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‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata **

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘Go, Went, Gone’ by Jenny Erpenbeck ****

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.

81bkztrl1zlThe 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 forceful tool, 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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One From the Archive: ‘Les Enfants Terribles’ by Jean Cocteau

First published in July 2017.

I purchased Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles for two reasons; firstly, it looked fantastic, and secondly, I thought that it would be an interesting inclusion for my Reading the World Project.  The novel in its Vintage edition has been faultlessly and lovingly translated by Rosamond Lehmann, a Virago author whom I very much enjoy in her own right.

Cocteau the man was a fascinating figure by all accounts, and is recognised as important in many fields; he was a poet, a novelist, an artist, a musician, a choreographer, an actor, and a filmmaker.  The book’s blurb hails him ‘one of the most talented Frenchmen of the twentieth century and a leading figure in the Surrealist movement’.  His foray into novel writing, Les Enfants Terribles, was first published in France in 1928, and in this translation in 1955. 9780099561378

Siblings Paul and Elisabeth share a ‘private world… from which parents are tacitly excluded’.  Although both in their middling teenage years, they play what they term ‘The Game’, ‘their own bizarre version of life’: ‘the word “Game” was by no means accurate, but it was the term which Paul had selected to denote that state of semi-consciousness in which children float immersed’.  The rules are rather complex, and the overwhelming message of The Game is that one of the pairing must die.  Their home life is not a happy one; their mother has been recently struck by paralysis, and Elisabeth has to care for her:

‘She had been bewitched, spoiled, and finally deserted by her husband.  For three years he had gone on treating his family to occasional brief visits, during the course of which, – having meanwhile developed cirrhosis of the liver – he would brandish revolvers, threaten suicide, and order them to nurse the master of the house; for the mistress with whom he lived refused this office and kicked him out whenever his attacks occurred.  His custom was to go back to her as soon as he felt better.  He turned up one day at home, raged, stamped, took to his bed, found himself unable to get up again, and died; thereby bestowing his end upon the wife he had repudiated’.

Les Enfants Terribles opens with Paul being knocked unconscious by a snowball, which appears to have been thrown by a boy whom he is infatuated with.  He is badly hurt, and his friend Gerard sees him home.  Cocteau has tenderly described this journey: ‘Paul heard: but he was sunk in such leaden lassitude that he could not move his tongue.  He slid a hand out of his rugs and wrappings and put it over Gerard’s’.  Their friendship is loving and multilayered.

From the outset, I found the novel – or novella, I suppose, as it runs to just 135 pages – beguiling and intriguing.  There is such a sense of place throughout, and Paris is beautifully evoked.  Cocteau’s writing is intelligent, and there is a marvellously fluid feel to its English translation.  Elisabeth and Paul are endlessly fascinating.  Their sheer unpredictably renders both incredibly realistic.

I am a huge fan of French literature, and this contains almost all of the most prevalent elements which I enjoy within translated French tomes – child characters, interesting and original plot twists, the weird, and the quirky.  There is a tenseness and violence to it which builds as the novel progresses.  Les Enfants Terribles also includes a series of illustrations by Cocteau himself; these are vivid and striking.

Les Enfants Terribles is a transportative work.  In accordance with the blurb, I believed that the Game itself would be more a focus than it turned out to be.  However, the sheer strength and breadth of the coping strategies which the children adopt in response to the traumatic experiences which they undergo is strong enough to make the Game itself almost fade into the background.  Les Enfants Terribles is fantastic, both gritty and dark; it is a strange and clever book which promises to stick with the reader for weeks after it has been read.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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‘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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