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‘The Name of the Rose’ by Umberto Eco ****

I purchased The Name of the Rose, my first taste of Umberto Eco’s work, quite some time before I read it.  Whilst the plot appealed to me, and I had heard nothing but good things about the novel, I kept putting it off in favour of shorter books which would be easier to finish.  However, I picked it up over a relatively free weekend, where I was able to dedicate some time to it.

First published in Italian in 1980, The Name of the Rose is set in the Middle Ages – in 1327, to be precise.  The Vintage edition which I read was translated by William Weaver.  Of the novel, the Financial Times comments: ‘The late medieval world, teetering on the edge of discoveries and ideas that will hurl it into one more recognisably like ours… evoked with a force and wit that are breathtaking.’
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At the beginning of the novel, Franciscan monk Brother William of Baskerville ‘arrives at a wealthy Italian abbey on theological business.’  His ‘delicate mission’, which we are not at first party to, becomes ‘overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths’.  Brother William chooses to turn detective, exploring the ‘eerie labyrinth of the abbey, where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of the night.’  Lucky for Brother William, he has Sherlockian powers of deduction, and is able to make sense of the most obscure occurrences.  The whole is narrated by his scribe and ‘disciple’, Adso of Melk.  The novel, says its blurb, is ‘not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.’

The novel is introduced by an omniscient narrator in 1968.  They have just been handed a book which claims to reproduce a fourteenth-century manuscript in its entirety.  This narrator goes on to say: ‘In a state of intellectual excitement, I read with fascination the terrible story of Adso of Melk, and I allowed myself to be so absorbed by it that, almost in a single burst of energy, I completed a translation, using some of those large notebooks from the Papeterie Joseph Gilbert in which it is so pleasant to write if you use a felt-tip pen.’

Even Adso is not told of Brother William’s mission: ‘… [It] remained unknown to me while we were on our journey, or, rather, he never spoke to me about it.  It was only by overhearing bits of his conversations with the abbots of the monasteries where we stopped along the way that I formed some idea of the nature of this assignment.  But I did not understand it fully until we reached our destination.’  He finds Brother William rather an imposing figure: ‘… [He] was larger in stature than a normal man and so thin that he seemed still taller.  His eyes were sharp and penetrating; his thin and slightly beaky nose gave his countenance the expression of a man on the lookout…’.

The context and social conditions in The Name of the Rose are rich and wonderfully executed.  I found the novel transporting from its beginning.  Eco has included much about libraries, scribes, and manuscripts, elements of the Middle Ages which fascinate me.  Several reviews which I have seen have commented upon the complicated language and long, meandering sentences used by the author.  I personally did not find this a problem, and got into the style very quickly; I felt as though it added another layer of texture to the novel, making it feel more old-fashioned, and therefore perhaps more authentic.  Eco’s prose, and the way it has been rendered in this translation, is engaging.

Eco’s descriptions, of which there are many, also capture a lot: ‘It was noon and the light came in bursts through the choir windows, and even more through those of the façade, creating white cascades that, like mystic streams of divine substance, intersected at various points of the church, engulfing the altar itself.’  The use of colour and touch woven throughout help to build a believable, and atmospheric, sense of place.  Eco’s dialogue also has such strength to it, and never did it feel predictable.  I particularly liked the way in which William spoke.  He tells Adso, for instance: ‘The story is becoming more complicated, dear Adso…  We pursue a manuscript, we become interested in the diatribes of some overcurious monks and in the actions of other, over-lustful ones, and now, more and more insistently, an entirely different trail emerges.’

The Name of the Rose definitely feels like a good, and popular, choice to begin with with regard to Eco’s works.  I really enjoyed the structure of the novel; it is told over the course of seven days.  So many layers have been built on top of one another; its foundations are strong, and the separate strands of plot all interesting in their own way.  The novel takes many twists and turns, and is such a compelling read.  Eco takes one down so many avenues of intrigue, meeting strange and complex characters along the way.  My only criticism of the novel is that some of the chapters, particularly toward the middle of the novel, felt superfluous, and added very little to the story aside from religious context.  Some events are a little dramatic in places, but it was all drawn together well, and on the whole, I really enjoyed it.

I have read comparatively little set during the Middle Ages, despite the fact that the period fascinates me.  Reading The Name of the Rose has certainly made me want to seek out more novels set between the fifth and fifteenth centuries, and to try another of Eco’s books too.

