I was lucky enough to travel to beautiful Amsterdam in February, and whilst Otto de Kat’s The Longest Night is set largely in its sister city, Rotterdam, I felt that it would be a good choice to read before I set off. Published in the Netherlands in 2015, it has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson. I had heard of de Kat before selecting this tome, but hadn’t read any of his work before.
The Longest Night begins in an intriguing manner, which makes one want to read on: ‘Emma knew exactly what day it was, and what time, and what was going to happen. Her questions were a smoke screen, she wanted the nurse to think she was already quite far gone’. Our protagonist is Emma Verweij, is now ninety-six, and is suffering from memory problems. Whilst she is unable to remember anything which has happened to her recently, her past memories are vivid to her, and thus, a structure unfolds in which we travel back with her – first to Berlin, and then to the Netherlands – through a series of fragmented chapters. Interestingly, whilst she feels alive only when searching the recesses of her mind for past memories, Emma is aware that she is reaching the end of her mortality. In this sense, the retrospective positioning of the omniscient narrator works well; we really get an idea of how muddled her mind is as the novel goes on: ‘Her life had shattered into fragments, crystal clear, light and dark, an endless flow. Time turned upside down, and inside out.’
Essentially, then, we can see The Longest Night as a reflection of Emma’s life, and how she lived it. De Kat has handled the sense of historical significance very well indeed; the past comes to life through a series of descriptions of place and weather. During the Second World War, Emma’s husband, Carl, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is arrested, and she has no option but to flee to safety. She ends up in the Netherlands. This is de Kat’s starting point; Emma then goes forward in regard to her memories, and those whom she conjures up from the annals of her past existence are vivid. There is, however, little chronological pattern between the memories. This technique serves to make Emma’s story more believable; we as readers are encountering the past as she remembers it.
Watkinson’s translation has been deftly worked; the prose is fluid and as vivid as I imagine the original is. De Kat’s approach is relatively simple, but it has been well executed. Despite all of the positives, what really let the book down as far as I am concerned is the dialogue. Only the minority of conversational patterns appeared as though they could realistically be uttered; for the most part, sentences were awkward and almost robotic. I’m loath to believe that this is a translation issue. Regardless, it did put me off rather, and I found myself enjoying the story less as it went on. In terms of the plot too, there are definite lulls as one reaches the Netherlands alongside Emma.
There are some profound, and almost quite moving, musings upon life and death within The Longest Night, but the loss of momentum really made the whole suffer. When I began, I was fully expecting to give the book a four-star rating. As I neared the quarter point, however, my mind changed; I became far less interested in both story and characters, and I found myself even disliking some of the chapters. There was an odd and rather jarring repetition to it at times too. I have opted for a three star review, as the beginning was so engaging; there sadly just wasn’t much of the consistency which I was expecting of it, and I will thus be less keen to pick up another of de Kat’s novels in future.
We begin with a very thoughtful and compelling work of Miriam Toews’ for this particular Book Trail!
1. Swing Low by Miriam Toews
‘One morning Mel Toews put on his coat and hat and walked out of town, prepared to die. A loving husband and father, faithful member of the Mennonite church, and immensely popular schoolteacher, he was a pillar of his close-knit community. Yet after a lifetime of struggle, he could no longer face the darkness of manic depression. With razor-sharp precision,Swing Low tells his story in his own voice, taking us deep inside the experience of despair. But it is also a funny, winsome evocation of country life: growing up on farm, courting a wife, becoming a teacher, and rearing a happy, strong family in the midst of private torment. A humane, inspiring story of a remarkable man, father, and teacher.’
2. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
‘From an emerging master of short fiction and one of Canada’s most distinctive voices, a collection of stories as heartbreaking as those of Lorrie Moore and as hilariously off-kilter as something out of McSweeney’s. In Better Living through Plastic Explosives, Zsuzsi Gartner delivers a powerful second dose of the lacerating satire that marked her acclaimed debut, All the Anxious Girls on Earth, but with even greater depth and darker humour. Whether she casts her eye on evolution and modern manhood when an upscale cul-de-sac is thrown into chaos after a redneck moves into the neighbourhood, international adoption, war photography, real estate, the movie industry, motivational speakers, or terrorism, Gartner filets the righteous and the ridiculous with dexterity in equal, glorious measure. These stories ruthlessly expose our most secret desires, and allow us to snort with laughter at the grotesque world we’d live in if we all got what we wanted. ‘
3. Open by Lisa Moore
‘Lisa Moore’s Open makes you believe three things unequivocally: that St. John’s is the centre of the universe, that these stories are about absolutely everything, that the only certainty in life comes from the accumulation of moments which refuse to be contained. Love, mistakes, loss — the fear of all of these, the joy of all of these. The interconnectedness of a bus ride in Nepal and a wedding on the shore of Quidi Vidi Lake; of the tension between a husband and wife when their infant cries before dawn (who will go to him?) and the husband’s memory of an early, piercing love affair; of two friends, one who suffers early in life and the other midway through. In Open Lisa Moore splices moments and images together so adroitly, so vividly, you’ll swear you’ve lived them yourself. That there is a writer like Lisa Moore threading a live wire through everything she sees, showing it to us, warming us with it. These stories are a gathering in. An offering. They ache and bristle. They are shared riches. Open.‘
4. Luck by Joan Barfoot
‘Philip Lawrence, a robust and pleasure-loving furniture-maker, dies suddenly at the age of forty-six. Though that’s terribly young by most standards, he’s lucky to have passed presumably peacefully in his sleep. Less fortunate, however, are the three women he leaves behind to make sense of his loss. There’s Nora, his wife of seventeen years, who wakes up next to his dead body. A fiery visual artist, Nora’s feminist re-interpretation of biblical themes stoked fundamentalist outrage from her small-town neighbours. Now, as her emotions run the gamut, she must confront solo life in a place she despises. Nora shares the house with Sophie, a buxom and bossy redhead, who works as the couple’s housekeeper and personal assistant. A recovering virtue addict, Sophie turns to menial tasks as a way to suppress painful memories of her two-year stint as an overseas aid worker. Philip’s death leaves her quietly reeling. And then there’s the pliable and vacuous Beth, a former beauty queen, who serves as Nora’s live-in muse and model. She mourns not Philip so much as the loss of a haven from her own creepy past. The novel follows the three days immediately after Philip’s death. Privately, each woman deals with memories and emotions, secrets and uncomfortable revelations, while at the same time preparing for the public rituals of mourning (including a funeral like no other). The narrative moves seamlessly from one perspective to another with delicious dark humour and wry insight into the nature of death, love, mourning, fundamentalism and luck.‘
5. Barnacle Love by Anthony De Sa
‘At the heart of this collection of intimately linked stories is the relationship between a father and his son. A young fisherman washes up nearly dead on the shores of Newfoundland. It is Manuel Rebelo who has tried to escape the suffocating smallness of his Portuguese village and the crushing weight of his mother’s expectations to build a future for himself in a terra nova. Manuel struggles to shed the traditions of a village frozen in time and to silence the brutal voice of Maria Theresa da Conceicao Rebelo, but embracing the promise of his adopted land is not as simple as he had hoped. Manuel’s son, Antonio, is born into Toronto’s little Portugal, a world of colourful houses and labyrinthine back alleys. In the Rebelo home the Church looms large, men and women inhabit sharply divided space, pigs are slaughtered in the garage, and a family lives in the shadow cast by a father’s failures. Most days Antonio and his friends take to their bikes, pushing the boundaries of their neighbourhood street by street, but when they finally break through to the city beyond they confront dangers of a new sort. With fantastic detail, larger-than-life characters and passionate empathy, Anthony De Sa invites readers into the lives of the Rebelos and finds there both the promise and the disappointment inherent in the choices made by the father and the expectations placed on the son.‘
6. The Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan
‘At the turn of the twentieth century, newly arrived to the countryside, William Heath, his wife, and two daughters appear the picture of a devoted family. But when accusations of embezzlement spur William to commit an unthinkable crime, those who witnessed this affectionate, attentive father go about his routine of work and family must reconcile action with character. A doctor who cared for the young Lillian searches for clues that might penetrate the mystery of the father’s motivation. Meanwhile Rachel’s teacher grapples with guilt over a moment when fate wove her into a succession of events that will haunt her dreams. In beautifully crafted prose, Mary Swan examines the intricate and unexpected connections between the people in this close-knit community that continue to echo in the future. In her nuanced, evocative descriptions, a locket contains immeasurable sorrow, trees provide sanctuary and refuge to lost souls, and grief clicks into place when a man cocks the cold steel barrel of a revolver. A supreme literary achievement, The Boys in the Trees offers a chilling story that swells with acutely observed emotion and humanity.‘
7. The Assassin’s Song by M.G. Vassanji
‘In the aftermath of the brutal violence that gripped western India in 2002, Karsan Dargawalla, heir to Pirbaag – the shrine of a mysterious, medieval sufi – begins to tell the story of his family. His tale opens in the 1960s: young Karsan is next in line after his father to assume lordship of the shrine, but he longs to be “just ordinary.” Despite his father’s pleas, Karsan leaves home behind for Harvard, and, eventually, marriage and a career. Not until tragedy strikes, both in Karsan’s adopted home in Canada and in Pirbaag, is he drawn back across thirty years of separation and silence to discover what, if anything, is left for him in India.‘
8. Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? by Anita Rau Badami
‘Set against the tumultuous backdrop of a fragmenting Punjab and moving between Canada and India, Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? charts the interweaving stories of three Indian women – Bibi-ji, Leela and Nimmo – each in search of a resting place amid rapidly changing personal and political landscapes.‘
Have you read any of these books? Which have piqued your interest?
