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One From the Archive: ‘Kamchatka’ by Marcelo Figueras ****

First published in 2018.

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 Five Wonders of the Danube’ by Zoran Živković

To all those of you who are well versed in translated fiction, Zoran Živković might be a familiar name, as he is one of the most translated and acclaimed contemporary Serbian authors. If you have never heard his name or read any of his works before (let’s not really talk about all the underrepresented non-English speaking authors now…), let me talk to you about one of his books that was my personal introduction to his oeuvre, and which also made it to the list of my Most Memorable Books of 2019.

43706056._SY475_Translated into English by Alice Copple-Tošić and published by Cadmus Press, The Five Wonders of Danube consists of five chapters, each one taking place in or around a different bridge of the Danube river.

Although each story has a different set of characters and appears separate from all the others, they all very cleverly come together at the end. All five stories have surreal and often absurd elements that make Živković’s prose so interesting and unique. Apart from an academic, the author is also an art enthusiast, something which is apparent in all of the stories.

For example, in the first story, titled ‘First Wonder: Black Bridge, Regensburg’, an enormous painting mysteriously and unexplainably appears on the Black Bridge, causing a big uproar since the passersby and the police alike are trying to solve the mystery of how it got hung up there without anyone noticing a thing. In ‘Second Wonder: Yellow Bridge, Vienna’, the longest story of the bunch, five unconnected people are going their own ways on the bridge, when they happen to stop short on their tracks at exactly the same time. Two artistic homeless people are the stars of the ‘Third Wonder: Red Bridge, Bratislava’, my personal favourite of the stories. One of them is an avid Dostoyevski reader and an aspiring writer himself, while the other one adeptly carves figures out of wood, when the fire of their inspiration turns into an actual fire that engulfs their minimal belongings.

In ‘Fourth Wonder: White Bridge, Budapest’, a famous composer looks back on the incidents that have led him to write his most acclaimed masterpieces, and very shockingly realises that death eerily plays a big part in his creative process (not in the way that you might think, though). Lastly, the ‘Fifth Wonder: Blue Bridge, Novi Sad’, is perhaps the strangest and most surreal out of all the stories, but it ties some loose ends together and sort of makes a full circle back to the first story.

While Živković might deal with some rather heavy themes such as suicide, homelessness and death, his writing style is infused with such wit and clever humour that it becomes a fun and whimsical reading experience that truly makes the reader ponder.

The surreal elements might sometimes get a bit overwhelming for those who are not very familiar with reading such stories steeped in the absurd, as many things do not make much sense until later on in the book. What I personally loved was how the bridges turned into a (sometimes metaphorical) portal of some sort, where things (the painting in the first story) and even people (the characters in the second story) are transported almost magically. Unexplained and absurd things take place on those bridges, turning Danube and its banks into a liminal space of wonder where everything is possible although eerily unexplainable.

My first contact with Živković’s work was definitely a very pleasant one and I’m very much looking forward to experiencing more of his works. In my opinion, The Five Wonders of Danube is a great introduction to his whimsical writing, and I do hope more people get to discover the magic quality of his pen.

Have you read any books by Zoran Živković before? If yes, what did you think of them and which one is your favourite? Feel free to share your thoughts and recommendations in the comments below 🙂

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher, Cadmus Press.

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‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco ****

I purchased The Name of the Rose, my first taste of Umberto Eco’s work, quite some time before I read it.  Whilst the plot appealed to me, and I had heard nothing but good things about the novel, I kept putting it off in favour of shorter books which would be easier to finish.  However, I picked it up over a relatively free weekend, where I was able to dedicate some time to it.

