Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

The critically-acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux is fast becoming one of my favourite chroniclers of the female experience. She writes with remarkable honesty, clarity and a note of vulnerability about various aspects of life, including adolescence, lovemaking, abortion and family. Throughout her work there is an interest in broader society, from social development and progression, to the relationship between individual and collective experiences. 

In Simple Passion (which clocks in at just under 40 pages), Ernaux reflects on the emotional impact of her two-year affair with an attractive married man in the late 1980s. Ernaux is approaching fifty at this time, while her lover — a smart, well-dressed Eastern European with a resemblance to Alain Delon — is thirteen years younger. The passion she feels for this man – referred to as ‘A’ in the book – is all-consuming, to the extent where virtually everything she does revolves around their liaison.

I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment. (p. 13)

All other activities — work, reading, the routines of day-to-day life — are for Ernaux simply a means of filling in time between their hastily-arranged meetings. He communicates with her by phone, often at short notice, whenever an opportunity arises for him to get away.

What Ernaux does so well here is to convey the emotional impact of living her life almost entirely to fit around the availability of her lover. She captures the uncertainly of waiting by the phone, not knowing when he will call; the rush to get dressed and put on make-up once she knows he is about to come; their pleasurable afternoons of lovemaking; and the overwhelming rush of fatigue she experiences once he’s gone – swiftly followed by the pain of absence.

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum. (p. 16)

Ernaux is not giving us an objective, factual account of a liaison here; as far as she is concerned, the most important thing is to reflect the key determinant of her mood, i.e. the distinction between the absence and the presence of her lover. Similarly, she has no desire to search for the origins of her passion in her past or recent history, nor does she seek to rationalise or justify this experience — only to capture and convey it through her prose.

As ever with Ernaux, the approach is deeply introspective, moving seamlessly between her recollections of the ‘feel’ of the affair and the process of writing about it here. There are times when Ernaux feels she is living out her passion in a similar way to writing a book, channelling her natural determination to capture every scene correctly, with the same attention to detail without lessening or diluting the desire.

During all this time, I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I am not sure in which style I am writing about it, whether in the style of a testimony, or possibly even the sort of confidence that can be found in women’s magazines, maybe a manifesto or a statement, or perhaps a critical commentary. (p. 21)

Throughout their affair, this man becomes an obsession of sorts for Ernaux, prompting her to actively avoid things that prevent her from basking in the pleasures of passion. Nevertheless, after six months or so, Ernaux becomes convinced that ‘A’ is seeing another woman, to the extent that she cannot enjoy his company in quite the same way when he reappears. In truth, she dreads his eventual departure, and her pleasure in the moment becomes tinged with future pain. On the one hand, there is a longing to end the affair so as not to suffer further, but on the other, the emptiness that ultimately lies ahead proves a powerful deterrent.

In time, ‘A’ leaves France to return to his home nation, leaving Ernaux to pick up the threads of her life. At first, the pain is unbearable and she no longer cares if she lives or dies. While the act of writing doesn’t diminish the impact of her loss, it does offer an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, there is an element of vulnerability here, a slight reluctance to share something private, potentially attracting questions or judgements from others.

To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, an emotion I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion or writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgement and the ‘normal’ values of society. (pp. 43–44)

As with Happening, her remarkable book on sourcing an illegal abortion in the early 1960s, Ernaux hopes to create something meaningful and universal from her experiences, capturing emotions that may prove useful to others.

Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal. Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere. (p. 41)

Once again, the writing is clear, precise and emotionally truthful. There is a beauty to Ernaux’s prose – a degree of elegance that belies its simplicity.

In summary then, this is an exquisite book by a very accomplished writer – so honest, so insightful, so true. Best read in one sitting to maximise the impact.

Simple Passion is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

There is something deeply unnerving about a crime novel featuring an ordinary domestic setting – the type of story where sinister activities take place behind the veil of net curtains in the privacy of the protagonist’s home. The English writer and book reviewer Celia Dale was clearly a master of this genre, especially if her 1966 novel A Helping Hand is anything to go by. It’s an icily compelling tale of greed and deception, stealthily executed amidst carefully orchestrated conversations and endless cups of tea. An absolute shoo-in for my end-of-year highlights, I devoured this brilliant, terrifying novel in my eagerness to reach the end.

Central to the novel are former nurse Maisie Evans and her husband Josh, a middle-aged couple living quiet lives in the heart of suburbia. As the story gets underway, we find the Evanses on holiday in Italy, ostensibly as a bit of a break following the death of Auntie Flo, whom the couple had been looking after in their home before the old lady’s death. With Maisie’s background in nursing, the couple like to offer ‘a helping hand’ here and there, acting as caretakers to people in need, especially those with no relatives or other support.

During their break, Maisie and Josh attach themselves to another pair of British holidaymakers – the elderly widow Cynthia Fingal and her rather selfish niece, Lena. Right from the very start, Dale hints at the Evanses’ true motivations for befriending these fellow Brits, with Maisie targeting Lena while Josh works his magic on Mrs F. With her beloved husband, Stanley, long deceased, Mrs Fingal has missed the little attentions of a male companion – a role that Josh is only too willing to pick up. So, while Maisie accompanies Lena on various shopping trips around town, Josh begins to charm Mrs Fingal, flattering her with the attentiveness and conversation she is eager to lap up.

As Maisie soon discovers, Lena feels she has been saddled with taking care of her aunt – a burden she so clearly resents as it prevents her from living a more exciting life. In truth, Lena is selfish, irritable and impatient – qualities that Maisie soon turns to her own advantage by listening to Lena’s woes. Moreover, Mrs Fingal is equally unhappy with Lena, viewing her as common, self-centred, and hard – a perception she duly shares with Josh.

‘…I can’t talk like this to Lena. She shuts me up. She can’t see outside herself, you see. And she’s common. There’s never any conversation, she hasn’t the patience to listen to anyone but herself.’ (p. 55)

One of the things Dale does so well here is to let the reader in on what the Evanses are up to, slowly but surely as the narrative unfolds. For instance, we see them sizing up Mrs Fingal’s situation, working out how much the old lady might be worth and establishing whether there are any other living relatives besides Lena. It really is quite calculated and cold…

By the end of the holiday, a plan is in place for Mrs Fingal to go and live with the Evanses – an arrangement that seems to suit everyone concerned. After all, with Maisie’s training in nursing, the Evanses are perfectly placed to accommodate Mrs F in their spare room – the one previously occupied by ‘Auntie’ Flo. Lena, for her part, is delighted to have an opportunity to offload her aunt onto someone else, leaving her free to focus on her work and entertaining men, while Mrs F can look forward to mild flirtations with Josh and some much-need company to stave off her loneliness. It’s the perfect solution all round, or so it appears on the surface…

At first, all is sweetness and light at the Evanses following Mrs Fingal’s arrival; but slowly and stealthily, the tone beings to change. In essence, Maisie treats the old lady like a child, confining her to bed for long periods and scolding her for the little accidents and spillages that occur.

