Category Archives: Women in Translation

My books of the year, 2020 – part 1, novellas and non-fiction

2020 has been a tumultuous year for obvious reasons. I’ve read somewhere in the region of 100 books – most of them in the first half of the year while on furlough during the national lockdown. A stressful time for many of us, I’m sure; but it did give me the chance to read some excellent books, many of which feature in my highlights of the year.

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across a couple of posts – novellas and non-fiction in this first piece, with my favourite novels to follow next week. With the exception of some of the memoirs, most of these books were first published several years ago – a factor that reflects the types of books I tend to enjoy reading. So, if you’re looking for the best *new* books published in 2020, this is not the place to come – there are many other literary blogs which cover that territory very thoroughly…

So, without further ado, here are my favourite novellas and non-fiction books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to others. I’ve summarised each one in this post, but you can read the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion, beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose. The narrative focuses on Daniel, a recently widowed sheep farmer struggling to cope with the lambing season deep in rural Wales. In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world – and yet, there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

The gloriously off-kilter world of Muriel Spark continues to be a source of fascination for me. I loved this novella; it’s wonderfully dark and twisted, characteristically Sparkian in its unconventional view. Dougal Douglas is a particularly sinister character, a mercurial individual who brings chaos into the lives of those he encounters. There is a touch of the dark arts about this novella with its slyly manipulative protagonist. If you liked Spark’s The Driver’s Seat, chances are you’ll enjoy this too.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery.

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,

Earlier this year, I read Carr’s excellent ‘football’ novella, How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup in which a team of plucky underdogs overcome the mighty Glasgow Rangers to scoop the much-prized trophy. It’s a book that shares something with the author’s earlier novella, The Harpole Report, which takes another British institution – in this instance, a Church of England Primary School – as its focus for a most amusing satire. In essence, the book constructs a picture of a term at St Nicholas C of E, during which George Harpole – who has taught there for some time – is appointed as the school’s Temporary Head. This is a very amusing book that perfectly captures the preoccupations and absurdities of state-funded education in the early 1970s. A marvellous period piece imbued with nostalgia.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. One for book groups and individual readers alike. 

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

Ostensibly a memoir exploring Orr’s childhood – in particular the fractured relationship between the author and her mother Win, a formidable woman who held the reins of power within the family’s household. Moreover, this powerful book also gives readers a searing insight into a key period of Scotland’s social history, successfully conveying the devastating impact of the steel industry’s decimation – especially on Motherwell (where Orr grew up) and the surrounding community. This is a humane, beautifully-written book of how our early experiences and the communities we live in can shape us, possibly prompting us to strive for something better in the years that follow.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

A fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, including Dorothy L. Sayers, Eileen Power and Virginia Woolf. What I love about this book is the way the author uses this particular location as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In short, an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book, highly recommended for anyone interested in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

This is a terrific read – a compassionate, multifaceted discourse on what it means to feel lonely and exposed in a fast-moving city, a place that feels alive and alienating all at once. At the time of writing this book, Laing was living in New York, recently separated from her former partner, an experience that had left her feeling somewhat adrift and alone. During the months that followed, Laing found herself drawn to the work of several visual and creative artists that had captured something of the inner loneliness of NYC, a sense of urban isolation or alienation. Through a combination of investigation, cultural commentary and memoir, she explores the nature of loneliness, how it manifests itself both in the creative arts and in our lives. A fascinating book, beautifully written and constructed – a contemporary classic in the making.

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

Ostensibly a childhood memoir, Broken Greek offers a moving account of Paphides’s upbringing in the suburbs of Birmingham in the 1970s and early ‘80s – ‘a story of chip shops and pop songs,’ as the subtitle accurately declares. In writing Broken Greek, Paphides has given us a tender, affectionate, humorous memoir, one that brilliantly conveys the power of music – not only for the emotions it stirs within us but as a means of deepening our understanding of life and humanity, too. I read this during lockdown, and it lifted my mood considerably.

How to Cook a Wolf by M. F. K. Fisher

Another excellent lockdown read, but for very different reasons to those for Broken Greek. Initially published in 1942 and subsequently updated in the 1950s, How to Cook a Wolf is a terrifically witty discourse on how to eat as well (or as decently) as possible on limited resources. In her characteristically engaging style, Fisher encourages us to savour the pleasures of simple dishes: the delights of a carefully cooked omelette; the heartiness of a well-flavoured soup; and the comforting taste of a baked apple with cinnamon milk at the end of a good meal. The writing is spirited and full of intelligence, a style that seems to reflect Fisher’s personality as well as her approach to cooking. A rediscovered gem to dip into for pleasure.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Harvey’s book is something of a companion piece to Insomnia, Marina Benjamin’s luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. The Shapeless Unease brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this interminable condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another. Along the way, Harvey touches on a range of other subjects with her characteristic blend of insight and intelligence – topics ranging from loss, grief, childhood, writing, swimming and the distortion of our national values into the divisions wielded by Brexit. One to keep by the bedside for the long white nights when sleep fails to come.

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

I loved this thoroughly absorbing memoir by the journalist Hadley Freeman, a book that combines the personal and the political in an emotionally involving way. Ostensibly, House of Glass tells the story of Freeman’s Jewish grandmother, Sala, and her family, a narrative that spans the whole of the 20th century. It’s a book that asks searching questions about a whole host of issues including familial identity, integration, personal outlook, xenophobia and social mobility – topics that remain all too relevant in Europe and the wider world today, where instances of racism and nationalism are still very much in evidence.

So, that’s it for my novellas and non-fiction books of the year. My one regret is that I never found the time to write about Craig Brown’s Ma’am Darling, a book I adored. Join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite novels from a year of reading.

Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

Foreign language films directed by women – a list of recommendations for #WITMonth

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may have seen the thread I’ve been running during August. It’s a list of foreign language films directed by women, with a new recommendation going up every day – a bit like a version of #WITMonth for home streaming or the cinema.

Just to make it easier to see the full list, I’ve collated it here, with the final entry to be added tomorrow.

