Women in Translation Month: Crime Fiction

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 I am heading to northern climes, where the nights are long and the mood is often dark (at least in crime fiction).


DrownedBoyKarin Fossum: The Drowned Boy (transl. Kari Dickson)

With Karin Fossum you know that it’s never just about the crime and its detection/solution, it’s always about the people, the motives and the consequences. This book addresses a difficult subject: a toddler drowning and parents being suspected of having harmed their child, with the added complication that this is a child with Down’s Syndrome. 

As always, the author makes us question our own assumptions. The father and mother have very different styles of grieving, but no one is unmarked by the little boy’s death. Inspector Sejer is, as always, melancholy, measured and trying hard to fight his prejudices (while also relying on gut instinct). The ending does feel a little contrived, although it will probably feel satisfying for most readers, but the journey there is what Fossum is really interested in. And what a thoughtful and unsettling journey it is.

For a guide to the previous Inspector Sejer novels, have a look at this great article on Crime Fiction Lover.

DefencelessKati Hiekkapelto: The Defenceless (transl. David Hackston)

For my full review of this book, see Crime Fiction Lover. This is the second in the series featuring rookie detective Anna Fekete, a Croat of Hungarian origin who came to Finland as a child to escape the war in Yugoslavia. I am pleased to say that this second novel lives up to the promise of the first one and indeed surpasses it. The action takes place in a town in Northern Finland and, as in the previous book, we get a real feel for the place and the changing of the seasons.

The characters of the two main investigators, Anna and her ‘old dinosaur’ of a colleague Esko, are given more definition and depth. We see them both as more vulnerable and lonelier than in the first book. Although they may be said to represent the sad, loner cop cliché, they come with some added extras. Anna is unsure of where she belongs, torn between cultures, lonely but professing to like the non-interfering and aloof nature of the Finns. Like them, she doesn’t know any of her neighbours. Esko meanwhile tries to forget about his ex-wife and the pains in his chest, and dreams of escaping to a quiet, self-contained lifestyle in the woods. But, of course, they have a case to work on: in fact, several cases – drugs, gangs, murder and a hit-and-run, all ultimately linked.

The most moving part of the novel is the story of Sammy, a refugee from the persecuted Christian minority in Pakistan, who has followed the same route into Europe as the heroin that’s smuggled in (and which is no stranger to him either). When his asylum application is unsuccessful, he goes underground and starts playing with fire, Subutex and unsavoury characters.

I love the ‘social critique’ style of crime fiction which seems to be on the rise now, and this is a great addition to that school of writing.



Women in Translation Month: Poverty in France

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.



Virginie Despentes: Apocalypse Bébé

[I read this in French, but it has been translated into English by Sian Reynolds and published by Serpent’s Tail].

Valentine, the troubled teenage daughter from a well-off Parisian family, has disappeared. The private detective her family had hired to follow her, Lucie, is out of her depth, so she partners with a creature known to everyone only as The Hyena, a secret agent with a mad gleam in her eyes, notorious for her penchant for good-looking women and her ability to make the bad boys of this world quake in their shoes. Valentine must also be the only teenager in France who doesn’t use her mobile or Facebook or any other internet platform – how to trace her?

As this strange, squabbling duo search for the girl first in Paris and then in Barcelona, they come across all walks of life. This is where the satire comes in, and Despentes spares no one. She has a ruthless eye for revealing details and a sharp tongue. She mocks and yet at the same time serves some uncomfortable home truths about the publishing world (Valentine’s Dad is an author), blended families, hustling to escape poverty, nouveau riche aspirations, the angry young people of the banlieue, the lesbian milieu, even the building boom and snobbery of Barcelona.

This book just whacks you on the head and takes you for one hell of a ride, with a blend of fierce humour, very individual voices and genuine revolt and sadness. It is to my mind a very realistic fresco of contemporary French society, with no particularly likeable characters, but certainly characters that you can understand and pity. My heart went out to the poor stepmother, Claire, who has played by the rules all of her life, lived according to other people’s expectations, and yet has encountered nothing but disappointments.

Even though I usually prefer my prose to be less direct and more measured or minimalistic, this was quite an exhilarating experience, a shock to the system.

QuinnAlice Quinn: Queen of the Trailer Park (transl. Alexandra Maldwynn-Davis)

I came across this book on Netgalley: despite the name of the author and the rather American-sounding main protagonist, it is translated from French. Under the original title Un palace en enfer it became a self-publishing phenomenon, reaching No. 1 on the Kindle bestseller list in France in 2013. Then again, France has a much lower rate of e-book penetration, so perhaps the people reading it were on the younger side. The plot is unrealistic to say the least, but it’s a bit of escapist fun.

One might call this ‘Despentes lite’: it too portrays life on the margins of society, of people whom many might call ‘losers’, but it is a book with a much more optimistic message. Fairy tales can happen. Single mothers on benefits with little education can make it good, trick the Mafia, battle corrupt officials and still bathe four children and put them to bed. The ‘trailer park’ is actually a single caravan parked outside the former railway station in a town in Southern France and sounds quite idyllic, but the language and attitude is defiantly that of what the Americans would call ‘white trailer trash’. I did like the quote: ‘People always say money isn’t everything… Don’t believe a word of it. It’s not as simple as all that. It might not buy you love, but it lifts your spirits…’

For a more thoughtful (yet just as funny) depiction of life in poverty in France, I would recommend Jeanne Desaubry: Poubelle’s Girls. Or just read the original: Despentes herself.

