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‘The Orange Grove’ by Larry Tremblay ***

Prolific French Canadian author Larry Tremblay’s The Orange Grove is number 23 upon the Peirene Press list, published as part of 2017’s series, East and West.  It has been translated from its original French by Sheila Fischman, and has sold over 25,000 copies in Tremblay’s native Canada.  Longlisted for the 2017 IMPAC award, and the winner of eight others, The Orange Grove looks at ‘personal costs of war in the Middle-East’, and engages with ‘themes of the family and grief in general’.  Meike Ziervogel, founder of Peirene, says of the novella: ‘This story made me cry…  [It] reminds us of our obligation to forgive – ourselves as well as others’.

9781908670366The Orange Grove focuses upon twin brothers, Ahmed and Aziz, who are living on their grandparents’ orange grove in an unnamed Middle Eastern country.  When their grandparents are killed on their homestead in a bombing attack, the boys ‘become pawns in their country’s civil war’, leaving their parents with the devastating choice of which son they should save. Soulayed, an acquaintance of Ahmed and Amir’s father, takes the boys away from his family with their father’s permission, after saying just how important the small boys are to the war effort.  He tells them: ‘”Do you see now what you’ve accomplished?  You found a road to lead you to that strange town.  You’re the only ones who’ve done it.  Others who’ve tried to do so were blown to smithereens by the mines.  In a few days, one of you qill go back there.  You, Aziz, or you, Ahmed.  Your father will decide.  And the one who is chosen will wear a belt of explosives.  He will go down to that strange town and make it disappear forever.”‘

The writing, particularly that which deals with violent scenes and aftermaths, is rather matter-of-fact; sometimes, it is even rendered coldly, and is almost entirely devoid of emotion.  This can be seen when the twins discover the mutilated bodies of their grandparents: ‘Their grandmother’s skull had been smashed by a beam.  Their grandfather was lying in his bedroom, his body ripped apart by the bomb that had come from the side of the mountain where every evening the sun disappeared’.

Much of the prose, in fact, is simplistic, but sometimes deceptively so.  There are flickers of beauty at times with regard to descriptions.  Of the twins’ mother Tamara, for instance, Tremblay writes: ‘Some nights the moon made her think of a fingernail impression in the flesh of the sky.  She liked these moments when she was alone before infinity’.  The novella’s dialogue, on the other hand, is often rather profound.

I was reminded of another of Peirene’s publications, Hamid Ismailov’s The Dead Lake, whilst reading The Orange Grove.  Whilst the novella undoubtedly tells an important story, there is the same simplicity to it at times, and the same kind of detachment.  I never felt as though I truly learnt much about the characters who people Tremblay’s work, which comes across almost like a contemporary fable.  The boys are both naive and knowing; an interesting contrast, which I cannot help but think more could have been made of.   Regardless, The Orange Grove is a timely work, which raises questions about choice, family, religion, society, grief, loss, revenge, and deception.  A lot is packed into the pages of this very human novella, and the whole could easily be extended into a much longer novel.  Overall, I found The Orange Grove an important read, but ultimately a slightly underwhelming one.

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Reading the World: ‘For a Flower Album’ by Colette ****

I adore Colette, and when I spotted this unknown-to-me tome on the Open Library, I borrowed it immediately.  It is a relatively short tome, translated from its original French by Roger Senhouse, and first published in the United Kingdom in 1959.  Here, Colette presents love letters to flowers – and a couple of interesting essay-length pieces written from the perspective of them – from the rose to the narcissi, and from the orchid to the hellebore.

s-l300Each prose piece is typically around three pages long, and several of the entries are accompanied by beautiful watercolours painted by Manet.  For any fans of her fiction, and any lovers of the outdoor world, For a Flower Album is a real treat.  It also makes a lovely seasonal read for the summer months; I can well imagine sitting in a beautiful park or meadow, surrounded by flowers, and dipping in and out of its pages.

What Colette says is, unsurprisingly, intelligent and thoughtful.  Her musings are also rather original for the most part, particularly when we consider those pieces from the imagined perspectives of several flowers.  ‘The Gardenia’s Perspective’ is the strongest of these, and is really rather lovely.  Such inclusions remind one just how strong Colette’s fiction is, and that she is first and foremost a prose writer.  She, of course, discusses the aesthetics of her chosen flowers, and sometimes alludes to their perfect growing conditions too.  Sometimes we are privy to such details as to when one can expect the flowers to emerge, and her favourite varieties.  Memories of Colette’s past have also been included throughout, in which she talks about her love of nature as a child, and the places which she has been in order to see the best floral specimens.

For a Flower Album is sensual in its descriptions, and many themes are touched upon, from art to gastronomy.  It is, as well as a manual in how to love, admire, and sometimes care for flowers, a celebration of France and its nature.  There is not a great deal of consistency to the piece, but it is the perfect choice to accompany a heavier book with.

