Tag Archives: Bloomsbury

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trespasses is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

Women Writers in Translation – some of my recent favourites from the shelves

As many of you will know, August sees the return of WIT Month, a month-long celebration of books by Women in Translation. It’s an annual event hosted by Meytal at Biblibio, aiming to raise the profile of translated literature by women writers worldwide.

This year, I’ve been trying to put a little more focus on this area by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman in translation each month, rather than just thinking about them for August. So, if you’re looking for some ideas on what to read for WIT Month, here’s a round-up of my recent faves.

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

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

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story unfolds, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

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

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

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully-constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that sometimes accompanies it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This quirky, sharply-observed novella is both darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which might sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also a book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations. Alongside its central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the novella also touches on various related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A very thought-provoking read.

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

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

Family and Borghesia by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Beryl Stockman)

Two separate but related late ‘70s novellas by the Italian neorealist writer Natalia Ginzburg, reissued together in a lovely edition from NYRB Classics. Both stories deal with the messy business of family relationships – how couples come together and subsequently break apart, often creating shock waves across their wider family networks. Viewed together, they illustrate how painful day-to-day life can be and how difficult it is to defend ourselves against unhappiness and detachment. Several characters seem lost or purposeless, drifting through life, trying to navigate the things that cause pain – infidelity, abandonment, illness, suicide, premature death, loneliness and depression. And yet, Ginzburg maintains a lightness of touch in these books, highlighting the inherent emotions without a hint of sentimentality, exploring the various relationships with insight and depth.

Happening by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

First published in French in 2000 and translated into English in 2001, Happening takes us back to October 1963 when Ernaux was studying literature at Rouen University while also dealing with an unwanted pregnancy at the age of twenty-three. In essence, the book is an account of Ernaux’s experiences of a backstreet abortion – her quest to secure it, what takes place during the procedure and the days that follow, all expressed in the author’s trademark candid style. What makes this account so powerful is the rigorous nature of Ernaux’s approach. There are no moral judgements or pontifications here, just the unflinchingly honest details of a topic that remains controversial even in today’s relatively liberated society. By recounting this traumatic experience, one deeply connected to life and death, perhaps Ernaux is looking to translate the personal into something of broader social relevance. A powerful, vital, uncompromising book that deserves to be widely read.

The Umbrella by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Originally published in Danish as Paraplyen (‘The Umbrella’) in 1952, this is the first of two collections of short stories brought together in this beautiful Penguin edition, The Trouble with Happiness and Other Stories. (I’m planning to post my review of the second collection during WIT Month itself.) These ten stories – many of which are superb – explore the suffocating nature of family life predominantly from the female perspective, the overwhelming sense of loneliness and anxiety that many women (and children) feel due to various constraints. Here we have stories of petty jealousies, unfulfilled desires, deliberate cruelty and the sudden realisation of deceit, brilliantly conveyed by the author with insight and sensitivity. In short, it’s one of the very best collections I’ve read in recent years. Very highly recommended indeed.

Heaven by Mieko Kawakami (tr. Sam Bett and Davis Boyd)

This excellent novel tackles a very difficult subject – that of adolescent bullying – but does so in such a thoughtful and thought-provoking way that the reader cannot help but be drawn in. Set in Japan in 1991, Heaven is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy who is known to us only by his nickname ‘Eyes’. The boy is systematically bullied – both mentally and physically – by a group of boys in his class, an action he puts down to his lazy eye. On one level, Heaven offers an acute insight into the narrator’s emotions as he tries to process his responses to the bullying. But on another, the book can also be viewed as an exploration of some of the broader philosophical issues at play. The psychology of bullying, for instance – what prompts people to act the way they do, how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions, and what (if anything) do victims gain from enduring it? A beautifully-written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject – shortlisted for the International Booker earlier this year.

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 any next month. Perhaps you have a favourite book by a woman in translation? If so, please feel free to mention it below.

You can also find some of my other favourites in my WIT Month recommendations posts from July 2020 and 2021, including books by Olga Tokarczuk, Françoise Sagan, Yūko Tsushima, Ana Maria Matute and many more. Hopefully, there’s something for everyone here!

