Insiders/ Outsiders: Summary of Recent Reading

Lots and lots of honeypots! And by honeypots I do NOT mean the seedy lap-dancing bar in my home town, but the many good and thought-provoking books I’ve managed to read now that I no longer spend my evenings blogging, reviewing, marketing and so on. Now that we have been given a slight reprieve of sentence for the deadline for exiting the EU, I have time to continue reading and reviewing books for my #EU27Project separately. The ones I briefly describe below are on top of those reads.

Jim Crace: Harvest

My son bought this book out his own pocket money, because one of the colleges we visited had it as a set text for A Level literature. He hasn’t read it yet and, to be honest, I’m not sure he will like it, as he still struggles to handle the ‘slow bits’ of books such as 1984 or Dracula. And this book, although it has no shortage of ‘events’, is far more about the atmosphere and characterisation, hence full of ‘slow’ bits. I enjoyed it though, so eloquent and well-written, with the timeless quality and rhythm of poetry, describing the death of a way of life… and showing that any nostalgia is probably misplaced. The theme of ‘us vs. them’, the aversion to outsiders (some of it entirely justified) is subtly but powerfully done.

The Good Immigrant (edited by Nikesh Shukla)

One of those books that should be required reading in schools and libraries, to make people aware of true stories about (and, above all, by) immigrants rather than skewed media reports. An American edition has just been published, but the original version had to be crowdfunded, as publishers would not touch this project at first. Not all of the contributions are of high artistic merit, but they don’t need to be: they are eyewitness accounts, polemical essays, thinking out loud and trying to make sense of things. One reservation I had: it would have been nice to have had contributions from Roma, Polish, Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants, who have their own stories of discrimination to tell, showing that it goes beyond race and is sometimes harder to pin down or confront because of that. Or am I just biased?

Zahia Rahmani: Muslim, transl. Matt Reeck

Well, if you want to read the story of a person who is never quite at home in any culture, then this slim volume is perfect for you. The author (and the narrator in the novel) are from the Kabyle-speaking, nomadic minority population in Algeria. The narrator protests that they’ve been dumped and labelled together with all of the Muslims in North Africa and have had Arabic forced on them. Her father supported the French army during the Algerian war, so after independence the family are forced to flee to France for refuge, and instead find themselves unwelcome. A lyrical, disquieting prose poem of a novel, moving between past and present, France and the Algerian desert, prison camp and imaginary places.

Helen Dunmore: Exposure

A well-known refugee trope appears in this book: Lili is the daughter of a Jewish family who had to flee Germany during the Second World War, now settled in England and married to the rather naive and hapless Simon, who is working for British Intelligence. It is the height of the Cold War and double agents are being uncovered with alarming regularity, so when Simon is asked to cover up an irregularity for his boss and former lover Giles, he is the one who gets accused of spying. A novel that focuses much more on the consequences of major world events and accusations on ordinary people and families, rather than a spy thriller, mercilessly excoriating the snobbery and small-mindedness of the so-called Golden Age of Little England that so many still aspire to.

The next three books I read are not so much about migration or being accepted into the community. But they still fit in the insiders/outsiders theme, because they are about family. Who gets accepted into a family? And how does love manifest itself in a family? Can love survive at a distance? Are we forever marked by the loved ones who got away?

The German language version was quickly vetoed by English publishers.

Monique Schwitter: One Another, transl. Tess Lewis

Schwitter is a Swiss actor and writer, and her novel moves swiftly between Switzerland, Austria and Germany, as her narrator, a married writer with two children, discovers via a Google search that her first great love has died. This makes her reassess her own life, and remember all of the men she encountered and loved, however briefly, and however you might define love, including her own unreliable husband. Just how much are we shaped by the people we encounter in our lives, especially those we love?

Helga Flatland: A Modern Family, transl. Rosie Hedger

A Norwegian family with grown children and grandchildren are all gathered in Rome to celebrate a seventieth birthday. Instead, it turns out that the beloved parents are planning to get divorced. This shock news shatters all the comfortable assumptions of past and present lives and forces the three siblings to rethink their own family ties and ways of loving. It all seems so normal and civilised on the surface, but it’s all about close observation and what is left unsaid.

