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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One From the Archive: ‘There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family’ by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya **

There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas About Family is the newest work published in English by Russian author Ludmilla Petrushevskaya.  The New York Times believes her to be ‘one of Russia’s best living writers…  her tales inhabit a borderline between this world and the next’.

The blurb of There Once Lived a Mother… states that in these ‘darkly imagined’ novellas, ‘both cruelty and love dominate relationships between husband and wife, mother and child…  Blending horror with satire, fantasy with haunting truth, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s newly translated tales create a cast of unlikely heroines in a carnivalesque world of extremes’.

Anna Summers has translated the book, and has also penned its informative introduction.  At the outset, she sets out the ‘story-swapping culture’ which exists in Russia, and goes on to inform us that ‘the three novellas in this volume tell extreme stories that couldn’t be heard for many years – censorship wouldn’t allow it’.  Summers believes that Petrushevskaya is incredibly important within the Russian canon, describing, as she does, ‘in minute detail how ordinary people, Muscovites, lived from day to day in their identical cramped apartments…  She spoke for all those who suffered domestic hell in silence, the way Solzhenitsyn spoke for the countless nameless political prisoners’.

Of the author’s protagonists, Summers says the following: ‘Reading Petrushevskaya is an unforgettable experience.  This testifies to the exceptional power of her art, because her characters, by their own admission, don’t make particularly fascinating subjects.  In this volume, her heroines are tired, scared, impoverished women who have been devastated by domestic tragedies…  Such women are boring even to themselves’.

The three novellas within There Once Lived a Mother… are entitled ‘The Time Is Night’, ‘Chocolates with Liqueur’ and ‘Among Friends’ – Petrushevksaya’s best-known and highly controversial story – and were published in Russia in 1988, 1992 and 2002 respectively.  Each story is unsettling, and they are quite stylistically similar too.  Despite the lulling and almost simplistic narrative voices used in There Once Lived a Mother…, the sense of foreboding is incredibly strong from the start.  Atmosphere is built up marvellously through Petrushevskaya’s use of sparse wording, which gives the reader an immediate indication that something is not quite right.

In these stories, cruelty nestles into every crevice of life.  The narrator of ‘The Time is Night’ is a poet named Anna, who looks after her young grandson, Tima.  He is a young boy who at first appears ‘jealous’ of her ‘so-called success’, and she consequently blames him for all of the problems in her life.  As the tale goes on, however, one realises that Tima is the only thing which she is living for.  Her existence is bleak; her paralysed mother has been in hospital for seven years, and her son has been in prison.  Her daughter, Tima’s mother, is living away with ‘baby number two’, her ‘new fatherless brat’, and taking all of the money which should be Tima’s.  Anna, whilst headstrong, is rather naive, and despite her poor quality of life, there is something in her narrative which prevents any sympathy being felt for her.

The brutality and violence within There Once Lived a Mother… seem senseless after a while, making the stories rather a chore to read.  The cast of characters are not quite realistic; their foibles and traits sometimes sit oddly together, and any believability is therefore diminished.

Vincent Burgeon’s cover design is striking and rather creepy, and certainly sets the tone for the words within.  There Once Lived a Mother… is stark and oppressive, and whilst the tales are certainly not for the faint-hearted, Petrushevskaya does give a moderately interesting insight into a stifling regime.  The novellas here are stranger than her short stories, and far more disturbing.  Summers has done a good job of translating the work, but there is something oddly detached within the tales, even when the first person narrative perspective has been used.  Emotion is lacking in those places which particularly need it, and whilst it is harrowing, the narrative style – particularly in the second story, ‘Chocolates and Liqueur’ – does not suit.

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

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

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

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

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

irmgard-keun-in-1935

Irmgard Keun

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

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

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

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

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Reading the World 2017: ‘The Leech’ by Cora Sandel ****

I chose to purchase Cora Sandel’s The Leech for my Reading the World project, as she is an author whom has been on my radar for an awfully long time, but whose books appear to be few and far between.  I had originally thought that I would start with the Alberta trilogy which Sandel is arguably most famous for, but  The Leech was the most easily available of her books to me through Abebooks, and so I plumped for it as what I hoped would be a good introduction to her work.  The only other person who has reviewed it on Goodreads also compared it to Virginia Woolf, so of course it was almost inevitable that I was going to begin with this one.

The Leech was first published in Norway in 1958, and in the United Kingdom two years later.  This particular translation has been wonderfully rendered by Elizabeth Rakkan, and printed by The Women’s Press.  Interestingly, we do not meet the woman, Dondi, whom the story revolves around until almost the end of the work.  She is relatively young, and left her home in southern Norway to head to a small town within the Arctic Circle in order to marry.  The Leech begins ten years after Dondi’s decision has been made, and things have not turned out quite as she was expecting them to.  Her writer husband, Gregor, is less than famous, her twin children Bella and Beppo are rebellious, and she is ‘miserable to the point of hysteria’.  Added to this, Gregor’s extended family see Dondi as the reason why he has not quite realised his full potential as a writer; they believe that she has sapped his talent pool dry. 9780704340053-us

The Leech takes place over two days in Midsummer, and from the beginning, Sandel sets the scene perfectly: ‘The veranda doors were open to the radiant North Norwegian summer: a summer which heaps light upon light, shining and brittle, only to fade too soon’.  The majority of the prose takes place within conversations; it opens with Lagerta speaking to her grandmother, who is berating everything modern, from jazz music to motorcycles.  She is grimly comic and belligerent, most fulfilled when she has something to complain about, and somebody to argue her points against.  She is shrewd, and notices everything, telling her granddaughter the following in the opening passage: ‘”But you Lagerta, are over-nervous, my dear.  You must have something in your hands all the time.  You can’t rest any more, don’t think I haven’t noticed it.  One can simply get too tired.”‘

Gregor’s brother, Jonas, acts with his aunt Lagerta and his great-grandmother as a voice of reason in the novel.  We learn an awful lot about Dondi, and her relationship with Gregor, but our view of her is always through their disapproving eyes until she appears in the flesh.  She has very little agency; until she is given a voice of her own, our interpretation of her is negatively biased, and when she is allowed her say, she is forever being fussed over and ordered around somewhat by those around her.  Whilst Dondi is always the focus of their speech, the characters do become protagonists in the piece through Sandel’s clever and effective prose techniques.  Lagerta particularly describes how she has had to live through and adapt to a changing world; she is a thoroughly three-dimensional being, and the most realistic character in the book.

The geographical isolation of the family is best described by Lagerta, when she states: ‘”Coming up here was a violent experience…  I don’t know what to compare it with – being killed and slowly coming alive again.  I was not myself for a while…”‘.  The relationships which Sandel draws are complex and interesting, and the homestead in the middle of nowhere exacerbates the fact that they have few other people for company outside of the familial base.

Sadly, and undeservedly, The Leech has fallen by the wayside.  Using Goodreads as a marker, it has had only a few ratings, and one review other than mine.  There is a marvellous flow to the whole thanks to Rakkan’s translation.  The Leech is a wonderful read, full of interesting and important points about the state of the world and a woman’s place within it, and great writing.  If you can get your hands on a copy, it’s a book which I would certainly recommend.