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Reading the World: ‘The Housekeeper and the Professor’ by Yoko Ogawa ****

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.

9780099521341The 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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Reading the World: ‘Fever Dream’ by Samanta Schweblin ****

Samanta Schweblin has been heralded as one of the freshest new voices to emerge from the Spanish-speaking world.  An Argentinian author, her debut novel, Fever Dream, is one which I hadn’t heard of before it piqued my interest on Netgalley.  Translated by Megan McDowell, Fever Dream is a tense and well-paced novel, with an intriguing mystery at its heart.

9780399184598The general plot deals with a young mother named Amanda, who is lying in bed in a rural hospital clinic.  She is dying.  Beside her is David, a young boy who isn’t her son, but who sees her as holding the pivotal key to the mystery which he needs to unlock.  ‘Together,’ reads the blurb, ‘they tell a haunting story of broken souls, toxins, and the power and desperation of family’.  Fever Dream is ‘a nightmare come to life, a ghost story for the real world, a love story and a cautionary tale’.

David is poisoned when he drinks from an infected stream.  His mother Carla, not trusting that the village doctor will reach him in time to save him, entrusts his care to a local woman. She tells her that a migration of his soul is the only way to save her son: ‘The woman said that she couldn’t choose the family he went to…  She wouldn’t know where he’d gone.  She also said the migration would have its consequences.  There isn’t room in a body for two spirits, and there’s no body without a spirit.  The transmigration would take David’s spirit to a healthy body, but it would also bring an unknown spirit to the sick body.  Something of each of them would be left in the other’.

The narrative style, told solely through the format of a contemporary conversation (think italicised text and no speech marks) is very intriguing, and catapults the reader straight into the story.  Very early on, Amanda tells David – and the reader, by design – ‘… but I’m going to die in a few hours.  That’s going to happen, isn’t it?  It’s strange how calm I am.  Because even though you haven’t told me, I know.  And still, it’s an impossible thing to tell yourself’.  She goes on to ask him the following: ‘How different are you now from the David of six years ago?  What did you do that was so terrible your own mother no longer accepts you as hers?  These are the things I can’t stop wondering about’.

Crossing genre boundaries, Fever Dream is a short but memorable novel.  It strikes the same unsettling chord as a horror film, just before something jumps out and terrifies you.  One is palpably aware of a danger, which has been translated so well that it reads as though English is its original language.

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Reading the World: ‘A Woman’s Story’ by Annie Ernaux ****

Annie Ernaux was one of the authors I wanted to get to during 2017, and what better than to tie her together with my Reading the World project?  I chose A Woman’s Story as my first Ernaux as I had previously heard of it, and because it sounded so powerful.  Kirkus Reviews writes that A Woman’s Story is ‘as much about Everywoman as one particular woman… [which] laconically describes the cruel realities of old age for a woman once vibrant and independent.’

The slim memoir chronicles the dementia and death of Ernaux’s mother, as well as weaving in aspects of her life and character.  Translated from its original French by Tanya Leslie, the prose throughout is measured and careful.  This renders some of the more harrowing and touching scenes which Ernaux depicts far more stark and raw than they perhaps would have been had the writing been frilly or overdone in any way.  This is particularly so when coming to terms with the death of her mother: ‘I would be sitting behind the wheel and suddenly it would hit me.  “She will never be alive anywhere in the world again.”  I couldn’t come to terms with the fact that other people behaved normally.’

9781583225752A Woman’s Story is a self-confessed writing exercise which Ernaux embarked upon in order to discover; to ‘capture the real woman, the one who existed independently from me’.  In her own words, she describes the different genres which can be found within her biographical work: ‘The more objective aspect of my writing will probably involve a cross between family history and sociology, reality and fiction’.

In depicting her mother, who lived in relative poverty in Normandy and was the fourth child in a family of six, Ernaux builds a fascinating portrait of a bygone age.  She writes: ‘My mother’s youth involved trying to escape the dull certainties of her fate: inevitable poverty, the threat of alcoholism and everything else that happened to a factory girl who had slipped into bad habits’.  The structure, made up as it is of fragmented memories, works incredibly well here.  Ernaux also renders her work achingly honest, and so personal: ‘As I write, I see her sometimes as a “good,” sometimes as a “bad” mother.  To get away from these contrasting views, which come from my earliest childhood, I try to describe and explain her life as if I were writing about someone else’s mother and a daughter who wasn’t me’.

