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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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‘Soviet Milk’ by Nora Ikstena ****

One of the splendid Peirene Press’ new publications is Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk.  Part of the Home in Exile series, this ‘literary bestseller that took the Baltics by storm’, by an author who has written over twenty books, has been translated from its original Latvian into English for the first time.  This novel, Ikstena’s most recent, won the 2015 Annual Latvian Literature Award for Best Prose, and has been highly lauded.  I was particularly interested in reading this title, as I travelled around the Baltics last summer, and fell in love with Latvia.

Founder of Peirene Press, Meike Ziervogel, writes: ‘At first glance this novel depicts a troubled mother-daughter relationship set in the Soviet-ruled Baltics between 1969 and 1989.  Yet just beneath the surface lies something far more positive: the story of three generations of women, and the importance of a grandmother in giving her granddaughter what her daughter is unable to promote – love, and the desire for life.’

Soviet Milk ‘considers the effects of Soviet rule on a single individual.  The central character in the story – a nameless woman – tries to follow her calling as a doctor.  But then the state steps in.  She is deprived first of her professional future, then of her identity and finally of her relationship with her daughter.’  This woman, who suffers with depression, is banished to a small village in the Latvian countryside, miles away from her home in the capital, Riga.  Soviet Milk is dark, and stark, in what it depicts, particularly with regard to the central character.  The narrator reflects, in sadness: ‘I don’t remember Mother ever hugging me much, but I remember her needle-pricked thigh. where she practised injections.  I remember her in bed with blue lips the first time she overdosed, possibly as part of some medical experiment.’38190974

The narrator begins her account by telling us that she does not remember her birth in October 1969.  She goes on to say: ‘I do remember, or at least I can picture, the golden, tender calm of October, alternating with foreboding, of a long period of darkness.  It’s a kind of boundary month, at least in the climate of this latitude, where seasons change slowly and autumn only gradually gives way to winter.’  The narrator’s mother abandons her at birth, and returns five days later.  As her childhood progresses, she spends a great deal of time with her grandparents, the only constant in her life.  Of them, she reflects: ‘My grandmother and step-grandfather were the closest things I had to parents.  My mother stood somewhere outside the family.  Our lives revolved around her; we depended on her – but not for maternal nurturing.  Now and then, her struggles with her demons and angels would spill over into our daily routine, forcing us to acknowledge the fragile boundary between life and death.’  Many recollections of this interesting and complex fractured family dynamic follow.

As well as largely being raised by her kindly grandparents, and having less physical and emotional contact than she would have wished with her troubled mother, Soviet Milk describes the effects upon the narrator of what it was like to grow up in such a regime.  ‘Despite these absurdities,’ she says, ‘my mother continued to raise me as an honourable and faithful young Soviet citizen.  Yet within me blossomed a hatred for the duplicity and hypocrisy of this existence.  We carried flags in the May and November parades in honour of the Red Army, the Revolution and Communism, while at home we crossed ourselves and waited for the English army to come and free Latvia from the Russian boot.’

Ikstena’s imagery is powerful.  When the daughter’s father dies in his apartment, ’emaciated, gasping’, he is found in the following state: ‘Beneath him, on the stained day bed and all over the floor, newspapers displayed the faces of smiling workers and stern Politburo members.  He was lying upon words that promised five-year growth in a single year and extolled the superior morality of the people who were building Communism…  He was lying among words advocating the diversion of rivers, the conversion of churches into storehouses for mineral fertilizers, and the destruction of the literature, art and sculpture of our Latvian heritage.’

Margita Gailitis’ translation is fluid and understanding.  The structure of Soviet Milk works incredibly well.  It is told in short vignettes, which encompass remembrances of the narrator’s childhood, and musings upon her place in the world.  The perspective of her mother, the book’s central character, has also been used in alternating chapters.  Soviet Milk is a perceptive and introspective work.  Its character portraits are both multilayered and revealing.  One soon gets into the rhythm of the shifting perspectives, and the sharpness of what it demonstrates of the Soviet regime is sure to stay with each reader long after the final page has been read.

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Reading the World: ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov **** (One From the Archive)

Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is the first in the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.  It was first published in Russia in 2011, and as with all of the Peirene titles, this is its first translation into English.  Andrew Bromfield has done a marvellous job in this respect, and it goes without saying that the book itself is beautiful.

