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‘Apple and Knife’ by Intan Paramaditha ***

The stories in Apple and Knife, the first English collection of award-winning Indonesian author Intan Paramaditha’s work have been drawn from two of her books, and are translated by Stephen J. Epstein.  Paramaditha’s tales are inspired by fairytales, mythological stories, and horror, and this collection promises its readers an ‘unsettling ride that swerves into the supernatural to explore the dangers and power of occupying a female body in today’s world.’  Its blurb also claims that the collection ‘is subversive feminist horror at its best, where men and women alike are arbiters of fear, and where revenge is sometimes sweetest when delivered from the grave.’

9781787301160Apple and Knife is a slim collection of thirteen stories, many of which have quite beguiling titles; ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, ‘Scream in a Bottle’, and ‘A Single Firefly, a Thousand Rats’ particularly caught my eye.  Australian author Emily Bitto writes that the stories in Apple and Knife ‘are raw, fun, excessive, and told with a wink, but they are underlaid with an unsettling awareness of the human fate of “disobedient women”.’

As one would expect, given Bitto’s comments, the collection launches straight into the darker side of life.  The first story, ‘The Blind Woman Without a Toe’, is a retelling of Cinderella (renamed Sindelerat), which is told from the perspective of one of her sisters.  In the story, the narrator recounts, rather graphically, how she became blind to a young child companion: ‘My eyes were pecked out by a bird.  They say it was a dove from heaven, but it was actually a black crow straight out of hell.  I screamed.  I begged it to stop.  But my shrieks were drowned out by its caws.  It got to the point that you could no longer tell what was flowing, tears or blood.  The crow only heeded its owner and she wasn’t satisfied until my eyes were hollow sockets.’

The settings of the stories in Apple and Knife, which range from corporate boardrooms to shanty towns, ‘reveal a soupy otherworld stewing just beneath the surface.’  The majority of the stories are set in Indonesia, but there are a couple which do not explicitly mention their placement, or which are set elsewhere.  Each of the characters, regardless of where they have been placed geographically, is undergoing a crisis or upheaval of some kind, and this becomes the common thread which acts as a backbone for the collection.  The characters in Apple and Knife are all markedly different.  We meet, variously, a woman who is being kept by her husband in a grand house; ‘the most famous courtesan in Esna’; a young woman who interviews a ‘Sumarni’, or witch; and a ‘devil woman’ who pays a man to act out her sexual fantasies.

Whilst some of the stories in this collection did not appeal to me on a personal level, or had rather unsatisfactory endings, I found that others had a real power to them.  They subvert expectation, and turn things on their heads.  Many of the tales take quite surprising turns, and Paramaditha seems to enjoy playing with the expectations which she assumes the reader has.  The stories are sensual, but not in a pleasant way; rather, they come across as an assault upon the senses. One of the elements which I found most interesting in Apple and Knife is the focus which Paramaditha places upon the physical body and its degradation.

I was impressed by Paramaditha’s writing, and the layering effect which she creates in many of her stories.  Her rich descriptions help to achieve this.  In ‘Scream in a Bottle’, for instance, she writes: ‘Rain falls in the yard, soaking the earth.  Not a downpour, but slow, drop by drop.  A long, soft tone, like a bow sliding against a violin string.’  The author is perceptive and descriptive, particularly when it comes to her depictions of characters.  In ‘Beauty and the Seventh Dwarf’, she writes: ‘I pieced together her story based on information that emerged at random, so the tale was incomplete, unsatisfactory.  It didn’t explain the enigma of her hideousness.  Waiting while she bathed one night, I hunted around for further clues.  Her room contained a mirror and a dresser…  Of course she didn’t need beauty products, nothing would redeem her looks. Even the mirror’s presence was odd.  Why would someone with such a grotesque face want to gaze at herself?’