Ernaux somehow manages to be both frank and heartfelt throughout, making A Woman’s Story both an important exercise in biography for its author, and a fascinating tome for the everyday reader.

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Reading the World: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Hakan Nesser ***

I borrowed Hakan Nesser’s The Mind’s Eye from the library for inclusion in my year-long Reading the World project.  I hadn’t heard of it before, but I count myself as a fan of Nordic Noir, and thought it might be just the thing to read on a cold winter’s night.  This volume has been translated from its original Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and was first published in Sweden in 1993; the author was victorious in the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Prize for it, and subsequently won other prestigious awards for his later work.

9780330492782The Mind’s Eye is the first Inspector van Veeteren mystery, in which a history and philosophy teacher named Janek Mitter awakes to find that he cannot remember who he is.  He then discovers the body of his beautiful young wife, Eva, floating in the bath after an attack.  Even during the trial which follows, he has no memory of attacking his wife, or any idea as to how he could have killed her; indeed, ‘Only when he is sentenced and locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane does he have a snatch of insight.  He scribbles something in his Bible, but is murdered before the clue can be uncovered’.

The novel’s opening passage is quite striking: ‘It’s like being born, he thought.  I’m not a person.  Merely a mass of suffering’.  In this manner, Nesser gets straight into the story.  He continues thus when the body is discovered, using short, snappy sentences to capture the mood: ‘He entered the room and, just as he switched on the light, he became quite clear about who he was. / He could also identify the woman lying in the bath. / Her name was Eva Ringmar and she was his wife of three months. / Her body was strangely twisted…  Her dark hair was floating on the water.  Her head was face-down, and as the bath was full to the brim there could be no doubt that she was dead.’

The Mind’s Eye is rather a quick read, and a page-turner, at least.  It isn’t the most gripping mystery, nor the most memorable slice of Scandicrime; in fact, it lacks the darkness and the often twisted, gory killings of many of its contemporaries.  There are far more grisly whodunnits out there, and part of me wishes I’d selected one such instead.  Nesser’s effort is well plotted, and the plot points do keep one interested in the story.  I cannot help but feel that the blurb of the novel gives a little too much away, however.  There is nothing overly special about the translation, sadly; the way in which it is rendered takes away any memorable prose, and it uses many paragraphs made of short sentences to further push different points home.  Needless to say, it is not a series which I will be continuing with.

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The Book Trail: From Amsterdam to Paris

I was lucky enough to spend a week in beautiful Amsterdam in early March, and am pleased to say that it has inspired me to pick up a wealth of themed reading within my yearly projects forecast for 2018.  I am actually thinking of Reading Cities as my main 2018 challenge, and focusing upon literature from and about my favourite places in the world.

That said, I hope you enjoy today’s Book Trail!  It begins in Amsterdam, and takes us all the way to Paris.

1. Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland 9780140296280
‘This luminous story begins in the present day, when a professor invites a colleague to his home to see a painting that he has kept secret for decades. The professor swears it is a Vermeerbut why has he hidden this important work for so long? The reasons unfold in a series of events that trace the ownership of the painting back to World War II and Amsterdam, and still further back to the moment of the work’s inspiration. As the painting moves through each owner’s hands, what was long hidden quietly surfaces, illuminating poignant moments in multiple lives. Susan Vreeland’s characters remind us, through their love of this mysterious painting, how beauty transforms and why we reach for it, what lasts and what in our lives is singular and unforgettable.”‘

 

2. Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper by Harriet Scott Chessman
This richly imagined fiction entices us into the world of Mary Cassatt’s early Impressionist paintings. The story is told by Mary’s sister Lydia, as she poses for five of her sister’s most unusual paintings, which are reproduced in, and form the focal point of each chapter. Ill with Bright’s disease and conscious of her approaching death, Lydia contemplates her world with courageous openness, and asks important questions about love and art’s capacity to remember.