The author’s own life is worth mentioning in this review.  Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, and moved to Uzbekistan when he was a young man.  In 1994, he was forced to move to the United Kingdom due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.  Whilst his work has been translated into many European languages – Spanish, French and German among them – it is still banned in Uzbekistan to this day.

The Dead Lake, says its blurb, is ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’.  The novella has received high praise indeed; the Literary Review says that the author ‘has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground’.  Meike Ziervogel, the owner of Peirene Press, likens the novella to a Grimm’s fairytale due to the way in which the story ‘transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality’.

‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov (Peirene Press)

Its premise is absolutely stunning, and is at once both clever and creative: “Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons are tested.  As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake.  The radioactive water changes Yerzhan.  He will never grow into a man.”

The Dead Lake begins with a note from the narrator, which denotes the moment at which he met our protagonist, Yerzhan, upon a train.  He tells his tale to the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, and who punctuates it with his own feedback, recollections and imagined ending: ‘The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking’.

The story then centres upon Yerzhan himself, beginning with his uncertain birth: ‘Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway…  The column for “Father” in his birth certificate had remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen’.  His mother attests that his conception came as a surprise after she, ‘more dead than alive’, made her way into the deserted steppe to follow her silk scarf after it had blown away.  Here, she states that she came face to face with ‘a creature who looked like an alien from another planet, wearing a spacesuit’.  Since a cruel beating from her own father which was sustained after her pregnancy began to show, she has not spoken a single word.

Only two families live in the small way station named Kara-Shagan, and the sense of place and the desolation which Ismailov creates from the outset is strong.  The use of local words, folktales and songs adds to this too, and all of the aforementioned elements help to shape both the culture of the characters and their situation in an underpopulated part of their country.  The setting is presented as a character in itself at times, and this is a wonderful tool with which to demonstrate its vital importance to those who live within it.

As with all of Peirene’s titles, The Dead Lake is filled to the brim with intrigue from the very beginning.  Yerzhan has been well crafted, and his childish delight in particular has been well translated to the page.  When hearing his violin being played by a Bulgarian maestro of sorts, Ismailov describes the way in which: ‘the sound was so pure… even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow white clouds, the joyful birds’.

On a far darker note, the overriding fear of atomic bombs and the looming of a third world war gives the story an almost apocalyptic feel: ‘We are travellers, and the sky above us is full of enemy planes’.  The Dead Lake is quite unlike anything which I have read to date.  Ismailov presents a most interesting glimpse into a culture which is entirely different to ours.  The novella is absorbing, and the entirety is so powerful, particularly with regard to its ending.

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Reading the World: ‘Reader for Hire’ by Raymond Jean **** (One From the Archive)

The French bestseller Reader for Hire by Raymond Jean has recently been published by Peirene Press, as part of their Chance Encounter series.  Published as La Lectrice in 1986, Reader for Hire has been translated by Adriana Hunter.  The blurb heralds it ‘a beautiful homage to the art of reading – light and funny.  A celebration of the union of sensuality and language’, and Cosmopolitan deems it ‘a book that will make you want to read more books’.

Marie-Constance is our protagonist.  The self-confessed owner of ‘an attractive voice’, she decides to place an advert in three local newspapers to ‘offer her services as a paid reader’.  After her first success, her ‘fame spreads and soon the rich, the creative and the famous clamour for her services’.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, writes that, ‘As you turn the pages, think of Marie-Constance as the personification of reading itself.  And I promise you an experience you will never forget’.

The introductory paragraph is at once engrossing and rather beguiling: ‘Let me introduce myself: Marie-Constance G., thirty-four years old, one husband, no children, no profession.  I listened to the sound of my own voice yesterday.  It was in the little blue room in our apartment, the one we call the “echo chamber”.  I recited some verses of Baudelaire I happened to remember.  It struck me that my voice was really rather nice.  But can we truly hear ourselves?’  The first person perspective works marvellously, and the female narrative voice which Jean has cultivated feels as realistic as it possibly could for the most part.

