Better still – two crime novels by women writers, featuring a main protagonist who is a lesbian out of her 20s, yet this side of her (although it’s an integral part of the story rather than a bolt-on) is not the most interesting aspect. In other words, this is not about titillation or jumping on a bandwagon of including ‘some kind of minority’ in the story. It is, quite simply, normal.
That doesn’t mean that it is easy for the characters to face the world as lesbians, for fear of how people might judge them. But it’s a great step forward to be the main character, rather than the supportive sidekick, to be in their 40s and fairly sure of themselves, rather than shy young things. Not surprising, perhaps, that both books are written by Nordic writers.
Anne Holt: Dead Joker, transl. Anne Bruce
Anne Holt has all the background knowledge you could ask for: she worked in broadcasting, then for the police, started her own law firm and was even briefly Norway’s Minister for Justice. Since 1993 she has been steadily writing novels, at first mainly in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, featuring the lesbian Chief Inspector Hanne, her live-in partner Cecilie, and her investigative team, including the very loyal if somewhat scatty Billy T.
Or at least, all of the above appear in this book, because the series covers such a long span of time that people appear, disappear, marry, die, have children and grow old over the course of the series. So, more realistic than most, where everything seems to happen within the same couple of years of the main detective’s life. Hanne grows progressively more grumpy and anti-social over the course of the series, although it could be argued that it’s life and the things she witnesses that make her so. The books have been translated out of order into English, after the success of the book 1222, which was the eighth of the series. Holt’s other crime series about a profiler Johanne Vik were translated earlier and Hanne appears as a very minor character in those. Was the thought of a lesbian police officer too much for the shores of the UK in the early 2000s?
Here is a quick plot summary: The wife of the Chief Public Prosecutor is found dead in the family home, brutally decapitated. Her husband is under suspicion, as he was present in the house when it happened, but he claims that he knows who did it. The only problem is: that person is already dead. Hanne is inclined to believe him, but his foolish behaviour is very suspicious indeed. There are some gory details, but overall the emphasis is on the puzzle element, and figuring out just what drives the odd behaviour of a number of different characters. In the meantime, Hanne’s partner has worrying news, and the book is at least in equal parts the story of how a relationship can triumph in the face of death.
Lilja Sigurðardóttir: Trap, transl. Quentin Bates
This is the second book in the Reykjavik Noir series and it features volcanic eruption (or rather, its impact upon air travel) as well as drug-smuggling. In the first volume, Sonja had been caught in a vicious circle of acting as a drug mule for her ex-husband in order to gain access rights to her son. But she thought she had left that life behind her, after snatching her son and running away to Florida.
The second book opens almost immediately after the end of the previous one. Sonja’s past catches up with her and she has to return to Iceland and try to extricate herself from the drug trade once and for all. This is set against a backdrop of Iceland’s failing banks and bankers being imprisoned for their shady deals. The story is grim and the characters are pretty ruthless, yet they are described with so much gusto that you might catch yourself laughing even when you feel you shouldn’t. A mad caper of a story, with perhaps a few too many financial transactions for my level of comprehension. The author says her aim is to entertain people, and she certainly manages that.
As a bonus, there are all sorts of hidden depths here, particularly in describing the relationships between the various characters: Sonja and her lover Agla, customs officer Bragi and his dying wife, Sonja and her controlling ex Johann. There is also a lot of suspense about ‘will she, won’t she’ manage to go through customs with her packages. Last but not least, there are some completely insane moments with the Mexican drug dealers Mr Jose, his wife Nati and their tiger in the basement.
So two very different series – one more a classic police procedural, the other more of a heist or crime gang novel – but both with psychological depth. I would recommend starting with the first book in either of the series if you are new to them, though.
One of the privileges of working for a journal for world literature like Asymptote is that I get to know some of the best translators, as well as getting an early peek at some of the things they are working on. When Rosie Hedger, one of the most promising young translators from Norwegian (she has also translated that wonderfully claustrophobic novel The Bird Tribunalby Agnes Ravatn), mentioned that she was unsure about the reception her most recent translation would have, because it is bold and mad, I was eager to read it. Additionally, it is published by Nordisk Books, whose previous publication Love/Warwas equally unusual but intriguing. So thank you very much to Rosie for sending me a copy of the book, but you know me well enough by now to realise that this has in no way swayed me to write positive stuff about it if I didn’t like it.
