Tag Archives: Bloomsbury

Recent Reads – Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid and The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

Some brief thoughts on two excellent books I’ve been reading, both of which were published earlier this year.

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid (2020)

Chosen by my friend, N, for our book group in early September, this is such a terrific novel – a sharp, pacy, whip-smart satire of white privilege, racial dynamics and wokeness set in modern-day Philadelphia. It’s very different from the usual types of book I read, both in terms of context and style; nevertheless, I raced through it in my eagerness to get to the end.

The novel opens with an incident, something that Reid cleverly uses as a catalyst, kick-starting a chain of events through which to explore these issues. Late one night, Emira Tucker – a twenty-five-year-old college graduate and part-time babysitter – is asked to take care of her employers’ toddler at short notice while the parents deal with an incident at their home. Emira, who is black, takes three-year-old Briar, who is white, to a nearby grocery store, just to keep the young girl occupied.

At the store, a nosy woman gets suspicious at the sight of a black girl playing around with white child so late at night. A tense exchange between Emira and the store’s security guard swiftly follows, all of which is filmed by a white bystander who is clearly trying to support Emira.

“You know what—it’s cool,” she said. “We can just leave.”

“Now wait a minute.” The guard held out his hand. “I can’t let you leave, because a child is involved.” “But she’s my child right now.” Emira laughed again. “I’m her sitter. I’m technically her nanny…” This was a lie, but Emira wanted to imply that paperwork had been been done concerning her employment, and that it connected her to the child in question.

“Hi, sweetie.” The woman bent and pressed her hands into her knees. “Do you know where your mommy is?”

“Her mom is at home.” Emira tapped her collarbone twice as she said, “You can just talk to me.” (p. 11–12)

Eventually, the situation is resolved, but only once Emira phones Briar’s father to come and verify her position. Emira is not trying to kidnap Briar; rather, she is the toddler’s regular babysitter.

From here, the novel spins off into very interesting territory covering topics such as racism amongst the white liberal elite, the fetishisation of black people and the shallow world of social media influencers.

Alix, Briar’s mum, longs to back in New York where she’d been carving out a successful career for herself as a brand influencer before motherhood intervened. In the wake of the grocery store incident, Alix tries her hardest to buddy up with Emira, showing an interest in the sitter’s life that feels way beyond the bounds of acceptability. Emira, however, is more concerned for Briar, with whom she has developed a very caring relationship, particularly as Alix has somewhat sidelined the toddler in favour of her new baby, Catherine.

There is so much that’s impressive here from the depth of characterisation – particularly the women – to the insightful observations of human behaviour and the razor-sharp intelligence and wit. Reid’s use of detail is excellent, especially in the construction of the novel’s plot. Key points are frequently seeded at various points in the narrative, only for their true significance to become fully apparent at a later stage. (There are some terrific set-pieces and showdowns along the way.) The dialogue is brilliant, too – from the naturalistic exchanges between Emira and her BFFs to the excruciating discussions between Alix and her upwardly-mobile friends.

Some readers might baulk at the fact that a key part of the plot hinges on a significant coincidence, something that reaches into Alix’s past; but I was more than happy to go with it given the quality and complexity of what Reid is doing here. All in all, this is a very clever debut, as thought-provoking as it is compelling – a hugely enjoyable read.

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey (2020)

Earlier this year, I wrote about Marina Benjamin’s Insomnia, a luminous meditation on the hinterland between longed-for sleep and unwelcome wakefulness. Samantha Harvey’s The Shapeless Unease could be viewed as something of a companion piece to the Benjamin. It’s just as beautifully written, a book that brilliantly evokes the fragmentary nature of this condition, perfectly capturing the freewheeling association between seemingly disparate thoughts as the mind flits from one topic to another.

In the midst of the night, Harvey trawls through the remnants of her past, searching for clues on the cause of her insomnia, the trigger that has turned her from a sleeper to a non-sleeper over the past year.

When I don’t sleep I spend the night searching the intricacies of my past, trying to find out where I went wrong, trawling through childhood to see if the genesis of the insomnia is there, trying to find the exact thought, thing or happening that turned me from a sleeper to a non-sleeper. I try to find a key to release me from it. I try to solve the logic problem that is now my life. I circle the arena of my mind, it’s shrinking perimeter, like a polar bear in its grubby blue–white plastic enclosure with fake ice caps and water that turns out to have no depth. I circle and circle. It’s 3 a.m., 4 a.m. It’s always 3 a.m., 4 a.m. I circle back. (p. 32)

So much of what Harvey says in this book resonates with me – from the differences between fear and anxiety, to her reflections on death and our own sense of mortality, to the humiliation we sometimes encounter when discussing a condition with a doctor or counsellor. I too have experienced that sense of dread and desperation when seeking a cause or label for a series of symptoms, the need to negotiate for further tests or investigations to be carried out. Moreover, the frustration of being on the receiving end of well-intentioned advice and lifestyle interventions, most of which have already been explored.

