Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world. An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley. Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.
The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic. She is dying. Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock. ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’. Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.
David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream. His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to… She wouldn’t know where he’d gone. She also said the migration would have its consequences. There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit. The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body. Something of each of them would be left in the other’.
The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story. Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours. That’s going to happen, isn’t it? It’s strange how calm I am. Because even though you haven’t told me, I know. And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’. She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago? What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers? These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.
Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel. It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you. One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.
As a voracious reader, I have always been aware that there are several (hundred) tomes which I should have read already, but haven’t. I’m almost entirely sure that most readers have the same problem. Rather than make this a self-pitying post to the tune of my never having picked up anything by Umberto Eco, for instance, I thought I would make a post detailing some of the books which I Probably Should Have Read to date. I’m aware that I could probably fill a whole fortnight’s worth of posts with such material, but have decided to be relatively selective to compile a manageable list of ten. (NB. It was not my intention at all to list almost solely books by men!)
1. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective. His tools are the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the empirical insights of Roger Bacon – all sharpened to a glistening edge by wry humor and a ferocious curiosity. He collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where “the most interesting things happen at night.”‘
2. A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
‘After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.‘
3. The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
‘Sugar, 19, prostitute in Victorian London, yearns for a better life. From brutal brothel-keeper Mrs Castaway, she ascends in society. Affections of self-involved perfume magnate William Rackham soon smells like love. Her social rise attracts preening socialites, drunken journalists, untrustworthy servants, vile guttersnipes, and whores of all kinds.‘
4. The Story of My Life by Helen Keller
‘An American classic rediscovered by each generation, The Story of My Life is Helen Keller’s account of her triumph over deafness and blindness. Popularized by the stage play and movie The Miracle Worker, Keller’s story has become a symbol of hope for people all over the world. This book–published when Keller was only twenty-two–portrays the wild child who is locked in the dark and silent prison of her own body. With an extraordinary immediacy, Keller reveals her frustrations and rage, and takes the reader on the unforgettable journey of her education and breakthroughs into the world of communication. From the moment Keller recognizes the word “water” when her teacher finger-spells the letters, we share her triumph as “that living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!” An unparalleled chronicle of courage, The Story of My Life remains startlingly fresh and vital more than a century after its first publication, a timeless testament to an indomitable will.‘
5. The Trial by Franz Kafka
‘Written in 1914 but not published until 1925, a year after Kafka’s death, The Trial is the terrifying tale of Josef K., a respectable bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. Whether read as an existential tale, a parable, or a prophecy of the excesses of modern bureaucracy wedded to the madness of totalitarianism, The Trial has resonated with chilling truth for generations of readers.‘
6. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
‘Steppenwolf is a poetical self-portrait of a man who felt himself to be half-human and half-wolf. This Faust-like and magical story is evidence of Hesse’s searching philosophy and extraordinary sense of humanity as he tells of the humanization of a middle-aged misanthrope. Yet this novel can also be seen as a plea for rigorous self-examination and an indictment of the intellectual hypocrisy of the period. As Hesse himself remarked, “Of all my books Steppenwolf is the one that was more often and more violently misunderstood than any other”.‘
7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
‘A vicious fifteen-year-old “droog” is the central character of this 1963 classic, whose stark terror was captured in Stanley Kubrick’s magnificent film of the same title. In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology. A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”‘
8. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
‘The Brothers Karamazov is a passionate philosophical novel set in 19th century Russia, that enters deeply into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality. It is a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernizing Russia.‘
9. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
‘Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.‘
10. The Stranger by Albert Camus
‘Through the story of an ordinary man unwittingly drawn into a senseless murder on an Algerian beach, Camus explored what he termed “the nakedness of man faced with the absurd.” First published in English in 1946; now in a new translation by Matthew Ward.‘
Have you read – or not read – any of these? I’m not going to pretend that I’ll get around to reading them very quickly at all, but hypothetically, which do you think I should begin with?
First published in March 2014.