In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. Ann Goldstein)

Described by Lahiri as a kind of linguistic memoir, In Other Words is a beautiful, meditative series of reflections on the author’s quest to immerse herself in the Italian language – a passion she has nurtured since her days as a college student. It’s a fascinating volume, presented in a dual-language format showing Lahiri’s original Italian text on the left-handed pages with Ann Goldstein’s English translation on the right. Thematically, the book has much in common with Lahiri’s fiction, tapping into subjects such as identity, alienation, belonging – and, perhaps most importantly, how it feels to be in exile, an outsider as such.

This love affair begins in December 1994 when Lahiri takes a short trip to Florence in the company of her sister. While there, she feels an immediate connection with the Italian language, which seems foreign yet also strangely familiar – a paradox of sorts, a simultaneous closeness and remoteness.

I feel a connection and at the same time a detachment, a closeness and at the same time a distance. What I feel is something physical, inexplicable. It stirs an indiscreet, absurd longing. An exquisite tension. Love at first sight. (p. 15)

Following her return to America, Lahiri begins to study Italian – partly for her doctoral thesis about the influence of Italian architecture on English playwrights and partly to feed a personal passion for the language, a desire ignited by the trip.

In time – and as her writing career takes off – Lahiri continues her relationship with Italian, working her way through a series of private tutors, learning enough to converse, albeit somewhat hesitantly. Nevertheless, she feels limited by her lack of knowledge and familiarity with the language – a feeling that prompts a move to Rome on a semi-permanent basis, uprooting the family to accompany her in this quest. Only by living in Italy and continually conversing in Italian can Lahiri fully immerse herself in the language – and hopefully fulfil her aims.

Naturally, there are practical obstacles to be overcome when the family arrive in Rome, especially given their lack of friends or acquaintances in the city. But this is not Lahiri’s main focus here; instead, the book is an intimate series of reflections on Lahiri’s relationship with a new language – the painstaking process of learning and immersion, with all the attendant emotions this transformation involves.

In the six months leading up to the move to Italy, Lahiri reads solely in Italian, mainly as a way of preparing herself for this new world. Then, on her arrival in the city, she begins a new diary in Italian – a spontaneous impulse, despite her uncertainties with the language and a tendency to make mistakes.

In Rome, however, writing in Italian is the only way to feel myself present here—maybe to have a connection, especially as a writer, with Italy. The new diary, although imperfect, although riddled with mistakes, mirrors my disorientation clearly. It reflects a radical transition, a state of complete bewilderment (p. 57)

In effect, this whole expedience prompts a kind of renewal for Lahiri as she rediscovers her reasons for writing – more specifically, what drives her interest in language and how she uses it to understand the world.

Despite the limitations imposed by a reduced vocabulary and her concerns about grammar, Lahiri finds the process of writing in Italian very liberating. There is a sense of freedom about it, a kind of permission to be forgiving and accepting of imperfections. It’s a tension that underpins many of Lahiri’s meditations in this book, a paradoxical link between liberation and restriction (or, in other instances, between closeness and remoteness).

How is it possible that when I write in Italian I feel both freer and confined, constricted? Maybe because in Italian I have the freedom to be imperfect. (p. 83)

Identity and belonging are prominent themes here too, mirroring the preoccupations of much of Lahiri’s fiction. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, Lahiri was born in London and raised in America, following the family’s move to the US when Jhumpa was aged three. Consequently, English is her second language, the one she learned in school and by reading voraciously as a child. At home, however, the family spoke only Bengali – Lahiri’s first language and her only way of communicating until nursery school at the age of four. In some respects, Lahiri has always felt a sense of divided identity. As a girl growing up in America, she wanted to assimilate and be considered American, a citizen of her adopted country, while also wishing to please her parents by speaking perfect Bengali at home. Perhaps because of this duality, she strongly identifies with life on the margins – individuals who find themselves on the edges of countries and their cultures.

I write on the margins, just as I’ve always lived on the margins of countries, of cultures. A peripheral zone where it’s impossible for me to feel rooted, but where I’m comfortable. The only zone where I think that, in some way, I belong. (p. 93)

The sense of affinity Lahiri experiences with the Italian language prompts her to question the nature of her identity, stirring feelings of dislocation and a degree of estrangement. The more she immerses herself in the Italian language, the less comfortable she feels about returning to English, prompting her to write professionally in the former. (Her latest novella, Whereabouts – which I loved – was also written in Italian and subsequently translated into English, in this instance by the author herself.)