‘Also no lying in bed awake for more than twenty minutes – bed is just for sleep and intimacy. It isn’t for lying awake. Don’t eat too late in the evening, no alcohol, no caffeine after midday, cut out sugar, no hard exercise after 7 p.m., a nice warm bath before bed but not too hot and not too soon before bed, keep your room cool and ventilated.’

‘I do these things, they don’t help.’

‘Over time, they will.’

‘Over time, they haven’t. I feel unhelpable.’

‘Nobody is unhelpable.’

‘I am.’

‘Nobody is.(p. 139)

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. There’s even a short story threaded through the book, a compelling piece about a gang who hack into cash machines, emptying them of their plentiful stash.

In summary, this is a beautiful, intelligent, poetic book on a mystifying condition that many of us will experience at some point in our lives – an elegant meditation on what it means to exist when deprived of sleep in an elastic continuum of time. I loved this one. 

Such a Fun Age is published by Bloomsbury, The Shapeless Unease by Jonathan Cape; personal copies.

The Nature of Landscape: The Offing by Benjamin Myers and The Dig by Cynan Jones

Another of my round-up posts – this one focusing on two terrific books, both with a connection to the countryside.

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)

This is such a beautiful, life-affirming book – a novel imbued with great warmth, a generosity of spirit and a strong sense of place.

The Offing is set in the English countryside in the summer of 1946, the year following the end of the Second World War. Although the conflict is over, the emotional scars remain, festering in the hearts and minds of the men following their return from battle, their shattering experiences too recent to suppress.

With little to look forward to other than a lifetime of work in the local pits, sixteen-year-old Robert sets out from his village in Durham to see something of the wider world outside. He envisages a journey with no set plan; just a desire to live from one day to the next, picking up a day’s work here and there in exchange for food and shelter.

At the approach to Robin Hood’s Bay, Robert spots a lane leading down to a secluded cottage. Here he stumbles across Dulcie, a tall, middle-aged woman of unconventional dress who greets him as if he were a familiar friend, just popping over as expected. Robert is invited to stay for nettle tea – an invitation he accepts, thereby sparking an unlikely friendship, one that ends up lasting the entire summer.

Dulcie is a wonderful creation – confident, direct and delightfully outspoken. At first, Robert is somewhat shy and reserved in Dulcie’s company, a little intimidated by her forthright views of the world. Nevertheless, he soon recognises this generous woman for what she truly is – wise, well-travelled and progressive in her outlook, someone with the potential to fuel his mind as well as his body. In return for a run of delicious meals and a shack for shelter, Robert clears Dulcie’s overgrown garden of weeds, an activity punctuated by long walks across the surrounding fields with Dulcie’s trusty dog, Butler.

Throughout the summer, Dulcie encourages Robert to read poetry to broaden his outlook, lending him books by D. H. Lawrence, John Clare and Keats amongst others. When the topic of war comes up in the conversation, Dulcie is quick to challenge Robert on his views of the Germans, reminding him that they are not so different from the British – mere pawns in a deadly game of chess.

‘…War is war: it’s started by the few and fought by the many, and everyone loses in the end. There’s no glory in bloodshed and bullet holes. Not a bit of it. I also happen to know that Germany has been left in a terrible state too, and always remember that most of those young men – boys the same age as you are now, no doubt – did not want to be there either. It’s always the honest folk that have to do the bidding of the despots. And after all there are only a few things truly worth fighting for: freedom, of course, and all that it brings with it. Poetry, perhaps, and a good glass of wine. A nice meal. Nature. Love, if you’re lucky. And that’s about it. Don’t hate the Germans; many of them are just like you and me.’ (p. 41)

With Dulcie’s encouragement, Robert begins to feel more alive to the possibilities open to him, with the realisation that there is much more to life than merely following in his father’s footsteps down the mine. He gains a deeper appreciation of the simple things in life, like the wonders of the natural world and the value of education. In short, Dulcie inspires Robert to live his own life – just as she has chosen to live hers. And there’s another payoff too, one for Dulcie. In the fullness of time, Robert enables this independent woman to come to terms with a painful event from her past, something she has been trying to suppress for the last six years. 

In writing The Offing, Myers has given us such a gorgeous, compassionate book, one that demonstrates the power of human connection in a damaged world. Alongside its themes of hope, individualism and recovery, the novel can also be seen as an evocative paean to the natural world. Myers writes beautifully about the countryside in a way that feels at once both timely and timeless, perfectly capturing the ephemeral feel of a glorious English summer.

