Tag Archives: MacLehose Press

My Books of the Year – 2014

For me, 2014 was a year filled with great books, so much so that I’ve found it difficult to finalise a shortlist for this post. I read 101 books in 2014 – that’s probably too many although it does include several novellas – and very few turned out to be duds. My first pass at a shortlist came out at 24 books, but I’ve cut it down to thirteen, a baker’s dozen of favourites from my year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to revisit one day.

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I’ve listed my picks in the order I read and reviewed them. I’ve summarised each one, but you can click on the links should you wish to read the full reviews.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (tr. by Ann Goldstein)

2014 was the year of #FerranteFever, and I ended up reading four books by this author: the first three in Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels and a standalone novel, The Days of Abandonment. It came down to a choice between the ferocity of Days and the breadth and scope of the Neapolitans. I’ve plumped for the latter and the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which remains my favourite of the three. Set in Naples in the 1950s, it follows the friendship between two girls, Elena and Lila, and the different paths they take to escape the neighbourhood. A compelling story that captures the changing dynamics of the relationship between these two girls.

The Infatuations by Javier Marías (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa)

This was a reread for the 2014 IFFP-shadowing project chaired by Stu, and it’s the book that prompted me to start my own blog. (Stu published my review as a guest post at Winstonsdad’s.)

A man is stabbed to death in the street, but this novel offers much more than a conventional murder mystery. In Marías’s hands, the story becomes a meditation touching on questions of truth, chance, love and mortality. The writing is wonderful – philosophical, reflective, almost hypnotic in style. The Infatuations is my favourite novel from our IFFP-shadow shortlist, with Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels a close second.

Nada by Carmen Laforet (tr. by Edith Grossman)

Carmen Laforet was twenty-three when Nada, her debut novel, was published. It’s an amazing book, dark and twisted with a distinctive first-person narrative. A portrayal of a family bruised by bitterness and suspicion, struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. A wonderfully evocative novel, a mood-piece that captures the passion and intensity of its time and setting.

Never Any End to Paris by Enrique Vila-Matas (tr. by Anne McLean)

An account of the two years Vila-Matas spent in Paris as a young and aspiring writer trying to emulate his idol, Ernest Hemingway. This is a smart, playful and utterly engaging piece of meta-fiction, full of self-deprecating humour and charm. Marguerite Duras makes an appearance too as Vila-Matas ends up lodging in a filthy garret at the top of her house. Huge fun and a favourite read from Spanish Lit Month.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner

This novel charts a deep friendship between two American couples over forty years. The story explores how these four friends cope with the challenges and setbacks they face during their lives; their struggles are the stuff of our everyday existence, but no less important or significant as a result. It’s an exceptional book – eloquent, graceful, wise and deeply moving. Stegner’s prose is simply wonderful.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton

I loved this novel of life in a seedy English boarding house set in the grim winter of 1943. A spinster in her late thirties is trapped in a ‘death-in-life’ existence and subjected to petty bullying by the ghastly Mr Thwaites. The characters are pin-sharp, and Hamilton has a brilliant for dialogue. A dark tragicomedy of manners, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Cassandra, a graduate student at Berkeley, drives home to her family’s ranch for the wedding of her identical twin sister, Judith, where she seems all set to derail the proceedings. This is a brilliant novel featuring one of my favourite women in literature. If you like complex characters with plenty of light and shade, this is the novel for you. Cassandra is intelligent, precise and at times witty, charming and loving. But she can also be manipulative, reckless, domineering, self-absorbed and cruel.  She’s a bundle of contradictions and behaves abominably at times, and yet she has my sympathies.