Marie-Constance’s first client is a fourteen-year-old paraplegic named Eric, whose mother believes that ‘he needs contact with the outside world’.  The narrator’s observations about characters are quite originally written; of Eric’s mother, for example, she tells us the following: ‘Her mouth is busy talking, her floppy lips moving very quickly, her breath coming in acidic wafts.  A touching woman, in her rather milky forties’.  The subsequent cast of characters is varied.  As well as Eric, we have a former University tutor of Marie-Constance’s, who aids her in her new endeavour; an eighty-year-old Hungarian countess with a passion for Marxism; and a frenzied businessman who desperately wants to learn how to love literature.  The protagonists are different to the extent that the social history which Jean makes use of through them is incredibly rich and diverse.  The most unlikely friendships are struck within Reader for Hire, and this is a definite strength within the framework of the whole.

Seasonal changes are well wrought, and there is a real sense of time moving on whilst experience and expertise are gained.  The whole has been so carefully translated that it is easy to forget that English is not its original language.  The novella feels rather original; I for one haven’t read anything quite like it before.  On the surface, Reader for Hire is a book about books; in reality, it is so much more than that, constructed as it is from a plethora of depths and intrigues.

Stories are nestled within stories here; portions of Maupassant, for example, sit alongside past experiences of Marie-Constance’s clients, and the circumstances which have led them to require her services.  A whirlwind tour of French literature ensues, and Jean exemplifies, above all, as to why books – and the pleasure of reading itself – matter, and how the very act of opening a novel and sharing it with a confidante can transform a life.  We are shown the power that words are able to hold.  Reader for Hire is a real tribute to the arts, and to the importance of literature.  In these times of social cuts and austerity for some of the very groups which Jean places focus upon – the elderly and the disabled – one cannot help but think that such a job as Marie-Constance’s would hold an awful lot of usefulness.

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One From the Archive: ‘White Hunger’ by Aki Ollikainen ***

Aki Ollikainen’s White Hunger is the first book in Peirene Press’ Chance Encounter series, and the 16th publication on their list.  It has been hailed an ‘extraordinary Finnish novella that has taken the Nordic literary scene by storm’.  The novella is also the recipient of several prizes, including the Best Finnish Debut Novel of 2012.

As ever with a Peirene publication, one knows that the story which awaits will be intelligent, thought-provoking and difficult to put down.  Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, compares White Hunger to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road: ‘this apocalyptic story deals with the human will to survive’.

Set in 1867, White Hunger deals with a devastating famine which swept across Finland, affecting everyone in its wake.  The novella’s main protagonist is Marja, a mother and farmer’s wife from the north of the country.  She and her family are slowly starving, and as she has heard that there is bread in St Petersburg, she decides to travel there with her children, Mataleena and Juho.  Her husband Juhani’s impending death is the crux which leads her to leave her home.  Ollikainen uses colour marvellously to describe his final moments: ‘The colour is being drained from Juhani’s face.  The first to go was red, the colour of blood.  Red changed into yellow, then yellow, too, vanished, leaving grey, which is now fading gradually into white’.

Alongside Marja’s story, we learn about others whom she comes across on her journey.  A subplot deals with that of assistant accountant to Finland’s senator, a man named Lars, who is trying desperately to hold everything together: ‘Lars was a mere messenger, but the senator directed his anger at him…  Finally, he [Lars] cursed the stupid farmers in the country’s interior – fat, lazy landowners who threw out their workers so they would have more for themselves, even though by rights they should have fed their poor’.  Ollikainen also speaks about Lars’ brother Teo, a local doctor, whose methods of practice add more historical perspective to the whole.

The descriptions throughout White Hunger show the desolation and starkness of the surroundings, and the power which nature has upon the people: ‘The wind tugs waves out of the water.  The sky reflected there is patchy, fragmentary, as if smashed’.  The rural and bleak situation of the unnamed Finnish town are well built too: ‘Your hometown’s a miserable village on a wretched little island’, Teo is told.  The author’s building of scenes in this manner adds an almost claustrophobic feel to the whole.  The presence of snow, which is described as a ‘suffocating blanket of white’, is sinister in itself: ‘The door is the worst.  Snow pushes in through the chinks and forms a frame, like a cadaver bent on settling in the cottage…  They need to get as far away as possible from their miserable patch of land.  All that is left here is death’.

Ollikainen’s occasional use of present tense adds an immediacy to the whole, and makes it feel almost contemporary at times, despite its historical setting.  The comparisons which he makes between humans and animals is so perceptive; images such as one character ‘grinning wolf-like’, and another ‘hunching his narrow shoulders in the manner of a dog caught by his master up to no good’ are prevalent.