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‘Abigail’ by Magda Szabó ***

Like many readers, I quite enjoyed Hungarian author Magda Szabó’s novella, The Door, when I read it some years ago.  For one reason or another, however, I have failed to pick up either of her other novels which have since been translated into English, Iza’s Ballad and Katalin Street.  When MacLehose press approached me to ask if I wanted a copy of her most famous novel, Abigail, which was first published in 1970, I jumped at the chance.

hbg-title-9780857058515-14Abigail, translated for the first time into English by Len Rix, is the most widely read novel among secondary school pupils in Hungary.  There is even a rock opera based upon it, which performs in Budapest.  Abigail forms a loose trilogy, alongside The Door and Katalin Street ‘about the impact of war on those who have to live with the consequences.’

Very much a coming-of-age novel, Abigail takes place during three months in 1943, a period in which Hitler was preparing to occupy Hungary.  Foreseeing this, and concerned for the safety of his daughter, Gina Vitay’s father, a general, sends her away to an isolated and strict Puritanical school in the ‘provincial’ city of Árkod, which appears ‘more like a fortress’.  ‘Lively, sophisticated, somewhat spoiled’ Gina feels immediately as though she does not fit in, used as she is to the bright lights and parties of Budapest.  Over time, Gina is ‘forced to find out the true realities of life for those less privileged than herself’; she ultimately ‘learns lessons about the nature of loyalty, courage, sacrifice and love.’

Fourteen-year-old Gina has a very close relationship with her father, a General in the Army.  When she is sent away to school, the omniscient narrator observes: ‘… although neither of them had experienced it in such elementary terms, they loved each other with a passion and both felt the world complete only when they were together.’

Abigail is not a human character; rather, she is a named statue on the school’s grounds.  The pupils turn to her in times of strife, writing messages addressed to her, and hoping that she will be able to lend a hand.  They put so much faith into her, believing her to be real, and to hold power.

At times, Szabó is finely attuned to the moods of her characters, and to what drives them.  When Gina’s father first leaves her at school, for instance, the awkwardness of their parting is meticulously imagined: ‘Once again there was no exchange of glances between the two of them; both kept their eyes fixed on the carpet.  The silence was like that when a bee wanders in through an open window and drones on and on, without ceasing.’  At this point in time, Gina’s sole discomfort is also focused upon: ‘Never in her life had she felt so hapless, so perplexed, so utterly out of her depth…  Here, she was totally disoriented, she could make sense of nothing.’  We are privy to her tumultuous moods, to her every thought and feeling.

From the outset, Gina is headstrong and determined, and I found her quite a thoroughly examined character.  Like many teenagers, it could be said, she is at first self-interested and self-motivated, and is unable to grasp the bigger picture – until a rather strained conversation with her father ensues some way into the book.  She clashes, quite violently, with her peers, and the relationship between them sours immediately.  Towards the middle of the book, however, when she is finally accepted by the girls in her form, she becomes almost interchangeable with them.  She loses any of the spark which she carried so well, and becomes cliched, almost a caricature of a teenage girl.

Abigail is described in its blurb as ‘a tale of suspense and revelation in a shifting world where things are often not quite as they first seem.’  This is true to an extent, but I personally located only one or two moments of suspense throughout the entirety of the 440-page novel, and these appeared right towards the end.  Whilst elements of the story were interesting enough, I found the narrative rather detached.  I expected Abigail to be far more immersive, and to provide a more thorough and consistent character study than it did.  Yes, characters change, but Gina seemed to lose every quality which at first made her unique, and set her apart from others.

Rix’s translation reads well, but the prose is often quite clunky, and the sentences rather old-fashioned in their structure, phrasing, and conversational intonations.  I imagine that this is a true reflection of the original text, but I did find it a little difficult to get into at times.

Not a lot happens in Abigail, until one reaches the last eighty or so pages.  Much of the narrative is involved with the minutiae of life in the school, and the small, overexaggerated dramas which ensue between pupils and staff alike.   I admired the idea of the novel – namely, to suggest how a young girl’s life can be so completely changed in the face of war, and how difficult this can be to become accustomed to – but many parts of the story felt rather too drawn out.  I personally love novels where not a great deal happens, but in this instance, the plot points which did occur felt altogether too obvious.

Abigail began well, and I did have a real interest in our lively and quite unusual protagonist, but this was lost when she became almost insipid.  Had she been more of a consistent character, and retained some of her individuality, I imagine that I would have enjoyed reading her story far more.  As time progressed, I found myself caring about Gina less and less.  Although some elements of the novel were undoubtedly well conceived, others fell flat for me, and there was very little consistency to be found.