Australian author Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things was mine and Katie’s March book club choice. We were both eager to read it, and whilst I have seen some largely positive, but ultimately rather mixed reviews floating around, I am delighted to say that I was immediately pulled in, and could barely put the novel down.
Let us begin with some of the more positive criticism. The Economist believes that ‘Charlotte Wood’s writing is direct and spare, yet capable of bursting with unexpected beauty’. The Sydney Morning Herald deems it ‘an extraordinary novel: inspired, powerful, at once coherent and dreamlike’. Author Liane Moriarty writes that it gives ‘an unforgettable reading experience’. It is also the winner of 2016’s Indie Books of the Year prize.
The Natural Way of Things is an incredibly dark novel. In it, ten young women awake from sedation, knowing not where they are, nor what they are doing there. They are in the middle of the Australian bush, in a camp; they are stripped of their humanity, with heads shaved, and their own clothes taken away upon admission. The girls find, after quite some time, that they have been taken to this camp as punishment for being embroiled in sexual scandals; from sleeping with several members of a football team, to having an explicit affair with a man in the public eye. The girls are all markedly different, but their shameful secrets are what brand them the same.
From the first, we feel protagonist Yolanda’s disorientation; we are privy to it: ‘So there were kookaburras here. This was the first thing Yolanda knew in the dark morning. … She got out of bed and felt gritty boards beneath her feet. There was the coarse unfamiliar fabric of a nightdress on her skin. Who had put this on her?’ Wood allows us to see her dilemma: ‘She knew she was not mad, but all lunatics thought that’. Yolanda also, rather touchingly, takes an inventory of herself during her first morning in captivity: ‘Yolanda Kovocs, nineteen years eight months. Good body (she was just being honest, why would she boast, when it had got her into such trouble?). … One mother, one brother, living. One father, unknown, dead or alive. One boyfriend, Robbie, who no longer believed her… One night, one dark room, that bastard and his mates, one terrible mistake. And then one giant fucking unholy mess.’
There is a nightmarish quality to the novel, and the reader cannot help but put themselves into Yolanda’s shoes. Her only company in the compound comes from fellow inmate Verla. The present of both girls is interspersed with memories from their pasts; in this simple yet effective manner, we learn a great deal about them. Yolanda particularly uses her memories as a coping mechanism against the uncertainty she feels.
The core plot of the novel reminded me, perhaps inevitably, of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but in a way, I feel that it goes further. Like Atwood, Wood ‘depicts a world where a woman’s sexuality has become a weapon turned against her’, but there is something darker at play here. The Natural Way of Things is incredibly tense, and is so horribly vivid in the scenes which it depicts. Gripping and disturbing, this is a must-read novel, which raises powerful questions.
Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted, a memoir of the author’s struggles with bulimia and anorexia, was March’s choice for the Mad Woman’s Book Club which I run on Goodreads. I was quite interested to see firsthand what coping with an eating disorder is like, particularly over such a prolonged period, having never read a book which deals with the issue.
Hornbacher begins with some startling admissions: ‘I became bulimic at the age of nine, anorexic at the age of fifteen’. Her introduction is insightful; she states that she chose to write the book because, fundamentally, she disagreed with the majority of what had been written about eating disorders prior to 1998. Hornbacher writes: ‘It is, at the most basic level, a bundle of deadly contradictions: a desire for power that strips you of all power. A gesture of strength that divests you of all strength… It is a grotesque mockery of cultural standards of beauty that winds up mocking no one more than you. It is a protest against cultural stereotypes of women that in the end makes you seem the weakest, the most needy and neurotic of all women. It is the thing you believe is keeping you safe, alive, contained – and in the end, of course, you find it’s doing quite the opposite.’ She makes clear throughout that Wasted tells of a singular experience, but does hint at its terrifying commonality: ‘So I get to be the stereotype: female, white, young, middle-class. I can’t tell the story for all of us.’
Hornbacher is incredibly frank, and much of her writing about eating disorders is highly psychological. She writes: ‘Body and mind fall apart from each other, and it is in this fissure that an eating disorder may flourish, in the silence that surrounds this confusion that an eating disorder may fester and think.’ This, however, is not a memoir written as a coping mechanism from a position retrospect; Hornbacher makes this as clear, as she also does with the way in which she hopes the publication of the book will help others in a similar position to the one she was in.
