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One From the Archive: ‘Flesh of the Peach’ by Helen McClory ***

First published in August 2017.

Scottish author Helen McClory won both the Saltire Award and the Scottish First Book of the Year Award for her initial publication, a short story collection entitled On the Edges of Vision.  Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, is described in its blurb as a ‘stunning, intense and deeply moving investigation into the effects of toxic grief’.  Kirsty Logan, whom I believe to be one of the most exciting voices in contemporary fiction, deems it ‘bold and unflinching’, comparing it to ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing meets Inside Llewyn Davis: A brutal, clear-eyed study of a failing artist that shatters our expectations of what a woman should be.’

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Flesh of the Peach follows a twenty seven-year-old artist named Sarah Browne.  In New York, the tumultuous end of her relationship with a married woman coincides with the death of her ‘estranged, aristocratic’ mother.  She is left with rather a lot of money, and swathes of grief, which she feels quite unable to deal with.  The book essentially depicts Sarah’s existential crisis, as she takes off across the United States on a Greyhound bus, from her home in New York to a cabin of her mother’s in secluded New Mexico.

When she sets off, the following reasoning with herself occurs:

‘Are we doing this then, she asked herself.

The question was vague because she herself was vague.  It becomes a lyric in a city like this one.  Sarah’s lover Kennedy had just severed ties.  Kennedy had been everything for a while there.

… Her mother was dead back home in England, that was the other thing.  Finally, after a slow dance with cancer.  And long after their relationship had died.’

She goes on to think about the family pile back in Cornwall, where she grew up, and clearly never felt as though she belonged: ‘But you remain on the threshold, the door never opens, never shuts behind.  You are outside and you can go no further.  And this outsideness, the jags of memory, fit into your skill to be lodged there, for however long.’  Sarah strives to move as far away from her old life as she can, searching for the ‘best possible version’ of herself, and trying her utmost to be at peace with both her body and her place in the world.

Some of the prose within Flesh of the Peach is immeasurably beautiful, but an odd balance has been struck with its many choppy, sometimes unfinished sentences.  The often very short chapters serve to exacerbate this; they oscillate between present and past, and thus Sarah’s story does tend to feel a little jumbled at times.  These sections are interspersed with short intervals detailing what she plans to do with her money; the suggestions thrown up are sometimes sensible, and sometimes utterly wild and strange.  The really interesting thing about the construction of Flesh of the Peach, however, is the way in which it is told using a mixture of traditional and experimental narrative.  This playing around with form is certainly one of McClory’s strengths here.

The depiction of Sarah’s unravelling, and her struggles to stay afloat is believable for the most part, but I felt rather removed from our protagonist whilst reading about her.  The third person omniscient voice is effective in terms of relaying the roadtrip which she takes, and the memories which flood into her mind at intervals, but despite the crisis of knowing herself which takes place, I did not feel as though she was as fully fleshed out as she perhaps could have been.  There was an insurmountable barrier between Sarah and I; yes, I could watch her and her actions, and could understand the situation in which she found herself, but it still did not make some of the actions which she took that plausible, or in character.

Flesh of the Peach is a story which both champions and degrades love, and all of its many forms.  Whilst the characters are largely interesting, we do not learn enough about the majority of them, and despite the third person narration, we see them only through Sarah’s eyes; we are thus given rather a skewed interpretation of other people.  With regard to Sarah, we as readers are always aware of her; her life, her behaviour, her thoughts, and her feelings are continually woven together.  Despite its strengths, Flesh of the Peach did not quite live up to its premise.  Regardless, I look forward to reading more of McClory’s work in future, as I have a feeling that she is definitely an author to watch.

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Six Recommendations

1. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec

During her 30s, Klinec decided to abandon her corporate job in order to pursue a career in the culinary arts, launching a cooking school from her London kitchen. This led her to travel to Iran, to learn how to cook traditional food in a Persian home. Vahid, the son of the woman she has been invited to stay with, seems prickly and standoffish at first, but they soon fall in love with one another. What ensues is much fascinating commentary on the melding of two very different cultures and customs, and I found it highly insightful.

2. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
This is rather an old-fashioned books in some respects, telling the story of a young ‘diddakoi’, or half gypsy girl. I have read quite a few of Godden’s books in the past, and plan to revisit them all at some point. It was lovely to be able to pick up something ‘new’, even though my library reservation came with rather a garish 1970s front cover. The Diddakoi is well plotted, and incredibly heartwarming.

3. The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee
I had not heard of Magda Hellinger’s story before spotting a copy in the library. Written by her daughter, Maya Lee, The Nazis Knew My Name tells the true story of an incredibly brave woman, who put herself in danger to help others around her when she was forcibly taken to various concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is a privilege to read Holocaust memoirs, and I found Hellinger’s memories incredibly moving.

4. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
I am seemingly obsessed with swimming; I love to watch it at championships and Olympics when I get the chance, I love to swim myself, and I have already reviewed a couple of swimming-focused books in the past. I really admired the structure which Tsui adopts here, in a book which melds together history and memoir. Why We Swim is fascinating, readable, and I felt as though I learnt a great deal.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
The Light of the World is a memoir centered around the sudden death of Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. She is left with two young boys, not knowing how to go on without him, or whether to abandon any of the plans the pair made. Here, Alexander captures the essence of their loving relationship, from their early days, to their marriage of fifteen years, and the enormous task of trying to pick herself back up after his death. As The Light of the World has been penned by a poet, one should not be surprised that the prose is beautiful, and incredibly moving.

Assembly by Natasha Brown
At just over 100 pages long, one might be forgiven for thinking that Natasha Brown’s debut novella, Assembly, does not tackle much. Focusing on a young, Black, female protagonist working a high-level London job in the finance industry after graduating from a top University, Assembly explores so many issues around identity, the inner self, race, societal expectations, and trying to cope with living in our frantic world. I loved the structure, which is made up of many vignettes, and enjoyed Brown’s sharp descriptions. There is a real depth and intensity to Assembly. It is exciting modern fiction, and I very much look forward to what Brown writes in future.

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‘Matrix’ by Lauren Groff ****

Lauren Groff is one of a handful of authors whom I will happily read anything by. I had not even glanced at the blurb of her 2021 novel, Matrix, before borrowing it from my library. It came as something of a surprise to me that this is a work of historical fiction, given that her previous books have been so rooted in the contemporary world. It is safe to say that my hopes for Matrix were very high indeed.

The protagonist of Matrix is seventeen-year-old Marie, a young woman living in the court of Eleanor of Aquitane, the Queen of France. Marie, who is loosely based on a twelfth-century poet named Marie de France, is a ‘bastardess sibling of the crown’. She has proved ‘too wild for courtly life’, and is swiftly despatched to an abbey in the north of England. On a cold morning in the winter of 1158, Marie is expelled from the life she has known, and sent away from her secret lover, Cecily. Cecily is ‘… this rough person who had up until this moment been everything to Marie, mistress and sister and servant and pleasure and single loving soul in all of Angleterre.’

Marie is forced to become the abbey’s prioress, despite not believing in any higher power. She finds the religion bestowed upon her ‘vaguely foolish… Her faith had twisted very early in her childhood; it would slowly grow ever more bent into its geography until it was its own angular, majestic thing.’ After she has lived there for around two decades, Groff writes that her faith has shifted entirely: ‘How strange, she thinks. Belief has grown upon her. Perhaps, she thinks, it is something like a mold.’ One of the many strengths in this novel is the portrait which Groff draws of a woman forced against her will into a way of life, and the ways in which she copes with, and adapts to, it.

In the opening scene, Marie arrives at her new home: ‘She sees for the first time the abbey, pale and aloof on a rise in this damp valley, the clouds drawn up from the ocean and wrung against the hills in constant rainfall. Most of the year this place is emerald and sapphire, bursting under dampness, thick with sheep and chaffinches and newts, delicate mushrooms poking from the rich soil, but now in late winter, all is grey and full of shadows.’ The young woman is ‘tall, a giantess of a maiden, and her elbows and knees stick out, ungainly… Her stark Angevin face holds no beauty, only canniness and passion yet unchecked.’ She has been sent to the desolate, neglected abbey during a raging epidemic of one disease or another, which has caused many of the nuns there to perish. The nuns are viewed with suspicion by those who live around the abbey; the townsfolk see them as ‘suspect, unnatural, sisters to witches.’

Over the decades which she spends at the abbey, Marie is nothing short of radical. She looks after the women around her, and comes up with bold new ideas to turn the struggling abbey into a profitable place. This element of the novel in particular will appeal to any feminist; she is a strong woman surrounded by others who become stronger under her direction. She becomes, for the abbey, an agent of change. As Groff says, ‘Her mastery will be gradual but, by the time she becomes abbess many years later, complete.’ She makes renters settle their debts; she sets up a scriptorium where the more educated nuns produce beautiful manuscripts, which can then be sold; she persuades nobles to donate the land around the abbey to the nuns.

The narrative here has been wonderfully controlled. I liked the way in which Groff wove in explorations of feminism, particularly within the female-only space of the abbey. Marie, for instance, grapples with her sexuality throughout, as do others around her. Groff writes: ‘There is no mention of female sodomy in any of the books, and the great angry moralists would have mentioned it if it were a sin, surely. Marie has searched; she has found only echoing silence.’

I do not believe that I’ve read another novel quite like Matrix. It is inventive in true Groff style, and I know that the story and its wonderfully drawn characters and scenes will stay with me for quite some time yet. The novel is wonderfully rich in detail, and I was pulled right into its story. The historical context which Groff provides is at once vague and detailed, and altogether, the story which has been told here is thoroughly beguiling. I really like the way in which Groff captures what was going on in the world whilst the nuns were cloistered away; for instance, when she writes: ‘Marie is forty-seven. From Rome, from Paris, from London, her spies have written swift panicked letters; Jerusalem has fallen again to the infidel.’ Groff has put such thought into how to make this world as realistic and believable as possible.

