2

‘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.

2

One From the Archive: ‘Ghost Wall’ by Sarah Moss ****

I consistently enjoy Sarah Moss’ novels, and was so excited when I found out about the 2018 release of her novella, Ghost Wall.  The premise, which revolves around a seventeen-year-old girl named Silvie, who is spending her summer at an Iron Age reenactment with her strict father and put-upon mother, intrigued me, and I found myself absorbed in the story from the very beginning.51uqxbrcmll-_sx324_bo1204203200_1

It is difficult to pinpoint quite when this takes place, but a couple of clues given place it in the late 1980s or early 1990s.  Silvie finds herself in the camp, which lies in a remote area of Northumberland, due to her bus driver father’s passion for history.  They are living there for some time, along with Professor Jim Slade and three of his students, as ‘an exercise in experimental archaeology’.  Silvie’s father is an ‘abusive man, obsessed with recreating the discomfort, brutality and harshness of Iron Age life.  Behind and ahead of Silvie’s narrative is the story of a bog girl, a sacrifice, a woman killed by those closest to her’.  The stories of Silvie and this unnamed ‘bog girl’ become linked in rather a horrifying way toward the end of the novella.

I very much liked the opening of this story, which felt stylistically Moss-like from its first paragraph.  The prologue begins with a series of quite choppy but very descriptive sentences, which immediately give one a feel for the darkness of the book: ‘They bring her out.  Not blindfolded, but eyes widened to the last sky, the last light.  The last cold bites her fingers and her face, the stones bruise her bare feet.  There will be more stones, before the end.’  As with this example, Moss places small clues throughout for the reader to piece together.

Ghost Wall is highly sensual.  As with all of Moss’ novels and, indeed, her non-fiction, there is a constant awareness of the natural world, and the ways in which it shifts.  Such an atmosphere is built, in what feels like an effortless manner.  In the prologue, for instance, Moss writes of the bog girl: ‘She is whimpering, keening now.  The sound echoes across the marsh, sings through the bare branches of rowan and birch.’  This is continued when Silvie’s first person perspective begins in the first chapter: ‘Within a few days, our feet would wear a path through the trees to the stream, but that first night there was moss underfoot, squashy in the dim light, and patches of wild strawberries so ripe and red they were still visible in the dusk, as if glowing…  Bats flashed through the space between branches, mapping depth into the flat sky, their calls brushing the upper range of my hearing.’

Silvie has depth and range to her character, and she is particularly believable for her flaws and naivety.  When asked by one of the students whether she plans to go to University, her immediate response demonstrates the stifled, lonely life which she has lived thus far: ‘Stop questioning me, I thought, but I didn’t quite know how to ask anything of my own.  How do you leave home, how do you get away, how do you not go back?’  As the novella goes on, Silvie lets the reader know small details of her upbringing.  She talks, to herself at least, about her father’s psychological abuse in an eloquent manner, but the physical abuse is almost baldly stated.  Of her mother, for instance, she says: ‘There was a new bruise on her arm’, before entirely changing the thread of her narrative.

Ghost Wall has been impeccably researched and, to me, the story felt like rather an original one.  I have never read anything quite like it before.  The sense of foreboding is built wonderfully, and whilst quite different in some ways to Moss’ other books, it is sure to delight and chill her fans in equal measure.

Purchase from The Book Depository

4

Two Novellas in Translation

I have decided to group together two novels in translation which I have read of late. They are quite different, but I thoroughly enjoyed both. I would highly recommend them if you’re looking for something relatively quick to get through, but which will linger in the mind for a long while afterwards.

Gratitude by Delphine de Vigan (translated from the French by George Miller) ****

On the face of it, Gratitude seems short, and relatively straightforward. The centre of the novel is Michka Seld, a woman who is getting older, and beginning to need help. At first, we see her in her own apartment, but as she begins to lose her speech, and cannot cope as well independently, she is moved into a home. Here, as is often the case, she begins to deteriorate rapidly. We meet two characters who circle around her – Marie, who lived in the same apartment block as Michka when she was a child, and Jerôme, the speech therapist who works with her every week.