Luckily, I did like it! In fact, I was so captivated by it, that I read it in a couple of breathless hours sitting in my back garden at the weekend. It is very quick to read, written in something resembling a free verse style (short line breaks), but it’s certainly not an easy read. The unnamed narrator, a young girl with mental health problems, does horrible things to others and to herself; meanwhile, horrible things are done to her too. It is the machine-gun approach to storytelling, or one long, angry howl.
There are quite a few accounts of people suffering from mental health problems in literature, some of them very well-known, such as Girl, Interrupted, The Bell Jar, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, others far less so: Down Below by Leonora Carrington or Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table. What they all have in common is a very unflattering perspective on daily life in a mental asylum, which is certainly present in this book too. However, all of the other books are written retrospectively, while Zero is written in first person, present tense, like a diary. It feels like speleology, like visiting the dark insides of someone’s ‘defective’ head. We witness each thought as it arises, often contradicting the previous sentence, all the jumps and starts and sudden turns. It can feel like trying to navigate a small boat in very rough seas and my advice would be to just give up navigation and allow yourself to be carried away by the monster waves.
The narrator is entirely self-absorbed. Like any child or adolescent she believes the world revolves around her. And she maintains this belief even as she grows up. Everyone else is described in relation to her. Alcohol, drugs, sex, friendships are consumed as casually as the cigarettes she half-smokes. Her self-hatred and doubt are so all-encompassing that they extend to anyone who loves her and believes in her. She pushes away her mother, her boyfriends, her girlfriend. How can they possibly love someone as screwed up and worthless as herself – that must make them either deceitful or worthless.
Her real problem is that she is so thin-skinned that she has no skin left at all, or as she puts it early on: ‘I absorb everything unfiltered’. At times you want to rush in and protect her, but then her self-destructive gene kicks in and you want to slap her and tell her to get a grip on herself.
I’m lucky to be alive, the doctors say
They’re idiots, every last one of them
They don’t realise that I’m actually very unlucky to be alive
There is no sugar-coating, no attempt at self-justification or excuses in this ‘punk rock’ saga. A doctor tells her that she has too much of the victim mentality, that she is feeling too sorry for herself and refusing to accept any responsibility. Part of the narrator understands and agrees with that, but then the rebellious voice starts shouting and she is unable to remonstrate with her.
You might ask yourself how much of this is autobiographical, since the narrator aspires to be an actor, and the author is best known for her acting role in a Norwegian TV series, but it doesn’t really matter. This is the rawest, most believable account of schizophrenia that I have ever come across (at least I assume it is schizophrenia, I’m not a trained doctor, but I’ve had a couple of friends with this affliction). The translation does an excellent job of capturing the fragmented, jolting nature of the work, the repetition, the almost incantatory poetry of it, the breathless present tense. I’m not surprised this won the Tarjei Vesaas First Book Award in 2013 – it is a remarkable and original piece of work.
A single mother arrives home tired but quietly triumphant after doing her first presentation at her new workplace. Her eight-year-old son is waiting for her, listening to every step as she walks in and starts cooking. They have dinner and some conversation, but each is wrapped up in their own thoughts and dreams. They only have each other, since they moved away from town, from the boy’s father. The mother settles down with a book and dozes off, the boy goes out to sell raffle tickets. The mother wakes up and decides to slip out to the library herself, believing her son is safely tucked in bed. And so they narrowly miss each other on this winter night in a village in Northern Norway.
It’s difficult and probably unwise not to read Hanne Ørstavik’s slim novel all in one gulp. You need to go somewhere with that sense of foreboding, the crescendo of compassion, pity and dread, the certainty that something bad will happen to Vibeke and her young son Jon as they wander about their village that evening like lost souls. Every mention of the birthday cake that the little boy keeps hoping that his mother will bake for him pierced my heart. Every time Vibeke looks at herself in the mirror, dreams of being admired and loved, is almost desperate to become visible in some way, my skin tingled in recognition and pity. I doubt I would have been able to keep on reading with such physical discomfort if the book had been any longer, or if I’d had to go back to it in dribs and drabs.
