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The Book Trail: From Hunger to Nives

I am beginning the first episode of The Book Trail in 2022 with a memoir which I greatly enjoyed listening to last year. As ever, I have chosen to use the ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ feature on Goodreads in order to generate this list. Please let me know if you’ve read any of these books, and which you would recommend!

1. Hungry by Grace Dent

‘From an early age, Grace Dent was hungry. As a little girl growing up in Currock, Carlisle, she yearned to be something bigger, to go somewhere better. Hungry traces Grace’s story from growing up eating beige food to becoming one of the much-loved voices on the British food scene. It’s also everyone’s story – from treats with your nan, to cheese and pineapple hedgehogs, to the exquisite joy of cheaply-made apple crumble with custard. It’s the high-point of a chip butty covered in vinegar and too much salt in the school canteen, on an otherwise grey day of double-Maths and cross country running. It’s the real story of how we have all lived, laughed, and eaten over the past 40 years.’

2. Holiday Heart by Margarita García Robayo

‘From internationally acclaimed Colombian author Margarita García Robayo, and following the success of Fish Soup (selected by the TLS as one of the Best Books of the Year, 2018), comes her latest novel Holiday Heart.

Lucía and Pablo are a couple, they are also school teachers who left Colombia to make a living in the US. While Pablo keeps fond memories of his motherland and a close relationship with his family, Lucía rejects all notions of patriotism, nostalgia and sense of belonging. After struggling to conceive for a long time, Lucía finally gets pregnant with twins. Zealously looking after them, she excludes her husband from this new family life. Hurt and frustrated, Pablo attempts to boost his ego through dispassionate affairs with underage students. While he works on his novel, Lucía writes a feminist column for a magazine picking apart marriage, motherhood and all things related to being a middle-class woman. After one of his affairs comes to light, Lucía takes the kids to Florida while Pablo remains in their empty home thinking about all the time they’ve shared: petty fights, selfish decisions, unkind words. While being apart, they both begin to wonder whether perhaps their love has come to an irreparable end.’

3. The Pear Field by Nana Ekvtimishvili

‘In post-soviet Georgia, on the outskirts of Tbilisi, on the corner of Kerch St., is an orphanage. Its teachers offer pupils lessons in violence, abuse and neglect. Lela is old enough to leave but has nowhere else to go. She stays and plans for the children’s escape, for the future she hopes to give to Irakli, a young boy in the home. When an American couple visits, offering the prospect of a new life, Lela decides she must do everything she can to give Irakli this chance.’

4. The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

‘Following the “propulsive and mesmerizing” (New York Times Book Review ) Things We Lost in the Fire comes a new collection of singularly unsettling stories, by an Argentine author who has earned comparisons to Shirley Jackson and Jorge Luis Borges.

Mariana Enriquez has been critically lauded for her unconventional and sociopolitical stories of the macabre: populated by unruly teenagers, crooked witches, homeless ghosts, and hungry women, they walk the uneasy line between urban realism and horror. The stories in her next collection are as terrifying as they are socially conscious, and press into being the unspoken — fetish, illness, the female body, the darkness of human history — with unsettling urgency. A woman is sexually obsessed with the human heart; a lost, rotting baby crawls out of a backyard and into a bedroom; a pair of teenage girls can’t let go of their idol; an entire neighborhood is cursed to death by a question of morality they fail to answer correctly.

Written against the backdrop of contemporary Argentina, and with resounding tenderness towards those in pain, in fear, and in limbo, this new collection from one of Argentina’s most exciting writers finds Enriquez at her most sophisticated, and most chilling.’

5. Eartheater by Dolores Reyes

‘Electrifying and provocative, visceral and profound, a powerful literary debut novel about a young woman whose compulsion to eat earth gives her visions of murdered and missing people—an imaginative synthesis of mystery and magical realism that explores the dark tragedies of ordinary lives.