Regardless of the things which I did not like in this collection, or which felt rather repetitive, it is undeniably wonderful that Indonesian literature is being championed at last.  Apple and Knife was fascinating to read, suffused as it is with so much darkness, and a lot of Indonesian folklore and cultural details, which I was unfamiliar with.  Whilst many of the stories are contemporary, I liked the use of historical fiction in ‘Kuchuk Hanem’, which has a representation of French author Gustave Flaubert within it.  The dark humour was also welcome, and worked well with Paramaditha’s storylines, which were, frankly, sometimes quite bizarre.

On the whole, Apple and Knife presents an interesting and multilayered picture of a very diverse nation; there is so much going on here, and a lot of themes have been addressed. The magical realism which is sometimes inserted does work well on the whole, although I found a couple of instances of this unnecessary or somewhat jarring.  Overall, though, the fantastical elements do add an extra layer of interest to the stories.  The majority are quite bewitching.

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A List: ‘Books with Sugar in the Title’

Am I the only one who likes to find book lists on Goodreads with quite obscure titles?  I have found some great books in the past thanks to them, and although I’m trying not to grow my enormous to-read list too much at the moment, I just couldn’t resist clicking on this list, enticingly titled ‘Books with Sugar in the Title’.  I have pulled out eight books from the list which pique my interest, and which I would like to get to soon.

 

1. Sugar Hall by Tiffany Murray 20660874
Easter 1955. As Lilia Sugar scrapes the ice from the inside of the windows and the rust from the locks in Sugar Hall, she knows there are pasts she cannot erase. On the very edge of the English/Welsh border, the red gardens of Sugar Hall hold a secret, and as Britain prepares for its last hanging, Lilia and her children must confront a history that has been buried but not forgotten. Based on the stories of the Black Boy that surround Littledean Hall in the Forest of Dean, this is a superbly chilling ghost story from Tiffany Murray.’

 

242022752. Sugar by Deirdre Riordan Hall
Sugar Legowski-Gracia wasn’t always fat, but fat is what she is now at age seventeen. Not as fat as her mama, who is so big she hasn’t gotten out of bed in months. Not as heavy as her brother, Skunk, who has more meanness in him than fat, which is saying something. But she’s large enough to be the object of ridicule wherever she is: at the grocery store, walking down the street, at school. Sugar’s life is dictated by taking care of Mama in their run-down home—cooking, shopping, and, well, eating. A lot of eating, which Sugar hates as much as she loves.  When Sugar meets Even (not Evan—his nearly illiterate father misspelled his name on the birth certificate), she has the new experience of someone seeing her and not her body. As their unlikely friendship builds, Sugar allows herself to think about the future for the first time, a future not weighed down by her body or her mother.  Soon Sugar will have to decide whether to become the girl that Even helps her see within herself or to sink into the darkness of the skin-deep role her family and her life have created for her.’

 

3. In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan 46182
‘iDEATH is a place where the sun shines a different colour every day and where people travel to the length of their dreams. Rejecting the violence and hate of the old gang at the Forgotten Works, they lead gentle lives in watermelon sugar. In this book, Richard Brautigan discovers and expresses the mood of the counterculture generation.’

 

116482614. The Sugar Queen by Sarah Addison Allen
‘Twenty-seven-year-old Josey is sure of three things: winter in her North Carolina hometown is her favorite season; she’s a sorry excuse for a Southern belle; and sweets are best eaten in the privacy of her hidden closet. For while Josey has settled into an uneventful life in her mother’s house, her one consolation is the stockpile of sugary treats and paperback romances she escapes to each night …Until she finds her closet harboring none other than local waitress Della Lee Baker, a tough-talking, tender-hearted woman who is one part nemesis – and two parts fairy godmother …’

 