[Mrs Fingal:] ‘Not go out? Oh, but I must go out.’

[Maisie:] ‘What d’you have to go out for? Oh, look what you’ve done, spilled egg on my nice clean tray cloth!’

‘Oh, surely not? I mean…’

‘And on the sheet too. You are a mucky pup and no mistake. We’ll have to give you a bib.’ (p. 96)

Gradually we release the horror of what’s unfolding here. By prescribing extensive periods of bed rest for Mrs Fingal, Maisie is deliberately pursuing a plan to weaken the old lady’s muscles, whittling away her independence in the process. Moreover, Maisie does everything in her power to carefully discourage any contact between Lena and Mrs Fingal, citing the desire for stability as a cover for her actions. After all, the Evanses don’t want Lena getting a whiff of what’s actually happening back at the house in case she disturbs things. Better to leave Auntie Cynthia alone to avoid upsetting her routine…

[Lena:] ‘We haven’t talked much about Auntie.’

[Maisie:] ‘There’s not much to say. You get on with your life and leave the worrying to me – when there is any.’

‘D’you think I ought to come over?’

‘Frankly, dear, I don’t. It would only unsettle her. She’s settled into our little home so well that I think it’s really only kind to leave her to her own little ways and routines. You know what old folk are, they get used to things being just as they like them, just as they’re used to. She’s as happy as a sandboy with me and Josh knowing just what she likes, and anything coming in new from the outside might only upset her again.’ (p. 118)

While Maisie proceeds to wear down Mrs Fingal by restricting her movements, Josh can be equally sinister in his own chilling way, neglecting his charge for other, more interesting activities. As such, Mrs Fingal is left feeling lonely and confused, declining mentally and physically under the Evanses’ ‘care’.  

[Mrs F:] ‘Is it night-time?’

[Josh:] ‘No, it’s not long gone five. I’ll bring you your tea in a minute.’

I thought I’d had my tea. When you didn’t come, I thought it must be night but then I heard voices and I thought it was strangers…’

‘You think a lot, don’t you…’ (pp. 148–149)

Just as the Evanses’ plan is ticking along nicely, another player comes into the mix in the shape of Graziella – a sweet-natured Italian waitress from their holiday – in need of a place to stay. While Maisie is somewhat reluctant to have an outsider in the house, potentially disrupting their treatment of Mrs F, Josh is more willing, particularly given the girl’s attractiveness. (In truth, Josh has a hideously lecherous side to his personality, an unsavoury edge that Dale gradually reveals through the book.)

As Graziella bonds with Mrs Fingal, encouraging the old lady to build up her strength by walking again, she senses that something is decidedly off. While the Evanses may be in charge of Mrs Fingal’s wellbeing, they don’t seem to care for her, not in the way Italian families would…

‘It’s just a feeling. They take care of her, there’s no one else, poor thing. But I don’t know why they do it. They seem kind, they take care of her – but they don’t care for her.’ (p. 214)

A Helping Hand is a remarkably compelling slice of suburban horror, ideal for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson – it really is that good. What Dale does so well here is to subtly reveal to the reader the true malice behind the Evanses’ actions. A little hint dropped here, a calculated word or two there – it’s all very cleverly done. As the narrative unfolds, the reader can clearly see how the tone of Maisie’s behaviour towards Mrs Fingal changes over time, from gentle chivvying and chiding to downright bullying and neglect. And yet, everything is so carefully orchestrated to seem caring in front of others – this is where the skill really comes in.

In summary, then, an icy, utterly terrifying domestic noir that will chill you to the bone. All the more haunting for its grounding in apparent normality – the flat, characterless feel of the suburban setting is brilliantly evoked.

A Helping Hand is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The Mookse and the Gripes Podcast – Episode 37: Hotel Novels

Just popping up to let you know that Trevor and Paul were kind enough to ask me to join them on the latest episode of The Mookse and the Gripes podcast for a discussion about hotel novels. I had such fun recording the show with them at the weekend, and it’s available to listen to now on all the usual podcast platforms (Apple, Spotify, Google Podcasts etc.). Alternatively, just click on this link.

We each chose three of our favourite hotel novels or stories, so if you’d like to hear our choices, together with a brief round-up of some recent reading, do listen in. It’s quite a long one, so you might want to spread it over a few sessions. Many thanks to Trevor and Paul for having me along!

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Back at the beginning of June, I wrote about Tove Ditlevsen’s 1952 short story collection, The Umbrella, which forms the first part of the recent Penguin reissue, The Trouble with Happiness. The book as a whole takes its name from the second collection included here – a volume of eleven stories, published in Danish in 1963. Ditlevsen experienced severe depression, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and several broken marriages during her life – she divorced four times. As such, many of these influences, alongside those of her austere childhood in working-class Copenhagen, have made their way into her books, these stories included.

The titular piece feels particularly autobiographical in nature, a quality augmented by its personal, almost confessional style. Here we see a talented, seventeen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood, desperate to spread her wings and escape the constraints of her family. The girl’s mother is severe and judgemental, while the father remains largely absent or asleep, adding to the fractured nature of life in the family’s cramped apartment. As an account, it’s shot through with a palpable sense of sadness – a melancholy mood that resurfaces now and again in the protagonist’s thoughts several years down the line.

But sometimes – when someone has left me, or I discover inadvertently in the eyes of my children a glimpse of cold observation, of merciless, unsurmountable distance, I take out my brother’s pretty little sewing case and slowly open the mother-of-pearl inlaid lid. Fight for all you hold dear, plays the worn old music maker, and an unnamed sadness swells inside my mind, because they are all dead or disappeared, and my brother and I no longer communicate. (p. 184)

Ditlevsen has an innate ability to convey the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation that women sometimes feel, especially when their marriages break down. In Perpetuation, one of my favourites in the collection, Edith finds that history is repeating itself when her husband, an academic in his mid-forties, has an affair with a much younger woman. Consequently, Edith cannot help but reflect on her father’s earlier desertion of his family under similar circumstances. Will Edith’s children blame her for the collapse of the marriage? How long will it be before their father forgets them?