I have read all of Delphine de Vigan’s books currently available in English translation, and have been impressed by each of them. She is an author who always surprises me with her clarity, and her understanding of the human psyche. Her characters are realistic, as are their interactions; her novels feel almost like one is watching a scene unfold in a film, so clear are they. Michka has a credible and believable backstory, which unfolded perfectly, and added another level of heartbreak into Gratitude.

The translation by George Miller is faultless, and many of the sentences ooze with beauty and anguish. Michka relates: ‘… I had a dream and all the words were there… Everything was as simple as it used to be and it was so joyful, so nice, you know. It makes me so tired, always hunting, hunting, hunting. It’s exhausting. It’s draining.’ Throughout, de Vigan balances sensitivity and understanding, and the different perspectives which she has used work effectively. Despite the brevity of the book, de Vigan tackles a lot of important issues, many of which really made me stop to consider. Gratitude is really moving, and although it can easily be read in a single setting, its characters and ideas are sure to stay with you for weeks afterwards.

The Faces by Tove Ditlevsen (translated from the Danish by Tiina Nunnally)

I read Tove Ditlevsen’s earliest volumes of memoir, Childhood and Youth back in 2013, and am so pleased to see that they have recently been reissued – along with Dependency, the last in the trilogy – by Penguin. They have also, quite wonderfully, published Ditlevsen’s novella, The Faces, which has been translated from its original Danish by Tiina Nunnally.

The subject matter of Faces is troubling, dealing as it does with a mother of three who is spiralling into insanity. Lise, a children’s book author, becomes ‘increasingly haunted by disembodied faces and voices’ as the novella moves forward, and is moved into an institution; here, her symptoms become worse, and the narrative is often more difficult to read. Books of this kind, in general, fascinate me, particularly as I have studied literary depictions of ‘hysteria’ and madness at length. The blurring between the real and imagined is so clever, and the hallucinations which Lise suffers are startling. Ditlevsen writes with care about Lise’s belief that she is sane, and that everyone around her is afflicted with madness.

Faces is beguiling, with a wonderful writing style that immediately appealed to me. As befits content of this kind, Ditlevsen’s writing is strange and unsettling, almost ethereal. The translation has been handled wonderfully, and there is an excellent fluidity to the whole. We are really given a feel for Lise’s tumultuous thoughts, and her struggle to exist. Faces is a sharp novella, highly visceral in what it reveals, and exquisitely searching in its quest to reveal its unsettled protagonist.

0

One From the Archive: ‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

First published in 2016.

The Brothers is an early Peirene publication, and one I had not been able to find a copy of.  It really took my fancy, particularly since I will happily read anything set within the bounds of Scandinavia.  This particular novella takes the Finland of 1809 as its setting, and has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  The blurb hails it ‘a Shakespearean drama from icy Finland’, and it has been written by an author who is quite the celebrity in his native land. 9780956284068

The brothers of the book’s title are Henrik and Erik, who fought on opposing sides in the war between Sweden and Russia.  To borrow a portion of the blurb, ‘with peace declared, they both return to their snowed-in farm.  But who is the master?  Sexual tensions, old grudges, family secrets: all come to a head in this dark and gripping saga’.  Its attention-grabbing beginning immediately sets the scene, and demonstrates the chasm of difference between our protagonists: ‘I have barely caught the crunch of snow and I know who is coming.  Henrik treads heavily and unhurriedly, as is his wont, grinding his feet into the earth.  The brothers are so different.  Erik walks fast, with light steps; he is always in a hurry, here then gone’.  Later, of Henrik, Erik tells Anna: ‘… he said that we came into this world in the wrong order.  That he’s not comfortable here and doesn’t want to remain here, that he wants to see the world’.

Multiple narrators lead us through the whole.  We are treated to the distinctive voices of the farmhand, Anna, Henrik, Erik, and their mother, the Old Mistress.  This technique makes The Brothers feel like a multi-layered work from the very beginning.  Their voices are distinctive, and the farmhand especially – contrary perhaps to expectations – is sometimes rather profound: ‘A human being never sheds his past.  He drags it around like an old overcoat and you know him by this coat, by the way it looks and smells.  Henrik’s coat is heavy and gloomy, exuding the dark stench of blood’.