The tiniest details came into sharp focus: the skeletal architecture of a small dead leaf that had lain untouched since winter, or the quiver of a solitary blade of wild grass where others beside it were still. The gentle panting of the dog too fell into the rhythm of my own heart as it beat a gentle pattern of sweet coursing blood in my eardrums. A single drop of sweat ran down my left temple. I felt alive. Gloriously, deliriously alive. (p. 45–46)

There are shades of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country in this transcendent novel, maybe L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, too. If you liked either of those, chances are you’ll really enjoy this too. 

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)

A haunting, deeply moving book about death, grief, brutality and compassion – beautifully expressed in spare, poetic prose.

Like the Myers, The Dig is rooted in the countryside. However, this is a very different kind of place to the one portrayed in The Offing. Here the environment is tough, feral and visceral; a setting characterised by the undercurrent of cruelty in the natural world.

Recently widowed Daniel is a sheep farmer, struggling to keep on top of the lambing season deep in rural Wales. He is quiet and hard-working, his days dictated by the rhythm of his flock, the demands of the farm acting as a respite from grief.

He tried to put it as clearly as he understood it. He could not bear the responsibility of small talk, reassuring people he was coping. He seemed to know the offer of sympathy would be like a gate he’d go crashing through. He could bear only the huge responsibility to the ewes, to the farm working, which would be tyrannical and which was in process now, and which didn’t care about him.

‘After?’ asked his mother.

I don’t know after,’ he said. And truly he didn’t. She held him then, and she felt the massive devastation of him. (p. 50)

Daniel’s story is interspersed with glimpses of another inhabitant of the community, ‘the big man’, a badger-baiter whose underground activities risk attracting attention from the police. The baiter is a sinister presence in the book, one who hunts at night, using savage dogs to trap badgers for use in the mercilessly cruel sport. (For the uninitiated, badger-baiting – an illegal activity in the UK – involves pitting a badger against a ferocious dog, typically resulting in the death of the badger and often seriously injuring the dog.)

As the narrative unfolds, the lives of the two men intersect with devastating consequences.

By now you’re probably thinking of this as a brutal book, one that features distressing scenes of badgers being exploited for sport. Well, that’s true; but one of the roles of fiction is to raise uncomfortable issues, challenging our beliefs and preconceptions of the world around us. While we may wish to think of the countryside as a peaceful place, we should also recognise the sense of darkness it can foster, the innate violence it can breed.

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 and poetry in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past. The writing has a meditative quality to it, perfectly capturing Daniel’s love for his wife and the intense pain of her loss. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates this aspect of the novella.

He remembered the sight of her in the cab of the tractor while she drove along the rows of bales and he stacked them on the trailer as the boys threw them up. He remembered the sweat and the itch of seed, the burn of the baling twine inside his fingers, the bales grazing his knuckles, the diesel air about the tractor. He remembered her with the bright splash of colour of the cloth worn on her head, how they had joked that she looked girlish and Alpine. Heidi they had called her that day, and how he had wanted her in the rich way we can want a woman we physically work with, and how he was glad it was his wife he wanted this way. (p. 91)

The Offing is published by Bloomsbury (personal copy), The Dig by Granta; my thanks to the publisher/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

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

As in previous years, Meytal at the Biblibio blog will be hosting Women in Translation (#WITMonth) throughout the month of August. It’s a celebration of translated literature by women writers – you can find out more about it here. I’ve reviewed quite a few books in this category over the years; so, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read next month, here are a few of my favourites.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with others people’s emotions, all set against the blistering heat of the French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Cote d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another player arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father. An utterly compelling novel – I’ll be reading Sagan again this year, this time in an Irene Ash translation.

Grand Hotel by Vicki Baum (tr. Basil Creighton)

This engaging novel revolves around the experiences of six central characters as they brush up against one another during their time at a Berlin hotel in the 1920s. There are moments of lightness and significant darkness here as Baum weaves her story together, moving from one player to another with consummate ease – her sense of characterisation is very strong. At the centre of the novel is the idea that our lives can change direction in surprising ways as a result of our interactions with others. We see fragments of the lives of these individuals as they come and go from the hotel. Some are on their way up and are altered for the better; others are on their way down and emerge much diminished. All in all, this is a delightfully entertaining read.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was just twenty-three when her debut novel, Nada, was published. It’s an excellent book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. Here we see the portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. This is a wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting. Truly deserving of its status as a Spanish classic.