Lavinia Braniste: Interior Zero

The very title of this Romanian novel is interesting: it’s the extension number of the narrator, Cristina, who is working well below her abilities as a receptionist at a construction firm. But it also refers to her inner emptiness, how she tries to make the most of a life that doesn’t offer her any great satisfaction and very little hope. Her job is boring, her colleagues annoying and her boss is ruthlessly desperate to make her mark in a man’s world. Cristina has a long-distance, on-off lukewarm relationship with a former classmate. Her rented flat is dingy and her landlord keeps all his junk and pickled vegetables on her balcony. Her mother has been working abroad in Spain for many years now and feels guilty about having left her daughter alone during her formative years, so she sends her money and Spanish delicacies, not realising that her daughter doesn’t like tinned octopus. Unsentimental, refreshingly clear-eyed and slightly self-deprecating, this is the voice of the millenial generation in Romania – but has great similarities with millenial voices elsewhere (Sophie Divry or Sally Rooney, to name but two). If any publisher would be interested in having this translated into English, I hereby offer my services! (It has been translated into German and has been quite a success there.)

OK, I suppose the last one does qualify for #EU27Project read (and Muslim is translated from French, so technically that one does too). But I plan to get around to writing a few dedicated reviews for books from EU countries which have not yet appeared in my reading.

Other Bookish Favourites of 2017 and Plans for 2018

After sharing with you my favourite books in translation, my favourite untranslated books, and the best of both translated and English-language crime fiction, including my Top 5 on Crime Fiction Lover, what is left? Well, all the other favourites, of course, which don’t fit into any of these categories. They fall mainly into the fiction category, with a couple of non-fiction mixed into it. (I will discuss the poetry separately, as I tend not to list the poetry books on Goodreads).

Now, what do you notice about this list? That’s right: it’s all women writers. I believe I’ve read roughly equal amounts of male and female authors, but it’s the women who have really appealed to me in this year of finally living on my own.

Rachel Cusk: Outline

Hard to categorise, I see this as a book of ideas, where essay and stories blend, where the narrator becomes a camera recording other people’s thoughts and reactions. A very Anglo-Saxon way of dealing with grief and separation, slightly detached, masking the heartbreak with cold detachment.

Katie Kitamura: A Separation

In many ways, the mirror image of Outline, but with more abandon. Once again, Greece is the backdrop, almost an excuse for a story about break-up and grief and self-recrimination – to a much more self-excoriating extent than with Cusk. A clear story arc, but also a novel of ideas, of reflection, but inwardly rather than outwardly focused.

Helen Garner: This House of Grief

Perhaps it’s not surprising that stories about separations loomed large in my reading this year, but this true crime account of a man who was suspected of killing his children took me to places where I barely dare to tread. Garner has a talent for unpicking not only the personal tragedy but also the judicial system and the way in which a jury’s mind can be made up.

Fiona Melrose: Midwinter

The farming heritage in me thrilled at this story of hard graft and taciturn farmer families.

Jane Gardam: The Stories

Controlled, ironic, melancholy

Alison Lurie: Real People

Writers’ retreats and big egos are an endless source of satire.

Elizabeth von Arnim: The Enchanted April

Delightful escapism, with a real love of beautiful location and a sharp eye for human foibles.

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day

Just as charming, warm-hearted but keeping the eyes wide open and critical.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Quite simply one of the most quietly menacing, tightly written and brooding books ever!

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Perhaps it didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but I still found it a beautiful read about an uncomfortable marriage and a bid for freedom.

Kathleen Jamie: Sightlines

Non-fiction of the highest intellectual and poetic order.

Liz Jensen: The Rapture

Eco-thriller with rich prose and unusual characters which deserves to be better known (full review coming soon).

Reading Plans for 2018

It looks like I will be reading quite a bit of translated fiction in 2018 – 12 titles are guaranteed, since I joined the Asymptote Book Club. I can’t wait to start getting involved in the discussions and all the special features (interviews with translators and authors, book selections, reviews, pictures and so on). Don’t forget you can join anytime during the year, for either 3 months or 12 months.