It’s been a fun thing to do, particularly as I’ve tried to include as many different directors as possible without doubling up. So, if you enjoy world cinema, maybe you’ll discover some new suggestions here. (All the films listed are available to view on home-streaming platforms or DVD, certainly in the UK.)

As ever, do feel free to mention any of your own favourites in the comments. Who knows, if I’m still here next year, I may well run it again with a different selection of films!

Day 1: PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Celine Sciamma). Everything Sciamma has made is excellent, but this ravishing love story set in 18th-century Brittany is my personal favourite. An exquisitely-paced exploration of passion and desire.

Day 2: FILL THE VOID (Rama Burshtein). Set within the Orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, this sensitive, understated gem is well worth seeking out. In the wake of a tragedy, a young woman must try to reconcile family obligations with her own personal wishes.

Day 3: LOURDES (Jessica Hausner). Sylvie Testud is terrific in this subtle, unsettling film about faith, delusions and the desire to believe in miracles. A slow burner shot through with flashes of poignancy and dry humour.

Day 4: THE WONDERS (Alice Rohrwacher). This director has been getting rave reviews for her latest, HAPPY AS LAZZARO, but her earlier film about family, aspirations and beekeeping is probably my fave. The children in this are wonderfully naturalistic.

Day 5: PERSEPOLIS (Marjane Satrapi). Based on Satrapi’s comic book series of the same name, this striking animated film is powerful depiction of a young girl growing up in 1970s/’80s Iran. I am definitely due another watch of this.

Day 6: HEAL THE LIVING (Katell Quillévéré). This beautiful, moving film, which follows the journey of a human heart from donor to recipient, captures something of the lyricism of Maylis de Kerangal’s source novel. (No longer on All 4 but available elsewhere.)

Day 7: I AM NOT A WITCH (Rungano Nyoni). A young Zambian girl is accused of being a witch in this striking satirical fable — the imagery is stunning. A BAFTA winner for Outstanding Debut, there is a real sense of poignancy here.

Day 8: SUMMERTIME (Catherine Corsini). Set in 1970s France, this sensitive film about sexual freedom, family commitments and the quest for women’s rights is ideal viewing for the heady days of summer. The central relationship between two young women is beautifully judged.

Day 9: THINGS TO COME (Mia Hansen-Løve). Pretty much everything this director has made is brilliant, but this exploration of a woman’s life is a personal favourite. Isabelle Huppert is superb as a philosophy professor whose world begins to collapse around her.

Day 10: THE GOOD GIRLS (Alejandra Márquez Abella). A recent discovery for me. Set in 1980s Mexico as the economic collapse begins to bite, this smart satire about ladies who lunch is a barbed delight. The petty jealousies between the characters are brilliantly observed.

Day 11: WAJIB (Annemarie Jacir). A father and son drive around Nazareth delivering wedding invitations in this sensitive, bittersweet film of family tensions and the balance between tradition and modernity. Fans of Abbas Kiarostami will likely enjoy this.

Day 12: 35 SHOTS OF RUM (Claire Denis). Plenty of choice with this director, but I’m going with this gem from 2008. A rich, emotionally elegant portrayal of a father-daughter relationship. The central performances are very subtle.

Day 13: TONI ERDMANN (Maren Ade). What to say about this film other than it is completely unique and unpredictable. A portrayal of an awkward father-daughter relationship unlike any other. By turns, uproariously funny, wonderfully surreal and oddly poignant. A triumph.

Day 14: MUSTANG (Deniz Gamze Ergüven). With its focus on five Turkish sisters, this brilliant film is a vibrant yet painful insight into life as a young girl in an oppressive society where arranged marriages are the order of day. Absolutely worth seeking out.

Day 15: CAPERNAUM (Nadine Labaki). Setting aside the somewhat contrived framing device, this wonderfully naturalistic film about a street kid on the run makes for compelling viewing. The shots of Beirut are evocative and affecting.

Day 16: ON BODY AND SOUL (Ildikó Enyedi). There is a curious fairytale-like quality to this story of two co-workers, a hesitant romance playing out as they share the same dream. I loved this one – just don’t let the first 20 minutes put you off!

Day 17: THE APPLE (Samira Makhmalbaf). After being locked up by their parents for 11 years, two young Iranian girls are finally released, free to experience a new life in Tehran.  It’s a long time since I watched this, but I recall it being very moving.

Day 18: SUMMER 1993 (Carla Simón). Something of a critics’ favourite, this subtle, naturalistic film about loss and the complexities of family dynamics is well worth seeking out. As with Alice Rohrawcher’s THE WONDERS (no 4), the children are really terrific here.

Day 19: IN BETWEEN (Maysaloun Hamoud). Three Palestinian women sharing a flat in Tel Aviv, each fighting against the constraints of conformity, repression and familial expectations. This excellent film follows their quest for independence.

Day 20: THE HEADLESS WOMAN (Lucretia Martel). I love this mysterious, dreamlike film about a woman who is involved in a car accident. A compelling exploration of guilt, denial, concealment and inaction – Maria Onetto is brilliant in the lead role.

Day 21: JEUNE FEMME (Léonor Serraille). Laetitia Dosch is terrific in this painfully funny depiction of a young woman shuttling around the apartments and shopping malls of Paris in search of a job and some kind of identity. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 22: THE CHAMBERMAID (Lila Avilés). A brilliant debut feature that explores the life of a young chambermaid in a wealthy Mexico City hotel. This very affecting film is an understated gem, full of small humiliations and reinforcements of the social hierarchy at play.

Day 23: THE FAREWELL (Lulu Wang). A charming, humane, bittersweet film of clashing cultures and family values. Like many of the best stories, it blends humour with poignancy in fairly equal measure. Probably one of the best crowd-pleasers of 2019.

Day 24: A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT (Ana Lily Amirpour). A lonely young woman, dressed in a hijab, wanders around the streets of Bad City at night in this stylish film that tips its hat to Jim Jarmusch. Beautifully shot in cool black and white.