White Hunger has been translated from its original Finnish by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah.  Both translators are fabulously thoughtful at what they do, and the whole has a marvellous flow to it.  The novella is quite tender in places, and this contrasts well with the more frightening elements.  As one might expect with a plot such as this, darker aspects of life have been woven throughout – prostitution, murder, and the objectification of women, for example.  The bleak and powerful plot and almost compulsive readability make White Hunger a good fit upon the Peirene Press list.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Tomorrow Pamplona’ by Jan van Mersbergen **

Celebrated author Jan van Mersbergen’s Tomorrow Pamplona was the fifth book upon the wonderful Peirene Press list of novellas in translation.  In this instance, the tale was originally written in Dutch, and has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  De Morgen calls this ‘an intense reading experience…  Van Mersbergen tells what needs to be told and not a word more’. 9780956284044

From the first, I did like the idea of the chance encounter which the whole plot revolves around; a professional boxer and the father of a young child ‘meet by chance on a journey to the Pamplona Bull Run.  The boxer is fleeing an unhappy love.  The father hopes to escape his dull routine.  Both know that, actually, they will have to return to the place each calls “home”‘.  Tomorrow Pamplona has a storyline which I would not automatically be drawn to.  However, I have very much enjoyed the majority of Peirene’s publications, and have high hopes for everything which they painstakingly translate and reprint.

At the outset, Tomorrow Pamplona appears to be very well paced, and the translation, particularly with regard to the sections which feature the boxer, Danny Clare, has such a rhythm to it.  The balance between action and imagery has been well realised: ‘He crosses a busy main road and runs into a park.  He comes to a patch of grass with a bronze statue in the centre, a woman holding a child in the air as though she wants to entrust it to the clouds’.  With regard to the characters, however, the prose does tend to veer toward the relatively simplistic.  The lack of complexity in sentence structure takes something away from the story as far as I am concerned; it felt like rather a plodding reading experience after the first few pages, and it’s not a process which I can say I very much enjoyed.

There was no immediate captivation here for me.  Whilst the scene was set rather well at the beginning, if anything caught my attention, I felt that it would be in the relationship which built up between Danny and the father, Robert, with whom he travels.  The latter picks up Danny whilst he is hitchhiking, and asks him to come along on the journey; he duly accepts.  Robert’s description of the trip, which he makes each year, and the passion which it strikes in him has been well evoked: ‘Tomorrow morning I’m going to come face to face with a bunch of bulls, Robert continues.  He taps the steering wheel.  I’ll be standing there on one of those streets in Pamplona, in my white shirt, together with all those other people in their white shirts.  Then they let the bulls out and you’d better start running’.  It is his pilgrimage of sorts.  ‘It’s a tradition, Robert continues.  It’s a celebration.  It’s danger.  It’s real life’.

I found a lot of the writing about Danny’s fights and preparation for them a little repetitive; perhaps deliberately so, I’m not entirely sure.  There was no wonder for me here; I did not connect with any of the characters, as I so often tend to do with Peirene’s novellas.  Whilst it was an okay read on the whole, it stirred no strong feelings within me, and it isn’t anything which I would recommend.

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Reading the World 2017: ‘Maybe This Time’ by Alois Hotschnig ****

Originally released in 2006, and rendered into English into 2011, Alois Hotschnig’s Maybe This Time is one of Peirene Press’ earliest publications.  World Literature Today declares that ‘Hotschnig’s prose dramatizes the voice of conscience and the psychological mechanisms we use to face reality or, just as often, to avoid it’.  Hotschnig is one of Austria’s most critically acclaimed authors, and he has won major Austrian, and international, literary prizes over his career.  The collection has been translated from the Austrian German by Tess Lewis.

9780956284051Hotschnig’s short story collection has been described by many readers as ‘unsettling’, and this, I feel, is quite a fitting appraisal.  There is a creeping sense of unease which comes over one as soon as the stories are begun.  The initial tale, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’, is about a pair of neighbours who sit side by side in the narrator’s eyeline for days on end: ‘… they didn’t move, not even to wave away the mosquitoes or scratch themselves’.  This has rather a distressing effect upon our unnamed observer: ‘Every day, every night, always the same.  Their stillness made me feel uneasy, and my unease grew until it festered into an affliction I could no longer bear’.  His reaction is perhaps the most interesting one which Hotschnig could have come up with in this instance: ‘I drew closer to them because they rejected me.  Rejection, after all, is still a kind of contact’.  As one might expect as the midway point is reached in this tale, the narrator soon becomes obsessed: ‘I decided to observe them even more closely to calm my unease, as if I no longer had a life of my own but lived only through them’.