I love it when I have the chance to read a book by an author which proves a real departure from their previous publications. Matrix is definitely this for Groff. Whilst it is recognisably her work, there is definitely a different feel to it overall. The magical realism which her other novels and short stories are steeped in is barely visible here, only appearing in a couple of ‘visions’ which the nuns have. These small glimpses work wonderfully with the realism which the rest of the story is suffused in. The scenes which she has implanted magical realism into are few and far between, but also beautiful: ‘Lightning sparks at the tip of her fingers. Swifter than breath it moves through her hands, the flesh of her arms, her inner organs, her sex, her skin, and it settles jagged and blazing in her throat. Wondrous colors bloom in the sky above the forest. With a thunder that shakes the ground beneath Marie’s feet, there is a split in the sky that opens. In the split Marie sees a woman made of the greatness of all the cities in the world together, a woman clothed in radiance.’

Time passes quickly in Matrix, and I enjoyed every second. It was not the novel which I was expecting, but I thoroughly admired the way in which Groff tackles so many topics here; it is a novel of religion, sexuality, bonds, friendship, and female power, amongst much else. She has created a stylish and playful work of historical fiction, which feels fresh and exciting. Matrix is undoubtedly a very clever book, and I am so excited to see what Groff comes up with next.

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Five Disappointing Books

Every so often, I pick up a book which I have been so excited about, and find it doesn’t appeal to me as much as I expected. It’s always a disappointment when this happens, and a lot of the time, I will read the first fifty pages, and if it isn’t for me, I just move on to the next tome on my enormous to-read list. However, occasionally I pick up something by an author I have previously enjoyed a great deal, and read it through to the end, despite not enjoying it. This is a habit which I’m struggling to break, sadly.

I thought I would gather together five such disappointing books by authors whose other novels I have loved. These were not quite my style for various reasons, but on the whole, I found myself getting bored rather early on. I should have put them down far earlier, but I will hopefully live and learn for the future.

1 and 2. The Good Listener and A Bonfire by Pamela Hansford Johnson

I adored Pamela Hansford Johnson’s An Impossible Marriage, and also really enjoyed The Holiday Friend, novels which I read very close to one another. I thought I’d found an author whose thrillers I would love going forward, but these two proved real gems compared to the two duds which I followed them with.

The Good Listener, published in 1975, focuses on Toby Roberts. As he is about to leave Cambridge University, he forms a relationship with a girl named Maisie. She adores him; he appears largely indifferent to her. As time goes on, he runs away from her, and perpetuates cruelties with everyone he meets. He is horrid. I know that a lot of readers do not feel as though it’s pivotal to like a character, but Toby was something else. I could not bear to read about him, but I dutifully finished the novel, thinking it might get better. It did not.

Similarly, A Bonfire came nowhere close to meeting my expectations. It was Hansford Johnson’s final novel, published in 1981, the year of her death. The fact that this was a coming-of-age novel really appealed to me, but I was never pulled into the story. I did not find that the writing had the insight of An Impossible Marriage and The Holiday Friend, and for me, it also lacked much of the intrigue which I had come to expect from Hansford Johnson’s books. I remember very little about the plot or characters, I must admit, as this one just did not stick in my head at all.

3. Still Life by Sarah Winman

I was so impressed with each of Sarah Winman’s first three novels. When God Was a Rabbit, her 2011 debut, is a coming-of-age story set amongst a very interesting and flawed family. A Year of Marvellous Ways, published in 2015, is set in Cornwall, and focuses upon a wonderful elderly character named Marvellous Ways. 2017’s Tin Man is a beautiful meditation upon love and friendship, with two young boys at its centre.

I was, understandably, looking forward to reading her newest effort, Still Life, and was so excited when I received a galley of it. That it was set toward the end of the Second World War only piqued my interest further. However, as I started to read, I began to feel very disappointed. The writing felt rather lacklustre to me, and I did not feel as though I got to know any of the characters properly. To me, they felt rather like caricatures. I just could not engage my attention fully with Still Life; something was holding me back. I will pick up Winman’s books in future, and will hope that this is just a blip in an otherwise wonderful array of novels.

4. The Wild Air by Rebecca Mascull

I liked Rebeca Mascull’s The Visitors when I read it quite a few years ago, but hadn’t picked up any of her other books. I received a galley of The Wild Air, and eventually picked it up months after its actual publication date – oops… Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, and I was excited to read something a little different – about a female Edwardian pilot in the United States.

Sadly, The Wild Air was a disappointment. It sounded promising, but from the beginning, I did not find it engagging. The story was incredibly slow-going, and did not pick up. I must admit that I didn’t see this one through to the end, as it felt a bit like wading through treacle. Regardless, what could have been an exciting story completely failed to pull me in, and its heroine – supposed to be plucky and daring – I found dull.