Women in Translation Month: Valeria Luiselli

WITMonth15 (1)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.

The apparition of these faces in the crowd :
Petals on a wet, black bough.

Even before I knew anything about Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, I thought of the above poem by Ezra Pound. Only to find that the book is indeed named after it (at least in the English translation, more about the title below) – and has a poignant story to share about the origin of this poem (I have no idea if it’s true or not).

I’ve previously criticised ‘vignette’ type novels, calling them more of a collection of prose poems or flash fiction. That doesn’t detract from the beauty of the writing but the book just doesn’t hang together in a narrative arc that has taken me on a journey and left me emotionally charged or changed. And that’s what I expect from a novel.

facesHowever, this novel (and yes, I think we can call it a novel) is different. While the narration is fragmented, there is control and precision at work here. Every thing mentioned at an earlier point in the novel is then referred to again later on. It’s like a solo instrument introducing a melodic theme, then it gets picked up again by other instruments, until finally it is amplified and performed by the whole orchestra. So the structure is beautifully mastered and truly experimental ‘a horizontal novel, told vertically’, not just pretending to be experimental. There us indeed a fearless (and erudite) imagination at work there, not just someone trying to be achingly hip and cool.

The narrative alternates initially between two times and places: a young mother trying to find the mental peace to write her book in Mexico City; and her remembrance of the days when she was a young woman working in publishing in New York City.

The difficulties of writing with small children will sound very familiar:

Now I write at night, when the two children are asleep and it’s acceptable to smoke, drink and let draughts in. Before, I used to write all the time, at any hour, because my body belonged to me.
A silent novel, so as not to wake the children.
Novels need a sustained breath. That’s what novelists want. No one knows exactly what it means but they all say: a sustained breath. I have a baby and a boy. They don’t let me breathe. Everything I write is – has to be – in short bursts. I’m short of breath.

Yet the conversations with the Boy also anchor the story, adding a wonderful touch of humour and instantly recognisable to anyone who has children or works with children.

Who are you hiding from, Mama? From Papa?
From Without? [the house ghost]
From nobody.
If you want to hide, Mama, you have to find a more hidey place.
Isn’t the bed hidey?
No, the bed’s springy and a bit nuisancey when I want to run.

The narrator is aware that she is wallowing in nostalgia for something that perhaps never existed in the first place. She describes her simple New York routines, her far from glamorous, tiny apartment, her fear of loneliness and compulsive sharing of her apartment keys with friends.

All that has survived from that period are the echoes of certain conversations, a handful of recurrent ideas, poems I liked and read over and over until I had them off by heart. Everything else is a later elaboration. It’s not possible for my memories of that life to have more substance. They are scaffoldings, structures, empty houses.

Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.
Author picture from Open Letters Monthly.

So it starts off innocently enough as a contrast between then and now, between young adult and motherhood, which would have been interesting enough in itself, although perhaps not very original. But then it becomes something far richer and more satisfying. The young narrator becomes obsessed with the life and works of a Mexican poet called Gilberto Owen, who lived in New York in the 1920s. She fraudulently claims to have found a collection of poems by Owen, supposedly translated by a better-known American poet Joshua Zvorsky. (By the way, both poets did exist, although the name of the American one has been slightly modified.) But then, when there is real danger that her forgeries will be detected, she turns to fiction instead and from that point on we move between Owen’s story and the other two strands. It all gets more knotted, more intricate, with apparitions in the subway (a woman in a red coat, Ezra Pound, Federico Garcia Lorca) until we have a fine danse macabre of ghosts and possibilities, a braided narrative of alternative universes perhaps.

I think this is what the author is getting at when she talks about the multiple deaths a person can go through. All the dead ends or paths we did not take, the things we did not become.

Naturally, there are a lot of deaths in the course of a lifetime. Most people don’t notice. They think you die once and that’s it. But you only have to pay a bit of attention to realize that you go and die every so often. That’s not just a poetic turn of phrase… Most deaths don’t matter; the film goes on running. Except that that’s when everything takes a turn, even though it may be imperceptible, and the consequences are not always apparent straightaway. I began to die in Manhattan, in the summer of 1928. Of course, no one except me noticed my deaths – people are too busy with their own lives to take notice of other people’s little deaths.

The title of the book in Spanish is ‘Los Ingravidos – The Weightless’ and that perfectly captures the sense of drifting in and out of lives, floating above and diving into our different selves (the imagined ones, the real ones, the discarded ones). You will occasionally have the impression, like the narrator, that you are ‘the only living girl in a city of ghosts’.

So don’t be put off by the book’s manifest ‘strangeness’: it is a very pleasant, often funny and emotionally candid read. Phew – this became a much longer review than I expected! That’s because this was a book I relished reading, with a style and openness to experimentation that reminded me of Clarice Lispector and Virginia Woolf.