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‘Our Life in the Forest’ by Marie Darrieussecq ***

I have only read one of French author Marie Darrieussecq’s novels to date, All the Way, but I found it rather too offbeat and strange for my personal taste, and was not overly enamoured with it.  Her newest offering to have been translated into English by Penny Hueston, however, sounded most interesting.  Whilst still not a fan by any means of science fiction, I have been reading a few dystopian tomes of late, and thought I would give Our Life in the Forest a go.

Its blurb states that the novel will challenge ‘our ideas about the future, about organ-trafficking, about identity, clones, and the place of the individual in a surveillance state.’  Le Monde promises that ‘the reader will be captivated’; The Observer calls Darrieussecq’s talent ‘dazzling’; and Liberation writes: ‘… reducing this book to a dystopian tale is doing it a disservice…  A journal from beyond the grave, as time runs out…  And a profound novel about loneliness.’

Set in the near future, ‘a woman is writing in the depths of a forest.  She’s cold.  Her body is falling apart, as is the world around her.  She’s lost the use of one eye; she’s down to one kidney, one lung.  Before, in the city, she was a psychotherapist, treating patients 9781925603781who had suffered trauma…  Every two weeks, she travelled out to the Rest Centre, to visit her “half”, Marie, her spitting image, who lay in an induced coma, her body parts available whenever the woman needed them.’  This woman, our narrator, has fled to the forest along with many other people, ‘as a form of resistance against the terror in the city.’  Their halves live in the forest with them, and have to be taught how to function as humanly as is possible.  Only the privileged have halves, too; those who cannot afford the full body clones which can be used for organ replacement and the like, have jars, which are filled with just a few organs.  Those who cannot afford the jars have no help or assurance at all.

Whilst introducing her plight, the narrator admonishes herself: ‘Time to get a grip.  I have to tell this story.  I have to try to understand it by laying things out in some sort of order.  By rounding up the bits and pieces.  Because it’s not going well.  It’s not okay, right now, all that.  Not okay at all.’  She then goes on to describe her physical body, and the ways in which it has begun to fail her.  From the outset, she has an awareness of her own mortality: ‘I’m not in good shape.  I won’t have time to reread this.  Or to write a plan.  I’ll just write it as it comes.’  She is, she tells her audience, ‘writing in order to understand, and to bear witness – in a notebook, obviously, with a graphite pencil (you can still find them).’

Interestingly, the halves which belong to the characters are the only beings here which are given names.  None of the living protagonists, or those whom the narrator briefly comes into contact with, are really identifiable from the mass.  Using this technique, Darrieussecq ensures that her novel is at once anonymous and intimate.  It feels almost as though the crisis which she has created has befallen everyone, without exception.  Indeed, the narrator assumes that we know parts of her story, and have an understanding of the changed world which she lives in, already.

The world building in Our Life in the Forest is effective in many ways, but there are certainly a few elements which could have done with more explanation.  To me, a relative newcomer to the dystopian genre, I found some elements to be far more interesting than others.  Our Life in the Forest has been quite intricately crafted, and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the plausibility of scenes and settings.  However, there is an emotionless quality to it, which in turn creates a kind of detachment.  I found my reading experience to be interesting enough, but to me, the novel was not wholly satisfying.

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One From the Archive: ‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet ****

“Two men have been enlisted to kill the head of the Gestapo. This is Operation Anthropoid, Prague, 1942: two Czechoslovakian parachutists sent on a daring mission by London to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich – chief of the Nazi secret services, ‘the hangman of Prague’, ‘the blond beast’, ‘the most dangerous man in the Third Reich’. His boss is Heinrich Himmler but everyone in the SS says ‘Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich’, which in German spells “HHhH”.

9780099555643“All the characters in HHhH are real. All the events depicted are true. But alongside the nerve-shredding preparations for the attack runs another story: when you are a novelist writing about real people, how do you resist the temptation to make things up? HHhH is a panorama of the Third Reich told through the life of one outstandingly brutal man, a story of unbearable heroism and loyalty, revenge and betrayal. It is improbably entertaining and electrifyingly modern, a moving and shattering work of fiction.”