Transit by Anna Seghers (tr. by Margot Bettauer Dembo)

A novel inspired by Seghers’ own experience as a refugee fleeing from Europe following the German invasion of France in 1940, Transit gives an insight into the bureaucratic maze and red tape involved in securing a safe passage from Marseille. It’s a haunting and unforgettable story with questions of shifting identity and destiny at its heart. This was a standout read for me.

Subtly Worded by Teffi (tr. Anne Marie Jackson)

By turns satirical, insightful, artful and poignant, this is a fascinating collection of short stories and sketches, notable for the sheer variety in tone. What makes these stories particularly intriguing is their connection to various aspects of Teffi’s own life and experience, from her time in Russia prior the Revolution to the years she spent as an émigré in Paris. Her first-hand account of Rasputin – a highly perceptive piece – is worth the entry price alone.

La Femme de Gilles by Madeleine Bourdouxhe (tr. Faith Evans)

When Elisa realises her husband, Gilles, has become entangled with Victorine, her attractive younger sister, she is devastated. Beautifully written in a sensual, intimate style, this is a very compelling novel with a powerful ending. The writing is spare but very emotive – Bourdouxhe holds the reader close to Elisa’s point of view giving us near-complete access to her inner thoughts and feelings. Highly recommended, particularly for fans of writers like Simenon and Jean Rhys.

Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this volume of forty-two stories drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her pieces point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. A good one for dipping into, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

More short fiction, this time from Japan, Revenge comprises eleven interlinked short stories, elegantly connected via a set of recurring images and motifs threaded through the individual narratives. Characters flow from one story to the next; we revisit specific locations and scenes from earlier tales, only to see things from a different viewpoint as our perspective changes. It’s all very cleverly constructed. In Revenge, we meet characters who seem isolated or detached from society in some way; many live alone, their lives infused with sadness and loneliness. Ogawa has a real talent for exploring some of the disquieting parts of the human psyche, the acts of darkness that can lurk just beneath the surface of the everyday. An excellent collection of unsettling stories.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, highly autobiographical books aren’t my usual my cup of tea, but NHBtN is so good that it warrants inclusion here. Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing and compelling book, beautifully written in a sensitive style – de Vigan’s prose is simply luminous.

And finally, a special mention for a fairly recent read:

Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal (tr. Jessica Moore)

In this highly unusual, utterly compelling novel, we follow Simon Limbeau’s heart for twenty-four hours – from the young man’s death in a freak accident one morning, to the delicate discussions on organ donation with his parents, to the transfer of his heart to an anxious recipient in another city later that evening. De Kerangel explores the clinical, ethical and the emotional issues at play with great sensitivity. Superbly written in a fluid, lyrical style, this is a novel that will stay with you long after the final page has been turned. (A cliché, I know – but in this case, it’s actually very apt.)

This book has already been widely reviewed across the blogosphere, so I’m not planning to cover it in more detail here. Instead, I can point you towards a couple of thoughtful posts that I recall seeing – this one by Grant at 1streading and this one by Marina Sofia. It’s definitely worth considering.

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 here.

My Books of the Year, 2015 – favourites from a year of reading

For me, 2015 was another year filled with great reading. I read around 90 books in 2015 (mostly older books), and only a handful turned out to be disappointing in some way. Once again I found it very difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post, but I’ve managed to whittle it down to a final thirteen: a baker’s dozen of excellent books, plus a few honourable mentions along the way! These are the books I love, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day. I’ve summarised each ‘winner’ in this post, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

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First up, five category winners:

Reread of the Year: The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Considered by some to be Yates’ best, this novel follows two sisters who take very different paths in life. Their story taps into a familiar theme in this author’s work: the search for happiness and fulfilment that always seems to elude his characters. Despite the deep sense of sadness running through the novel, this was my favourite reread of the year. A superb book (I doubt whether it gets much better than Richard Yates).

Honourable Mentions (All of these are winners in their own right): After Leaving Mr Mackenzie by Jean Rhys; A Heart So White by Javier Marías; The Long Good-Bye by Raymond Chandler.

Crime Novel of the Year: The Secret in Their Eyes by Eduardo Sacheri (tr. John Cullen)

Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s Dirty War, the story focuses on the bond that develops between a clerk in the Buenos Aires investigative court and the husband of a murder victim. This is a first-rate novel—part psychological mystery, part exploration of corruption in the Argentine criminal justice system, but always engrossing.

Honourable Mentions: Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac; Topkapi – The Light of Day by Eric Ambler

Autobiographical Novel of the Year: Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

To be honest, I’ve only read a couple of autobiographical books this year, but the de Vigan was so good that I had to find a slot for it somewhere! Virtually impossible to summarise in a couple of sentences, this remarkable story focuses on a woman’s quest to gain a deeper understanding of her mother following the latter’s death by suicide. A genuinely absorbing book, beautifully written – de Vigan’s prose is luminous. 