5. The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

I have read a few of Kennedy’s books to date, and have reviewed rather a lot of those on the blog, if you care to search for them. I have struggled somewhat with the fact that everyone else seems to love them, but I don’t. I was still, however, really excited to pick up The Feast, which I reviewed in full in July, as it seems to be her most loved book. I thought, that of all of Kennedy’s work, I really might love this one.

The story appealed to me greatly. The novel opens with the collapse of a cliffside hotel in Cornwall, before moving backwards in time to the week before, and allowing us insights into all of the characters. I generally really enjoy novels like this, which hold a tragedy which we know about, but link a lot of mysteries in too. However, something about The Feast did not quite come together for me, and the ending felt rushed.

Have you read any of these books, and did you like them more than I did? Which has been the most disappointing book which you have picked up of late?

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Ten More Great Books

Today, I have gathered together ten books which I read quite some time ago, but which I rarely see written or spoken about. The books here are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction from different periods. I wanted to bring a little more attention to these quite excellent tomes, and really hope that you find something which takes your fancy.

1. Basil and Josephine by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘Basil and Josephine charts the coming of age of two privileged youths from quiet Midwestern towns, Basil Duke Lee and Josephine Perry – based on Fitzgerald himself and a combination of his first love Ginevra King and his wife Zelda. As one struggles to gain the acceptance of his peers and becomes consumed by ambition, the other finds herself obsessed by teenage crushes and has to confront the pitfalls of popularity.

Written for the Saturday Evening Post while the author was working on Tender Is the Night, these stories form a realistic and entertaining portrait of two young adults in the 1910s, fascinating both for the autobiographical insights they provide and the timeless satire that Fitzgerald’s fiction has become synonymous with.’

2. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi

‘Mad, bad and sad. From the depression suffered by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to the mental anguish and addictions of iconic beauties Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. From Freud and Jung and the radical breakthroughs of psychoanalysis to Lacan’s construction of a modern movement and the new women-centred therapies. This is the story of how we have understood mental disorders and extreme states of mind in women over the last two hundred years and how we conceive of them today, when more and more of our inner life and emotions have become a matter for medics and therapists.’

3. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

‘A woman battles bluebottles as she plots an ill-judged encounter with a stranger; a young husband commutes a treacherous route to his job in the city, fearful for the wife and small daughter he has left behind; a mother struggles to understand her nine-year-old son’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse. In Danielle McLaughlin’s stories, the world is both beautiful and alien. Men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country: watchfully, with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. Here are characters living lives in translation, ever at the mercy of distortions and misunderstandings, striving to make sense both of the spaces they inhabit and of the people they share them with.’

4. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison

I chose Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather to read during my final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. It is truly lovely; within its pages, Harrison takes four countryside walks around various parts of England, and in different seasons. Her writing is lovely, and she makes the most of discussing the ways in which rain affects particular landscapes, and how the animals which live within them have adapted – or not, as the case may be. Rain is geographically, geologically, historically, and biologically interesting, and provides several nods to works of literature throughout. Charming, thought-provoking, and lovely, particularly when one considers it in tandem with its glossary, which provides one hundred words for different kinds of rain around the United Kingdom.

5. The High Places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane

What a terrible thing at a time like this: to own a house, and the trees around it. Janet sat rigid in her seat. The plane lifted from the city and her house fell away, consumed by the other houses. Janet worried about her own particular garden and her emptied refrigerator and her lamps that had been timed to come on at six.

So begins “Mycenae,” a story in The High Places, Fiona McFarlane’s first story collection. Her stories skip across continents, eras, and genres to chart the borderlands of emotional life. In “Mycenae,” she describes a middle-aged couple’s disastrous vacation with old friends. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a scientist lives on a small island with only a colossal squid and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company. And in the title story, an Australian farmer turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a fatal drought. Each story explores what Flannery O’Connor called “mystery and manners.” The collection dissects the feelings–longing, contempt, love, fear–that animate our existence and hints at a reality beyond the smallness of our lives.

Salon‘s Laura Miller called McFarlane’s The Night Guest “a novel of uncanny emotional penetration . . . How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you?” The High Places is further evidence of McFarlane’s preternatural talent, a debut collection that reads like the selected works of a literary great.’

6. A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden

‘It is 1953 and Joanna, Kate and Poll, who are eighteen, twelve and six, are living in a riverside suburb of London with their mother Ellen and their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor. Then the past arrives to upset the present in the person of Aunt Hat, a gossipy old friend whose husband has been imprisoned for assulting her, and who seems to bring news from a different world of chaos and drama. The real danger, however, comes not from Aunt Hat’s indiscretions but from the girls themselves.’

7. Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton

‘Happily married for thirty years with three children that have long since grown up, Christopher Mainwaring finds himself at a total loss following the death of his beloved wife, Susan. Yet the joyful marriage he remembers may not have been all it seemed, for no one in the family knows of the troubling words his wife uttered to him from her death bed . . .