I was so very impressed by Laurence Binet’s HHhH. I found the entire novel incredibly engrossing, and I loved the mixture of fact and fiction which Binet had used. The different narrative structures which he made use of worked wonderfully, both singularly and together. The translation has been rendered with such care and precision that it never feels awkward, as many pieces of translated fiction can so easily. Binet’s writing suits the story he has crafted, and his take on the tale is really quite chilling at times. He portrays the horrors of the Holocaust and the Nazi regime very well indeed. His descriptions of Prague, one of my favourite cities, are exquisite.

I have never before read a book without page numbers, but I am glad that this was the first. Odd as it may sound, the structure of the book just does not make them necessary. HHhH is a book to be drawn into and to forget the world around you as you continue to read. It is more interesting in such cases, I feel, to be so engrossed that you no longer wonder how many pages you have left to go until you reach the end. HHhH is marvellously paced, particularly towards the end, and is a must read for any self-confessed history nerds out there.

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‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment.  This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story.  So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years.  Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious.  To you, Mother was always Mother.  It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old.  Mother was Mother.  She was born as Mother.  Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood.  From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

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‘A Hero of Our Time’ by Mikhail Lermontov ****

Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, which was first published in 1839, was my choice for the Georgia stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  According to its translator Paul Foote, it ranks as ‘one of the earliest of the great Russian novels.’  It was written towards the end of Lermontov’s very short literary career, killed as he was in a duel at the age of 26, and was published just two years before his death.

Grigory Alexandrovich Pechorin, the tongue-in-cheek ‘hero’ of the novel ‘was offered to the public not as a model but as a condemnation of the period.  Restless, cynical, disillusioned, sometimes cruel, he shares with many nineteenth-century Russian heroes a sense of superfluousness.’  Foote goes on to give some historical context to Pechorin’s – and Lermontov’s – world: ‘The period in which he wrote – the 1830s – was an important transitional step in Russian literature, when verse surrendered its pre-eminence to the story and the novel, and the great age of Russian literature began.’  Interestingly, Lermontov’s career ‘ran parallel’ to Pushkin’s, with both poets turning to prose towards the end of their writing lives.9780140447958

A Hero of Our Time is made up of five separate short stories, which have not been chronologically ordered; they give a series of episodes, essentially, in which elements of Pechorin’s life are shown to the reader.  Three of these are journal entries of Pechorin’s, but we learn more of his character from those which are narrated by others, and tell of his exploits.  Of Lermontov’s protagonist, Foote believes: ‘The only comfort Pechorin has is his conviction of his own perfect knowledge and mastery of life.  He despises emotions and prides himself on the supremacy of his intellect over his feelings.’  He is, however, Foote goes on to say, ‘more than a mere social type.  He is also a psychological type, the dual character, in conflict with himself, torn between good and evil, between idealism and cynicism, between a full-blooded desire to live and a negation of all that life has to offer.’  Foote also believes that Pechorin is a highly autobiographical portrait of Lermontov himself, who exhibited many of the same traits as his ‘hero’.

Lermontov’s descriptions are as dramatic as they are resplendent; when he writes about Georgia, for instance: ‘What a glorious place that valley is!  Inaccessible mountains on all sides, red-hued cliffs hung with green ivy and crowned with clumps of plane-trees, yellow precipices streaked with rivulets; high up above lies the golden fringe of the snow, while below the silver thread of the Aragva – linked with some nameless torrent that roams out of a black, mist-filled gorge – stretches glistening like a scaly snake.’

A Hero of Our Time is the first example of the psychological novel in Russia; whilst it is perhaps not ‘psychological’ in the same extent as we would expect nowadays, there are many examples to be found in which Pechorin deliberately manipulates those around him, largely for his own gain.  At the time in which he was writing, there was no established tradition of Russian prose; rather, this was one of the first books of its kind, and as Lermontov had no rules to follow, he can be credited as one of the first masters of the Russian novel.  There is much here to admire.  The translation feels seamless, and reads fluidly.  Pechorin is a complex, mysterious, and deplorable character, who feels markedly realistic.  A Hero of Our Time is rather a quick read, particularly when compared to other Russian classics, but is both interesting and memorable.

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‘The Plague’ by Albert Camus ****

I have wanted to read Albert Camus’ The Plague for such a long time, and was pleased that I was able to select it for the Algeria stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  I have really enjoyed what I have read of Camus’ work in the past, and tried my best to ignore the reviews which mentioned how gory, vivid, and disturbing this novel was, squeamish as I am.  Of course, I expected a novel about a plague to have some level of gore within it; how could it not?  Several paragraphs were stomach-turning, but actually, the clever storyline and the intelligent writing shone through, and were at no time overshadowed by drama or melodrama.