What if she told her children the truth? The truth about a father whose love for a woman and tenderness for three children was diminished to a little prick in his conscience when once in a while – because it had to happen – on a street, in a trolley, or on a train, he saw a child who resembled one of them? A little pain that diminished with every embrace, every passionate night, and which in the end disappeared completely in the terrible power radiating from the body of a young, beautiful woman. (pp. 168–169)

The danger posed by youth is also a factor in The Little Shoes, another brilliantly-observed piece in this piercing collection of stories. When Helene employs Hanne, a rather self-important, insolent twenty-two-year-old girl, as a housekeeper, she begins to regret her decision, especially when the family’s stability is put at risk. With her air of working-class resentment and self-righteousness, Hanne might just be fooling around with Helene’s fifteen-year-old son, adding to a pattern of behaviour that Helene finds infuriating.

Helene had to fight back the impulse to fire her on the spot. She stood there until the girl slowly got up, wearing a shameless smile that radiated the consciousness of the sexual superior superiority of idiotic youth.

Helene took it as the kind of smile you give to an older, discarded fellow female, and she was infuriated. (p. 144–145)

Ditlevsen spares little in her withering depiction of men in these stories, many of whom are at best absent or neglectful and at worst cruel or deceitful.

In A Fine Business, a young couple, imminently expecting a child, are looking for a new house which they plan to buy with a recent inheritance. After several fruitless viewings, their estate agent alights on an ideal property, armed with the knowledge that the owner – a vulnerable mother – needs to sell quickly following the breakdown of her marriage. It’s a situation the male buyer is all too keen to exploit, working in partnership with the estate agent to secure a reduced price – an action that reveals a mercenary side to the buyer’s character. Only his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, can see the injustice of this scenario, empathising with the downtrodden seller, particularly given her own condition.

There is such a sad, hopeless atmosphere in this house, bereft as it is of much of its former furniture. And yet, this excellent story reveals so much about the characters, particularly through Ditlevsen’s insights into Grete’s private thoughts.

Why has he looked that way at the little stain on the ceiling? It was the same way he looked at the woman and a little girl, almost as if there were two defects in the house that could drive down the price. He probably wasn’t going to buy this house either. And when they got home, he would act as if he had made the most ingenious deal in his life. (p. 128)

Also rather troubling is the father’s behaviour in The Knife, an arresting story in which a mentally disturbed man feels constrained by his wife and son.

They existed like shadows inside him, thought foetuses he couldn’t get rid of, products of a weakness in him which he tried with all his might to overcome. (p. 96)

Other highlights include Anxiety, a terrifying tale of a woman cowed into submission by her intolerant husband – a newspaper copy editor who works nights and hates having his sleep disturbed during the day. Consequently, this woman is afraid to move around in her own home in case she makes a noise. Moreover, any occasional visits to her sister also come with their own problems, especially if she stays out for too long – who knows what her husband might need while she is away…

Two Women is also worthy of a mention – a beautifully observed story of a restless, depressed woman who fails to empathise with her hairdresser, despite experiencing similar anxieties and concerns. In truth, Britta has come to the beauty parlour for an escape from her own troubles, not to be dragged down by those of another.

So, in summary, a superb collection of stories, beautifully expressed in a spare, emotionally truthful style, perfectly capturing the underlying sadness and loneliness therein. Here we have stories of fractured minds, lonely, isolated women, marginalised or abandoned in their marriages by careless or cruel men. Supportive friends or family members seem few and far between, adding to the unhappiness that surrounds these protagonists. But as ever with Ditlevsen, the writing is brilliant, a factor that helps balance some of the heartbreak we find within. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for lovers of interiority in fiction.

The Trees by Percival Everett

The American writer and academic Percival Everett has written a remarkably clever and provocative novel here. At heart, the book is a blistering expose of the ingrained racism in certain sectors of American society and the country’s devastating history of lynchings, specifically targeting people of colour. However, rather than addressing these issues in a conventional literary novel, Everett plays with the tropes of genre fiction, using elements of satire, humour, horror and surrealism to create a thoroughly engaging page-turner with some vital social critique at its core.

The story opens with two back-to-back murders in Money, Mississippi, an area largely populated by rednecks with scant regard for racial equality. In each case, two bodies are found at the crime scene – a mutilated, castrated white man with barbed wire wrapped around his neck and a badly-beaten black man who appears to be holding the other victim’s testicles in his hands. Stranger still, the black body in each incident is the same one – a man bearing an uncanny resemblance to Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was abducted, tortured and lynched in Mississippi in the mid-1950s after a white woman accused him of causing offence. What’s more, the two dead white men, Wheat Bryant and Junior Junior Milam, are closely related to Carolyn Bryant, the white woman who accused Emmett Till back in the ‘50s – an accusation Carolyn (aka Granny C) now regrets.

The local police, led by Sheriff Red Jetty, are baffled by the two cases, but help soon arrives in the shape of two black Special Detectives – Ed and Jim – from the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (‘MBI’ for short). While the townsfolk view these super-smart detectives with a degree of suspicion, they soon have the measure of the local police, if not the perpetrator(s) behind the crimes themselves. As the investigations get underway, rumours of strange supernatural forces begin to surface, especially given the black body’s resemblance to Emmett Till…

Everett has a lot of fun with stereotypes and names in this novel, portraying certain influential white residents of Money for what they really are – fervent racists of the most pernicious kind. For instance, the town’s Coroner, Reverend Doctor Fondle, is deeply unnerved by these incidents as he rallies his fellow members of the local Ku Klux Klan.

“We got ourselves a situation, White brothers”, Fondle said. “I’m afraid what we’re lookin’ at is a real nigger uprising. Two of our own brothers lay dead, and a killin’ nigger is on the gawddamn loose. I seen him, seen him close up, scarred up by Satan himself. A nigger that’s as good at fakin’ death as anybody you will ever find. I seen him dead, and then he weren’t.” (p. 108)

During their time in Money, Ed and Jim cross paths with Gertrude (aka Dixie), who works as a waitress in a local diner. Gertrude helps the detectives by introducing them to her super-sharp great-grandmother, Mama Z, who knows pretty much everything about the goings-on in the local area over the past hundred years. As it turns out, Mama Z has compiled records of almost every lynching in the US – police shootings included – since 1913, the year of her father’s death. In part, she does this ‘because somebody has to’ – if Mama Z doesn’t do it, who will? With her knowledge of the local history and gossip, Mama Z suggests a couple of people for the detectives to see. ‘If you want to know a place, you talk to its history.”

