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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck ****

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

81bkztrl1zlThe novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forceful tool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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‘A Midsummer’s Equation’ by Keigo Higashino

As I have said in previous posts, Higashino Keigo is one of my favourite contemporary Japanese authors and I will faithfully devour any book of his that falls into my hands. Most of his books combine mystery and crime plots with social issues, and I like how his prose is easy to read and yet really thought provoking. A Midsummer’s Equation is the sixth book in the Detective Galileo series, but only the third one translated into English (the other two being The Devotion of Suspect X and Salvation of Saint, both of which I’ve read and enjoyed).

23847971This novel is set in Hari Cove, a beautiful but rather neglected and now forgotten seaside resort area of Japan, where a conference regarding the town’s underwater mining operations is taking place. Our favourite physicist, Manabu Yukawa, otherwise known as Detective Galileo, has been invited to speak at this conference, which has apparently divided the town into two sides, as some people want to protect and preserve the natural beauty of their town, while the others support that going forward with the mining operation will open up new possibilities for this neglected by tourists town.

On the train to Hari Cove, Yukawa meets a little boy, Kyohei, who has been sent to spend the summer holidays at his uncle and aunt’s hotel, once bustling with tourists and visitors. However, during the very first night there, a body is discovered, that of a former policeman, who also happened to be a guest at Kyohei’s family’s hotel. As investigations around this death begin, many secrets and interreleated events start being uncovered, making this case much more complicated than it initially seems.

Like with Higashino’s other books that I’ve read, I really like how easy and fast to read his writing is, as it sucks the reader right inside the story and keeps them at the edge of their seat for what is still to come. In a way, this novel is very unlike the typical Japanese mystery/crime novels, in the sense that the culprit isn’t given from the outset, but instead we don’t get to know what truly happened until the very last pages.

Although I really enjoyed this intricate mystery and how many characters and events from their past became connected, I have to admit I got a little tired of the scientific talks (being a physicist, Yukawa loves giving those). I understand they were important to piecing together parts of the mystery, but since I can’t say I’m very interested in science itself, those passages were sort of a bore for me.

On the other hand, I really enjoyed how Higashino poses so many environmental questions and whether profit or preserving one’s natural treasures is truly the winner in the end.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book, though it wasn’t one of my favourites by this author. I am really looking forward to reading more of his books in the future (and even in Japanese, as they say his prose isn’t particularly difficult – I can’t even imagine the scientific vocabulary that will be included though!).

I read this book as part of Dolce Belezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 12.

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‘The Diving Pool: Three Novellas’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read.  Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future.  I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable.  This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’  This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
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The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.  They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008.  As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’.  Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence.  Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool.  I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well.  I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all.  I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’  She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower.  I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’  The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions.  The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’

‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant.  It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable.  At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband.  I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around.  In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all.  They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’  When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long.  The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’  The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.

‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into.  At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on.  In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’  The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on.  The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started.  There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it…  It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’  She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound.  It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb.  But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague.   The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin…  I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’

Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist.  Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is.  The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first.  The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock.  It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.

The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid.  In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here.  I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’  There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end.  Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.

There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution.  Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date.  There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted.  Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.

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‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena ****

One of the splendid Peirene Press’ new publications is Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk.  Part of the Home in Exile series, this ‘literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm’, by an author who has written over twenty books, has been translated from its original Latvian into English for the first time.  This novel, Ikstena’s most recent, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Prose, and has been highly lauded.  I was particularly interested in reading this title, as I travelled around the Baltics last summer, and fell in love with Latvia.

Founder of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, writes: ‘At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989.  Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother in giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to promote – love, and the desire for life.’

Soviet Milk ‘considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual.  The central character in the story – a nameless woman – tries to follow her calling as a doctor.  But then the state steps in.  She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter.’  This woman, who suffers with depression, is banished to a small village in the Latvian countryside, miles away from her home in the capital, Riga.  Soviet Milk is dark, and stark, in what it depicts, particularly with regard to the central character.  The narrator reflects, in sadness: ‘I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh. where she practised injections.  I remember her in bed with blue lips the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.’38190974

The narrator begins her account by telling us that she does not remember her birth in October 1969.  She goes on to say: ‘I do remember, or at least I can picture, the golden, tender calm of October, alternating with foreboding, of a long period of darkness.  It’s a kind of boundary month, at least in the climate of this latitude, where seasons change slowly and autumn only gradually gives way to winter.’  The narrator’s mother abandons her at birth, and returns five days later.  As her childhood progresses, she spends a great deal of time with her grandparents, the only constant in her life.  Of them, she reflects: ‘My grandmother and step-grandfather were the closest things I had to parents.  My mother stood somewhere outside the family.  Our lives revolved around her; we depended on her – but not for maternal nurturing.  Now and then, her struggles with her demons and angels would spill over into our daily routine, forcing us to acknowledge the fragile boundary between life and death.’  Many recollections of this interesting and complex fractured family dynamic follow.