Alluding to a possible affair that took place many years ago with a close family friend, the grieving widower is haunted by visions of Susan’s infidelity and seeks to find out the truth. In his quest to unearth his wife’s potential duplicity, Christopher finds himself looking to his children’s complex lives for answers: Joy who is now married with children and concerns of her own, the professionally inept but kind-hearted Frank and his neurotic wife Rachel, and Derek, whose delusions of grandeur with his struggling business causes much distress for his long-suffering wife, Olivia.

Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton provides universal reflections and intimate insights into the dynamics of family life with a startling clarity that will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.’

8. Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

‘The 52 micro-memoirs in the genre-defying Heating & Cooling offer bright glimpses into a richly lived life. They build on one another to arrive at a portrait of Beth Ann Fennelly as a wife, mother, writer, and deeply original observer of life’s challenges and joys. Some pieces are wistful, some poignant, and many of them reveal the humor buried below the surface of everyday interactions. Heating & Cooling shapes a life from unexpectedly illuminating moments, and awakens us to these moments as they appear in the margins of our lives.’

I had not heard of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling before, but stumbled across it on my online library catalogue and borrowed it immediately. I love fragmented memoirs, and this is a particularly interesting one. Through each of these ‘micro-memoirs’, Fennelly reveals herself little by little. The entries are amusing, and sometimes quite touching; Fennelly’s approach is fresh and enjoyable. There is such depth and consideration to the writing, and I will definitely be looking out for Fennelly’s books in future.

9. Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

‘In Undying Michel Faber honours the memory of his wife, who died after a six-year battle with cancer. Bright, tragic, candid and true, these poems are an exceptional chronicle of what it means to find the love of your life. And what it is like to have to say goodbye.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

10. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

‘On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster*!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

The first book from a new leading light of UK comics, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an off-beat fable worthy of Roald Dahl. It is about life, death and the meaning of beards.

(*We mean a gigantic beard, basically.)’

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Women in Translation Month: ‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck (One From the Archive)

First published in 2019.

Go, Went, Gone by German author Jenny Erpenbeck was my book club’s choice for January.  I have read all of her other books which have been translated into English thus far, and find them all wonderfully strange, and highly memorable.  I was therefore looking forward to dipping into this novel, which is the winner of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and the English PEN Award.  Go, Went, Gone was also longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize.  Sally Rooney has called it ‘vital’, and The Guardian ‘profound’.  It has been translated into English by Susan Bernofsky.

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The novel’s protagonist is a retired University professor of Classical Philology named Richard, a man who has lived alone in Berlin since the death of his wife.  Early on in the novel, he finds ‘a surprising new community on Oranienplatz – among the African asylum seekers who have set up a tent city there.’  As Richard slowly gets to know them, his life starts to change, and his own sense of belonging is thrown into question.

The story begins on the first day of Richard’s retirement, in which he finds himself cast rather adrift: ‘He doesn’t know how long it’ll take him to get used to having time.  In any case. his head still works just the same as before.  What’s he going to do with the thoughts still thinking away inside his head?’  His existence, rather than peopled with daily interactions with students and other members of staff, suddenly feels suffused with loneliness.  The inability which he now has to share his work with his peers, and with the wider community, saddens him: ‘As it is, everything his wife always referred to as his stuff now exists for his pleasure alone.  And will exist for no one’s pleasure when he’s gone.’

I admired the way in which Erpenbeck brought together quite disparate goings on in the world, using Richard as the more focused, privileged, Western character, and placing not-so-faraway terrors in his wake.  I found the following scene rather startling: ‘This isn’t the first time he’s felt ashamed to be eating dinner in front of a TV screen displaying the bodies of people felled by gunfire or killed by earthquakes or plane crashes, someone’s shoe left behind after a suicide bombing, or plastic-wrapped corpses lying side by side in a mass grave during an epidemic.’  In this manner, and later through the individuals whom he meets, the migrant crisis is firmly embedded throughout the narrative, entwining with Richard’s own life.  I also enjoyed the parallels which Erpenbeck drew between the Ancient world and the modern; for instance, the comparison made between the anonymous demonstration of migrants on Alexanderplatz, who refused to give their identities or nationalities, to the story in which Odysseus ‘called himself Nobody to escape from the Cyclops’s cave.’

Erpenbeck’s commentary about the Berlin Wall, which ran alongside the present-day crisis, was a forcefultool, establishing similarity between Richard and the migrants.  When Erpenbeck describes the way in which the demolition of the Wall made Berlin almost unknowable to Richard, likenesses form with the borders which the migrants he meets have to try and overcome: ‘Now that the Wall is gone, he no longer knows his way around.  Now that the Wall is gone, the city is twice as big and has changed so much that he often doesn’t recognize the intersections.’  With the Wall as her focus, Erpenbeck is able to mark the passing of time, as well as the changing face of both the city, and its political climate.  Instead of the ‘good bookstore around the corner, a repertory cinema, and a lovely cafe’ around Oranienplatz, the scene now looks more like a ‘construction site: a landscape of tents, wooden shacks, and tarps: white, blue, and green…  What does he see?  What does he hear?  He sees banners and propped-up signs with hand-painted slogans.  He sees black men and white sympathizers…  The sympathizers are young and pale, they dye their hair with henna, they refuse to believe that the world is an idyllic place and want everything to change, for which reason they put rings through their lips, ears, and noses. The refugees, on the other hand, are trying to gain admittance to this world that appears to them convincingly idyllic.  Here on the square, these two forms of wishing and hoping cross paths, there’s an overlap between them, but this silent observer doubts that the overlap is large.