First published in Italian in 1980, The Name of the Rose is set in the Middle Ages – in 1327, to be precise.  The Vintage edition which I read was translated by William Weaver.  Of the novel, the Financial Times comments: ‘The late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas that will hurl it into one more recognisably like ours… evoked with a force and wit that are breathtaking.’
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At the beginning of the novel, Franciscan monk Brother William of Baskerville ‘arrives at a wealthy Italian abbey on theological business.’  His ‘delicate mission’, which we are not at first party to, becomes ‘overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths’.  Brother William chooses to turn detective, exploring the ‘eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of the night.’  Lucky for Brother William, he has Sherlockian powers of deduction, and is able to make sense of the most obscure occurrences.  The whole is narrated by his scribe and ‘disciple’, Adso of Melk.  The novel, says its blurb, is ‘not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.’

The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator in 1968.  They have just been handed a book which claims to reproduce a fourteenth-century manuscript in its entirety.  This narrator goes on to say: ‘In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.’

Even Adso is not told of Brother William’s mission: ‘… [It] remained unknown to me while we were on our journey, or, rather, he never spoke to me about it.  It was only by overhearing bits of his conversations with the abbots of the monasteries where we stopped along the way that I formed some idea of the nature of this assignment.  But I did not understand it fully until we reached our destination.’  He finds Brother William rather an imposing figure: ‘… [He] was larger in stature than a normal man and so thin that he seemed still taller.  His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout…’.

The context and social conditions in The Name of the Rose are rich and wonderfully executed.  I found the novel transporting from its beginning.  Eco has included much about libraries, scribes, and manuscripts, elements of the Middle Ages which fascinate me.  Several reviews which I have seen have commented upon the complicated language and long, meandering sentences used by the author.  I personally did not find this a problem, and got into the style very quickly; I felt as though it added another layer of texture to the novel, making it feel more old-fashioned, and therefore perhaps more authentic.  Eco’s prose, and the way it has been rendered in this translation, is engaging.

Eco’s descriptions, of which there are many, also capture a lot: ‘It was noon and the light came in bursts through the choir windows, and even more through those of the façade, creating white cascades that, like mystic streams of divine substance, intersected at various points of the church, engulfing the altar itself.’  The use of colour and touch woven throughout help to build a believable, and atmospheric, sense of place.  Eco’s dialogue also has such strength to it, and never did it feel predictable.  I particularly liked the way in which William spoke.  He tells Adso, for instance: ‘The story is becoming more complicated, dear Adso…  We pursue a manuscript, we become interested in the diatribes of some overcurious monks and in the actions of other, over-lustful ones, and now, more and more insistently, an entirely different trail emerges.’

The Name of the Rose definitely feels like a good, and popular, choice to begin with with regard to Eco’s works.  I really enjoyed the structure of the novel; it is told over the course of seven days.  So many layers have been built on top of one another; its foundations are strong, and the separate strands of plot all interesting in their own way.  The novel takes many twists and turns, and is such a compelling read.  Eco takes one down so many avenues of intrigue, meeting strange and complex characters along the way.  My only criticism of the novel is that some of the chapters, particularly toward the middle of the novel, felt superfluous, and added very little to the story aside from religious context.  Some events are a little dramatic in places, but it was all drawn together well, and on the whole, I really enjoyed it.

I have read comparatively little set during the Middle Ages, despite the fact that the period fascinates me.  Reading The Name of the Rose has certainly made me want to seek out more novels set between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, and to try another of Eco’s books too.

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One From the Archive: ‘Doppler’ by Erlend Loe ****

In Loe’s native country of Norway, Doppler, which was first published in 2004, has sold over 100,000 copies, and the author is seen as something of a Scandinavian bestseller – for good reason. This novel is described as ‘a charming, absurd and cleverly subversive fable… about consumerism, existence… and a baby elk called Bongo’. An intriguing premise, certainly. So what is Doppler all about? 9781781851050

It tells the story of Andreas Doppler, a citizen of Oslo, who has recently lost his father and is about to become a parent himself for the third time. At the outset of the novel, Doppler states his current status in rather a matter of fact way: ‘My father is dead. And yesterday I took the life of an elk’. He goes on to say: ‘well, how can I put it, after I moved into the forest, for that is actually what happened, that’s what I do, I live in the forest’.

