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‘The Pear Field’ by Nana Ekvtimishvili ***

Peirene Press are one of my all-time favourite publishing houses. I love that they champion European novellas which would not otherwise be translated into English, and will always support what they do. I had not read any of their titles for quite some time, sadly, but was so intrigued by Georgian author Nana Ekvtimishvili’s The Pear Field that I got my hands on a copy as soon as I possibly could.

I was lucky enough to travel to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, in January 2020, and have been keen to seek out literature from the country ever since. It has, however, proven rather difficult to get hold of books in translation, particularly which are still in print. I am therefore very grateful to Peirene for publishing this novella, and to Elizabeth Heighway for her flawless translation. Part of Peirene’s ‘Closed Universe’ series, The Pear Field was longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2021, and has also been longlisted for the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation.

The Pear Field is set in a ‘newly independent’ Georgia, free on the surface from Soviet influence, and takes place on the outskirts of the capital, Tbilisi. Here, a young woman named Lela lives at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children; the locals cruelly refer to it as the ‘School for Idiots’. Lela is eighteen, and old enough to leave the school, but she has nowhere to go. She decides, early on in the narrative, ‘both for her own escape and for the future she hopes to give Irakli, a young boy at the school’ whom she has formed a close bond with. When a couple from the United States decided that they want to adopt a Georgian child, Lela is ‘determined to do everything she can to help Irakli make the most of this chance.’

Around the residential school, ‘… most of the streets have no names and… whole neighbourhoods consist of nothing but Soviet high-rises grouped into blocks, grouped in turn into microdistricts…’. We first meet Lela on ‘a sunny day in late spring, in the wash block of the School for Idiots’, which can be found at the end of a ‘forgotten, sun-scorched street’. The pear field of the novella’s title is on the same campus; it is permanently waterlogged, and the fruit inedible. It proves to be a point of horror for the children, who dream of crossing it to escape, but are fearful of what it may hold. Of Lela, the author writes: ‘… running onto the pear field fills her with terror, the fear that she might not make it across, as she imagines the branches taking hold, throwing her onto the ground, pulling her body into the soft boggy soil, the roots snaking around her and swallowing her up for ever.’

Lela ‘dresses like a boy and at first glance she looks like one too, especially when she’s running flat out. Up close, though, you can see her fine, fair eyebrows, her dark eyes, slim face and cracked red lips…’. She knows nothing of her background, or why she came to be placed in the home. For her, the future looks difficult. She has a tendency to be cruel, and her moods are quicksilver; I did not much warm to her at all. Ekvtimishivili tells us: ‘There’s no hope of her getting a job. After all, as Tiniko points out, if normal people can’t find work, what chance is there for a girl fresh out of a school for the intellectually disabled?’ Soon afterwards, however, Lela finds employment monitoring a local garage, which allows her to move from the school into a gatehouse.

In just 163 translated pages, Ekvtimishivili gives a sweeping and vivid view of twentieth century Georgian history. This was the element of the story which I found by far the most interesting. The wider social and cultural details really drew my attention. There is a lot of poverty, and much brutality and exploitation within the school system, and outside it, is exposed. Many dark, and sometimes shocking, themes are touched upon, although in some places it does not feel as if they have quite been explored in enough detail. The school building itself is dilapidated; the roof leaks, windows are broken; a balcony completely breaks off, and miraculously does not injure any of the children playing below it. There is the ever-pervading ‘smell of dirty children, or sometimes of clothes scrubbed clean with laundry soap; the smell of musty linen and hand-me-down bedding; the smell of paraffin lamps and, in winter, wood stoves; the smell of old armchairs and sticky tape covering cracks in the windows and Chinese mallow plants lined up on the sill.’

I felt a little detached from the characters throughout, and did not always feel as though they were presented in as much detail as I would personally have liked. This detachment is perhaps a consequence of the translation, as the matter-of-fact prose could well be, too. There are a lot of characters introduced in a very short span of time; many of them just appear, without explanation, and it often takes a while to work out the relationships between individuals.

The Pear Tree is Ekvtimishvili’s debut novel, and was first published in 2015. It was awarded a prestigious prize for best Georgian novel, and two others for the best debut soon afterwards. The novella had previously been translated into Dutch and German ‘to much critical acclaim’. It is not one of my favourite Peirene publications, not by a long way, but I do feel grateful to have finally been able to read a piece of Georgian literature without having to learn the language. Ekvtimishvili captures the essence of the school, and the wider surroundings rather well, but whilst this was certainly a readable book, I found it a little underwhelming.

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Novella November: ‘Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982’ by Cho Nam-Joo ****

The million copy international bestseller Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo has already been translated into numerous languages – 18 at the last count. It appeared in English in 2020, through the work of translator Jamie Chang. The reviews which speckle its cover call it variously ‘a howl of anger’, ‘moving, witty and powerful’, and a ‘ground-breaking work of feminist fiction’. Every single one of these comments, as well as a review from a highly trusted Goodreads friend, drew me to pick this up in my local Waterstones, and to begin it almost immediately.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is Cho Nam-Joo’s third book. This novella, which runs to just over 160 pages in its English translation, follows Jiyoung, from her birth in the early 1980s to the present day. The structure uses six separate sections, each of which deals with a specific time period in Jiyoung’s life.