The Plague is set in a fictional Algerian town named Oran, a French port on the coast, and takes place sometime in the early 1940s.   It was first published in 1947, with initial English translation coming out just a year later.  Camus immediately sets the scene, making Oran appear vivid, if dull: ‘Really, all that was to be conveyed was the banality of the town’s appearance and of life in it…  Treeless, glamourless, soulless, the town of Oran ends by seeming restful and, after a while, you go complacently to sleep there.’9780141185132

Dr Rieux, who is introduced at the beginning of the second chapter, is a composed and determined individual, one of those who tries ‘to fight the terror’, remaining in Oran to stop the spread of the plague, and to treat those who are infected.  Camus sets the tone, as well as Dr Rieux’s composure and determination, when he writes: ‘A monstrous evil has entered their lives but they will never surrender.  They will resist the plague.’

As with Camus’ other work, the pace within The Plague is just right, and I was gripped immediately.  There is such a sense of atmosphere throughout, and Camus is always aware of the human aspect.  To use a striking example, when the town is put under quarantine, Camus describes the way in which the people who are trapped within the walls all change over time: ‘Thus each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky.  This sense of being abandoned, which might in time have given characters a finer temper began, however, by sapping them to the point of futility.  For instance, some of our fellow-citizens became subject to a furious kind of servitude, which put them at the mercy of the sun and the rain.  Looking at them, you had an impression that for the first time in their lives they were becoming, as some would say, weather-conscious.  A burst of sunshine was enough to make them seem delighted with the world, while rainy days gave a dark cast to their faces and their mood.  A few weeks before they had been free of this absurd subservience to the weather, because they had not to face life alone…  But from now on it was different; they seemed at the mercy of the sky’s caprices, in other words, suffered and hoped irrationally.’

Stuart Gilbert’s translation of The Plague feels entirely fluid.  The hopelessness which comes of living under such conditions, particularly for an extended period of time, has been both well wrought and evoked: ‘But actually it would have been truer to say that by this time, mid-August, the plague had swallowed up everything and everyone.  No longer were there individual destinies, only a collective destiny, made of plague and the emotions shared of all.’  Every element of plague hitting such a populated area seems to have been well thought out; there is consequently a sort of realism to the novel, which makes it feel downright unsettling in places.  I was reminded rather of John Wyndham’s work whilst reading the highly thought-provoking The Plague.

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‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

Marcelo Figueras’ Kamchatka, which is set in Argentina, was the final South American book of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Kamchatka, which has been translated from its original Spanish by Frank Wynne, is a coming of age story which was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Kamchatka was a novel which I have never seen reviewed on blogs or Goodreads, and was so intrigued by the storyline that I did not consider any other books set in Argentina for my challenge.  It seems to have slipped beneath the radar somewhat.  Regardless, there are many positive reviews which adorn the paperback copy of the novel.  In her review in The Times, for instance, Kate Saunders says that ‘Figueras writes with power and insight about the ways in which a child uses imagination to make sense of a terrifying and baffling reality.’  The Financial Times call it ‘brilliantly observed’ and ‘heartbreaking’.

9780802170873Kamchatka follows ten-year-old Harry, whose name is a false one he has to adopt after his family are forced to flee, calling himself after Harry Houdini, an obsession of his.  Harry, whose world is made up of make-believe and superheroes, lives in Buenos Aires during the 1976 coup d’etat.  His father leaves the family – Harry, his mother, and his younger brother, who calls himself Simon – at a petrol station on the outskirts of the city: ‘He kissed me, his stubble scratching my cheek, then climbed into the Citroen.  The car moved off along the undulating ribbon of road, a green bubble bobbing into view with every hill, getting smaller and smaller until I couldn’t see it any more.  I stood there for a long while, my game of Risk tucked under my arm.  Until my abuelo, my grandpa, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Let’s go home.”‘

Figueras uses short chapters to tell Harry’s story, and this structure works well.  We are given a myriad of memories, which are not ordered chronologically, but which help to build a full picture, both of our protagonist and the conditions in which he is living under.