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Reading the World: ‘The Longest Night’ by Otto de Kat **

I was lucky enough to travel to beautiful Amsterdam in February, and whilst Otto de Kat’s The Longest Night is set largely in its sister city, Rotterdam, I felt that it would be a good choice to read before I set off.  Published in the Netherlands in 2015, it has been translated into English by Laura Watkinson.  I had heard of de Kat before selecting this tome, but hadn’t read any of his work before.

The Longest Night begins in an intriguing manner, which makes one want to read on: ‘Emma knew exactly what day it was, and what time, and what was going to happen.  Her questions were a smoke screen, she wanted the nurse to think she was already quite far gone’.  Our protagonist is Emma Verweij, is now ninety-six, and is suffering from memory problems.  Whilst she is unable to remember anything which has happened to her recently, her past memories are vivid to her, and thus, a structure unfolds in which we travel back with her – first to Berlin, and then to the Netherlands – through a series of fragmented chapters.  Interestingly, whilst she feels alive only when searching the recesses of her mind for past memories, Emma is aware that she is reaching the end of her mortality.  In this sense, the retrospective positioning of the omniscient narrator works well; we really get an idea of how muddled her mind is as the novel goes on: ‘Her life had shattered into fragments, crystal clear, light and dark, an endless flow.  Time turned upside down, and inside out.’ 9780857056085

Essentially, then, we can see The Longest Night as a reflection of Emma’s life, and how she lived it.  De Kat has handled the sense of historical significance very well indeed; the past comes to life through a series of descriptions of place and weather.  During the Second World War, Emma’s husband, Carl, who works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is arrested, and she has no option but to flee to safety.  She ends up in the Netherlands.  This is de Kat’s starting point; Emma then goes forward in regard to her memories, and those whom she conjures up from the annals of her past existence are vivid.  There is, however, little chronological pattern between the memories.  This technique serves to make Emma’s story more believable; we as readers are encountering the past as she remembers it.

Watkinson’s translation has been deftly worked; the prose is fluid and as vivid as I imagine the original is.  De Kat’s approach is relatively simple, but it has been well executed.  Despite all of the positives, what really let the book down as far as I am concerned is the dialogue.  Only the minority of conversational patterns appeared as though they could realistically be uttered; for the most part, sentences were awkward and almost robotic.  I’m loath to believe that this is a translation issue.  Regardless, it did put me off rather, and I found myself enjoying the story less as it went on.  In terms of the plot too, there are definite lulls as one reaches the Netherlands alongside Emma.

There are some profound, and almost quite moving, musings upon life and death within The Longest Night, but the loss of momentum really made the whole suffer.  When I began, I was fully expecting to give the book a four-star rating.  As I neared the quarter point, however, my mind changed; I became far less interested in both story and characters, and I found myself even disliking some of the chapters.  There was an odd and rather jarring repetition to it at times too.  I have opted for a three star review, as the beginning was so engaging; there sadly just wasn’t much of the consistency which I was expecting of it, and I will thus be less keen to pick up another of de Kat’s novels in future.

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Reading the World: ‘The Accusation’ by Bandi ****

When I began my Reading the World Project, I didn’t suppose for a second that I would be able to include anything from North Korea.  Lo and behold, The Accusation was then published, presenting seven stories set during the dictatorships of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, and smuggled out of the country by a very brave individual.  The stories, which were written from 1989 onwards, have been wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith, and published under the pseudonym of ‘Bandi’.  This edition has been published with a rather fascinating afterword, which details how the manuscript left North Korea.

9781781258712The stories within Bandi’s collection ‘give voice to people living under this most bizarre and horrifying of dictatorships’.  From the outset, I found it utterly fascinating.  I have learnt as much about North Korea as I can in the past, but anyone who is the slightest bit familiar with the country will know how difficult this is.  Evidently, too, one must take into account that the portrait presented of North Korea to the West – in an official capacity, at least – is incredibly skewed.  These tales, all of which are based upon real occurrences within North Korea, and encompass people from all walks of life, are therefore all the more important.

The Accusation is filled with curious little details about many aspects of life for ordinary citizens within North Korea.  In ‘Record of a Defection’, for instance, the male narrator utters the following when he finds out that his wife does not want children: ‘The whole incident had forced me to remember the one thing I didn’t want to think about, the one thing I could never get away from – my “standing”.  And the reason mine was so low?  Because my father was a murderer – albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings’.  Through details such as this, Bandi effectively, and often shockingly, demonstrates how quick, and not particularly important decisions on the face of it, can haunt a family for generations.