We first meet Jiyoung in the autumn of 2015; at this point, she lives on the outskirts of Seoul, has been married to Daehyun for three years, and is the mother of a baby daughter. She is also undergoing a breakdown. We are told, with the addition of her medical records, that ‘Jiyoung’s abnormal behaviour was first detected on 8 September.’ This ‘odd behaviour continued sporadically. She’d send [her husband] a text message riddled with cute emoticons she never normally used, or make dishes like ox-bone soup or glass noodles that she neither enjoyed nor was good at. Jiyoung was starting to feel like a stranger to Daehyun. After all this time – the stories they shared, as countless as raindrops, the caresses as soft and gentle as snowflakes, and the beautiful daughter who took after them both – his wife of three years, whom he married after two years of passionate romance, felt like someone else.’

For Jiyoung, the misogyny which follows her throughout her life starts in her own home, when she is tiny. She has an older sister and a younger brother; the latter is the apple of his parents’ eye, spoilt by everyone around him, and given the best of everything. The omniscient narrator of the piece recalls: ‘The brother had chopsticks, socks, long underwear, and school and lunch bags that matched, while the girls made do with whatever was available… It didn’t matter to the child Jiyoung that her brother was receiving special treatment, and so she wasn’t even jealous. That’s how it had always been. There were times when she had an inkling of a situation not being fair, but she was accustomed to rationalising things by telling herself that she was being a generous older sibling and that she shared with her sister because they were both girls.’ At school, the boys are always allowed to eat first, and have their homework checked before the girls too. It felt like more than a small victory when Jiyoung got the lunchtime rota changed, so that she and her female friends would sometimes be able to start eating first.

Jiyoung’s father worked in a low-level government job, which brought in the house’s only income, and was not expected to do anything at all when he returned home. Her mother was relied upon for everything; along with looking after her three children and her elderly mother-in-law, she had to do all of the household chores, and ‘chose sideline work she could do from home. Taking out stitches, assembling cardboard boxes, folding envelopes, peeling garlic and rolling weather strips were just a few of the endless list of jobs available’ to her.

Cho Nam-Joo’s prose is not hugely descriptive, but this just serves to make everything she writes more impactful. Through the lens of Jiyoung and her sister, Eunyoung, Cho Nam-Joo has presented a great deal about the inequalities embedded in Korean society, and its expectations, which still differ greatly between men and women. Women find it far more difficult to get into the best Universities, and then to embark upon a chosen career. They miss out on promotions, and many find it impossible to start work again after having a child. Paying for rent and childcare more often than not stretches their already limited budgets too far.

Much of what occurs in this striking novella will be familiar to women all over the world. When Jiyoung is sexually harassed, her father asks her: ‘”Why do you talk to strangers? Why is your skirt so short?” Jiyoung grew up being told to be cautious, to dress conservatively, to be “ladylike”. That it’s your job to avoid dangerous places, times of day and people. It’s your fault for not noticing and not avoiding.’

The author is always transparent about the way in which Jiyoung’s experiences are also those of millions of real women living in South Korea, who have had to modify their behaviour, and have missed out on countless opportunities, merely due to their gender. Throughout, Cho Nam-Joo blends facts from Korea alongside her imagined narrative about Jiyoung. These are stark, and startling; for instance, in the 1980s, ‘checking the sex of the foetus and aborting females was common practice’. She also tells us that in an Economist article published in 2016, Korea was named ‘the worst country in which to be a working woman, receiving the lowest scores among the nations surveyed’. The Korean pay gap is also the highest among all of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries; in 2014, it was concluded that women were found to earn only 63% of what men do; the OECD average is 84%.

The importance of Cho Nam-Joo’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982, cannot be understated. The novella, which provides a fascinating insight into modern history in the country, has had a ‘profound impact on gender inequality and discrimination in Korean society’, and sparked the #MeToo movement in the country. It has sparked conversations all over the world, in fact; much of what Cho Nam-Joo recounts here is familiar to many of us, and still goes on in so many societies today. Cho Nam-Joo has raised numerous questions about ‘endemic misogyny and institutional oppression that are relevant to us all.’ Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 is an invaluable work of riveting and disturbing social commentary, which makes its readers contemplate so much about the unjust world in which we have lived for so long.

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Novella November: ‘Waiting for Bojangles’ by Olivier Bourdeaut ***

Quirky, quintessentially French fiction has always been something which I’ve been drawn to as a reader. I love picking up unusual books with memorable scenes and characters, and it must be said that I’m quite a fan of the more madcap elements which can often be found in books written between Pas-de-Calais and Provence. Olivier Bourdeaut’s novella, Waiting for Bojangles, is just such a story.

I hadn’t heard of this book, or of its author, but I spotted the slim volume on a trip to the library, and was intrigued. The novella is Bourdeaut’s first published work, and is the recipient of three prizes in France. When I started to read the blurb, I knew that it was a story I wanted to read. The reviews which pepper its covers attracted me further; Elle France calls the novella ‘a joyful and witty mess’, and Spanish El Correo says it is ‘delightful and overwhelming’.

Waiting for Bojangles is partly narrated by an unnamed, and quite sweetly endearing young boy, who lives with his ‘eccentric family who grapple with the realities of mental illness in unique and whimsical ways.’ He lives in a beautiful old Paris apartment, with his rich parents, and a crane named Mademoiselle Superfluous, who likes to make her presence known. He tells us: ‘The elegant and surprising bird lived in our apartment, parading her undulating long black neck, white plumes jutting from her violently red eyes.’ Mademoiselle Superfluous ‘ate canned tuna fish, enjoyed classical music, wore custom-made jewelry, attended cocktail parties and had lost the knack for birdier things.’