As one might expect, the landscape plays a big part in this novella, as does darkness, both literally and metaphorically.  Characters are often compared to things like trees and woodpiles.  Sahlberg captures things magnificently; he is perceptive of the smallest of details.  Of the Old Mistress, he writes: ‘Her eyes change again.  A moment ago, they were shaded.  Now they darken, open out in the middle, become tiny black abysses which suck in the gaze’.  His prose is thoughtful too, and he continually views things through the lens of others, thinking to great effect how a particular scene will make an individual feel.  For instance, the Old Mistress says, ‘But boys are fated to grow into men, and a mother has to follow this tragedy as a silent bystander.  And now it seems they will kill each other, and then this, too, can be added to my neverending list of losses’.  Sahlberg is that rare breed of writer who can get inside his characters’ heads, no matter how disparate they are, and regardless of their gender and age.  Each voice here feels authentic, peppered with concerns and thoughts which are utterly believable, and which are specifically tailored to the individual.

The politics of the period have been woven in to good effect, but Sahlberg makes it obvious that it is the characters which are his focus.  Their backstories are thorough and believable; they are never overdone.  The Brothers is an absorbing novella and, as with all of Peirene’s publications, a great addition and perfect fit to their growing list of important translated novellas.

3

‘A Greedy Peasant’ by Alexander Ertel ****

Russian author Alexander Ertel’s novella, A Greedy Peasant, has recently been published by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer Publishers. I have been a huge fan of Russian literature since my teens, and jump at the chance to try out any new-to-me Russian authors, of which Ertel was one. That his work was ‘greatly admired’ by Tolstoy is reason enough to pick one of his books up.

Originally written in 1886, the 1929 English translation, which appears in this version, was completed by Ertel’s daughter, Natalie Duddington. A Greedy Peasant is described by the publisher as ‘a moral fable distinguished by its lucid colour and realistic detail’, which immediately intrigued me.

A Greedy Peasant takes as its focus two brothers named Ivan and Yermil, who live in a rural region of Russia – a village rather grandly named Great Springs – and could not really be more different in their approaches to life. Ivan is largely content with his lot, putting in a great deal of effort on the family farm for not much reward. Yermil, however, has ‘dreams of improvement’; he is desperate to make his fortune, and ‘escape the drudgery of the peasant round’. The third brother, Onisim, is killed early on in the novella, a victim of conflict. His wife and young children become dependent on Ivan and Yermil. The family is ‘just made both ends meet, and that was all. They never had to buy bread and they had two ploughs… But there was nothing to spare.’

Yermil finds employment with a rich merchant in the local town. This merchant proves to be a ‘good master’ who ‘on holy days treated him to a glass of vodka’. His health improves alongside his wealth, but as his greed grows, everything begins to fall apart. Ertel writes: ‘At first he had grown fat on the good food he had at his master’s: his cheeks stood out, his neck was like a bear’s and the coat he had brought with him from home hardly met round the waist: when he tried to fasten it the buttonholes gave way. But now his thoughts made him grow thin; he looked sallow and his eyes were sunken. He could not master his greed.’

Ivan and his family spiral further into poverty whilst Yermil gives them barely a second thought. Stoic Ivan, though, tries to teach his brother lessons about what really matters, and to make him grateful for what he already has. When Yermil has to move back to the farm for a period, he seems ‘like a stranger in the house; it was as though he had returned from the town another man.’ Here, Ivan tells him, rather wisely: ‘You mustn’t look at other people, but live as good men do.’ Of course, Yermil takes no notice.

On his return to the town, Yermil becomes seethingly jealous of his master’s lifestyle. Perhaps inevitably, a day comes when Yermil is presented with an ‘horrifying opportunity’ to improve his life; he takes it, but ‘little does he realise that this dreadful secret action will set in motion a train of events which will end in catastrophe.’

