way via anonymous denunciations, which somehow reminded me of some of the less pleasant aspects of the recent Covid lockdowns. And then that smug tone of self-justification:

She was climbing too damn high. Some rungs, if not all, must be wrenched from her ladder. Get the rumour round, get the tatty trotty tongues of Cornford wagging, and it would be the beginning of the end for her… It’s no good your reading this and condemning me and saying I’m horribly malicious. I had to do something about it. I couldn’t sit back for ever and watch Connie capering in her Cloud-Cuckoo-Land of Deans and Archdeacons. One kind word from her, one smile in her old fashion, one wink of recongition – and I would not have acted as I did.

In conclusion, I would say that I really enjoyed it and laughed heartily while reading it, but it left a bitter aftertaste, which gave it added complexity, whether the author intended it or not. Oh, and one more reason I loved the book: the multiple mentions of Cookham and Cliveden make me think the book is set somewhere very close to where I currently live.

#1940Club: The Invention of Morel

Adolfo Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel, transl. Ruth L.C. Simms, NYRB.

This is the first of the books that I have lined up for the #1940Club, as hosted by Simon and Karen. I read it in one sitting, at the airport and on the plane coming back from France, and it was a truly unforgettable, mind-twisting experience.

Both Octavio Paz and Borges described this as a perfect novel, but it is incredibly difficult to describe or define – and fits in perfectly with two other novels published in 1940 that I have on my list. I wonder if the outbreak of war caused many writers to feel that reality was too uncomfortable to deal with and that they should focus either on escapism or, if they wanted to address any social issues, they should write them ‘aslant’.

It could hardly get more remote than the island where the narrator lives, in an attempt to flee justice for a crime that he never quite describes. He was told about this island by an Italian rugseller in Calcutta: an uninhabited island where ‘around 1924 a group of white men built a museum, a chapel and a swimming pool’, but anyone who attempts to live there is said to fall prey to a fatal disease that attacks the outside of the body first and then works its way inward. Nevertheless, the narrator is desperate enough to seek refuge there. However, the island seems to be decaying: prone to unpredictable tides and flooding, the marshlands on the south side of the island seem to be taking over, the trees are diseased and the food stores in the ‘museum’ (which feels more like a hotel or a sanatorium) have long since run out.

Then, all of a sudden, the island is ‘invaded’ by a group of people intent on partying, dancing, playing ‘Tea for Two’ and ‘Valencia’ on their phonograph, playing tennis, lounging around and chatting. It all feels very Evelyn Waugh at this point. The narrator is terrified that they might stumble upon him and call the police, yet he cannot stop himself observing them from a distance, especially a dark-haired woman who sits every evening on the rocks to admire the sunset. He becomes obsessed with this woman and tries to woo her with an offering of a garden of dead, picked flowers (yes, really!). But when he attempts to talk to her, he either stumbles over his own ineptitude or else she simply ignores him. Then he discovers that she is also being wooed by ‘an ugly bearded tennis player’ called Morel and he cannot stop himself eavesdropping on their conversation.

Throughout the story, we get the sense that we are caught in someone’s fever-dream, although the narrator assures us that these visitors are not hallucinations. But strange, illogical things keep happening: doors that will suddenly not open anymore, but later on do; people appearing and disappearing mysteriously and silently; fragments of conversation being repeated verbatim. Has the narrator, weakened by hunger and illness, invented Morel and his retinue, or is Morel running an eerie experiment with all of them? (The influence of the ‘The Island of Dr Moreau’ is strong here) The ambiguity of the title becomes ever more apparent.

This novel is an intriguing blend of an adventure story with touches of surrealism or science fiction, a story of impossible love, a novel of psychological insight and a meditation on the nature of memory and trying to preserve our most precious moments of happiness. I’m not sure I understood everything, especially in the second part of the book, but it casts a trance-like spell on the reader. The language is very clean and tidy, not a random stray edge anywhere, but highly suggestive. It’s all about reading between the lines – and the author leaves plenty of room for us to make up our own stories and interpretations.

It felt particularly appropriate to read this book, with its surrealist flourishes, right after admiring the paintings of the surrealist artists gathered in Marseille during the war, waiting for a passage to freedom and a new life.

Northern Climes: Sweden and Finland

Johanne Lykke Holm: Strega, translated by Saskia Vogel, Lolli Editions, 2022.

There is a real yellowish-green Strega liqueur in Italy, supposedly adapted from a secret recipe created by witches. The town in which it is made (Benevento rather than Strega) is in the Apennines, close to Naples, a bit further south than I was expecting from the description of the Alpine setting for the fictional town in Swedish author Holm’s novel. In fact, the setting is not important in this strange and unsettling little novel (only 180 pages): it is enough to know that it is a grand hotel in a remote location, with only a convent of liqueur-producing nuns as the nearest neighbour. Moreover, it is a grand hotel where no guest ever comes to stay, thus continuing my theme of unsettling Gothic mansions.

The narrator is one of nine young women who are being trained as hotel maids, sent by their families in the hope of acquiring good skills – but for what purpose? For a career, for marriage, to learn obedience, to stop being a nuisance at home? Everything is fluid and ambiguous, we are never quite sure what is going on. The work is repetitive and mechanical, apparently fulfilling no purpose whatsoever; the trainers/managers are matron-like and strict (as if they were in fact in a convent), and something feels decidedly wrong about the whole set-up. The similes imply violence, the hotel remains eerily empty.