The Accusation provides a powerful insight into modern history.  The themes within are varied, ranging as they do from war, forced migration, hopelessness, and familial tragedies linked to the regime, to the terror of the Party, spying, and clandestine writing.  Many similarities can be drawn between the regime portrayed here and that within Russia, such as the aspects of collectivisation and rationing.  So many elements feel as though they have been taken straight out of Orwell’s 1984, most intensely so with regard to the constant surveillance which every government-owned flat and factory is under.

Here, Bandi has presented an incredibly important book, which speaks out against a hidden and terrifying society.  There is such depth to every single one of these stories; such cruelty, such violence, and such pain.  The use of different viewpoints serves to show just how far-reaching the regime is.  Tense and terrifying, The Accusation should be a must read for everyone.

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Reading the World: ‘The Life of Rebecca Jones’ by Angharad Price ****

I spotted Angharad Price’s The Life of Rebecca Jones when browsing the library.  It is an entry upon my 2017 reading list, and when easing it out from the shelves where it was sandwiched between two rather enormous tomes, I was surprised to see how slim it was.  Its ‘powerful meditation on one family’s passage through the 20th century’, and the modern world which serves to threaten their traditional rural life in Wales, sounded absolutely lovely.  I adore quiet novels which take me to a different time and place, and The Life of Rebecca Jones certainly ticks all of those boxes.

The Life of Rebecca Jones has been translated from its original Welsh by Lloyd Jones.  In its native Wales, the book was heralded a ‘modern classic’ upon its publication, and it has been highly regarded in literary avenues since it was transcribed into English.  Jan Morris describes it as ‘the most fascinating and wonderful book’, and Kate Saunders in The Times writes: ‘The ending will make you want to turn right back to the beginning.’ 9780857387127

From the outset, there is a definite brooding power to the narrative, and an ever-present thoughtfulness embedded into every single sentence: ‘This was a reversal of creation.  The perfection of an absence. / Tranquility can belong to one place, yet it ranges the world.  It is tied to every passing hour, yet everlasting.  It encompasses the exceptional and the commonplace.  It connects interior with exterior.’

An ageing Rebecca narrates the whole; her voice is measured and incredibly human: ‘I too have sought peace throughout my life.  I’ve encountered it, many times on a more lasting silence; and I will find it before I die.  My eyesight dwindles and my hearing fails.  What else should I expect, at my age?  But neither blindness nor deafness can perfect the quietness which is about to fall on this valley.’  There is a ruminative quality to her voice, and the use of retrospective positioning only adds to this effect.

Rebecca has lived within Cwm Maesglasau for all of her life; she adores it, but the sadness which she feels at the changes within her community and landscape are prevalent.  Of her home, she writes: ‘Cwm Maesglasau is my world.  Its boundaries are my boundaries.  To leave it will be unbearably painful.’  The landscape is as important a character within the novel as Rebecca herself; this is obvious from the very beginning.  Price shows just how deeply person and place are connected, and the affects and effects of the two.  She describes the scenes which Rebecca and her ancestors saw so vividly, bringing them to life for the reader: ‘There is a crimson tunnel of foxgloves and a sparkling dome of elderflower: the same intricate design, Evan notes, of the lace on his wife’s bodice.  Sunshine streaming through the canopy spangles her hair with stars’.

Despite The Life of Rebecca Jones identifying as a work of fiction, photographs have been used throughout, giving it the quality of autofiction.  Its words and their accompanying images are filled with traditions.  It adds to the reading experience that some of the original Welsh vocabulary has been included, sometimes alongside their English translations, and otherwise understandable within their context.

Rebecca Jones is the name of the narrator, as well as of her mother and grandmother.  In this manner, Price effectively tells three stories, which are similar but have discernible differences in their way.  The novel is an incredibly contemplative one; it almost makes one yearn for times gone by.  The structure which Price makes use of is one of fragmented memories; the only links between them are often that they have been lived by the narrator, or by members of her immediate family.  The reading experience which has been created is a sensual one; in interruptions to Rebecca’s voice, a stream has been personified, and its journey shown with beautiful, lyrical prose.  The Life of Rebecca Jones is quietly beautiful; it demonstrates a life filled with sadnesses, but one which is still cherished nonetheless.

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Reading the World: ‘Fire in the Blood’ by Irene Nemirovsky *****

Fire in the Blood by the inimitable Irene Nemirovsky is my first reread of my Reading the World project.  I adore what I have read of her work to date; it is both measured and incredibly beautiful.  Translated by Sandra Smith, as much of her work seems to be, Fire in the Blood is set in a rural village in the historical region of Burgundy, France – also the setting of the work which she is best known for, Suite Francaise.

Published posthumously in France in 2007, and in Britain a year later, Fire in the Blood was the second Nemirovsky which I read, whilst fittingly on holiday in the Dordogne.  The volume opens with a foreword by Olivier Philipponat and Patrick Lienhardt, who both wrote an insightful biography of the author, as well as discovering the full-length manuscript of Fire in the Blood amongst her effects.

