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‘Disquiet’ by Julia Leigh ****

My first taste of Australian author Julia Leigh’s work was with the novella Disquiet.  It sounded wonderfully Gothic, and has been lauded by the likes of Toni Morrison, who calls its author a ‘sorceress’, and goes on to proclaim: ‘Her deft prose casts a spell of serene control while the earth quakes underfoot.’  Leigh has been compared to the likes of both Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee; indeed, Coetzee himself praises the film-like quality which almost every scene that Leigh creates has.  Leigh was also included as one of the ‘twenty-one writers to watch in the twenty-first century’ on a list created by the Observer.  The blurb of Disquiet, which was first published in 2008, describes it as ‘a haunting, mesmerising tale of a family in extremis’ – just the kind of story I love. 9780571238972

The protagonist of Disquiet is a woman named Olivia.  At the outset of the novella, she arrives at her mother’s chateau in rural France, along with her two children, Andrew and Lucy.  She has told nobody that she is coming, and is escaping an abusive marriage in Australia, where she and her children live.  Also at the house, arriving just after Olivia, is her brother Marcus and his wife Sophie, who has just given birth to a stillborn baby girl, Alice.  Sophie particularly is ‘struggling to overcome her devastation’, and has brought Alice with her, swaddled with a blanket, to stay in the house until she can bear to let go: ‘Sophie, in a new dress and neatly made up, had brought along the bundle and was cuddling it in the nook of her arm.  She still wore her hospital ID bracelet as if at any minute something could go horribly wrong.’

From the outset, the family dynamics are odd, and offbeat.  Nobody seems quite comfortable with anyone else.  It is soon suggested that none of the family have met Andrew or Olivia before, but this element of the story is never fully explained, or even addressed.  Although their names are divulged at the beginning of the book, they are referred to as ‘the woman’, ‘the boy’, and ‘the girl’ throughout, whereas all of the other characters are only addressed by their given names.  Olivia’s husband is barely mentioned, but when he is, she calls him ‘the Murderer’, something which goes unexplained.

When we first meet Olivia, Leigh describes her thus: ‘The woman was dressed in a tweed pencil skirt, a grey silk blouse and her dark hair was pulled back into a loose chignon, the way her mother once used to wear it.  Her right arm was broken and she’d rested it in a silk-scarf sling which co-ordinated unobtrusively with her blouse.  By her feet, a suitcase.  The children – the boy was nine, the girl was six and carrying her favourite doll – were saddled with backpacks and they each guarded a small suitcase of their own.’  Leigh’s descriptions continue in this manner, at once revealing and prudent, sparse and multilayered.  When Olivia and the children reach the house, Leigh writes: ‘The stone stairs leading to the chateau were wide and shallow and worn like soap.  The woman took hold of the doorknocker – it was a large bronze ring running through the nose of a great bronze bull – and weighed it in her hand.  Knocked.’

In Disquiet, the French countryside is not glorified in any way; there is almost a sense of grittiness, of darkness to it.  It is described as both ’empty’ and ‘ugly’, which I found an odd contrast to the descriptions given of the grounds of Olivia’s mother’s house, which are lush and green.  There is a real sense of place revealed as the novella goes on; the house is old, cold, and imposing, rather like ‘Grandmother’ who inhabits it.  I particularly enjoyed Leigh’s portrayal of the house’s interior, and the way in which it often leads to exposing her characters.  When Olivia arrives and is shown upstairs, for example, Leigh writes: ‘Her room – was never her room.  It was another guest room, similarly furnished.  She drew the curtains and loosened her hair, freed her arm from its sling.  She undressed, dropping all her clothes in a pile on the floor.  Crawled onto the bed.  Lay belly down, face on the pillow.  There was a loop in time; she was already dead.  And then she must have sensed the children standing in the doorway for – with great effort, turning her head and opening one eye – she saw reflected in the mirror that, yes, the children had been spying, how long she could not be sure, but they had no doubt seen their mother lying on the bed, the white plain of her back covered in rotten yellowed bruises.’

A lot within Disquiet remains unsaid, and there are very few neat conclusions.  For me, this made for a far more interesting read than something which has been neatly tied up.  I liked the sense of ambiguity which Leigh has included.  The structure too, which tells the story in a series of short, interconnecting snatches of prose, worked well.  There is a lot of sadness present in this novella, as is perhaps understandable given that the only action in the story revolves around baby Alice’s funeral, but there are some glimpses of tender moments too.

There is an unsettling feeling which builds as the novel progresses, and I found this effective.  I love the power which shorter works can have, and Disquiet is certainly a novella which demonstrates both strength and control.  Depth and dark humour can be found throughout, and for me, the reading experience was certainly a disquieting one.