Why don’t I feel more at home in English? How is it that the language I learned to read and write in doesn’t comfort me? What happened, and what does it mean? The estrangement, the disenchantment confuses, disturbs me. I feel more than ever that I am a writer without a definitive language, without origin, without definition. (pp. 129-131)

In Other Words is a very intimate and personal book – a meditation on finding a sense of freedom through the creative process, however uncomfortable that might feel. Lahiri writes openly about the experiences of learning a new language, complete with all the challenges and frustrations this creates. Nevertheless, these difficulties are balanced by the author’s passion and determination; the liberation she experiences is beautifully conveyed. One gets the sense that writing in Italian has given Lahiri a new sense of direction with her work, prompting a creative rejuvenation that is fascinating to observe.

Highly recommended reading, especially for anyone interested in writing, translating and learning a new language – or Lahiri’s fiction, particularly given the resonances with the book’s themes.  

In Other Words is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy. 

My books of the year 2021 – part one, recently published books

2021 has been another tumultuous year for many of us – maybe not as horrendous as 2020, but still very challenging. In terms of books, various changes in my working patterns enabled me to read some excellent titles this year, the best of which feature in my highlights. My total for the year is somewhere in the region of 100 books, which I’m very comfortable with. This isn’t a numbers game for me – I’m much more interested in quality than quantity when it comes to reading!

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ books in this first piece, with older titles to follow next week. As many of you will know, quite a lot of my reading comes from the 20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more recently published books – typically a mixture of contemporary fiction and some new memoirs/biographies. So, the division of my ‘books of the year’ posts will reflect something of this split. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new, but the contemporary books I chose to read this year were very good indeed. I’m also being quite liberal with my definition of ‘recently published’ as a few of my favourites came out in 2017-18.)

Anyway, enough of the preamble! Here are my favourite recently published 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 other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches me off-guard – surprising me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life. Central to the novel is the relationship between two men: Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The novel is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age. There are some significant moral and ethical considerations being explored here with a wonderful lightness of touch. An emotionally involving novel that manages to feel both exhilarating and heartbreaking.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

A very striking novel that is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community, and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth! This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. Arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic, Plow subverts the traditional expectations of the noir genre to create something genuinely thought-provoking and engaging. The eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation of the novel’s setting – a remote Polish village in winter – are beautifully evoked.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House, and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate, clandestine one (Humphry was married to Madeline, Parry’s grandmother at the time), waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s. What follows is a quest on Parry’s part to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Parry’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing. (It was a very close call between this and Paula Byrne’s Pym biography, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, but the Parry won through in the end.)

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy – a series which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years, prompting her to embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances that were never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

A subtle novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character, The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. The inner life of each individual is richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to the next throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. A nearby abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative. My first by Hadley, but hopefully not my last.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

A luminous collection of eleven stories about motherhood – mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, with a few focusing on pregnancy and mothers to be. Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

Blitz Spirit by Becky Brown

In this illuminating book, Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation project during the Second World War. (Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life.) The diary extracts presented here do much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. In reality, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Stoicism, resilience and acts of kindness are all on display here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

A brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. Riley’s sixth novel is a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away. The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. This is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits – a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.  

And finally, a few honourable mentions for the books that almost made the list:

  • Second Sight – an eloquent collection of film writing by the writer and critic, Adam Mars-Jones;
  • Nomadland – Jessica Bruder’s eye-opening account of nomad life in America;
  • Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson’s poetic, multifaceted novella;
  • and The Years – Annie Ernaux’s impressive collective biography (tr. Alison L. Strayer), a book I admired hugely but didn’t love as much as others.

So that’s it for my favourite recently published titles from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts below – and join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite ‘older’ books with plenty of treats still to come!

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes.