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One From the Archive: ‘Doppler’ by Erlend Loe ****

In Loe’s native country of Norway, Doppler, which was first published in 2004, has sold over 100,000 copies, and the author is seen as something of a Scandinavian bestseller – for good reason. This novel is described as ‘a charming, absurd and cleverly subversive fable… about consumerism, existence… and a baby elk called Bongo’. An intriguing premise, certainly. So what is Doppler all about? 9781781851050

It tells the story of Andreas Doppler, a citizen of Oslo, who has recently lost his father and is about to become a parent himself for the third time. At the outset of the novel, Doppler states his current status in rather a matter of fact way: ‘My father is dead. And yesterday I took the life of an elk’. He goes on to say: ‘well, how can I put it, after I moved into the forest, for that is actually what happened, that’s what I do, I live in the forest’.

This move into the forest came as something of a shock for Doppler’s family. After a cycling accident, in which he tells us ‘I fell. Quite badly’, he is happy to find that his mind is finally void of all of the trivial everyday thoughts which once filled it, ranging from theme songs of his young son’s favourite television shows to the kinds of tiles he and his wife should buy for their bathroom. In jolly naivety, he believes that his wife, teenage daughter and young son Gregus will be better off without him. Doppler as a character is straight to the point and certainly knows his own mind. His prose is often blunt: ‘I don’t wish to meet people. They disgust me’. Something about this brutal honesty and the no-holds-barred approach to the events which pepper the text is endearing.

The baby elk, Bongo, comes into the story after Doppler kills his mother, and is soon the main focus of the man’s attentions. At first this feeling is one of loathing: ‘That bloody elk. If it comes back, I’ll split its skull open’, but it soon turns to understanding: ‘It’s all alone and it’s beginning to realise the world is a harsh place, and it cannot see any future or meaning in anything. Of course, it’s immature of it to take out its frustration on me, but what else can you expect? After all, it’s only a child’. Just one page after this occurs, their friendship is cemented: ‘We slept together in the tent that night. The calf supplied a surprising amount of heat. I used it as a pillow for most of the night, and when I woke up this morning, we lay looking at each other in a close, intimate way that I had seldom experienced with people’. He soon comes to think that he has actually done the elk a favour by separating it from its mother, stating: ‘… and by the way, I continued after a short pause, your mother would soon have brutally broken the ties between you two in any case. She would have shoved you away from her and told you to push off…. You lot seem so good-natured, but you treat your kids like shit’. During these one-sided conversations, the elk – and the reader – becomes Doppler’s confidante, seeming to listen patiently to his every outburst and pearl of wisdom.

The narrative style which Loe has crafted throughout Doppler takes us right inside the head of our protagonist. He talks directly to us as though he trusts us with his every secret, and this creates a kind of camaraderie between the reader and character almost immediately. The prose style does not follow general conventions, and there are often commas where full stops should be, but therein lies the beauty of the book. The narrative is quite philosophical in places, and is filled with complex ideas which mingle with Doppler’s wilderness existence in interesting ways.

Don Shaw and Don Bartlett have provided a wonderful translation of the text, which I am sure rings true of the original. Sadly, there are quite a few editorial mistakes throughout the book; this does not detract from the wonderfully engrossing story, but it is a real shame.

The book as an object is lovely – a cream hardback with dark red endpapers and lovely red and white illustrations adorning the slipcover. The story is lovely too – witty, satirical, humorous and even quite touching in places. We meet Doppler’s friends as he himself does, and it feels as though we are right there beside him on his grand adventure.

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One From the Archive: ‘Please Look After Mother’ by Kyung-Sook Shin *****

First published in 2018.

I chose to read Kyung-Sook Shin’s novel, Please Look After Mother, for the South Korea stop on my Around the World in 80 Books challenge.  Please Look After Mother has sold almost 1.5 million copies in South Korea alone since its publication in 2009; the author is one of the country’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, and has won many literary prizes throughout her career.  The book was a highly anticipated one for me, and I was so looking forward to getting to it.  The English translation, published in 2011, has been masterfully handled by Chi-young Kim.

The reviews on the book’s cover piqued my interest even further, it must be said.  Edwige Danticat writes that it is ‘Cleverly structured and brimming with secrets and revelations’, and Geraldine Brooks that ‘Shin penetrates the very essence of what it means to be a family, and a human being.’

