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One From the Archive: ‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

First published in August 2017.

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

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Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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‘Winter Flowers’ by Angélique Villeneuve ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff ****

Lauren Groff is one of a handful of authors whom I will happily read anything by. I had not even glanced at the blurb of her 2021 novel, Matrix, before borrowing it from my library. It came as something of a surprise to me that this is a work of historical fiction, given that her previous books have been so rooted in the contemporary world. It is safe to say that my hopes for Matrix were very high indeed.

The protagonist of Matrix is seventeen-year-old Marie, a young woman living in the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, the Queen of France. Marie, who is loosely based on a twelfth-century poet named Marie de France, is a ‘bastardess sibling of the crown’. She has proved ‘too wild for courtly life’, and is swiftly despatched to an abbey in the north of England. On a cold morning in the winter of 1158, Marie is expelled from the life she has known, and sent away from her secret lover, Cecily. Cecily is ‘… this rough person who had up until this moment been everything to Marie, mistress and sister and servant and pleasure and single loving soul in all of Angleterre.’

Marie is forced to become the abbey’s prioress, despite not believing in any higher power. She finds the religion bestowed upon her ‘vaguely foolish… Her faith had twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its geography until it was its own angular, majestic thing.’ After she has lived there for around two decades, Groff writes that her faith has shifted entirely: ‘How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.’ One of the many strengths in this novel is the portrait which Groff draws of a woman forced against her will into a way of life, and the ways in which she copes with, and adapts to, it.

In the opening scene, Marie arrives at her new home: ‘She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is grey and full of shadows.’ The young woman is ‘tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly… Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.’ She has been sent to the desolate, neglected abbey during a raging epidemic of one disease or another, which has caused many of the nuns there to perish. The nuns are viewed with suspicion by those who live around the abbey; the townsfolk see them as ‘suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.’

Over the decades which she spends at the abbey, Marie is nothing short of radical. She looks after the women around her, and comes up with bold new ideas to turn the struggling abbey into a profitable place. This element of the novel in particular will appeal to any feminist; she is a strong woman surrounded by others who become stronger under her direction. She becomes, for the abbey, an agent of change. As Groff says, ‘Her mastery will be gradual but, by the time she becomes abbess many years later, complete.’ She makes renters settle their debts; she sets up a scriptorium where the more educated nuns produce beautiful manuscripts, which can then be sold; she persuades nobles to donate the land around the abbey to the nuns.

The narrative here has been wonderfully controlled. I liked the way in which Groff wove in explorations of feminism, particularly within the female-only space of the abbey. Marie, for instance, grapples with her sexuality throughout, as do others around her. Groff writes: ‘There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books, and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it were a sin, surely. Marie has searched; she has found only echoing silence.’

I do not believe that I’ve read another novel quite like Matrix. It is inventive in true Groff style, and I know that the story and its wonderfully drawn characters and scenes will stay with me for quite some time yet. The novel is wonderfully rich in detail, and I was pulled right into its story. The historical context which Groff provides is at once vague and detailed, and altogether, the story which has been told here is thoroughly beguiling. I really like the way in which Groff captures what was going on in the world whilst the nuns were cloistered away; for instance, when she writes: ‘Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London, her spies have written swift panicked letters; Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel.’ Groff has put such thought into how to make this world as realistic and believable as possible.

I love it when I have the chance to read a book by an author which proves a real departure from their previous publications. Matrix is definitely this for Groff. Whilst it is recognisably her work, there is definitely a different feel to it overall. The magical realism which her other novels and short stories are steeped in is barely visible here, only appearing in a couple of ‘visions’ which the nuns have. These small glimpses work wonderfully with the realism which the rest of the story is suffused in. The scenes which she has implanted magical realism into are few and far between, but also beautiful: ‘Lightning sparks at the tip of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat. Wondrous colors bloom in the sky above the forest. With a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Marie’s feet, there is a split in the sky that opens. In the split Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance.’

Time passes quickly in Matrix, and I enjoyed every second. It was not the novel which I was expecting, but I thoroughly admired the way in which Groff tackles so many topics here; it is a novel of religion, sexuality, bonds, friendship, and female power, amongst much else. She has created a stylish and playful work of historical fiction, which feels fresh and exciting. Matrix is undoubtedly a very clever book, and I am so excited to see what Groff comes up with next.

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Five Disappointing Books

Every so often, I pick up a book which I have been so excited about, and find it doesn’t appeal to me as much as I expected. It’s always a disappointment when this happens, and a lot of the time, I will read the first fifty pages, and if it isn’t for me, I just move on to the next tome on my enormous to-read list. However, occasionally I pick up something by an author I have previously enjoyed a great deal, and read it through to the end, despite not enjoying it. This is a habit which I’m struggling to break, sadly.

I thought I would gather together five such disappointing books by authors whose other novels I have loved. These were not quite my style for various reasons, but on the whole, I found myself getting bored rather early on. I should have put them down far earlier, but I will hopefully live and learn for the future.