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‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata **

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) is a novella which so many people have been talking about of late.  Translated from its original Japanese by Ginny Tabley Takamori, and published in English in 2018, it has fast become an international bestseller, and is receiving praise from every direction. I felt, therefore, that it would be a great choice for my online book club, and we discussed it during February.

The blurb of Convenience Store Woman claims that Murata ‘brilliantly captures the atmosphere of the familiar convenience store that is so much part of life in Japan…  she provides a sharp look at Japanese society and the pressure to conform, as well as penetrating insights into the female mind.’  The novella, and Murata’s prose style, have variously been compared to the work of Banana Yoshimoto and Han Kang, and the film Amelie, all of which I very much enjoy.

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Convenience Store Woman uses the first person perspective of Keiko Furukama, a woman in her mid-thirties, who has spent her entire adult life working in a convenience store outside Hiromachi Station in Tokyo.  Her parents were thrilled when she originally took the job whilst pursuing her studies, as they viewed her as odd, a misfit.  After several troubling incidents in her childhood, Keiko recognised how her natural behaviour was affecting her parents: ‘[They] were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.  I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home.  I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.’  Therefore, to feel as though their daughter was fitting in within a regimented environment was comforting to them.  Little do they know that Keiko has actually based her entire manner whilst working upon the store manual, ‘which dictates how the workers should act and what they should say’, and by observing the habits of her colleagues.  By doing this, Keiko essentially enables herself to ‘play the part of a normal person’.

Whilst Keiko is content, and feels comfortable in her job, she is aware that she is not living up to societal expectations, and that her family is worrying about her.  There is such a focus in the wider society on the importance of marriage – even if it is not to the right person, it seems – and women are referred to as old maids, spinsters, and ‘grubby’ for not conforming.  This all seemed very Jane Austen-esque to me; it is a very old-fashioned attitude.  Keiko says: ‘I knew it was considered weird for someone of my age to not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.’  Although she has no understanding as to why societal constructs want every woman of her age to conform to marriage and motherhood, she is still aware that others perceive her to be somehow deviant, or abnormal, for trying to maintain her own independence in a way which makes sense to her.  I found this part of her character desperately sad; she recognises that unless she puts on an act, she would not fit in anywhere: ‘You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange – maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to “cure” me.’  It is never explicitly stated what might be wrong with Keiko, and I would not like to speculate, particularly considering that this is such a short book.

The first half of the novella sets out Keiko’s job, and the way in which she tries to fit in with her colleagues, in the same manner as she tried to imitate her peers when she was young; for instance, shopping at the same boutique as a stylish coworker of around the same age as herself, and copying what others do, despite the way in which she largely does not understand the reasoning for this.  In her job, Keiko tells us, ‘speed is of the essence, and I barely use my head as the rules ingrained in me issue instructions directly to my body.’  She takes a great deal of pride in her efficiency and knowledge: ‘I automatically read the customer’s minutest moments and gaze, and my body acts reflexively in response.  My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire.’  She is proud, too, that she has found somewhere she belongs, and something to do which others rely on.  At the outset of Convenience Store Woman, Keiko reflects: ‘It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move.  I am one of those cogs, going round and round.  I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.’  She sees herself as an important, and irreplaceable part of the store: ‘When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m so much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.’

The second half of the novella is concentrated far more upon colleague Shiraha’s place within Keiko’s life, and the ways in which they interact with one another.  From their meeting onwards, I did begin to find Convenience Store Woman rather unsettling in places; for instance, when Keiko invites Shiraha to stay at her apartment, and a strange conversation ensues.  Some of the things which he says to her – especially considering that they had only recently met, and he knew little about Keiko – made me feel uncomfortable, and even outraged.  He tells her: ‘”Your womb is probably too old to be of any use, and you don’t even have the looks to serve as a means to satisfy carnal desire.”‘  If anyone spoke to me in this way, I would not hesitate to tell them in no uncertain terms to leave my house and never contact me again.  Keiko, however, just listens quite passively, and does not seem to see a problem with Shiraha addressing her in this manner.

I certainly found Keiko to be an interesting character, but I cannot say that I warmed to her at all.  I felt sympathetic towards her to an extent, but I do not believe that creating empathy for her protagonist was Murata’s driving intention.  It seems a real shame that the second half of the novella took focus away from herself, and projected it onto her moody, feckless, and unlikeable colleague, Shiraha.  He is a character whom, whilst disrespectful and rude to customers and colleagues, conforms to societal constructs by divulging that the only reason he applied for the job was to find a wife.

I found the translation of Convenience Store Woman rather awkward at times, particularly with regard to the uncomfortable phrasing which Tapley Takamori decided to include.  For instance, Keiko refers to people who do not fit in as ‘foreign objects’, and Shiraha rather bizarrely declares: ‘… they all seem to think nothing of raping me just because I’m in the minority.’  It may well be that this prose is deliberately awkward in order to mimic Keiko’s own ineptitude, but I did find it a little too much at times.  In the past, I have found quite a lot of Japanese fiction rather awkward in its translation, but Convenience Store Woman is the most consistently awkward which I can remember reading.