His father continually calls his mother by different names: ‘… she’d turn to the mirror and greet the new Renee with a pout, the new Josephine with a regal gaze, the new Marylou with puffed-out cheeks.’ Only on one single day during the year does her name stay the same: ‘on February 15, her name was Georgette. It still wasn’t her real name, but Saint Georgette’s day was the day after Saint Valentine’s Day.’ The ‘Mr Bojangles’ of the novella’s title relates to a Nina Simone song which both parents love, and often dance to. His parents often speak in rhyme – which, I admit, did get a little tedious after a while – and are quite irresponsible, leaving all of their mail unopened, often serving dinner at midnight, and throwing endless parties for swathes of strange friends.

Chapters are told from the perspectives of both the young boy and his father; these shift from one to another, and back again. Of course, we learn more of the concrete details from the father, as he is evidently more aware of what the mother is going through. He is also not as distracted by everything else around him, as the boy can be. In the first chapter narrated by the father, he describes their first meeting: ‘I could see perfectly well that she wasn’t all there, that her delirious green eyes hid secret fault lines, and I ought to beware. That her plump, childish cheeks concealed a painful past, and that this beautiful young woman, who at first glance was droll and dazzling, had been through the mill and had emerged bruised and unraveling. I was thinking that that had to be why she danced so madly – both gladly and sadly – to forget her troubles, that’s all.’

There is a darkness lying behind the more whimsical details of the story. The boy’s mother, suffering from an unnamed mental illness, gets more and more ill as time passes. His father takes it upon himself to keep her safe and, longing to save her from hospitalisation, he moves the family from bustling Paris to an idyllic country house in Spain – crane and all. The boy comments: ‘… Dad had purchased a beautiful castle in the air. It was in Spain, far south of Paris. You had to drive a little, fly a little, drive a little more, and be very patient. Perched on a mountainside, floating above an all-white village where the streets were empty in the afternoon and full of people at night, all you could see from the castle was pine forests.’ At the point of moving, his parents offer him ‘early retirement’ by taking him out of school.

Throughout, I far preferred the perspective of the young boy. He observes things with more care; for instance, ‘The real problem was that she [his mother] was losing her mind and didn’t know where to find it.’ He also reveals, very early on, ‘I often didn’t understand my father. I did a little more as the years went by, but never completely. Which was fine with me.’ There is a real feeling of loneliness to this real character at times. I quite liked the way in which we were never quite certain of his age, particularly when his father plies him with such things as cigarettes and gin and tonics.

There is a lot left unsaid in Waiting for Bojangles. We never learn the names of the characters, or the condition which his mother suffers from; indeed, we do not know if she is ever diagnosed. These ambiguities fit very well with the story; they show just how the perceptions which one projects can be markedly different from their realities. His mother gets incredibly upset from time to time, but otherwise, he says, ‘she was rapturous about everything, found the world’s progress thrilling, and skipped along with it joyfully.’ She treats her son not like a child, but ‘more like a character from a book that she loved very dearly, and that could absorb all her attention in an instant.’

Regan Kramer’s 2019 translation was excellent; so much of the detail is captured with a great deal of fluency. Kramer has managed to capture a rhythm here, and to maintain elements such as rhyme schemes from the original. The translation itself is definitely one of the real strengths of the English version.

Overall, there is something quite beguiling about Waiting for Bojangles, and it is certainly a memorable story. However, in many ways, there is too little realism to it, despite the mother’s mental health difficulties. The family have almost too many eccentricities to make the more serious elements of the plot believable. There are shifts in the lives of the family as the mother becomes more unwell, but there is perhaps too much of a light touch here. Bourdeaut undoubtedly displays a great deal of imagination here. However, whilst in some ways I enjoyed the novella, in others, it did not quite work for me.

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‘Winter Flowers’ by Angélique Villeneuve ****

Peirene Press has been one of my favourite publishing houses since its inception, and whilst I sadly don’t manage to catch all of their new releases any more, I still very much look forward to reading them at some point. I particularly love the French literature which they have translated and published for the first time to an English-speaking audience, and was thus eager to get my hands on a copy of Angélique Villeneuve’s Winter Flowers.

Translated by Adriana Hunter, Winter Flowers begins in the October of 1918, when the First World War has almost reached its end. Toussaint Caillet is returning home to his small apartment in Paris, to his wife, Jeanne, and young daughter, Léonie, who does not know him. He has been recovering at the Val-de-Grâce Military Hospital for many months, following a traumatic facial injury. For Jeanne, left alone for so long, Toussaint’s return ‘marks the beginning of a new battle: with the promise of peace now in sight, the family must try to stitch together a new life from the tatters of what they once had.’

Jeanne is a ‘flower-maker’, often working for hours after dark to create exquisite flowers from nasty chemicals. Her position is an incredibly difficult one; along with her poorly paid employment, she has to ensure that Léonie is fed, and is taken to school, as well as the usual chores to keep the apartment running. The pair are at the mercy of others who live in their poorly heated building: ‘The room is filled with flickering lamplight that seems to mirror Léo’s never-ending sing-song, and the smell of boiled and reboiled stew slowly rises, catching at Jeanne’s nostrils and numbing her fingers.’

When Toussaint returns home, without warning, Jeanne knows at once that he is a changed man. He is wearing a magnetic plate over his facial injury, which he never removes. He sits ‘utterly still. After the warped wooden stairs, it’s now his whole body, his nocturnal presence, that creaks as he grimaces in a silence streaked with blue light.’ Villeneuve captures the couple’s reunion with such a depth of emotion, describing it thus: ‘At first Jeanne stays rooted to her chair, entirely consumed with watching him and avoiding him. She knows what she should see, though, where she should look, but it bounces about, slips away from her. What she does grasp is that he’s taller, and handsome in his uniform, and unfamiliar too.’