Novella of the Year: The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald

Poor Florence Green is up against it at every turn as she tries to open a bookshop in the (fictional) Suffolk town of Hardborough. The town is the kind of microcosm where everybody knows everybody else’s business, a place where gossip, hierarchies and class systems all play an important role. Fitzgerald writes with great insight about life’s failings and disappointments, but she is a humorous writer too – every scene is so finely observed. Of the three Fitzgerald novels I’ve read to date, this is my favourite.

Honourable Mentions: Tristana by Benito Pérez Galdós; Madame de___ by Louise de Vilmorin; Agostino by Alberto Moravia.

Short Story Collection of the Year: Thus Were Their Faces by Silvina Ocampo (tr. Daniel Balderston)

I love the stories in this edition of forty-two pieces drawn from a lifetime of Ocampo’s writing, the way they often start in the realms of normality and then tip into darker, slightly surreal territory. Several of her stories point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday. An unusual and poetic collection of stories that blur the margins between reality and the imaginary world. Highly recommended, especially if you’re looking for something different.

Honourable Mentions: Things Look Different in the Light by Medardo Fraile; Subtly Worded by Teffi.

And now for the novels, eight favourites from a year of reading:

Run River by Joan Didion

It was a tough call between this book and Didion’s iconic Play It As It Lays; in the end, Run River was the one that stood out for me. I love the melancholy tone of this novel which explores the disintegration of the relationship between a husband and wife living in California. There is a sense of things dying here: Lily and Everett’s relationship; the traditional rancher’s way of life; people die too. I can’t imagine it being set anywhere other than California. In some ways, it’s a lament for a time that has all but disappeared. One for fans of Richard Yates – there are similarities with The Easter Parade.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor

This novel follows a recently widowed elderly lady, Mrs Palfrey, as she moves into the Claremont Hotel where she joins a group of residents in similar positions – each one is likely to remain there until a move to a nursing home or hospital can no longer be avoided. This is a beautiful, bittersweet, thought-provoking novel, one that prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life, the importance of small acts of kindness, the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on (there are some very funny moments). A real gem.

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien

Part compassionate satire, part touching coming-of-age story, this semi-autobiographical novel was inspired by O’Brien’s experiences of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1940s and ‘50s. The boy’s father used to be a famous actor, but his career has faded over the years. By the time he is twelve, the boy is living with his melodramatic, alcoholic mother, acting as her confidante and helping her through the bad times. This is a wonderful book – funny, sad, ironic and sympathetic. In many ways, it reminds me of early-to-mid-period Woody Allen (you know, the good ones before things went astray).

Young Man with a Horn by Dorothy Baker

Dorothy Baker makes my reading highlights for the second year running, this time with Young Man with a Horn, a novel inspired by the music of jazz legend, Bix Beiderbecke. The story focuses on the life of a fictional character named Rick Martin, a jazz musician whose passion for music is so great that he struggles to keep pace with his own ability. This is good old-fashioned storytelling strong on mood, atmosphere and the rhythm of the music. Baker’s writing is top-notch.

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross

Set in the 1940s, this novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Probably my favourite read of the year – a must for Patrick Hamilton fans.

Desperate Characters by Paula Fox

Set in New York in the late 1960s, this short novel follows a weekend in the lives of Sophie and Otto Bentwood, a childless upper-middle-class couple living in Brooklyn. When Sophie is bitten by a cat, the incident is the first of a number of disturbing events that threaten to destabilise the Bentwoods’ seemingly harmonious existence. This is a subtle and very effective character study; slowly but surely Fox peels away the layers to expose Sophie’s vulnerability and Otto’s failings. A novel that has grown in my mind over time.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín

Set in Enniscorthy (the author’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s, Tóibín’s latest novel is the touching story of a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. This is a novel that speaks to me on a personal level; so much of Nora’s story reminds me of my own mother’s experiences following the loss of my father. A subtle character study of a woman’s inner life. As one might expect with Tóibín, the sense of place is wonderful, too.

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

Highsmith’s ‘underground’ novel centres on the development of a relationship between Therese, a young aspiring designer and Carol, an older woman in the midst of a divorce and custody battle for her child. I really love this book; it is beautiful, insightful and involving. The central characters are so well drawn – the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. While Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar Highsmith themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context. This is the source novel for Todd Haynes’ recent film, Carol – both the novel and the movie come with a high recommendation from me.

Thank you to everyone who has read, shared or commented on my posts over the last year, I really do appreciate it. Wishing you all the best for the festive season and the year ahead, may they be filled with many wonderful books!

