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Reading the World: ‘The Longest Night’ by Otto de Kat **

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.’ 9780857056085

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.

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The Book Trail: Swinging to Nightbirds

We begin with a very thoughtful and compelling work of Miriam Toews’ for this particular Book Trail!

1. Swing Low by Miriam Toews 17846957
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
498084Lisa 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 2454933
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
1664732In 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?

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‘The Natural Way of Things’ by Charlotte Wood ****

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.

9781760291877From 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.

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‘The Hours’ by Michael Cunningham *****

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. michael_cunningham_the_hours

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.’

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Favourite Illustrations

I thought I would produce a post for today which was a little less taxing than having to read through an entire review, and focus instead on that which has been largely neglected on The Literary Sisters to date – that of the humble illustration.  I must admit that I still love books with pictures in them, even as an adult and a PhD researcher.  When I flip open the pages of a Persephone book and see lovely illustrations alongside the text, I delight a little.  There is just something so charming about them.

Without further ado, I am going to post ten of my favourite book illustrations.  I hope you enjoy this veering away from the literary!

 

1. John Teniell‘s iconic interpretation of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland

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2. E.H. Shepard‘s delightful images in A.A. Milne‘s Winnie the Pooh (and friends)

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3. Carson Ellis‘ wonderful drawings in husband Colin Meloy‘s Wildwood Chronicles series

wildwoon-by-colin-meloy-and-carson-ellis

 

4. Ludwig Bemelmans‘ adorable redhead, Madeline

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5. The Moomins by my beloved Tove Jansson

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6. The lovely Babar by Jean de Brunhoff

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7. Beatrix Potter‘s whimsical animals

The Mice Sewing the Mayor's Coat circa 1902 by Helen Beatrix Potter 1866-1943

 

8. Quentin Blake‘s wonderful depiction of Roald Dahl‘s Matilda

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9. Mary Cicely Barker‘s Flower Fairies, which enchanted me throughout childhood

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10. Pauline Baynes‘ stunning drawings in C.S. LewisChronicles of Narnia series

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There are no great surprises here, I’m sure!  Which are your favourite illustrations?  Have I featured any of them here?

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Reading the World: ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi ****

When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea.  Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual.  The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’.  This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.

9781781258712The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’.  From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating.  I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is.  Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed.  These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.

The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea.  In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”.  And the reason mine was so low?  Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’.  Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.

The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history.  The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing.  Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing.  So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.

Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society.  There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain.  The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is.  Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.

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‘Monsters’ by Emerald Fennell ****

I don’t tend to read much children’s fiction nowadays, cultivating the image, as I am, of a sensible PhD student.  Regardless, I really do enjoy it, and every now and then, something aimed at younger readers really catches my eye.  Monsters by Emerald Fennell was such a book.  The sparsity of its blurb made it sound deliciously creepy, and I have seen favourable reviews from a lot of fellow adults who have succumbed to it.

9781471404627From the outset, I was reminded of The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks; yes, it is aimed at a different audience entirely, but there are rather a lot of similarities with regard to the narrative voice and the uneasiness which sets in almost immediately.  The matter-of-fact way in which it opens, too, contributed to the comparison for me: ‘My parents got smashed to death in a boating accident when I was nine.  Don’t worry – I’m not that sad about it’.  When her parents are killed, the narrator goes to live with her grandmother: ‘The good thing about living with Granny is that she has no idea about twelve-year-old girls and what they should be reading or watching on the television, so she lets me sit up with her and watch gory films while she picks the polish off her nails and feeds it to her dog, John.  John is permanently at death’s door but never actually hobbles through it’.

Monsters is filled with dark humour, such as the above.  The voice of our unnamed narrator was engaging as much as it was detached from things going on around her: ‘Mummy was obsessed with being thin – it was the thing she was most proud of.  At meal times she only ate peas, one at a time, with her fingers’.  There is a grasp of reality here, but whilst in charge of her own thoughts and feelings, the narrator is very much led.  When she meets fellow twelve-year-old Miles Giffard, who is holidaying in the Cornish town of Fowey where she is staying with her aunt and uncle, another darkness entirely enters the novel.

Our narrator has a vivid, and often rather frightening, imagination: ‘I really like my school but, honestly, sometimes I think it would be better if someone just burned the place to the ground’.  With Miles in tow, she soon has a fascination with murder, which is piqued when female bodies begin to wash up upon the beach.  She and Miles decide to investigate, and churn up horrors from which most twelve-year-olds would run away screaming.

The narrative voice feels natural after the first few pages, but some of the comments which the protagonist makes either startled me, or caught me so by surprise that I ended up snorting with laughter, such as with the following: ‘Sometimes I’m so tired I can barely move or think straight.  But it gets better after I’ve had a couple of strong coffees from the buffet.  Jean doesn’t approve of twelve-year-old girls drinking coffee, but truly, Jean can get fucked’.

Fennell is a talented writer, whose characters – young and old – felt immediately realistic.  She has such an awareness of her narrator, and has crafted a book which is really chilling at times, even to those who fall several (ahem) years outside of her target demographic.  The plot and pace within Monsters are faultless, and the reader is always aware that something sinister is on the horizon.  Monsters is a real page turner, for audiences young and old(er).  I could never quite guess where it would end up, and it kept me surprised throughout, particularly with its clever twists and its fantastic ending.

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