Jeanne has a wealth of varying emotions, some of them conflicting. She feels lonelier when Toussaint returns than she did when he was away. Part of her feels as though he is interrupting her quiet existence with Léonie, altering the relationship between mother and daughter. Toussaint is always present, always the observer: ‘And if the man ever keeps his eyes open, he’s busy watching them from afar, her or Léo… This daughter he hasn’t seen grow up, he watches her too, with miraculous, disturbing patience… Toussaint is always there, watching or sleeping.’ The lines of communication within the family are stretched and strained; Toussaint is ‘… just there, shut down, shut away.’

Villeneuve captures a great deal in her prose. On the very first page, for instance, she writes: ‘Jeanne’s hands are dulled with work, her back is stiff. And as she closes her eyes, and relaxes her head and shoulders, all her in-held breath comes out at once in a hoarse cry that would leave anyone who heard it struggling to say whether it expressed pleasure or pain.’ I enjoyed the philosophical element which sometimes creeps into the prose; for instance: ‘What exactly was a war? An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible. Incomprehensible.’

This novella is set during the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic. I always find this a strange parallel at present, to read about an awful, deadly disease of the past, whilst the world of the present suffers through the same thing. There is, of course, a lot of trauma here; not just from the First World War, and all of those around them who have been lost, but also the fallout from the pandemic. Villeneuve masterfully captures everything. She makes excellent use of period detail, and pays attention to everything. Movement and emotion have also been wonderfully portrayed throughout. There is tenderness and empathy within Winter Flowers, balanced with the realism of the couple’s relationship, Léonie’s jealousy at having to share her mother, and the still raging war. As Villeneuve writes: ‘The war can strike in other ways. The war can rob people of speech.’

Villeneuve is the author of eight books to date, and Winter Flowers is the first to be translated into English. This novel is beautiful, contemplative, and heartachingly tender, and demonstrates throughout the fragility of life. I savoured every single word. Winter Flowers has very deservedly won four literary prizes in France since its publication in 2014. I have a feeling that there will be many more treats in store with Villeneuve’s books, and can only hope that they are translated into English, and soon.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Winterlings’ by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade ****

My library kindly purchased Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings on my behalf. I thought that it would be an excellent choice to review for Women in Translation Month, as I’ve seen little written about it. I also wanted to be sure to include something set in Spain, as I am making a concerted effort to read more fiction set throughout the country. Published in English by Scribe in 2016, and translated from its original Spanish by Samuel Rutter, the novel has been the recipient of a few accolades to date; it is the winner of the English PEN Award for translation, and was also a finalist for the Herralde Novel Prize.

In The Winterlings, we meet two sisters, named Saladina and Dolores who have returned to their childhood home. They lived with their grandfather in a small community in Galicia, named Tierra de Chá. Here, they find that ‘nothing and everything has changed: the people, the distant little house in the rain, the acrid smell of gorse, the flowers, the crops, the customs.’ Their return serves to disrupt the ‘placid existence of the villagers, stirring up memories best left alone.’

The writing in this novel is strong. I particularly admired the romanticism which Sánchez-Andrade weaves into her descriptions, which gives them the feel of a fairytale. She writes, for instance, ‘Bats and owls crashed into each other, flying in loops. Ivy had invaded the house, and the chimney, bursting with foliage, had acquired the dimensions and appearance of a crumbling tower. The house had an orchard with a lemon tree, and bushes that sheltered butterflies and rustling noises; at the bottom, a river coursed with slender and succulent trout.’ The house in which the sisters live is on the edge of a forest described as ‘taut and dense’. I liked the relatively matter-of-fact descriptions too, which contrast nicely with the above. When the sisters spend their first evening in the house, Sánchez-Andrade writes: ‘They swept the floor. They pulled down the cobwebs. They put away the provisions they had brought. They made soup. The light dwindled, and the cold sharpened.’

The character descriptions here are excellent, if rather too few and far between. We learn, early on: ‘The older one was dried-out and bony; she had a pointy face and an aquiline nose… Closed off in her personal universe of magazines, soap operas, and melodrama, she had a single passion: an unhealthy need for security and to be left alone… By the time she was twenty, she looked like she was forty. By thirty-five, she looked like she was outside of time.’ Her sister, on the other hand, ‘was remarkable for her heavy jet-black hair, her narrow figure, her flashy lips, and above all her gaze… She had always been very patient, that patience being both her best quality and her greatest weakness.’

I really liked the way in which the relationship between Saladina and Dolores was depicted. Upon their return to their childhood home, the author tells us: ‘They feel comfortable in this slowness. The less they talk, the better. Words entangle, confuse, and deceive; you don’t need words to feel. They are comfortable, and the mere fact of being together, being alone, sharing their surrounds, a soup, an anise, makes them feel good. They do not expect more, and they do not wish for more.’ Sánchez-Andrade clearly gave a great deal of thought to how the way they interacted with one another would change as their circumstances altered. Later, Sánchez-Andrade comments: ‘Dolores needed her sister’s obsessions, her ascetic discipline, her way of being in the world, somewhere between madness and the void. There was a mixture of order and chaos in Saladina that fascinated her.’

