What I Really Read on the Beach – Summer Reads

There was quite a bit of uproar on Twitter about the extremely worthy and ever-so-slightly pretentious beach reading promoted by The Guardian. Why can’t people admit that they crave chick lit or the latest Harlan Coben instead? They don’t have to be trashy airport novels (although most recently I’ve noticed a vast improvement in terms of variety being offered at airports), but they have to be able to withstand great heat, sun cream, the odd splash of water, and fried holiday brain. Can your expensive hardback of Time Pieces: A Dublin Memoir, written by John Banville, with beautiful photography by Paul Joyce, withstand that? Perhaps one to buy and keep at home as a coffee table book, rather than shlepp to distant beaches…

Of course, I won’t actually be going to any beach this summer, but I hope to get a few nice days of sitting in my deck chair in the garden and worrying about nothing else but reading. And I readily admit that I look forward to a nice dose of escapism to mix in with my literary education. So this is what I would really read if I were on a Greek beach.

Image from olimpia.rs

Crime

Michael Stanley: Dying to Live

I’m a great fan of the Detective ‘Kubu’ Bengu series, and the Kalahari Desert setting fits in perfectly with the beach. Also, it’s a really intriguing tale about the death of a Bushman, who appears to be very old, but his internal organs are puzzlingly young. Could a witch doctor be involved?

Linwood Barclay: Too Close to Home

Another author that I would rather read on the beach than alone at night in a large house, as his nerve-wracking twists are prone to making me jump. The strapline on this one goes: What’s more frightening than your next-door neighbours being murdered? Finding out the killers went to the wrong house…

Helen Cadbury: Bones in the Nest

Like many other crime readers, I was very saddened to hear about the recent death of Helen Cadbury. I had read her debut novel in the Sean Denton series reviewed and marked her out as a talent to watch in 2014 on Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in a series set in Doncaster, which unfortunately never had the chance to grow to its full potential.

Sarah Vaughan: Anatomy of a Scandal

The perfect novel for those who can’t quite take a break from politics: this is the story of an MP whose affair is made public, his wife who tries to stand by him in spite of her doubts, and the barrister who believes he has been guilty of rape. A searing look at privilege, hypocrisy and the social justice system.

YA literature

Not my usual kind of reading at all, but I like to keep abreast of what my children are reading.

G.P. Taylor: Mariah Mundi – The Midas Box

Mariah is a young orphan, fresh out of school, who is employed to work as an assistant to a magician living in the luxurious Prince Regent Hotel. But the slimy, dripping basement of the hotel hides a dark secret. I’ve heard of the author’s Shadowmancer series, but never read anything by him. Described as the next Harry Potter, this book promises to take the reader into a world of magic and fun.

Paul Gallico: Jennie

Peter wakes up from a serious accident and finds himself transformed into a cat. Life as a street cat is tough and he struggle to survive, but luckily stumbles across the scrawny but kindly tabby cat Jennie, who helps him out. Together they embark on a bit of an adventure.

#EU27Project

This is not only worthy reading, but highly enjoyable into the bargain! Although seeking out translations from some of the countries on the list is not that easy or cheap.

Hungary – Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (transl. Patrick Thursdfiel and Katalin Banffy-Jelen)

Satisfies any cravings for family saga and historical romance, as well as looking at a part of the world which is very close to me (Transylvania). Plus a society bent on self-destruction – what more could one want?

Romania – Ileana Vulpescu: Arta Compromisului (The Art of Compromise)

This author’s earlier book The Art of Conversation was an amazing bestseller in the early 1980s in Romania, partly because it went against all the expectations of ‘socialist realism’ of the time and was quite critical of socialist politics (of an earlier period, admittedly). This book, published in 2009, continues the story of the main character, but this time set in the period after the fall of Communism in 1989. Critics have called it a bit of a soap opera, but at the same time an excellent snapshot of contemporary society. Sounds like delightful light reading, with a social critique, perfect for reconnecting with my native tongue.

Spain – Javier Marias: The Infatuations (transl. Margaret Jull Costa)

Another story with a murderous aside by an author I’ve only recently discovered and whose baroque sentences mesmerise me… Every day, María Dolz stops for breakfast at the same café. And every day she enjoys watching a handsome couple who follow the same routine. Then one day they aren’t there, and she feels obscurely bereft. She discovers that the man was murdered in the street – and Maria gets entangled in a very odd relationship with the widow.

Women in Translation Month

Another project which has the merit of being both worthy and great fun. I plan to read several of the Keshiki project of Strangers Press – beautifully produced slim translations of Japanese short stories and novellas. There are plenty of women writers represented: Misumi Kubo, Yoko Tawada, Kyoko Yoshida, Aoko Matsuda and the improbably named Nao-Cola Yamazaki. I expect the strange, unsettling, disquieting and sexually heated… Phew!