Day 25: DISORDER (Alice Winocour). Great work here from Matthias Schoenaerts, channelling the pain and paranoia of PTSD, in this underrated thriller from Winocour (co-writer of MUSTANG, no. 14). The visuals and soundscape are excellent, adding to the intensity of the film.

Day 26: THE PORTUGUESE WOMAN (Rita Azevedo Gomes). The glacial pace won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but this story of a 16th-century noblewoman is beautifully shot. One ravishing image after another, it’s the closest I’ll get to an art gallery during lockdown.

DAY 27: WADJA (Haifaa Al Mansour). Notable for being the first Saudi-Arabian film ever to be directed by a woman, this portrayal of a young girl rubbing up against the restrictions of a strictly conservative society has tremendous spirit and heart.

Day 28: ALMAYER’S FOLLY (Chantal Akerman). Akerman explores themes of colonialism and identity in this compelling adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of the same name – all shot in this director’s characteristically observant style. (Currently on Mubi, if you have access to that.)

Day 29: CLÉO FROM 5 to 7 (Agnès Varda). Over the course of two hours, a beautiful young woman tries to occupy herself while waiting for the results of a biopsy. A film that perfectly captures the spirit of Parisian life in the 1960s; a true classic of the French New Wave.

Day 30: OPEN HEARTS (Susanne Bier). Mads Mikkelsen stars in this compelling film about two couples whose lives become intertwined following a car accident. An early film by the director whose later English-language work includes TV’s THE NIGHT MANAGER. 

Day 31: ATLANTICS (Mati Diop). There is an element of supernatural mystery about this story of two young Senegalese lovers forced to make life-changing choices. One of the most poetic, visually stunning films released last year. I loved it.

Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

First published in 1946, Three Summers is a something of classic of Greek literature, a languid coming-of-age novel set over three consecutive summer seasons – recently reissued by NYRB Classics in a beautiful new edition. (My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

The story focuses on three sisters – Maria (aged 20), Infanta (aged 18), and Katerina (aged 16) – who live with their mother, their unmarried Aunt Theresa, and their grandfather in the Greek countryside just north of Athens. The girls’ mother, Anna, is separated from her husband, Miltos, following the latter’s open affairs. A Polish grandmother, whom we never actually meet in person, is another important character in the novel. There is a whiff of scandal and romanticism around this woman, mainly because she left her husband for a travelling musician several years earlier, abandoning Anna and Theresa in their childhood.   

In an evocative opening chapter, we see how the three sisters differ from one another in terms of character, their particular patches of garden reflecting something of the nature of their personalities. While Maria’s tiny vegetable garden is ordered and divided into discrete squares, Infanta’s is wild, containing almond trees that can survive without frequent watering or special care. Katerina’s, by contrast, is more spontaneous still, bursting with flowers grown from randomly-scattered seeds – a riot of contrasting colours all packed together. As Katerina is the novel’s narrator, it is predominantly through her eyes that we see the rest of the family.

At first sight, it might appear as though the novel is presenting a simple story, one of three sisters growing up in the idyllic Greek countryside. However, there are darker, more complex issues bubbling away under the surface as the sisters must learn to navigate the choices that will shape the future directions of their lives. Sexual awakening is a major theme, with the novel’s lush and sensual tone echoing the rhythms of the natural world.

The houses were closer together again here. About forty all in a clump, crowded together out of loneliness, like people. The gardens were beautiful this year. The heavy rains that winter had done them good. They were full of green and the trunks of the trees were shiny. Tiny tomatoes were beginning to appear. You could already see the yellow stamen on the male pistachio trees, and the female ones waiting. The males would go to the females. All the females could do was ready their juices, receive the male and bear fruit. They waited, in the burning heat, sensitive to any gust of wind that might bring them the seed. (pp. 50-51)

Maria is the most sexually liberated of the three girls, losing her virginity during a chance encounter with a physically attractive young man in the village. Nevertheless, she is quick to choose a life of stability and domesticity by marrying Marios, the boy who has worshipped her from childhood. The first of the three seasons ends with Maria and Marios’s wedding – the arrival of their first two children swiftly follow, one in each of the two subsequent summers.

Infanta is more withdrawn than her sisters, preferring the company of her beloved horse to that of her family. A beautiful, courageous girl at heart, Infanta spends most of her time riding in the countryside, often accompanied by Nikitas, a local boy who clears harbours feelings for her.

Katerina is perhaps the most romantic of the three girls, forever daydreaming and exercising her curiosity about the world around her. By the second summer, she is wildly in love with David, an astronomer who is also writing a book. For Katerina, love is a passionate thing, a feeling characterised by a sense of anticipation and anxiety, manifesting itself in a rapidly beating heart. And yet, by the end of the novel, she is oscillating between a desire for David and a yearning for a more adventurous, independent life, one in which she has the freedom to travel the world.

I’m not like Maria. I wouldn’t let a boy touch me just to pass the time. Maybe I’ll find someone who will watch the daisies blooming in the field with me, who will cut me a branch of the first autumn berries and bring it to me with the leaves are still damp. Or maybe I’ll set out to see the world alone. (p. 20)

To complicate matters further, Katerina has an unexpected rival for David’s affections. Maria’s forty-five-year-old mother-in-law, Laura Parigori, is forever hanging around the young man, eager to capture his imagination and affections, much to the annoyance of Katerina.

Alongside the theme of sexual awakening, the novel offers different perspectives on the nature of love and marriage, society’s expectations of women at the time, and the balance between passion and stoicism. We learn more about Aunt Theresa, how an incident with her former fiancé has coloured her life, making her somewhat nervous and fearful as a consequence. There are other family secrets too – perhaps most notably the reason for Anna’s detachment and lack of passion, something that Katerina is curious to uncover.

While Three Summers may not be the most polished or literary of novels, its language is dreamy and evocative, capturing the sultry nature of summer in lush, sensuous prose. 

