It’s always a bit of a surprise when I sit down at the end of the month to do a proper count of the number and types of books I’ve read. This month, I only managed to read 8 books, which might in part be explained by the fact that it has been a month full of travelling and other cultural events, as well as the back to school rigmarole.
More surprising and disappointing, by far, is the fact that of those 8, only 2 were in translation, both from Spanish, both winners of the biggest literary prize in Spain, the Planeta Prize. These were Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett’s subversive Naked Men and Dolores Redondo’s gripping (although at times long-winded) psychological thriller All This I Will Give to You.
So perhaps NOT the best month in terms of diversity. I found myself reaching for authors where I know what to expect, such as Rachel Cusk, Tana French or Sarah Moss, whose Night Waking brings back many, many memories of failed attempts at being a good scholar and a good mother simultaneously. And, if the author wasn’t known to me, I stuck to situations that would be familiar, such as expat life (Singapore is only slightly more of a police state than Switzerland) in Jo Furniss’ The Trailing Spouse. I cannot stop myself from reading these sort of books, but I do wonder why in so many books about expats, the main female character is often annoyingly self-absorbed, entitled and thoughtless (even when the writers are women, such as Janice Y.K. Lee, Nell Zink, Jill Alexander Essbaum, or more recently Louise Mangos with Strangers on a Bridge.) Nice cover, though!
The only two male authors I read this month were Michael Redhill: Bellevue Square, which left me somewhat perplexed, and Leye Adenle’s When Trouble Sleeps, which left me depressed about corruption, politics and vote rigging, although it takes place in Nigeria rather than in the UK. I’ll be reviewing the book and interviewing the author for Crime Fiction Lover very soon.
It’s been five but only to me.
To others it’s three, or two,
if they remember at all.
Life moves on, distance no friend,
search for shared words or memories,
fall back on blandness that cannot offend.
Smiles a little too fixed,
eyes darting to others for rescue.
My stories too long, your chambers too full,
no room at the inn for the perpetual wanderer.
There is a quote that does the rounds of expat circles: a man once said that when he dies, he wants to come back as an expat wife. It’s an understandable (if tactless) remark. There is a perception of an expat life of privilege in exotic locations, on a generous salary and benefits package, sitting around sipping cocktails and with nothing else to do except hatch intrigues.
While there may still be some such ‘expat bubbles’ out there, in most cases the reality is quite different. In many cases the so-called trailing spouse (most of them still remain women in this day and age, although there are some men too following the careers of their wives) has had to give up her own career, is lonely, frustrated, resentful and isolated. The expat packages have been reduced, they do not speak the language and they have to adapt to a completely alien culture, where even doing the supermarket shopping or installing a telephone line becomes an epic battle.
This is the case with Anna, the self-destructive protagonist of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s novel Hausfrau, set in a suburb of Zürich. Anna is an American woman who thought she had chosen order and reliability when she followed her Swiss husband back to his home country. Instead, she feels dead inside. Whether we can empathise with her or not, Essbaum describes Anna’s circumscribed lifestyle, her feeling of entrapment, very clearly. Anna is only just learning the language. She doesn’t have many friends, certainly not among the Swiss, and her banker husband is cold and distant. She doesn’t drive, so she is dependent on trains or on her husband’s or mother-in-law’s willingness to give her a lift.
Anna was a good wife, mostly… It’s not just an adage, it’s an absolute fact: Swiss trains run on time… From Pfäffikon, the train made sixteen stops before it reached Dietlikon, the tiny town in which Anna’s own tiny life was led… the ordinary fact of a train schedule modulated Anna’s daily plans… Boredom, like the trains, carried Anna through her days…
Visitors to Switzerland revel in the quaint, chocolate-box prettiness, tidiness and order, but, just as there is a malaise beneath the politeness and well-functioning machinery of Japanese society, there is something sinister about the myriad of rules and regulations in this Alpine country. Outwardly, Anna follows her rules: goes to German language classes, picks her children up from school, dutifully goes to see a psychoanalyst to deal with her depression. She is infuriatingly passive and accepting, a passenger in her own life.
Allowing Bruno to make decisions on her behalf absolved her of responsibility. She didn’t need to think. She followed along. She rode a bus that someone else drove. And Bruno liked driving it. Order upon order. Rule upon Rule. Where the wind blew, she went… it grew even easier with practice.
But of course one will suffocate under all those rules at times. Swiss youths rebel through drug-taking and suicide; Anna rebels by having reckless flings. The book has been compared (even by myself) with those other novels about adulterous women Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, but Anna is much less guided by passion and idealism. If anything, she is far too self-aware, self-critical and analytical. Every phrase she learns in German class, every discussion with her analyst is dissected and applied to her life.
Love’s a sentence. A death sentence… The body would become ravaged. And the heart will become broken… ‘To become’ implies motion. A paradoxical move toward limp surrender. Whatever it is, you do not do it. It is done to you. Passivity and passion begin alike. It’s only how they end that’s different.
Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, her risk-taking reaches endemic proportions… and then tragedy strikes. I won’t say more, except that Essbaum is a poet and her fragmented prose style may not be to everyone’s taste, while the descriptions of sex are anything but poetic. I was initially sceptical of just how relevant the German class or psychoanalyst discussions were to the main story, but they provide surprising analogies to the banality of marital breakdown and adultery. I personally loved the mix of barbed observational wit, philosophical ruminations and poetic despair. In some ways, it reminded me of Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, but I liked this one more, even though it’s longer. It has a well-defined story arc, it’s raw and emotional and very, very honest, with none of the cold detachment of Offill’s book.
I’ve mentioned previously how excited I was to receive this book for review from Penguin Random House. A great addition to my collection of novels about expats – and a timely one, given that I am currently writing a novel about expats. Below is a list of my personal favourites among this type of novels, and the countries in which they are set. The protagonists may feel at first like fish out of water but end up being forever changed by the countries they live in. Word of caution: none of them seem to end well!