The titles of these individual chapters mostly refer to various physical spaces – ‘On the Street’, ‘In the Piazza’, ‘At the Ticket Counter’, ‘By the Sea’ etc. Nevertheless, the novella is as much a reflection of the narrator’s emotional mindset as it is of her physical location. The Italian title Dove Mi Trove (‘where you find me’ or ‘where I find myself’), can be interpreted in two different but closely connected ways, encompassing the narrator’s situation physically and emotionally. While three chapters carry the title ‘In My Head’, explicitly referencing the narrator’s inner thoughts, this emotional dimension is detectible throughout the book, like a thread or undercurrent running through the text.

As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, avenues left unexplored or chances that were never taken.

Now and then on the streets of my neighbourhood I bump into a man I might have been involved with, maybe shared a life with. He always looks happy to see me. He lives with a friend of mine, and they have two children. Our relationship never goes beyond a longish chat on the sidewalk, a quick coffee together, perhaps a brief stroll in the same direction. He talks excitedly about his projects, he gesticulates, and at times as we’re walking our synchronized bodies, already quite close, discreetly overlap. (p. 5)

We learn about this woman’s childhood, the tensions that existed between her parents, the devastation she felt when her father died relatively suddenly some thirty years earlier – a loss that has left its mark on her life. While the narrator seems relatively comfortable with her solitary existence, knowing that she has chosen freedom and independence over a different type of path, there is a sense that she has disappointed her mother in some way – failing perhaps to live up to the traditional expectations of marriage and motherhood, the more expansive kind of life these experiences would have granted. Consequently, there is an unspoken sense of guilt or resignation in the narrator’s interactions with her mother – a somewhat oppressive elderly women who also lives alone.  

When I was young, even when my father was alive, she kept me close to her side, she never wanted us to be apart, not even briefly. She safeguarded me, she protected me from solitude as if it were a nightmare, or a wasp. We were an unhealthy amalgam until I left to lead a life of my own. Was I the shield between her and her terror, was I the one who kept her from sinking into the abyss? Was it the fear of her fear that’s led me to a life like this? (pp. 29–30).

I love the way Lahiri uses this collection of fragments – there are around forty-five in total – to build up a picture of her narrator’s life, her emotional frame of mind and quotidian existence. As a result, we get the sense of a woman who is aware of her solitude – her aloneness – without feeling weighed down or oppressed by it. Someone who feels resigned to living a solitary life despite the odd regret or tinge of anxiety.

Occasionally, there are social situations she finds stressful – overwhelming, even – inducing a kind of claustrophobia alongside the feeling of exclusion. It’s a state that Lahiri eloquently captures in ‘By the Sea’, which features a celebratory dinner for the baptism of a colleague’s child – a situation that prompts the narrator to seek solace on the adjacent beach, complete with the sea in all its restless magnificence. At other times, however, she takes comfort from her sense of separateness when surrounded by others, sometimes forging unspoken connections with like-minded souls.

In ‘At My Home’, we see how protective she can be about her privacy and how violated she feels if someone invades it. When an old school friend and her new husband come to visit, the narrator finds the latter arrogant – a pompous, self-centred man who looks through the narrator’s bookshelves, eats all the best pastries and bemoans the untidy state of the city. Later, after the family’s departure, the narrator discovers that the couple’s toddler has drawn ‘a thin errant line’ in ballpoint pen on her white leather couch. It’s as if the visitors have left an indelible mark on the narrator’s privacy, a violation that proves impossible to erase or cover up. 

At heart, the protagonist is a people watcher, a consummate observer of others, often wondering about their lives, their current preoccupations and concerns, maybe even their desires. In one fragment, which appears towards the end of the novel, she sees a woman who seems to be very similar to herself – their clothes and body movements are virtually identical, mirroring one another in a ghostly sort of way. Who is this other woman? she wonders. An alter ego, perhaps? A more purposeful or determined version of herself? A figure with ‘a sprightly step’ who ‘clearly knows where she is going’.

Has she always lived here, like me? Or is she just visiting? If so, why? Is she meeting someone? Is it something for work? Is she going to visit her grandmother, a woman in a wheelchair who can no longer come downstairs and sit in the piazza? Is she a woman with millions of things to do? Is she anxious or carefree? Married or alone? Is she going to ring the buzzer of a friend of hers? A lover? (p. 151)

It’s a passage that feels indicative of the slightly elusive nature of this central figure, conveying the air of mystery or privacy that surrounds her existence.