Ertel’s prose is simple yet effective, and the emotional consequences build as the story progresses. I very much enjoyed the repeated descriptions, which somehow became more chilling as they went on: ‘The sky was white, the fields were white, sign-posts were stuck in the snow to mark the road, the sledge runners creaked in the frost.’ This use of repetition shows that although the lives of some of the protagonists change irrevocably, little perceptively does in the grander scheme of things.

A Greedy Peasant is a perceptive story, which is sure to appeal to anyone already interested in Russia, or who is wanting to try something a little different to their usual reading fare. There are a lot of important themes at play within A Greedy Peasant, and although some of these are relatively briefly explored, it sets a precedent for what one can expect from Russian literature of the nineteenth-century.

Ertel’s novella is easy to read, but provides a lot of food for thought. In the way of morality tales, The Greedy Peasant moves along well. A lot of cultural detail can be found throughout the book, and I am keen to try some of Ertel’s longer works – and soon – to see how they compare.

2

‘The Story of Stanley Brent’ by Elizabeth Berridge ****

Elizabeth Berridge has undoubtedly been my author discovery of the year, and it is wonderful to see that she is having something of a resurgence across the book blogging world.  I was most excited when I was offered the chance to read her first ever published work, a novella entitled The Story of Stanley Brent, which has been reissued by Zephyr Books, an imprint of Michael Walmer.  I read it directly after another of her novels, Sing Me Who You Are, which I very much enjoyed.

54568079First published in 1945, The Story of Stanley Brent sounds, on the face of it, rather enchanting.  Its blurb begins: ‘Ada Boucher and Stanley Brent are young things at the time of boaters, parasols, champagne and trippers on the Thames.’  The novella captures a surprising amount, as it charts both their relationship and subsequent marriage, as well as their careers, and runs to the end of Stanley’s life.  In compressing the story of an entire life into a very small space, without rushing or omitting huge chunks, Berridge achieves something wonderful; as Walmer himself comments on the book’s blurb, she ‘navigates a path which speaks volumes.’

At the outset of the story, Ada is working as an apprentice, and Stanley as a land-broker’s assistant.  Although their relationship at first seems relatively happy, Berridge gives hints that something is not quite right.    Ada and Stanley’s courtship, and then their marriage, is ‘flushed through with naïve romance – he is bowled over by her raven-haired beauty, she by his humour and goodness.’  On their honeymoon, Ada discovers that ‘their greatest challenges may be compromise and really getting to know each other.’

I was fully invested in The Story of Stanley Brent from the start.  I found its opening sentence – ‘Stanley Brent formally proposed to Ada in nineteen-hundred and seven, on the landing of her aunt’s house at Paddington’ –  both informative and quite charming, and the same can certainly be said for the rest of Berridge’s wonderfully astute prose.

One of the elements which Berridge excels at is in capturing the relationships between people in all of their glory, as well as in the face of mounting despair.  There is such attention to detail which can be found throughout the novella.  During a storm, for instance, in which Ada and her friends form a party of six, Berridge comments, in rather lovely sing-song alliteration: ‘The men joined them on the bank, bearing the wet wicker picnic hampers on slippery straps.’

Berridge reveals her protagonists bit by bit.  Just before Stanley proposes, for instance, we are given a glimpse into the couple’s physical bearing: ‘Stanley seized her shoulders.  She was the same height but pliable, well-boned.’  Berridge taps wonderfully into the emotions and devotions of Stanley and Ada, and is shrewd and unflinching as she does so.

The Story of Stanley Brent is not entirely serious.  There are moments of humour peppered throughout.  In the same aforementioned storm scene, Ada considers whether she and her friends could run through the rain to her aunt’s nearby house; she thinks: ‘And surely Stan wouldn’t think Aunt Mildred’s skin disease ran in the family?…  Worry, she had said.  Worry and thin blood had been the cause.’  Later, Ada concludes: ‘She didn’t want her family to sound queer.  Even though Aunt Mildred was a distant sort of relation.’