At the novel’s opening, Erpenbeck lets us know that Richard has been shielded from the world around him – physically in terms of the marked space imposed upon him by the Berlin Wall, but figuratively too, moving as he does in the same circles and routines throughout his work, and with his wife.  In Go, Went, Gone, the refugees are given the ability to make Richard more malleable, to open his eyes to the wider world, and to shape elements of his persona.  Richard, despite his good education, job as a professor, and prior travels, was previously ignorant to such things as African geography, and could come across as ignorant.  When he meets a group of migrants for the first time, for instance, Erpenbeck writes: ‘The refugees weren’t all doing so badly, Richard thinks, otherwise how could this fellow be so burly?’ I found some of Richard’s gradual realisations quite moving; for example: ‘There’s something he’s never thought of since these men aren’t being permitted to arrive, what looks to him like peacetime here is for them basically still war.’

The novel’s blurb declares that in Go, Went, Gone, Jenny Erpenbeck makes ‘a passionate contribution to the debate on race, privilege and nationality’.  I agree with this; she certainly explores many issues which revolve around the notions of statehood and selfhood, and the difficulties which so many people have to overcome in order just to live in safety.  Reading such novels as this in our current climate, which places such emphasis on borders and boundaries, is pivotal.  The use which Erpenbeck makes of the present tense throughout just makes the realistic story which she has built feel all the more urgent.  So much of the human experience can be found within this novel.

The only drawback of Go, Went, Gone for me is that it only features the male perspective, but perhaps this is what Erpenbeck was going for.  The few female characters here are either absent – Richard’s wife, and the wives and sisters of many of the migrants – or on the periphery.  In some ways, this absence makes the book seem limiting; in others, I suppose, it is rendered more realistic, as Richard perhaps would not have been allowed the same access to female migrants.  The other slight issue that I had is with the translation; whilst I found Bernofsky’s work fluid, there were some overly long, and occasionally quite muddled, sentences within the novel.

Overall, I found Go, Went, Gone poignant and highly thought-provoking; it made me give so much consideration to the world in which we live, the terrible things which humankind daily proves itself capable of, and notions of privilege.  There is a strong sense of place, and of selfhood, here, and I really did like the way in which the author has not presented Germany, or the wider Western world, as a utopia. Throughout, I found Erpenbeck’s tone, and the omniscient narrative perspective, effective.  I admire the amount of themes which the author has been able to pack in.  She considers, with empathy, what it must be feel like to be an essentially stateless migrant in the modern world, and the injustices which face them on a daily basis.  Go, Went, Gone is a timely novel which I would highly recommend.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray’ by Dominique Barbéris ****

For me, Daunt Books are an incredibly exciting publisher. Not only are they bringing out themed anthologies with commissioned content from contemporary authors both well-known and new to me, they are also making a concerted effort to translate works from other countries. Any reader of my reviews will know that I am an enormous fan of French literature, and so Daunt’s release of Dominique Barbéris’ A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was a title which immediately made its way onto my must-read list.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray was longlisted for the Prix Goncourt, and shortlisted for the Prix Femina, both incredibly prestigious awards in the author’s native France. This edition has been translated into English by John Cullen. Although Barbéris is a prolific author, this novella is the only one of her books currently available in English.

The novel begins on a Sunday in early September, ‘one of those days thar cross the border between summer and autumn’. Our protagonist, high school teacher Jane, is leaving her home in Paris in order to visit her sister, Claire Marie, in the western suburbs of the city, a place called Ville-d’Avray. Although it is less than an hour away from the centre, our narrator tells us that it ‘seems like another world, with its secluded streets and set-back houses.’ Claire Marie lives in: ‘One of these streets that climb the hills near the Parc de Saint-Cloud’.

The sisters do not see one another often, and Jane rarely visits. In fact, the sisters have not spoken for an entire year before Jane’s unexpected visit. Jane’s partner professes that he finds her sister ‘boring’; she tells us, though, that ‘it would be more accurate to say that he’s suspicious of her’. For Claire Marie, Sundays are a sacred time, where she can devote hours to thinking about life, and ‘whether she expected something more from it, and whether she is still waiting for it to begin.’

Interspersed with the present-day narrative are sections where Jane thinks about Sundays which she spent during her childhood in Brussels. On Sundays, ‘Night fell faster than it did on the other days of the week’, and her mother was perpetually worked up about having to run the household: ‘… she’d say that Sundays were unbearable, and that her life was a failure.’ During this particular visit, Claire Marie is also thinking about the past; she reveals to Jane an ‘encounter’ which she had several years before, with one of her doctor husband’s patients. This could have changed the entire course of her life, and she continually wonders what would have happened if she had chosen this other, different path. She muses: ‘“On Sundays – don’t you think? – certain things come back to you more than on other days.”’