Please Look After Mother tells the story of Park So-nyo, a wife and mother, who has ‘lived9780753828182 a life of sacrifice’.  She is recovering from an earlier stroke, which has left her ‘vulnerable and often confused’.  She and her husband decide to travel from their countryside home to Seoul, to visit their grown-up children.  At the central train station, she becomes separated from her husband when the doors of the busy train close.  The family soon begins an enormous search effort for their matriarch, reflecting on everything which she has done in her life for them: ‘As her children and husband search the streets, they recall So-nyo’s life, and revisit all the things they never told her.  Through their piercing voices, we begin to discover the desires, heartaches and secrets she harboured within.’

The novel opens with the following line: ‘It’s been one week since mother went missing’.  Throughout, varied perspectives are used; the voices of her daughter, son, and husband, as well as So-nyo herself have been deftly crafted, as have the second and third person perspectives, the latter of which has been used to oversee various parts of the search.  Each of these narrative voices feel effective, particularly that of the second person; we as readers are immediately immersed into the Park family’s story, particularly with direct writing such as this: ‘You clammed up.  You didn’t find out about Mother’s disappearance until she’d been gone four days.  You all blamed each other for Mother going missing, and you all felt wounded.’

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.’

The family dynamics which are portrayed here, and the ways in which they shift and alter over time, are both fascinating and believable.  Shin has given such a lot of thought to the ways in which such a disappearance will impact upon, or change, each member of the Parks; each reaction is different.

Please Look After Mother is rightly described in its blurb as ‘compassionate, redemptive and beautifully written’.  This absorbing novel tackles an awful lot of important themes, all of which have been translated to the page with such care and consideration.  Please Look After Mother is a loving and poignant portrait of a missing woman.  The novel is filled with tenderness and affection, but it never crosses the line into sentimentality.  Shin’s prose is beautiful throughout, and the translation is fluid.  Thoughtful and thought-provoking, as well as intense and moving, Please Look After Mother is a novel which I doubt I will ever forget.

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‘Jezebel’ by Irène Némirovsky *****

Irène Némirovsky has long been a favourite author of mine.  Sadly, I am now coming to the stage in my reading of her oeuvre where I have only a handful of books outstanding.  I have been trying to ration myself by not buying and consuming them immediately, but sometimes hers is the only writing I feel like reading.  It was at one of these points that I purchased a copy of Jezebel, first published in 1940, and translated from its original French by Sandra Smith in 2010.

51i1txvvrml._sx324_bo1204203200_Jezebel focuses on the trial of a woman, Gladys Eysenach, in a French courtroom.  She is ‘no longer young, but she is still beautiful, elegant, cold.’  She is on trial for the murder of her lover, twenty-year-old Bernard Martin, a man far younger than she, who was killed in December 1934.  As the case begins to unfold, Gladys reflects on her life, which culminates in the ‘final irrevocable act.’  This novel, says its blurb, is suffused with ‘the depth of insight and pitiless compassion we have come to expect…  Némirovsky shows us the soul of a desperate woman obsessed with her lost youth.’

Translator Sandra Smith contributes a short introduction to the volume.  She says: ‘”Jezebel”… the very name immediately conjures up a host of impressions, all negative: seductress, traitor, whore.’  She then goes on to write about Gladys as a protagonist, and the way in which she worships her own beauty: ‘To her, beauty is power; it defines her life and her worth.  As Gladys ages and her fears turn to obsessions, Némirovsky explores the fine balance between victim and criminal, and the reader is torn between sympathy and horror.’

We first meet Gladys when she is on the stand during her trial.  We are therefore launched immediately into the story.  She admits, very early on, to shooting Bernard, as she feared that he was going to reveal their relationship to her other, more official lover, Count Monti.  The initial description given of her is as follows: ‘She was still beautiful, despite her paleness and her drained, distraught appearance.  Her sensual eyelashes were pale from crying and her mouth drooped, yet she still looked young.’  We learn that she is a woman of immense wealth, who has travelled extensively, and made her home in many countries.  She is widowed, and lost her only child during the First World War.

From the outset, Némirovsky captures Gladys’ fear and uncertainty of her situation: ‘The defendant slowly clasped her trembling hands together; her nails dug deep into her pale skin; her colourless lips opened slightly, with difficulty, but she uttered not a word, not a sound.’  Those in the public gallery ‘examined the trembling, pale, haggard face of the accused, like people looking at a wild animal, imprisoned behind the bars of its cage: savage but confined, its teeth and nails pulled out, panting, half-dead…’.  In the trial, ‘only the accused woman was exciting; the victim was no more than a vague ghost.’