As well as humorous, Berridge can also be rather a sharp narrator at times.  She does not shy away from anything, and the subjects which she focuses upon seem rather modern, given that this novella was published in the mid-1940s.  In her frank prose, she writes: ‘But when they returned from the honeymoon Ada was still a virgin.  There had been a frightening, confused scene in the gilt and crimson hotel bedroom overlooking the sea, which had finished with Ada weeping fitfully, alone in the big double bed – aware for the first time that terrible, upsetting things lay perilously near the surface of life.’  She also focuses upon Stanley’s interpretation of this experience, commenting: ‘This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself.  He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging.  He had never felt so helpless.’

As with Berridge’s other work, atmosphere is so important within The Story of Stanley Brent.  Ada’s home life, for instance, held an ‘uneasy atmosphere that lay, persistent and indefinable, within the tall narrow house.  [Stanley] would often think about it as he walked up the long road that seemed to bear such extremes of weather in its length.’

The Story of Stanley Brent is certainly a slim story, running to just 75 pages in this edition.  However, it has a great deal to say, both about the individual and the family unit.  Berridge makes comments upon society throughout, and the whole is well grounded within its historical context.  For such a short piece, Berridge provides a wonderful commentary on how a relationship can develop over time.  There is a lot of depth here, and the character development is both believable and insightful.  The nuanced prose has been split into short sections, a structure which works well given the length of the piece.  Even in this, her first story, Berridge is a confident writer, and her writing style really suits this shorter form.

2

Two Novellas by Yūko Tsushima

I recently read two novellas from a new-to-me author, both of which I picked up on a whim from my local library.  Both books, Territory of Light and Child of Fortune, were written originally in Japanese by Yūko Tsushima, and translated into English by Geraldine Harcourt.  Both translations are exquisitely rendered; the prose has a wonderful flow to it in both cases.

 

Territory of Light ****

9780241312629Territory of Light, which was first published in a serialised form in a magazine between 1978 and 1979, has been variously described as ‘spiky, atmospheric and intimate’ (Spectator), and ‘disturbing and dream-like’ (Financial Times).  The novella, which begins in springtime, takes as its focus a young woman, who has been abandoned by her husband, and who has to start a new life in a Tokyo apartment with her young daughter.  Territory of Light charts the protagonist’s life over the course of a calendar year, as she struggles to bring up her two-year-old alone.

From the first, I very much admired what Tsushima had set out to express.  The new apartment of her unnamed narrator is ‘filled with light, streaming through the windows, so bright you have to squint’, but regardless, she ‘finds herself plummeting deeper into darkness; becoming unstable, untethered.’  This instability of self threads through the novella, and we learn quite quickly just how much the narrator has to deal with.

She is scared by her newfound independence, but is also set on carving a life away from her husband.  She comments: ‘I didn’t want him ever to set foot in my new life.  I was afraid of any renewed contact, so afraid it left me surprised at myself.  The frightening thing was how accustomed I had become to his being there.’  The narrator is also scared of the effects single parenthood has on her as time goes on.  She says: ‘I wish I could forget I even had a child.  I’d been coping on my own now for less than six months, though maybe that was just long enough to have grown used to the new life, which could be why the insidious tiredness was starting to knock the wind out of me.’  She turns to sleep to try and cope alone, leaving her small daughter to fend for herself.

At just 122 pages, so much human feeling fills the pages of Territory of Light.  Its protagonist is at a point of crisis in her life, and her situation and responses are wholly believable.  The structure of the novella, which is essentially made up of twelve loosely connected stories, works wonderfully.  Whilst there is not a great deal of plot to drive the book along, in consequence it perhaps becomes more realistic.  The narrator is concerned with the minutiae of her everyday, as well as the bigger picture.  She muddles through the most ordinary things, all of which are beset with problems, and speaks openly to the reader about her many anxieties.  I so enjoyed the writing style and narrative voice of Territory of Light, and it feels like a great place to start reading Tsushima’s work from.