Where There’s Love, There’s Hate by Adolfo Bioy Casares and Silvina Ocampo (tr. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Ernst Powell)

This delightful novella is a playful take on the traditional country-house murder mystery where everyone’s a suspect. There is much to enjoy: the wit and charm of the writing; the eccentricities of the rather pedantic narrator; the playful nature of the narrative; the murder mystery at its heart. This is a book that never takes itself too seriously as it gently pokes fun at the mystery genre. A favourite read for Richard’s celebration of Argentinian lit.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton

Set in New York in the later 19th Century, this novel features Lily Bart, who at the age of twenty-nine remains unmarried despite her beauty. Lilly knows she must net a wealthy husband to safeguard her place in society and the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed, but she wants to marry for love and money. Lily is a fascinating character: complex, nuanced and fully realised. A great novel, fully deserving of its status as a classic.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (tr. by Brian Murdoch)

Narrated by an eighteen-year-old German soldier fighting in WWI, this is a searing portrait of the suffering, desolation and futility of war. There is, however, a sense of universality to this story. The narrator could be any one of the terrified young soldiers sent to the front, desperately trying to get from one day to the next, never knowing what the future might bring. A deeply affecting novel, beautifully written; I wish I had read it many years ago.

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. Another standout read from Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month.

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

On one level, H is for Hawk is the story of how Macdonald attempts to deal with grief by training a goshawk following the death of her father. On another, it captures a biography of the novelist T.H White and his misguided attempts to train his own hawk. The writing is excellent: vivid and evocative in its description of landscape and nature, informative and engaging on falconry and White. This is an intelligent, multi-layered and humane book. An emotional but thoroughly rewarding read for me, I had to pick the right time for this one.

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel featuring two mismatched couples, the Ashburnhams and the Dowells, The Good Soldier is a story of intrigues, betrayals and duplicity. It tells of the consequences of reigning in desires and of the damage caused when these desires are unleashed. As the narrator, John Dowell, tries to make sense of events, we’re left questioning his reliability. A fascinating book, superbly written. Each of the main characters is flawed or damaged in some way, and my impressions changed as I continued to read. One to revisit at some stage.

Also noteworthy (these are the books I agonised over): Bullfight by Yasushi Inoue; Speedboat by Renata Adler; The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald; Severina by Rodrigo Rey Rosa and Moon in a Dead Eye by Pascal Garnier.

So there we go, my favourite books from a year of reading and eight months of blogging – better late than never. Wishing you all the best for 2015, may it be filled with many wonderful books.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything by Daniela Krien

Daniela Krien’s debut novel (tr. by Jamie Bulloch) takes us to the East German countryside in the summer of 1990 shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sixteen-year-old Maria – who narrates the novel – has recently moved to join her boyfriend, Johannes, and his family in their home on the Brendel’s farm. Maria’s parents are divorced, and with her father about to marry a nineteen-year-old, her mother’s sadness has prompted Maria’s move:

‘It drains every scrap of energy from my body, and the joy from my heart.’ (pg, 34, MacLehose Press)

Having dropped out of school, Maria spends her days with books and helping in the Brendel’s farm shop, which she hopes will make her feel less of an outsider amongst the family. At first she seems happy living with Johannes, her first lover, in the attic room at the top of the farmhouse. But then a chance encounter with Henner, the owner of the neighbouring farm changes everything for Maria, a girl on the brink of womanhood.

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Johannes’ grandmother describes forty-year-old Henner as ‘a wild one.’ Ever since his wife left several years ago, Henner has neglected the farm allowing everything, himself included, to run to seed. He is a loner, unpredictable and feral. But despite the warnings, Maria finds herself strangely attracted to this man, and the two begin an intense and unstable affair.

Henner’s attraction to Maria manifests itself in a variety of ways. At times, there is something bestial and ferocious about his desire as he forces himself on Maria almost crushing her beneath his weight. On other occasions, however, he is gentle and attentive towards the girl:

I did cry a little last night, and at one point I asked him to stop. He replied quietly, but with an odd tone to his voice, that I should have thought about that earlier; now it was too late.