As the narrative unfolds, eerily similar murders are reported across the US – firstly in Mississippi, then in other states, including South Carolina and Alabama. Alongside the original killings closely linked to the Emmett Till case, it seems a wave of copycat incidents is sweeping across the nation – culminating in retribution on a large scale, with numerous white victims being found at various sites, all attacked and castrated as before. With this escalation in violence, Ed and Jim are joined by Special Agent Herberta Hind from the FBI, another smart cookie who also happens to be black.

Everett draws brilliantly on his creative skills here, portraying these events with an outrageous seam of dark humour. On the surface, the Whites for Social Justice’s responses to the killings might seem risible, highlighting the absurdities at play as they prepare for the race war long anticipated by the group. However, Everett never lets us forget the seriousness and brutality of the situation he is tackling so smartly in this book.

“What we gonna do?”

“We have to get everybody together,” Morris repeated.

“You make it sound like we got numbers,” Rupter said. “Far as I can see, we got us and two other people. Where’s this war taking place? My boy’s got Little League this week.”

 “Yeah,” Fester said. “We is scattered all over the country. The very thing that makes the FBI afraid of us is our weakness.” (p. 265)

As the narrative progresses, the repeated reports of various killings might feel a little unnecessary, as one could argue that the reader will soon get the idea after the first four or five accounts. However, I think Everett is making a conscious point here. By mentioning several separate incidents and victims, he is highlighting both the importance of each individual case and the cumulative gravity of events as they pile up. Perhaps this an attempt to address the ‘erasure’ of individual victims of racially-motivated lynchings over time – a theme reflected in the actions of Damon Thruff, an influential friend and academic enlisted by Gertrude to review Mama Z’s work. 

He [Damon] found it all depressing, not that lynching could be anything but. However, the crime, the practice, the religion of it, was becoming more pernicious as he realized that the similarity of their deaths had caused these men and women to be at once erased and coalesced like one piece, like one body. They were all number and no number at all, many and one, a symptom, a sign. (p. 189)

As Damon works his way through Mama Z’s records, he notes each victim’s name in pencil, making them feel ‘real again’ rather than just a statistic. Moreover, the act of writing these names in pencil and subsequently erasing them is designed to set the victims free, liberating them from the weight of such a tragic history.

Stylistically, The Trees reads like a detective novel – it’s fast-paced and whip-smart, while the passages of outrageously funny dialogue and slightly surreal interludes add significantly to its appeal.

“What a fuckin’ mess. A goddamn clusterfuck.”

“Chief, is clusterfuck one word or two?” Jethro asked.

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Get back to the goddamn station.”

“Yessir.” (p. 31)

As the quote on the book’s cover suggests, what Everett does so well here is to navigate these chilling, contemporary issues with satire, surrealism and knockout comedy, pushing his scenario as far as he can take it (certainly within the bounds of a page-turning novel). Moreover, as other readers have already observed, there is the basis of razor-sharp film or TV mini-series here, preferably directed by Spike Lee or Jordan Peele. Both the subject matter and the style feel right up their street.

There’s even a hilarious vignette involving a certain US President – no prizes for guessing which one! – and his response to the crisis. As a polemic, it comes across as barking mad and frighteningly believable all at once, just like so many other actions of this loose cannon himself.

Naturally, I’m not going to reveal how The Trees plays out – you’ll have to read the book itself to discover that! However, let me reassure you that it’s absolutely worth the ride. This is a very clever satire, conveyed in the guise of a propulsive detective novel, raising thought-provoking questions about justice, revenge and deep-rooted racism in the US today – not least the country’s toxic history with lynchings and other racially-motivated violence.

A vital, provocative and hugely enjoyable book that deserves to be widely read. I’m delighted to see it on the Booker shortlist – a terrific choice indeed!

The Trees is published by Influx Press; personal copy.

Indelicacy by Amina Cain

Alongside the reissues of modern classics from writers such as Natalia Ginzburg and Madeleine Bourdouxhe, the publishing arm of Daunt Books has been promoting an ‘Originals’ list featuring bold and inventive contemporary writing in English and in translation. Having loved Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho and The Pachinko Parlour from this list, I was keen to try Amina Cain’s 2020 novella Indelicacy, described by the publisher as ‘a ghost story without a ghost, a fable without a moral and an exploration of the barriers faced by women in both life and literature’. Happily, it did not disappoint. This is a beautiful, enigmatic book – cool and clear on the surface but full of hidden depths, a combination that gives the story a subtle, meditative quality in its exploration of the protagonist’s inner world.

The novella is narrated by Vitória, a relatively young woman who works as a cleaner in a museum of art. Although Vitória has little money or creature comforts, she finds enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life such as reading books, buying a new pair of brightly coloured stockings or writing about the paintings surrounding her at work.

Every morning and night I walked through that city, to and from the museum, fall turning into winter. Each doorway, even mine, its own theatre of something, with its own suggestion or promise. (p. 14)

The desire to write is something of a passion for Vitória, driving her to make notes on the artworks in the museum, some of which form part of the novella’s text.

In this painting, Mary is lying down but she’s awake to something. She’s looking up, her eyes open just enough to see what’s in front of her, or perhaps what she’s seeing is inside her own mind. Her white robe is slipping from her shoulders, her hands clasped, her arms resting on her pregnant belly. A red blanket. A dark room. It must be cold outside. Inside too. (p. 17)

However, while Vitória longs to write, furthering her connections to art and the natural world, her friend Antoinette (another cleaner at the gallery) yearns for a different kind of escape – a life with a wealthy lover and the beautiful possessions this will confer. 

One day, Vitória meets a man at the gallery, a visitor who comes to view the work of Caravaggio and Goya. In a matter of months, they are married, opening up a whole new life for Vitória – one of wealth, privilege and beautiful objects, just like the world of Antoinette’s dreams. Nevertheless, this new existence comes with its own challenges and constraints. While Vitória has an abundance of time on her hands, she finds it difficult to achieve the freedom to write. As far as her husband is concerned, Vitória should find another hobby or pursuit. There is no need for her work or prove herself; the household’s maid, Solange, is employed to clean the house, leaving Vitória free to entertain guests and manage the home. Consequently, Vitória writes in secret, mostly when her husband (whom she does not love) is out, and sometimes at the Botanical Gardens, where she finds solace in the retreat.