There is a luminosity to these vignettes, a beautiful dreamlike quality that runs through the text. Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world. This is a quietly reflective novella, the sort of book that benefits from close attention and the focus of a single-sitting reading. I’d love to see it on the longlist for the International Booker Prize, which will be announced next March.

Whereabouts is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

Circles & Squares: The Lives and Art of the Hampstead Modernists by Caroline Maclean

There seems to have been a mini trend towards the publication of group biographies over the past couple of years. Perhaps most notably Square Haunting, Francesca Wade’s luminous account of five fascinating women who found themselves living in Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square during the first half of the 20th century. Wade’s biography is focused on two central aspects: a specific geographical area (the aforementioned Square) and a common theme (a quest for independent living and ‘a room one’s own’).

Like its Bloomsbury counterpart, Caroline Maclean’s group biography, Circles & Squares also zooms in on a particular area of London (in this instance, Hampstead) and a unifying theme (here it’s modernism). While Circles isn’t quite as eloquent as the Wade, it remains a fascinating read – not least for the array of modernist artists, architects and writers we encounter on the page.

The book is structured such that each chapter focuses on two or three individuals (typically featuring a romantically involved couple) working in a similar artistic space. So, in the opening chapters we have the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben and Winfred Nicholson, with other associated luminaries such as Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Walter Gropius following in subsequent sections.

Maclean opens in September 1931 with the coming together of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth during a fortnight’s holiday in Happisburgh, a small village on the Norfolk coast. It’s an engaging opening, capturing the carefree mood generated by the freedom to work, interspersed with swimming, dancing and playing games on the beach. Ben (married with three young children at this point) and Barbara (also married) fall in love, sparking a relationship that continues for the next eighteen years.  

One of the things Maclean does particularly well in Circles is to capture the fluidity of these artists’ lives, the sense of like-minded souls gravitating towards one another, irrespective of the collateral damage to marriages and other relationships. For Winifred, the breakdown of her marriage with Ben gives rise to conflicted feelings, painful at first, although these wax and wane somewhat over time. By contrast, Ben holds onto his own ‘subjective truth’ throughout, viewing himself as the centre of things and morally correct.

Winifred’s unhappiness is painfully apparent, and it is not surprising that she felt conflicted at times. Ben, on the other hand, believed that by staying true to his feelings, everyone else would be happy, eventually. A close friend described how they ‘thought they were freeing themselves’ from bourgeois constraints, and ‘they thought there was no such thing as jealousy’ but ‘it didn’t seem to work out that way’. (p. 24)

For a while, Ben shuttles between Barbara in Belsize Park and Winifred (in various locations), with both women showing considerable patience and grace during a very trying period. Eventually however, Ben and Barbara move in together, mostly settling in Belsize Park, although Paris also features heavily here. Triplets come along in 1934, cementing their relationship further, and the couple finally marry in 1938, less than a year before the start of WW2.

Meanwhile, in the early ‘30s, another modernist movement is beginning to take shape in Belsize Park, focusing on architecture as the enabler of a new way of living.

Designed by the architect Wells Coates, a modernist white block of flats that looked a bit like an ocean liner was built over the winter of 1933 and the spring of 1934. The Lawn Road flats, known as the Isokon, were built to free people from the clutter of daily life, to release them from household chores. They did not need to cook or clean so that they could focus on more important things like art, politics or love. (p. 51)

The Isokon building (which some of you may be familiar with) is born out of a vision developed by the charismatic architect Wells Coates and the forward-thinking engineer Jack Pritchard. It’s another fascinating development – not only for its contribution to the British modernist movement but also for its ambition to facilitate an alternative lifestyle. The Pritchards, perhaps more than any other couple in the book, display a nonconformist approach to living. Their marriage is an open one (with Coates actively involved in an affair with Jack’s wife, Molly); and their attitudes to child-rearing are equally, if not more, progressive.

Maclean is mindful of conveying the various tensions involved in the development of the Isokon, ranging from the multitude of financial issues to the more ideological or emotional ones. As the author rightly points out, there is a degree of irony here, nicely captured in the following quote.