The dogs are quiet again, and Henner is washing me with a warm sponge. He strokes the hair from my face and wants to make me pure again, Then he makes tea and goes into the village to fetch some rolls. He stays with me all day, feeding and cleaning me. I am not at all well. My head is hot and my mind scrambled, yet I feel happy. Just so long as he doesn’t leave my bedside; that makes me anxious. (pg. 88-89)

Before Maria can get her head around the situation, she’s in deep and when she returns to Johannes, it is Henner she desires:

Now, like a thief, sleep takes hold of me; it descends from the gloomy sky and sinks heavily onto my abused body, ill-treated by love. I can feel Henner’s hands – course, gentle, brutal, expectant – and I long for them… (pg. 54)

For the time being, the affair must remain a secret and Maria embarks on a series of furtive trips to Henner’s farm, covering her tracks by telling the Brendels she’s visiting her mother. Luckily for Maria, Johannes is so wrapped up in his growing obsession for photography that he fails to notice any signs of the affair. In fact, she wonders about the depth of his feelings for her at all:

We’re sitting by the river with our feet in the water. Johannes only ever sees me through the camera lens these days. Every gesture becomes a picture, every look becomes infinity. He delivers me from time and captures a moment, which is then immediately lost for ever – every picture is a small death. (pg. 41)

Johannes, a budding photographer, wants go to art college in the city. Maria doesn’t love Johannes, and whilst it is difficult for her to imagine the future, she feels as if they are each heading in different directions. Maria finds it easier to live in the present, moving from one day to the next, and there is a sense that time stands still when she enters the gates to Henner’s farm:

This is his road, and mine – this much I know – is currently heading in a different direction. It’s too early to say where, I’m lurching from one emotional state to another, living from one day to the next, always in the present, always in the now, and the now is Henner. Johannes and the future are unknowns. (pg. 84)

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is a thoughtful slow-burner which draws the reader into Maria’s story. Krien’s prose is spare and uncluttered, and the style suits Maria’s lifestage and sparse nature of life on the farms. We gain a sense of the mix of emotions inside the girl’s mind. Maria is inexplicably drawn towards Henner and yet she feels guilty for deceiving Johannes and his family, all the more so as they begin to accept her as one of their own. We also learn more about Henner’s backstory, and there’s a suggestion that his violent behaviour may stem from events in his mother’s past.

Krien also weaves the theme of transition into the narrative drawing parallels between different threads in the story. As Maria tries to come to terms with her emotions and decide on a course of action regarding Henner, the world around her is changing too. German reunification is imminent offering the Brendels new opportunities to modernise and expand the farm. But any change can also bring challenges with a real risk that local businesses may fall by the wayside if they struggle to conform to new regulations. The author does a good job in conveying this state of flux and sense of uncertainty amongst the family.

First and foremost though, this is Maria’s story. I liked the measured pace of this novel and the quiet way the story unfolds. The intimate nature of the narrative works well, although this style and some of the details Maria shares might not be to everyone’s tastes (Henner’s behaviour is abusive at times). Maria does come to a decision about her future, but I’ll leave you to discover it for yourself should you decide to read this book. This is a good debut with a very powerful, poignant ending, and I’ll be interested to see what Krien does next.

German Lit Month

I read this book as one of my choices for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November. Caroline, Lindsay (The Little Reader Library) and Stu (Winstonsdad’s) have also reviewed this book.

Someday We’ll Tell Each Other Everything is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

Parfums by Philippe Claudel

Philippe Claudel is a French writer and film-maker. While I’ve yet to read any of Claudel’s novels (which include Brodeck’s Report and Grey Souls), I am familiar with I’ve Loved You So Long, a film he wrote and directed in 2010. It features a standout performance from Kristin Scott Thomas as a woman struggling to adjust to a new phase in her life following an extended period of alienation from her family and society. So when Claudel’s memoir, Parfums: A Catalogue of Remembered Smells dropped through my letterbox, I was keen to give it a whirl.