This move into the forest came as something of a shock for Doppler’s family. After a cycling accident, in which he tells us ‘I fell. Quite badly’, he is happy to find that his mind is finally void of all of the trivial everyday thoughts which once filled it, ranging from theme songs of his young son’s favourite television shows to the kinds of tiles he and his wife should buy for their bathroom. In jolly naivety, he believes that his wife, teenage daughter and young son Gregus will be better off without him. Doppler as a character is straight to the point and certainly knows his own mind. His prose is often blunt: ‘I don’t wish to meet people. They disgust me’. Something about this brutal honesty and the no-holds-barred approach to the events which pepper the text is endearing.

The baby elk, Bongo, comes into the story after Doppler kills his mother, and is soon the main focus of the man’s attentions. At first this feeling is one of loathing: ‘That bloody elk. If it comes back, I’ll split its skull open’, but it soon turns to understanding: ‘It’s all alone and it’s beginning to realise the world is a harsh place, and it cannot see any future or meaning in anything. Of course, it’s immature of it to take out its frustration on me, but what else can you expect? After all, it’s only a child’. Just one page after this occurs, their friendship is cemented: ‘We slept together in the tent that night. The calf supplied a surprising amount of heat. I used it as a pillow for most of the night, and when I woke up this morning, we lay looking at each other in a close, intimate way that I had seldom experienced with people’. He soon comes to think that he has actually done the elk a favour by separating it from its mother, stating: ‘… and by the way, I continued after a short pause, your mother would soon have brutally broken the ties between you two in any case. She would have shoved you away from her and told you to push off…. You lot seem so good-natured, but you treat your kids like shit’. During these one-sided conversations, the elk – and the reader – becomes Doppler’s confidante, seeming to listen patiently to his every outburst and pearl of wisdom.

The narrative style which Loe has crafted throughout Doppler takes us right inside the head of our protagonist. He talks directly to us as though he trusts us with his every secret, and this creates a kind of camaraderie between the reader and character almost immediately. The prose style does not follow general conventions, and there are often commas where full stops should be, but therein lies the beauty of the book. The narrative is quite philosophical in places, and is filled with complex ideas which mingle with Doppler’s wilderness existence in interesting ways.

Don Shaw and Don Bartlett have provided a wonderful translation of the text, which I am sure rings true of the original. Sadly, there are quite a few editorial mistakes throughout the book; this does not detract from the wonderfully engrossing story, but it is a real shame.

The book as an object is lovely – a cream hardback with dark red endpapers and lovely red and white illustrations adorning the slipcover. The story is lovely too – witty, satirical, humorous and even quite touching in places. We meet Doppler’s friends as he himself does, and it feels as though we are right there beside him on his grand adventure.

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One From the Archive: ‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

First published in 2018.

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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‘Apple and Knife’ by Intan Paramaditha ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Swallowing Mercury’ by Wioletta Greg ****

I was incredibly intrigued by poet Wioletta Greg’s first prose piece, Swallowing Mercury, particularly given that it was chosen for an online book club which I run.  The novella, translated from its original Polish by Eliza Marciniak, is the winner of the English PEN Award.  Sarah Perry writes that she ‘experienced this book like a series of cool, clear drinks, each one more intoxicating than the last’, and Carys Davies compares the ‘freshness and truthfulness’ here to the work of Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson, a personal favourite of mine.

The focus of Swallowing Mercury is upon a young girl named Wiola, who is growing up 9781846276071in a fictional village in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s.  It is ‘about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days.  In vivid prose filled wit texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s.  From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.’  Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age work, and looks particularly at the way in which its young protagonist interacts with the world and people around her.