We learn a great deal about Gladys not from her own account, but through the testimonies of others.  One of her friends, Jeannine Percier, for instance, tells the court: ‘I’m only telling you what everyone knows.  Gladys was excessively flirtatious.  She enjoyed nothing more than compliments, adoration, but that’s not a crime.’  Jeannine goes on to remark: ‘It always seemed to me that there was something deeply tragic within Gladys.’

There is such gorgeous prose within the novel.  When we are taken back to Gladys’ early adulthood, Némirovsky recounts a sumptuous ball which she attends.  Here, Gladys ‘knew that she would never ever forget that scent of roses in the warm ballroom, the feel of the night breeze on her shoulders, the brilliant lights, the waltz that lingered in her ears.  She was so very happy.  No, not happy, not yet, but it was the expectation of happiness, the heavenly desire and passionate thirst for happiness, that filled her heart.’ At this point for Gladys, ‘Everything was bewitching; everything looked beautiful to her, rare and enchanting; life took on a new flavour she had never tasted before: it was bittersweet.’

As she moves into adulthood, we learn a lot about her relationships with various husbands and lovers, as well as the unsettling way in which she and her young daughter, Thérèse, interacted: ‘She lived in the shadow of her beautiful mother and, like everyone else who knew Gladys, she strove only to please her, to serve her, to love her.’  She goes as far as pretending her daughter is far younger than she is, so that nobody can consider her old.

Gladys’ vanity is at the forefront of her mind at all times; her first act each morning is to reach for a mirror and study her face.  She sees the world as her playground, and the men within it hers to do with as she pleases.  Whilst her wealth allows her to be a lady of leisure, Gladys is not as content with this as one might expect: ‘She would visit one friend after another.  With them, time would pass more quickly, but eventually she had to go home and still it was daytime.  There was nothing left to do but buy a dress and visit the jewellers…  Finally, night would come and she would feel as if she had been reborn.  She would go home to Sans-Souci, get dressed, admire how she looked.  How she loved doing that.  Was there anything better in life, was there anything more sensual than being attractive?’

Jezebel is a rich and fascinating psychological study, taut and tightly written.  Némirovsky achieves a great deal in less than 200 pages.  She demonstrates such depth, and one of the real strengths in this novel is the way in which the conversations between characters feel so realistic.  The novel is atmospheric from beginning to end, with striking scenes, and flesh-and-blood characters.  Jezebel is richly evocative, as all of Némirovsky’s books are.  Gladys’ story has been vividly realised.  She is not at all a likeable character, but the astute and perceptive insights which Némirovsky gives into her imagined life are fascinating.  One cannot help but feel sorry for her at points, particularly when the extent to which her own self-absorption has harmed her is revealed.  Jezebel is a captivating novel, which has a rather sad quality to it, and it offers far more in terms of plot than I was expecting.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Fires of Autumn’ by Irene Nemirovsky ****

First published in 2014.

The Fires of Autumn is essentially the prequel to Nemirovsky’s most famous work, Suite Francaise.  The novel sets the historical and political scene which Suite Francaise then builds upon. The Fires of Autumn was completed in 1942, and was published posthumously in 1957, after Nemirovsky’s death in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The Fires of Autumn, the eleventh novel of Nemirovsky’s to be translated into English, is split into three separate parts, covering the period between 1912 and 1941, and following the Brun family, ‘Parisians of some small private means’.  The opening scene uses a meal eaten by the whole family as its backdrop – a simple technique, but a wonderful way in which to introduce multiple characters.

9780099520368As with her other fiction, Nemirovsky’s descriptions are beautiful.  Madame Pain, the elderly mother-in-law of patriarch Adolphe Brun, has ‘hair that looked like sea foam’, and a voice ‘as sonorous and sweet as a song’.  Each member of the family is constructed of different characteristics – for instance, twenty seven-year-old Martial is ‘overly modest’ and focuses almost solely upon his studies and marrying his young cousin Therese, two of the mothers touched upon are either anxious or ambitious, and young Bernard is a dreamer, forever envisioning his future.  When viewed as a familial unit, the Bruns feel realistic.  Generationally, The Fires of Autumn is interesting too; each character is at a slightly different point in his or her life.

The view of Paris and her suburbs is built up over time, and Nemirovsky uses all of the senses to ensure that it stands vividly in the mind of her readers.  Her use of light and darkness illuminate each scene: ‘Even this dark little recess was filled with a golden mist: the sun lit up the dust particles, the kind you get in Paris in the spring, that joyful season dust that seems to be made of face powder and pollen from flowers’.  Nemirovsky’s inclusion of social and political material ensures that The Fires of Autumn is historically grounded.  Spanning such a long period also works in the novel’s favour.