There was an irony in the fact that Molly, Jack and Wells wanted to free people from the chaos of their lives when their own lives were far from simple. (p.76)

Subsequent chapters focus on other key players in the modernist movement, all of whom coalesce around Hampstead at some point in the 1930s, leading to some sharing of inspiration and ideas. For example, the sculptor Henry Moore and his wife, Irina – both of whom were present during the pivotal Happisburgh holiday in September 1931 – spend the 1930s living in Parkhill Road, Belsize Park, just around the corner from the Nicholsons. Other British artists and writers who feature prominently include Paul Nash, John Piper, W.H. Auden and Myfanwy Evans/Piper (editor of the abstract art magazine Axis). The rise and fall of various artistic movements are covered too – most notably Unit One, a group of sculptors, artists and architects looking to ‘bring together a diverse range of abstract modernism and surrealism’.

The tensions between the different facets of modernism that develop during the 1930s, particularly those pitting abstraction and surrealism, are also captured in the book. While Moore is something of a moderator, adopting an open-minded outlook on both schools of art, Ben Nicholson is highly singular in his approach, viewing abstraction as the only form of modernism worth supporting. (In reality, Nicholson wishes to ‘squash surrealism’; Moore, on the other hand, regards it as restoring a much-needed element of romanticism to art.)

It’s also interesting to note how many European émigrés in the modernist movement spend time in Hampstead during the decade in question. Architects such as Walter Gropius, founder of the Bauhaus school of design, and Marcel Breuer, another Bauhaus leading light, also feature prominently – as do the artists Piet Mondrian and László Moholy-Nagy. 

In summary, then, Circles & Squares offers a fascinating insight into the bohemian world of modernism flourishing in Hampstead during this influential decade. By using Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth as focal points for her treatise, Maclean explores the lives of the various luminaries who find themselves in the couple’s orbit. As these artists, architects and designers continue to push the boundaries of modernism in their work, new ways of living begin to emerge, defining a movement that goes beyond the conventional boundaries of art and creativity. With the outbreak of WW2 fast approaching, the momentum behind the group begins to dissipate in the final years of the decade, leaving us to reflect on what might have been had the war not taken place…

Karen has also reviewed this book, and I’m in agreement with her on its relative strengths and limitations – in particular, the downsides of trying to focus on a wide range of individuals. In addition, a little more coverage of the actual art or architecture itself wouldn’t have gone amiss. For example, at one point, we get a tantalising glimpse of Barbara piercing a hole in an abstract sculpture of pink alabaster to make her legendary Pierced Form. It’s a ground-breaking move that transforms certain aspects of 20th-century sculpture, opening up the form ‘to involve interior space’ – and yet, artistic details such as this are relatively few and far between.

Nevertheless, Circles offers some fascinating insights into this dazzling period of cultural history – definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of the modernist movement. 

Circles & Squares is published by Bloomsbury; my thanks to Karen for passing on her review copy.

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

All Among the Barley – the third novel from the writer, critic and columnist, Melissa Harrison – is a beautiful evocation of rural life, rich in the English countryside’s rhythms and traditions during the interwar years. It is also an absorbing coming-of-age story in which the novel’s central protagonist is intrigued by the arrival of a visitor to the community, the spirited Constance (Connie) FitzAllen.

The novel is narrated by Edie Mather, a fourteen-year-old girl who lives at Wych Farm with her parents, George and Ada Mather. Also living at the estate to help with the farm work are Edie’s brother, Frank, their paternal grandfather and two farmhands, John and Doble.

A preoccupied, bookish girl at heart, Edie is something of a loner, one who prefer books to the company of other children. She is also interested in superstitions – witch marks, curses, forms of protection and the like – drawing on an active imagination fuelled by folklore.

Into Edie’s life comes Constance FitzAllen, a forthright, engaging young woman from the city who has come to document the countryside’s age-old traditions to aid with their preservation. At first, Ada Mather is suspicious of this stranger; however, she is soon won over by Constance’s willingness to listen and to modify her behaviour.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Constance’s presence awakens something in Edie – a feeling that she is being seen in a new light. Here is someone who appears to be interested in the impressionable young Edie as a person, viewing her as an individual with her own thoughts and opinions, not just another member of the Mather family.