5. The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper 2643182
‘Journalist Helene Cooper examines the violent past of her home country Liberia and the effects of its 1980 military coup in this deeply personal memoir and finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.  Helene Cooper is “Congo,” a descendant of two Liberian dynasties—traced back to the first ship of freemen that set sail from New York in 1820 to found Monrovia. Helene grew up at Sugar Beach, a twenty-two-room mansion by the sea. Her childhood was filled with servants, flashy cars, a villa in Spain, and a farmhouse up-country. It was also an African childhood, filled with knock foot games and hot pepper soup, heartmen and neegee. When Helene was eight, the Coopers took in a foster child—a common custom among the Liberian elite. Eunice, a Bassa girl, suddenly became known as “Mrs. Cooper’s daughter.”  For years the Cooper daughters—Helene, her sister Marlene, and Eunice—blissfully enjoyed the trappings of wealth and advantage. But Liberia was like an unwatched pot of water left boiling on the stove. And on April 12, 1980, a group of soldiers staged a coup d’état, assassinating President William Tolbert and executing his cabinet. The Coopers and the entire Congo class were now the hunted, being imprisoned, shot, tortured, and raped. After a brutal daylight attack by a ragtag crew of soldiers, Helene, Marlene, and their mother fled Sugar Beach, and then Liberia, for America. They left Eunice behind.  A world away, Helene tried to assimilate as an American teenager. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill she found her passion in journalism, eventually becoming a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. She reported from every part of the globe—except Africa—as Liberia descended into war-torn, third-world hell.  In 2003, a near-death experience in Iraq convinced Helene that Liberia—and Eunice—could wait no longer. At once a deeply personal memoir and an examination of a violent and stratified country, The House at Sugar Beach tells of tragedy, forgiveness, and transcendence with unflinching honesty and a survivor’s gentle humor. And at its heart, it is a story of Helene Cooper’s long voyage home.’

 

387461666. Sugar Run by Mesha Maren
‘In 1989, Jodi McCarty is seventeen years old when she’s sentenced to life in prison for manslaughter. She’s released eighteen years later and finds herself at a Greyhound bus stop, reeling from the shock of unexpected freedom. Not yet able to return to her lost home in the Appalachian mountains, she goes searching for someone she left behind, but on the way, she meets and falls in love with Miranda, a troubled young mother. Together, they try to make a fresh start, but is that even possible in a town that refuses to change?   Set within the charged insularity of rural West Virginia, Sugar Run is a searing and gritty debut about making a run for another life.’

 

7. A Spoonful of Sugar: A Nanny’s Story by Brenda Ashford 15798336
‘From Britain’s beloved oldest living nanny comes a charming and uplifting memoir of a real-life Mary Poppins.  In her extraordinary memoir, Brenda Ashford shares her endearing and amusing experiences as a British nanny caring for generations of children over the past sixty-two years.  Brenda’s lifelong love for children began the minute she laid eyes on her baby brother, David. As a teenager, she applied to London’s Norland College, famous for producing top-class nannies, and, after a grueling interview, she was accepted on scholarship. It was a radical change from her idyllic country life in the village of Surrey. The training was rigorous and discipline strictly enforced, as Brenda and her classmates scrambled to pass inspections on everything from morality and neatness to needlework and pram pushing. Meanwhile, World War II began, and Brenda’s heart was broken twice. She vowed never to fall for a man again and devoted her life to caring for other people’s children, never having any of her own.  Brenda’s memoir offers readers an enticing glimpse into the joys, frustrations, adventures, and mishaps of children of all ages and situations. She peppers her story with delightful bits of cultural history and timeless life lessons. A Spoonful of Sugar is an irresistible Mary Poppins story that will touch your heart and remind you of what is truly important in life.’

 

1655378. Sugar Cage by Connie May Fowler
‘The story of the Looneys and the Jewels, two families fiercely bound to each other–as well as to the soil and sensibility of the modern South. An unforgettable tale about everyday people searching for a history and a heritage that can explain who they are.’

 

Which is your favourite book with sugar in the title?  Are you intrigued by any of the books on my list?  Have you read any of them?

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in 2014.

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

9780099520368As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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