 

Child of Fortune ****

Child of Fortune was first published in Japan in 1978, and appeared in a revised version of Geraldine 9780241335031Harcourt’s English translation in 2018.  As with Territory of Light, this novella focuses upon a female protagonist named Kōko, a young woman who has been ‘defying her family’s wishes’ for some time.  She has, against what was viewed as acceptable in Tokyo society at the time, brought up her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako, alone in her apartment.  After embarking on a ‘casual affair’, she finds herself pregnant once more, and is forced to juggle her present and future selves.

The book’s blurb says that Child of Fortune combines ‘the beauty and unease of a dream’, and presents ‘an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s innermost fears and desires’.  Angela Carter described it as ‘a terrific novel’, and the Japan Times declares that it is ‘as relevant today as when it was published… at once powerfully uplifting and achingly sad.’

At the outset of the story, Kayako has moved in with Kōko’s sister and her family.  The young girl ‘now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights.  She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning.’  This concerns Kōko to an extent, and she clearly misses seeing her daughter every day, but her attention is soon filled with the idea of a new child in her life, one who will be fully dependent upon her.  On Kōko’s behalf, the narrator reflects: ‘Maybe, she was reaching an age when it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died.  Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point in worrying about what people thought.  She would soon be thirty-seven.  The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko.’

Kōko’s present is interspersed throughout with her childhood memories, and her vivid, strange dreams.  I must admit that in comparison to Tsushima’s first person narrated novella Territory of Light, I did not find the third person perspective overly effective.  The story too, whilst readable, was nowhere near as absorbing.  However, I still had so much interest in its protagonist, and felt invested in her and her story.  Child of Fortune is more detached, but upon reflection, this makes the two novellas – which I read within days of each other – feel different, despite similarities in protagonist and plot.

Although well written and translated, the conversational patterns in Child of Fortune did not always flow naturally.  The novella, however, deals with some interesting and important themes around womanhood, motherhood, and societal perceptions, and held my interest from start to finish.  I will be seeking out Tsushima’s back catalogue of work as soon as I possibly can.

0

Three Favourites: Norah Lange, Sally Rooney, and Lauren Groff

people-at-the-roomPeople in the Room by Norah Lange
I purchased Argentinian author Norah Lange’s novella, People in the Room, after randomly coming across it during a weekly browse of the Kindle store.  Much to my dismay, I have read very little Argentinian fiction, and would like to remedy this.  Lange’s novel – which is, as far as I am aware, the only piece of her work currently available in English translation – sounded fascinating.

The introduction, written by Cesar Aira, is both insightful and interesting, despite the fact that it gave quite a lot of the story away.  I loved Lange’s writing style and its translation into English felt fluid.  I loved the way in which almost all of the characters remained unnamed, and the element of obsession was so well handled.

I found People in the Room to be unsettling and beguiling in equal measure. I’ve never read anything quite like it, and could feel the claustrophobia closing in as it went on.  The tension in the novel is almost palpable.  I’m not sure that I have ever read anything quite like People in the Room before, and it is certainly a book which will stay with me for a very long time.

 

Normal People by Sally Rooney 9780571334650
I was a little sceptical about picking up Sally Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, due to the sheer amount of hype which it has been getting since its publication. I have been disappointed before by novels which many others have raved about, and am therefore a little wary whenever I see the same cover splashed over blogs and BookTube. However, I need not have worried.  Normal People is wonderfully perceptive, and I got a feel for its two main characters, Connell and Marianne, immediately. There is a lot of dark content here, which becomes more prominent as the novel progresses, and I cared immensely for the protagonists.

The structure which Rooney has adopted here was effective, and kept me interested throughout. I admired the fact that she focuses in such detail upon relationships, and the ways in which they can shift. There are some very topical issues which have been tackled well here. Whilst I was a little disappointed by the ending, which I felt was a little too twee to match the tone of the rest of the book, Rooney’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and her characters so real, that I could not give this anything other than a five star rating.

Normal People is incredibly immersive; beware, and only pick it up if you have a whole afternoon free to spend in its company. I read this in two sittings, as I could barely put it down, and am now incredibly excited to get to her debut, Conversations with Friends.