Mornings were different now. Day broke with less brilliance than in the summer, but everything was somehow clearer. The air smelled of crushed apples, and left in your mouth the juicy, tart taste of apples eaten unpeeled. It was a delicate air, sometimes chilly. The sky was blue – a deep, rich blue – with white clouds racing by. (p. 81)

In the end though, it is the portrait of the three sisters that really shines through – the opportunities that are open to them and the limitations that society may wish to dictate. It’s a novel about working out who you are as a person and finding your place in the word; of being aware of the consequences of certain life choices and everything these decisions entails. I’ll finish with a final quote which captures something of the essence of the novel, replete with its languid, reflective prose. 

Now my sisters and I no longer lie around in the hay talking. We aren’t all in the same place the way we were last year and other years. And when we happen to be together it’s as if there is a new awkwardness, as if we had betrayed one another by doing our own thing.

Certainly some day the awkwardness will pass, though time will never undo the betrayal. And perhaps when it does pass we will long for the time when we all lay around in the hay and our desires were so fluid and uncertain that they were no longer our own. They became the air we breathed; a thought of Maria’s became mine and mine Infanta’s – a kind of unearthly communion. (p.130)

(This is my second read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

#WITMonth is coming – some recommendations of books by women in translation

As you may know, August is Women in Translation Month (#WITMonth), hosted by Meytal at Biblibio. It’s a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers which has grown from strength to strength – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the past few years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here are a few of my relatively recent favourites.

A Certain Smile by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash)

The bittersweet story of an ill-fated love affair between and young girl and an older married man – a novella in which feelings are expressed both freely and openly. Sagan really excels at capturing what it feels like to be young: the conflicted emotions of youth; the lack of interest in day-to-day life; the agony and despair of first love, especially when that feeling is not reciprocated. In short, she portrays with great insight the painful experience of growing up. Best read on a lazy afternoon in the sun with a cool drink by your side.

Territory of Light by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Gillian Harcourt)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike novella shot through with a strong sense of isolation that permeates the mind. Originally published as a series of short stories, the novella focuses on a year in the life of a young mother, recently separated from her somewhat ambivalent husband. There is a sense of intimacy and honesty in the portrayal of the narrator’s feelings, something that adds to the undoubted power of the book. Themes of isolation, alienation and disassociation are heightened by the somewhat ghostly nature of the setting – an apartment located in a commercial building where the mother and child are the sole occupants at night. Strangely unsettling in tone yet thoroughly compelling.

The Artificial Silk Girl by Irmgard Keun (tr. Kathie von Ankum)

Reputedly inspired by Anita Loos’ Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Keun set out to write a response from the German perspective, one that ultimately shows us the darker side of life which lies beneath the glamour of Berlin. Keun’s protagonist, Doris, is a striking young woman with a highly distinctive narrative voice – a glorious mix of the naïve and the streetwise, the vivacious and the vulnerable. It’s a wonderfully evocative book; think Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin crossed with the early novellas of Jean Rhys. Recently reissued by Penguin in a beautiful new edition.

Winter in Sokcho By Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Anessa Abbas Higgins)

A haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty – a story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations. The narrator – a young woman who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Into her life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, a connection that waxes and wanes as the days slip by. The book’s enigmatic ending only adds to its sense of mystery. 

Childhood, Youth and Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman)

Viewed together, these books form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a remarkable work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen, who grew up in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen in the years following WW1. The books chart Ditlevsen’s lonely childhood, awkward adolescence and troubled adult life in a style that is candid, striking and elegant. There is a frankness to the author’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist. Probably the best books in translation I read last year.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Recently translated into English by Ogawa’s regular translator, this thoughtful, meditative novel explores themes of memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear. The story is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are just some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders. A very poignant read, especially in the current time when so many of the things we used to take for granted still seem somewhat fragile or inaccessible.

Arturo’s Island by Elsa Morante (tr. Ann Goldstein)

A beautifully-observed, passionate coming-of-age story, one that captures the pain and confusion of adolescence in an imaginative, poetic style. Morante’s portrayal of young Arturo’s experiences is both intimate and compelling, tackling themes of forbidden love and ambiguous sexuality with insight and sensitivity. This is a layered, emotionally-rich novel, one that will likely suit lovers of interior-driven fiction with a strong sense of place. The pace is leisurely, reflecting the rhythm of life on the island – definitely a slow burner, but one that will reward the reader’s patience and emotional investment.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

This haunting, dreamlike story of a neglectful single mother and her eight-year-old son will almost certainly get under your skin. Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between parent and child, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. The narrative unfolds over a bitterly cold night, during which these two individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the unnerving feel of the novel as a whole. Highly recommended for book groups and individual readers alike.

You can find some of my other favourites in a previous WIT Month recommendations post from 2017, including books by Teffi, Madeleine Bourdouxhe, Vicki Baum and Anna Seghers.

Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading one or two of them next month. Maybe you have plans of your own – if so, what do you have in mind? Or perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? Please feel free to mention it below.

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins, 2020)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations.

The setting for the novella – this French-Korean writer’s debut – is Sokcho, a coastal city in the far north-east of South Korea, close to the North Korean border. Dusapin’s story revolves around a young woman in her early twenties, currently working as a cook and housemaid in a run-down guest house struggling to keep up with the new hotels in the city.

The narrator – who remains unnamed throughout – is something of a misfit in her community, her French-Korean origins marking her out as a source of speculation amongst the locals. Moreover, she is being made to feel inadequate by her conventional Korean mother, a woman who sells seafood at the nearby fish market. There are repeated references to the narrator’s weight and her status as an unmarried woman, both of which give rise to pressure from the mother. The narrator, for her part, feels at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to her boyfriend, Jun-oh, an aspiring model intent on furthering his career in Seoul.

Into the narrator’s life comes Kerrand, a French graphic artist from Normandy whose speciality is creating comics. Almost immediately, there is a certain frisson to the interactions between the two, an undeniable charge that feels detectable to the reader. 

I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.

‘You should be more careful.’

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

‘Just as well.’