Whilst I did enjoy the first half of the novella, I found this book largely an uneven and problematic one.  None of the characters around Keiko felt quite realistic, and their bad traits – particularly in the case of Shiraha – were too much; he had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  Other characters felt like merely stereotypes and cliches, and seemed to feature in the story merely to provide a contrast to Keiko.  I also found the dynamics between them quite odd.  I suppose that I am firmly lodged within the minority, but I did not find Convenience Store Woman anywhere near as compelling as I expected to.

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4

‘The Lady and the Little Fox Fur’ by Violette Leduc ****

I have wanted to read Violette Leduc’s novella, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, for such a long time, but was never able to find a copy for an affordable price.  Thank goodness for Penguin, who have recently published it in a gorgeous edition as part of their European Writers series.  Translated from the French by Derek Coltman, and first published in 1965, the Penguin publication includes an introduction written by Deborah Levy.

The Guardian writes that the novella gives ‘a forceful affirmation of the human spirit’, and The Observer that Leduc ‘can capture the smells of a country childhood, dazzle with the lights of the Place de la Concorde or make you feel the silky slither of her eel-grey suit.’  Among Leduc’s first admirers were Albert Camus and Simone de Beauvoir, who were beguiled by her writing.
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The lady of the novella’s title is a sixty-year-old woman who lives in Paris, in a tiny attic apartment.  She has no money, is slowly starving, and ‘spends her days walking around the city, each step a bid for recognition of her own existence.’  She has placed herself into a routine of comparative comfort, riding the subway and walking in large crowds just to be close to others.  Once we have become accustomed to her ways, the crux of the novella comes when she gifts herself an unrelenting purpose during a stifling hot summer’s day:  ‘One morning she awakes with an urgent need to taste an orange; but when she rummages in the bins she finds instead a discarded fox fur scarf.’  This scarf ‘becomes the key to her salvation, the friend who changes her lonely existence into a playful world of her own invention.’

In her introduction, Levy notes her own experiences with the novella.  She writes that ‘Leduc can make this reader laugh out loud at her grand themes: loneliness, humiliation, hunger, defeat, disappointment – all of which are great comic subjects in the right hands…  It requires a sensibility that is totally unsentimental, a way of staring at life and making from it a kind of tough poetry…’.  She goes on to write: ‘It is because Leduc profoundly understands how mysterious human beings are that her attention as a writer is always in an interesting place.’  Of her prose, she states: ‘Life, like language, is coherent and incoherent, and Leduc knows the only way to do justice to this dynamic is to fold into the texture of her narrative the strange in-between bits of experience…  Writing, for Leduc, is a concentrated form of experiencing.’

The novella opens at the end of winter.  Leduc writes: ‘February was a sullen captive in the afternoon mist, and the grey streets were melting indistinguishably into the grey street corners.  She wandered around the still empty, still silent Paris-Sevran bus.  On tiptoe, avidly, she gazed through the windows at the backs of the seats, at the luggage rack, and thought of the passengers who were not there, whom she had ever known.’  Our protagonist is beset by a variety of problems which become apparent from the outset of the story, and often philosophises about her life and the turns which it has taken: ‘She began putting problems to herself.  Not to leave her own neighbourhood, not to travel was a tragedy.  But to leave all that she cherished would be another tragedy.’  Her quite miserable present is interspersed with memories from her past: ‘Memories are comfy too, they are swaddling bands, they wrap you up warm like a mummy.  What moment is there in life that is not already a memory?’

Leduc’s prose, and its construction, is fascinating. The narrative is meandering, taking swift turns here and there.  There sometimes seems to be very little to connect one sentence to the next, but Leduc skilfully builds a surprisingly cohesive picture of her Paris.  There is a beguiling feel to the sentences which she weaves, and the descriptions which she gives reveal the grittier side of the city.  Paris is a character in parallel; it alters alongside our protagonist, and faces a variety of shifting moods, just as she does: ‘Paris had not forgotten her, Paris was lighting up on every side, the night was tender, the light was soft, the neon signs were flickering on, the sky was candid, and she was rewarded for loving Paris so much.’  I found the protagonist’s relationship with inanimate objects – her keys, coins, and handbag – very interesting, and it is an element which I rarely come across in fiction.

In The Lady and the Little Fox Fur, Leduc reveals just how lonely it can be to live in the midst of a big city, and how one can retain their own place in the world.  She writes of coming to terms with the ageing process; her unnamed narrator’s ‘hands shook these days when she was threading a needle; her fingers were growing old; life and death were two maniacs locked in a well-matched struggle.’  Our protagonist is peculiar, and has such a lot of depth and complexity to her.