As with many of Nemirovsky’s novels, The Fires of Autumn has been translated by Sandra Smith, who has such control over the original material and renders it into a perfectly fluid and beautiful piece.  She is the author of the book’s introduction too, and believes that it offers ‘a panoramic exploration of French life’.  Indeed, The Fires of Autumn is a beautiful piece of writing, which encompasses many different themes and marvellously demonstrates the way in which Paris altered over several decades, and how this drastic change affected families just like the Bruns.

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‘Swallowing Mercury’ by Wioletta Greg ****

I was incredibly intrigued by poet Wioletta Greg’s first prose piece, Swallowing Mercury, particularly given that it was chosen for an online book club which I run.  The novella, translated from its original Polish by Eliza Marciniak, is the winner of the English PEN Award.  Sarah Perry writes that she ‘experienced this book like a series of cool, clear drinks, each one more intoxicating than the last’, and Carys Davies compares the ‘freshness and truthfulness’ here to the work of Elena Ferrante and Tove Jansson, a personal favourite of mine.

The focus of Swallowing Mercury is upon a young girl named Wiola, who is growing up 9781846276071in a fictional village in southern Poland during the 1970s and 80s.  It is ‘about the ordinary passing of years filled with extraordinary days.  In vivid prose filled wit texture, colour and sound, it describes the adult world encroaching on the child’s.  From childhood to adolescence, Wiola dances to the strange music of her own imagination.’  Swallowing Mercury is a coming-of-age work, and looks particularly at the way in which its young protagonist interacts with the world and people around her.

The book is relatively fragmented, and is made up of many short, and sometimes barely connected chapters.  Its blurb gives only a few, largely unusual details about Wiola, ranging from the fact that her ‘father was a deserter but now he’s a taxidermist’, and that her mother ‘tells her that killing spiders brings on storms.’  Many of the chapters follow a similar suit, focusing on a single element of Wiola’s life, like her fascination for collecting matchboxes.  The Poland which Wiola belongs to ‘is both very recent and lost in time.’  The chapters in Swallowing Mercury are essentially vignettes, many of which have quite enchanting and intriguing titles – for instance, ‘The Fairground Girl’, ‘Little Table, Set Thyself!’, and ‘The Belated Feeding of Bees’.

I found Greg’s prose rather beguiling, echoing as it does fables and fairytales.  ‘The Fairground Girl’, the first chapter in the collection, begins for instance: ‘A christening shawl decorated with periwinkle and yellowed asparagus fern hung in the window of the store house for nearly two years.  It tempted with a little rose tucked in its folds, and I would have used it as a blanket for my dolls, but my mother wouldn’t let me go near it.’  Also in this chapter, in which the fairytale element is arguably the strongest with regard to what follows, Greg writes: ‘She brought me home in February.  Still bleeding from childbirth, she lay down on the bed, unwrapped my blanket, which reeked of mucus and urine, rubbed the stump of my umbilical cord with gentian violet, tied a red ribbon around my neck to ward off evil spirits and fell asleep for a few hours.  It was the sort of sleep during which a person decides whether to depart or to turn back.’

The quite lovely imagery which Greg creates is startling and fantastical; she talks, for instance, of her mother’s ‘head wreathed with a string of little bagels’, a man having the ‘impression that pine needles had grown out of his thighs and that brambles had sprung up inside his boots’, and that ‘woodworms were playing dodgeball using poppy seeds that had fallen from the crusts of freshly baked bread.’

Swallowing Mercury has a real sense of imagination at its core.  I really enjoyed the unusual quality of the stories here, and enjoyed the interconnectedness which does begin to build once one gets a feel for Wiola’s character.  A real sense of dark humour suffuses the collection, and the social history of Poland has been well woven in.  The author has paid such attention to a lot of Polish customs, both in a familial and religious sense.  Greg strikes a nice balance between realism and things which are slightly out of the ordinary.  Swallowing Mercury held my attention throughout; it has a real depth and flavour to it.  Some of the chapters are like Russian dolls, with stories nestling inside other stories.  I very much look forward to reading whichever of Greg’s books are translated into English in future, and hope to pick up some of her poetry too.

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‘The Summer House’ by Philip Teir ****

Philip Teir’s The Summer House, which was first published in 2018, has been translated from its original Swedish by Tiina Nunnally.  The Telegraph regards Finnish-Swedish author Teir as ‘Scandinavia’s answer to Jonathan Franzen’, and says that he has a ‘remarkable eye for human behaviour’.