 

91gogy5bsxlFlorida by Lauren Groff
Lauren Groff has been one of my favourite authors for years now.  I have always been astounded by how much atmosphere she creates, and yet how succinct her writing still is.  The stories in her newest collection, Florida, have the US state at their centre, ‘its landscape, climate, history and state of mind’ are what each character and each plot revolve around.  I love collections with a centralised heart like this, and loved being able to revisit Florida without having to take another eight-hour flight.

Showcasing eleven stories in all, and coming in at less than 300 pages, Florida is a truly masterful collection.  Groff demonstrates her insight and understanding of the diverse state in which she lives, and the sense of place which she creates is always highly evocative.  In ‘Ghosts and Empties’, for example, she writes: ‘The neighborhood goes dark as I walk, and a second neighborhood unrolls atop the daytime one.  We have few streetlights, and those I pass under make my shadow frolic; it lags behind me, gallops to my feet, gambols on ahead…  Feral cats dart underfoot, birds-of-paradise flowers poke out of the shadows, smells are exhaled into the air: oak dust, slime mold, camphor.’  In this story, we are walked through what was once a poor neighbourhood, but which is beginning to gentrify.

Groff showed me a Florida which I was largely unaware of in these stories, and which I haven’t seen with my own eyes.  Tales are set in Florida during the cool wintertime, as well as in areas which I haven’t visited – the Everglades, for instance.  The darker side of life nestles up against the bright vibrancy which tourists see.  Never is Groff’s version of the Sunshine State sugarcoated; she shows poverty, homelessness, abandonment, neglect, and death.  Throughout, she challenges perceptions, and she does this so well.

One never knows what will happen in one of Groff’s stories, and this collection shows just how strong a writer she is.  Each tale is perfectly formed, and together they provide a kaleidoscopic view of a state at once beautiful and wild.  As anyone familiar with her work will know, she uses magical realism to perfection.  Florida is a wonderful short story collection, and one which I cannot recommend enough.

2

‘In Love’ by Alfred Hayes ****

I hadn’t heard of Alfred Hayes before I picked up his 1953 novella, In Love, in the library. I was drawn in by an Elizabeth Bowen quote, in which she calls the story ‘a little masterpiece’, and decided to borrow it.  My interest was piqued further by the Sunday Times, which calls In Love a ‘tour de force’, and the Guardian, who term the book ‘a noirish masterpiece’.

9781590176665In Love, which is seen as Hayes’ greatest work, takes place on ‘one lost afternoon’ in a bar in New York City.  Here, a nameless middle-aged man tells a story involving his relationship with a lonely young woman, also nameless.  Their relationship took quite a turn when a wealthy businessman ‘offered to pay to spend the night with her’, and he discusses how, ultimately, the love which they once had for one another ‘turned to hate’.

I was drawn in by the novella’s opening sentence, which reads as follows: ‘Here I am, the man in the hotel bar said to the pretty girl, almost forty, with a small reputation, some money in the bank, a convenient address, a telephone number easily available, this look on my face you think peculiar to me, my hand here on this table real enough, all of me real enough if one doesn’t look too closely.’ What follows is a monologue, in which this protagonist recounts the rest of his story.

I found Hayes’ use of vocabulary rather striking.  He creates such vivid imagery in every scene, writing sentences like ‘… from the curtain rods, her stockings were suspended as limply as hanged men’.  When he describes the woman whom he fell for, he says ‘… but when I think of her, she seems to exist for me in a debris of hats, jewelry, elaborate shoes, an inscribed book, telephone messages, fruit quietly rotting in a bowl, tasseled pillows, love letters tied with a ribbon and hidden away and taken out and read again and sometimes discarded, candy boxes, and of course portraits…’.  Throughout, I really admired Hayes’ sentence structure; they are often long, and constructed with a great deal of complexity, but are still easy to read and interpret.

Hayes really examines the character of this woman.  She is having a crisis of self at their first meeting.  The protagonist voices: ‘Why, being young, and why, being reasonably faithful and reasonably food and reasonably passionate, was it so hard to gauge out of the reluctant mountain her own small private ingot of happiness?’  He is revealing of both this woman, and his protagonist; we learn about both characters through the lenses of one another.  He captures the relationship between the two with honesty: ‘She, too, knew the words that came easily or fumblingly were never the true words; yet, but all the orthodoxy of kisses and desire, we were apparently in love; by all the signs, the jealousy, the possessiveness, the quick flush of passion, the need for each other, we were apparently in love.’