As well as largely being raised by her kindly grandparents, and having less physical and emotional contact than she would have wished with her troubled mother, Soviet Milk describes the effects upon the narrator of what it was like to grow up in such a regime.  ‘Despite these absurdities,’ she says, ‘my mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen.  Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence.  We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.’

Ikstena’s imagery is powerful.  When the daughter’s father dies in his apartment, ’emaciated, gasping’, he is found in the following state: ‘Beneath him, on the stained day bed and all over the floor, newspapers displayed the faces of smiling workers and stern Politburo members.  He was lying upon words that promised five-year growth in a single year and extolled the superior morality of the people who were building Communism…  He was lying among words advocating the diversion of rivers, the conversion of churches into storehouses for mineral fertilizers, and the destruction of the literature, art and sculpture of our Latvian heritage.’

Margita Gailitis’ translation is fluid and understanding.  The structure of Soviet Milk works incredibly well.  It is told in short vignettes, which encompass remembrances of the narrator’s childhood, and musings upon her place in the world.  The perspective of her mother, the book’s central character, has also been used in alternating chapters.  Soviet Milk is a perceptive and introspective work.  Its character portraits are both multilayered and revealing.  One soon gets into the rhythm of the shifting perspectives, and the sharpness of what it demonstrates of the Soviet regime is sure to stay with each reader long after the final page has been read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘The Woman on the Stairs’ by Bernhard Schlink **

Like many readers, I very much enjoyed Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader when I read it quite some time ago.  For some reason, however, I had not picked up any of his other books in the intervening years.  The Woman on the Stairs, first published in German in 2014 and in English translation by Joyce Hackett and Bradley Schmidt in 2016, is described as ‘a tale of obsession, possession and a mystery painting’, and its description certainly intrigued me enough to buy it.

Just as mysteriously as a painting disappeared, it is found again, donated anonymously to a gallery in Sydney.  At this revelation, ‘the art world is stunned but so are the three men who loved the woman in the painting, the woman on the stairs.’  These men, one after another, manage to track her down to a dilapidated cottage on an isolated headland near Sydney.  ‘Here they must try to untangle the lies and betrayals of their shared past – but time is running out.’9781474600651

I did enjoy some of the descriptions in The Woman on the Stairs.  Schlink describes the painting like so: ‘A woman descends a staircase.  The right foot lands on the lower tread, the left grazes the upper, but is on the verge of its next step.  The woman is naked, her body pale; her hair is blonde, above and below; the crown of her head gleams with light.  Nude, pale and blonde – against a grey-green backdrop of blurred stairs and walls, the woman moves lightly, as if floating, towards the viewer.  And yet her long legs, ample hips, and full breasts give her a sensual weight.’

The Woman on the Stairs is told using very short chapters, the majority of which consist of just two or three pages.  The prose here did not grab me at all; I found it rather matter-of-fact, and consequently, some of the chapters felt rather dull.  The plot was flimsy and stretched in places, particularly given the space in the novel which was devoted to certain elements.  The narrator of the piece, a self-important lawyer, did not feel realistic.  Despite the first person perspective, there was a sense of detachment and impersonality throughout.  The pace also felt problematic; it plods along from one chapter to the next, and nothing about it was particularly interesting.  I did not connect in the slightest with either the characters or the slowly ensuing story.

There is often no distinction between past and present here, and consequently, the book becomes rather muddled.  I found that there is barely any depth within The Woman on the Stairs; it is rather a superficial novel.  Indeed, there is barely anything else within the plot which is not suggested or baldly stated in the blurb.  The love story element, which was horribly inevitable, is wildly overblown, and highly rushed.

Whilst I was impressed with The Reader, there seems to be very little, if any, of the power which suffuses its plot and pages in this particular tome.  In fact, if I were to read both The Woman on the Stairs and The Reader without knowing which was the earlier book, I would select the former; it feels unpolished, and almost as though it is a first draft.  I found the novel lacklustre, and whilst I did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did The Reader, I still expected that it would be well written, taut, and poignant.  Unfortunately, none of these are words which I would use describe the novel.  The prose is too plodding, and the dialogue offered very little, no matter which character was speaking.  There is no emotion here, and I have come away from the novel wondering why I bothered to read it in its entirety.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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