Also of concern for Vitória is the impact these changes have on her friendships with other women. For instance, when Vitória marries, she stops working at the gallery without a word to Antoinette, severing their relationship abruptly. In truth, Vitória feels somewhat guilty over her situation compared to Antoinette’s, especially given their respective desires and dreams. Guilt also plays a significant part in Vitória’s relationship with Solange, the rather resentful housemaid who shuns all attempts at closeness or friendship.

While these developments offer Vitória some new experiences – a degree of intimacy with her husband, the freedom of movement in ballet classes, a new friendship with classmate, Dana – she remains largely unfulfilled. Her husband is clearly the gatekeeper of this existence, someone Vitória must ask or seek permission from, even if her requests are rarely denied. As Vitória begins to nudge at the boundaries of this world – testing her ability to take control, to be indelicate or self-centred – she wonders whether this will be enough. How will she gain the freedom to write, to truly satisfy her creative desires while still having the resources to live – especially when her husband starts dropping hints about a baby? 

It was true, I was mean sometimes. But I didn’t have it in me to be kind to someone who saw me only in relation to property and propriety. To be domestic first and then to be a shallow vessel out and about in the world. Didn’t he understand that was not who I was? I wondered why he had chosen me. And why had I chosen him? Had it been for survival, for experience? Both of those things, I guess. (p. 102)

While Indelicacy can be viewed as the story of a woman’s desire for the freedom to create, the novella also explores several related themes, including social class, gender roles and expectations, female friendship and fulfilment. Interestingly, the novella is set in an unspecified time and place, which gives the story a timeless quality, possibly outside the conventional landscape of time. Certain clues point to a Victorian setting – references to carriages, a harpsichord and full skirts, for instance – while others, such as popcorn and a red sweater dress, suggest a later period, possibly the mid-20th century. Naturally, this adds to the slightly slippery feel of the environment we are inhabiting here, making it all the more intriguing to read.

Thematically, Indelicacy is predominantly concerned with women’s experiences. However, while many interior, character-driven novels delve deep into the protagonist’s inner feelings, Cain seems equally interested in Vitória’s relationship to her surroundings – for instance, the connections she forges with the artworks in the museum and the wonders of the natural world.

Now that I have so much time to myself, I wonder at my times of happiness, why I’ve been allowed them, even now when I am lonely. Why I can walk and how even walking, at the right hour, in this temperature or that one, the lights just coming on, or the sky lightening, I am able to love it. How much I am a person. (p. 77)

This preoccupation with consciousness reminded me a little of the work of other writers such as Clarice Lispector, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and possibly Virginia Woolf, whose essay A Room of One’s Own may well be a key touchstone.

So, in summary, this is a subtle, beautifully written novella of a woman’s desire for the freedom to write – an enigmatic exploration of the protagonist’s relationship with art, creativity and her inner and outer worlds. The type of story that gets under the reader’s skin…

(My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (tr. Howard Curtis) 

The publication history of this terrific novella by the Italian novelist and screenwriter Gianfranco Calligarich is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Written when Calligarich was in his twenties, the book struggled to find a publisher until it dropped into the hands of the renowned novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg – a writer currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity due to the recent reissues from Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Ginzburg was so enthused by Calligarich’s novella that she persuaded an Italian publishing house to issue it in 1973, resulting in both critical and commercial success.

However, not long after, the book slipped out of print, taking on the status of a cult classic amongst those in the know. Following a couple of revivals in the 2010s, Last Summer in the City is now available to read in English for the first time, courtesy of the translator Howard Curtis and Picador Books. It’s a wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair.

Last Summer is narrated by Leo Gazzara, a thirty-year-old man from Milan who has come to Rome as a correspondent for a medical-literary magazine. When the publication folds, he finds himself drifting around the city, shuttling from one cheap hotel to another, picking up a little freelance work here and there when he needs money to get by. Having eschewed the usual trappings of respectability revered by his older sisters, Leo often relies on the generosity of others, feeding on their ‘leftovers’ in more ways than one. So when two relatively wealthy friends move to Mexico City for a year or two, Leo agrees to house-sit their apartment, providing him with a comfortable place to live as he meanders around Rome.

His life is a somewhat shallow, disorganised one as he drifts from one woman to another, one bar to another, one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. Alongside lassitude, alcohol is another demon for Leo, blurring his senses as he tries to kick the habit. Interestingly, Calligarich often depicts Leo in the morning after the night before, a leisurely time of day that our protagonist enjoys – after all, he has long been a magnet for women.

I slept until late morning, when I woke up to an empty apartment. I found coffee already made, along with a note. Stay as long as you like. I thought about it, as I lay in a bathtub filled with warm water, I thought about whether to stay or not, until I realised that the only thing I could do now was leave and never come back. And so, like so many other times, for the last time I got out of her bath, dried myself, finished the coffee, and left, firmly closing the door behind me. (p. 98)

One evening, at a party hosted by friends, Leo meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye. After the soiree breaks up, Leo and Arianne drive through the city, flirting with one another, stopping for warm brioche at a bakery and driving to the sea before dawn. It’s the start of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. 

It was the hour when anyone who’s been on his feet all night demands something hot in his stomach, the hour when hands search for each other under the sheets as dreams become more vivid, the hour when the newspapers smell of ink and the first sounds of day start to creep out like an advanced guard. It was dawn, and all that reminded of the night were two shadows under the eyes of this strange girl by my side. (pp. 36–37)

Right from the very start, there is a sense of fatalism about this story, a feeling that Leo and Arianna’s relationship is doomed almost as soon as it gets underway. Here we see two disaffected, damaged souls, unmoored and adrift, never quite connecting with one another as they blow hot and cold. For instance, when Leo thinks he is falling in love with Arianna, she refuses to hear it, silencing his declarations of emotion and affection. Similarly, there are times when Leo rejects Arianna, preferring instead to retreat into his loneliness and anger.

This capricious, volatile quality also applies to their other relationships, particularly the one between Arianna and her rather jealous sister, Eva – a bond characterised by frequent quarrels and overly dramatic flounces, particularly from Arianna. 