 

2765783. The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey
In this passionate and atmospheric debut novel, Elizabeth Hickey reimagines the tumultous relationship between the Viennese painter Gustav Klimt and Emilie Floge, the woman who posed for Klimt’s masterpiece The Kiss – and whose name he uttered with is dying breath.  Vienna in 1886 was a city of elegant cafés, grand opera houses, and a thriving and adventurous artistic community. It is here where the twelve-year-old Emilie meets the controversial libertine and painter. Hired by her bourgeois father for basic drawing lessons, Klimt introduces Emilie to a subculture of dissolute artists, wanton models, and decadent patrons that both terrifies and inspires her. The Painted Kiss follows Emilie as she blossoms from a naïve young girl to one of Europe’s most exclusive couturiers—and Klimt’s most beloved model and mistress. A provocative love story that brings to life Vienna’s cultural milieu, The Painted Kiss is as compelling as a work by Klimt himself.

 

4. With Violets by Elizabeth Robards
‘Paris in the 1860s: a magnificent time of expression, where brilliant young artists rebel against the stodginess of the past to freely explore new styles of creating—and bold new ways of living.  Passionate, beautiful, and utterly devoted to her art, Berthe Morisot is determined to be recognized as an important painter. But as a woman, she finds herself sometimes overlooked in favor of her male counterparts—Monet, Pissarro, Degas.  And there is one great artist among them who captivates young Berthe like none other: the celebrated genius Édouard Manet. A mesmerizing, breathtaking rogue—a shameless roué, undeterred and irresistible—his life is a wildly overgrown garden of scandal. He becomes Berthe’s mentor, her teacher…her lover, despite his curiously devoted marriage to his frumpy, unappealing wife, Suzanne, and his many rumored dalliances with his own models. For a headstrong young woman from a respectable family, an affair with such an intoxicating scoundrel can only spell heartbreak and ruin.  But Berthe refuses to resign herself to the life of quiet submission that Society has dictated for her. Undiscouraged, she will create her own destiny…and confront life—and love—on her own terms.

 

5. Claude and Camille: A Novel of Monet by Stephanie Cowell 6797515
In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris.  But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time.  His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside.  But Camille had her own demons – secrets that  Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner.  A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude and Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order.

 

6. The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe
Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Cézanne, Renoir, Degas, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt. Though they were often ridiculed or ignored by their contemporaries, today astonishing sums are paid for the works of these artists, whose paintings are celebrated for their ability to capture the moment, not only in the fleeting lights of a landscape but in scenes of daily life. Their dazzling pictures are familiar?  But how well does the world know the Impressionists as people? The Private Lives of the Impressioniststells their story. It is the first book to offer an intimate and lively biography of the world’s most popular group of artists.

 

5738967. Renoir, My Father by Jean Renoir
In this delightful memoir, Jean Renoir, the director of such masterpieces of the cinema as Grand Illusion and The Rules of the Game, tells the life story of his father, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, the great Impressionist painter. Recounting Pierre-Auguste’s extraordinary career, beginning as a painter of fans and porcelain, recording the rules of thumb by which he worked, and capturing his unpretentious and wonderfully engaging talk and personality, Jean Renoir’s book is both a wonderful double portrait of father and son and, in the words of the distinguished art historian John Golding, it “remains the best account of Renoir, and, furthermore, among the most beautiful and moving biographies we have.”

 

8. Dawn of the Belle Epoque by Mary McAuliffe
A humiliating military defeat by Bismarck’s Germany, a brutal siege, and a bloody uprising Paris in 1871 was a shambles, and the question loomed, “Could this extraordinary city even survive?” Mary McAuliffe takes the reader back to these perilous years following the abrupt collapse of the Second Empire and France’s uncertain venture into the Third Republic.   By 1900, Paris had recovered and the Belle Epoque was in full flower, but the decades between were difficult, marked by struggles between republicans and monarchists, the Republic and the Church, and an ongoing economic malaise, darkened by a rising tide of virulent anti-Semitism.   Yet these same years also witnessed an extraordinary blossoming in art, literature, poetry, and music, with the Parisian cultural scene dramatically upended by revolutionaries such as Monet, Zola, Rodin, and Debussy, even while Gustave Eiffel was challenging architectural tradition with his iconic tower. Through the eyes of these pioneers and others, including Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Clemenceau, Marie Curie, and Cesar Ritz, we witness their struggles with the forces of tradition during the final years of a century hurtling towards its close. Through rich illustrations and evocative narrative, McAuliffe brings this vibrant and seminal era to life.”