We quickly learned that each day was a reproduction of the last. Morning after morning, we set out coffee and bread in the conservatory facing the park. There were large porcelain bowls filled with black marmalade. There was silverware on linen napkins. Morning after morning, a metallic light fell through the room like a butcher’s knife. I stood and watched it happen… For a moment I thought I saw someone coming, but I must have been mistaken. I went back to work. Refilled the coffee pots, sliced the tin loaf. No guests arrived.

The girls start to form bonds with each other, but the way they are treated gets more and more uncomfortable: they are examined, prodded, starved, made to kneel, humiliated. Above all, it appears that they are having their individuality stamped out of them.

All punishment in the hotel was collective. They treated us as one body, so we became one body. We forgot our individual traits and our individual responsibilities. If one of us stole a coin, all of us had stolen a coin. They poured boiling water over our feet and made us dip them in tubs of ice. The pain was unbearable, but no marks were left.

And then, one night, the hotel fills up with guests. The girls are expected to look their best, be on their best behaviour, serve the guests impeccably, yet all the while this sense of danger and disquiet persists. This is not a jolly, happy occasion, although it is a raucous one. Sure enough, one of the girls goes missing after the party. Search parties look for her in the mountainous terrain, but the girls are convinced that she is already dead. They are frightened yet feel trapped, they have nowhere else to go – but whether the sense of entrapment is real or all in their minds is not quite clear. The narrator Rafaela has chilling imaginary conversations with the murderer.

I knew the murderer was never far. I had seen him step out of the walls. I had seen him among the bed sheets… In every woman’s life, there’s someone waiting at the gate. We are all candidates, but only some of us are chosen. I knew there were holes in the earth waiting for us… One might have an urge to say: We would rather be martyrs together than live another second in this order. One does not. One bides one’s time. One waits for one’s murderer, one sees him everywhere. One imagines the night it will come to pass. One knows all about that night. One knows the lines.

As a metaphor for the violence that is constantly being perpetuated against women, both mentally and physically, and how they collude in their oppression, this is one of the most unsettling books I’ve read in a long time. I was not sure where this book was going most of the time, but I could feel its lingering poisonous atmosphere in the sickly sweetness of the liqueur. As you can see from the quotes above, the style is very simple: short sentences, repetitions, gradually building upon the previous passages or chapters, much like the ripples in water after you throw in a stone. A steady accumulation (or drip, drip, drip) of something very dark, which caused an almost visceral reaction when reading the book.

I knew a woman’s life could at any point be turned into a crime scene. I had yet to understand that I was already living inside the crime scene, that the crime scene was not the bed but the body, that the crime had already taken place.

Antti Tuomainen: The Healer, translated by Lola Rogers, Harvill Secker, 2013.

If all you have read so far of Finnish crime writer’s Tuomainen’s work is the series featuring hapless insurance assessor Henri which started with The Rabbit Factor, or the dark (and sometimes slapstick) comedy of standalones like Palm Beach Finland or Little Siberia, then you are in for a major surprise. In this early work, the first of his books to be translated into English, we are in a water-logged world that is nearing the end. The sea levels have risen and people are fleeing to the northern parts of the globe. Helsinki appears to be too far south to be safe, and we get to see a city that is half-abandoned, with damaged buildings and infrastructure, where missing people and laws mean nothing at all anymore. The scenes of railways stations overrun with climate refugees are memorable:

All around there were shouts, arguments, pleas, entreaties and threats. There were trains going north every hour, but even that wasn’t enough to lessen the flood of people. More and more people kept coming from the east, the south and the west. There was a black market on the plaza for ticket touts, purchasers of valuables, hundreds of thieves and swindlers with hundreds of tricks and scams, and of course ordinary people, each one more desperate than the last.

Yet Tapani Lehtinen, although he is normally a sensitive observer of his surroundings, a poet who writes daily although he knows no one is reading poetry anymore, is only focused on finding his wife Johanna. Although she has only been gone for a few hours, he is worried, because they had the habit of constantly communicating with each other. Johanna is a journalist and Tapani starts to suspect that she might have been researching about a serial killer known as ‘The Healer’ and that this might have something to do with her disappearance.

I recently rewatched the film Children of Men and this book was very much in that vein of an all-too-plausible, not-at-all-glamorous vision of the near-future. Everything feels dingy, hopeless, lawless. Who cares about a missing person or even a murder or two, when there are so many crimes happening daily, when people are dying of so many natural causes, when so many buildings are boarded up and dangers are lurking around every corner? The newspapers are only out to entertain people with stories about celebrities doing gross things rather than bring any real news or uncover ‘truths’. Nobody cares about any of that.

So, all in all, a bleak view of the world, although the love between Johanna and Tapani shows that there is still some beauty and hope left. However, this frail blossom is very effectively quashed by the cynical realism of the chief of police who half-heartedly agrees to help Tapani, much against his better judgment.

Whenever some lunatic gets it in his head that a few individuals are responsible for the world falling apart around him, we go after him. And what happens when we catch him? Some new lunatic comes along, and the world keeps marching towards destruction. That’s nothing new, of course. History tells us that this kind of things has happened many times before. Civilisation blossoms, and then it falls. It’s happened on this planet in our own lifetime, to millions and millons of people… But you take it harder, somehow, when it’s your own little world that’s dying.

I was planning to read more books from Northern Climes this month, but I started the rather depressing Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament and stalled. Life just got really messy, I fell down other reading rabbit holes, library books I’d reserved kept appearing and… and… I just didn’t have the strength to review much and often struggled to finish any of my books.