Both the title and the character of Vibeke have provoked debate on the Asymptote Book Club discussion thread. Why ‘love’ when the book shows us such an imperfect example of it, perhaps almost the absence of it? To my mind, both Jon and Vibeke are searching for love, desperate for it to the point of naivety and reckless endangerment. The love that they get from one another is not quite enough to fill this deep hole in the centre of their lives. The father would not have filled the hole either. They are both dreamers, they both desire something that they have never experienced but that they haven’t quite lost hope of finding, despite countless disappointments. The tragedy is that they are not quite aware of this hunger in themselves, so they cannot talk to each other about it, and not just because of the age gap.
I remember an instructor at a poetry workshop saying that we should never talk about love, hearts and the moon, as it is far too easy to descend into sentimentality and cliché. This book talks about all three but manages to avoid that dishonourable fate. How does it do that? Firstly, the style is unadorned and kept deliberately detached. Third person, moving swiftly from Jon to Vibeke’s point of view, but without dwelling on their emotions. Everything is implied in their reactions and gestures rather than through authorial intervention or judgement. At first I thought that the style alternated between long and short sentences, but in fact even the long sentences are often made up of short, coordinated clauses, loosely linked through commas. This, together with the use of the present tense, gives a breathless quality to the narration which contrasts with the cold observation. This really helps in the build-up of suspense, plus author selects just the right amount of telling details to give us a precise, almost step-by-step description of events which never feels repetitive.
I’ve read some great reviews of the book already by Asymptote Book Club subscribers. Ali comments on how love can be both good and terrible. Old Books Abe describes the feeling of helplessly watching the characters fall into peril behind a layer of ice, unable to stop it. Enrico Cioni is fascinated by Vibeke and compares the book to other two recent translations Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin and Die, My Loveby Ariana Harwitz. I also found a resemblance to Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment – that same almost animal instinct for surviving pain, of blessed temporary selfishness, but set in a tighter-lipped, colder climate. For another powerful example of Ørstavik’s understated and elliptical style, see The Blue Room.
An extrovert week is followed by a more introvert one, perhaps also coloured by the tumultuous events at work. Students occupied part of our building and impeded access to workspace, training rooms and even fire exits, and we had all the excitement of megaphones, human chains, trying to reason with them and then being evacuated and finding refuge in the library. While I have every sympathy with their fear that universities are becoming too similar to businesses, I am not fully clear what their aims are or how we could help them achieve those. But it does bring back memories of idealistic younger days when we protested against Communism and (sort of) won that battle, and of course there are parallels with the March for Our Lives movement in the US. I hope that this younger generation will achieve something before they get too disillusioned by the inertia and selfish interests of the older generations.
March 20th was the International Day of the Francophonie, so I spent the evening reading some French poetry, which was perhaps my first poetic love (Verlaine, Rimbaud, Baudelaire). I have a slim volume which is a good introduction to more modern poetry published by Gallimard: Mon beau navire, ô ma mémoire: Un siècle de poésie française (1911-2011). Gallimard has equivalent anthologies for each century, and this one features both well-known poets (such as Apollinaire, Paul Eluard, Aragon) as well as many poets that I am less familiar with.
This week I discovered the Norwegian crime series in 6 episodes Eyewitness on Walter Presents/All 4. Two teenage boys witness a crime at a sand quarry just outside their town and vow to keep it a secret, with all sorts of repercussions on their community and on themselves. It’s got great build-up of suspense and pacing throughout and manages to also be a love story, a tender mother and son/foster parents and child story, and to show how fallible and flawed even police detectives can be. Recommend, if you can access it. I very seldom binge watch, but I watched all 6 episodes over the course of just 2 nights.