Carol / The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith

First published in 1952 under the title ‘The Price of Salt’, Carol was Patricia Highsmith’s second book. It’s the source novel for Todd Haynes’ forthcoming film, Carol, starring Cate Blanchett in the title role and Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet, the nineteen-year-old woman at the centre of Highsmith’s story. I’m desperate to see the film, so much so that I broke my current book-buying ban to get the book well in advance of early screenings at the LFF.

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Therese, a nineteen-year-old aspiring stage-set designer, lives on her own in a rented room in New York. Therese’s boyfriend, Richard, loves her and wants her to accompany him on his travels to Europe in the spring, but she is somewhat reluctant to commit. If truth be told, she doesn’t love him.

To make ends meet while she tries to get a foothold in the design business, Therese takes a temporary job as a sales assistant in a department store. It’s the run-up to Christmas, and she is rushed off her feet selling dolls to choosy parents and eager children. At times, Therese feels as if she has no real future to look forward to; stuck in a dead-end job, her desire to work in the theatre seems all but a distant dream. She is tired and lonely; her life seems uncertain, like ‘a series of zig-zags’.

One day, a tall, sophisticated woman in her early thirties comes into the store. The woman is Carol, and Therese is instantly attracted to her.

She was tall and fair, her long figure graceful in the loose fur coat that she held open with a hand on her waist. Her eyes were grey, colourless, yet dominant as light or fire, and, caught by them, Therese could not look away. She heard the customer in front of her repeat a question, and Therese stood there, mute. The woman was looking at Therese, too, with a preoccupied expression, as if half her mind were on whatever it was she meant to buy here, and though there were a number of salesgirls between them, Therese felt sure the woman would come to her. Then Therese saw her walk slowly towards the counter, heard her heart stumble to catch up with the moment in had let pass, and felt her face grow hot as the woman came nearer and nearer. (pgs. 35-36)

Carol buys a doll’s valise from Therese and arranges to have it delivered to her home. Once Carol has gone, Therese cannot stop thinking about her, so she decides to send her a Christmas card. The attraction is mutual. Carol invites Therese to lunch, and then to her home in the country where the electricity between the two women is palpable. When she returns to her own room, Therese’s thoughts are completely occupied by Carol.

But there was not a moment when she did not see Carol in her mind, and all she saw, she seemed to see through Carol. That evening, the dark flat streets of New York, the tomorrow of work, the milk bottle dropped and broken in her sink, became unimportant. She flung herself on her bed and drew a line with a pencil on a piece of paper. And another line, carefully, and another. A world was born around her, like a bright forest with a million shimmering leaves. (pg. 73)

At first, Therese is rather nervous around Carol, afraid of making a fool of herself in front of someone so seemingly self-assured. After a while she begins to open up a little, and we learn more of her backstory: how her kind and sympathetic father died when she was six; how her mother left her at a boarding school and rarely visited. The more she sees of Carol, the more Therese realises she is in love with this woman – the contrast with her feelings for Richard couldn’t be clearer.

And she thought suddenly of the times she had gone to bed with him, of her distance then compared to the closeness that was supposed to be, that everyone talked about. It hadn’t mattered to Richard then, she supposed, because of the physical fact they were in bed together. And it crossed her mind now, seeing Richard’s complete absorption in his reading, […] it occurred to her Richard’s attitude was that his place in her life was unassailable, her tie with him permanent and beyond question, because he was the first man she had ever slept with. Therese threw the match cover at the shelf, and a bottle of something fell over. (pgs. 110-111)

While she plainly enjoys Therese’s company, there are times when Carol seems somewhat distracted. She is going through a divorce from her husband, Harge, and the question of custody of their daughter, Rindy, is yet to be resolved. (Rindy is to live with Harge for the next three months, but the plan for long-term care remains open.) To take her mind off the divorce proceedings, Carol asks Therese to accompany her on a road trip across the US. Much to Richard’s dismay, Therese accepts. As far as Richard is concerned, Carol is simply playing with Therese – once she tires of the young girl she will kick her out. But Richard’s reaction only serves to show just how little he understands about Therese and emotions in general.

Kick me out, she thought. What was in or out? How did one kick out an emotion? She was angry, but she did not want to argue. She said nothing. (pg. 162)

Carol and Therese get to know each other better as they drive westward across the States visiting places such as Chicago, Waterloo and Colorado Springs. The scene in which they finally sleep together is very touching and beautifully rendered – for Therese it couldn’t feel more perfect. But while Carol is deeply attracted to Therese, she remains somewhat distant and prone to moments of melancholy.