1 and 2. The Good Listener and A Bonfire by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adored Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage, and also really enjoyed The Holiday Friend, novels which I read very close to one another. I thought I’d found an author whose thrillers I would love going forward, but these two proved real gems compared to the two duds which I followed them with.

The Good Listener, published in 1975, focuses on Toby Roberts. As he is about to leave Cambridge University, he forms a relationship with a girl named Maisie. She adores him; he appears largely indifferent to her. As time goes on, he runs away from her, and perpetuates cruelties with everyone he meets. He is horrid. I know that a lot of readers do not feel as though it’s pivotal to like a character, but Toby was something else. I could not bear to read about him, but I dutifully finished the novel, thinking it might get better. It did not.

Similarly, A Bonfire came nowhere close to meeting my expectations. It was Hansford Johnson’s final novel, published in 1981, the year of her death. The fact that this was a coming-of-age novel really appealed to me, but I was never pulled into the story. I did not find that the writing had the insight of An Impossible Marriage and The Holiday Friend, and for me, it also lacked much of the intrigue which I had come to expect from Hansford Johnson’s books. I remember very little about the plot or characters, I must admit, as this one just did not stick in my head at all.

3. Still Life by Sarah Winman

I was so impressed with each of Sarah Winman’s first three novels. When God Was a Rabbit, her 2011 debut, is a coming-of-age story set amongst a very interesting and flawed family. A Year of Marvellous Ways, published in 2015, is set in Cornwall, and focuses upon a wonderful elderly character named Marvellous Ways. 2017’s Tin Man is a beautiful meditation upon love and friendship, with two young boys at its centre.

I was, understandably, looking forward to reading her newest effort, Still Life, and was so excited when I received a galley of it. That it was set toward the end of the Second World War only piqued my interest further. However, as I started to read, I began to feel very disappointed. The writing felt rather lacklustre to me, and I did not feel as though I got to know any of the characters properly. To me, they felt rather like caricatures. I just could not engage my attention fully with Still Life; something was holding me back. I will pick up Winman’s books in future, and will hope that this is just a blip in an otherwise wonderful array of novels.

4. The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I liked Rebeca Mascull’s The Visitors when I read it quite a few years ago, but hadn’t picked up any of her other books. I received a galley of The Wild Air, and eventually picked it up months after its actual publication date – oops… Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I was excited to read something a little different – about a female Edwardian pilot in the United States.

Sadly, The Wild Air was a disappointment. It sounded promising, but from the beginning, I did not find it engagging. The story was incredibly slow-going, and did not pick up. I must admit that I didn’t see this one through to the end, as it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Regardless, what could have been an exciting story completely failed to pull me in, and its heroine – supposed to be plucky and daring – I found dull.

5. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

I have read a few of Kennedy’s books to date, and have reviewed rather a lot of those on the blog, if you care to search for them. I have struggled somewhat with the fact that everyone else seems to love them, but I don’t. I was still, however, really excited to pick up The Feast, which I reviewed in full in July, as it seems to be her most loved book. I thought, that of all of Kennedy’s work, I really might love this one.

The story appealed to me greatly. The novel opens with the collapse of a cliffside hotel in Cornwall, before moving backwards in time to the week before, and allowing us insights into all of the characters. I generally really enjoy novels like this, which hold a tragedy which we know about, but link a lot of mysteries in too. However, something about The Feast did not quite come together for me, and the ending felt rushed.

Have you read any of these books, and did you like them more than I did? Which has been the most disappointing book which you have picked up of late?

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Ten More Great Books

Today, I have gathered together ten books which I read quite some time ago, but which I rarely see written or spoken about. The books here are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction from different periods. I wanted to bring a little more attention to these quite excellent tomes, and really hope that you find something which takes your fancy.

1. Basil and Josephine by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘Basil and Josephine charts the coming of age of two privileged youths from quiet Midwestern towns, Basil Duke Lee and Josephine Perry – based on Fitzgerald himself and a combination of his first love Ginevra King and his wife Zelda. As one struggles to gain the acceptance of his peers and becomes consumed by ambition, the other finds herself obsessed by teenage crushes and has to confront the pitfalls of popularity.

Written for the Saturday Evening Post while the author was working on Tender Is the Night, these stories form a realistic and entertaining portrait of two young adults in the 1910s, fascinating both for the autobiographical insights they provide and the timeless satire that Fitzgerald’s fiction has become synonymous with.’

2. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi

‘Mad, bad and sad. From the depression suffered by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to the mental anguish and addictions of iconic beauties Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. From Freud and Jung and the radical breakthroughs of psychoanalysis to Lacan’s construction of a modern movement and the new women-centred therapies. This is the story of how we have understood mental disorders and extreme states of mind in women over the last two hundred years and how we conceive of them today, when more and more of our inner life and emotions have become a matter for medics and therapists.’

3. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

‘A woman battles bluebottles as she plots an ill-judged encounter with a stranger; a young husband commutes a treacherous route to his job in the city, fearful for the wife and small daughter he has left behind; a mother struggles to understand her nine-year-old son’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse. In Danielle McLaughlin’s stories, the world is both beautiful and alien. Men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country: watchfully, with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. Here are characters living lives in translation, ever at the mercy of distortions and misunderstandings, striving to make sense both of the spaces they inhabit and of the people they share them with.’

4. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison

I chose Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather to read during my final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. It is truly lovely; within its pages, Harrison takes four countryside walks around various parts of England, and in different seasons. Her writing is lovely, and she makes the most of discussing the ways in which rain affects particular landscapes, and how the animals which live within them have adapted – or not, as the case may be. Rain is geographically, geologically, historically, and biologically interesting, and provides several nods to works of literature throughout. Charming, thought-provoking, and lovely, particularly when one considers it in tandem with its glossary, which provides one hundred words for different kinds of rain around the United Kingdom.

5. The High Places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane

What a terrible thing at a time like this: to own a house, and the trees around it. Janet sat rigid in her seat. The plane lifted from the city and her house fell away, consumed by the other houses. Janet worried about her own particular garden and her emptied refrigerator and her lamps that had been timed to come on at six.

So begins “Mycenae,” a story in The High Places, Fiona McFarlane’s first story collection. Her stories skip across continents, eras, and genres to chart the borderlands of emotional life. In “Mycenae,” she describes a middle-aged couple’s disastrous vacation with old friends. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a scientist lives on a small island with only a colossal squid and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company. And in the title story, an Australian farmer turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a fatal drought. Each story explores what Flannery O’Connor called “mystery and manners.” The collection dissects the feelings–longing, contempt, love, fear–that animate our existence and hints at a reality beyond the smallness of our lives.

Salon‘s Laura Miller called McFarlane’s The Night Guest “a novel of uncanny emotional penetration . . . How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you?” The High Places is further evidence of McFarlane’s preternatural talent, a debut collection that reads like the selected works of a literary great.’

6. A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden

‘It is 1953 and Joanna, Kate and Poll, who are eighteen, twelve and six, are living in a riverside suburb of London with their mother Ellen and their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor. Then the past arrives to upset the present in the person of Aunt Hat, a gossipy old friend whose husband has been imprisoned for assulting her, and who seems to bring news from a different world of chaos and drama. The real danger, however, comes not from Aunt Hat’s indiscretions but from the girls themselves.’

7. Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton

‘Happily married for thirty years with three children that have long since grown up, Christopher Mainwaring finds himself at a total loss following the death of his beloved wife, Susan. Yet the joyful marriage he remembers may not have been all it seemed, for no one in the family knows of the troubling words his wife uttered to him from her death bed . . .

Alluding to a possible affair that took place many years ago with a close family friend, the grieving widower is haunted by visions of Susan’s infidelity and seeks to find out the truth. In his quest to unearth his wife’s potential duplicity, Christopher finds himself looking to his children’s complex lives for answers: Joy who is now married with children and concerns of her own, the professionally inept but kind-hearted Frank and his neurotic wife Rachel, and Derek, whose delusions of grandeur with his struggling business causes much distress for his long-suffering wife, Olivia.

Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton provides universal reflections and intimate insights into the dynamics of family life with a startling clarity that will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.’

8. Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

‘The 52 micro-memoirs in the genre-defying Heating & Cooling offer bright glimpses into a richly lived life. They build on one another to arrive at a portrait of Beth Ann Fennelly as a wife, mother, writer, and deeply original observer of life’s challenges and joys. Some pieces are wistful, some poignant, and many of them reveal the humor buried below the surface of everyday interactions. Heating & Cooling shapes a life from unexpectedly illuminating moments, and awakens us to these moments as they appear in the margins of our lives.’

I had not heard of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling before, but stumbled across it on my online library catalogue and borrowed it immediately. I love fragmented memoirs, and this is a particularly interesting one. Through each of these ‘micro-memoirs’, Fennelly reveals herself little by little. The entries are amusing, and sometimes quite touching; Fennelly’s approach is fresh and enjoyable. There is such depth and consideration to the writing, and I will definitely be looking out for Fennelly’s books in future.

9. Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

‘In Undying Michel Faber honours the memory of his wife, who died after a six-year battle with cancer. Bright, tragic, candid and true, these poems are an exceptional chronicle of what it means to find the love of your life. And what it is like to have to say goodbye.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

10. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

‘On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster*!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

The first book from a new leading light of UK comics, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an off-beat fable worthy of Roald Dahl. It is about life, death and the meaning of beards.

(*We mean a gigantic beard, basically.)’

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck (One From the Archive)

First published in 2019.

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.

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The 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 forcefultool, 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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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa (One From the Archive)

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

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The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin (One From the Archive)

First published in 2017

Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world.  An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley.  Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.

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The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic.  She is dying.  Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock.  ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’.  Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.

David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream.  His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to…  She wouldn’t know where he’d gone.  She also said the migration would have its consequences.  There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit.  The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body.  Something of each of them would be left in the other’.

The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story.  Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours.  That’s going to happen, isn’t it?  It’s strange how calm I am.  Because even though you haven’t told me, I know.  And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’.  She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago?  What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers?  These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.

Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel.  It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you.  One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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