This beautifully-written memoir consists of sixty-three vignettes each of which captures a scene or two from Claudel’s life, and it reads like a collection of memories, each one evoked by a certain smell. The title of each vignette represents the aroma concerned, and the topics range from floral (Acacia) to animal (Fried Bacon) to mineral (Pink Sandstone). Other smells capture places (Ironmonger) or particular stages in Claudel’s life. Gym, for example, reflects the author’s memories of the school gymnasium where young boys and girls brush up against one another and the odours of teenage hormones and feet mingle with the whiff of rubber mats.

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Many of the vignettes focus on memories from Claudel’s childhood. These are mostly happy times which convey images of Claudel cycling through the countryside of Lorraine in north-east France, fishing in the local river and picnicking in the forests of the Vosges. In Garlic, one of my favourites from the memoir, Claudel’s Grandmère cooks a steak for Philippe. It feels like an early memory, possibly one that captures the young boy’s first taste of steak (as his feet fail to reach the ground when he sits at the kitchen table). It’s a wonderful scene, so vividly realised that the reader can almost smell the cubes of garlic as they ‘diffuse their intangible miracle over the hot, golden meat.’

The naked clove of the garlic resembles the canine tooth of a big cat, and the weapon used for the crime chisels out of it tiny pearly, slighly greasy cubes that scarcely have time to give off their aromas because my grandmother throws them promptly into the dented, black frying pan, over the steak that is already sizzling. Explosion. Smoke from a blacksmith’s forge. Eyes smarting. The kitchen of the small house at 18 rue des Champs Fleury disappears in billows of fumes. My mouth waters. The smell of garlic, of burning butter, of blood and fluids, is converted into a delicious juice from the meat as it merges with the melting fat. Hollow with hunger, I wait. (pgs. 13-14)

Like life itself, Claudel’s memories vary in tone with some vignettes capturing darker memories. In Cellar, he recalls visiting ‘The Aunts from Saint-Blaise,’ a trio of spinsters who live together in a large house complete with a dark, dank cellar. Clearly a frightening place for a young boy:

I step onto earth that you would think had been turned over by a gravedigger’s shovel. The cavern discharges its deep, pit-like breath over me, heavy, clinging, seeped in clay and mud. I shiver. I stop moving. I try to remain in the abyss for as long as possible. My heart, a small caged animal, thumps against its fleshy bars. The cellar attempts to enchant me with its whiff of must and saltpetre, of muffled condensation, a siren from the depths with a night-time kiss that oppresses me and winds itself around me. (pg. 35)

Rather than following a chronological path through Claudel’s life, the chapters move backwards and forwards in time. This movement gives the memoir a fluid, almost spontaneous feel leaving the reader free to guess what might be coming next.

Claudel brings a beautifully poignant tone to this memoir and some vignettes could be read as a lament to loss: the passing of certain traditions; the loss of a way of life as progress alters the shape of a town; the loss of a loved one. In Pullover, Claudel recalls how an old pullover that his Uncle Dédé used to wear when renovating the family home now serves as a reminder of this much-loved man. One day Dédé failed arrive at the house as expected; he had died during the night. All that remains is his work jumper:

My uncle was there, shockingly present in the cold whiff of his cigarette, the lingering traces of some cheap aftershave, the cement dust, the wallpaper paste, rising up through an alchemy subliminally accumulated in the fabric. I can’t throw it in the dustbin or wear it. I put it aside in the cupboard, near the attic, from which I frequently retrieve it so that I can touch it, breath it in and, thereby, rediscover the uncle I had loved dearly since childhood, who watched me grow up like a second father, though freed of all responsibility and all the worries of fatherhood, and who, as a result, was less demanding and more amusing than my father. To grieve is like tossing a fistful of life at the games death plays. We know that death will be blinded for a brief instant, but it does us good. And we carry on. (pg. 134)

As you can probably tell by now, Claudel’s prose is very lyrical and poetic, so much so that these vignettes read like prose poems especially given the evocative and sensual nature of the parfums. Personally, I love the way Claudel writes although I appreciate his prose style might not be to everyone’s taste. If you like the passages I’ve quoted in this review, then there’s a good chance you’ll like Parfums. Less so if you’re not particularly fond of lyrical, poetic prose.