Set in an unnamed slum in contemporary Argentina, Earth-eater is the story of a young woman who finds herself drawn to eating the earth—a compulsion that gives her visions of broken and lost lives. With her first taste of dirt, she learns the horrifying truth of her mother’s death. Disturbed by what she witnesses, the woman keeps her visions to herself. But when Earth-eater begins an unlikely relationship with a withdrawn police officer, word of her ability begins to spread, and soon desperate members of her community beg for her help, anxious to uncover the truth about their own loved ones.

Surreal and haunting, spare yet complex, Earth-eater is a dark, emotionally resonant tale told from a feminist perspective that brilliantly explores the stories of those left behind—the women enduring the pain of uncertainty, whose lives have been shaped by violence and loss.’

6. The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8 by Amy Fusselman

‘Amy Fusselman’s first two books, The Pharmacist’s Mate and 8, weave surprising beauty out of diverse strands of personal reflection. Half memoir and half philosophical improvisation, each focuses loosely on a relationship with a man in the author’s life: The Pharmacist’s Mate with her recently deceased father, and 8 with “my pedophile” (as Fusselman painfully refers to her childhood assailant). Along the way, Fusselman covers sea shanties and artificial insemination, World War II and AC/DC, alternative healers and monster-truck videos. Fusselman’s “wholly original epigrammatic style” (Vogue) “makes the world strange again, a place where dying and making life are equally mysterious and miraculous activities” (Time Out New York).’

7. The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman

‘Following on her wonderfully received first novel, Another Place You’ve Never Been, called “mesmerizing,” “powerful,” and “gorgeous,” by critics all over the country, Rebecca Kauffman returns with Mikey Callahan, a thirty-year-old who is suffering from the clouded vision of macular degeneration. He struggles to establish human connections—even his emotional life is a blur.

As the novel begins, he is reconnecting with “The Gunners,” his group of childhood friends, after one of their members has committed suicide. Sally had distanced herself from all of them before ending her life, and she died harboring secrets about the group and its individuals. Mikey especially needs to confront dark secrets about his own past and his father. How much of this darkness accounts for the emotional stupor Mikey is suffering from as he reaches his maturity? And can The Gunners, prompted by Sally’s death, find their way to a new day? The core of this adventure, made by Mikey, Alice, Lynn, Jimmy, and Sam, becomes a search for the core of truth, friendship, and forgiveness.

A quietly startling, beautiful book, The Gunners engages us with vividly unforgettable characters, and advances Rebecca Kauffman’s place as one of the most important young writers of her generation.’

8. Nives by Sacha Naspini

‘One of the most exciting new voices in Italian literature brings to life a hauntingly beautiful story of undying love, loss, and resilience, and a fierce, unforgettable new heroine

Nives can’t seem to be able to shed a tear for her husband’s death. She didn’t cry when she found the body, she didn’t cry at the funeral. Even the fog of her loneliness evaporates quickly when she decides to keep her favorite chicken Giacomina with her in the bedroom. She suddenly feels relieved, almost happy, but also guilty: how can the company of a chicken replace her dead husband?

Then one day, Giacomina becomes paralyzed in front of the tv. Unable to wake her up, Nives has no choice but to call the town’s veterinarian, Loriano Bottai, an old acquaintance of hers. What follows is a phone call that seems to last a lifetime. The conversation veers from the chicken to the past—to the life they once shared, the secrets they never had the courage to reveal, wounds that never healed.

Nives echoes the stories we tell ourselves at night, when we can’t sleep: stories of love lost, of abandonment, of silent and heart-breaking nostalgia. With delicate yet sharp prose and raw, astonishing honesty, Sacha Naspini bravely explores the core of our shared humanity.’

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‘Things We Lost in the Fire’ by Mariana Enriquez ****

Argentinian author Mariana Enriquez’ debut English language collection, Things We Lost in the Fire, had been on my radar for a while before I found a copy in my local library.  It sounded wonderfully creepy and unsettling; the Financial Times writes that it is ‘full of claustrophobic terror’, and Dave Eggers says that it ‘hits with the force of a freight train’.  The Irish Times goes further, proclaiming that this is the only book which has caused their reviewer to be ‘afraid to turn out the lights’.  I cautiously began it in broad daylight, but was surprisingly brave enough to read a couple of these stories just before bedtime.