The book is relatively fragmented, and is made up of many short, and sometimes barely connected chapters.  Its blurb gives only a few, largely unusual details about Wiola, ranging from the fact that her ‘father was a deserter but now he’s a taxidermist’, and that her mother ‘tells her that killing spiders brings on storms.’  Many of the chapters follow a similar suit, focusing on a single element of Wiola’s life, like her fascination for collecting matchboxes.  The Poland which Wiola belongs to ‘is both very recent and lost in time.’  The chapters in Swallowing Mercury are essentially vignettes, many of which have quite enchanting and intriguing titles – for instance, ‘The Fairground Girl’, ‘Little Table, Set Thyself!’, and ‘The Belated Feeding of Bees’.

I found Greg’s prose rather beguiling, echoing as it does fables and fairytales.  ‘The Fairground Girl’, the first chapter in the collection, begins for instance: ‘A christening shawl decorated with periwinkle and yellowed asparagus fern hung in the window of the store house for nearly two years.  It tempted with a little rose tucked in its folds, and I would have used it as a blanket for my dolls, but my mother wouldn’t let me go near it.’  Also in this chapter, in which the fairytale element is arguably the strongest with regard to what follows, Greg writes: ‘She brought me home in February.  Still bleeding from childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my neck to ward off evil spirits and fell asleep for a few hours.  It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back.’

The quite lovely imagery which Greg creates is startling and fantastical; she talks, for instance, of her mother’s ‘head wreathed with a string of little bagels’, a man having the ‘impression that pine needles had grown out of his thighs and that brambles had sprung up inside his boots’, and that ‘woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.’

Swallowing Mercury has a real sense of imagination at its core.  I really enjoyed the unusual quality of the stories here, and enjoyed the interconnectedness which does begin to build once one gets a feel for Wiola’s character.  A real sense of dark humour suffuses the collection, and the social history of Poland has been well woven in.  The author has paid such attention to a lot of Polish customs, both in a familial and religious sense.  Greg strikes a nice balance between realism and things which are slightly out of the ordinary.  Swallowing Mercury held my attention throughout; it has a real depth and flavour to it.  Some of the chapters are like Russian dolls, with stories nestling inside other stories.  I very much look forward to reading whichever of Greg’s books are translated into English in future, and hope to pick up some of her poetry too.

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‘The Summer House’ by Philip Teir ****

Philip Teir’s The Summer House, which was first published in 2018, has been translated from its original Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.  The Telegraph regards Finnish-Swedish author Teir as ‘Scandinavia’s answer to Jonathan Franzen’, and says that he has a ‘remarkable eye for human behaviour’.

In the novel, married couple Erik and Julia ‘marshal their children into the car and start 9781781259276the drive towards the house by the sea on the west coast of Finland where they will spend their summer.’  They are going to be staying at the summer house in Mjölkviken which belonged to Julia’s grandparents, the first time in which the family have stayed there all together.  Outwardly, Julia and Erik, along with their twelve-year-old daughter Alice and ten-year-old son Anton, appear to be a ‘happy young family looking forward to a long holiday together.’  However, each character is rather apprehensive about what the summer may hold.  When focusing on Anton’s perspective, Teir writes: ‘Two whole months.  That was an unimaginable length of time for Anton.  When he thought about how it would seem when they came to the end of their holiday, he couldn’t really picture it.  The summer months quickly flickered past before his eyes.’

Beneath the surface, unspoken things are simmering.  The threat of unemployment hovers over Erik, who oversees the IT of a department store, and he feels unable to tell his wife.  The arrival of novelist Julia’s childhood friend, Marika, at a summer house closeby, ‘deepens the hairline cracks that had so far remained invisible.’  There are also hints of Julia’s struggle to write a new novel.  Alice and Anton are beginning to have a growing awareness of how complicated the world around them is, and have to learn to deal with it in their own ways.  Alice is becoming increasingly self-conscious, and Anton has many anxieties about the world, and his relationship with his mother. Each concern which Teir gives about the family members feels realistic: Anton not knowing whether he enjoys being out in nature; Alice’s lack of connection to the Internet, and by extension her friends, in a place with so little mobile phone coverage; the parents’ awareness of themselves and how they behave when in the company of others.