9780099516095The novella – for a novella it is, really, running to just 158 pages in the pictured edition – tells of Sylvestre, known throughout as Silvio, ‘his cousin Helene, her second husband, Francoise [sic], and of the truths, deaths, marriages, children, houses and mills that bind them with love and hatred, deception and betrayal’.  As far as themes go within literature, this certainly covers a lot of bases!

From the outset, everything within the novella is so well evoked.  Nemirovsky opens up a vivid world gone by in the first few exquisitely measured sentences: ‘We were drinking a light punch, the kind we had when I was young, and all sitting around the fire, my Erard cousins, their children and I.  It was an autumn evening, the whole sky red above the sodden fields of turned earth.  The fiery sunset promised a strong wind the next day; the crows were cawing.  This large, icy house is full of draughts’.  Silvio then gives us crumbs of detail about himself; on the first page, he writes: ‘I am old, poor and unmarried, holed up in a farmer’s hovel in the middle of the woods’.

Unsurprisingly to anyone at all familiar with Nemirovsky’s work, the character descriptions within Fire In the Blood are excellently wrought.  Colette tells her Uncle Silvio: ‘But you look like a faun… with your wide forehead, turned-up nose, pointed ears and laughing eyes.  Sylvestre, creature of the woods.  That suits you very well…’.  Silvio’s further descriptions of his own person, too, are memorable and unflinchingly candid: ‘For I sometimes feel I’ve been rejected by life, as if washed ashore by the tide.  I’ve ended up on a lovely beach, an old boat, still solid and seaworthy, but whose paint has faded in the water, eaten away by salt’.

Nemirovsky’s use of the male perspective is realistic, and often quite profound.    Through Silvio, the reader is brought into the heart of a small and rural community as though a member him or herself: ‘… the people around here have a kind of genius for living in the most difficult way possible.  No matter how rich they are, they refuse pleasure, even happiness, with implacable determination, wary perhaps of its deceptive promise’.

Smith’s translation is faultless; there is a wonderful poetic fluidity to the piece from beginning to end.  Fire in the Blood is an incredibly human work, which has been exquisitely written.  Her descriptions are reminiscent of Katherine Mansfield’s in their vivid snapshots of beauty and clarity.  Like Mansfield’s, her work is almost entirely sensually appealing.  There is so much depth within this short, and perfectly crafted, novel.  For those unfamiliar with Nemirovsky’s work, Fire in the Blood is a great taster of her wonderful stylistic choices, and engrossing storylines.

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

Japanese author Yoko Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor was a book club pick for February.  Ogawa is an author whom I have only sampled through her interconnected short story collection, Revenge, which is vivid even two and a half years later.  I plumped for The Housekeeper and the Professor as my book club choice because it sounded utterly charming, and looked like it would present a wonderful – and slightly unusual – slice of Japanese life.  First published in Japan in 2003, and translated into English by Stephen Snyder, the novel both met and exceeded my expectations.

9780099521341The Professor of the novel, a former maths teacher whose name we never learn, only has eighty minutes of short-term memory function, following a traumatic head injury seventeen years before the narrative begins.  His memory effectively stops in 1975.  Each morning, his housekeeper has to meet him anew: ‘… as the Professor and the Housekeeper are reintroduced to one another, a strange, beautiful relationship blossoms between them.  The Professor may not remember what he had for breakfast, but his mind is still alive with elegant equations from the past’.  It is she who narrates the story.  The third character in the novel is the Housekeeper’s ten-year-old son.  He is at first rather reluctant to spend so much time with the elderly Professor, but the two soon form an unshakeable bond.

The novel’s opening sentence really sets the tone for the whole: ‘We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign’.  Ogawa’s writing is lovely, and she sets scenes simply yet beautifully: ‘It was a rainy evening in early April.  My son’s schoolbag lay abandoned on the rug.  The light in the Professor’s study was dim.  Outside the window, the blossoms on the apricot tree were heavy with rain’.

Maths is the force which serves to really unite the trio; as the Housekeeper describes to us, ‘… I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do.  Numbers were his way of reaching out to the world.  They were safe, a source of comfort’.  There are many mathematical problems, diagrams, and equations which have been included, but they seem a natural addition to the whole.

The Housekeeper and the Professor is rather a peaceful novel about understanding, trust, and family; protection, selflessness, and kindness.  Ogawa’s prose is unfailingly lovely, and the whole has been sensitively wrought.  The Housekeeper and the Professor is an understanding and deep tome, which transports the reader entirely.  All in all, it is a satisfying novel, which restores one’s faith in humankind, particularly within these turbulent times in which we live.

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