Carol was happy only at moments here and there, moments that Therese caught and kept. One had been in the evening they put away the Christmas decorations, and Carol had refolded the string of angels and put them between the pages of a book. ‘I’m going to keep these,’ she had said. ‘With twenty-two angels to defend me, I can’t lose.’ Therese looked at Carol now, and though Carol was watching her, it was through that veil of preoccupation that Therese so often saw, that kept them a world apart. (pgs. 168-169)

In the midst of the road trip, it becomes clear that Harge has hired a private detective to follow Carol and Therese. Harge is aware of his wife’s fondness for women and intends to gather incriminating evidence to use against her in the forthcoming custody battle for their daughter, Rindy. That’s about as much as I’m going to reveal about the plot of this excellent novel, save to say this development prompts Carol to take action.

I really loved this book. It is beautiful, insightful and involving, one for my end-of-year highlights for sure. The central characters are so well drawn, and the longing Therese feels for Carol is portrayed with great subtlety. Highsmith’s prose is rather beautiful, too. Take this early scene, for example, where Therese looks at Carol:

The lamp on the table made her eyes silvery, full of liquid light. Even the pearl at her earlobe looked alive, like a drop of water that a touch might destroy. (pg. 46)

Or this passage from their road trip:

But there were other days when they drove out into the mountains alone, taking any road they saw. Once they came upon a little town they liked and spent the night there, without pyjamas or toothbrushes, without a past or future, and the night became another of those islands in time, suspended somewhere in the heart or in the memory, intact and absolute. (pg. 227)   

Even though Carol is quite different to the other Highsmith novels I’ve read, it contains moments of real tension, both sexual tension and flashes of fear and anxiety. Familiar themes such as obsession, desire and morally complex scenarios are here, albeit in a different context.

Highsmith wrote the outline of this novel in 1948, a time when societal and cultural attitudes towards homosexuality were quite different to those existing today. Carol shines a light on the emotional impact of the pressure to conform to society’s expectations, raising questions about situations that were considered inappropriate or unacceptable at the time. The novel also broke the mould in that it was one of the first serious works of fiction featuring lesbians which did not end in suicide, despair or redemption in the form of a change of heart. Instead, the ending of Highsmith’s novel is rather more hopeful.

In her excellent afterword, the author explains how the story was inspired by her own experience of working on the doll counter of a Manhattan store during the Christmas rush. Therese, a young woman who decides to follow her desires and aspirations in life, is loosely based on Highsmith herself. You can read about it in this article from The Guardian, which also tells how the book was first published under the pseudonym of Claire Morgan. (Please note, this piece does reveal a little more of the plot.)

Carol has also been reviewed by Bettina (of Books, Bikes, Food).

Carol is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy.

Nothing Holds Back the Night by Delphine de Vigan (tr. George Miller)

I’m not sure what I was expecting from Delphine de Vigan’s Nothing Holds Back the Night. The back cover describes it as an autobiographical novel, but like some other stories of this nature, De Vigan’s book reads as if it is non-fiction. Either way, I found it utterly compelling, an immersive reading experience.

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In the opening chapter the author describes how she found her mother’s body at home one January morning, her skin blue, ‘a pale blue mixed with the colour of ashes’. The author’s mother, a woman she names Lucile Poirier, took her own life at the age of sixty-one. Over the following months, the author wrestles with the notion of writing about her mother. At first she strongly resists the idea, keeping it at a distance for as long as possible. The image of Lucile represents too boundless a field, too clouded, too risky. In the end, though, she decides to write about her mother as a way of preserving her character, of getting closer to her:

And then I learned to think of Lucile without it taking my breath away: the way she walked, her upper body leaning forward, her bag resting on her hip with the strap across her body; the way she held her cigarette, crushed between her fingers; of how she pushed her way into a metro carriage with her head down; the way her hands shook; the care with which she chose her words, her short laugh, which seemed to take her by surprise; the way her voice changed under the influence of an emotion, though her face sometimes showed no sign of it. (pg. 7)

In order to do this, the author talks to those who were closest to Lucile at various points in her life – Lucile’s friends, her brothers and sisters, other members of the family – collecting memories and stories along the way.

Born into a lively, somewhat unconventional bohemian middle-class family, Lucile is the third of nine children. Her father, Georges, founder of an advertising agency, is generous, confident and sociable; her mother, Liane, is energetic, full of vitality and unquestionably devoted to Georges. Lucile is very beautiful. By the age of seven she is a successful fashion model, albeit one who is starting to feel ill at ease with life.

…but at the age of seven, Lucile had built the walls of a hidden territory which belonged to her alone, a territory where the noise and the gaze of others did not exist. (pg. 15)

From an early age, Lucile appears somewhat distanced from her brothers and sisters, a quiet, mysterious child who grows up all too quickly. Shortly before Lucile’s eighth birthday, her younger brother, Antonin (aged six) drowns in an accident. There is a sense that from this point onwards, the concept of death would be part of Lucile’s character, ‘a fault line’ or ‘indelible imprint’ marked in her DNA.

