Never throw out old notebooks, even with the looming threat of an overseas move. I just came across these lines of poetry. I transcribe them as they are, unpolished, but there is room for development at some later point in time.
I come from a long line of peasant women
plodding uphill on the hottest of days
tilling the soil
lifting full metal buckets of water
dropping babies in the cornfields then back to work.
Men gone to war on fronts left and right
cattle rounded up for troops
making do with bone soup and cornmeal pap
nettle soup and pumpkin plump.
I come from a long line of stoics
who expect no respite from labour
no love everlasting
work is their curse and due and praise
and rest comes too seldom
no one owes anyone happiness.
They crawl up the mountain like a murder of crows
in their black widows’ garb
laugh with gaps in their teeth
grey plaits swung firmly under kerchiefs.
They have never dieted in their lives
food fuels their bending and plucking
running after sheep.
They can drink men under the table.
and bred in me a fibre
smacks of backbone
yet fluid like a reed
when the breeze turns into storm.
I was impressed by Elena Ferrante’s fierce honesty and gritty style in ‘The Days of Abandonment’, but I avoided the Neapolitan novels for a long time. The hype, the marketing of it as a family saga, the sheer wordiness of 4 thick volumes seemed to me run counter to everything I admire and aspire to be as a writer: elegant and pared down style, hidden and allusive observations, modest and restrained topic matters.
But then I found the whole set in English at the local library, so I thought I’d give them a whirl.
The flashes of insight and genius which I’d glimpsed in the standalone novel were what sustained me for the first few chapters. 60-70 pages in, I scoffed: ‘Soap opera’. After the next few chapters, I paused: ‘Hmm, soap opera with gender politics.’ Halfway through the first volume, I readjusted this to: ‘soap opera with gender and class politics’. I never watch soap operas on TV, but I started to understand why my mother would: this made for compulsive reading. I finished the first volume and almost immediately made a trip to the library for more. And now I’ve finished all four in record time and am tempted to say: ‘political and feminist discourse disguised as a soap opera’.
Many reviewers have spoken of its ferocious howl of anger – but there is also resignation, resilience and ‘getting on with things’ in the most unheroic of ways. I have mentioned before how it reminds me of my female relatives: the trials and tribulations, small joys and greater pains of their own lives, the way they come together to support but also sabotage each other. Events unfold at high speed, often with melodrama, blood, guts and tears, much shouting and throwing of objects, families and friends breaking off relationships for years, then perhaps reconciling for practical reasons. One of Ferrante’s brilliant abilities as a storyteller is to accelerate and slow down time at will, move from the overarching universal to the very particular detail and then zoom out again, in a way which feels very natural and effortless.
She has also been described as the Dickens of Naples. Yes, she conveys the noises, smells, charm and grubbiness of the city, she is unafraid to show its darker sides rather than the picturesque touristy bits, and she populates her pages with numerous vividly drawn secondary characters, but there is also a running commentary and analysis of events (through Elena/Lenu), as they occur, which is seldom the case with Dickens. Ferrante’s narrator shows a lucid self-awareness and hunger to understand, and the reader embarks upon the journey of self-exploration with her and gains her wisdom at the end of the tale. I am not quite sure that we get this level of self-dissection and clear-eyed, unsentimental analysis of those close to one’s self, even in David Copperfield.
One touching and very revealing moment occurs when the two friends, Lila and Lenu, both pregnant, are caught up in a major earthquake. Lila becomes surprisingly fearful and breaks down, trying to explain herself and her world view to her friend like never before (or after). She speaks of her need to control and manipulate things, and explains it as arising from her terror of dissolving boundaries, of being caught up in a messy flood, of something seeping through the cracks of reality (very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s famous diary entry), of overthinking and overcomplicating things until you lose all joy in life:
…the fabric that I weave by day is unraveled by night, the heads finds a way. But it’s not much use, the terror remains, it’s always in the crack between one normal thing and the other. It’s there waiting. I’ve always suspected it… nothing lasts… Good feelings are fragile, with me love doesn’t last. Love for a man doesn’t last, not even love for a child, it soon gets a hole in it. You look in the hole and you see the nebula of good intentions mixed up with the nebula of bad.
