Category Archives: Piñeiro Claudia

My favourites from a year in reading, 2022 – the books that almost made it

This December, I found it harder than usual to settle on a manageable number of titles for my ‘Books of the Year’ lists. In truth, there were very few disappointments amongst the 100+ books I read in 2022, partly because I tend to gravitate towards the mid-20th century for my reading. These modern classics have stood the test of time for a reason; in other words, they’re VERY GOOD!

As I looked back at this year’s reading, I found myself earmarking another eight books that didn’t quite make it into my final selections. All these books are brilliant in their own individual ways, and any of them could have easily found their way onto my ‘best of’ lists had I been compiling them on a different day. So, just in case you need yet another list of suggestions for your toppling TBR piles, here are books that almost made it. Enjoy!

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1969)

Back in October 2021, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise on their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings. However, Andrew Male and Laura Varnam’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…The less said about the plot the better; just cut to the book itself.

Gigli, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (1931, (tr. Geoff Wilkes, 2013)

Irmgard Keun’s novellas always have something interesting to offer, and this striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne did not disappoint. Right from the very start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging voice. In essence, the novella explores Gilgi (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 the free-spirited Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Keun does a terrific job 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 engaging book by one of my favourite women writers in translation.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

I have written before about my love of Barbara Comyns and the eccentric worlds she portrays in her novels – stories that combine darkly comic humour and surreal imagery with the realities of day-to-day life. The setting for this one is a Kensington boarding house during the swinging ‘60s, a time of great social change. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s gold and crimson drawing room. The story follows the progress of two of these women, Berti and Evelyn, as they try to survive. Dolls is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances, e.g. loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. An underrated Comyns that deserves to be better known.

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker (1991)

First published in 1991 and more recently reissued by Weidenfeld & Nicholson as part of their W&N Essentials series, O Caledonia was Barker’s only novel. It’s a dazzling gem of a book, rich in a wealth of vivid imagery – clearly the product of a highly imaginative writer with a sharp eye for detail and an affinity for outsiders. Ostensibly a coming-of-age narrative, the novel blends elements from a range of literary traditions, from the Gothic novel to Classical Myths, skilfully weaving them into the fabric of the text. Andy Miller (of Backlisted fame) described it as Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle meets Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a description that rings true. There’s also a dash of Barbara Comyns here – Barker’s prose is expressive and evocative, portraying a world that combines the sharply recognisable with the macabre and the surreal. A kaleidoscopic, jewel-like novel with a noticable poignant touch.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, painting an evocative portrait of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. Over the course of the novella (which is written as a series of short vignettes), we follow Maud Martha through childhood in Chicago’s South Side, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable here, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today. I loved this book for its gorgeous, poetic prose and beautiful use of imagery. A wonderful rediscovered gem courtesy of Faber Editions, a fascinating imprint that always delivers the goods.

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (1970, tr. Howard Curtis, 2021)

Another 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. Set in Rome in the late 1960s, the novel follows Leo, a footloose writer, as he drifts around the city from one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. One evening, he meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye; their meeting marks the beginning of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. Calligarich has given us a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair here. These flawed, damaged individuals seem unable to connect with one another, 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.

The Cost of Living; Early and Uncollected Stories by Mavis Gallant (1951-1971)

A precise, perceptive collection of short stories by the Canadian author, Mavis Gallant. The very best of these pieces feel like novels in miniature; the kind of tales where everything is compressed, only for the narratives to expand in the reader’s mind on further reflection. Gallant is particularly incisive on the emptiness of suburban domesticity, the type of stifling, loveless marriage depicted in Mad Men and the novels of Richard Yates. Several of her protagonists – typically women – seem lost, cast adrift and unmoored in the vast sea of uncertainty that is life. Here we have stories of terrible mothers and self-absorbed fathers, isolated wives and bewildered husbands, smart, self-reliant children who must learn to take care of themselves. A top-notch collection of stories, beautifully expressed. 

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (2007, tr. Frances Riddle, 2021)

Shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize, Elena Knows is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various aspects of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability. While that description might make it sound rather heavy, Piñeiro’s novel is anything but; it’s a hugely compelling read, full of depth and complexity. When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs, so she embarks on an investigation of her own with shocking results…

So, that’s it from me until 2023. Have a lovely New Year’s Eve, with very best wishes for the reading year ahead!

Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches the reader off-guard with its impact and memorability. Elena Knows – the third novel from the award-winning writer and activist Claudia Piñeiro – seems set to be that kind of book, for this reader at least. Even though it’s only a week or so since I read it, I strongly suspect that the issues raised by this novel (and the skill with which Piñeiro conveys them) will likely resonate with me for some time. In short, the book is a powerful exploration of various facets of control over women’s bodies. More specifically, the extent to which women are in control (or not) of their own bodies in a predominantly Catholic society; how religious dogma and doctrines exert pressure on women to relinquish that control to others, often against their will; and what happens when the body fails us due to illness and/or disability.

Central to the novel is Elena, a woman in her mid-sixties who has severe Parkinson’s Disease, a condition that places significant restrictions on her mobility, which fluctuates throughout the day.