Claudel offers the view that smells define us, they help us understand one another. In the modern world, there’s a tendency to tolerate only those aromas which are pleasant and socially acceptable, but by taking this approach we risk obliterating certain aspects of our character and experiences. Parfums is a celebration of smells both good and bad; it’s a celebration of life.

Stu at Winstonsdad’s has also review this memoir.

Parfums (tr. by Euan Cameron) is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publisher.

The Art of Killing Well by Marco Malvaldi (tr. by Howard Curtis)

Pellegrino Artusi, the protagonist of Malvaldi’s delightful story set in 1895, is a successful textile merchant with a serious passion for good food. When he meets the Barone di Roccapendente while taking the waters at an Italian spa, he receives an invitation to spend a weekend at the baron’s castle in the Tuscan countryside. Having travelled around Italy collecting and assembling recipes for his cookery book, Artusi is looking forward to a weekend of fine food and a boar hunt in the company of the baron.

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Alongside the baron, the castle is inhabited by his three children, Gaddo, Lapo and Cecilia, his mother, Nonna Speranza, a couple of old spinsters and an assortment of household staff. As they await the arrival of the baron’s guest, we begin to get the measure of this family – squabbling and sniping are commonplace. With the exception of Cecilia, who is bright, kind and perceptive, the baron’s family are an eccentric bunch. Here’s Lapo, a vain, foolish and arrogant fellow, as he speculates about Artusi’s character:

“…A merchant who likes good food. He’s a man who accumulates. Money in the bank, and fat on his belly. You’ll see. They’ll have to call us to prise him out of the bathtub, assuming he knows how to use one.”

“What are you saying, Signorino Lapo?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me. He is from Emilia-Romagna, after all. Coarse people” – he bit off the end of his cigar and spat it out – “who think only about eating, working and accumulation possessions.” (pg. 9, MacLehose Press)

The baron’s eldest son, Gaddo, is prone to delusions of grandeur and foresees a promising future for himself as a famous poet. When Gaddo hears that a ‘first-rate man of letters’ will be arriving at the castle for the forthcoming boar hunt, he assumes it can be none other but Giosue Carducci, the ‘Great Poet’ and Gaddo’s idol. Consequently, the appearance of Pellegrino Artusi, a mere cookery writer, comes as a major blow to the baron’s eldest son:

‘It was enough to make on beat one’s head against the wall.’ (pg16)

Malvaldi’s writing is full of biting wit, and the narrative contains some wonderfully sharp observations on each of the principal players. In this scene, Artusi, following his arrival at the castle, joins the baron’s family for dinner:

The one eating listlessly was Gaddo, who might have the sensitivity of spirit to appreciate beauty but was now busy casting sidelong glances at the self-styled man of letters as the latter stuffed himself with pie, his white whiskers moving up and down in time to the rhythm of his jaws.

The one eating briskly and noisily was Lapo, who preferred beautiful things of flesh and blood rather than on walls, and was now watching his sister and thinking that if she didn’t dress like a penitent she might almost look like a woman, and then it might actually be possible to find her a husband and get her out of his hair – with that female arrogance of hers, she was always finding fault with him. (pg. 19)

I could continue, but you get the picture, I’m sure.

The story is punctuated by extracts from Artusi’s diary, which he pens at the end of each day; here’s an excerpt from the cookery writer’s musings on his first evening in the company of this rather idiosyncratic family:

The baron was as gracious as always, as if we were at Montecatini taking the waters; but over the rest of the family, if this were a letter and not a diary, it would be appropriate to draw a veil. One of the two sons, Gaddo, seems to hate me for no apparent reason. But at least he limits himself to sarcasm, which is more than can be said for his younger brother, who has accused me almost openly of being a usurer. As for the distaff side, the baron’s daughter is probably not a bad person, but I fear she is much too clever for the rest of the family, except perhaps for the dowager baroness, Speranza, who sends shivers down one’s spine at the mere sight of her; then there are the two old maids of the family – there always have to be old maids in these places… (pg. 31)