The time period in which The Winterlings is set is not quite precise. The villagers are reeling from the past war, where Spain was split into National and Republican fronts. This still looms large in their memories. During this war, some of them ‘who had voted for the Left in the elections no longer left their houses’, and others fled to Cuba, or Portugal. When the sisters return, the community is still divided, and this is something which I would have liked to seen explored in greater detail as the novel went on. Something which is done relatively expansively, and well, though, is the coverage given to the tumultuous history of Spain, and its effects upon the villagers. Of these, we meet some only in passing, and others in more detail.

I am always drawn to literary fiction which features an element of mystery; The Winterlings has this in abundance. I do not wish to give too much away; just know that I very much enjoyed this intriguing novel, and that my attention was held throughout. The translation is excellent, and I was drawn in from the outset. If you are looking for a relatively quiet novel, which focuses on the ever-shifting relationship between two family members, I would look no further than The Winterlings.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Country of Others’ by Leïla Slimani ***

There was so much hype around about Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s novel, Lullaby (also published as The Perfect Nanny) when it was first translated into English. However, I have not seen much written about the books which followed in translation. I very much enjoyed Adèle, which has a similar tone to Lullaby in its dark, psychological storyline, but The Country of Others seemed quite a departure.

The novel, which has been translated from the French by Sam Taylor, has been called ‘richly layered and deceptively simple’ by Claire Messud, and ‘exceptional’ by Salman Rushdie. It is a work of historical fiction, and begins in the Alsace region in 1944. Mathilde, our protagonist, finds herself falling in love with a Moroccan soldier named Amine Belhaj, who has been billeted in her small town whilst fighting for the French. Following the liberation, Mathilde follows her new husband to Morocco in 1946, where life is quickly ‘unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman’.

As soon as she arrives at the Belhaj family’s house, in the early stages of pregnancy, her life is beset with issues: ‘It was at that precise instant that she understood she was a foreigner, a woman, a wife, a being at the mercy of others. Amine was on home soil here: he was the one who explained the rules, who decided the path they would follow, who traced the borders of modesty, shame and decorum.’

Under the threat of violence amidst Morocco’s struggle for independence, Mathilde and Amine refuse to take sides. This causes the family to be ‘at odds with their own desire for freedom’. When they move to the family farm after the current tenant has finally moved out, she feels immediately isolated, and finds it difficult to cope with the heat, her loneliness, the suspicions which many hold against her, and the family’s lack of money. Despite this, Mathilde does grow to love her surroundings. Slimani writes: ‘Everything in this landscape was unexpected, different from what she had known before. She would have needed new words, a whole vocabulary freed of the past, to express her feelings, the light so bright that you lived life through squinting eyes, to describe the awe she felt day after day, when faced with so much mystery, so much beauty.’

Regardless, Mathilde is always aware of, and is made aware of, her differences: ‘She wished she could observe this beautiful world from afar, that she could be invisible. Her height, her whiteness, her status as a foreign woman all combined to keep her at a distance from the heart of things, from the silence that lets you know you are home.’ She is also made to feel inferior in her marriage, as Amine grows increasingly violent toward her: ‘There was something crazed about him, his eyes bloodshot and bulging from their sockets. He obviously wanted to tell her something, but all he could do was wave his arms strangely, as though throwing a ball or preparing to stab someone to death.’

As tensions grow around Mathilde, she resorts to wearing a djellaba and headscarf to hide her identity, and to blend in with the Moroccan women around her. Slimani writes: ‘Eyes lowered and veil raised over her mouth again, she felt herself disappear and she didn’t really know what to think about this. The anonymity protected her, even thrilled her, but she felt as if she were advancing into a dark pit, losing more of her name and identity with each step, as if by masking her face she was also masking some essential part of herself. She was becoming a shadow, a nameless, genderless, ageless being.’ This was an interesting exploration of identity, but it did not go anywhere near far enough, and was not mentioned again in the novel.

As time moves forward, attention is given to Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, Aïcha, who was ‘afraid of everything. Of the owl in the avocado tree, whose presence, according to the laborers, foretold death… Most of all, Aïcha was afraid of the dark. Of the deep, dense, infinite dark that surrounded her parents’ farm… The blackness swallowed up everything.’ She has few friends, and spends much of her time alone.

Slimani has definitely included a lot of detail in The Country of Others, but I never felt as though I connected with the story. I did not get to know the characters as much as I would have expected, and those around Mathilde felt almost like caricatures. The novel held my interest in some places, largely with regard to the social context, but not at all in others. The commentary on Morocco’s role in the Second World War was rather well done, but Slimani’s writing style in these sections did not gel as well with the fictional part of the story as I was expecting. Even the more dramatic moments for the family which occur fell a little flat, and pale alongside the factual elements.

The Country of Others is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Whilst I enjoyed learning a little more about Morocco as I read, for me, the story just did not hold enough interest for me to contemplate reading further. I found that the omniscient perspective, which has been used throughout, made everything feel too detached. I did not feel that The Country of Others was particularly compelling, and whilst I found it interesting to see how Slimani handled the genre of historical fiction, I think her strength lies within darker thrillers, and more contemporary settings.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Three Summers’ by Margarita Liberaki ****

Margarita Liberaki is an author who has been on my radar for quite some time. Three Summers, translated here by Karen Van Dyck and republished as part of Penguin’s European Writers series in 2019, seemed like the obvious choice from her oeuvre to begin with. The novel, which was first published in 1946, is incredibly popular in Liberaki’s native Greece, and is taught in many schools to this day. It has also been voted as the country’s all-time favourite book. Albert Camus was the catalyst which boosted Liberaki’s popularity around Europe; he is partly responsible for this novel being translated and published in France in 1950, where it has been loved ever since.