Elena finally understands that perhaps brilliance comes in flashes rather than a steady lifelong light, and that she had been the stronger one after all in their friendship:
Everything that struck me… woud pass and I – whatever I among those I was accumulating – I would remain firm, I was the needle of the compass that stays fixed while the lead traces circles around it. Lila on the other hand… struggled to feel stable… However much she had always dominated all of us and had imposed and was still imposing a way of being… she perceived herself as a liquid and all her efforts were, in the end, directed only at containing herself. When, in spite of her defensive manipulation of persons and things, the liquid prevailed, Lila lost Lila, chaos seemed the only truth and she – so active, so courageous – erased herself and, terrified, became nothing.
I’ll be honest: Ferrante inspires me with mixed emotions. She writes in a voice which, despite my best efforts to be polished and Anglo-Saxon in attitude, comes through far too loudly and clearly in my own life. As with Javier Marias, I recognise in her a kindred spirit: she writes the way I think when I don’t censor myself, when I allow my Romanian side to come out. A voice which I have suppressed and perhaps slightly disparaged all my life. A voice which is easy to mock as too convoluted, messy and therefore inferior. A voice which has been misunderstood, laughed at, satirized or met with aggression and prejudice. So it will take a while for me to appreciate this voice – and I find it surprising that English speakers are so attracted to it.
At the same time, I feel exhilaration and liberation when I read her work. It is OK to be like this. And she also fills me with envy and the sadness of a missed opportunity. If in future I were to write the saga of my own extended family, farmers and shepherds in the sub-Carpathians, against the backdrop of war, Communism and then wild capitalism, with all the mixed messages about gender and family which have been the bane of my life… it wouldn’t be my story, because it’s all been done now by Ferrante in a different location.
This will be the fourth (and probably last) time I attend the Quais du Polar in Lyon and, believe me, I know just how fortunate I am! The timetable this year (between April 1-3) is, as always, terribly tempting, with many conflicting interests tearing me apart. So, for the sake of some clarity, I’ve decided to focus on women and BAME writers, as well as writers from lesser-known crime fiction countries (many of them entirely new to me). Sadly, not that many women writers are invited to the festival this year.
Here is the plan:
From the UK: Jessica Cornwell, L.S. Hilton and Sophie Hannah. I’ve read and even reviewied many of Hannah’s books, can’t get hold of Jessica Cornwell in the time left, and will read LS Hilton’s allegedly ‘explosive’ Maestra by then.
From the US: Jax Miller and Sara Gran. The latter is on my e-reader – crime set in New Orleans, doesn’t get much better than that! As for Jax Miller, everyone has been raving about her debut novel Freedom’s Child, but I haven’t read it yet.
Germany: Nele Neuhaus. I reviewed her for CFL a couple of years ago – a breezy style and an interesting start via self-publishing.
South Africa: Deon Meyer (well, who can resist him?) and Michele Rowe (new to me)
Switzerland: Sebastien Meier. I’ve heard about him: despite his Germanic-sounding name, he writes in French.
Austria: Marc Elsberg. He writes technical thrillers, about cyberspying, so I’m not sure that’s my cup of tea or glass of Grüner Veltliner.
Iran: Nairi Nahapetian – journalist of Armenian descent born in Iran, who is exiled from her home country and writes in French.
Turkey: Alper Canigüz. Has been translated into French but not English. The Assassination of Hicabi-bey apparently features a five-year-old who refuses to go to nursery and becomes a detective instead!
Africa: Janis Otsiemi from Gabon; Leye Adenle from Nigeria and Kangni Alem from Togo.