 He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. (p. 8)

With few contemporaries of her own age close at hand, the young woman is intrigued by Kerrand and his reasons for coming to Sokcho, particularly in the low season. In truth, the Frenchman is looking for inspiration for his new book, the final instalment in a series featuring a travelling archaeologist – a loner who bears a striking resemblance to Kennard with his dark looks and striking features.

At night, the young woman hears Kennard sketching in the next room, a sound shot through with sadness and melancholy, seeping into her consciousness as she tries to fall sleep.

In bed later, I heard the pen scratching. I pinned myself against the thin wall. A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin. Stopping and starting. I pictured Kerrand, his fingers scurrying like spiders’ legs, his eyes are travelling up, scrutinising the model, looking down at the paper again, looking back up to make sure his pen conveyed the truth of his vision, to keep her from vanishing while he traced the lines. (p. 67)

There is a sense that the narrator is disturbed by Kennard’s potential vision of her, reflected in some of the drawings she secretly watches him sketching.

As the narrative unfolds, the connection between Kennard and the narrator waxes and wanes, defined by occasional moments of intensity interspersed with significant periods of latency. At first, the young woman does not reveal her dual nationality to him, choosing to communicate in broken English instead of her competent French. He eschews the Korean meals she cooks for the guests, preferring instead to pick up Western-style junk food which he eats alone in his room. Nevertheless, Kennard is sufficiently interested in the narrator to ask her to show him something of Sokcho. A trip to the border with North Korea follows, complete with a visit to the museum whose ghostly souvenir shop is staffed by a waxwork-like attendant, her face frozen as if in aspic.

Threaded through the novella are signs of tension between the South and the North. At Naksan these are highly visible, from the barbed wire on the beaches to the bunkers with sub-machine guns poking out from their openings. While the scars from WW2 on the beaches of Normandy are old and worn, those in South Korea remain raw, signalling a country still at war with its neighbour.    

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends. (p. 88)

Body image is another running theme, particularly the various pressures – both external and self-imposed – an individual can experience to look ‘perfect’ or attractive. Several aspects of the story tap into these anxieties, from the narrator’s battle with bulimia to her boyfriend’s obsession with modelling to a female guest’s recovery from plastic surgery. Food too plays an important role in the novella, mostly through the traditional meals the young woman prepares at the guest house, frequently using octopuses from her mother’s stall. The pufferfish is also highly symbolic here, a poisonous delicacy that must be prepared correctly to avoid death on consumption.

This novella is beautifully-written, characterised by Dusapin’s clipped, crystalline prose. The desolate South Korean landscape is skilfully evoked, the stark imagery reflecting feelings of division and alienation. Winters in Sokcho are especially cold and bleak. As the narrator reflects, one has to live through them to understand this, defined as they are by the essence of the city – the sights, the smells and the isolation – these are the elements that seep into the soul.

The book finishes on an enigmatic note, an ending that feels at once both mysterious and strangely inevitable. All in all, this is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty. Very highly recommended indeed.  

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Recent Reads – 20th Century Women: Daphne du Maurier and Madeleine Bourdouxhe

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two short-story collections, both from the mid-20th century.

The Breaking Point by Daphne du Maurier (1959)

Aside from Rebecca (which I love), I probably prefer du Maurier’s stories to her novels. There’s something about the short form that seems to suit this author’s style, a heightening of the creeping sense of dread that runs through much of her work.

The Breaking Point is a characteristically unsettling collection of eight stories, many of which blur the lines between the real and the imaginary. They’re wonderfully creepy, often tapping into our deepest fears and suspicions, our latent sources of restlessness and anxiety. As the title suggests, each story pivots on a moment of crisis in an individual’s life, a time when the protagonist’s emotions are stretched to the extreme. Whether that person snaps or survives remains the critical question, something du Maurier leaves for the reader to ponder and decide.

In The Alibi – one of my favourites in the collection – we meet James Fenton, a middle-aged man who feels trapped in the routine of his marriage, desperate to break free from his conventional lifestyle. Suddenly, out of the blue, Fenton is seized by the forces of evil, prompting thoughts of violence and murder. With this in mind, he picks a house a random, posing as a respectable man looking to rent a room. Luckily for Fenton, the occupant is Anna, a poor refugee desperately in need of money to support her young son, Johnnie – little does Anna know what might be in store for her when Fenton makes his request.

‘What would you want the room for?’ she asked doubtfully.

There was the crux. To murder you and the child, my dear, and dig up the floor, and bury you under the boards. But not yet.

‘It’s difficult to explain,’ he said briskly. ‘I’m a professional man. I have long hours. But there have been changes lately, and I must have a room where I can put in a few hours every day and be entirely alone. You’ve no idea how difficult it is to find the right spot. This seems to me ideal for the purpose.’ He glanced from the empty house down to the child, and smiled. ‘Your little boy, for instance. Just the right age. He’d give no trouble.’ (p.6)

This is a brilliant story, one that takes the narrative in unexpected directions. (I couldn’t help but think of the excellent film, 10 Rillington Place, as I was reading it.) As with many of the pieces here, the reader experiences a looming sense of dread, fearful of what might happen to the occupants as the tale unfolds. Over time, Anna becomes increasingly dependent on Fenton, a development that sparks another kind of crisis in our protagonist’s life.

The Blue Lenses is another highlight, a particularly unnerving story that plays with the mind. Marda West is recovering in a nursing-home following an eye operation – a procedure considered very successful by the surgical team. The time has come for Marda’s bandages to be removed and temporary lenses fitted – the blue lenses that represent the first step in her recovery. Marda has been told to expect things to look a little different with the lenses. She will be able to see everything, but not in full colour – the effect is akin to wearing sunglasses on a bright day. However, when Marda finally opens her eyes, she is horrified by the sights that greet her. The blue lenses have the effect of exposing people for who they really are, revealing to Marda their true personalities. 

Now she was certain that what was happening was real, was true. Some evil force encompassed the nursing-home and its inhabitants, the Matron, the nurses, the visiting doctors, her surgeon – they were all caught up in it, they were all partners in some gigantic crime, the purpose of which could not be understood. (pp. 64-65)

This is a rather alarming story, one that plays on some of our deepest fears and paranoias, not to mention our fascination with conspiracies.  

