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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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‘Faces in the Water’ by Janet Frame *****

Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water was a book club pick for January, and a book which I had not expected to love quite as much as I did.  Whilst I have wanted to read it for years, it is a tome which has so far evaded me in bookshops and the like; I had to resort to the Internet to find a copy of it.

From the outset, I was immediately captivated.  We are effectively living inside protagonist Istina Mavet’s head, as she negotiates the mental hospital in which she is incarcerated.  As this account is based upon Frame’s own experiences, there is an added edge of horror to the whole.  Frame’s writing is striking and beguiling, and every sentence is memorable: ‘I will write about the season of peril.  I was put in hospital because a great gap opened in the ice floe between myself and the other people whom I watched, with their world, drifting away through a violet-coloured sea where hammerhead sharks in tropical ease swam side by side with the seals and the polar bears’.  Istina’s voice is sharp, and her ideas verge upon the theatrical: ‘I was not yet civilized; I traded my safety for the glass beads of fantasy’, and ‘9781844084616I swallowed a stream of stars; it was easy…’.

Frame’s account is vividly appealing particularly when she discusses the outside world, which is barred to Istina and her peers, and the whole is so well paced – for instance, the passage in which Istina discusses the dangers left behind ‘all the doors which lead to and from the world’.  There is a dreamlike element ever-present within, and one can pick out nods to various fairytales and other childhood stories too: ‘… I dream and cannot wake, and I am cast over the cliff and hang there by two fingers that are danced and trampled on by the Giant unreality’.

Despite this, Istina is still poignant and to the point – as well as unarguably chilling – when discussing the doctors and nurses who walk the corridors of the hospital: ‘Every morning I woke in dread, waiting for the day nurse to go on her rounds and announce from the list of names in her hand whether or not I was for shock treatment, the new and fashionable means of quieting people and of making them realize that orders are to be obeyed and floors are to be polished without anyone protesting and faces are made to be fixed into smiles and weeping is a crime’.

As readers, we are immediately aware of the never-ending, and frankly terrifying, cycle of waiting for Electroshock Therapy every day.  Frame really pulls the innards of the institution out to be looked at by us, the outsiders, who do not have to live with the consequences of being deemed unsafe within the wide society.  She lays the life of the mental hospital bare; yes, there is an element of retrospect and historical contextualisation at play here, but it does not serve to make the scenes which Istina describes any less appalling.

The stream-of-consciousness style of narration, as well as the use of fragmented prose and fractured memories, allow the story to come through in all of its horror.  Istina is fascinatingly complex, and oh-so-real.  The novel itself is stunning and hard-hitting, and not one which can be read lightly, or without dedication from the reader.  Faces in the Water is undeniably intense, and reading it is, at points, decidedly exhausting, but when an author reminds you this much of the utterly wonderful Shirley Jackson, you know that you really should read her entire back catalogue as soon as you are able to get your hands on it.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.

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‘The PowerBook’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

‘The PowerBook is twenty-first century fiction that uses past, present and future as shifting dimensions of a multiple reality. The story is simple. An e-writer called Ali or Alix will write to order anything you like, provided that you are prepared to enter the story as yourself and take the risk of leaving it as someone else. You can be the hero of your own life. You can have freedom just for one night. But there is a price to pay.’

9780099598299My last outstanding Winterson, The PowerBook was as superbly written as I have come to expect.  Winterson says some absolutely wonderful things about the craft of writing throughout, and weaves together so many narrative strands to give the novel an almost bottomless depth.  Her prose is exquisite: ‘I was the place where you anchored.  I was the deep water where you could be weightless.  I was the surface where you saw your own reflection.  You scooped me up in your hands.’

As with several of Winterson’s other works of fiction, we do not always know a great deal about our narrator, or even who is speaking in parts.  This makes the whole even more captivating, however; the details which are not concretely defined become even more beguiling than they perhaps would be otherwise.  Here, there is mystery, myth, fairytale, and realism.  The PowerBook is rather an intense read, which has been masterfully structured.  It is wild, vivid, and enchanting, and I shall be recommending it to everyone.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The World According to Anna’ by Jostein Gaarder **

I have read several of Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder’s books in the past, many of them during my teenage years when I was just discovering the joy of the adult world of translated literature.  Thus far, nothing has matched up to the strength of The Orange Girl for me, a wonderful and underrated festive tale about how the young protagonist’s late father kept crossing paths with a woman he named ‘The Orange Girl’ in his native Oslo. The overtly philosophical Sophie’s World, the book which has been sold over thirty million copies, and which Gaarder is undoubtedly most well-known for, didn’t appeal to me anywhere near as much; whilst it raised some interesting questions, I felt that the plot let the whole down, and the characters which peopled the tome were not as realistic as they should have been for me to invest my feeling with them.  The same can sadly be said for the newest novel of Gaarder’s to be translated into English by Don Bartlett, The World According to Anna.