When the businessman’s quite bizarre offer is made, our protagonist is baffled.  He recollects: ‘We both understood that the money, however tempting, was unthinkable, and that what she was being light and gay about, here, in the restaurant, was simply the fact that what had happened was an unusual experience, to be somewhat amazed at, obscurely flattered by, and a little amused with.’  The woman, however, takes a day or so to think about it, and does not feel as though she can refuse such a large sum of money.  This is the point at which their relationship begins to disintegrate.

In In Love, Hayes presents a simple plot device which has been so well executed, and which sustained my interest throughout.  The author has placed more focus, not upon their relationship, but upon its ending, and considers its effects.  We learn about the characters together, but the retrospective positioning is flooded with lament.  There is a bleak quality to Hayes’ prose, but it is so compelling.  The dark humour which creeps in at points works well with both the tone of the prose, and the events of the plot.  In Love is not the most cheerful book you could read this year, but I am still thinking about it weeks after reading it, and feel that this is a ringing endorsement of a successful story.

4

‘Everyman’ by Philip Roth ****

Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth seems to be a little hit and miss for many readers; I have heard comments which call his work pretentious, and others which state that his characters are unrealistic.  I had read a couple of his other books before picking up a copy of his novella, Everyman, from the library, and very much enjoy his prose style, hence my reasoning for writing a full review.  First published in 2006, Everyman won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

9780099501466The novella is described as ‘a candidly intimate yet universal story of loss, regret, and stoicism.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that it ‘shimmers with the mysteries and regrets of a whole life…  poignant, droll and eloquent.’  The Observer grandly declares that it is ‘capable of altering the way you see the world.’

Roth’s Everyman is never named.  We follow his life backwards from his funeral, at the outset of the story, and meander through various childhood memories, his marriages, and his troubled relationships with his children.  The novella aims to explore ‘the common experience that terrifies us all.’

I find it such an interesting plot device when an author chooses to begin a work at the end of the central character’s life, and in this case, it really captured my attention.  The opening, in which various people who had connections to Everyman have gathered, is striking.  Roth writes: ‘Around the grave in the rundown cemetery were a few of his former advertising colleagues from New York, who recalled his energy and originality and told his daughter, Nancy, what a pleasure it had been to work with him.’  Everyman is then eulogised both by Nancy, and his brother, Howie, who says: ‘We can say of him what has doubtless been said by their loved ones about nearly everyone who is buried here: he should have lived longer.  He should have indeed.’  After the funeral, Roth comments: ‘That was the end.  No special point had been made.  Did they all say what they had to say?  No, they didn’t, and of course they did.  Up and down the state that day, there’d been five hundred funerals like his, routine, ordinary…  [and] no more or less interesting than any of the others.’

Roth, in a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of Everyman, builds a full portrait of his protagonist.  He considers how this particular individual deals with tragedy, and how he discovers his own mortality.  We learn about his interactions with those around him, his three marriages, and the professional relationships which he formed during his career.  Roth also places attention upon the medical issues which Everyman had, writing: ‘… he was still only in his sixties when his health began giving way and his body seems threatened all the time.  He’d married three times, had mistresses and children and an interesting job where he’d been a success, but now eluding death seemed to have become the central business of his life and bodily decay his entire story.’

A.S. Byatt calls Everyman ‘a story for our times’, and in a way, it is.  There are very particular scenes in here, which of course not a great deal of readers will be able to entirely relate to, but I felt that Roth’s presentation of his central character was fully thought out, and his actions of interest.  I found the novella really easy to get into, and enjoyed Roth’s prose and turns of phrase.  His writing is intelligent, and whilst one does need to concentrate on his style at first, it is well worth the effort.  Roth’s approach is introspective, and he explores, with a lot of depth, his Everyman, in this satisfying story.