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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Apple and Knife’ by Intan Paramaditha ***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Memory Police’ by Yoko Ogawa

Characterised as a science-fiction novel reminiscent of Orwell’s classic Nineteen Eighty Four, but with a dreamlike Kafka-esque quality of the fantastic, Yoko Ogawa’s newest English-translated novel, The Memory Police, embodies the sheer horror of loss and the inevitability of preventing it. The novel was originally published in Japan in 1994 and has been beautifully translated into English by Stephen Snyder. 38058832._SY475_

The novel is set in a fictional and unnamed island (one can’t help but presume it uncannily brings Japan itself to mind), where different things such as hats, ribbons, birds, fruit and later on even certain body parts start disappearing from people’s memories. Having no recollection of those things whatsoever, the people are then required to destroy all remnants of the thing that has disappeared from their memories, something that the Memory Police of title is there to supervise.

However, some people are unable to forget and they try to preserve not only their memories of what has disappeared for everyone else, but also some mementos of the things themselves. The Memory Police, as a ruthless invigilator, stricly punishes whoever does not destroy every trace of the things that have disappeared, and they often take the people that cannot forget away, never to be seen again.

Our protagonist is a young writer whose parents have both passed away and she is left with an old family friend and her typing teacher, with whom she also maintains an intimate relationship. When her teacher is forced to go into hiding lest he be taken by the Memory Police, our protaginst does everything she can to protect him and keep him as close to her as possible. How can a person stay the same, though, when their memories and experiences associated with certain things are in danger of fading away from one day to another?

“People… seem capable of forgetting almost anything.”

-The Memory Police, location 96

As usual, Ogawa’s prose is stark and clear and creates an eerie atmosphere befitting of her novel’s theme. Although there is a very vivid plot throughout the novel, it does feel at times like the story does not move forward at all, but it instead focuses on the feelings and musings of the characters. The totalitarian-like regime that is described is terrifying, presenting a society on the verge of collapse and almost famished. Although the disappearances are never really explained, leaving this fantastic element aloft, they do seem to rather represent a disappearance of culture, of the self, of one’s identity.

Ogawa’s apocalyptic magical realism is exactly my cup of tea, and so I devoured this book is just a few days. I loved the tranquil and stark writing style, I loved the world and character building, (I disaggreed with some relationships between characters, but that’s a personal issue) but at some points, the story felt a little lacking. Like it had become absorbed in its own created universe a little too much, or like it was itself a fragment of a memory unable to be forgotten.

The taste the ending leaves is bittersweet, just like the theme it explores. Memories are fickle yet precious, they are proof that some things and experiences have truly existed, they are what makes us, us. Without our memories, can we still remain the same people, or are we bound to disappear and dissolve into nothingness like our very own memories?

The Memory Police is a wonderful and terrifying book that certainly provides its readers with plenty of food for thought. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of the fantastic and literary fiction alike, as I’m sure both groups will find something to relish in between its pages.

A copy of this book was very kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley.

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‘Swallowing Mercury’ by Wioletta Greg ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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