The novel’s storyline piqued my interest; our protagonist is Anna, a young woman on the eve of her sixteenth birthday.  She begins to have vivid dreams set in the future – in 2082, to be precise – which feature her granddaughter, Nova.  These are not just dreams to Anna; rather, messages are transmitted to her through the medium.  Her parents, who reside in a secluded part of Norway, decide to consult a doctor in Oslo, who refers Anna to a psychologist.  He, of course, believes that there ‘may be some truth to what she is seeing’.

9780297609735The World According to Anna begins on New Year’s Eve, but there is little that is festive about it, despite its promising opening sentence: ‘New Year’s Eve was a special time.  Normal rules did not apply, and everyone mixed freely.  On that evening they left one year behind and entered the next.  They stepped over an invisible boundary between what had been and what would be’.  In fact, the novel can be termed a dystopian work in some ways.  The future which Anna sees is barren and isolated.  She follows Nova through the landscape, along with ‘a band of survivors, after animals and plants have died out’.  Dystopia is not my personal favourite in terms of a literary genre, but if it is done well – for instance, in works by Margaret Atwood – it can be incredibly effective.  Not so here.  It soon becomes up to Anna alone to save the world, which is where the whole thing turned sour as far as I was concerned.

Anna is not a good character.  She is flat and underdeveloped, and the way in which she speaks often seems far above her fifteen years.  She seems to have an unshakeable wisdom, which one would expect of a literary character far older than she.  There is little here, in fact, to indicate that she is a teenager.  When her psychologist, Dr Benjamin, asks her what she is afraid of, she gives this answer, which is at once important, but also curiously impersonal: ‘”… I’m afraid of climate change.  I’m afraid that we’re risking our climate and environment without a second thought for future generations.”‘  Along with the conversations, much of the prose within The World According to Anna tends to read like a geography textbook at times, particularly with regard to the interactions between Anna and Dr Benjamin.  Whilst what they say is interesting, it is relayed so matter-of-factly that it feels as though they are merely reading from a book.  The relationship between them is incredibly strange too; perhaps the professionalism is lost in translation or something of the like, but it is unsettling almost to the point of becoming creepy.

The Norwegian winter is well set out, as are the changing conditions and altered migration patterns which Gaarder portrays.  This is perhaps the strength of the novel; we as readers do see the landscape altering irrevocably.  The third person perspective which has been used throughout is essentially a distancing device; Anna does not feel realistic enough to stand alone in this manner, and it perhaps would have been a more effective novel had Gaarder written from her perspective.  The use of the narrative dream too is unsuccessful, largely because it is a device which is repeated over and over, and thus loses much of its meaning.

The World According to Anna undoubtedly makes one think about issues which our planet and civilisation face.  However, the entirety is rather melodramatic.  The novel sounded promising and important, but it soon becomes trite; its potential has not been reached.  Gaarder has barely scratched the surface at times; it does not feel as though he ever goes deep enough to make his book believable.  There is no lightness of touch in the prose or the translation, and it feels rather banausic in consequence.  Whilst he has clearly attempted to tell this novel in a similar manner to Sophie’s World, The World According to Anna is neither as philosophical, nor as thoughtful.

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One From the Archive: ‘Dear Life’ by Alice Munro *****

Alice Munro has been heralded as a fabulous writer by many other authors.  Margaret Atwood says that she ‘is among the major writers of English fiction of our time’, and Jonathan Franzen believes that she ‘has a strong claim to being the best fiction writer now working in North America’.  This high praise is incredibly well deserved.  Munro has been awarded many literary prizes during her writing career, and was given the Man Booker International Prize in 2009 for her contribution to world fiction.  Thus far, her collections have been translated into thirteen languages.

9780804168915In this, her new collection, Munro has chosen, as in many of her collections, to focus her attention upon individuals living in Canada – in this case, in the countryside and towns around Lake Huron.  From the very first page, the tales draw you in.  They are filled with very shrewd perceptions on characters and how the situations they have experienced have made them who they are, or have altered them in some way.

Munro presents emotions, particularly sadness, so well.  In the first story in Dear Life, ‘To Reach Japan’, the protagonist Peter’s mother made the journey from Europe to British Columbia with him when he was tiny: ‘When Peter was a baby, his mother had carried him across some mountains whose name Greta kept forgetting, in order to get out of Soviet Czechoslovakia into Western Europe.  There were other people of course.  Peter’s father had intended to be with them but he had been sent to a sanatorium just before the date for the secret departure.  He was to follow them when he could, but he died instead.’