I smiled back, and realised that I was going to see her. I felt as though she perceived me more clearly than my family did, for they all took me for granted, whereas she seemed curious about who I was and what I thought. Although I did not know her well yet, I felt more real, more interesting even, when I saw myself through Constance’s eyes. (p. 75)

Running through the book is the need for farmers to balance the preservation of traditional methods with the drive for progression and change. As Constance begins to spend more time with the Mathers, her views on certain political and financial principles begin to emerge. While George Mather shares some of Constance’s beliefs on the benefits of protection, John, the experienced farmhand, takes a more open view, sowing the seeds for future tensions to emerge.

‘You can’t trust politicians, George. They lie and lie,’ Connie said. She had stayed on to eat with us, although I wasn’t quite sure if she’d been invited or had simply not left. ‘They’ll tell you the sky is green if they think it’ll win them a vote. We should have proper import controls to protect our native English formers – it’s the only way…’ (p. 113)

‘But this country must be able to feed itself without relying on imports,’ Connie said, ‘and that means ensuring decent honest Englishman like you, George, can continue to farm. (p. 114)

As the narrative progresses, we begin to realise – even if Edie remains blind to it – that Constance’s interest in the traditions of English life extends to holding prejudices against outsiders. In short, Miss FitzAllen harbours anti-Semitic views, beliefs that play a key role in the novel’s dramatic denouement.

Where the novel really excels is in its evocation of rural life in the 1930s – the book is set in the fictional Suffolk village of Elmbourne, an environment alive with the beauty of the natural world as the year passes from one season to the next. There is a lyricism in Harrison’s descriptions of the environment which manages to be both detailed and evocative.

In October, Wych Farm’s trees turned quickly and all at once, blazing into oranges and reds and burnished golds; with little wind to strip them the woods and spinneys lay on our land like treasure, the massy hedgerows filigreed with old-man’s-beard and enamelled with rosehips and black sloes. Along the winding course of the River Stroud the alder carrs were studded with earthstars and chanterelles and dense with the rich, autumnal stink of rot; but crossing Long Piece towards the Lottens the sky opened and into austere equinoctial blue, where flocks of peewits wheeled and turned, flashing their broad wings black and white. (pp. 5–6)

The rhythms and rituals of farming are also beautifully portrayed, augmenting the novel’s captivating sense of time and place. Moreover, the novel captures the sense of loss inherent in the community as a consequence of the Great War. Some fifteen years on, the signs remain. From the empty pews at the church to the tools left idle in barns to the poorly stacked ricks due to a lack of skilled men, these silent absences are deeply felt.

All Among the Barley is an evocative hymn to a lost way of life, a slow-burning narrative that will draw patient readers in – particularly those with an interest in nature. It’s an excellent novel that touches on some important aspects of rural life. More specifically, the balance between tradition and progression; the stealthy rise of nationalism in the early ‘30s; the lack of opportunities for women in a male-dominated society; and perhaps most poignantly, societal attitudes towards women who experienced mental health issues at that time.

The novel’s epilogue is very affecting, a section in which seventy-year-old Edie contemplates her current situation – a life marked by events that took place during Constance’s visit. No spoilers, but it casts the remainder of the book in a somewhat different light, illuminating the tragic consequences of the visitor’s beliefs and actions. There are some very interesting points for discussion here – a great choice for book groups and solo readers alike. Plus, if you need any more persuading about the quality of this novel, I can point you in the direction of Max’s reading highlights for 2020 where it features prominently – there’s a link here

All Among the Barley is published by Bloomsbury; personal 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). 

I’m hoping this piece will qualify for Karen and Lizzy’s Reading Independent Publishers Month, which you can read about here.

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 pieces 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 as they progress. Several of them point to a devilish sense of magic in the everyday, the sense of strangeness that lies hidden in the seemingly ordinary. Published by NYRB Classics, this is an unusual, poetic collection of vignettes, many of which blur the margins between reality and the imagined world. Best approached as a volume to dip into, whenever if you’re in the mood for something beguiling and 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.