I also succumbed to some bookish temptations. Upon hearing the sad news of the death of Philip Kerr, I borrowed one of the post-WW2 Bernie Gunther books from the library Prussian Blue, to see how Gunther copes with a post-Nazi world. I stuck to Germany when I ordered another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck, whose Go Went Gone I so enjoyed. This time it’s Heimsuchung (translated by Susan Bernofsky as Visitation), about a century of German history seen through the ‘eyes’ of a piece of land outside Berlin and the people who lived on it. Last but not least, the Japan Society left a comment on my review of Japanese novellas, and drew my attention to a dual language anthology of contemporary Japanese writing that they have just published. Heaven’s Wind is translated and edited by Angus Turvill and might help me get back into reading Japanese in the original once more. There will be a Book Club meeting dedicated to this volume on the 9th of April at the Japan Society headquarters in London.
There will be a break in my cultural events for the next two weeks, as holidays and the mountains beckon. However, if you are in France and not skiing, then you really should go to the wonderful Quais du Polar crime festival in Lyon, which this year takes place between 6 and 8 April. It will be my first time since 2012 that I won’t be able to make it, but I am sure Emma from Book Around will tell us all about it.
France, Norway, Germany and Japan (plus I’ve just finished reading a crime novel set in South Afrida): where have you been ‘transported’ this week?
After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.
However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.
France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gateby Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactoryMen by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.
Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonataand A Confirmed Bachelor. Like Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of Judgement, Susan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.
Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresies, which makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road.
The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder Signal, Poland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.
After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.
So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.
Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.
Agnes Ravatn: The Bird Tribunal (transl. Rosie Hedger)
A book so ice-cold and chilly, that you will have to stop reading and put on an extra jumper! A sense of growing menace and discomfort on every page, yet it achieves all that without any hardcore violence or shocking language. It is so civilised, so discreet, barely a few ripples on a very calm fjord, belying the treacherous waters below.
It is also an extremely claustrophobic read. Yes, most of the action takes place outdoors, in a rather beautiful natural setting, but this is nature at its most sinister. The violet mountains of the fjord seem to close in on the remote, run-down property where Allis works as a housekeeper/gardener/cook for the mysterious Sigurd Bagge. The garden is ‘a grey winter tragedy of dead shrubbery, sodden straw and tangled rose thickets.’ There is an infestation of mice, but the traps she sets catch nothing but birds. Robins crash against the window panes, there are locked doors of Bluebeard memory and remnants of burnt objects in the woods. Even the full moon is not romantic, but tainted by a lunar eclipse. Yet Allis chooses to ignore the threats, most of the time, focusing instead on the gentle lapping of the water, the balmy summer evenings, sharing an occasional bottle of wine with her employer.
The claustrophobia is heightened by the fact that there are only two characters circling each other, swooping in and out, like rapacious birds. Their actions are strange and unpredictable. Bit by bit, we eke out pieces of Allis’ story, how she is trying to escape from the notoriety which surrounded an affair she was embroiled in. Her desire to go underground and hide, her instant attraction to the Heathcliff-like moodiness of her employer, her curiosity about his missing wife and her utter revulsion at the nasty gossip hinted at by the local shopkeeper all show her to be a less than reliable narrator. We also find out more about Sigurd, but only from their conversations; we are never in his head. The dream-like atmosphere is further emphasised through their storytelling. Allis tells Sigurd about Norse myths, especially the story of Balder, god of patience and forgiving, and how mischief-maker Loki seeks to destroy him. Meanwhile, Sigurd talks about a bird tribunal, something that seems half-imagined, half-real.
The way this book builds up tension, the currents of feeling rippling below the surface, reminded me of two other Scandinavian novels: Therese Bohman’s Drowned and Tove Jansson’s The True Deceiver. This is calm, collected prose, where you need to allow every word to sink in, so precise and exquisite in its English incarnation (and probably in its Norwegian original). Or perhaps it’s poetry…
Another winner from Orenda Books, proving they have books for all tastes and all seasons.