The Lady and the Little Fox Fur spans just eighty pages, but there is so much involved within it that it feels like a much longer work. Reading it is something like being stuck in a maze; one has to unravel so many crossed threads, and travel down so many dead ends, to reach the protagonist in the middle.  The Lady and the Little Fox Fur is one of the most peculiar books that I have ever read, but I feel that it will also prove itself to be one of the most memorable.

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‘West’ by Carys Davies ****

Carys Davies’ West is a novella which I heard a lot of buzz about last year, and was eager to try out myself.  The author has previously won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, and West is her first longer length work.  Colm Toibin writes that it has ‘all the stark power and immediacy of a folk tale or a legend’, and goes on to call Davies ‘a writer of immense talent’.  In her review, Tea Obreht calls Davies ‘a deft, audacious visionary.  In West, she breaks open our fascination with fated journeys and the irrepressible draw of the unknown, imbuing the American landscape with her own rare magic.’  Claire Messud’s praise for the novella was the biggest draw for me personally, as she is an author whom I have come to highly admire over the last year.  She says: ‘To read West is to encounter a myth, or a potent dream – a narrative at once new and timeless.  Exquisite, continent, utterly vivid, it will live on in your imagination long after you read the last page.’

9781925603538West tells the story of Cy Bellman, an American settler, widower, and the father of a ten-year-old girl named Bess.  He sets off from his home in semi-rural Pennsylvania for Kentucky, after hearing that ‘huge ancient bones have been discovered in a Kentucky swamp… [and] is filled with a sense of burning purpose’.  He wishes to find out if the ‘rumours are true: that the giant monsters are still alive, and roam the uncharted territory beyond the Mississippi River.’  West goes on to write of the effect which these beasts have upon Bellman: ‘There were no words for the prickling feeling he had that the giant animals were important somehow, only the tingling that was almost like nausea and the knowledge that it was impossible for him, now, to stay where he was.’

In West, Davies charts Bellman’s journey westward into the wilderness, whilst concurrently telling the reader about young Bess, ‘unprotected and approaching womanhood, waiting at home for her father to return.’  At the outset of the novella, when Bess learns about her father’s journey, Davies writes: ‘She was quiet a moment, and there was a serious, effortful look about her, as if she was trying to imagine a journey of such magnitude.’  Indeed, in the days of Bellman’s travels, and setting out with a horse as his sole method of transportation, the journey would take at least a year, possibly two.  Fascinated as he is by exploration, he fully expects that he will be travelling for much longer than another man might; he will be ‘diverging’ from his 2,000 mile route across country, so that he can ‘have a look in some of the big empty areas the two captains didn’t get to.’

On the morning on which Bellman leaves, his sister, Julie, who is tasked with taking care of Bess, tells her niece: ‘Regard him… this person, this fool, my brother John Cyrus Bellman, for you will not clap eyes upon a greater one.  From today I am numbering him among the lost and the mad.  Do not expect that you will see him again, and do not wave, it will only encourage him and make him think he deserves your good wishes.  Come inside now, child, close the door, and forget him.’  Despite her aunt’s insistence, Bess is steadfastly loyal, and does not allow herself to doubt her father: ‘In her opinion he looked grand and purposeful and brave.  In her opinion he looked intelligent and romantic and adventurous.’

I found the narrative, which uses the third person perspective throughout, to be immersive.  The structure, which comprises very short sections, is effective, and allows attention to be paid to both Bellman and Bess.  The novella, however, is weighted in Bellman’s favour, and considers his journey and experiences far more than it does Bess’; in many ways, she feels like a character who has unfortunately not been fully explored.

One of Davies’ strengths is the way in which she captures the motion and movement of her characters.  Whilst I felt that West ends in rather an odd manner, the story has been well plotted.  Davies includes descriptions only sparsely in her narrative, but what she writes is evocative: ‘He marvelled at the beauty of his surroundings: the pale gray ribbon of the river; the dark trees; in the distance the bright spread cloth of the prairie, undulating and soft; the bruised blue silk of the sky.’  I enjoyed the prose throughout West; it is sometimes quite understated, but lovely elements are sometimes woven in: ‘There were times, out here in the west,  when he lay down at night and, wrapped in his coat, he’d look up at the bright, broken face of the moon and wondered what might be up there too – what he’d find if he could just devise a way of getting there to have a look.’

When Bellman procures a Native guide, West introduces elements of the mixing of cultures.  Whilst this is interesting on a lot of levels it is, like Bess’ character, something which does not feel fully explored due to the brevity of the story.  There is certainly depth and power  to be found here, but I cannot help but think West would have been more successful had it spanned the length of a novel, rather than that of a novella.  Bellman’s story really could have soared had it had chance to spool out within a longer book.