The sisters are both unhappy with aspects of their lives, and are visibly uncomfortable around one another. Jane reveals to us: ‘As I waited in the garden, I also had a familiar with indefinable feeling, slightly heavy, like a mild illness. Ville-d’Avray is just a few minutes from Paris, but you’d think you were hundreds of kilometres away. That, no doubt, explains how a man like [her partner] Luc can be incapable of comprehending the universe my sister lives in.’ She tells us that she was ‘in the melancholy state of mind that often comes over me when I go to see my sister…’.

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is constructed of a series of short vignettes which move back and forth in time. This is something which I love in fiction, and I felt that Barbéris controlled the technique incredibly well. The narrative, despite flipping back and forth somewhat between time periods, never feels confusing, or disjointed. The visceral descriptions throughout were also most enjoyable to read. Jane reflects: ‘I could practically see my sister stalling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder…’. Throughout, I also really liked the way in which our narrator described the physical being of her sister, and revealed snippets about their relationship.

There is something rather creepy which settles throughout this novella. When we learn about the stranger with whom Claire Marie had her ‘encounter’, we are led to put our guard up against him straight away. I think that this element of mystery fitted in well with the narrative, and I could not put the book down. A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray is a striking book, which builds wonderfully to its conclusion.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa (One From the Archive)

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

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The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Winterlings’ by Cristina Sánchez-Andrade ****

My library kindly purchased Cristina Sánchez-Andrade’s The Winterlings on my behalf. I thought that it would be an excellent choice to review for Women in Translation Month, as I’ve seen little written about it. I also wanted to be sure to include something set in Spain, as I am making a concerted effort to read more fiction set throughout the country. Published in English by Scribe in 2016, and translated from its original Spanish by Samuel Rutter, the novel has been the recipient of a few accolades to date; it is the winner of the English PEN Award for translation, and was also a finalist for the Herralde Novel Prize.

In The Winterlings, we meet two sisters, named Saladina and Dolores who have returned to their childhood home. They lived with their grandfather in a small community in Galicia, named Tierra de Chá. Here, they find that ‘nothing and everything has changed: the people, the distant little house in the rain, the acrid smell of gorse, the flowers, the crops, the customs.’ Their return serves to disrupt the ‘placid existence of the villagers, stirring up memories best left alone.’

The writing in this novel is strong. I particularly admired the romanticism which Sánchez-Andrade weaves into her descriptions, which gives them the feel of a fairytale. She writes, for instance, ‘Bats and owls crashed into each other, flying in loops. Ivy had invaded the house, and the chimney, bursting with foliage, had acquired the dimensions and appearance of a crumbling tower. The house had an orchard with a lemon tree, and bushes that sheltered butterflies and rustling noises; at the bottom, a river coursed with slender and succulent trout.’ The house in which the sisters live is on the edge of a forest described as ‘taut and dense’. I liked the relatively matter-of-fact descriptions too, which contrast nicely with the above. When the sisters spend their first evening in the house, Sánchez-Andrade writes: ‘They swept the floor. They pulled down the cobwebs. They put away the provisions they had brought. They made soup. The light dwindled, and the cold sharpened.’

The character descriptions here are excellent, if rather too few and far between. We learn, early on: ‘The older one was dried-out and bony; she had a pointy face and an aquiline nose… Closed off in her personal universe of magazines, soap operas, and melodrama, she had a single passion: an unhealthy need for security and to be left alone… By the time she was twenty, she looked like she was forty. By thirty-five, she looked like she was outside of time.’ Her sister, on the other hand, ‘was remarkable for her heavy jet-black hair, her narrow figure, her flashy lips, and above all her gaze… She had always been very patient, that patience being both her best quality and her greatest weakness.’

I really liked the way in which the relationship between Saladina and Dolores was depicted. Upon their return to their childhood home, the author tells us: ‘They feel comfortable in this slowness. The less they talk, the better. Words entangle, confuse, and deceive; you don’t need words to feel. They are comfortable, and the mere fact of being together, being alone, sharing their surrounds, a soup, an anise, makes them feel good. They do not expect more, and they do not wish for more.’ Sánchez-Andrade clearly gave a great deal of thought to how the way they interacted with one another would change as their circumstances altered. Later, Sánchez-Andrade comments: ‘Dolores needed her sister’s obsessions, her ascetic discipline, her way of being in the world, somewhere between madness and the void. There was a mixture of order and chaos in Saladina that fascinated her.’

The time period in which The Winterlings is set is not quite precise. The villagers are reeling from the past war, where Spain was split into National and Republican fronts. This still looms large in their memories. During this war, some of them ‘who had voted for the Left in the elections no longer left their houses’, and others fled to Cuba, or Portugal. When the sisters return, the community is still divided, and this is something which I would have liked to seen explored in greater detail as the novel went on. Something which is done relatively expansively, and well, though, is the coverage given to the tumultuous history of Spain, and its effects upon the villagers. Of these, we meet some only in passing, and others in more detail.