You know how quickly I devour crime fiction and that my preference is for the subversive, disturbing and relentlessly noir. However, quite a few my recent reads have been of a gentler persuasion, almost an old-fashioned feel. In descending order of ‘gentility’, may I introduce you to…
Margot Kinberg: B Very Flat
Margot is such a supportive, knowledgeable member of the crime-writing and reading community, plus I have a soft spot for novels with an academic setting, so I’d been planning to get this one for ages. Not easy to order outside the US, but I eventually got my paws on it (and am now waiting to meet Margot in person, so she can sign it for me).
Serena Brinkman is a talented violinist at Tilton University, a small but prestigious college on the East Coast. She truly seems to be the golden girl who has it all – but then death strikes on the night of a major music competition. A former detective, now professor of criminal justice at Tilton University, is asked to investigate the apparently accidental death a little further. We are firmly in Golden Age detective era type of fiction here, although there are all the modern accoutrements of student life nowadays (including PDAs and online gambling). What struck me was how very polite and nice all the characters seem – genteel, in other words (although, obviously, they can’t all be, since one of them at least is a murderer). Even the flawed ones, even when misunderstandings occur. It’s a book for readers who like a puzzle and a minimum of gore.
Frédéric Dard: Bird in a Cage (transl. David Bellos)
Dard was one of the most prolific crime writers in France (and that’s saying something, given that Simenon was also writing there). Best-known for his nearly 180 San-Antonio novels (think a more satirical and realistic Bond), he has also written over 100 standalone novels and shorter series, many of them under various pseudonyms (clearly, the publishers couldn’t keep up with him!).
This is a bittersweet novel with a perfect 1950s setting, which reminded me a little of Pascal Garnier. Albert returns to his old neighbourhood in Paris after his mother’s death (having spent several years in prison) and is captivated by a beautiful woman and her young child, whom he sees eating alone in a restaurant on Christmas Eve. He becomes involved in a very complicated and dubious story with the woman, her husband and the Midnight Mass for Christmas. A clever puzzle and a rather quiet, gentle man who is clearly being manipulated, although we are not quite sure how.
Jo Nesbø: Blood on the Snow (transl. Neil Smith)
I was struck at once by how similar this novel is to Bird in a Cage in terms of premise and feel (rather than style or plot). A professional fixer (with some moral scruples) is asked to ‘fix’ the wife of his boss, but starts to feel sorry for her. Falls a little in love. This is a much more brutal story, far less ambiguous than Dard, and Olav is not as genteel or well-spoken as Albert, but it is a quieter book, with an old-fashioned atmosphere which we’ve not hitherto experienced with Nesbø. Bet you weren’t expecting him to come smack-bang in the middle of this post!
Augusto De Angelis: The Hotel of the Three Roses (transl. Jill Foulston)
Another Pushkin Vertigo release, I had high hopes for this one, set in a boarding-house in Milan in 1919, written in the 1930s and filled to the brim with unreliable characters with a dodgy past. However, I found there were just too many characters, all lying with no compunction and very little concern about plausibility. There were just too many things happening, insufficient clarity and psychological motivation. This was gentility of the cold-nosed, snobbish variety, not even a smidgen of warmth or attempt to make me care about any of the characters. And, as for those creepy china dolls…!
Michael Stanley: Deadly Harvest
This is not the Botswana of endless cups of Redbush tea and astute yet gentle musings of Alexander McCall Smith. But it remains, nevertheless, a polite, traditional society with respect for rank and the elderly, even though we are dealing with some pretty horrible realities. Under the ‘quaint’ umbrella of traditional African medicine, muti, we find a profoundly disturbing superstition and increasing use of human body parts. As young girls go missing and the communities are too scared to talk, our beloved rotund Detective Kubu supports his feisty new recruit, Samantha Khama, who wants to find out just what is going on. Politics, traditions, family ties, AIDS victims and reactions to HIV-infected children, plus strong characterisation all form a delightful and far more believable alternative narrative of modern Africa. The authors scratch beneath the surface of the beauty, charm and nostalgia that the British Empire still has for Africa, yet carefully avoid making the country or its people the villain of the piece. One of my favourite series set in Africa.
Bibliobio is organising another Women in Translation Month this year, a challenge with very few prescriptions other than to read as many women authors as possible. I’m reading plenty and I hope to review a good few.