Of course, I also hope to sneak in a little conversation with other guests, such as Irvine Welsh, Anthony Horowitz, Arnaldur Indridason, Jo Nesbo, Craig Johnson, David Lagercrantz, David Peace, Donato Carrisi, Franck Thilliez, J. J. Connolly, John Connolly, Richard Price, Olivier Truc, Antonin Varenne. Many of whom I have reviewed either on CFL or here.
So here is my request for you: any burning questions you would like me to ask any of these authors?
My Diverse December reading initiative started with a white-knuckle ride of a novel ‘The Killing Lessons’ by Saul Black (aka Glen Duncan). Well written and scary thought it was, it disappointed me in two respects: the over-the-top Hollywood explosions and violence; and the fact that there was nothing about it at all to signal that it was written by somebody from an ethnic minority. Far be it from me to suggest that BAME writers should stick to BAME themes – but there was no ‘alternative point of view’ to introduce that elusive element of diversity that I was hoping to find in my Diverse December reading.
So it was with some cultural relief that I turned to my second book in the reading initiative: ‘The Expatriates’ by Janice Y.K. Lee, which is about different categories of expats living in Hong Kong. The author herself is of Korean origin, grew up in Hong Kong and studied and worked in the US, so weaves in all these diverse elements in her story.
This is the story of three women living as expats in Hong Kong and how their lives intersect over the course of roughly 18 months. Hilary is a wealthy housewife living in a placid marriage of convenience where very little real communication takes place. She is frustrated by her inability to conceive and toying with the idea of adopting a mixed-race boy from the orphanage, but closes her eyes very deliberately to anything that is less than perfect about the expat life.
David follows her lead, is amenable to what she wants. Their relationship has cooled in the meantime, cooled into politeness and well wishes, but she pushes that thought away, because how many difficult thoughts can one handle in one sunny afternoon?
Margaret used to love her job in landscape architecture, which is nearly impossible to pursue in the cramped neighbourhoods of Hong Kong, so she has devoted herself to her children instead. Yet we sense she is not quite satisfied with her loss of identity, that she remains critical of expat attitudes and is more self-aware than most. The author implies that expats are the new colonialists.
This was what bothered her: the presumption of the expatriates in Hong Kong. It is unspoken, except by the most obnoxious, but it is there, in their actions. They way they loudly demand ice in their drinks or for the AC to be turned up or down or for ‘Diet Coke, not Coke Zero’, as if everyone thought such a distinction was crucial. The idea, so firmly entrenched, that they could be louder, demand more, because they were somehow above – really, better than – the locals. How did that still exist in this day and age? And it was in her.
Finally, Mercy is the child of Korean immigrants to New York, who made her family proud with her Columbia degree, but who has since struggled to secure a job, to find purpose in her life or even a steady boyfriend. She is neither American nor Chinese, and she is often made to feel inferior to her peers.
Hong Kong was supposed to have been a new start – if one could say on needed a new start at the age of twenty-four… People were friendly. She found her cheap apartment and felt that she was getting a foothold. Then the office door was locked one day, the publisher went under and she didn’t have a job again. Then it became a sort of roller-coaster where she had a job, then didn’t, then got another lead… lurching from one near-missed opportunity to another… She sits at home, eats almost nothing, looks at her dwindling bank account online and wonders when she’s supposed to start her life again, when she is allowed.
Of course, we soon realise that there is something deeper going on underneath all this vague malaise. Margaret’s life has been touched by tragedy and she has become numb and detached. Mercy has involuntarily played a part in that tragedy and she is about to impact upon Hilary’s life as well. The balletic moves that the author imposes upon her characters, how they dance in and out of each other’s conscience and line of sight, how they change and develop (in a rather mechanical and rushed way towards the end) reminded me of soap operas at times. The plot is far less interesting than the wry, witty, sometimes acerbic observations of expat life, the often patronising encounters between expats and locals, and the subtle hierarchy between the different ‘types’ of expats (and how the Americans end up huddling together). The artificial setting and the lifestyle of the arid expat bubble are described to perfection, but I’d have liked to find out more about secondary characters like Chinese Olivia or supermom Frannie, who was seen crying in her car once. All too frequently the most interesting aspects happen ‘off-stage’, are not part of the main story and are recounted in anecdotal fashion, rather like in a magazine article (the author used to be a journalist on women’s magazines, and this sometimes shows in her breezy style).
