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Around the World in 80 Books: My Top Ten

I officially completed my Around the World in 80 Books challenge back in April, having started on the first of January this year.  The project has been both delightful and enlightening, and I have so enjoyed immersing myself in so many portrayals of countries and their very diverse cultures.  Whilst I have no plans to repeat the challenge in coming years (particularly as I found it rather difficult to find a single tome which I was interested in from several of my previously chosen countries), I have found the process to be a wonderful one.

I chose to travel to one continent at a time, beginning with my home country, and sweeping through each of them in turn.  If you wish to see a full itinerary of this year’s ‘travels’, then please click here.

I thought that it would be a nice idea to gather together my favourite books which I encountered during my challenge.  They are in no particular order, but I thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of them, and highly recommend them.  Included alongside them are snippets of my reviews.

 

1. Nine Coaches Waiting by Mary Stewart (France)
I really enjoy Mary Stewart’s fiction; all of her books are markedly different, despite sharing similarities in terms of traits and characterisation. As ever, Stewart’s real strengths here come with setting the scene, and building her protagonists. Nine Coaches Waiting, which takes place just a few miles away from the Swiss border, has a wonderfully Gothic feel to it.

2. The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas (Norway) cover-jpg-rendition-460-707
Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace. His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful. When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes. Soft curves and confused tracery. All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually. Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms. Everything shone.’

3. Please Look After Mother by Kyung-Sook Shin (South Korea)
So-nyo’s complex character is pieced together fragment by fragment. This technique gives a real depth to her, and is a very revealing and effective manner in which to tell such a story. So-nyo’s family begin to realise just how important she is to them, and the many ways they have taken advantage of her, or taken her for granted over the years. Their own mistakes, both collective and individual, glare out at them: ‘You don’t understand why it took you so long to realise something so obvious. To you, Mother was always Mother. It never occurred to you that she had once taken her first step, or had once been three or twelve or twenty years old. Mother was Mother. She was born as Mother. Until you saw her running to your uncle like that, it hadn’t dawned on you that she was a human being who harboured the exact same feeling you had for your own brothers, and this realisation led to the awareness that she, too, had had a childhood. From then on, you sometimes thought of Mother as a child, as a girl, as a young woman, as a newly-wed, as a mother who had just given birth to you.’

97818702068084. Dew on the Grass by Eiluned Lewis (Wales)
Movement, particularly with regard to the younger characters, has been captured beautifully: ‘Released at length from the spell of Louise’s eye and the cool, leafshadowed nursery, they danced out on the lawn, shouting, hopping with excitement, ready for something adventurous, scarcely able to contain their glee.’ The natural world of Lewis’ novel has been romanticised in the gentlest and loveliest of manners; it never feels overdone or repetitive, and is largely filled with purity and charm.

5. The Colour by Rose Tremain (New Zealand)
‘Tremain gives a marked consideration to colour in her novel from its very beginning.  She writes: ‘It was their first winter.  The earth under their boots was grey.  The yellow tussock-grass was salty with hail.  In the violet clouds of afternoon lay the promise of a great winding-sheet of snow.’  I was struck by Tremain’s writing immediately.  She has such a gift for seamlessly blending her vivid descriptions with her characters, and the actions which they take.  There is a timelessness to Tremain’s prose, despite the effective rooting of her novel in a very particular period and setting.  She uses her chosen framework in order to explore many different themes relating to expatriation, nature, and human nature, particularly with regard to the ways in which changing conditions alter the relationships between husband and wife, and son and mother.’

6. Guiltless by Viveca Sten (Sweden)
I had not read the first or second novels in the series, but that did not seem to matter at all. I found that it worked very well indeed as a standalone novel. Guiltless takes part on a small island in the Swedish archipelago named Sandhamn, and is engaging from its very first page. Throughout, the novel is really well plotted and structured, and its translation is fluid. The sense of place and characters are well built, and I found Guiltless overall to be so easy to read, and so absorbing.

7. The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna (Croatia) 17237713
From the outset, the male narrative voice which Forna has crafted is engaging, and I was immediately pulled in. There is such a sense of place here, and it has definitely made me long to go back to Croatia. Another real strength of The Hired Man is that quite a lot is left unsaid at times; these careful omissions make the story even more powerful.

8. Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra (Chile)
Ways of Going Home uses a structure of very short, and often quite poignant, vignettes. These are made up at first of retrospective memories and memorials from the narrator’s childhood, and then from his adulthood. This structure works wonderfully; I often find that books made up of vignettes build a wonderful story, allowing us to learn about the characters, as well as the conditions under which they live, piece by piece. Zambra’s writing style is gripping from the very first page; it begins in the following manner: ‘Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents anymore. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but I thought they were lost. That I knew how to get home and they didn’t.’