Du Maurier is brilliant at building atmosphere and tension – qualities that are evident in The Pool, the tale of two siblings who are spending the summer with their grandparents. This is a dreamlike story, one in which the girl, Deborah, is enticed into a secret magical world with frightening results.

Chaos had come. There were no stars, and the night was sulphurous. A great crack split the heavens and tore them in two. The garden groaned. If the rain would only fall there might be mercy, and the trees, imploring, bowed themselves this way and that, while the vivid lawn, bright in expectation, lay like a sheet of metal exposed to flame. Let the waters break. Bring down the rain. (p.152)

In The Lordly Ones, a young, near-mute boy, brutally abused by his cruel parents, finally finds his voice, only by being placed in the most precarious of positions. This tale of brutality and heartbreak takes places in the wilds of the moors, a setting du Maurier chillingly evokes.

I read this excellent collection for Ali’s Daphne du Maurier event – running this week. There are shades of Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales here, another disquieting collection of stories to unsettle the soul. Highly recommended indeed.

A Nail, A Rose by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans, 1989)

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe has been enjoying something of a mini-revival in the last few years. In 2014, Daunt Books reissued her excellent novella, La Femme de Gilles (1937), a timeless story of the pain that desire and self-sacrificing love can inflict on a marriage. Another novella soon followed: Marie (1943), also available from Daunt, an intimate book in which we gain a deep insight into a young woman’s inner life. 

A Nail, A Rose – published here in a beautiful new edition from Pushkin Press – is a collection of eight short stories written throughout Bourdouxhe’s literary career. (The earliest pieces first appeared in the 1940s, while the most recent ones came much later in the ‘80s.) As is often the case with a collection of this nature, certain stories resonate more strongly than others. Nevertheless, Bourdouxhe’s best pieces are very good indeed, particularly those based on some of her own personal experiences.

The standout story here is the novella-length Sous Le Pont Mirabeau in which a young woman attempts to journey from Belgium to France at the time of the German invasion in 1940. Like Bourdouxhe herself, the central character has just given birth to a baby girl, leaving her little option but to set out with the infant in her arms. It’s a very affecting account, threaded through with striking images of a nation at war.

The streets were full of people who were strangely silent, and the big balloons looked fixed in the sky; she felt heaviness and oppression in the air. Turning away she went on walking up and down. The soldiers weren’t talking, they were lined up in the café benches as if they were storing sleep, gathering their strength. She felt very alone, caught up in the great apparatus of war. She tried to find a single face on which to rest her gaze. The baby raised one arm and uttered a little cry; she quietened her by leaning against her face. They stayed like this, their faces buried in each other’s. (pp. 195–196)

Virtually all of Bourdouxhe’s stories are focused on women, several of whom seem trapped in the confines of domesticity. One of the best of these is Blanche, in which the titular character ignores her husband’s cries for a clean shirt, hiding it in a cupboard while longing for some peace. This is an imaginative story, one that ultimately grants Blanche a brief taste of freedom – an escape to the forest where she can dream of an imaginary lover.

Some of the stories are quite abstract in style or contain elements of fantasy. Pieces like Clara which explores themes of communication and mortality, and René in which a hairdresser’s thoughts and actions drift into somewhat surreal territory.

In summary, then, these are stories of discontent and disaffection, of ordinary women yearning for more fulfilment in life. An interesting collection, if somewhat uneven.

My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy. You can find Guy’s review here.

Recent Reads – The Memory Police; Square Haunting; Excellent Women

One of the perverse by-products of the current lockdown is the fact that I have more time to read and write at the moment, even if my ability to concentrate isn’t the best. So, in the spirit of trying to keep a record of my reading, here are a few brief thoughts on some of the books that have captured my imagination over the past few weeks.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa (1994), tr. By Stephen Snyder (2019)

A haunting, beautifully-written novel about memory, loss and the holes left in our hearts when memories disappear.

The novel is set on an unnamed island where specific objects have been vanishing from day-to-day life for several years. Birds, perfume, bells, stamps – these are some of the things that have been ‘disappeared’, no longer in existence either as physical objects or as memories in the minds of the islanders.

The disappearance of the birds, as with so many other things, happened suddenly one morning. When I opened my eyes, I could sense something strange, almost rough, about the quality of the air. The sign of a disappearance. […] I got up, put on a sweater, and went out into the garden. The neighbours were all outside, too, peering around anxiously. The dog in the next yard was growling softly.

Then I spotted a small brown creature flying high up in the sky. It was plump, with what appeared to be a tuft of white feathers at its breast. I had just begun to wonder whether it was one of the creatures I had seen with my father when I realized that everything I knew about them had disappeared from inside me: my memories of them, my feelings about them, the very meaning of the word “bird” – everything. (p. 10)

The disappearances are enforced by the Memory Police, an authoritarian group who go around looking for any remaining traces of ‘disappeared’ items. Moreover, the Police also play a role in tracking down any islanders who can recall erased items, rounding them up for further investigation.

The novel’s narrator is a writer; and her editor, R, is one of the few individuals with the ability to remember some of these things – namely, the existence of emeralds, perfume and other forgotten items. As the narrative unfolds, we follow the narrator’s attempts to conceal her editor from the authorities while simultaneously trying to work on her novel – the premise of which has a certain resonance with the broader story. 

Ogawa’s thoughtful, meditative novel has been widely reviewed elsewhere, so rather than wittering on about it here, I shall direct you to various other posts – particularly those by Claire, Eric and Grant – which cover it in more detail. When I think about this book, what strikes me most is how poignant it feels right now, at a time when so many of the things we have taken for granted for years are no longer accessible to us – at least for the foreseeable future. It’s a very thought-provoking read, particularly given the current global crisis – definitely recommended reading.

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade (2020)

I’ll keep this one brief, not because of any concerns about the book – it’s actually incredibly good! – but for other, purely personal reasons. In short, I’ve always found it harder to write about non-fiction than fiction, especially when a book is as meticulously researched as this.