As I am sure lovely readers of The Literary Sisters know by now, I am currently working through the Virago Modern Classics list. A few years ago now, some beautiful ‘Designer Collection’ books were issued by the publishing house, and I just cannot resist them. I can only hope that Virago choose to release more of them in the near future (hint, hint).
Without further ado, I chose to purchase the beautiful The Tortoise and The Hare last time I placed a book order, as Elizabeth Jenkins is an author whom I have wanted to read for a very long time. The introduction to this novel has been written by Hilary Mantel; she states that it is ‘exquisitely written’ and goes on to say that ‘Jenkins has provided a thoughtful and astringent guide to the imperatives of sexual politics – and one of which is of more than historical interest’. The novel has received some stunning reviews on the various book blogs which I hold in high esteem, and Jenkins is very well respected in terms of the stunning and perceptive books which she authored.
The Tortoise and The Hare is rather a quiet novel, as many of the Viragos tend to be, but that purely means that more focus is placed upon the beautiful writing and well drawn characters.
The novel’s blurb is quite intriguing:
“In affairs of the heart the race is not necessarily won by the swift or the fair.
Imogen, the beautiful and much younger wife of distinguished barrister Evelyn Gresham, is facing the greatest challenge of her married life. Their neighbour Blanche Silcox, competent, middle-aged and ungainly – the very opposite of Imogen – seems to be vying for Evelyn’s attention. And to Imogen’s increasing disbelief, she may be succeeding.”
It is a book about love and hate, about the very emotions which are liable to tear us, and the relationships which we have tried so very hard to build, apart. In this respect, Jenkins has done a marvellous job, highlighting the ease with which facades can slip, and the way in which single actions can destroy what is so taken for granted.
Throughout, I found the majority of the characters so very intriguing. I did not like many of them, as such, but I did become fond of Imogen towards the very end of the novel, and Tim Leeper, the young friend of Imogen and Evelyn’s son, was a real sweetheart. It is clear that Jenkins respects her characters, and everything which she envisioned has been so well set to paper.
Whilst The Tortoise and The Hare is not my favourite on the Virago list, it is a thought-provoking novel, both intelligent and witty, which I will be sure to pick up again in the future, and which I will heartily recommend.
At the beginning of Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop, fifty-year-old bookseller Jean Perdu is told that he is ‘cashmere compared with the normal yarn from which men are spun’. The owner of a book-filled barge, moored upon the Seine and called the Literary Apothecary, he ‘could not imagine what might be more practical than a book’.
Jean decided to open his bookshop in order to aid Paris’ citizens, believing that ‘it was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They looked after people’. He says: ‘I wanted to treat feelings that are not recognised as afflictions and are never diagnosed by doctors. All those little feelings and emotions no therapist is interested in… The feeling that washes over you when another summer nears its end…. Or those birthday motning blues. Nostalgia for the air of your childhood. Things like that’.
Jean, a lonely bachelor who is mourning a lost love, intrigues from the very beginning: ‘Over the course of twenty-one summers, Monsieur Perdu had become as adept at avoiding thinking of __ as he was at stepping around open manholes. He mainly thought of her… as a pause amid the hum of his thoughts, as a blank in the pictures of the past, as a dark spot amid his feelings’. George goes on to write that he had ‘become extremely good at ignoring anything that might in any way arouse feelings of yearning. Aromas. Melodies. The beauty of things’. We get a feel for Jean and his sadness immediately: ‘The two rooms he still occupied [in his apartment complex] were so empty that they echoed when he coughed’.
Characters who remain upon the periphery throughout are used as a clever tool to allow us to learn about the novel’s protagonists. The gossips in Jean’s apartment building at 27 Rue Montagnard are perhaps the best example of this technique.
One of George’s strengths lies in the way in which she builds geographical locations: ‘Over it all drifted the perfume of Paris in June, the fragrance of lime blossom and expectation’. The Little Paris Bookshop is filled with some lovely and rather thoughtful ideas, particularly with regard to those which shape themselves around literature: ‘We all grow old, even books. But are you, is anyone, worth less, or less important, because they’ve been around for longer?’