Today’s rather lengthy blog post (apologies – you may need to read it in two goes if you are in a rush) compares and contrasts two families with buried secrets: one from Norway, the other from the Netherlands. The third book I mention is not available in translation, but proves that it doesn’t take big secrets to make a family dysfunctional: sometimes the everyday grind is enough to wear one down.
Gohril Gabrielsen: The Looking Glass Sisters (transl. John Irons)
This story about siblings stuck in a shocking relationship of love and hate, and mutual dependency, has all the hallmarks of Nordic darkness and Ingmar Bergman films.
Two middle-aged sisters live together in a rickety old house in Finnmark, the northernmost region of Norway. Ragna is the older one and has spent nearly all of her life looking after her half-paralysed sister, the narrator. This is not an easy relationship: they takes pleasure in hurling insults and deliberately annoying each other. They are very different, not just physically: Ragna is practical, hard-working and would have liked to escape her surroundings. The younger sister (never named) finds refuge in books and the world of the imagination.
Childhood memories are tainted with petty squabbles; in adulthood, the tricks they play on each other take a really nasty turn. Ragna snatches away the breakfast before her sister has finished eating, deliberately occupies the toilet so that her sister is forced to wee on herself, even leaves her sister out in the cold to teach her a lesson.
For all of Ragna’s almost careless cruelty, we suspect that we can’t trust the first person narrator’s description either. She is convinced that Ragna and her new boyfriend Johan are trying to cart her off to a nursing home. She complains of the depravity of her older sister, but it only serves to highlight her own fear of abandonment. She plots and deceives, and knows exactly how to humiliate her sister in public. She loves twisting sentences around, till they become almost philosophical and very sinister.
Stupid cowardly Johan with his voice, forcedly good, pretends first that I am nothing, afterwards kills the crutch woman with his look.
First I the crutch woman am nothing, afterwards I kill stupid cowardly Johan, pretend nothing with my look, my voice.
The sentences just work. I’ve achieved the meaning I wanted. At last I can once more carry on my most precious occupation: lie on the pillows and twist the world exactly as I like.
Yet she is also pitiable in her desperation. I found it heartbreaking that there were so few happy childhood memories to nourish her. There are also moments of touching self-awareness. She comments on how thin and acidic her blood has become, and how both of the sisters have become both victims and monsters.
We do not have any other choice but to remain. We are equally frightened and helpless, and cling to each other as a defence against the outside world… poor helpless us.
I’ve chosen perhaps the more explicit passages, but the beauty of this book is that most of the story is told obliquely, through the increasingly desperate interactions between the sisters, through the younger sister’s tortured ruminations:
If that’s how it really is, the marrow can only be swallowed with the mouth held close round the hollow bone shaft, and only in the deepest abyss, in the black boggy soil, can I regurgitate the confession, hold it out:
I’m the one with horns, the one with goat’s eyes.
This is a book to make those of us who never had sisters thankful for the fact. I don’t know how Peirene manages to find these very powerful and unsettling stories to translate. But I am glad they do. [Literal translation of original title: Staggering Possibilities, No Fear]
Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us (transl. Hester Velmans)
A modern housing estate on the outskirts of a small Dutch town becomes ‘suburban paradise’ to middle-class families with fathers commuting to work, frustrated mothers who feel their talent and potential has been wasted in the ‘boondocks’ and therefore take refuge in Tarot and gossip, children all born within a couple of months of each other – ready-made playmates. An unconventional family then moves into the former rectory on the old village green: young Lucy, her artist mother and their two middle-aged lodgers nicknamed the Luducos (one is Ludo, the other Duco, but they were so similar that the children were never sure which was which).
At first, the children are enchanted with Lucy, who is a born storyteller:
She was the exact same age as us, but she’d already experienced so much more. She’d discovered a rusty treasure chest filled with gold ducats in the ruins of some old castle; she had battled sabre-toothed tigers; she had sailed a pirate ship, wearing a wooden leg and with a green parrot on her shoulder. She’d spilled hundreds of glasses of orange squash, too, without any dire fallout. Just watch us try that at home.