 

 

 

#WIT Month: How to Be Happy by Mme du Chatelet

Just got time to squeeze in one more author for Women in Translation Month and it’s the effervescent, smart, charming and loyal Emilie du Chatelet, who deserves to be far better known as a scientist in her own right rather than merely as Voltaire’s great love. Her slender volume Discours sur le bonheur (Essay on Happiness) has not been translated in its entirety in English yet, but there are extracts to be found in the biography by Esther Ehrman in Berg Women’s Series.

The portrait by Latour.
The portrait by Latour.

It was a bit of a fashion to write about happiness and how to acquire it in the 18th century. However, Mme du Chatelet’s essay stands out for its fearsome honesty. It was not written for publication and so is remarkably clear-eyed and candid, at a time when the author had laid to rest the sadness over ending her relationship with Voltaire (or at least the physical part of their love affair, for they remained good friends until the end of her life). She had not yet met the playboy Saint-Lambert, who was to upset the last couple of years of her life and (indirectly) cause her death. She was apparently serene and content at the time, and certainly had not lost any of her idealism. [All the quotes below are my translations, so apologies for any inaccuracies.]

In order to be happy, you need to strip yourself of any prejudice, be virtuous and healthy, have your tastes and passions, and be susceptible to illusions, because we owe a great part of our pleasures to illusions, so woe the person who loses them! Far be it from us to kill off our illusions through the torch of reason and remove the varnish they put on most things…

She distinguishes between male and female happiness, subtly pointing out how women’s subordinate position limits their capacity for attaining full satisfaction and happiness.

Love of learning is less essential for the happiness of men than for that of women. Men have endless other resources for happiness, which women lack. They have other means to attain glory, and it’s almost certain that the satisfactions of rendering service to one’s country through one’s talents, or serving one’s fellow citizens through the art of war or government or negotiations are vastly superior to the satisfactions of learning alone… but chasing after glory is nothing but an illusion…

The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.
The portrait by Largiliere, commissioned especially for Voltaire.

Women are often encouraged, of course, to find their solace in love rather than glory, and Emilie admits that there is no greater joy if you are lucky enough to find that twin soul, that marriage of true minds, which she admits she did find with Voltaire, but such loves are rare, she warns, perhaps one a century. However, the careful reader (or one prone to melancholia) will detect certain notes of regret and wistfulness. All was not perfect even in this most envy-inducing of relationships:

I don’t know if love has ever featured two people so much made for each other that they never experienced boredom or the coolness that comes from security, nor the indolence and tepidness that seems conjoined with ease of access and continuity of passion, in both good and bad times… For ten years I was happy, in the love of the man who subjugated my soul and I passed those ten years, alone with him, without a moment of doubt or boredom… I have now lost that happy state, and it cost me endless tears. It takes an earthquake to break such ties and the wound in my heart bled for a long time. I felt sorry for myself but I have forgiven everything now. I think I now understand that my heart alone has got that constancy which defies time…

The official version of their break-up was that Voltaire (who was far more advanced in age) was no longer able to satisfy his mistress physically, but his dalliances with actresses and particularly with his widowed niece, who later went to live with him as his housekeeper and mistress in Ferney, would demonstrate that this was not quite the case. For a fascinating insight into this complicated relationship, I would recommend David Bodanis’ book Passionate Minds, although it left me feeling that poor Emilie was forever being let down by her male companions (although her father and her husband were surprisingly enlightened and understanding for their time).

Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.
Portrait by Marianne Loir. In almost all of her portraits, Emilie faces her viewers directly, unashamedly, a pose which was highly unusual for women at the time. Notice also she nearly always holds a compass or other elements denoting her scientific passions.

This is more a personal memoir than a self-help manual, but there are echoes of the latter in the way Emilie muses about the importance of setting goals or, as she calls it, deciding the path you want to take in life, ‘what you want to be and what you want to do’, otherwise you are perpetually swimming in a sea of uncertainty and vagueness, full of regrets.

This feeling of regret is one of the most useless and disagreeable that a human soul is capable of.

So… echoes of the famous Piaf chanson, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’. Perhaps this is the greatest wisdom I can learn from this admirable woman: I need not feel sorry for her, she led a good life and enjoyed it to the full. And, in the end, she made her mark in the world without the help of any famous male companions. Her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica and her theoretical work on the nature of light paved the way to the great discoveries in physics in the next two centuries.

I leave you with this touching scene described by Voltaire’s secretary Longchamp (and quoted in the Bodanis book). It’s February 1749 (Emilie was to die in on September 8th of that year). Emilie has found out that she is pregnant at what was then a dangerous age of 42. She becomes convinced that this will be her death knell and she fears not being able to finish her scientific work. She sets off for Paris (where her scientific papers are) with Voltaire in a carriage, but the rear axle breaks and they have to wait for hours in the cold and snow for help to arrive. Covered in furs and blankets, instead of despairing, the remarkable couple lay back beneath the stars and enjoy their last truly peaceful moment together.