Square Haunting is a fascinating collection of mini-biographies, focusing on five female inhabitants of Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square, primarily covering the interwar years. The women in question are:

  • Hilda Doolittle (H. D.) – modernist poet, in residence 1916-18;
  • Dorothy L. Sayers – writer of detective fiction, in residence 1920-21;
  • Jane Ellen Harrison – classicist and translator, in residence 1926-28;
  • Eileen Power – historian, broadcaster and pacifist, in residence 1922–40;
  • Virginia Woolf – writer and publisher, in residence 1939-40.

What I really like about this book is the way the author uses Mecklenburgh Square as a prism through which to view the lives of these pioneering women, painting a rich tapestry of life within London’s cultural milieu from the end of WW1 to the beginning of WW2. In addition to presenting a snapshot of each woman’s life, Wade also enables us to glimpse other notable figures of the day – writers such as D.H Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, for example – on the edges of various social circles. There are some surprising connections between the lives of the various inhabitants of Mecklenburgh Square, relationships that make this location seem all the more intriguing.

In summary, Square Haunting is an erudite, evocative and beautifully constructed book. Highly recommended for anyone with an interest in London’s social/cultural scene in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Excellent Women by Barba Pym (1952)

Finally, for this post at least, I’ve been revisiting Excellent Women, a novel I first wrote about back in 2016. The Backlisted Podcast team will be covering it in their next episode – due to land on Monday 13th April – hence the reason for my recent reread.

Once again, I’ll keep this brief – you can read my initial impressions of the book by clicking on the link above. What I will say is that it’s perfect lockdown reading. Reassuringly comforting and familiar, but with enough insight into the world of its protagonist to elevate it into the literary sphere.

In short, the novel is narrated by Mildred, a spinster in her early thirties, one of those ‘excellent women’ who can be relied on to offer a kind word or a cup of tea when needed. The trouble is, Mildred ends up getting drawn into other people’s messy business, particularly as it is often assumed that she has no real life of her own.

I suppose an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties, must expect to find herself involved or interested in other people’s business, and if she is also a clergyman’s daughter then one might really say that there is no hope for her. (p. 1)

It’s a charming novel, one in which the most pressing concerns involve flower arranging and making plans for the forthcoming church bazaar. If only real life were as simple as this; we can but wish…Anyway, do tune into Backlisted once the podcast is up; it’s bound to be a good one.

The Memory Police is published by Harvill Secker; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy. Square Haunting is published by Faber & Faber, and Excellent Women by Virago Books; both personal copies.

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (1997, tr. Martin Aitken, 2018)

A haunting, dreamlike novella that really gets under your skin.

Single mother, Vibeke, and her eight-year old son, Jon, have recently moved to a small town in Norway where Vibeke works as an arts and culture officer in the local community.

Right from the start of the book, there is a something of a disconnect between mother and son, a sense of separateness or isolation that sets them apart from one another. At home Vibeke seems more interested in her books and personal appearance than in Jon’s wellbeing, frequently daydreaming of men she has met at work and hopes to bump into again somewhere in the neighbourhood. Jon, for his part, has a natural curiosity about the world around him, using his imagination to keep himself occupied in the absence of other stimulation.

He looks at the snow outside and thinks of all the snowflakes that go to make a pile. He tries to count how many, in his head. They talked about it at school today. Ice crystals, they’re called. No two are ever the same. How many can there be in a snowball? Or on the windowpane, in a small speck of snow? (p. 10)

The novel unfolds over the course of a bitterly cold night during which both of these individuals embark on separate yet strangely connected journeys, searching for their own sense of fulfilment in an uncertain world. While Jon hopes his mother will spend the evening making a cake for his ninth birthday, Vibeke has plans of her own as she leaves the house to visit the local library. Unbeknownst to Vibeke, Jon is no longer at home at this point, the young boy having already left the house to give his mother some space for the longed-for birthday preparations.

She goes out into the vestibule, buttons her coat and studies herself in the mirror, pops her head back into the hall and calls out to Jon. She looks at her reflection again. She decided on hardly any makeup at all. He’s not answering. She calls again and glances at the time, less than half an hour before they close. He’s started going to bed on his own now, she’s not even allowed to come in and say good night. She thinks of his eyelashes, almost white. She moves her head from side to side, checking her hair in the mirror, the way it falls so softly about her face, her scalp still warm from the time it took to dry it. She snatches the keys from the little table, picks up the bag with the books in it and smiles at herself in the mirror again before opening the front door and stepping out. (p. 34)

Both Jon and Vibeke meet various strangers during their night-time wanderings, experiences that highlight the trust they place in unfamiliar and potentially dangerous individuals. Vibeke, in particular, lets her imagination run away with her, investing unrealistic hopes and expectations in a chance encounter with Tom, a traveller who works at the fairground currently in town.  Meanwhile, Jon comes into contact with a series of strangers, culminating in him placing his trust in a woman who also has a connection with the travelling funfair.

What I love about this novella is the way Ørstavik seamlessly switches between Vibeke and Jon throughout the narrative, highlighting both the connection and sense of separateness that surrounds these characters. It’s a testament to the author’s skill as a writer that this technique never feels confusing or gimmicky in any way. At various points in the story, Ørstavik also tests the reader’s emotions by creating situations that appear to place her characters in vulnerable or dangerous situations, raising questions of trust, protection and culpability. We fear for the safety of both mother and son, conscious of the subtle sense of foreboding and tension that continues to build as the bitter night unfolds.

Love is an excellent, thought-provoking book by an accomplished writer. Ørstavik takes care to avoid condemning Vibeke for the casual neglect of her son, thereby allowing the reader to draw their own conclusions from the scenarios as they unfold. The ambiguous nature of the ending only adds to the deeply unsettling feel of the novella as a whole. Very highly recommended indeed, both for book groups and for individual readers alike.