I am always drawn to literary fiction which features an element of mystery; The Winterlings has this in abundance. I do not wish to give too much away; just know that I very much enjoyed this intriguing novel, and that my attention was held throughout. The translation is excellent, and I was drawn in from the outset. If you are looking for a relatively quiet novel, which focuses on the ever-shifting relationship between two family members, I would look no further than The Winterlings.

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Women in Translation Month: ‘The Country of Others’ by Leïla Slimani ***

There was so much hype around about Moroccan author Leïla Slimani’s novel, Lullaby (also published as The Perfect Nanny) when it was first translated into English. However, I have not seen much written about the books which followed in translation. I very much enjoyed Adèle, which has a similar tone to Lullaby in its dark, psychological storyline, but The Country of Others seemed quite a departure.

The novel, which has been translated from the French by Sam Taylor, has been called ‘richly layered and deceptively simple’ by Claire Messud, and ‘exceptional’ by Salman Rushdie. It is a work of historical fiction, and begins in the Alsace region in 1944. Mathilde, our protagonist, finds herself falling in love with a Moroccan soldier named Amine Belhaj, who has been billeted in her small town whilst fighting for the French. Following the liberation, Mathilde follows her new husband to Morocco in 1946, where life is quickly ‘unrecognisable to this brave and passionate young woman’.

As soon as she arrives at the Belhaj family’s house, in the early stages of pregnancy, her life is beset with issues: ‘It was at that precise instant that she understood she was a foreigner, a woman, a wife, a being at the mercy of others. Amine was on home soil here: he was the one who explained the rules, who decided the path they would follow, who traced the borders of modesty, shame and decorum.’

Under the threat of violence amidst Morocco’s struggle for independence, Mathilde and Amine refuse to take sides. This causes the family to be ‘at odds with their own desire for freedom’. When they move to the family farm after the current tenant has finally moved out, she feels immediately isolated, and finds it difficult to cope with the heat, her loneliness, the suspicions which many hold against her, and the family’s lack of money. Despite this, Mathilde does grow to love her surroundings. Slimani writes: ‘Everything in this landscape was unexpected, different from what she had known before. She would have needed new words, a whole vocabulary freed of the past, to express her feelings, the light so bright that you lived life through squinting eyes, to describe the awe she felt day after day, when faced with so much mystery, so much beauty.’

Regardless, Mathilde is always aware of, and is made aware of, her differences: ‘She wished she could observe this beautiful world from afar, that she could be invisible. Her height, her whiteness, her status as a foreign woman all combined to keep her at a distance from the heart of things, from the silence that lets you know you are home.’ She is also made to feel inferior in her marriage, as Amine grows increasingly violent toward her: ‘There was something crazed about him, his eyes bloodshot and bulging from their sockets. He obviously wanted to tell her something, but all he could do was wave his arms strangely, as though throwing a ball or preparing to stab someone to death.’

As tensions grow around Mathilde, she resorts to wearing a djellaba and headscarf to hide her identity, and to blend in with the Moroccan women around her. Slimani writes: ‘Eyes lowered and veil raised over her mouth again, she felt herself disappear and she didn’t really know what to think about this. The anonymity protected her, even thrilled her, but she felt as if she were advancing into a dark pit, losing more of her name and identity with each step, as if by masking her face she was also masking some essential part of herself. She was becoming a shadow, a nameless, genderless, ageless being.’ This was an interesting exploration of identity, but it did not go anywhere near far enough, and was not mentioned again in the novel.

As time moves forward, attention is given to Mathilde and Amine’s daughter, Aïcha, who was ‘afraid of everything. Of the owl in the avocado tree, whose presence, according to the laborers, foretold death… Most of all, Aïcha was afraid of the dark. Of the deep, dense, infinite dark that surrounded her parents’ farm… The blackness swallowed up everything.’ She has few friends, and spends much of her time alone.

Slimani has definitely included a lot of detail in The Country of Others, but I never felt as though I connected with the story. I did not get to know the characters as much as I would have expected, and those around Mathilde felt almost like caricatures. The novel held my interest in some places, largely with regard to the social context, but not at all in others. The commentary on Morocco’s role in the Second World War was rather well done, but Slimani’s writing style in these sections did not gel as well with the fictional part of the story as I was expecting. Even the more dramatic moments for the family which occur fell a little flat, and pale alongside the factual elements.

The Country of Others is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Whilst I enjoyed learning a little more about Morocco as I read, for me, the story just did not hold enough interest for me to contemplate reading further. I found that the omniscient perspective, which has been used throughout, made everything feel too detached. I did not feel that The Country of Others was particularly compelling, and whilst I found it interesting to see how Slimani handled the genre of historical fiction, I think her strength lies within darker thrillers, and more contemporary settings.