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Two Novellas About War: ‘The Sojourn’ and ‘Kaddish for an Unborn Child’

The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak **
9781934137345I read Andrew Krivak’s The Sojourn for the Slovakian component of my Around the World in 80 Books challenge. It is a slim novel, set during the First World War, and following the story of a young man named Jozef, who decides to sign up and fight. I did find Krivak’s prose a little difficult to get into, as many of his sentences were unnecessarily long, and seemed to lose the initial thread on several occasions. The Sojourn is certainly a literary novel in terms of its prose, but at times it felt highly, and unnecessarily, overwritten. It was nowhere near as engaging as I was expecting it to be. There were many flaws with the protagonist too; at only two points in the entire novel did he have any compassion for his fellow man, seeming to view battle as a game, and calling those he murdered his ‘kills’. The Sojourn has clearly been well researched, but its characters are wholly one-dimensional, and there is very little of a character arc to speak of, despite the novel being a formative one. The Sojourn was definitely readable, but the entire human aspect, which I would have expected to be a major factor in the plot, seemed to be missing in action.

 

Kaddish for an Unborn Child by Imre Kertesz **** 9780099548935
Previous to picking up Imre Kertesz’ Kaddish for an Unborn Child for my Around the World in 80 Books challenge, I had read one of his novels, Liquidation, which I bought whilst in Budapest. As with Liquidation, this novella is a meditation on the Holocaust, and also features literary translator B. as its protagonist. In the highly autobiographical Kaddish for an Unborn Child, B. ‘addresses the child he couldn’t bear to bring into the world, [and] takes readers on a mesmerising, lyrical journey through his life, from his childhood to Auschwitz to his failed marriage.’

My high hopes for this novella were met; whilst it was rather difficult to read due to its terribly long and sometimes convoluted sentences, it proved to be one of the most powerful and haunting works on the Holocaust which I have yet read. The dense and complicated prose was sometimes exhausting to read, especially given its subject matter, but the stream-of-consciousness style fitted so well with the points which Kertesz brought to the fore. The core idea here is both beautiful and unsettling, and it is sure to linger in the mind for weeks after the final page has been read. The full concentration which you have to allow this novella is entirely worth the effort.

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Reading the World: ‘Water for Chocolate’ and ‘The Door’ (From the Archive)

9780552995870Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel ****

Mexican author Laura Esquivel’s bestselling debut novel was translated from the Spanish, and I found my copy for just £1 outside Books for Amnesty on a trip to Brighton.  I don’t usually read romance novels of any kind, but I remembered that I had written this book in my very first ‘to-read’ notebook when I first began it at the age of sixteen, and added it to my pile immediately.  I also feel that I need to read more South American fiction, as I have sadly not really got past my dislike of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, and feel that it has put me off from exploring the continent’s literature further.  Starting with something which was relatively mainstream in that case felt like a good way in which to ease myself in.

Like Water for Chocolate begins in rather an interesting way, with the unusual birth of one of the main protagonists, Tita.  This is triggered by her hatred of onions: ‘Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves and coriander, steamed milk, garlic and, of course, onion.’  Her story continues from this point onwards, and she grows along with the novel.  I very much enjoyed the inclusion of recipes throughout the novel, and the way in which it has been split into chapters which correspond to different months.  Like Water for Chocolate is incredibly engrossing, and Esquivel weaves her tale wonderfully.  The elements of magical realism were both quirky and bizarre, and worked marvellously with the plot which she fashioned.

The Door by Magda Szabo *** 9780099470281
I believe that this is the first novel translated from Hungarian which I have read.  On the whole, I found The Door intriguing and a little unsettling, but my comments about it are rather mixed.  In this novel, Szabo tells the story of a couple – the wife an author and the husband too unwell almost all the way through the book to work – and how Emerence, a cleaner in the small district in which they live, comes into their lives.

My favourite element of the story was the way in which Emerence had been constructed.  She was an incredibly enigmatic character, particularly at first.  In some ways, however, she seems to be the only three-dimensional inclusion in the entire book.  It feels as though far more thought has gone into her construction than into anything else.  The unnamed narrator felt rather flat, and I was constantly irritated by her self-pity.  I found her ‘I know best’ and ‘woe is me’ attitudes rather grating.  Her husband, also unnamed, was a mere shadow.