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‘The Diving Pool: Three Novellas’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

The Diving Pool, a collection of three novellas, is the only outstanding work of Yoko Ogawa’s which is currently available in English, which I had not yet read.  Although a prolific author, very few of Ogawa’s works are available in English at present, and I can only hope that this is rectified in the near future.  I find Ogawa’s fiction entirely beguiling; it is strange, chilling, surprising, and oh so memorable.  This collection has been translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder.

The Guardian calls this tome ‘Profoundly unsettling, magnificently written’, and believes Ogawa to be ‘one of Japan’s greatest living writers.’  The Daily Telegraph writes that Ogawa ‘invests the most banal domestic situations with a chilling and malevolent sense of perversity, marking her out as a master of subtle psychological horror.’  This collection, promises its blurb, is ‘beautiful, twisted and brilliant.’
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The Diving Pool includes the titular story, as well as ‘Pregnancy Diary’ and ‘Dormitory’.  They were originally written during 1990 and 1991, and made available in English for the first time in 2008.  As with much of her other work, these stories err on the dark side of human nature.

In ‘The Diving Pool’, a ‘lonely teenage girl [named Aya] falls in love with her foster brother as she watches him leap from a high diving board into a pool’.  Aya surveys him secretly, and then goes out of her way to scurry home, to the orphanage which her parents run, before he finishes his shower, so that he is unaware of her presence.  Ogawa writes: ‘I spent a lot of time on the bleachers at the edge of the diving pool.  I was here yesterday and the day before, and three months ago as well.  I’m not thinking about anything or waiting for something; in fact, I don’t seem to have any reason to be here at all.  I just sit and look at Jun’s wet body.’  She elaborates further: ‘Yet this is a special place, my personal watchtower.  I alone can see him, and he comes straight to me.’  The unsettling sense one gets here manifests itself both in the building of the story, and within certain character descriptions.  The narrator of the tale describes her mother, for instance, who is barely mentioned afterward, like so: ‘Her lips were like maggots that never stopped wriggling, and I found myself wanting to squash them between my fingers.’

‘Pregnancy Diary’ is written from the perspective of a young woman whose sister is pregnant.  It is a ‘sinister tale of greed and repulsion’, and certainly crosses boundaries of what is acceptable.  At the outset of the tale, the narrator, who appears rather self-important, wonders ‘how she broke the news [of the pregnancy] to her husband.  I don’t really know what they talk about when I’m not around.  In fact, I don’t really understand couples at all.  They seem like some sort of inexplicable gaseous body to me – a shapeless, colorless, unintelligible thing, trapped in a laboratory beaker.’  When she goes on to describe the ultrasound photograph, Ogawa makes a fitting yet unusual comparison: ‘The night sky in the background was pure and black, so dark it made you dizzy if you stared at it too long.  The rain drifted through the frame like a gentle mist, but right in the middle was a hollow area in the shape of a lima bean.’  The suspense has been built brilliantly in ‘Pregnancy Diary’, and heightens when the narrator takes such unadulterated pleasure in the pain which her sister undergoes as a result of her condition.

‘Dormitory’ deals with a woman visiting her old college rooms in Tokyo, which her cousin is hoping to move into.  At first, she feels nostalgia about her experience there, but she soon begins to notice the darker elements which have crept in since she moved on.  In the dormitory building, she ‘finds an isolated world shadowed by decay, haunted by absent students and the disturbing figure of the crippled caretaker.’  The woman is aware of a noise which she can sometimes hear, and which becomes more and more troubling to her as time goes on.  The story begins: ‘I became aware of the sound quite recently, though I can’t say with certainty when it started.  There is a place in my memory that is dim and obscure, and the sound seems to have been hiding just there.  At some point I suddenly realized that I was hearing it…  It was audible only at certain moments, and not necessarily when I wanted to hear it.’  She goes on to say: ‘To be honest, I’m not sure you could even call it a sound.  It might be more accurate to say it was a quaking, a current, even a throb.  But no matter how I strained to hear it, everything about the sound – its source, its tone, its timbre’ remained vague.   The way in which she goes on to describe her old college building, and how she finds it just six years after graduating, is chilling: ‘Still, it wasn’t exactly a ruin…  I could feel traces of life been in the decaying concrete, a warm, rhythmic presence that seeped quietly into my skin.’

Despite these novellas being little more than long short stories, really, we learn an awful lot about each protagonist.  Their narrative voices feel authentic, and the way in which Ogawa has been able to pen three stories, all with young women at their core, but has made them so different, shows what a masterful and versatile writer she is.  The first two narrators have something quite sinister at their core, which are not apparent at first.  The third narrator seemed more innocent, and therefore the darker elements of the story came almost as more of a shock.  It feels throughout as though Ogawa wished to lull her readers into a false sense of security with these stories.