As de Vigan compiles her story, various revelations about the Poirier family come to light, especially in relation to Georges, Lucile’s father and the author’s grandfather. There are hints of a murky side to Georges’ character at the very beginning of this book. From a young age, Lucile had always intrigued him; he is fascinated by her. As a child, Lucile shares a connection with her father, but over time she becomes increasingly aware of her father’s limitations, his intolerances and contradictions. By the end of the book, a much darker side to Georges has emerged, and I was left wondering how his behaviour may have contributed to Lucile’s collapse.

When she is eighteen, Lucile falls in love with a friend of the family, the confident and athletic Gabriel. Lucile falls pregnant and marries Gabriel a few months before the birth of their first daughter, the author. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Lucile’s future appears bright and radiant. And yet there is an inherent sadness in the film footage of Lucile and Gabriel’s wedding. While they appear to be in love, something in Lucile’s eyes seems weakened; a sense of absence sets her apart from the scene.

Throughout the story, the author reflects on the difficulty of writing this book, of trying to find a truth within the myriad of disparate fragments and impressions of Lucile’s life. She talks of the limitations of writing, how at best it can enable her to pose questions and examine memories. There is a desire to get behind the myths surrounding the Poirier family in an effort to get to the source of Lucile’s pain. And in doing so, she knows how painful this will be for those closest to her mother.

But I know too that I am using my writing as a way of looking for the origin of her suffering, as though there were a precise moment when the core of her self was breached in a definitive, irreparable way, and I cannot ignore the extent to which this quest – as if its difficulty were not enough – is in vain. It is through this prism that I interviewed her brothers and sisters, whose pain in some cases was at least as visible as my mother’s, that I questioned them with the same determination, eager for details, alert to the possibility of an objective cause that eluded me as I thought I was getting close to it. That was how I interviewed them, without ever asking the question which they nonetheless answered: was the pain already there? (pgs. 61-62)

Perhaps the author goes some way towards identifying one of the factors when she reflects on her mother’s marriage to Gabriel, the years of immense loneliness that play their part in the breakdown of Lucile’s life. She likens the meeting of Lucile and Gabriel to the coming together of ‘two great sufferings’. Contrary to the law of maths whereby the multiplication of two negatives leads to a positive, this union gives rise to ‘aggression and confusion’.

The marriage lasts for seven years, and Lucile is twenty-six when she leaves Gabriel. In time, Lucile and her two daughters move in with Tibère, a freelance photographer and naturist. She gets a secretarial job with a small advertising agency in Paris. For the author, this is the start of the golden age, a four-year period when all is relatively calm. It is the ‘before’: before the fear, the worry and everything that comes later.

In the summer we went to the naturist camp at Montalivet, where Lucile and Tibère rented a bungalow among the pines. We met friends there, a shifting community of people who drifted in and out; some people would move on, others stayed and pitched their tents in the forest […]

The photos of those years, taken mainly by Tibère, are the ones I like the best. They sum up a whole period. I like their colours, their poetry, the utopia they capture. (pg. 151)

After a couple of years, Lucile and Tibère split up, other men come and go. And then, on more than one occasion, Lucile is reminded that death can strike at any moment – I won’t reveal the details for fear of spoilers. At this point, the author (now aged eleven or twelve years) becomes afraid that her mother might take her own life. Lucile seems lonely, tired and detached; she shuts herself up in her room at night smoking grass on her own.

The remainder of the books charts Lucile’s breakdown: the periods of delirium when her imagination runs wild; the periods of numbness as she withdraws from the world; her confinements and hospitalisations. All this might sound very bleak, but De Vigan’s portrait of Lucile is at once painful, compassionate and tender. It is written in a style that immediately draws the reader into the world of this family, so much so that you feel you are observing these scenes unfold before your own eyes. The prose has a glassy, luminous quality, especially in the first two-thirds of the book before Lucile’s breakdown.

There are periods of lightness too. In the years prior to her death, Lucile experiences a kind of renaissance. She goes back to college, and in time becomes a highly effective social worker. In effect, by helping to ease the suffering of others, Lucile finds a sense of meaning her life, perhaps a sense of accomplishment as well.

All in all, Nothing Holds Back the Night is a remarkable book – a genuinely affecting story and an impressive achievement.

I read this book for Biblibio’s Women in Translation event running throughout August. Emma, Guy and MarinaSofia have also reviewed this one.

Nothing Holds Back the Night is published by Bloomsbury. Source: personal copy. Book 7/20, #TBR20 round 2.