In the novel, married couple Erik and Julia ‘marshal their children into the car and start 9781781259276the drive towards the house by the sea on the west coast of Finland where they will spend their summer.’  They are going to be staying at the summer house in Mjölkviken which belonged to Julia’s grandparents, the first time in which the family have stayed there all together.  Outwardly, Julia and Erik, along with their twelve-year-old daughter Alice and ten-year-old son Anton, appear to be a ‘happy young family looking forward to a long holiday together.’  However, each character is rather apprehensive about what the summer may hold.  When focusing on Anton’s perspective, Teir writes: ‘Two whole months.  That was an unimaginable length of time for Anton.  When he thought about how it would seem when they came to the end of their holiday, he couldn’t really picture it.  The summer months quickly flickered past before his eyes.’

Beneath the surface, unspoken things are simmering.  The threat of unemployment hovers over Erik, who oversees the IT of a department store, and he feels unable to tell his wife.  The arrival of novelist Julia’s childhood friend, Marika, at a summer house closeby, ‘deepens the hairline cracks that had so far remained invisible.’  There are also hints of Julia’s struggle to write a new novel.  Alice and Anton are beginning to have a growing awareness of how complicated the world around them is, and have to learn to deal with it in their own ways.  Alice is becoming increasingly self-conscious, and Anton has many anxieties about the world, and his relationship with his mother. Each concern which Teir gives about the family members feels realistic: Anton not knowing whether he enjoys being out in nature; Alice’s lack of connection to the Internet, and by extension her friends, in a place with so little mobile phone coverage; the parents’ awareness of themselves and how they behave when in the company of others.

I found the novel’s short prologue, in which a young and as yet unnamed boy is sitting in the car, the ‘safest place to be’ during a thunderstorm, with his mother, and the opening line of the first chapter intriguing.  The Summer House proper begins: ‘Julia would turn thirty-six in the autumn, yet she had never truly managed to escape her mother’s voice.’  Julia’s mother appears as a secondary character later on in the novel.  Other characters – for example, Erik’s brother who has been travelling in Vietnam – are added into the mix, and add heightened tension to both the novel as a whole, and the relationships which it depicts.

At first, Teir has left things unsaid, and unexplained.  There is a clever building of tension, and of a foreshadowing of things to come, however.  When focusing on Julia in an early chapter, Teir writes: ‘As she walked through the hall, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror, and was surprised to realise she looked good in a rather stern sort of way.  So this was how a single mother looked, this was how she would look from now on, when they became a family of three.’  She is continually surprised by her husband, and also dismayed by the way in which their relationship has shifted.  Of her husband, Teir observes: ‘She was always struck by how real Erik was when he was at home, as if there were two Eriks: one she would be cross with in her fantasies, and a real Erik, who talked to her and had opinions that required her attention.’

The sense of place in The Summer House has a vivacity and sensuality to it.  Such emphasis has been given to the plants and animals which now surround the family, who feel such a world away from their flat in Helsinki.  Teir writes, for instance, ‘Anton looked around.  Everywhere he saw blueberries and lingonberries growing.  The trunks of the slender pine trees shifted from grey to reddish-brown where animals had gnawed away at the bark.’  There is a real sense of atmosphere which develops in the novel, both with Mjölkviken and its nature, and within the family.  Teir focuses on the ways in which each family member interacts with the world around them.  When writing about Alice, he says: ‘The water was cold, but Alice didn’t care, because so much was going on inside her body.  She moved slowly, languidly, like in a film, as if surrounded by some sort of membrane that protected her from everything.’

The structure of The Summer House is simple, yet effective.  Teir follows each of the family members in turn, alternating between them.  Each chapter is quite revealing in its way.  The backstory of Julia and Erik has been well developed, and the way in which their marriage has changed over time appears believable.  Interesting and complex relationships are demonstrated between family members, as well as with Marika and her family.  The Summer House has been well situated socially, too; through the use of Marika and her husband Chris, who are ‘eco-warriors’, he manages to ask a series of searching questions about the environment, climate change, and other global concerns.  Again, he situates each character within a wider scope: ‘Erik liked to think of himself as a progressive optimist, but lately it felt like everyone around him had become pessimists.  The climate crisis, the financial crisis, the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, the newspaper crisis, the crisis in Ukraine, in the EU, the crisis within the Social Democratic party…  There was no area of society that wasn’t in crisis.  And in Finland people were especially good at crises, as if they didn’t feel truly comfortable unless everything was going to hell.’