The Door is extremely narrative driven.  It often reads like a monologue of sorts, and whilst this technique was rather absorbing during the novel’s beginning, the plot did become rather saturated in consequence.  I found the animal cruelty throughout rather difficult to read.  The translation sadly feels rather disjointed, particularly during the longer sentences.  I feel that The Door would have been far more powerful and enjoyable had it been a novella.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Book of Summers’ by Emylia Hall ****

First published in April 2012.

The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall has already received high praise from reviewers and critics alike.  The prologue of the novel, told from the third person perspective, focuses upon the character of Marika, the long-estranged mother of protagonist Beth Lowe. In it, we find that she has created a scrapbook entitled ‘The Book of Summers’, which details the seven summers which she and Beth spent in her native Hungary. The book spans the period between 1991 and 1997 and is made up of a collection of photographs and memories. This enables the adult Beth to see herself as a young girl, in a series of ‘quick-flicking snatches’.

Chapter one then reverts to the first person perspective of Beth, now grown up and ‘settled’ in London where she works in an art gallery. Her absorbing voice carries us through the rest of the novel. The reader is engaged in her world from the beginning of the novel. The narrative is well thought out and believable, and its style is just right with regard to the storyline which Hall has crafted.

The novel opens with Beth’s father, who lives in a rural Devon village, paying a rare impromptu visit to London to see her. He brings a parcel with him, a Hungarian postmark adorning its front, which has been addressed to ‘Erzsébet Lowe’, a name which Beth associates solely with her youth. It is at this point that The Book of Summers comes into Beth’s life. She soon realises that the book has been sent to her by the artist Zoltán Károly, her mother’s lover and a strong link with her past in Hungary. He has written to let Beth know about Marika’s sudden death, a revelation which both scares and shocks her and forces her to remember.

A wealth of memories from Beth’s childhood summers have been woven throughout the text, running concurrently with the narrative voice. These recollections detail her relationship with her father and show the reader how the characters featured within the novel have changed over time, and the situations which have contributed to their personalities.

As the trips to Hungary throughout the summers unfold, it is clear that the family is divided. On their first trip to the country, Beth and her father are outsiders. There are cultural differences, the relationships Marika has with people from her past and, most insurmountable of all, the language barrier. At the end of this trip, Marika opts to stay in Hungary whilst Beth and her father travel back to Devon with broken hearts. After this, Beth goes to visit her mother without fail for a week every summer, and as each year passes her confidence grows. She soon makes a friend in Tamás, a neighbour of Zoltán and Marika’s.

As the novel progresses, something akin to a mystery is built up. We are pointed towards an event, a moment in time which is not revealed to us immediately but is pivotal to the entire story. The Book of Summers deals with the pain of remembrance, the dredging up of old memories, a sea of disappointments, and the heartache and terror of absence. It is, in part, a coming of age novel which focuses mainly on the adjustment to new experiences and what it means to be a teenager whose world is falling apart.

Beth is not always a likeable character due to some of the decisions she makes throughout the novel and the way in which she acts with others. This does make her a more three-dimensional character, but the reader feels much more sympathy towards those she hurts than to Beth herself, particularly with regard to her father, David.

Hall’s descriptions, particularly those of the characters she has created, work well. She knits small traits into their personalities, making them seem more three-dimensional as a result. Beth’s father is described as being ‘meticulous’, and her mother Marika as ‘tall and proud and relentlessly foreign’. Her portrayal of the Hungarian landscape too works effectively. There are some lovely passages throughout the novel. Aspects of social history have been included throughout and serve to build up the story. They add another dimension to it and make it more realistic. The Hungarian words with their translations which have been used throughout is a nice touch. The inclusion of letters from different characters works as a successful tool for bringing others into the story, allowing the reader to find out more about them.

Unfortunately, some aspects of the novel do not seem to ring true. As Beth reaches the ages of fifteen and sixteen, her speech seems to be at a more advanced level than it should be. She feels too grown up in places and the reader loses belief in her in consequence.

The Book of Summers is an intriguing novel, sad in places and filled with elation in others. It raises many questions throughout, and the reader consequently feels the urge to know what has happened to Beth and her family and how they came to be so broken in the first place. The Book of Summers is a great debut from a promising author.

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Recommendations Please!

I am off to Budapest and Bratislava in November, and would love some recommendations for themed reading which I can divide between the time before I go and whilst I’m there.  Any recommendations of novels or children’s books set in the aforementioned cities (or the wider landscapes of Hungary and Slovakia), or those written by Hungarian and Slovakian authors would be marvellous.  I will also happily read non-fiction or historical accounts set in both countries.  Thank you very much in advance!