I found the novel’s short prologue, in which a young and as yet unnamed boy is sitting in the car, the ‘safest place to be’ during a thunderstorm, with his mother, and the opening line of the first chapter intriguing.  The Summer House proper begins: ‘Julia would turn thirty-six in the autumn, yet she had never truly managed to escape her mother’s voice.’  Julia’s mother appears as a secondary character later on in the novel.  Other characters – for example, Erik’s brother who has been travelling in Vietnam – are added into the mix, and add heightened tension to both the novel as a whole, and the relationships which it depicts.

At first, Teir has left things unsaid, and unexplained.  There is a clever building of tension, and of a foreshadowing of things to come, however.  When focusing on Julia in an early chapter, Teir writes: ‘As she walked through the hall, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and was surprised to realise she looked good in a rather stern sort of way.  So this was how a single mother looked, this was how she would look from now on, when they became a family of three.’  She is continually surprised by her husband, and also dismayed by the way in which their relationship has shifted.  Of her husband, Teir observes: ‘She was always struck by how real Erik was when he was at home, as if there were two Eriks: one she would be cross with in her fantasies, and a real Erik, who talked to her and had opinions that required her attention.’

The sense of place in The Summer House has a vivacity and sensuality to it.  Such emphasis has been given to the plants and animals which now surround the family, who feel such a world away from their flat in Helsinki.  Teir writes, for instance, ‘Anton looked around.  Everywhere he saw blueberries and lingonberries growing.  The trunks of the slender pine trees shifted from grey to reddish-brown where animals had gnawed away at the bark.’  There is a real sense of atmosphere which develops in the novel, both with Mjölkviken and its nature, and within the family.  Teir focuses on the ways in which each family member interacts with the world around them.  When writing about Alice, he says: ‘The water was cold, but Alice didn’t care, because so much was going on inside her body.  She moved slowly, languidly, like in a film, as if surrounded by some sort of membrane that protected her from everything.’

The structure of The Summer House is simple, yet effective.  Teir follows each of the family members in turn, alternating between them.  Each chapter is quite revealing in its way.  The backstory of Julia and Erik has been well developed, and the way in which their marriage has changed over time appears believable.  Interesting and complex relationships are demonstrated between family members, as well as with Marika and her family.  The Summer House has been well situated socially, too; through the use of Marika and her husband Chris, who are ‘eco-warriors’, he manages to ask a series of searching questions about the environment, climate change, and other global concerns.  Again, he situates each character within a wider scope: ‘Erik liked to think of himself as a progressive optimist, but lately it felt like everyone around him had become pessimists.  The climate crisis, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the newspaper crisis, the crisis in Ukraine, in the EU, the crisis within the Social Democratic party…  There was no area of society that wasn’t in crisis.  And in Finland people were especially good at crises, as if they didn’t feel truly comfortable unless everything was going to hell.’

I was wholly engrossed within The Summer House, a short novel which runs to less than 250 pages.  Teir really seems to understand each of his characters and their motivations, and the ways in which they interact with one another feel true to life.  Teir’s prose has been well translated, and the story is a highly accessible one.  The Summer House is a relatively quiet novel, in that not a great deal of action occurs.  It is, instead, focused upon a cast of three-dimensional, emotionally complex characters, and how they connect with one another.

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‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’.  First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993. 9780571342723

Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’  The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.

Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author.  She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system.  This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’

The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her.  She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false.  The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me.  It was total science fiction.  The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’

After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter.  This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart.  I was thrilled.’  I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination.  ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again.  Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet.  I will not be defeated.  I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’  To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself.  Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.

I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different.  Much of her writing is searching and lovely.  In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place.  If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely.  Still, it just might be the life for me.  When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene.  In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’

As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts.  Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one.  However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence.  Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.

Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone.   Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories.  Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways.  In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt.  Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget.  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them.  This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.

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