Despite the extreme froideur, Madame and Monsieur admired the beauty of the sky. It was serene, and stars were burning with a most vivid brightness… Ravished by this magnificent spectacle spread above and around them, they discoursed – while shivering, I should point out – on the nature and paths of the stars, and on the destiny of so many immense globes spread in space.

For a modern-day interpretation of Mme du Chatelet and her proto-feminism, see the notes for this play. For a review of her scientific work, see Stanford University’s biographical entry. For a French take on it (and a much better translation than mine), here is Emma’s review.

 

#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector

Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.
Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.

I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.

As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.

It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.

The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?

When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.

‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’

She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?

Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.

My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…

But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.

What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…

Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.

nearwildheartYet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.

Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.

July Reading: A Moveable Feast

Not my most productive reading month, tempting though it might have been to bury myself in a book instead of dealing with removal minutiae.

#20booksofsummer

Isabel Costello: Paris Mon Amour

Colin Niel: Ce qui reste en foret

GrażynaPlebanek: Illegal Liaisons (transl. by Danusia Stok) – also for WIT month, see below.

Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal – likewise, a candidate for WIT month

This is going more slowly than I expected, mostly because all sorts of other books get in the way.

Review copies:

Fred Vargas: A Climate of Fear

Ragnar Jonasson: Blackout

Anne Korkeakivi: Shining Sea

Michael Stanley: A Death in the Family

Crime fiction:

K.A. Richardson: I’ve Been Watching You – serial killer, tortured women, evil twins – not my cup of tea

Intruders:

Jaume Cabre: Confessions

Akira Mizubayashi: Une langue venue d’ailleurs

I have a feeling the August reading will be a bit of a mish-mash too, but I’ve deliberately set some books aside for reading during packing and before unpacking at the other end. Tony Malone also kindly reminded me that August is Women in Translation month, so here are some books I have planned for that, even at the risk of it interfering with my #20booksofsummer goals.

The one I look forward to most is the one I’ve been saving up for the summer:

  • Clarice Lispector: Near to the Wild Heart (her debut novel – a reread, but it’s been so long ago, that it will feel like a fresh read)

As always, I seem to have a sizeable chunk of French (or Swiss) books:

  • Valerie Gilliard: Le Canal
  • Madame du Chatelet: Discours sur le bonheur (How to Be Happy)
  • Muriel Barbery: The Life of Elves
  • Marie Darrieussecq: Men

Two tense, thriller-like books from Eastern Europe:

  • Rodica Ojog-Brasoveanu: Cutia cu nasturi (The Box with Buttons)
  • Grażyna Plebanek: Illegal Liaisons – no, it wasn’t a thriller, I was wrong about that

And that’s probably ambitious enough already! Once things calm down in September, and the children go to school, I am planning to contribute some articles for Crime Fiction Lover’s Classics in September feature. Early days yet, but I was thinking of something along the lines ‘Classic novels with more than a hint of crime’ and possibly also a re-read of The Moonstone (the novel which supposedly started all this crime fiction madness).

 

Summer Reading Round-Up

Back from holidays and sooo much work to catch up on (as well as reviews). Needless to say, I did not get quite as much writing and reading done this past week of ‘real holiday’, because I did not spend all my time on the beaches below (more’s the pity!).

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Luckily for my reading/writing projects, I only had one week ‘off’. This summary represents two months’ worth of reading, because the school holidays here spread over July and August.

Women in Translation Month

In August I spent most of my time reading women in translation, trying to rely on books that I already had. I grouped some of them together for reviewing purposes (lack of time or because I thought they were made for each other), but here they are in the order I read them.

Kati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless and an interview with the author here

Valeria Luiselli: Faces in the Crowd

Therese Bohmann: Drowned

Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Baby

Karin Fossum: The Drowned Boy

Alice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park

Judith Schalansky: The Neck of the Giraffe

Adina Rosetti: Ten Times on the Lips

Renate Dorrestein: The Darkness that Divides Us

Gøhril Gabrielsen: The Looking-Glass Sisters

Tove Janssen: The True Deceiver (and other assorted Moomin books) – to catch up on later

Rodica Ojog-Braşoveanu: The Man at the End of the Line (to be reviewed)

Veronika Peters: Was in zwei Koffer passt (All that Fits in 2 Suitcases)

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Other Women Writers

Following the WIT reading, I was in the mood to read more women authors in English as well. Some of them were for CFL reviews, but many were just escapism.