I will be continuing with my #EU27Project and spend more time planning to cover all of the countries rather than handling it haphazardly as I have done in the past year. After all, I want to show those Brexit negotiators what it means to be well prepared…

I also want to take part in the by now classic reading events such as January in Japan, Women in Translation Month and German Literature Month, although I make no promise about how many titles I can cover: at least one, hopefully more. Of course, I will continue reading and reviewing crime fiction: it’s a habit I cannot kick (nor do I want to).

Finally, I want to read and review more poetry and take part more frequently in the dVerse Poets Pub or other prompts, both to limber up my writing muscles and also to see what others are writing – always inspiring! Speaking of dVerse Poets, I am delighted to announce the arrival of an anthology of poetry from over 100 dVerse contributors all over the world. Entitled Chiaroscuro: Darkness and Lightthis surprisingly chunky volume is a testament to our friendship across borders and shared love for the well-chosen word.

Quick Reviews: Santiago Gamboa, Laura Kaye and Helen Dunmore

Sadly, I have little time to write leisurely reviews, so I thought I’d better write these short impressions, before too much time lapses since I read the books.

Helen Dunmore: Birdcage Walk

Having previously enjoyed Dunmore’s novels and having mourned her death earlier this year, I read her last novel with a rather biased view and excessive attention to detail. The strange, uncomfortable marriage of John Diner and Lizzie Fawkes seems to me to be a metaphor for death, and our own twisted relationship with it: longing for it, fearing it, trying to make sense of it, blinding ourselves deliberately to it at times. Above all, there is the dread of being forgotten, of leaving nothing behind – like the unmarked headstone of John’s first wife or the lost works of Lizzie’s writer mother Julia.

This is a slow-moving novel, far too slow perhaps for many readers. It relies upon gradual building of layer upon layer of atmosphere and characterisation. Sometimes the reader jumps ahead with conclusions (certainly in one scene, if they can read French), but the author won’t be rushed along. I won’t lie: initially it was a book that I returned to willingly but not with particular impatience. By the end, however, I grew to love it and it left me with a sense of uncertain chill but also profound satisfaction. If we slow down to the pace of the narrator, we can more fully appreciate the poetic language and allow ourselves to be fully attuned to the story. I enjoyed the beginning of The Essex Serpent more, but I enjoyed the ending of this one more.

Santiago Gamboa: Return to the Dark Valley (transl. Howard Curtis)

I haven’t read Colombian author Gamboa’s previous novel Night Prayers, where two of the characters in this novel first make their appearance. But the novel stands up very well on its own: if you can accept a rather zany stop-and-start beginning, where we move from one point of view to the next. It’s like putting your eye to an old-fashioned kaleidoscopic tube and waiting for the bright colours to resolve themselves into a pattern, but then they morph into something different. We meet troubled Manuela trying to make her way out of poverty and abuse into a life of poetry and love – and being thoroughly let down along the way. A fastidious consul searching for his beloved Juana, whom he wants to rescue from a life of prostitution. Tertuliano, a fiery Argentinian preacher with pronounced racist tendencies. Last but not least, and somewhat surprisingly, the poet Rimbaud, restless lifelong seeker, a devil with the face of an angel. Somehow, all these stories mingle against a backdrop of terrorists holding hostages in the Irish Embassy in Madrid and a newly prosperous Colombia trying to forget its vicious paramilitary past. This tale of learning how to hate and demand revenge is often surprising and has some memorable scenes set in a rather cruel (and uncomfortably familiar) world. It has conviction, but lacks coherence, to my mind.

Laura Kaye: English Animals

At times satirical, at times sad, this is a fearsome and fierce, but not savage depiction of cultural differences. Mirka is a young Slovakian girl who takes on a job as a housekeeper/trainee taxidermist in an English country home. Her bosses Richard and Sophie are by turns generous, chaotic and self-absorbed. Their marriage is a bit of an unknowable mess and puzzles Mirka, and she gets involved more than she should. Some of the secondary characters are completely outrageous, but Richard and Sophie are more like Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby: ‘careless people, who smash up things and creatures’ – only in this case they hunt and stuff them. It’s the carelessness which grates more than anything. I suspect that if this book had been written by a non-English person, it would have been far more vicious, and perhaps all the worse for it (but perhaps also better for it, it’s  hard to know). I’m thinking of A.M. Bakalar’s corrosive depiction of cultural differences in Madame Mephisto.