Rome is almost a character in itself here – the city is home to the transient, the people that pass through, often searching for something new or different, even if they cannot define what that ‘something’ might be. Calligarich’s depictions of Rome are seductive and glamorous at times, especially at night. And yet, there’s something brittle and all-consuming about the capital, too – a darkness or destructive note that must be respected and borne in mind. Rome is a place that feeds a person’s needs and disaffections – by turns, charming, tolerating and spurning its inhabitants in response to the prevailing mood.  

…Rome by her very nature has a particular intoxication that wipes out memory. She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved. […] If she’s loved, she’ll give herself to you whichever way you want her, all you need to do is go with the flow and you’ll be within reach of the happiness you deserve. You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, when she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot. […] In this way you too, waiting day after day, will become part of her. You too will nourish the city. Until one sunny day, sniffing the wind from the sea and looking up at the sky, you’ll realize there’s nothing left to wait for. (pp. 7–8)

Calligarich’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, adding a sense of beauty to Leo’s loneliness and despair. There are times when the novella is infused with a sense of yearning for the past, a nostalgia for something that was lost or never fully attained. Calligarich’s portrayal of Leo’s father is especially poignant – a silent, orderly man who returned shattered from the War.

In summary, Last Summer in the City is a beautiful, melancholic story of a man lost and adrift in Rome. Here we have a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair, of two flawed, damaged individuals unable to connect – ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso-shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

Women in Translation – some book-and-wine matches, just for fun!

Something a little different from me today. Some book and wine matches to tie in with #WITMonth (Women in Translation), a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers, which runs every August. This year’s event has just finished – possibly the most successful yet, with hundreds of recommendations and reviews flying around the web over the past few weeks.

This year, I’m trying to make ‘WIT’ a regular thing by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman writer in translation each month rather than just thinking about them for August. Plus, there are lots of WIT reviews from my eight years of blogging gathered together in this area here.

So, here are a few of my favourite WIT reads, complete with suitable wine matches. For each book, I’ve tried to select wines made from grape varieties grown in the same region as the setting, just to keep the pairing as local as possible. Naturally, my fondness for European whites and rosés comes through quite strongly here, but please feel free to suggest some book-and-wine matches from further afield. South America in particular is a bit of a gap for me!

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War. The novel focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. One of my favourite books this year.

Wine Match: Given that Ginzburg grew up in Turin, I’m looking at wines from the Piedmont region as suitable matches for this one. The area is famed for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape variety. However, these fine wines tend to be quite pricey. A Langhe Nebbiolo is a more approachable, cost-effective option. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Langhe Nebbiolo is a great example – made by the Rizzi estate, this wine has a lovely cherry, raspberry and rose-petal aroma with plenty of juicy red fruit on the palate. G. D Vajra is another excellent producer worth seeking out.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow blogger, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments, too. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Wine Match: Bazán’s novel is set in Galicia in northwest Spain, home to the Godello grape variety, one of my favourite Spanish whites. The Maruxa Godello, from the Valdeorras Denominación de Origen (DO), is a great example. There’s plenty of lemony and peachy fruit here, with enough body to stand up to chicken or fish. The Valdesil Montenovo Godello (from the same DO) is another winner, too.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash vs Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Côte d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, with a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

Wine Match: As we’re in the South of France for this one, it’s got to be a rosé from Provence! There are several good producers here, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Côtes de Provence Rosé (from Château des Mesclances) is a good bet when available. Dangerously drinkable with lovely redcurrant and strawberry fruit, this round, fresh-tasting rosé is made from Cinsault – maybe with a touch of Grenache in the blend. The Mirabeau en Provence Classic Rosé (readily available from Waitrose) is another excellent choice.

Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

This striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne is an underrated gem. Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction as she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin (a free spirit) and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, frequently in a state of flux. In many respects, this is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. A thoroughly impressive book in more ways than one.

Wine Match: Cologne is not too far from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine region, making Riesling a great match for Gilgi. The von Kesselstatt Rieslings tend to be excellent. Their Niedermenniger Riesling Kabinett is round and racy with plenty of citrus fruit. Off-dry in style with a nice balance between acidity and sweetness, this wine would pair brilliantly with Chinese or Thai food. The Rieslings from Dr Loosen and J.J. Prūm are worth checking out, too.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)

First published in Portugal in 1966 and recently translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa, this brilliant novella is something of a minor masterpiece of 20th-century literature. It’s a work of great precision and compression – a quietly devastating story of three generations of women, confined and subsumed by the men who surround them. There are similarities with Anita Brookner’s novels here – both thematically and stylistically – as Carvalho goes deep into the inner lives of her female protagonists, conveying them unflinchingly for the reader to see. Fans of Natalia Ginzburg and Penelope Mortimer will also find much to admire in this novella – a timeless reminder of how destructive the actions of unthinking men can be, defining and destroying the women who serve them.

Wine Match: Empty Wardrobes is set in Lisbon, making a white wine from the Lisboa Valley a potential choice. Alvarinho is grown here – the same grape variety as Albariño, found in the Galicia region of Spain. The AdegaMãe Lisboa Valley Selection looks like a fun one to try. A blend of Arinto, Viosinho, Alvarinho and Viognier, the wine notes promise stone and citrus fruits with a touch of Atlantic freshness and zest. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a red, a wine made from Touriga Nacional or Tinto Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) would be an excellent bet.

Meeting in Positano by Goliarda Sapienza (tr. Brian Robert Moore)

This is such a gorgeous novel, as luminous as a hazy summer’s day, shimmering with beauty and sensuality. Its author, the Italian actress and writer Goliarda Sapienza, started her career in theatre and film, working with Luchino Visconti in the 1940s and 50s; and it was a film that first brought Sapienza to Positano, the magical Italian village on the Amalfi Coast she viewed as her spiritual home. The novel – a sensual story of female friendship – has a semi-autobiographical feel, set in the glamour of 1950s Italy. The intensity of the bond between the two women is beautifully conveyed, encompassing joy, desire, regret, longing and tragedy, making this a wonderful rediscovered gem.

Wine Match: Italian white wines from the Campania region would be ideal here. Luckily, they’re also some of my favourites, making this novel a pleasure to match. A wine made from either Fiano, Falanghina or Greco would be perfect for this one. The Falanghina from the Feudi San Gregorio estate is delicious – fresh and vibrant with some lovely citrus and stone fruit notes, this is summer in a glass. Alternatively, some of the major supermarkets have partnered with reputable producers to offer own-label wines, including those made from Fiano or Falanghina – and these are always worth a try.  