Lucy Atkins: The Other Child

Sophie Hannah: A Game for All the Family

Sarah Ward: In Bitter Chill

Rosamond Lehmann: The Echoing Grove

Anya Lipska: A Devil Under the Skin

Susan M. Tiberghien: Footsteps

Jenny Lawson: Furiously Happy

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And Other Reads:

Review copy: Sebastian Fitzek: The Child

Library book: Emmanuel Carrere: The Adversary

Rereading: F. Scott Fitzgerald: Tender Is the Night

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Summary

24 books, 15 in or from other languages, 9 in English, 8 crime fiction.

My best proportion of translated fiction ever, so the WIT initiative clearly works well even for those of us who believe we read a lot of women writers and a lot of translated fiction. I made many wonderful discoveries, and feel I have learnt something from each book, even though I may not have loved them all.

My crime pick of the month/holidays is Hiekkapelto’s The Defenceless, because it is such a timely topic (about the way we treat asylum-seekers). My overall favourite read is also Finnish (with a Swedish twist): Tove Jansson. Well, she sets a very high bar… But honourable mentions go to Valeria Luiselli and Gøhril Gabrielsen. (I exclude F. Scott Fitzgerald from the competition.) My disappointment was the Veronika Peters book, which I thought was going to be a more in-depth account of a woman’s search for herself, for God, for inner peace or spirituality. Instead, it was an (entertaining enough) account of everyday life in a convent, with all its rivalries, good and bad bits, but a lot more shallow than I expected – both the book and the narrator.

 

 

 

 

 

Women in Translation Month: Family Ties

WITMonth15Bibliobio 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. 

lookingglassGohril 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.

gohril
Author photo from bokavisen.no

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]


darknessdividesusRenate 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.

Author photo from author's website.
Author photo from author’s website.

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.

World Editions is another interesting new publishing house, dedicated to bringing Dutch and other world literature (especially women authors) to an English-speaking audience. I’ve already reviewed two high-quality books from them: The Woman Who Fed the Dogs and The Summer of Kim Novak.

adinarosettiAdina 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.

adina-rosetti-2
Author photo from Crumbs Magazine.

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 novel Deadlinea mystery novel with fantastical elements.

Women in Translation Month: Judith Schalansky

WITMonth15Bibliobio 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 fair few. Today we’re heading over to Germany. I read this book in the original, but it has been translated very skillfully into English by Shaun Whiteside, published by Bloomsbury.

schalanskyJudith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

Inge Lohmark is a biology and sports teacher in a ‘Gymnasium’ (selective state school, grammar school equivalent) in a provincial town in what was once East Germany. The town is dying, as is the school, forced to close soon because of lack of pupils. Everyone dreams of escaping from that claustrophobic place to search for jobs or a better life, including Inge’s own daughter, who has been living in the States for the past 10-12 years.

Inge, however, is inflexible and judgemental. She believes in the survival of the fittest and refuses to intervene in bullying incidents. Although she teaches biological adaptation, she is unwilling to alter any of her principles and firmly-held beliefs herself. Short shrift, military in style, believing any display of emotion or affection to be a weakness, her style is perfectly captured with the short, staccato sentences, often without verbs, like barked orders. She is the teacher we all feared and loved to hate or mock at school.

Her story is in many ways the story of my parents’ generation, for whom the fall of Communism came too late and who will never be able to adapt to a new world they do not understand nor like very much. Because of my own experience with recalcitrant relatives who live in a nostalgia of a life that never really was the way they remember it, I have more patience for Inge than most readers would. Many of her acerbic observations of modern life and young students will strike a chord, perhaps provoke a wry smile of recognition. She is also a profoundly lonely person, barely sharing a word with her husband – who is immersed in his ostrich farm – and rarely engaging in conversations with her colleagues or neighbours, unless they become arguments or point-scoring exercises.

Example of illustrations from the book.
Example of illustrations from the book.

The book is presented entirely from Inge’s point of view and I have to admit that I would have liked to see her through the eyes of others at some point. There are also plenty of digressions about the animal kingdom and evolution theory, with some beautiful illustrations. These digressions are quite interesting and (of course) symbolical, albeit not always in the way Inge thinks of them, but they do become repetitive after a while. Nor is there much in the way of a plot, other than being a witness to Inge’s increasingly disturbing thought processes, which do not really translate into any major action. Finally, my main bone of contention is that Inge has not really learnt or changed as a character, there has been no development as such (and we learn next to nothing of the other characters). For a Bildungsroman, there was remarkably little ‘Bildung’ (learning).

I thought it was well-written and an interesting love-hate elegy for a lost world. Inge is remarkably clear-eyed about the GDR society and ideology as well. I thought it did a great job of giving voice to a thoroughly difficult, unlikeable and yet pitiable character. But, blame my shrinking attention span or my love for crime fiction, I did feel this book was too long at 200 pages. I think all the points would have come across, the character would have been fully described in a novella half that length.