When Elena’s daughter, Rita, is found dead, her body hanging from the bell in the church belfry, the official investigations deliver a verdict of suicide, and the case is promptly closed by the police. Elena, however, refuses to believe the authorities’ ruling based on her knowledge of Rita’s beliefs. Elena knows – or thinks she knows – that Rita would never have entered the church on a rainy day due to a deep-seated fear of lightning. The cross on the church roof would have acted as a powerful lightning conductor, making the building a precarious place to take shelter on the afternoon in question.  

No one knows as much about her daughter as she does, she thinks, because she’s her mother, or was her mother. Motherhood, Elena thinks, comes with certain things, a mother knows her child, a mother knows, a mother loves… (p. 49)

Consequently, Elena is determined to conduct her own investigation into Rita’s death. The trouble is, she can only move around for a couple of hours at a time once each dose of her Parkinson’s medication kicks in. So, with no other viable options at her disposal, Elena embarks on a tortuous journey across the city of Buenos Aires in the hope of calling in a favour from an acquaintance named Isabel. While Elena hasn’t seen Isabel for twenty years, she believes the latter owes her a debt of gratitude for a past kindness – significant enough to call on Isabel to act on her behalf.

The narrative is very cleverly structured as it mirrors the times when Elena takes her tablets: morning (second pill), midday (third pill) and afternoon (fourth pill). Once each tablet takes effect, Elena can move for just an hour or two before her body stops responding, effectively immobilising her until it’s time for the next dose, and the cycle can begin again.

By holding the reader close to Elena as she makes her way across the city, Piñeiro enables us to see just how difficult it is for someone with severe Parkinson’s to complete simple actions that others take for granted e.g. walking the five blocks from her home to the train station, buying a ticket, boarding the train, timing her journey to ensure she’ll get a seat, and getting off the train at her destination – each of these tasks feels like a Herculean challenge for Elena. Moreover, the sheer difficulty of this journey creates a genuine sense of tension as her body could seize up at any point, leaving Elena in limbo until it’s time for her next pill.

As Elena marks out the journey in manageable stages, we learn more about her relationship with Rita and various events from the past. While Elena clearly loved Rita very deeply, their relationship was stormy with both parties experiencing significant anger and frustration, typically driven by the limitations imposed by Elena’s Parkinson’s. There were times when Rita felt disgusted by her mother’s condition, especially the lack of control Elena had (and still has) over certain bodily functions, such as her constant tendency to drool. In effect, Rita was fast becoming her mother’s carer as Elena’s condition worsened. The endless bureaucracy around medical insurance proved another source of frustration for Rita, highlighting the system’s dehumanising effect and lack of sensitivity to the urgency of patients’ needs.

As the narrative unfolds, we see how the teachings of the Catholic Church have contributed to the lack of control women have over their own bodies. Certain actions, such as abortion, are condemned by the Church, imposing severe restrictions on the options open to women should they become pregnant.

…we, as Christians, know that our bodies do not belong to us, that our bodies belong to God, and so we cannot go against Him […] The Church condemns suicide just as it condemns any murder, any wrongful use of the body that does not belong to us, whatever name you want to give the action, suicide, abortion, euthanasia. Parkinson’s, she says, but he ignores her. (p. 53)

Moreover, Piñeiro sets up various juxtapositions in the novel, highlighting the complexity of the moral issues at play. For instance, while Elena must relinquish control of her bodily movements to Parkinson’s (the terrible ‘whore’ illness she refers to as ‘Herself’), she is quite prepared to ask another woman for the ‘use’ of her body to act as a surrogate investigator on her behalf. There are other examples here too, most notably how some pregnant women seeking abortions are prevented from gaining access to the appropriate support due to extreme pressure from others – such as women with opposing views.

By exploring the specific demands placed on each of the two central characters – Elena and Rita – together with the demands and controls they seek to place on others, Piñeiro successfully highlights some of the injustices in this society. (The final section of the story is exceptionally powerful and compelling, delivering a cruel twist of fate that I did not anticipate beforehand. It’s a development that lends a crushing note of irony to the novel’s title, prompting us to us to question how well we know ourselves and others when faced with a terrible dilemma.)

For a novel first published in Argentina in 2007 (and subsequently translated into English in 2021), Elena Knows still feels incredibly timely, especially given recent political developments around women’s rights. It’s a powerful and urgent read full of depth and complexity – as Max commented in his 2021 reading highlights, this is an excellent example of how the investigation into a potential crime can be used as a vehicle in fiction to explore pressing societal issues. There are so many layers to unpack here, not only around agency and bodily autonomy but in other areas such as motherhood and identity. I’ll finish with a final quote that taps into some of these themes, just to give a more rounded view of the novel’s concerns.

What name does she [Elena] have now that she’s childless? Has Rita’s death erased everything she was? Her illness didn’t erase it. Being a mother, Elena knows, isn’t changed by any illness even if it keeps you from being able to put on a jacket, or freezes your feet so that you can’t move, or forces you to live with your head down, but could Rita’s death have taken not only her daughter’s body but also the word that names what she, Elena, is? (p. 49)

Elena Knows is published by Charco Press; personal copy.