The imagery which Ogawa creates is at once startling and vivid.  In ‘The Diving Pool’, for instance, the narrator begins by saying: ‘It’s always warm here.  I feel as though I’ve been swallowed by a huge animal.’  There is certainly a dark edge to each of the tales, which is present at the outset and builds toward the end.  Throughout, there is a focus on the minutiae of life, and how things are often far more sinister than they appear at first glance.

There are no satisfying conclusions here; rather, the stories end at points of heightened tension, buzzing with unanswered questions and a lack of resolution.  Regardless, The Diving Pool makes for compelling and compulsive reading, and is, I think, the most unsettling of Ogawa’s books which I have read to date.  There is an almost grotesque edge to each of them, and all are taut and masterfully crafted.  Collected in The Diving Pool are the best kinds of stories: ones which promise to stay with you for a long time to come.

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‘Springtime: A Ghost Story’ by Michelle de Kretser ****

I love traditional ghost stories, but was drawn to Michelle de Kretser’s Springtime: A Ghost Story precisely because it sounded unexpected.  I am used to cold, dark, usually Western European settings in ghost stories, where atmosphere is built, and the sinister creeps into the scenes which we expect.  De Kretser’s novel, instead, is set during the springtime in Sydney, Australia.  Despite the quite low rating which the book has on Goodreads, I was intrigued by the story in Springtime, and enjoyed her novel The Rose Garden when I read it some years ago.  I therefore ordered a copy immediately.

Springtime is a neat little hardback, and coming in at just 85 pages, it can be read in one 9781760111212sitting.  There are several odd occurrences within it, but it is not a ghost story which harks to conventions of the genre.  Of de Kretser’s authorial decisions, Andrew Wilson writes: ‘… [she] undermines our expectations by refusing to play by the rules…  One reads Springtime not for its shock value – this tale is much more subtle than that – but for the way de Kretser explores the nature of ambiguity and for her deliciously unsettling descriptions.’  It is described in its blurb as ‘rare, beguiling and brilliant’, three words which would draw me to read almost any novel.

Charlie and Frances, our protagonists, have moved from trendy Melbourne to more traditional Sydney, so that Frances can take up a position as a research fellow.  They make their journey with ‘an unshakeable sense that they have tipped the world on its axis.  Everything is alien, unfamiliar, exotic: haunting, even.’  Frances, rather than Charlie, is the focus throughout the story.  At the outset, de Kretser explores how her new surroundings make her feel: ‘She was still getting used to the explosive Sydney spring.  It produced hip-high azaleas with blooms as big as fists.  Like the shifty sun, these distortions of scale disturbed.  Frances stared into a green-centred white flower, thinking, “I’m not young any more.”  How had that happened?  She was twenty-eight.’  As a character, I liked her immediately.  She is a ‘solitary, studious girl, whose life had taken place in books; at least four years of it had passed in the eighteenth century.’

We meet Frances when she is walking through her new neighbourhood.  Almost immediately, de Kretser makes subtle suggestions, planting seeds in the mind of her reader: ‘Picking up her pace, Frances saw a woman in the shadowy depths of the garden. She wore a little hat and a trailing pink dress; a white hand emerged from her sleeve.  There came upon Frances a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled.’  After she sees this woman for the first time, she does not stop doing so: ‘These partial visions, half-encounters, were repeated at intervals over weeks.’  This woman proves to be ‘as silent and white as her dog.’

In her story, de Kretser explores the differences, and rivalries, between Melbourne and Sydney.  In Frances’ new city, ‘… the streetscape was so weirdly old-fashioned.  Where were the hip, rusting-steel facades, Melbourne’s conjuring of post-industrial decay?  The decrepitude in their western suburb was real: boarded-up shops, cracked pavements, shabby terrace houses sagging behind stupendous trees.’  Some of the scenes which de Kretser sculpts are beautiful, and others stark and provocative: ‘Charlie gathered up Frances’s hair and balanced the knot on his palm.  At night they slept entwined like bare sheets.’  I loved her quite unusual descriptions: for instance, ‘They were thin eyes and surprisingly inky’, and ‘On the day Charlie left his wife, she had sent Frances an email that could still make Frances want to do unreasonable things: seize the breadknife and saw off her hair, eat stones.’  I also got a real sense of the natural world pushing against urbanisation in the story; de Kretser writes: ‘The river had turned into fierce, colourless glass.  It was a tyrant, punishing anyone who dared to look at it.  Small parrots shrieked with self-importance.  Their emerald broke savagely on the brassy sheen.’