Artusi retires to bed hoping the atmosphere will improve during his stay, especially with the prospect of a boar hunt on the agenda. But the following day gets off to a dramatic start; the residents are awakened by a bloodcurdling scream as Nonna Speranza’s nurse discovers a body — that of the baron’s butler, Theodore — in the castle’s cellar. Having examined the butler’s body, the local doctor suspects foul play, and the police are called to the scene. At first, the attending inspector, Artistico, is irritated at being summoned by the doctor, and once again, Malvaldi adds a bitterly comic tone to the proceedings:

Ispettore Artistico’s first reaction when the doctor had sent for him had been one of annoyance. To tell the truth, the doctor had always rubbed him up the wrong way: firstly because he was a socialist, secondly because he was one of the most boring and pedantic people he had ever known, and last but certainly not least, because every time the inspector was out walking with his daughter and met the doctor, the doctor invariably kissed her hand in the most brazenly lecherous manner imaginable. More than once the inspector had been on the verge of cutting short this greeting by thrashing him with his stick. He had even imagined himself scalping the doctor and running off with his beard as a trophy. (pg. 52)

However, once the inspector surmises a murder may have been committed, he relishes the prospect of investigating a noteworthy case. At long last Artistico has a real murder on his hands – after all, his only other murder involved the killing of the baker’s donkey! That’s all I’m willing to give away about the plot, except to say there are a few unexpected (often hilarious) developments to come over the course of the investigation.

I loved The Art of Killing Well with its sparkling wit, sideswipes at the nobility and cast of eccentric characters. It’s a hugely enjoyable, playful story, and Malvaldi writes with much charisma and verve. There are several references to food and a sprinkling of Italian politics, too. Pellegrino Artusi was an Italian silk merchant and gastronome in real life, and he self-published his cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, in 1891. The Art of Killing Well finishes with a short series of Artusi’s recipes, and I was delighted to find more of his writing on my own bookshelves: Exciting Food for Southern Types by Pellegrino Artusi (published by Penguin Books).

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I devoured The Art of Killing Well in a couple of sittings, and it left me craving a plate of wild boar washed down with a nice glass of Chianti Classico. An excellent book – highly recommended.

The Art of Killing Well is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: review copy kindly provided by the publishers.

An Announcement from the IFFP Shadow Group – Our Winner

In 2014, for the third year in a row, Chairman Stu gathered together a group of brave bloggers to tackle the task of shadowing the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.  It’s not a task for the faint of heart – in addition to having to second-guess the strange decisions of the ‘real’ panel, the foolhardy volunteers undertook a voyage around the literary world, all in a matter of months…

On our journey around the globe, we started off by eavesdropping on some private conversations in Madrid, before narrowly avoiding trouble with the locals in Naples.  A quick flight northwards, and we were in Iceland, traipsing over the snowy mountains and driving around the iconic ring road – with a child in tow.  Then it was time to head south to Sweden and Norway, where we had a few drinks (and a lot of soul searching) with a man who tended to talk about himself a lot.

Next, it was off to Germany, where we almost had mussels for dinner, before spending some time with an unusual family on the other side of the wall.  After another brief bite to eat in Poland, we headed eastwards to reminisce with some old friends in Russia – unfortunately, the weather wasn’t getting any better.