Kamchatka is often profound, particularly in those instances where Figueras discusses our growth as people in the most beautiful and thoughtful ways: ‘Who I have been, who I am, who I will be are all in continual conversation, each influencing the other.  That my past and my present together determine my future sounds like a fundamental truth, but I suspect that my future joins forces with the present to do the same thing to my past.’  Figueras also talks at length about childhood, and the way in which young people view what is around them, and what they are familiar with, as the entire world: ‘When you’re a kid, the world can be bounded in a nutshell.  In geographical terms, a child’s universe is a space that comprises home, school and – possibly – the neighbourhood where your cousins or your grandparents live.  In my case, the universe sat comfortably within a small area of Flores that ran from the junction of Bayoca and Arellaneda (my house), to the Plaza Flores (my school).’

Figueras has a wonderful way of being able to interpret different occurrences, particularly with regard to the political unrest in Argentina, through a child’s eyes: ‘When the coup d’etat came, in 1976, a few days before school started, I knew straight away that things were going to get ugly.  The new president had a peaked cap and a huge moustache; you could tel from his face that he was a bad guy.’  Kamchatka is a rich and thought-provoking novel, which offers an interesting and fully-developed perspective on one of the most defining periods of recent history in Argentina.

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‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas *****

I have wanted to read Tarjei Vesaas’ work for years, and as soon as I began his novel, The Ice Palace, I knew that I was in for an absolute treat.  It is one of those rare books which I have heard only praise for.  Doris Lessing hits the nail on the head in her review of The Ice Palace; she writes: ‘How simple this novel is.  How subtle.  How strong.  How unlike any other.  It is unique.  It is unforgettable.  It is extraordinary.’  The Times is also effusive in its praise, writing: ‘It is hard to do justice to The Ice Palace…  The narrative is urgent, the descriptions relentlessly beautiful, the meaning as powerful as the ice piling up on the lake.’  Its own blurb compares it to an Ingmar Bergman film, for its ‘sombre and Scandinavian’ feel.

Vesaas won Norway’s most prestigious literary award, the Nordic Council Prize, for this novel.  Elizabeth Rokkan’s English translation feels flawless in the Penguin edition which cover-jpg-rendition-460-707I read.  The Ice Palace is set in Vesaas’ homeland of rural northern Norway.  Eleven-year-old Unn, one of our protagonists, has just moved in with her aunt.  She ‘strikes up an unlikely friendship at school with a boisterous classmate, Siss, and an unusual bond develops between them.’

The pair barely speak at school, but Siss walks to Unn’s one evening, and the girls confess their feelings for one another.  Both recognise the intimacy forming between them, but are unsure as to how to be with one another following the revelation.  They do not understand the intensity which they feel, or how to control it.  Unn feels unable to face her friend the following day.  At this time, Vesaas writes: ‘Tomorrow it would be different, but not just now.  She could not look into Siss’s eyes today.  She thought no further; the idea took hold of her with compelling force.’  Instead of trudging through the winter darkness to school, she takes a lone trip to the ice palace, which has formed beneath a local waterfall.

Vesaas immediately demonstrates the bleak but startling beautiful setting: ‘It was really only afternoon, but already dark.  A hard frost in late autumn.  Stars, but no moon, and no snow to give a glimmer of light – so the darkness was thick, in spite of the stars.  On each side was the forest, deathly still, with everything that might be alive and shivering in there at that moment.’  Despite its bleakness, The Ice Palace is filled with some quite charming details.  When Unn first reaches the lake near to the ice palace, for example, Vesaas writes: ‘The ground was made up of heather and tussocks of grass and, like everything else, shone silver with rime in the slanting sunlight.  Unn jumped from tussock to tussock in this fairyland.  Inside her satchel her books and sandwich box jumped up and down too.’

Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace.  His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful.  When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes.  Soft curves and confused tracery.  All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually.  Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms.  Everything shone.’  From her vantage point at the bottom of the iced waterfall, Unn is made aware of the sheer scale of the ice palace: ‘From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them.  She was intoxicated.  The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say.  The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.’

The Ice Palace, which was first published in Norway in 1963, is described as having ‘prose of a lyrical economy that ranks among the most memorable achievements of modern literature’.  I have to agree; rarely have I read a novel as fragile and beautiful as this one.  Vesaas is introspective and understanding when exploring the impact which Unn’s disappearance has on both her loved ones, and on the community as a whole.  The sense of place which Vesaas and his characters live within sprang to life before my very eyes, and has left me longing to visit Norway again.  The Ice Palace is immensely beguiling; it is a breathtaking and heartbreaking novel, which I would urge all of those who enjoy literary fiction to read.

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