I’ve been immersing myself in the world of my novel – and very much enjoying it. It does help that a lot of the locations in the novel (which takes place predominantly in Romania) are so picturesque.
I wouldn’t mind getting locked down in any of these home libraries. Of course, some of them are fictional, but no need to limit yourselves to reality!
There is something a bit samey about Christmas decorations especially in the English-speaking world in the northern hemisphere. But I might allow myself to be converted if there is a fireplace. I can imagine myself sitting in front of it and reading all the lovely new books I have bought for myself for Christmas (and the rest of the year).
Now that the nights are drawing in and I’m hibernating in the house with no chance of going skiing (I am not overly fond of going running in the rain), I’ve noticed that all my Teams and Zoom meeting backgrounds are starting to look remarkably chalet-like. So here are some cosy rooms with fireplaces that my colleagues almost started envying…
The Aosawa Murders by Riku Onda, transl. Alison Watts (Bitter Lemon Press)
I ‘accidentally’ borrowed this book from the library just before the second lockdown (i.e. it jumped into my arms from the ‘new acquisitions’ shelf when I went to the library to pick up my reserved books), and I have to return it soon, so I cannot wait until January in Japan to review it. All I can tell you is that it’s a really interesting, really fascinating read and I want to recommend it to everyone who has even a passing interest in Japan.
It is a very Japanese approach to crime and guilt, in that the focus is more on psychology and different (conflicting) versions of the story, rather than pure detection. I am thinking of books such as those by Natsuo Kirino or Kanae Minato with their tortured, twisted protagonists, but even the more ‘conventional’ police procedurals of Keigo Higashino, Tetsuya Honda or Hideo Yokoyama have elements of long-held grudges or unusual (one might almost say supernatural) coincidences. And of course we have the classic Rashomon to remind us to never take stories at their face value, that the truth may always elude us. If you are comfortable with ambiguity, with not quite being able to make up your mind what the definitive answer to the puzzle is, then this is the book for you.
The Aosawas are a wealthy family, owners of a local hospital which is located within their large villa in a coastal town in Japan. On a hot summer day in the 1970s they are celebrating three family birthdays but the joyful event turns to tragedy when 17 members of the family and servants die from poison in drinks which had been delivered to their house supposedly from a doctor in another town. There are only two survivors: the housekeeper who only touched a drop of the drink and was severely ill as a result, and the blind daughter of the house Hisako.
Although the prime suspect (the man who delivered the drinks) committed suicide, and the case was closed, there are many people connected to the case who are not satisfied with this so-called admission of guilt. Eleven years after the events, one of the people somewhat connected to the family publishes a bestselling book about the tragedy (although it doesn’t seem to point the finger of blame at anybody specifically). Thirty years after the murders, the case is investigated once more, this time unofficially by one of the people who read the bestselling book and who is now re-interviewing survivors and witnesses.
Each chapter is told from a different point of view, most of them in interview style, but some of them are chapters from the book or excerpts from police files. Some of the characters seem quite tangential to the story (the son of the owner of the neighbourhood stationery shop, for example, or the editor of the bestselling book), but each story adds another layer of complexity. At the time of reading, you may not realise the significance of certain scenes or descriptions or words, but at the end of the book, you go back and reread certain passages and things seem much clearer.
I was entranced with how different each of the chapters was stylistically. No danger of getting confused because all of the narrative voices sound ‘samey’. I can imagine the gender, regional and educational differences would be even more marked in the original Japanese, so the translator did an excellent job of managing to convey that with more limited resources available in English.
The book was originally published in Japan in 2006 under the name Eugenia, and the author won the Mystery Writers of Japan Award for it. Riku Onda is a prolific and prize-winning author in Japan, with many film and TV adaptations of her work. She has written a few other ‘crime’ style books, and also across many other genres, including speculative and literary fiction. I hope the success of this book in English means that more of her work will become available to those of us who cannot read Japanese.
When I was investigating tiny houses, I came across shipping container homes, which I thought sounded dreadful, but which in fact can be transformed into highly imaginative and attractive residences. So here are some shipping container and other industrial-look homes (and all still quite small).
When I first saw the shortlist for the Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award, I thought that Nightingale by Marina Kemp sounded like the closest to what we might think of as a traditional novel, and that has certainly proven to be the case now that I’ve read it. I don’t say that in any disparaging way: in fact, I’ve often wished that some so-called auto-fictions or experimental novels had erred on the side of tradition and a coherent narrative and overarching structure.
From the beautiful cover, to the blurb promising dysfunctional families, secrets and lies, to the setting in the sleepy south-west of France, it has all the hallmarks of the perfect summer holiday read. It is the story of Marguerite, a young Parisian raised in a well-to-do family, who has trained as a palliative nurse and who has been hired to look after grumpy, wealthy Jérôme Lanvier, once the most powerful and feared men in the village. Marguerite’s past and the reason why she might be working in such an ‘unprestigious’ job become a source of speculation and gossip in the village. Yet the patient and the nurse very slowly, very cautiously develop some sort of understanding and even a grudging respect.
However much Marguerite may wish to keep to herself, she cannot help but become involved with some of the villagers: bolshy Brigitte who has been tasked with checking up on Jérôme’s nursing companions; her gentle farmer husband Henri; the old man’s sons who make a brief appearance from their successful Parisian careers and seem to care more about the inheritance than about their father; and Suki, whose family fled from Iran, and who feels the eternal outsider in a community of ‘mediocrities’.
So we have an intriguing cast of characters, and we have hints (actually quite broad hints – more like public road signs) of past pain and secrets that certain of the characters would do anything to protect. We also have trips to the boulangerie, drinking wine among the olive groves and picking ripe tomatoes on the vine. We have careful observation of gestures and dialogue, a gradual reveal of motivations and tensions, good pacing generally. There are also passages of lyrical, yearning intensity that are simply beautifully written. Yet, overall, the book failed to win me entirely over.
Firstly, despite all of its cultural references, I did not feel fully immersed in a stifling French village atmosphere with sinister overtones, as described so accurately by French authors such as Sylvie Granotier, Sébastien Japrisot or Pascal Garnier. Nor did it have the almost overwhelming charm and specificity of the novels of Joanne Harris or Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police series. Yet Marina Kemp is one of a long line of English-speaking authors to choose to set her novel in France, so I have no quarrel with that.
Secondly, there were quite a few instances when the author was not merely content to show us an emotion or interaction between her characters, but she also had to tell it. It felt like everything had to be underlined, emphasised, dwelled upon, to make sure that we don’t miss it as a reader. In French novels and films, so much is left unsaid, so much is merely implied, which is why the contrast struck me all the more forcibly. Finally, some of the secrets were dealt with in a rather melodramatic fashion which might have made more sense if the book had been set a few decades ago.
Having made all of the critical remarks above, I have to admit that I read the book in just a couple of days and found it an enjoyable experience. However, I don’t think it will be the most memorable book from the shortlist for me.
The temptation to live off-grid somewhere in a tiny (but well-insulated) house is becoming well-nigh overwhelming. No, this is not a comment on current politics or fears; this is a worry-free, escapist zone.
I’ve often said I don’t need much more than a little cabin or hut to house myself once the boys leave home. Although I might need another cabin or two just to house the books…
What would life be like if you had high enough ceilings to fit in a mezzanine? Here are some suggestions of how to go about planning and decorating.