This is the Hong Kong curse that expat housewives talk about in hushed voices: the man who takes to Hong Kong the wrong way. He moves from an egalitarian American society, where he’s supposed to take out the trash every day and help with the dinner dishes, to a place where women cater to his every desire – a secretary who anticipates his needs before he does, a servant in the house who brings him his espresso just the way he likes it… – and the local population is not as sassy with the comebacks as where he came from… The rental buildings are littered with the ghosts of ruined marriages… a man lost to the paid hostesses who found his every utterance completely fascinating… a welcome relief from the woman he faces at home, complaining about his travel, his schedule, his lack of time with the kids. So why not change it up? Why not trade up? Or down, and have some fun?
…the man just starts his life anew, with a younger model of a wife, sometimes a slightly smaller apartment, but his new life pretty quickly looks like his old one… To add insult to injury, in his fervor not to mess things up again… when he has more children, he vows to really do things right this time, so he pitches in to an unimaginable extent, does more with the kids… so the new family gets the benefit of this new and improved man, and the old family gets to see it all.
I’ve quoted somewhat extensively from this, because there is much I recognise in the shallow, smug and insular society she describes, although Geneva is less extreme than some other, more isolated locations. The expat community forms the backdrop to the crime novel that I’m currently working on, so I was paying close attention to the ‘show vs. tell’ ratio. I couldn’t help feeling that this erred a little on the ‘tell’ side of the spectrum.
The sterile and claustrophobic environment, the fact that everyone seems to know everyone else within the English-speaking community, can make tensions run high and unpleasant secrets will be exposed at the most inconvenient of times. I would perhaps have enjoyed this more if there had been a murder or two! The conclusion left me nonplussed: if these women could only forgive each other and bond over that most marvellous achievement of all – motherhood – everything will be all right. This felt too facile and rushed a conclusion, when everything leading up to it had shown that the reality is far more complex and nuanced than that.
But, overall, an entertaining book providing a window into a world far removed from the everyday most of us experience. I would recommend it to anyone contemplating a move to Hong Kong or elsewhere as a ‘trailing spouse’ – although, be warned, it might put you off it for good! I think I might also take a look at the author’s debut novel The Piano Teacher, set in Hong Kong in the 1940s/50s, a period of political and social turmoil.
Sylvie Granotier is a French actress, screenwriter and novelist, born in Algeria and growing up in Paris and Morocco. After completing her theatrical studies, she spent several years travelling around the world, including the United States, Brazil and Afghanistan. After a successful acting career, she turned to fiction. Fourteen novels and many short stories later, Sylvie Granotier is a major crime fiction author in France; her work has been translated into German, Italian, Russian and Greek. Le French Book brings us the first English translation of her novel The Paris Lawyer. The novel is both a legal procedural and a psychological thriller set in the heart of French countryside, La Creuse, considered by many to be a backward, closed-off rural area full of secrets.
I had the pleasure of meeting Sylvie at the Lyon Crime Festival Quais du Polar and I became an instant fan. Imagine a taller, more glamorous version of Dame Judi Dench, expressing her thoughts in a carefully modulated voice, in beautiful English with a delightful French accent.
Have you always known you were going to end up writing crime fiction?
No, it was quite a shock. I never dared to consider that I would write some day. I drifted for a few years, had no aims or ambitions. Then I found myself translating Grace Paley’s short stories – I really admired her style and she had never been translated into French before. When my translation got published, she came to Paris and met me. She told me how she had started writing rather late in life and it was almost like she gave me the permission to write. She never said it in so many words, but the day she took the plane back home, I started writing my first novel. So the two are not unrelated, I think!