Three Sisters appealed to me on so many levels. It is described as a ‘warm and tender tale of three sisters growing up in the countryside near Athens before the Second World War’. The girls – ‘flirtatious, hot-headed Maria, beautiful but distant Infanta and dreamy and rebellious Katerina’ – live in a ‘ramshackle old house’ in Kifissia, with their divorced mother, Anna, their Aunt Theresa, and their loving grandfather. In the novel, Liberaki follows the sisters over the course of three summers, as they ‘share and keep secrets, fall in and out of love, try to understand the strange ways of adults and decide what kind of women they hope to become.’

Sixteen-year-old Katerina, the youngest of the three, is our narrator almost entirely throughout. Liberaki, whom I must admit that I know next to nothing about as an individual, used herself as a model for the young protagonist. Katerina’s interests are the same as many of the preoccupations of teenage girls today: her current appearance, and wondering how she will look as an adult, fill much of her time. She tells us: ‘I would sit and stare [into the mirror], completely absorbed in myself. It was as if nothing existed in the world besides myself and my reflection.’

Katerina is a true romantic; later, she recalls: ‘I’m not like Maria… I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone.’ Like many teenage girls, she does have uncontrolled outbursts from time to time, but she was a character whom I felt immediately drawn to. We learnt much more about her than her sisters, four and two years her senior. I loved the forays which Liberaki gave into her innermost thoughts and feelings; for instance: ‘Something is brewing inside me that I don’t understand. It fills me with joy and agony. I only feel better if I sing or draw many circles one inside the other, or four-leafed clovers.’

Katerina has a real awareness to herself, which grows from one summer to the next. During the second summer, she recollects: ‘How I wanted to go back, take off my clothes, and fall into bed. In my room I know how the light slipped through the shutters and played on the opposite wall each morning and how high the ceiling was and what cracks there were, cracks that looked like faces and a thousand other things.’ The existential quality of the novel, in which Katerina writes about the depths of herself – for instance, when she muses ‘How did anyone decide to travel around the world? I am already so nostalgic for the places and things that I see every day’ – has been wonderfully executed. Liberaki intimately knows her protagonist; she writes as though from memories of her own self.

In her introduction to the volume, Polly Samson compares Three Summers to Dodie Smith’s beautiful novel, I Capture the Castle. She writes that ‘the prose is as languid as the long, sighing summers of adolescence it describes’. I agree completely. The scenes which Liberaki has created are often exquisite, with their sumptuous and visceral descriptions. Katerina is highly observant, particularly with regard to the natural world, and her place within it. Right at the novel’s beginning, for instance, Katerina tells us: ‘I would climb up into the walnut tree and make daisy chains and bracelets from horsehair. Then I would wear them and look for my reflection in the well. But never succeeded since the sun at that hour hit the water’s surface, making it glimmer like a piece of hot, melted gold, blinding me.’

Three Summers is immediately immersive. We learn such striking details about the family, such as their wild Polish grandmother, adored by Katerina from afar, who ran away from the family with a musician when her daughters, Anna and Theresa, were very young. The family dynamic has been so well thought through, as have the plot arcs which fill this coming-of-age story. I enjoyed the position of retrospect from which Katerina tells much of the story, and it certainly swept me along from beginning to end.

There is an almost otherworldly feel which fills Three Summers at points, and the whole is beguiling, and quite charming. Seeing the world before the war through Katerina’s eyes is a wonderful experience, and one which I would highly recommend. Three Summers is one to really savour.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘David Golder’ by Irène Némirovsky ****

Anyone who has been following my reviews for a while will know how much I adore French author Irène Némirovsky, who was tragically murdered at Auschwitz in August 1942. I have been trying to make my way through her works in translation in recent years, but have slowed this project down dramatically, as I know I only have a couple of tomes left to pick up which I can experience for the first time.

David Golder was a novella which I had outstanding, and my library kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. This, Némirovsky’s second book, was first published in French in 1929, when the author was just twenty-six. In 1930, the New York Times wrote that David Golder was ‘the work of a woman who has the strength of one of the masters like Balzac or Dostoyevsky.’

The book’s blurb describes this as an ‘astonishingly mature story of an elderly Jewish businessman who has sold his soul’. Born into poverty, by the 1920s, Golder has managed to catapult himself ‘to fabulous wealth by speculating on gold and oil’. At the outset of the book, Golder is in his enormous Parisian apartment, filled with treasures, whilst his wife and spoilt only daughter, Joyce, are ploughing through his money at their villa in Biarritz. Nothing is quite as it seems, though. Golder’s wealth is volatile, and his health precarious. The intriguing blurb goes on to say: ‘As his body betrays him, so too do his wife and child, leaving him to decide which to pursue: revenge or altruism?’

Golder’s trajectory is, of course, disrupted by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the chaos which consequently ensued all over the world. His wealth is lost almost overnight, and he is forced to make some difficult decisions. At the point at which his health really deteriorates, we realise quite how selfish and awful his wife and daughter are; they talk only about the money they feel they are entitled to, and care nothing about Golder as an individual.