So, I hope you enjoyed that little tour around some of my favourite WIT reads and wines of Europe. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on these books, together with any wine matches or recommendations of your own in the comments below!

Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Sayaka Murata’s novella Convenience Store Woman, a wonderfully offbeat story that posed some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. There’s more of that strangeness here in Life Ceremony, a collection of thirteen short stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. It’s an excellent collection, raising provocative questions about why certain things are deemed acceptable while others are not.

By exploring our societal constructs, Murata exposes the absurdities and hypocrisies of various conventional beliefs, destabilising our perceptions of what is ‘normal’ vs ‘weird’ or taboo. Many of these stories are set either in the near future or in an alternate reality where societal practices have changed, shifting the boundaries of which behaviours are considered off-limits.

As with most short story collections, some pieces resonate more strongly than others, so my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and underlying themes. While the longer pieces are particularly effective, even Murata’s short sketches have something interesting to offer – the germ or an idea or a lasting impression to consider.

In the opening story, a First-Rate Material, we enter a world in which human bones, skin and other body parts are routinely repurposed into useful objects following a person’s death. These recycled items are not only considered acceptable but highly desirable, frequently attracting high price tags due to their quality and beauty. The young lovers in the story have wildly different perceptions of this practice, prompting us to question who is behaving strangely here – the young woman who longs to fill her new home with furniture made from bones, or the young man who baulks at the idea of these furnishings and wedding rings made of teeth?

Murata’s story asks us to question the man’s objections to this form of recycling. Why shouldn’t human bodies be repurposed in this way following death? Surely that’s less wasteful than being cremated, thereby allowing parts of the body to have an extended ‘life’, converting them into items to be admired and enjoyed by others? Taboo-busting ideas as far as our current society is concerned, but not in the world that the author portrays here.

The titular tale, Life Ceremony, takes some of these ideas even further, challenging our perceptions of the nature of human flesh. In the environment depicted here, funerals have been replaced by life ceremonies, where the deceased’s flesh is cooked and made into a meal for their family and friends to feast on – a joyous celebration of life as opposed to the solemn mourning of a death. As an additional flourish, guests are encouraged to find an insemination partner to have sex with in a public place – thereby continuing the circle of life, should the conception prove successful. Attitudes towards sex have changed over time due to a population decline, and procreation is now seen as a form of social justice to support the ongoing survival of the human race.

While the custom of eating human flesh has become deeply ingrained in this society, the narrator – a woman in her mid-thirties – can recall a time in her childhood when such practices were forbidden, highlighting the shifts in attitudes and the boundaries of ‘normality’. There is a sense that humans are becoming more like animals in this rather affecting story – a darkly humorous tale tinged with a dash of poignancy. Another thought-provoking piece designed to challenge our preconceptions and impressions of what feels ‘right’ vs taboo.

Our perceptions of sex are also pertinent to A Clean Marriage, another provocative story that plays with conventional norms. In essence, this piece explores the idea that sex for pleasure and sex for procreation are two completely different concerns, to the point where a person might seek separate partners or ‘processes’ to fulfil these contrasting aims. As with other stories in this collection, there is the germ of a rational concept here which Murata cleverly develops through her slightly skewed scenario. Another excellent tale that derives humour from life’s absurdities (as depicted here).

Food is another recurring theme or motif, sometimes acting as a cultural signifier as in A Magnificent Spread – one of the less controversial pieces in the collection. In this humorous story, a newly-engaged couple host a lunch for their respective families to meet for the first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each member of the extended family comes with their own deep-seated preferences for food, ranging from an obsession with ‘Happy Future’ functional health foods to a fondness for insects and grubs foraged from the natural world. In essence, the story illustrates the importance of respecting other people’s cultures and values rather than forcing them to accept our own. Naturally, our attitudes towards different foods are a key part of these cultural codes, as Murata’s highly amusing story neatly demonstrates.

Other stories explore unconventional family units, highlighting the value participants gain from these relationships despite a lack of understanding from other, more ‘conventional’ sectors of society. Two’s Family is an excellent example of this – a beautiful, touching story of two women, Yoshiko and Kikue, who had previously decided to live together for life if they remained unattached by the age of thirty. Now in their seventies, the two women have enjoyed living together in a non-sexual relationship for forty years, raising three daughters conceived through artificial insemination from a sperm bank. While Yoshiko is quite guarded at heart, Kikue is more outgoing, having enjoyed several lovers over the years. But with Kikue now undergoing treatment for cancer, Yoshiko wonders what will become of her should Kikue die. Like a marriage of sorts, life with Kikue is all Yoshiko has ever known. This very affecting story works brilliantly, especially as a contrast to some of the book’s other, more controversial pieces.

Finally, I must mention the penultimate story, Hatchling, because it’s probably my pick of the bunch. Narrated by a Haruka, a young woman planning her wedding, Hatchling explores the benefits and dangers of code-switching – the practice of flexing our personality to fit in with different social groups, depending on the ‘tone’ each group requires. Since junior high, Haruka has become so used to adapting her behaviour that she no longer knows who she really is. Maybe she doesn’t even have a genuinepersonality of her own, only a series of five or six ‘characters’ dictated by each particular situation or environment. For instance, she is the straight-A student ‘Prez’ with her junior high classmates, the goofball ‘Peabrain’ for her high school friends and the girly ‘Princess’ with her film club at Uni. The real problem comes when Haruki contemplates her forthcoming wedding. Which ‘character’ should she adopt there, given the mix of friends attending? And perhaps more importantly, which personality would her fiancé prefer? Maybe this depends on the character he will be playing on the day, and how will she know in advance?

This is an excellent piece, full of cleverly-constructed scenes that Murata plays out in a highly amusing manner. In short, the story highlights the dangers of adopting a carefully-curated persona in front of others, especially if we lose sight of our inherent values and behaviours.

So, in summary, a truly excellent collection of stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. What Murata does so well here is to skew our world just enough to destabilise our preconceived notions of the boundaries of acceptability. She challenges us to look at the world afresh by exploring the validity of an alternate, less constrained view.