Munro weaves many themes into her work.  These comments and musings contemplate such topics as politics, feminism, loneliness, relationships, social hierarchy, separation, friendship, religion, adultery, the consequences of certain actions, morality, age, illness and loss.  She builds her characters so deftly, and makes them incredibly believable as a result.  One gets the impression that she understands them so well.  A young child, for example, insists upon her mother reading her the same Christopher Robin story over and over again: ‘Children Katy’s age had no problem with monotony.  In fact they embraced it, diving into it and wrapping the familiar words round their tongues as if they were a candy that could last forever.’

Each of the stories here has been perfectly crafted.  Never does it feel as though Munro is leaving out any details due to the constraint which the short story as a form can so easily bring with it.  She is certainly a master of her craft, and this is another wonderful collection to add to her oeuvre.  The writing throughout is beautiful and so polished, and not a word has been wasted.  In Dear Life, Munro presents many slices of imagined lives which could so easily be real.

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Five Go Adulting

Parody books seem to be in vogue at present; walk into any bookshop, and the chances are you will be confronted by a large table spread with such things as We’re All Going on a Bar Hunt in the first minute.  I normally don’t buy into bookish trends, preferring to choose my own, often marginally obscure, reads at my leisure.  When I spotted that the Famous Five had been updated for the twenty-first century, however, I couldn’t bring myself to let the books pass me by.

I was an enormous fan of Enid Blyton as a child, and all of my copies of the Famous Five series have been passed down by my mother, a once avid reader of the series herself.  We both laughed mirthfully at Five Go Gluten Free and Five on Brexit Island when they plopped through the letterbox just before Christmas.  The other two titles which I purchased on a great deal from The Book People were the slightly less amusing Five Go Parenting and Five Go On a Strategy Away Day.

I’m still reeling from the Brexit decision, and thought I would begin with that parody.  The 9781786483843storyline deals with the gang avoiding real life on the night of the referendum, and retiring to George’s territory of Kirrin Island for a brief holiday.  A fierce war soon ensues between George, a staunch remainer, and Julian, a traitor who voted to leave the EU.  George is so horrified that she makes the decision that Kirrin Island itself should leave Britain, and holds her own referendum to that effect.  Here, Vincent provides rather a light take on politics, which is both humorous and well-informed.  The characters are still similar to their childhood counterparts, something exacerbated with the use of the series’ original illustrations.  I felt myself very much disliking Julian in this volume due to his beliefs, whereas as a child I had been relatively indifferent to him.  Five on Brexit Island will not heal the pain of the referendum, but it is clever and well-crafted, and provides a bit of light relief.

9781786482228Five Go Gluten Free was next for me.  Rather than choosing to follow a gluten free diet for medical reasons, Anne – very much a fan of health fads – decides that the whole group should cut out the majority of the foodstuffs that they so love; no pies, chips, or beer going forward.  I found this volume the most funny of the four which I have read, particularly as I so associate the majority of Blyton’s child characters with a very British love of picnics and midnight feasts.  The Famous Five are always eating, so the challenge of macrobiotic and wholefoods proves highly problematic.  There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments here, and a plethora of amusing one-liners.  In this book particularly, the five translate very well to the modern world, and there is a marvellous feel of the utmost nostalgia to it.

My penultimate parody was Five Go Parenting, in which the group are given cousin Rupert 9781786482280Kirrin’s baby; he and his Eastern European wife have been put in prison after another one of their illegal schemes, and six-month-old Lily comes to live in the surprisingly incredibly spacious London flat which the five share.  This was an amusing look into the world of parenting by those who were utterly unsure as to what to do, or how much the addition of a tiny human could change their way of life.  Witty and well-executed, Vincent’s writing in this volume particularly echoes Blyton’s.  I would deem Five Go Parenting a splendid tongue-in-cheek gift for the new parent, or a funny slice of nostalgia for those whose children are a little older.

9781786482242Five Go on a Strategy Away Day was my least favourite of the series by far.  I awarded it a three-star rating, but didn’t find it that funny at all, and indeed, there were no laughing aloud moments for me.  In the book, the four human members of the group who, of course, work with one another, head into the countryside for a team bonding session.  It culminates in an orienteering exercise, in which they are effectively up against all of the members of the Secret Seven.  I did enjoy this merging of the groups, but found that here, the storyline was a touch lacking.

At just over 100 pages each, Bruno Vincent’s Blyton parodies are the perfect reads to give as gifts, or to settle down with yourself if you have an hour or two to spare.

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