I found Springtime rather an atmospheric read, with a strong sense of place.  De Kretser manages to make a setting which many readers would think of as idyllic, into something with dark edges.  It is told using rather short, unnamed chapters, which add to the sense of tension.  I found the story absorbing from the outset, and found myself really caring about Frances, who felt like a realistic character.  The crafting of the plot is tight, and it feels as though not a single sentence has been wasted.  It is a revealing novella, which has a lot of depth to it, and is ultimately quite powerful.  There is such attention to detail here, and I’m certain that Springtime is a story whose nuances I will be thinking about for months to come.

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‘Her Father’s Daughter’ by Marie Sizun ****

Marie Sizun’s novella, Her Father’s Daughter, is the twentieth title on independent publisher Peirene Press’ list.  Part of the Fairy Tale series, it is described as ‘a taut and subtle family drama’, and has been translated from its original French by Adriana Hunter.  Her Father’s Daughter is Sizun’s debut work, written when she was 65, and first published in 2005.  The novella was longlisted for the prestigious Prix Femina.

9781908670281Her Father’s Daughter is set in a Paris in the grip of the Second World War.  A small girl named France is content, living solely with her mother in their apartment; that is, until her father returns from his prisoner of war camp in Germany.  At this point, ‘the mother shifts her devotion to her husband.  The girl realizes that she must win over her father to recover her position in the family.  She reveals a secret that will change their lives.’  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, writes that here, Sizun presents ‘a rare examination of the bonds and boundaries between father and daughter.’

An omniscient perspective has been used throughout, in which each member of the family is referred to largely using the title of their familial position, and their relation to France.  France, for instance, is just ‘the girl’ for the majority of the book, and we also become acquainted with her ‘the mother’, ‘the father’, and ‘the grandmother’.  Of the decision to largely omit given names, Sizun writes: ‘But no one remembers now [that the little girl is called France]…  They just call her “the child”, that’s enough.  As for calling her name to summon her, to make her come back, that never happens: the child is always there, close by, under her mother’s feet, or consumed with waiting for her.’

The novella begins as France hears a radio announcement, in which her father’s position in the camp is lamented by her mother.  At this point, something shifts for the little girl: ‘She would normally be enjoying this peaceful moment spent with her mother, in the small kitchen warmed by the heat of her ironing.  But right there, in what her mother said, in those words, something loomed before her, something quite new.’ At this point, Sizun goes on to say: ‘And it’s this secret, intimate world, their world for just the two of them, that the child can suddenly feel slipping away.’

Given that France is just four-and-a-half years old, she has no memory whatsoever of her father; her only points of reference are the photographs dotted around their apartment.  Of fathers, and France’s opinion of them, Sizun writes: ‘Fathers are found in fairy tales, and they’re always slightly unreal and not very kind.  Or else they’re dead, distant, weak, and much less interesting than their daughters and their sons, who are brimming with courage, spirit and good looks.’

When her parents are first reunited, after rather a traumatic journey, to see her father in the Paris hospital he is being treated in, France soon realises that she has been overlooked: ‘How long will this performance last?  The child now feels as if time, which went by so swiftly earlier, has stopped, as if she’s been here for hours, sitting on the end of this bed.  She’s been forgotten.  They don’t see her.  She’s disappeared.  She’s not in this world.’  When he returns home, it soon becomes clear that her father’s temperament is tumultuous, and unsteady: ‘His words are always rather knowing, but never the same: gentle one minute, abrupt the next, tender with the mother one minute, formal with the child the next.  And then suddenly aggressive.  Brutal.  Violent.’  After a while has passed, the family dynamics begin to shift beyond France’s comprehension: ‘The child may now have a father but, on the other hand, she might as well no longer have a mother.  Because as if by magic her mother is reduced to being a docile wife to her husband, his sweetheart, his servant.’

The structure of Her Father’s Daughter, which uses short, unmarked chapters, works well.  The prose, which is relatively spare, but poetic for the most part, makes the story a highly immersive one.  Her Father’s Daughter is easy to read, but there is a brooding, unsettling feeling which infuses the whole.  Sizun is entirely revealing about the complexities embedded in relationships.  Powerful examinations of family are present throughout the novella, along with musings about what it really means to know someone.  Even though her protagonist is so young, this is, essentially, a coming-of-age story, where very adult situations are interpreted through the eyes of a child, who has no choice but to learn a great deal about her family, and about herself.

Sizun is a searingly perceptive author, who demonstrates such understanding of her young protagonist.  Her Father’s Daughter is an incredibly human novella, which has been masterfully crafted; it is difficult, in many ways, to believe that it is a debut work, so polished does it feel.  The novella is well situated historically, and is highly thought-provoking.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli ****

First published in 2013.

Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter is heralded as ‘a miniature masterpiece’ in its blurb, and tells ‘the story of three soldiers who capture a Jewish prisoner and face a chilling choice.’  It was first published in France in 2012, and has been translated from its original French by Sam Taylor, recent translator of Laurent Binet’s excellent novel HHhH.  It is Mingarelli’s first work to appear in English.