9781846276361-ukThe twelve stories collected in Things We Lost in the Fire are of ‘ghosts, demons and wild women; of sharp-toothed children and stolen skulls’.  They are almost entirely set in the Argentinian capital, Buenos Aires, described in the book’s blurb as a series of ‘crime-ridden streets of [a] post-dictatorship’.  Here, ‘exhausted fathers conjure up child-killers, and young women, tired of suffering in silence, decide there’s nothing left to do but set themselves on fire.’

Each of the stories here is highly evocative; they feel like sharp scratches, or aching punches to the stomach in the power which they wield.  The historical context which fills each one is thoroughly and sensually explained and explored.  In ‘The Intoxicated Years’, for example, the section of the story which is set in 1989, begins: ‘All that summer the electricity went off for six hours at a time; government orders, because the country had no more energy, they said, though we didn’t really understand what that meant…  What would a widespread blackout be like?  Would we be left in the dark forever?  The possibility was incredible.  Stupid.  Ridiculous.  Useless adults, we thought, how useless.’  In 1992, the three young protagonists in this story make a new acquaintance.  The narrator explains: ‘Roxana never had food in the house; her empty cupboards were crisscrossed by bugs dying of hunger as they searched for nonexistent crumbs, and her fridge kept one Coca-Cola and some eggs cold.  The lack of food was good; we had promised each other to eat as little as possible.  We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls.’

In Things We Lost in the Fire, Enriquez explores the darker sides of life in Buenos Aires: drug abuse, hallucinations, homelessness, murder, illegal abortion, disability, suicide, and disappearance, to name but a few.  Each story is unsettling, but the collection is incredibly readable.  I found myself drawn to Enriquez’ descriptions.  She writes, amongst many others, the following striking phrases: ‘beside the pool where the water under the siesta sun looked silvered, as if made of wrapping paper’; a house, thought to be haunted, ‘buzzed; it buzzed like a hoarse mosquito’.

There are many chilling moments throughout.  In ‘Adela’s House’, the narrator relates: ‘I’ll never forget those afternoons.  When Adela talked, when she concentrated and her dark eyes burned, the house’s garden began to fill with shadows, and they ran, they waved to us mockingly.  When Adela sat with her back to the picture window, in the living room, I saw them dancing behind her.  I didn’t talk to her.  But Adela knew.’  In ‘An Invention of the Big-Eared Runt’, protagonist Pablo is working as a guide on a popular murder tour of Buenos Aires, when the ghost of a notorious child murderer appears to him.  Enriquez writes: ‘He studied the tour’s ten crimes in detail so he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never felt scared – they didn’t affect him at all.  That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror.  It was definitely him, no doubt about it.  He was unmistakable: the large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy.  The drab sweater on his short body, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims.’

Enriquez’ style feels very Gothic, both in terms of its style and the plots of some of the stories.  Her tales build wonderfully, and there is a real claustrophobia which descends in a lot of them.  ‘Spiderweb’, for instance, begins: ‘It’s hard to breathe in the humid north, up there so close to Brazil and Paraguay, the rushing river guarded by mosquito sentinels and a sky that can turn from limpid blue to stormy black in minutes.  You start to struggle right away when you arrive, as if a brutal arm were wound around your waist and squeezing.’

Megan McDowell’s translation from the original Spanish of the stories is faultless.  It does not feel as though anything of the original has been lost in translation; the stories have an urgency, an immediacy to them.   In her translator’s note at the end of the volume, McDowell writes that in these stories, ‘Argentina’s particular history combines with an aesthetic many have tied to the gothic horror tradition of the English-speaking world.’  She goes on to say: ‘But Enriquez’s literature conforms to no genre’.  She writes of the focus upon female characters, and the way in which, throughout this collection, ‘… we get a sense of the contingency and danger of occupying a female body, though these women are not victims.’

Things We Lost in the Fire is startling and entirely memorable.  The collection as a whole provides many creepy moments, a lot of which startled me as a reader, but I could not tear myself away from it.  The stories are at once desperate and disturbing.  I, like many other readers of English, I expect, eagerly await Enriquez’ next collection.