And it was crime fiction that you instinctively turned to?
Yes, there was never any doubt in my mind. I’d enjoyed crime novels so much when I lived in the States. Writing a book that can really grab the reader seemed to me the highest ambition for a writer. Would I be able to do that? It’s a genre that has given me so much pleasure, so it seemed an honour to be entering that genre.
Which authors inspire you?
Hard to choose, I’m inspired by all sorts of writing, not just crime fiction. I like Dickens, Melville, Ruth Rendell, P.D. James, Elizabeth George. I like those crime authors who deal more with the psychology, the human aspects of a crime.
Tell us a little about your writing process.
Each book is a story that needs to be told. It can be a small seed from something I’ve read or seen or heard years before and it takes root and germinates inside. I don’t start with my characters. I always start with a fragment of a story, a promise, and the characters develop as the story evolves. I want to find out more about them and they often surprise me – which, to me, is proof that the story is alive. I have been known to erase a complete book, because I felt I knew too well what was going to happen. It was no longer interesting to me, it had lost its capacity to surprise me.
What differences (if any) do you notice between American and French crime fiction?
The way the legal system works is very different, of course, and a story is often influenced by the way in which you do your job. Then, the language: French is far more organized, grammatical, constricted, more of a corset, less open to experimentation. Finally, there is something about the way each country views good and evil. American writers are not afraid to deal with huge themes like serial killers and innate evil. They have great faith in the truth emerging triumphant and justice being served. In France – perhaps in Europe in general – we are more cynical about the truth ever coming out fully in a trial. We are perhaps too morally ambiguous, everything is too grey with us, not black and white. Perhaps we feel that criminals are not necessarily evil, but simply people like you and me caught up in desperate matters.
What about the way women are portrayed in American vs. French crime fiction?
In my book ‘The Paris Lawyer’ I deliberately chose a very modern type of Parisian woman, independent, strong, dealing with men on her own terms. She is sexy, stylish, uninhibited, despite her being haunted by her past. I think she is very different from the kick-ass school of American female investigators, which I do also enjoy very much! But I think there’s got to be room for both Vic Warshawski and for Catherine Monsigny in crime novels. And we the readers are all the richer for it.
I know, I know, I just can’t help myself… That’s because the poems are bubbling along anyway, while a review or ordinary blog post takes up more thought and time. Later on today, I plan to share my thoughts on writers’ groups (having just been to my first couple of meetings).
Warning: strong political content.
It’s not about the flowers I’ve come to talk today,
nor about equality, sharing of the tasks.
I don’t want your Pity. Approval. Admiration.
Nor need stale drinks distilled in new(ish) flasks.
Don’t grant me special favours, don’t pat me on the head.
I seek not the pedestal, nor the public eye.
All I want is my voice to stand out and be counted,
the freedom of creation, invention of the ‘I’.
I need the air to breathe, I need the space to roam,
instead of guilt and failure, sequestered in my room,
self-absorption be an art form, a sign of ample brains,
mistakes not count against me, nor children spell my doom.
It’s not about the medals I’ve come to talk today,
nor about equality, sharing of the spoils.
I don’t seek your Pity. Cheering. Admiration.
Nor need applauses for each of my toils.
Don’t grant me special favours, don’t pat me on the head.
I need not the pedestal, nor the public roar.
All I want is for my achievement to be record,
A chance to show dignity, even out the score.
I need the air to breathe, I need the space to roam,
Not jammed in guilty closet, not made to feel diseased.
I want to love a human, regardless of the gender,
And leave behind a planet much gentler then we leased.