A Meal in Winter is set during the Second World War in the depths of the Polish countryside.  It begins in the following way: ‘They had rung the iron gong outside and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads’.  The entirety of the novella is told from the first person perspective of an unnamed German narrator.

‘A Meal in Winter’ by Hubert Mingarelli

Three soldiers, including the narrator, are sent out on a mission at dawn, ‘before the first shootings’.  Their mission is to capture a Jew and take him back to their base, where he or she will be dealt with.  The narrator’s fellow soldiers are named Bauer and Emmerich, the only two protagonists in the novella to have been given names.  The entire novella has been split into quite short chapters, and is quite simple in its prose style, which contrasts rather chillingly at times with the futility which it presents.  It is tinged throughout with memories from the pre-war past of the soldiers, as well as strange foreshadowings of the future.

In the story, the soldiers find a tiny hidden dwelling in the countryside, spotting a ‘chimney which was barely raised above the ground’.  A man emerges from the depths: ‘We didn’t see anything in his eyes either – no fear, no despair…  All we could see of his face were his eyes…  They were ringed with dirt and fatigue, but not enough to hide his youth.  Despite the tiredness they showed, they still shone with life’.  This man is referred to from this point onwards as ‘the Jew’.  This, and other elements within the novella, are harrowing in terms of the impersonal way in which Jews were viewed by the German soldiers: ‘We were no longer allowed to kill them when we found them, unless an officer was present to vouch for the fact.  These days, we had to bring them back’.  The narrator goes on to say, ‘We’d only caught one, but he smelt bad enough for ten’.

Whilst walking in the countryside with the Jew in tow, the men find a closed-up house and break in.  They begin to burn the furniture in order to warm up and cook a meal – a soup which is savoured.  Mingarelli’s setting has been developed well, and some of the scenes which he has crafted are incredibly vivid.  It feels as though he has broken the constraints of the narrowed view that all German soldiers viewed Jews with scorn, and has included some shreds of compassion for the prisoner, however small.  In this way, Mingarelli demonstrates both the good and evil which wartime situations can produce.  A Meal in Winter is most interesting with respect to the ways in which the language barrier causes them to communicate using different methods.  Mingarelli has crafted a novella which is very dark in places, and is quite unsettling in the foreboding which it builds.

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‘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.

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Fairlight Moderns: Emma Timpany and Sophie van Llewyn

I published reviews of three of the Fairlight Moderns novellas recently, and having now read the last two in the series of five, thought that I would post reviews of these too.

Travelling in the Dark by Emma Timpany **** 9781912054480
In Travelling in the Dark, Emma Timpany’s protagonist, Sarah, is travelling back to her native New Zealand from her home in England, accompanied by her young son.  Her husband has recently left her, and she is making the journey in order to show her son where she spent her own childhood, and to meet an old friend with whom she has a lot of history.

Travelling in the Dark begins in such a vivid manner, in prose which feels at once simplistic and engaging: ‘Sarah is on an aeroplane, crossing the night sky.  Her hands are folded in her lap.  Outside the window there is darkness.  She could slide the small, white window blind down, close out the night, but somehow she cannot bring herself to make this one small act.  The sense that she sometimes gets, that she must keep watching or she’ll miss something of importance, is intense, though she cannot see anything beyond the veil of ice crystals.  No stars, no satellites.  No planets.  No moon.  No radiant light from some far city.’  As one can tell from this snippet, Timpany’s descriptions are often quite lovely, particularly when she gives her attention to the natural world.

Every other chapter, which is interspersed between details of Sarah’s present day journey, are vignettes set during her childhood.  Such a sense of place and character can be found throughout Travelling in the Dark, and I so enjoyed Timpany’s writing that I am now waiting eagerly for her next publication.
Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn ****
9781912054305Bottled Goods is Sophie van Llewyn’s first piece of ‘long fiction’.  This novella begins in the Communist Romania of the 1960s, where, in the first scene, protagonist Alina is taken on a roadtrip with her cousins and Aunt Theresa.  Short chapters ensue, some of which are told using the voice of Alina, and others which use an omniscient narrator.  A few chapters consist largely of lists.

From the outset, Bottled Goods is vivid in its descriptions, and culturally and historically fascinating.  Van Llewyn does incredibly well to put across the terror and strength of the regime in such a succinct yet harrowing manner.  She demonstrates how quickly things escalated in the regime, and how far-reaching its effect was upon every Romanian citizen.  The use of magical realism works very well too, particularly given the point at which it is introduced; it is used in quite a serious way, so does not tend to lighten the tone of the novella at all, but it does make one think.  Van Llewyn’s blending of realism with the element of magical realism is rather inventive, and certainly makes for a strange, quirky, and memorable novella.

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