The Little Paris Bookshop is a largely charming work, which has been intelligently written. George has taken a relatively simple plot and given it depth. The only thing which let the book down as far as I am concerned is the sheer predictability which a lot of the plot sadly succumbs to.
Rumer Godden is the author of over sixty works of fiction and non-fiction, for both children and adults. Virago have recently reprinted a handful of her books to add to their impressive canon of women’s fiction. First published in 1984, Thursday’s Children is amongst the newest offerings. As its title suggests, this novel is based upon the childhood rhyme ‘Monday’s Child’, in which ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’ – a definite precedent for the story which Godden has woven.
Thursday’s Children focuses upon a young boy named Doone Penny, who was ‘born to dance’. His sister Crystal, also a dancer, receives much of the attention in the Penny family, and Doone’s brothers and father look upon him with something akin to contempt at times, believing that any boy who enjoys ballet is the worst kind of ‘sissy’. He is the youngest child in rather a large family, a surprise baby who was born to a mother who wanted her beloved daughter, born after four boys, to be her last. ‘To be the youngest in a family is supposed to be enviable, but that is in fairy-tales; with four older brothers and an important older sister, Doone rarely had a chance to speak’. From the start, Doone is not treasured as he should have been: ‘… he was an unsatisfactory child… [he] was persistently ragamuffin, his socks falling down, his shoes scuffed… he was often puzzled and, often, when spoken to seemed curiously absent, too dreamy to be trusted with the simplest message. He was to be a failure at school – every term a worse report – did not learn to read properly till he was ten and was so silent that he seemed to Ma secretive’.
The first part of the novel opens with Doone’s spoilt elder sister complaining about having to take her brother along to the dance class which she attends. Since his early childhood, Doone has been largely ignored by those around him, and even his mother sees him as somewhat of a burden. He is an incredibly musical child and is taught to play the mouth organ when a tiny little boy by a wonderfully crafted little man named Beppo who helps out in his father’s North London grocery shop. When Beppo is forced to leave his employment, Doone realises ‘that now there was nobody who wanted him’. When the eldest brother, Will, suggests that he should be given lessons in his beloved mouth organ as it is unfair that the majority of the family’s money is spent on Crystal and her dancing, Ma Penny says, ‘… when, in a family, one child has real talent, the rest have to make some sacrifice’.
Doone’s own love of dancing is realised when he is given the opportunity to attend a professional ballet performance with his mother. He begins to have clandestine dance classes along with four other London boys. It is a coming of age novel of the most satisfying type. We see Doone, our protagonist, grow before our eyes, and triumph over the situations and family members which try to overcome him.
Dance runs throughout the entire book, as one might expect given the storyline. However, Godden has gone further than merely to write about dance. Indeed, the novel is presented as something akin to a theatre programme, outlining the ‘cast list’ before it begins, and opening with a ‘Prelude’, which sets out the ‘World Premiere of Yuri Koszorz’s “Leda and the Swan”‘. Here, Doone has been cast as a cygnet: ‘No boy of that age, in Mr Max’s remembrance, had been entrusted with dancing a solo role in a ballet at the Royal Theatre’. Despite this prelude merely being Doone’s dream, these nice touches to the book launch us straight into the life of the ballet.
Godden’s writing is marvellous. She weaves an absorbing story and intersperses it with touching anecdotes about its characters, pitch perfect dialogue and the loveliest of descriptions. The settings which she uses come to life in the mind of the reader: ‘It was only a prelude; the music changed, the clouds came down, and Doone could feel an almost magnetic stir in the audience beyond the orchestra pit’, and ‘the Royal Theatre, for an English-born dancer, was not only the Mecca, the peak of ambition, but also home’. Her love of dancing and the theatre shines through on every page: ‘the music, the lights, the little girls – it seemed to him a hundred little girls – all in party dresses and dancing shoes, moving to the music in what seemed to him a miracle of marching, running, leaping’. Her character descriptions, too, give us a real feel for the leading men and women of the book: ‘It was difficult to believe Pa had once been a romantic young man who, when he was not learning to be a greengrocer, willingly went without tea or supper to go to a musical or a revue’.