When we first meet Golder, he is described as ‘an enormous man in his late sixties. He had flabby arms and legs, piercing eyes the colour of water, thick white hair and a ravaged face so hard it looked as if it had been hewn from stone by a rough, clumsy hand.’ At this point in the narrative, he has just broken off the relationship with his business partner, who goes on to commit suicide. Whilst at his funeral, Némirovsky describes Golder’s almost entire lack of sympathy, or compassion, for a man with whom he had spent so much time: ‘It was stupid, just stupid… Yesterday Marcus was sitting opposite him, shouting, alive, and now… No one even used his name anymore… “Why did he do it?” he muttered to himself in disgust, “Why kill yourself at his age, over money, like some little nobody…” How many times had he lost everything, and like everyone else just picked himself up and started again? That was how it was.’

I am always, without fail, struck by the realism in Némirovsky’s work. She successfully probes the pressure which comes with wealth, and with keeping up appearances. Golder is constantly lamenting the position in which he finds himself, where so many people expect things from him that he is not always willing to give. He is continually haunted by his loneliness. She writes: ‘How expensive this idiotic lifestyle was! His wife, his daughter, the houses in Biarritz and Paris… In Paris alone he was paying sixty thousand francs in rent, taxes. The furniture had cost more than a million when he’d bought it. For whom? No one lived there. Closed shutters, dust?’

Golder is not at all a likeable character – he is a wealthy capitalist, with many of the clichéd characteristics of such men – but by giving us an insight into his life and thoughts, Némirovsky does something quite remarkable. There are snippets throughout of how mercenary and unhappy Golder’s personal life is: ‘He pictured his own wife quickly hiding her chequebook whenever he came into the room, as if it were a packet of love letters’, for instance. He craves a good relationship with his eighteen-year-old daughter, completely in vain: ‘Every time he came back from a trip, he looked for her in the crowd, in spite of himself. She was never there, and yet he continued to expect her with the same humiliating, tenacious and vain sense of hope.’ His wife and daughter are arguably much worse than he is, and have not been given much humanity; they are truly odious, concerned only with gross wealth and their outside appearances. His wife Gloria, for example, had ‘an aging face so covered in make-up that it looked like an enamelled plate’, and insists on buying very expensive jewellery which she then laments is still not as good as her neighbour’s.

Sandra Smith’s translation is, as always, flawless. I also very much enjoyed reading Patrick Marnham’s introduction to the volume. He writes that after the novella was published by the leading French house, Grasset, it ‘impressed critics’ greatly, and catapulted the author to fame. Translations soon followed, and the story was subsequently turned into both film and play.

Marnham gives good biographical background about Némirovsky, and the autobiographical details which she has woven into David Golder. Born in Kiev to a rich, self-made banker father, she had to watch as her family lost all of their wealth, and were forced into hiding following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The family finally settled in Paris, where her father, Léon, managed to rebuild their fortune – by accepting the position of manager in a branch of the bank which he used to own.

Much of David Golder, indeed, is a consequence of Némirovsky’s firsthand experience. Markham comments that this ‘enabled her to draw such a vivid picture of the extremes to which men like Golder could be driven in order to escape their roots.’ He goes on: ‘Golder now lives in what seems to be an enviable world, a world of large apartments, spacious villas, sumptuous women and fast cars, where he is feared and obeyed. But it is an empty place. In this society of rootless exiles, money transcends all personal values and becomes the measure of everything – love, strength and self-esteem.’ He then compares David Golder to Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, suggesting that Némirovsky rewrote the play by ‘showing us the vulnerability behind Golder’s mask, [and] the humanity of a powerful Jewish villain’.

Némirovsky is an incredibly astute author, and David Golder is another highly evocative and atmospheric work in her oeuvre. The narrative has been so finely tuned, and already shows a great deal of the carefully considered characters, and thoughtful storylines of her later work. There is such attention to detail here, and I found Golder’s story so compelling. Némirovsky is highly insightful about his relationships with those around him, most of which are fraught, and filled with tension. The family dynamic portrayed is fascinatingly chaotic and turbulent. Every single character in David Golder is thoroughly unlikeable, but I felt a really compulsive need to read about them. There is immense depth to be found in this novella, and quite masterful storytelling, too.

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The Book Trail: From Hunger to Nives

I am beginning the first episode of The Book Trail in 2022 with a memoir which I greatly enjoyed listening to last year. As ever, I have chosen to use the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and which you would recommend!

1. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better. Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

2. Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo

‘From internationally acclaimed Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, and following the success of Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the Best Books of the Year, 2018), comes her latest novel Holiday Heart.

Lucía and Pablo are a couple, they are also school teachers who left Colombia to make a living in the US. While Pablo keeps fond memories of his motherland and a close relationship with his family, Lucía rejects all notions of patriotism, nostalgia and sense of belonging. After struggling to conceive for a long time, Lucía finally gets pregnant with twins. Zealously looking after them, she excludes her husband from this new family life. Hurt and frustrated, Pablo attempts to boost his ego through dispassionate affairs with underage students. While he works on his novel, Lucía writes a feminist column for a magazine picking apart marriage, motherhood and all things related to being a middle-class woman. After one of his affairs comes to light, Lucía takes the kids to Florida while Pablo remains in their empty home thinking about all the time they’ve shared: petty fights, selfish decisions, unkind words. While being apart, they both begin to wonder whether perhaps their love has come to an irreparable end.’

3. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili

‘In post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.’

4. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

‘Following the “propulsive and mesmerizing” (New York Times Book Review ) Things We Lost in the Fire comes a new collection of singularly unsettling stories, by an Argentine author who has earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges.

Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.

Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.’

5. Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

‘Electrifying and provocative, visceral and profound, a powerful literary debut novel about a young woman whose compulsion to eat earth gives her visions of murdered and missing people—an imaginative synthesis of mystery and magical realism that explores the dark tragedies of ordinary lives.

Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.

Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.’

6. The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 by Amy Fusselman

‘Amy Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, weave surprising beauty out of diverse strands of personal reflection. Half memoir and half philosophical improvisation, each focuses loosely on a relationship with a man in the author’s life: The Pharmacist’s Mate with her recently deceased father, and 8 with “my pedophile” (as Fusselman painfully refers to her childhood assailant). Along the way, Fusselman covers sea shanties and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC, alternative healers and monster-truck videos. Fusselman’s “wholly original epigrammatic style” (Vogue) “makes the world strange again, a place where dying and making life are equally mysterious and miraculous activities” (Time Out New York).’

7. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

‘Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.’

8. Nives by Sacha Naspini

‘One of the most exciting new voices in Italian literature brings to life a hauntingly beautiful story of undying love, loss, and resilience, and a fierce, unforgettable new heroine

Nives can’t seem to be able to shed a tear for her husband’s death. She didn’t cry when she found the body, she didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the fog of her loneliness evaporates quickly when she decides to keep her favorite chicken Giacomina with her in the bedroom. She suddenly feels relieved, almost happy, but also guilty: how can the company of a chicken replace her dead husband?

Then one day, Giacomina becomes paralyzed in front of the tv. Unable to wake her up, Nives has no choice but to call the town’s veterinarian, Loriano Bottai, an old acquaintance of hers. What follows is a phone call that seems to last a lifetime. The conversation veers from the chicken to the past—to the life they once shared, the secrets they never had the courage to reveal, wounds that never healed.

Nives echoes the stories we tell ourselves at night, when we can’t sleep: stories of love lost, of abandonment, of silent and heart-breaking nostalgia. With delicate yet sharp prose and raw, astonishing honesty, Sacha Naspini bravely explores the core of our shared humanity.’

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‘Bird Cottage’ by Eva Meijer *****

I received a copy of the beautifully designed Bird Cottage by Eva Meijer for my birthday, after hearing many wonderful things about it – Town and Country, for example, describe the novel as ‘a celebration of a life spent immersed in nature’, and Country Life deems it ‘a great pleasure for birders and readers alike’.  Bird Cottage has been translated from the original Dutch by Antoinette Fawcett, and is printed in its English edition by Pushkin Press, a publishing house which I always gravitate toward.

40724595._sy475_Bird Cottage is a fictionalised account of the life of Gwendolen Howard, known as Len.  Dissatisfied with her life in London, she decided to retire to the English countryside at the age of forty .  In 1938, she purchased a secluded cottage in Sussex, from which she would be able to observe birds.   From her new home, she found the peace, and the avian subjects, which she needed to author two bestselling bird books.  With these, she managed to captivate a large audience ‘with her observations on the tits, robins, sparrows and other birds who lived nearby, flew freely in and out of her windows, and would even perch on her shoulder as she typed.’

The prologue of Bird Cottage is set in 1965, when Len is alarmed to find a ‘stocky man’ using an electric hedge-cutter in her garden.  When she tells him that the hedge is filled with birds’ nests, her voice becomes ‘shriller than usual.  It feels as if someone is strangling me.’  We then move back and forth through time; Len in the present day attempts to stop the birds’ habitat from being destroyed, and remembers many instances from her past which include her two greatest passions – birds, and music.  As a child, living with her parents and siblings in a large house in Wales, Len used to write stories about the birds she came across, and kept lists of the many species which visited her garden each spring and summer.

Len makes a home with the generations of birds which inhabit her garden; indeed, they soon come to inhabit her home, too.  On the decision of some Great Tits to nest inside her cottage, she observes: ‘Their choices were not always happy – they would roost between the curtain rods and the ceiling, or in the frame of a sliding door, which meant that it could no longer be closed – and so I began to hang boxes on the walls, or old food cartons, or small wooden cases.’  Such a glorious sense of place is created, and soon, Len’s cottage, with all of its little quirks, feels rather intimate.  I loved the descriptions of the outside world too, of which there are many: ‘The red in the sky has turned lilac, then purple, then dark blue, the shadow of the earth silhouetted against the pink, and now it’s become a blanket full of stars, little openings that let the light shine through.’

The first person perspective which has been used throughout works so well, as does the present tense which is continually used.  One is made aware, almost immediately, of how much Len cared about the birds whom she essentially came to plan her life around.  Everything is seen through Len’s kind eyes, and the birds become characters in their own right.  She observes: ‘The Great Tits are sunning themselves in the front garden, their wings outspread.  Jacob and Monocle II are sitting next to each other, very fraternally, as if they don’t usually spend the whole day quarrelling.  It’s the heat that has made them so placid…  Jacob’s oldest son is perched on a low, broad branch.  He is a little slower than the others – too much feeding at my bird table.’

I very much admired Meijer’s interpretation of Len Howard, and would dearly like to learn more about her.  Meijer notes that very little about Len’s life has actually been preserved, and that she pieced together the novel with the use of sparse known facts, and Len’s own work.  Unfortunately, Len’s books appear very difficult to get hold of affordably, but I can only hope that they are reissued at some point in the near future.  I am sure that the many delighted readers of Bird Cottage would love to read Len’s original work.

Such warmth suffuses Bird Cottage, and it is such a delightful novel to read.  The translation has been seamlessly done, and the prose is often achingly beautiful.  Bird Cottage is charming and delightful, and provides a wonderful piece of escapism from the fast-paced world in which we live, where many people often forget to take notice of the little things around them.  Bird Cottage is a novel to savour.