 

Have you read any of these?

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Reading the World: ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang ***

We turn to South Korea for today’s installment of my Reading the World project.  The Vegetarian (2007) is the second of Han Kang’s books which I’ve read to date, and is again translated by Deborah Smith.  It also won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016.  On reflection, I must say that I far preferred Human Acts (you can read my review of it here).  That said, The Vegetarian is undoubtedly a novel full of complexities, and makes for an incredibly interesting reading choice.

9781846276033The Vegetarian is a book which I’m sure most of you will have heard of, if not read; the vast majority of my Goodreads friends, for instance, have either loved or very much enjoyed this.  It is billed both as a ‘disturbing and thrilling psychological drama about taboo, desire, rebellion and fantasy’, and as a ‘darkly beautiful modern classic about rebellion, eroticism and the female body.  One of the most extraordinary books you will ever read.’  A vast claim indeed, and whilst I’ve not quite read anything like The Vegetarian before, I’m not sure I’d put it up there with the pinnacle of extraordinary novels I’ve read over my lifetime thus far.

Let us discuss the plot, then.  The marriage of Yeong-hye and her husband, Mr Cheong, is ‘interrupted’ when she ‘commits a shocking act of submission: she refuses to eat meat’ and becomes a vegetarian, something not widely accepted in South Korean culture.  The novel’s opening section caught my interest; in a way, we are given the dual perspectives of both Mr Cheong, whose narrative is more traditional, and Yeong-hye, who describes horrific dreamscapes, in which she has seen bloodied corpses and the like, in italicised text.  Mr Cheong narrates the action, for want of a better phrase.  He is baffled at his wife’s decision to become a vegetarian, and furious that she refuses to cook meat for him.  Along with Yeong-hye’s parents, he does everything within his power to try and reverse her decision.  The second section of The Vegetarian uses a third person voice, and follows Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who becomes fixated on the idea of painting flowers onto naked bodies, culminating in an erotic art film of sorts.  The final part is told by her sister, In-hye.

Mr Cheong is incredibly misogynistic.  Not only does he refuse to take his wife seriously at any point, but he actually turns to physically harming her when he does not get his own way.  When she tells him that the meat smell upon his skin repulses her and she cannot copulate with him, he rapes her.

Yeong-hye is a complex character construction.  Throughout, I felt as though she was the most realistic creation within the book; the others paled a little in comparison, particularly as I struggled to believe that rational adults would behave as they sometimes did; for instance, the scene in which Yeong-hye’s father tries to force feed her meat, thinking that it will change her mind.  This particular scene sent shivers down my spine, and I felt such pangs of compassion for our protagonist.

The passage of time has been well executed, and the use of different perspectives do work well as a whole.  My only qualm is that we are never fully given Yeong-hye’s voice; we learn about her through other characters, and know a little of what is in her head due to the nightmares we are given glimpses of.  I believe that The Vegetarian would have been far more psychologically chilling had it partially, or perhaps entirely, been narrated from her point of view.  She spends time in an institution, but her experiences there are barely documented.

At times, The Vegetarian is quite gorily matter-of-fact.  Mr Cheong, for example, describes the following: ‘I’d seen my mother-in-law gut fish, and my wife and her sister were both perfectly competent when it came to hacking a chicken to pieces with a butcher’s cleaver.  I’d always liked my wife’s earthy vitality, the way she would catch cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand.  She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world’.  Hmm.  Her transformation from placid wife to a headstrong woman in control of her own diet is believable, and very well done; there is a definite change to her, and reasons for it.

The Vegetarian is a harrowing read, and not one for the faint of heart.  To me, it did not feel as consistent as Human Acts; there were a few instances within the novel where I was a little bored with proceedings, and felt that details were being repeated unnecessarily.  The novel comes in waves, though; just as I was beginning to find it a little predictable, something would happen which would render the next few pages compelling and difficult to put down.  In places, The Vegetarian is just as chilling as Human Acts, and its storyline is perhaps more memorable, but it just didn’t grip me in the same way.  Overarchingly, however, its message is powerful; never underestimate a woman when she has made up her mind.