I was wholly engrossed within The Summer House, a short novel which runs to less than 250 pages.  Teir really seems to understand each of his characters and their motivations, and the ways in which they interact with one another feel true to life.  Teir’s prose has been well translated, and the story is a highly accessible one.  The Summer House is a relatively quiet novel, in that not a great deal of action occurs.  It is, instead, focused upon a cast of three-dimensional, emotionally complex characters, and how they connect with one another.

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‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto ****

I have read several of Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto’s books to date, and have thoroughly enjoyed them all.  I was therefore very much looking forward to beginning her debut, Kitchen, which collects together two novellas – ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’.  First published in Japan in 1987, where it won two of the most prestigious literary prizes in the country and remained on the bestseller list for more than a year, Kitchen was seamlessly translated into English by Megan Backus in 1993. 9780571342723

Its blurb intrigued me immediately, stating as it does that this collection ‘juxtaposes two tales about mothers, transsexuality, bereavement, kitchens, love and tragedy in contemporary Japan.’  The Los Angeles Times Book Review calls Yoshimoto’s debut ‘artless, spontaneous and wonderfully fresh’, and The New Yorker deems Yoshimoto ‘a sure and lyrical author who is unembarrassed by adolescent funk’.

Kitchen begins with a short preface written by the author.  She says at its outset, ‘For a very long time there was something I wanted to say in a novel, and I wanted, no matter what it took, to continue writing until I got the saying of it out of my system.  This book is what resulted from that history of persistence.’

The narrator of ‘Kitchen’ is a young woman named Mikage Sakurai, recently left alone after the recent death of her grandmother, who raised her.  She reflects: ‘My family had steadily decreased one by one as the years went by, but when it suddenly dawned on me that I was all alone, everything before my eyes seemed false.  The fact that time continued to pass in the usual way in this apartment where I grew up, even though now I was here all alone, amazed me.  It was total science fiction.  The blackness of the cosmos.’ At first, the kitchen becomes the only place in which Mikage is able to find solace after she is set adrift: ‘Now only the kitchen and I are left.  It’s just a little nicer than being all alone.’

After some time, Mikage is taken in by the quite unusual Tanabe family, who care for her like a daughter.  This has a positive effect on her: ‘Little by little, light and air came into my heart.  I was thrilled.’  I admired the way in which Yoshimoto has shaped Mikage’s believable character arc, and very much liked her protagonist’s quiet determination.  ‘As I grow older,’ Mikage muses, ‘much older, I will experience many things, and I will hit rock bottom again and again.  Again and again I will suffer; again and again I will get back on my feet.  I will not be defeated.  I won’t let my spirit be destroyed.’  To me, Mikage felt wholly realistic; she is a little reserved, perhaps, but her emotions continue at the right pitch given her circumstances and the shifting situations in which she finds herself.  Her unfolding relationship with Yuichi Tanabe was both complex and fascinating.

I find Yoshimoto’s prose unusual and vivid, and my experience with these stories proved no different.  Much of her writing is searching and lovely.  In ‘Kitchen’, for example, she writes: ‘As I walked along in the moonlight, I wished that I might spend the rest of my life traveling from place to place.  If I had a family to go home to perhaps I might have felt adventurous, but as it was I would be horribly lonely.  Still, it just might be the life for me.  When you’re traveling, every night the air is clear and crisp, the mind serene.  In any case, if nobody was waiting for me anywhere, yes, this serene life would be the thing.’

As with the other Yoshimoto books which I have read thus far, ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ are told in short bursts.  Both of these stories are very character-focused, and Tokyo appears almost as a character in each one.  However, there are only a few cultural markers – most of which involve food – at play in both stories, and the setting feels almost anonymous in consequence.  Of course, Yoshimoto builds quite lovely descriptions of the physical setting, but in these stories much of the focus has been placed upon light and darkness, and the emptiness which one can feel when in the midst of a metropolis.

Yoshimoto considers the impact which everyday occurrences can have on us, and the comfort which comes from being in a familiar place, even if much of which was once familiar about it has now gone.   Her musings upon the concept of time are particularly interesting, and fitting, in both of these stories.  Some very important topics are discussed here, often in profound and memorable ways.  In both stories, where the young female protagonists have lost someone of great importance to them, the loneliness which Yoshimoto crafts is moving and heartfelt.  Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Kitchen’, and its sensuous descriptions about food and cookery, ‘Moonlight Shadow’ is a heartbreakingly beautiful tale, and one which I do not feel I will ever forget.  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow’ both deal with bereavement and loss; both are quiet; both have an almost astounding amount of layers to them.  This collection, whilst short, provides so much to think about.

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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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