There are nine short stories included within Maybe This Time, all of which have rather intriguing titles.  These include the likes of ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’, and ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’.  Some rather thoughtful ideas have been woven in; they have a definite profundity at times: ‘We looked at the same views, heard the same noises.  We shared a common world and were separated by it’.  Each of the tales is sharp; every one relatively brief, but all of which have a wealth of emotions and scenes packed into them.  Hotschnig is shrewd, and in control at all times; he makes the reader fear impending danger with the most subtle of hints.

No particular time periods have been specified within the collection, and only small clues have been left as to when each story takes place.  They are, one and all, essentially suspended in time.  I did find a couple of the stories a little abrupt in terms of their endings, but this collection is certainly a memorable one.  There is a great fluency in Lewis’ translation, which helps to render Maybe This Time one of the creepiest reads on Peirene’s list thus far.

 

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One From the Archive: ‘The Looking-Glass Sisters’ by Gohril Gabrielsen ****

The first offering in English by acclaimed Norwegian author Gohril Gabrielsen has just been published by the marvellous Peirene Press, making it their eighteenth title, and the final instalment in 2015’s Chance Encounter series.  For those who do not know, Peirene focus upon translating European novella-length works, which would otherwise probably completely pass us by in the United Kingdom.

Translated by John Irons, The Looking-Glass Sisters – first published in Norway in 2008 – is a stunning and intense portrayal of the relationship between two sisters.  Bergens Tidende, Norway’s fifth largest newspaper, believes that The Looking-Glass Sisters is ‘innovative and sensuous’, and Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene, calls it ‘a story about loneliness – both geographical and psychological’.  Here, Gabrielsen presents to us ‘a tragic love story about two sisters who cannot live with or without each other’.

Ragna is the elder sister, and has been tasked with caring for her partially paralysed, and thus totally dependent, sister since the deaths of their parents.  Our narrator, who remains unnamed, says, ‘I’m dependent on her help and goodwill…  But she ignores my cries, does not come, punishes me severely.  And repeatedly…  I have to realise that we’ve come to a watershed in our relationship as sisters.  After our last agonising quarrel, it looks as if she’s forgotten me.  I’ve been stowed away like an object among all the other objects up here – discarded and outside time’.

The prose style which Gabrielsen has made use of is gripping from the very start.  The story opens in the following way: ‘My sister and her husband are outside, digging a deep hole next to the dwarf birch by my attic window…  Soon I am dozing dreamlessly, just as hidden as the thing down there in the dark earth’.  She uses the simple yet effective technique of going back in time in order to build the contextual information, and to give us further insights into the tumultuous and often cruel relationship between the sisters.  The entire novella is deftly shaped, and Gabrielsen’s care and attention to detail mean that one is immediately submerged within the dark, stifling world of our narrator.  The very notion of everyday life, and those tasks which we perhaps take for granted, are examined, as are the ways in and means with which our narrator brings herself to cope.

The reader is soon called upon to be a participant within the story, rather than merely an overseer: ‘Imagine an attic.  Not just any attic, but one in a remote spot in a northern, godforsaken part of the world…  You go up there only reluctantly, and preferably not alone – it’s got something to do with the creaking of the staircase…  It’s not easy to make it to the room at the top.  And it’s even more difficult to come down’.   The power of the first person perspective grows: ‘You place your ear to the door.  After a moment, you sense some sound of life, not breathing and movement, but a vibration of existence, an unrest that only life can produce…  Deep inside, among the dancing white spots, you can make out the contours of a body resting on a bed.  And this body, this only just perceptible unrest – it is me’.

The Looking-Glass Sisters contains such interesting and original aspects of personality, and builds a cast of characters who feel – often horribly – realistic, particularly in their cruelties.  Ragna, for example, ‘is a person you instinctively talk loudly to, long and hard, so as to be heard through the thick layer of resistance’.  Gabrielsen’s prose, and those elements which she depicts, are startling in places: ‘Her little heart shrivelled, like the animal hearts in the larder that her sister cooks with cream’.