The fathers are not immune to the exotic charm of Lucy’s mother either:
… they would always get this funny look on their faces whenever we started on about the way things were done in the rectory, or explained that if something got spilled over there, Lucy’s mother just laughed it off. Then our dads would cough and leave the table to walk the dog… Lucy told us our dads sometimes lingered on the green for hours, gazing up a the rectory’s lighted windows… And then they’d head home again. Back to their own wonderful, modern houses. Saved from the nuisances of living in a white elephant…
When another family moves into the area, and their young son Thomas and Lucy solemnly declare themselves to be engaged (at the age of 5-6), it all seems quaint and charming. But then the childhood idyll is shattered: a bizarre murder takes place and the community starts to take sides. Hypocrisy and judgement rise to the fore. The children gang up on Lucy, who seems to be the harbinger of bad luck, but she refuses to tell anyone about the severe bullying. This is told with frightening candour (from the point of view of the bullies) and the gradual piling on of horrors, albeit without any graphic details, will make your head spin:
…we were beginning to hope that Lucy would finally throw in the towel? But what were the chances of that? Just look at the way she insisted on going to the loo during break every morning, although she knew perfectly well what was in store for her there. Or the way she’d drink her carton of milk very day, even though we’d put soap in it over a hundred times. Or like that time with the matches. Or all the other times… She walked into every ambush, every trap, with eyes wide open; she seemed to be courting danger on purpose instead of trying to escape it. What was she playing at? There really was no need to rub our noses in it day after day… It got harder and harder to think of something that would top the last torment.
Eventually, her family decides to escape and make a clean start on the island of Lewis. They struggle at first with the barren landscape, the language, the weather and the physical labour of peating. The difficult moments are laced with humour, so it’s not all painful reading. Ultimately, Lucy believes she finds some sense of belonging in the Hebrides, with a new ‘gang’ of children. Yet the secrets hidden deep within their family make it impossible for them to forget the past and find peace.
I found the last part of the book less convincing: when Lucy returns to the Netherland as an adult and all the pernicious secrets and mysteries are revealed. The first two parts, however, make this book an emotionally gripping, quite intense read.
Adina Rosetti: De zece ori pe buze (Ten Times on the Lips)
After the two harrowing reads above, it was a pleasure to turn to a much softer, slightly more sentimental collection of short stories about love and the death of love, children discovering the world, loss of innocence and magic. Some of the stories are linked: we get to see different points of view and how the relationships evolve over time. In ‘Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger’ we see how a group of children frighten themselves witless with a séance, while in ‘Ten Times on the Lips’ we follow their tentative steps into adolescence, the need to show off, hide vulnerabilities, their fragile friendships and terrible moments of hurt. In ‘The Girl with the Roses’ we see two lovers in the early stages of their relationship, struggling to find common ground, while in ‘Inner Peace’ we see them many years later, married, with two children, growing apart.
There are parts that have a touch of magical realism (the first and longest story in the book is a curious blend of fantasy and reality), but there are also parts that sound so frighteningly realistic and down-to-earth that I felt I was being a fly on the wall witnessing the fights of many, many couples I’ve known personally.
It is all very readable, although the rich, flowing, verbose style and long sentences may feel unfamiliar to English-speaking readers. What the author does well is describe childhood years under Communism, without going into politics, simply the backdrop of the blocks of flats where the children play all day unsupervised. I also like the tension between the old world and the new (stressed mothers today vs. the older generation who feel that they endured far greater hardships, for example). The level of writing may not be quite there yet in terms of really thought-provoking literature, but Rosetti is a writer to watch.
The author hasn’t been translated into English, but there is a French translation of her debut novelDeadline, a mystery novel with fantastical elements.
As if I needed any more reasons to love Norway, its landscapes and people, I’ve recently come across this delightful booktown in the Norwegian fjords. It is situated in Mundal, in the centre of Fjærland, somewhere between Bergen and Trondheim, and consists of various second-hand bookshops, open every day 1 May – 21 September. Online and telephone purchases are possible throughout the year.