97800071729179. Eight Months on Ghazzah Street by Hilary Mantel (Saudi Arabia)
Well written, as Mantel’s work always is, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street is culturally fascinating. It gives one a feeling for the city of Jeddah, where Frances and Andrew settle, immediately, as well as Frances’ position within it. Her life soon feels very claustrophobic, largely unable, as she is, to leave the block of flats in which the couple live; this is due to the incredibly subservient position of women in the male-dominated society, which leaves her – a trained cartographer – unable to work, as well as the stifling heat which grips the city for most of the year. Frances has been made almost a prisoner in her own home, and has to rely on the friendship of the other women in the building to wile away those long, hot hours in which Andrew is working.

10. Two Under the Indian Sun by Jon and Rumer Godden (India)
I have read quite a few of Rumer Godden’s books, many of which have been reissued by Virago in the last few years, but I have never come across anything of Jon’s before. I loved the idea of a collaborative memoir, particularly one which focuses almost exclusively upon their childhood, which was largely spent in India. Two Under the Indian Sun covers several years, in which the girls were taken back to their parents in East Bengal, now a part of Pakistan, after the outbreak of the First World War.

 

Have you taken part in this project before?  If not, have you been inspired to?  Which are your favourite reads from around the world?

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‘The Ice Palace’ by Tarjei Vesaas *****

I have wanted to read Tarjei Vesaas’ work for years, and as soon as I began his novel, The Ice Palace, I knew that I was in for an absolute treat.  It is one of those rare books which I have heard only praise for.  Doris Lessing hits the nail on the head in her review of The Ice Palace; she writes: ‘How simple this novel is.  How subtle.  How strong.  How unlike any other.  It is unique.  It is unforgettable.  It is extraordinary.’  The Times is also effusive in its praise, writing: ‘It is hard to do justice to The Ice Palace…  The narrative is urgent, the descriptions relentlessly beautiful, the meaning as powerful as the ice piling up on the lake.’  Its own blurb compares it to an Ingmar Bergman film, for its ‘sombre and Scandinavian’ feel.

Vesaas won Norway’s most prestigious literary award, the Nordic Council Prize, for this novel.  Elizabeth Rokkan’s English translation feels flawless in the Penguin edition which cover-jpg-rendition-460-707I read.  The Ice Palace is set in Vesaas’ homeland of rural northern Norway.  Eleven-year-old Unn, one of our protagonists, has just moved in with her aunt.  She ‘strikes up an unlikely friendship at school with a boisterous classmate, Siss, and an unusual bond develops between them.’

The pair barely speak at school, but Siss walks to Unn’s one evening, and the girls confess their feelings for one another.  Both recognise the intimacy forming between them, but are unsure as to how to be with one another following the revelation.  They do not understand the intensity which they feel, or how to control it.  Unn feels unable to face her friend the following day.  At this time, Vesaas writes: ‘Tomorrow it would be different, but not just now.  She could not look into Siss’s eyes today.  She thought no further; the idea took hold of her with compelling force.’  Instead of trudging through the winter darkness to school, she takes a lone trip to the ice palace, which has formed beneath a local waterfall.

Vesaas immediately demonstrates the bleak but startling beautiful setting: ‘It was really only afternoon, but already dark.  A hard frost in late autumn.  Stars, but no moon, and no snow to give a glimmer of light – so the darkness was thick, in spite of the stars.  On each side was the forest, deathly still, with everything that might be alive and shivering in there at that moment.’  Despite its bleakness, The Ice Palace is filled with some quite charming details.  When Unn first reaches the lake near to the ice palace, for example, Vesaas writes: ‘The ground was made up of heather and tussocks of grass and, like everything else, shone silver with rime in the slanting sunlight.  Unn jumped from tussock to tussock in this fairyland.  Inside her satchel her books and sandwich box jumped up and down too.’

Much of Vesaas’ writing is given over to the landscape within the more pivotal moments of The Ice Palace.  His descriptions of ice and snow are varied, and startlingly beautiful.  When she reaches the ice palace, he writes, for instance, ‘Unn looked down into an enchanting world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes.  Soft curves and confused tracery.  All of it was ice, and the water spurted between, building it up continually.  Branches of the waterfall had been diverted and rushed into new channels, creating new forms.  Everything shone.’  From her vantage point at the bottom of the iced waterfall, Unn is made aware of the sheer scale of the ice palace: ‘From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky; they grew as she thought about them.  She was intoxicated.  The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say.  The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.’

The Ice Palace, which was first published in Norway in 1963, is described as having ‘prose of a lyrical economy that ranks among the most memorable achievements of modern literature’.  I have to agree; rarely have I read a novel as fragile and beautiful as this one.  Vesaas is introspective and understanding when exploring the impact which Unn’s disappearance has on both her loved ones, and on the community as a whole.  The sense of place which Vesaas and his characters live within sprang to life before my very eyes, and has left me longing to visit Norway again.  The Ice Palace is immensely beguiling; it is a breathtaking and heartbreaking novel, which I would urge all of those who enjoy literary fiction to read.

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