Gabrielsen shrewdly demonstrates that one can be with somebody every day, and not really know them at all.  In The Looking-Glass Sisters, she masterfully builds intensity, and weaves in elements of sensuality and control.  She shows the hidden strength of our narrator, and sculpts the overriding feeling that people are not always as they may appear.  The fact that the narrator herself is never given a name gives a whole new depth to proceedings; despite her lack of identification in this manner, she is still the most human depiction in the entire novella.  The stark darkness within the plot, too, unfolds marvellously against the framework of the northern Norway setting.

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‘The Brothers’ by Asko Sahlberg ****

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

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

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

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

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

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One From the Archive: ‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov ****

Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake is the newest addition to the Peirene list, and is the first in the Coming-of-Age: Towards Identity series.  It was first published in Russia in 2011, and as with all of the Peirene titles, this is its first translation into English.  Andrew Bromfield has done a marvellous job in this respect, and it goes without saying that the book itself is beautiful.

The author’s own life is worth mentioning in this review.  Hamid Ismailov was born in Kyrgyzstan, and moved to Uzbekistan when he was a young man.  In 1994, he was forced to move to the United Kingdom due to his ‘unacceptable democratic tendencies’.  Whilst his work has been translated into many European languages – Spanish, French and German among them – it is still banned in Uzbekistan to this day.

The Dead Lake, says its blurb, is ‘a haunting tale about the environmental legacy of the Cold War’.  The novella has received high praise indeed; the Literary Review says that the author ‘has the capacity of Salman Rushdie at his best to show the grotesque realization of history on the ground’.  Meike Ziervogel, the owner of Peirene Press, likens the novella to a Grimm’s fairytale due to the way in which the story ‘transforms an innermost fear into an outward reality’.

‘The Dead Lake’ by Hamid Ismailov (Peirene Press)

Its premise is absolutely stunning, and is at once both clever and creative: “Yerzhan grows up in a remote part of Soviet Kazakhstan where atomic weapons are tested.  As a young boy he falls in love with the neighbour’s daughter and one evening, to impress her, he dives into a forbidden lake.  The radioactive water changes Yerzhan.  He will never grow into a man.”

The Dead Lake begins with a note from the narrator, which denotes the moment at which he met our protagonist, Yerzhan, upon a train.  He tells his tale to the narrator, who remains unnamed throughout, and who punctuates it with his own feedback, recollections and imagined ending: ‘The way Yerzhan told me about his life was like this road of ours, without any discernible bends or backtracking’.

The story then centres upon Yerzhan himself, beginning with his uncertain birth: ‘Yerzhan was born at the Kara-Shagan way station of the East Kazakhstan Railway…  The column for “Father” in his birth certificate had remained blank, except for a thick stroke of the pen’.  His mother attests that his conception came as a surprise after she, ‘more dead than alive’, made her way into the deserted steppe to follow her silk scarf after it had blown away.  Here, she states that she came face to face with ‘a creature who looked like an alien from another planet, wearing a spacesuit’.  Since a cruel beating from her own father which was sustained after her pregnancy began to show, she has not spoken a single word.

Only two families live in the small way station named Kara-Shagan, and the sense of place and the desolation which Ismailov creates from the outset is strong.  The use of local words, folktales and songs adds to this too, and all of the aforementioned elements help to shape both the culture of the characters and their situation in an underpopulated part of their country.  The setting is presented as a character in itself at times, and this is a wonderful tool with which to demonstrate its vital importance to those who live within it.

As with all of Peirene’s titles, The Dead Lake is filled to the brim with intrigue from the very beginning.  Yerzhan has been well crafted, and his childish delight in particular has been well translated to the page.  When hearing his violin being played by a Bulgarian maestro of sorts, Ismailov describes the way in which: ‘the sound was so pure… even a blind man would have seen the blue sky, the dance of the pure air, the clear sunlight, the snow white clouds, the joyful birds’.

On a far darker note, the overriding fear of atomic bombs and the looming of a third world war gives the story an almost apocalyptic feel: ‘We are travellers, and the sky above us is full of enemy planes’.  The Dead Lake is quite unlike anything which I have read to date.  Ismailov presents a most interesting glimpse into a culture which is entirely different to ours.  The novella is absorbing, and the entirety is so powerful, particularly with regard to its ending.

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