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Reading the World: ‘Gilgi, One Of Us’ by Irmgard Keun *****

Gilgi (full title, Gilgi, One Of Us) has been presented in a new English translation as part of Melville House Publishing’s Neversink Library collection.  First published in its original German in 1931, Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, published when she was just twenty-six, has been rendered into the most beautiful English prose by Geoff Wilkes.  In Germany, Gilgi became an overnight sensation, and Keun was driven to sue the Gestapo several years afterwards for blocking her royalties.

9781612192772The protagonist of Gilgi is Gisela Kron, a ‘disciplined and ambitious secretary’ in a hosiery business.  Immediately admirable with her hardworking stubbornness,  she is desperately ‘trying to establish her independence in a society being overtaken by fascism’.  Falling in love, however, is a ‘fateful choice’ which will ‘unmoor’ Gilgi from her own position in the world, that which she has fought for so long to uphold.  Gilgi is essentially a coming-of-age novel; whilst Gilgi is biologically older than a character whom we might expect to undergo such a formative transformation, she learns much about the world around her, and about herself, as the novel progresses.  She is made aware of her own strengths and weaknesses, and the place which she occupies in both public and private spheres in her home city of Cologne.

Keun’s choice of opening is fascinating, and very much sets the tone for the whole: ‘She’s holding it firmly in her hands, her little life, the girl Gilgi.  She calls herself Gilgi, her name is Gisela.  The two i‘s [sic] are better suited to slim legs and narrow hips like a child’s, to tiny fashionable hats which contrive mysteriously to stay perched on the very top of her head.  When she’s twenty-five, she’ll call herself Gisela.  But she’s not at that point quite yet.’  She is a cool-headed character, and faced with many of the challenges as she is, many other protagonists would have inevitably had some sort of breakdown or existential crisis.  Not Gilgi.  She is a firm believer in dealing with everything thrown at one, and she does so largely flawlessly.

Gilgi’s familial situation is exposed to the reader almost immediately: ‘No one speaks.  Everyone is earnestly and dully occupied with their own concerns.  The complete lack of conversation testifies to the family’s decency and legitimacy.  Herr and Frau Kron have stuck together through years of honorable tedium to their silver wedding anniversary.  They love each other, and are faithful to each other, something which has become a matter of routine, and no longer needs to be discussed, or felt’.

irmgard-keun-in-1935

Irmgard Keun

Gilgi is very of its time; Keun is never far away from inserting snippets of social history, or the economic struggles which many around Gilgi faced on a daily basis.  So many issues which are still of much importance in our modern society are tackled here – patriarchy, sexual relations, pregnancy out of wedlock, and the very concept of womanhood.  It is an astoundingly frank work, both ‘piercingly perceptive and formally innovative’.  Gilgi is told on the morning of her twenty-first birthday, for instance, that her parents are not biologically hers, and then given the details of her birth mother.

Gilgi herself provides a contrast to the societal norms held for women during the period; she is proactive, has her own job, and pays for her own things: ‘I want to work, want to get on, want to be self-supporting and independent…  At the moment I’m learning my languages – I’m saving money…’.  She may still live at home with the Krons who raised her, but she makes clear that her biggest aim in life is to fund her own apartment.

Until she meets Martin, the idea of being a kept woman repulses her; indeed, even with Martin, Keun has allowed Gilgi her independence.  The pair move in with one another to the vacant apartment of one of Martin’s friends; he is unshakeable in his existence and largely lives hand to mouth, so it is up to Gilgi to work and pay for everything.  Again, tradition is eschewed here, and Keun demonstrates to a point that a woman of the period could make things work by herself.  Gilgi’s grand ambitions still live within her, even when she becomes conscious that they are not perhaps achievable due to the pregnancy which befalls her naive self.

I was put in mind of reading Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage at several points during the novel; the narrative voice which Keun has crafted simultaneously weaves the first and third person perspectives together in a beguiling manner.  There is a wonderful stream-of-consciousness approach to the whole in places.  Gilgi is a fascinating, deeply complex, and thoroughly realistic character.  Each individual consequence which she has to face is tackled with the utmost verisimilitude.  Gilgi is a stunning novel, with prose echoes of Hans Fallada and Stefan Zweig.  It is absolutely wonderful, and sure to delight those with a fondness for strong female characters, or who want to read a striking piece of translated literature.

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