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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.

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‘A Greedy Peasant’ by Alexander Ertel ****

Russian author Alexander Ertel’s novella, A Greedy Peasant, has recently been published by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer Publishers. I have been a huge fan of Russian literature since my teens, and jump at the chance to try out any new-to-me Russian authors, of which Ertel was one. That his work was ‘greatly admired’ by Tolstoy is reason enough to pick one of his books up.

Originally written in 1886, the 1929 English translation, which appears in this version, was completed by Ertel’s daughter, Natalie Duddington. A Greedy Peasant is described by the publisher as ‘a moral fable distinguished by its lucid colour and realistic detail’, which immediately intrigued me.

A Greedy Peasant takes as its focus two brothers named Ivan and Yermil, who live in a rural region of Russia – a village rather grandly named Great Springs – and could not really be more different in their approaches to life. Ivan is largely content with his lot, putting in a great deal of effort on the family farm for not much reward. Yermil, however, has ‘dreams of improvement’; he is desperate to make his fortune, and ‘escape the drudgery of the peasant round’. The third brother, Onisim, is killed early on in the novella, a victim of conflict. His wife and young children become dependent on Ivan and Yermil. The family is ‘just made both ends meet, and that was all. They never had to buy bread and they had two ploughs… But there was nothing to spare.’

Yermil finds employment with a rich merchant in the local town. This merchant proves to be a ‘good master’ who ‘on holy days treated him to a glass of vodka’. His health improves alongside his wealth, but as his greed grows, everything begins to fall apart. Ertel writes: ‘At first he had grown fat on the good food he had at his master’s: his cheeks stood out, his neck was like a bear’s and the coat he had brought with him from home hardly met round the waist: when he tried to fasten it the buttonholes gave way. But now his thoughts made him grow thin; he looked sallow and his eyes were sunken. He could not master his greed.’

Ivan and his family spiral further into poverty whilst Yermil gives them barely a second thought. Stoic Ivan, though, tries to teach his brother lessons about what really matters, and to make him grateful for what he already has. When Yermil has to move back to the farm for a period, he seems ‘like a stranger in the house; it was as though he had returned from the town another man.’ Here, Ivan tells him, rather wisely: ‘You mustn’t look at other people, but live as good men do.’ Of course, Yermil takes no notice.

On his return to the town, Yermil becomes seethingly jealous of his master’s lifestyle. Perhaps inevitably, a day comes when Yermil is presented with an ‘horrifying opportunity’ to improve his life; he takes it, but ‘little does he realise that this dreadful secret action will set in motion a train of events which will end in catastrophe.’

Ertel’s prose is simple yet effective, and the emotional consequences build as the story progresses. I very much enjoyed the repeated descriptions, which somehow became more chilling as they went on: ‘The sky was white, the fields were white, sign-posts were stuck in the snow to mark the road, the sledge runners creaked in the frost.’ This use of repetition shows that although the lives of some of the protagonists change irrevocably, little perceptively does in the grander scheme of things.

A Greedy Peasant is a perceptive story, which is sure to appeal to anyone already interested in Russia, or who is wanting to try something a little different to their usual reading fare. There are a lot of important themes at play within A Greedy Peasant, and although some of these are relatively briefly explored, it sets a precedent for what one can expect from Russian literature of the nineteenth-century.

Ertel’s novella is easy to read, but provides a lot of food for thought. In the way of morality tales, The Greedy Peasant moves along well. A lot of cultural detail can be found throughout the book, and I am keen to try some of Ertel’s longer works – and soon – to see how they compare.

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Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.

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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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