Life Ceremony is published by Granta Books; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing an early proof copy.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

Louise Kennedy’s debut novel, Trespasses, has been picking up excellent reviews over the past few months, and rightly so. At heart, it’s a quietly devastating book, steeped in the tensions of a country divided by fierce sectarian loyalties. It’s also quite a difficult one to summarise in a couple of sentences – at once both an achingly tender story of an illicit love affair and a vivid exploration of the complex network of divisions that can emerge in highly-charged communities.

Set in a garrison town in Northern Ireland at the height of The Troubles, Trespasses revolves around Cushla Lavery, a twenty-four-year-old primary teacher at a local Catholic school. When Cushla isn’t at work, she helps out at the family’s pub – now managed by her moody brother, Eamonn, who lives with his wife, Marian, and their two cherubic girls. The pub – which is situated in a largely Protestant town – is frequented by a lively assortment of loudmouthed men, mostly Protestants and British soldiers from the nearby barracks.

Also keeping Cushla busy at home is her widowed, alcoholic mother, Gina, who regularly goes in for gin benders leaving Cushla to clean up the mess. Then there’s Davy McGeown, one of the seven-year-olds in Cushla’s class – a quietly enthusiastic boy, often picked on by classmates for his smelly clothes. Cushla knows that the McGeowns are desperately short of money, so she tries to help them out in her spare time while also lobbying the head for free school meals. Although Davy is being raised as a Catholic, the McGeowns are a mixed-religion family, with the children’s mother maintaining her Protestant status despite having married a Catholic. It’s clearly a source of great tension within the estate, leaving the McGeowns open to persecution by their Protestant neighbours who hang around the house in packs. 

Into this mix comes Michael Agnew, a married Protestant barrister in his early fifties. With his strong views on civil rights, Michael is prepared to take on highly sensitive cases, such as the defence of three lads accused of murdering a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – a case that others would rather avoid.

When Michael and Cushla meet in Eamonn’s bar, the attraction is instantaneous, progressing quickly into an affair. At first, their relationship is facilitated by Cushla’s agreement to give Irish lessons to Michael and his somewhat snobbish middle-class friends; but it swiftly merges into secret meetings at his private flat (away from the marital home). Kennedy excels at portraying the tenderness of this couple’s relationship, the rush of pleasure Cushla experiences when she and Michael are together.

He lit the tobacco and told her between puffs that he had liked how she stalked into the pub with a dirty big cross on her forehead. That he liked that she hadn’t looked away when she caught him watching her in the mirror. That he liked her in the Lyric, when she was standing by the ledge, trying to look nonchalant. That he especially liked that she cried when he mentioned her father. That he loved her. (p. 145)

The pain of separation is equally palpable: the physical yearning Cushla feels when Michael is out of reach; the uncertainly of waiting for a phone call out of the blue; the expectation that she will be prepared to drop everything if he manages to get away; the frustration of never having enough time together when they do meet; and perhaps most unsettling of all, the worry that he might just be stringing her along. Cushla knows that she isn’t Michael’s first lover, but she may not be the last either.

It seemed now he had been directing things. Showing her where he lived after one month, giving her his number after two, a key after three. Leaving her waiting for days on end then reappearing, reeling her back with a trip to Dublin, an afternoon in his flat. (p. 232)

Both parties are aware of the highly problematic nature of their relationship. The multitude of differences between them makes it fraught with danger, forcing Cushla to keep things hidden from Eamonn and Gina. Lord knows what would happen if they ever found out…

Nevertheless, Cushla gets drawn into trouble on several fronts. Both her affair with Michael and her entirely well-meaning attempts to support the McGeown family have unforeseen consequences, exacerbating sectarian divisions in a volatile environment. In short, there are serious ramifications for Cushla and those around her as she trespasses into dangerous territory, both physically and emotionally.

Right from the very start, Kennedy creates a strong sense of time and place, a Northern Ireland driven by suspicion and terror where people are manhandled at the drop of a hat. In this early scene, Cushla and another teacher, Gerry, are stopped at an army checkpoint while driving to a party. The situation soon escalates when Gerry answers back…

A few feet away, Gerry was facing a brick wall, his hands behind his ears, the scene lit by a streetlamp and the wink of his hazard lights. To his right and left, premises on the row were closed and caged by metal, apart from a chip shop a few doors up, THE RITZ in large red letters on its cracked sign. A length of loose guttering was drooling thick, rusty liquid on to his forehead. He lifted a hand to wipe it away and the soldier tapped his elbow with the butt of the gun. (p. 35)

The divisions between the religions are brilliantly portrayed, from the explicit hostilities on the McGeown’s estate to the more subtle microaggressions Cushla experiences from one of Michael’s friends. But, as Michael himself says at one point, ‘it’s not about what you do here […] It’s about what you are’. In this environment, a person is defined by their name, where they live and which school they went to – factors that take precedence in determining someone’s identity and the tribe to which they belong.

Kennedy also draws our attention to the way in which shocking reports of violence have become a part of day-to-day life in this community, even for children as young as seven. At the headmaster’s insistence, each class must start the day with The News – the children’s bulletins of newsworthy events spanning the political and the personal – an activity designed to make the children more ‘aware of the world around them’.

The Protestant Action Force has claimed responsibility for the shooting dead of two men in a bar in the New Lodge area.

‘Bye Bye Baby’ is still number one. (p. 116)

Cushla thinks the children know too much already – another source of frustration as she tries to shield her pupils from the horrors unfolding around them.

Booby trap. Incendiary device. Gelignite. Nitroglycerine. Petrol bomb. Rubber bullets. Saracen. Internment. The Special Powers Act. Vanguard. The vocabulary of a seven-year-old child now. (p. 19)

The characterisation is terrific here, especially in the portrayal of Cushla, who comes across as a fully-formed character on the page. Spirited, furious, passionate and caring, she is desperate to break free from the constraints of her situation. Kennedy’s supporting characters are highly memorable, too – especially Gina (Cushla’s semi-comatose mother), who briefly pulls herself together when the McGeowns get into trouble, and Davy’s older brother, Tommy, an angry teenager with his own crush on Cushla.

In summary, Trespasses is a hugely impressive debut. Kennedy has created an entirely relatable world in which the passions of an illicit love affair are played out again a backdrop of sectarian conflict. Here we see ordinary people living in extraordinary times, buffeted by a history of violence that can erupt at any moment. There are no easy answers or moral judgements here, but the questions the novel raises are as timely as ever – especially in a society still torn apart by deep-rooted divisions.

Trespasses is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.