Hornbacher discusses the rigidity of the classification of eating disorders; simply because her father was not ‘absent and emotionally inaccessible’ and her mother ‘overbearing, invasive, [and] needy’, she was not deemed to come from the right family type to develop bulimia and, later, anorexia. Whilst she says that her home life was relatively ordinary for the most part, as she grows, she realises that, as an only child, she is used as a focus for her parents’ own relationship issues: ‘The child becomes a pawn, a bartering piece, as each parent competes to be the best, most nurturing parent, as determined by whom the child loves more. It was my job to act like I loved them both best – when the other one wasn’t around.’ She does detail her mother’s own neuroses with eating, determined as she was to stay thin, and never eating more than half of the food on her plate.
One of the most remarkable things about Wasted is that Hornbacher was only twenty-three when it was written; it is one of the most eloquent memoirs which I have ever read. She is incredibly humble too, despite her own experiences: ‘I do not have all the answers. In fact, I have precious few. I will pose more questions in this book than I can respond to. I can offer little more than my perspective, my experience of having an eating disorder.’
Wasted is a compelling memoir, and a fierce honesty has been stamped onto every single page. When describing herself as she falls into substance abuse, she says: ‘I was vivacious, rebellious, obnoxious, often sick, sometimes cruel, and sometimes falling apart on the locker room floor, usually seething at something, running away from my house in the night.’ This no-holds-barred approach works wonderfully within Hornbacher’s book; we are simultaneously frightened and repulsed by her graphic descriptions of purging and her body, and want to read on. There is a fantastic balance between the personal and psychological. Wasted is intense and important, and a real eye-opener for those who have never experienced the disease.
I first read Michael Cunningham’s The Hours several years ago, and of late have been itching to reread it – partly, I think, because I am focusing upon Woolf in my PhD thesis. Although The Hours is (sadly) not thesis applicable, it still felt as though I was researching by picking up my beautiful Harper Perennial copy – always a bonus. Whilst I very much enjoyed it the first time around, I got so much more out of it during my 2017 reread; so much so that it is now firmly nestled amongst my favourite novels.
Beautifully written from the very beginning, The Hours weaves together the stories of three women – Virginia Woolf herself, as she nears the end of her mortality; young wife Laura Brown, living in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1940s, who is yearning to be able to read her copy of Mrs Dalloway away from her motherhood duties; and Clarissa Vaughan, residing in the New York of the 1990s, who steps into the city in order to buy some flowers for a party which she is hosting, thus echoing Woolf’s eponymous character. These stories are at once separate and connected; a clever technique which gives a marvellous flow to the whole.
Cunningham’s writing is sublime, and the imagery which he presents is immediately vivid, particularly in those instances where he portrays movement: ‘It’s the city’s crush and heave that move you; its vibrancy; its endless life’. The characters which he presents are vibrant and realistic; his embodiment of Woolf herself as a character has been sensitively and cleverly wrought. In the single following description, for instance, an ageing Woolf is brought to life: ‘She is still regal, still exquisitely formed, still possessed of her formidable lunar radiance, but she is suddenly no longer beautiful’. Cunningham captures some continuation of Woolf’s breathtaking prose too, particularly with regard to his presentation of characters: ‘This is one of the most singular experiences, waking on what feels like a good day, preparing to work but not yet actually embarked. At this moment there are infinite possibilities, whole hours ahead. Her mind hums’. When discussing lost housewife Laura, too, Cunningham shows the utmost understanding of her, and her place in the world: ‘… and when she glanced over at this new book on her nightstand, stacked above the one she finished last night, she reached for it automatically, as if reading were the singular and obvious first task of the day, the only viable way to negotiate the transit from sleep to obligation’.
Everything in The Hours loops around Mrs Dalloway; Cunningham’s approach is startlingly simple, yet remarkably clever. The Hours is, in fact, nothing short of phenomenal. The prose throughout is exquisite, the characters fully formed, and the sense of place as real as if one was standing in it themselves. The singular diurnal structure, reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway, is a clever touch. Cunningham handles everything marvellously, and the flow to the whole is flawless. Indeed, much of his writing is rather profound: ‘She thinks of how much more space a being occupies in life than it does in death; how much illusion of size is contained in gestures and movements, in breathing. Dead, we are revealed in our true dimensions, and they are surprisingly modest’.
In The Hours, Cunningham essentially presents a love letter to the utterly splendid novel that is Mrs Dalloway. At times, it is rendered almost painfully vivid, for instance in those passages which describe the suicide of Woolf. I shall leave you, dear reader, with Cunningham’s musings upon death: ‘It might be like walking out into a field of brilliant snow. It could be dreadful and wonderful.’