Love is published by And Other Stories; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

Childhood by Tove Ditlevsen (1967, tr. Tiina Nunnally, 1985)

Childhood is the first in a series of three volumes which together form The Copenhagen Trilogy, a work of autofiction by the revered Danish writer and poet, Tove Ditlevsen (1917-78). It is a striking text, shot through with a tangible note of sadness, in which the innocence of childhood is juxtaposed with the harsh realities of an austere world. (The subsequent volumes – Youth and Dependency, which I’ll touch on at the end of this piece – cover the author’s adolescence and adult years respectively.)

Born into a working-class family in a down-at-heel district of Copenhagen, Tove experiences a rather harsh and lonely childhood. With her love of books, songs and poems, Tove is considered somewhat unusual by her family – particularly her mother, whose intolerance and dismissive attitude give rise to a fractured mother-daughter relationship.

Tove finds her childhood narrow and restricting, ‘like a coffin’ in which she is shackled and constrained. In search of solace and a means of expression, Tove longs to write down all the words that flow through her, the fledgling poems that come naturally throughout her days. Nevertheless, she keeps these artistic ambitions to herself for most of her early years, jotting down her poetry in a private album which she hides in her room – mostly out of a fear of being ridiculed by her family. In essence, these poems become a way for Tove to cover the exposed areas of her childhood by enriching her limited existence through creative expression.

It is only once Tove reaches middle school that her world begins to widen somewhat, sparked by her introduction to the public library and everything it contains. While the librarian suggests books suitable for children, Tove finds these too basic for her requirements. It is more challenging fiction that she is after, grittier stories like Les Misérables and other such texts.

By the age of twelve, Tove is experiencing signs of depression, haunted by thoughts of death and mortality. A foreigner in her own world, she longs to escape the narrow confines of her local community, eager to make her own way in life. The conventional trappings of marriage and motherhood are not for her; she shuns everything a reliable, steady life represents, including its feeling of security.

While Tove finds her childhood very restrictive, there is also a sense that she acknowledges these early years to be precious in their own way – possibly something to be looked back on with a degree of nostalgia or fondness, even if they never seem quite so rosy at the time. As her childhood draws to a close with her confirmation, Tove becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of the future, ‘a monstrous, powerful colossus that will soon fall on me and crush me.’

What particularly strikes me about Childhood is Ditlevsen’s powerful tone of voice. The memoir is written in a candid, unvarnished style, almost childlike in certain respects, which fits so naturally with the subject matter at hand. Nevertheless, the reader is frequently pulled up short by the arresting nature of Tove’s experiences – made all the more shocking due to the plain-speaking style in which they are delivered.

Childhood is dark and it’s always moaning like a little animal that’s locked in a cellar and forgotten. It comes out of your throat like your breath in the cold, and sometimes it’s too little, other times too big. It never fits exactly. It’s only when it has been cast off that you can look at it calmly and talk about it like an illness you’ve survived.… Wherever you turn, you run up against your childhood and hurt yourself because it’s sharp-edged and hard, and stops only when it has torn you completely apart. It seems that everyone has their own and each is totally different. (pp. 30–31, Childhood).

In this respect, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the British writer Barbara Comyns, whose excellent semi-autobiographical novel Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a favourite of mine. (There’s a link to my review here if it’s of interest.)

Now that I’ve read all three books in Ditlevesen’s trilogy, I can safely say that they’re all just as absorbing as the first – perhaps even more so given the way Tove’s life develops into adulthood. There is a frankness to Tove’s account of her life, one that gives the books a sense of intimacy and immediacy that is hard to resist.

In Youth we follow Tove through a string of unsuitable menial jobs, some of which only last a few days before she is fired for her naivety and unfiltered views. As far as Tove is concerned, her eighteenth birthday can’t come soon enough, a time when she can finally strike out on her own outside of the boundaries of her family.

Throughout her adolescence, Tove continues to write poetry, frequently composing pieces and songs for work colleagues and associates. Her life remains lonely and challenging; nevertheless, there is a seam of dark humour running through this volume (and parts of the subsequent one, Dependency), largely stemming from the author’s matter-of-fact tone of voice and narrative style.

One evening Nadja comes over, dressed, as usual, as if she had just escaped a burning house. (p. 29, Dependency)

There are moments of brightness too, glimmers of hope and determination on the part of Tove that one day some of her poems may be published.

I can’t explain to myself, either, why I want to so badly to have my poems published, so other people who have a feeling for poetry can enjoy them. But that’s what I want. That’s what I, by dark and twisting roads, am working towards. That’s what gives me the strength to get up every day, to go to the printing office and sit across from Miss Løngren’s Argus eyes for eight hours. That’s why I want to move away from home the same day I turn eighteen. (p. 63, Youth)

Meanwhile the impeding outbreak of WW2 rumbles away in the background, casting a shadow of darkness over the external world.

By her early twenties, Tove is a published poet, now married to a literary editor, a much older man named Viggo F – a most unsuitable match as it turns out. In Dependency, Tove recounts the experiences of her early adult life: a sequence of love affairs and marriages, some gratifying and others not so much; pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted (a distressing search for a doctor willing to perform an illegal abortion is painfully relayed); and ultimately, a battle with opioid addiction that will consume her day-to-day existence and emotional soul.

There are brief periods of solace when Tove finds an outlet through creative expression, her writing remaining a source of fulfilment whenever it is possible. Nevertheless, the spectre of addiction continues to hover overhead, even during Tove’s ‘clean’ periods of remission.

It [the pharmacy] radiated a muted light from containers of mercury and beakers filled with crystals. I kept standing there, while yearning for small white pills, which were so easy to get, rose inside me like a dark liquid. Horrified, I realized while I stood there that the longing was inside me like rot in a tree, or like an embryo growing all on its own, even though you want nothing to do with it. I pulled myself away reluctantly, and kept walking. (p. 130)

This is a remarkable series of books – clear, candid, striking and elegant. It has something of the power of the most compelling memoirs, coupled with a simplicity that feels almost poetic, certainly at times. In short, very highly recommended indeed. A wonderful rediscovery on the part of the publishers.

Childhood, Youth and Dependency are published by Penguin; personal copies.