Having spent a holiday with bookish friends in Hay on Wye a long time ago (and enjoyed every minute of it), I think this sounds like a perfect holiday destination.
I’ve just read in quick succession two books about cross-cultural relationships and misunderstandings, about overcoming prejudices and making sense of things in a world where everything is unfamiliar. This is my specialist subject in the so-called ‘real world’ (although there are no end of surreal elements to the corporate business world), so these books are always going to tempt me. But my expectations are high, so it’s not easy for a book to meet them. The first I liked, the second I was more ambiguous about.
Kerry Hudson: Thirst
This is a simple love story between Dave, a young man from a run-down estate in London, and Alena, a young woman from Siberia who has ended up in London, a victim a human trafficking. Except that there is nothing simple about this story – and, at first, not even much love. Alena is caught shoplifting in a fancy Bond Street store, where Dave is a security guard. At first it’s pity and self-interest which brings them together, but slowly, gradually, these two very hurt and lonely people find a way to relate to each other, although both of them are reluctant to divulge their secrets and profound emotional wounds. It’s by no means certain that they will be able to build a future together – the book does not end on a ‘happily ever after’ note, although it is not pessimistic either. There are no easy answers, no sentimental sweetness about the relationship. Instead, we get a lot of good intentions, cynical self-protection, childish reactions and lying. Yet, in spite of all that, the tale is truly heart-warming and the two main characters are endearing.
What was so enjoyable about the book is that it took well-worn clichés about Eastern and Western Europe and turned them on its head. Yes, prostitution and violent Ukrainian gangs are involved, but are they ultimately that different to the drunks and thugs that Dave sees on the council estate? Poverty is equally demeaning at both ends of Europe – and the author brings to life (pitch-perfect, as far as I can tell) the world of those with little education and few options. The exact opposite of privilege. Yet these people too have dreams, a thirst for life, a desire to improve their lot and find something that takes them out of the urine-soaked grey concrete of their surroundings.
Kerry Hudson has a clear-eyed approach which eschews tales of maudlin misery, although there are hints there of anger at social injustices. Her fresh, direct style injects a note of humour even in the bleakest moments, but it’s not the right read for you if you are looking for something light-hearted at the moment.
Derek B. Miller: Norwegian By Night
I did want to fall in love with this one and most of the reviewers I know and trust did indeed like it. So maybe I am just ‘faulty’ and missing something, but I found it less than satisfying. In fact, it was slightly irritating and I dragged myself back to reading it with a dutiful rather than a joyous heart (we are discussing it this week at the Virtual Crime Book Club).
It’s a shame, because the book is well written stylistically and the premise is of the zany, intriguing and implausible that I usually like. Sheldon is an 82-year-old, ever so possibly senile American Jewish widower, who comes to Norway to live with his granddaughter, witnesses a crime involving the next-door neighbour and goes on the run with the neighbour’s traumatised little boy, outwitting the Norwegian police, the family and some tough Kosovan criminals along the way.
Sheldon is a former US Marine, you see, so he can hide, stalk, shoot, improvise along with the best, even if his body is no longer quite so reliable. Despite the occasional funny moments, I found the lone ranger attitude rather tiresome in the long run, too reminiscent of the American imperialism and assumption of cultural superiority which Sheldon spends most of the book dissociating from and condemning. The old man himself was far too grumpy and culturally insensitive rather than endearing, as well as brooding too much on his past, his feeling of guilt over the death of his son and on anti-semitic slights he has endured along the way. The secondary characters felt rather hastily sketched in: the little boy was a strange blank blob, partly because of his mutism, and I would have liked to see more of policewoman Sigrid and of Sheldon’s granddaughter and her partner. It just didn’t all quite gel for me, but I’m in a real minority here. I heard some reviewers say that it is not the right read if you are expecting a conventional thriller – but for me, it was too much of a thriller!
To my surprise, I discovered the author is an international affairs expert and married to a Norwegian, so I am probably reading too much negative comment into the book which betrays the main character’s flawed attitude. I will be curious, however, to see what Derek B. Miller comes up with next.