I was a feminist without a cause when I read ‘The Women’s Room’, that classic angry novel by Marilyn French, published in 1977, at the tail end of the feminist movement. I was about 18-19, had been brought up to believe that I could achieve anything regardless of my gender, and had not really encountered any prejudice or sexism to change my sunny view of life. Some wolf whistles here and there on the street, some anxiety about letting me make my own way home at night, but the world was still one of limitless possibilities. Of course I believed women were as good as men, and that they should have equal chances in life, but this was an attitude born of rational thought rather than any personal pain.
So my first reading of ‘The Women’s Room’ was one of bemused detachment. How much anger and frustration these women had! How awful it must have been for women of my mother’s generation! Thank goodness things had moved on since the publication of the book and this was all a description of quaint historical practices! My life, of course, would never be like that: not only had the world moved on, but I had all the information, warning signs and negative role models featured in this book (and Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir – oh, yes, I read the entire feminist canon and absorbed it all with my brain). I would not claim that my heart was unaffected, but what I felt for these women was pity. Such a patronising attitude, but typical of my 18 year old self, who thought she knew so much about everything.
Last week, while on holiday, I found myself at a bit of a loose end regarding reading matter, so I picked up this book off someone else’s bookshelf and reread it. And this time I read it with my heart. And what surprised me most of all is how accurate the portrayal of marriage, motherhood, the thin line between self-sacrifice and martyrdom still is. This is not an outdated description of the half-imagined, half-real plight of bored white suburban housewives (although it can be argued that French does not look beyond this race and class for her stories). Many of the stories will strike a chord with women of my age today: the women of the post-feminist generation, who thought they could have it all, but have now realised that family and motherhood have enslaved them in ways they would not have thought possible in their youth. Nowadays, the luxury of daytime boredom and party planning is not even available, as most women are working outside the home. But are they working at jobs (to make ends meet), or do they still have careers? And if they have careers, at what cost to their families, health and sanity? I conducted an informal poll among the women I know: the only ones who do not feel pulled in all directions are the ones who are unmarried and childless. And even they manage to find plenty of things to feel guilty or anxious about!
So that was my first surprised observation, that it feels less outdated now than it did twenty years ago. Yes, marginalisation of women is now less overt, men pay more lip service to the notion of equality, advances have been made in certain areas. We are all far more aware of our options now, but awareness does not blunt the ruthless blade of reality. The schizophrenia of impossible choices is still largely left to women to handle. French seems unsure whether to blame the patriarchal society or men directly for this, although to me it seems clear that she also partially blames women themselves for it.
The second observation is that many of the quotes attributed to the author, which have sparked angry reactions and criticisms, are in fact uttered by one or the other of the many female characters appearing in this book. For instance, that incendiary opinion that ‘All men are rapists and that’s all they are’ is actually a statement made by aggressive, uncompromising Val just after her daughter has been raped and her case is dismissed by the police and the judiciary system. It is a statement that the central character, Mira, actually finds uncomfortable, and it is certainly not Marilyn French’s opinion.
What I liked about this book (and had forgotten until I reread it) is the plurality of stories and views on offer. Other reviewers have pointed out how relentlessly grim the stories are: rape, death, illness, insanity, divorce, breakdown – true, the author is trying to cram it all in. What is more concerning and striking is the lack of male voices – the men are shadowy figures, almost caricatures. I am almost sure this was deliberate, partly because French is giving voice to those who were habitually voiceless, but also because she felt that men were choosing not to engage in the debate. There is a poignant scene in which Mira’s husband comes home and tells her they need to talk. Looking at his wistful gaze, his deep sigh, she dares to hope that they will have a meaningful conversation about their thoughts, their values, their feelings. She hopes that they will finally connect, be true and equal partners. She leans yearningly towards him, ready to forgive, to restart, to believe … and he tells her that he wants a divorce.
So what did I feel this time, upon rereading ‘The Women’s Room’? No longer anger and pity. No easy target to blame. Instead, sadness and recognition that we have not quite come such a long way, baby!