We finally left the snow and ice behind, only to be welcomed in Baghdad by guns and bombs.  Nevertheless, we stayed there long enough to learn a little about the customs involved in washing the dead, and by the time we got to Jerusalem, we were starting to have a bit of an identity crisis…

Still, we pressed on, taking a watery route through China to avoid the keen eye of the family planning officials, finally making it across the sea to Japan.  Having arrived in Tokyo just in time to witness a series of bizarre ‘accidents’, we rounded off the trip by going for a drink (or twelve) at a local bar with a strangely well-matched couple – and then it was time to come home :)

Of course, there was a method to all this madness, as our journey helped us to eliminate all the pretenders and identify this year’s cream of the crop.  And the end result?  This year’s winner of the Shadow Independent Foreign Fiction Prize is:

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson

(translated by Philip Roughton, published by MacLehose Press) 

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This was a very popular (and almost unanimous) winner, a novel which stood out amongst a great collection of books.  We all loved the beautiful, poetic prose, and the developing relationship between the two main characters – the taciturn giant, Jens, and the curious, talkative boy – was excellently written.  Well done to all involved with the book – writer, translator, publisher and everyone else :)

Some final thoughts to leave you with…

– Our six judges read a total of 83 books (an average of almost fourteen per person), and ten of the books were read and reviewed by all six of us.

– This was our third year of shadowing the prize and the third time in a row that we’ve chosen a different winner to the ‘experts’.

– After the 2012 Shadow Winner (Sjón’s From the Mouth of the Whale), that makes it two wins out of three for Iceland – Til hamingju!

– There is something new about this year’s verdict – it’s the first time we’ve chosen a winner which didn’t even make the ‘real’ shortlist…

Stu, Tony, Jacqui, David, Bellezza and Tony would like to thank everyone out there for all their interest and support over the past few months – rest assured we’re keen to do it all over again next year :)

The Sorrow of Angels by Jón Kalman Stefánsson, tr. by Philip Roughton

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s The Sorrow of Angels is the second volume in a trilogy that began with Heaven and Hell (published in 2011). Set in a small fishing village in 19th-century Iceland, a place that feels close to the end of the world, the story opens with the arrival of Postman Jens in the community; he’s in a bad way, battered by the bitter wind and snow, almost frozen solid on his horse. After a short recovery, Jens is challenged by Sigurður (the local pharmacist and someone with considerable influence) to cover another postal route. The terrain is treacherous, ‘likely hellish after constant snowfall, relentless wind, only to be ventured by highly experienced travellers’ and our man is unfamiliar with the area. If Jens fails to deliver the post on time, his job will be at risk; if he succeeds, it strengthens his position against the doctor and there is no love lost between these two. Jens quickly accepts the mission, the prospect of getting one over on Sigurður being too tempting to resist.

However, the central character in The Sorrow of Angels is the boywho, some quick research tells me, is the main protagonist in the earlier book Heaven and Hell. The boy, unnamed throughout, is dispatched to accompany Jens on his perilous journey to transport the mail in good time. The postman is afraid of the sea and would never make it alone over the fjord that forms the initial leg of their course. He needs someone with him who can ‘row him over, keep a decent pace with him on the trek’.

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By now we’re about one-third of the way into the novel and it’s at this point that the narrative really kicks in for me. The expedition itself plays out over the remaining 200 pages and we follow the pair as they battle through blizzards and incessant winds, struggling to survive everything the environment seems determined to throw their way:

The snow piles up on them, they keep going, step-by-step, cold but undefeated. Then Jens falls for the fifth time. Perhaps because the land has started to rise; not much, but enough. It snows and snow blows over them, blows down from the mountain in enormous amounts, blows violently, it’s nearly impossible to breathe and Jens gropes feebly for the postal trumpet, tries to free it from his shoulder and hand it to the boy, opens his mouth to say something but his tongue is frozen, because first it’s words that freeze, then life. (pgs 139-140)

They forge ahead in their endeavour to deliver the mail. The occasional isolated farmhouse offers a brief respite from the elements and some welcome, if meagre, nourishment. It’s a world where visitors are few and far between, where the kindness of strangers is everything, where small gestures speak volumes:

The boy gulps his coffee to burn off the fatigue; he would have preferred to sleep longer, Jens sits with his head bowed but looks up when Jakobina returns with flatbread and butter; she’s tall, her movements are strong and graceful, her brown eyes meet those of the postman, she places the tray between them, brushing as if by accident, Jens’ hand, which rests solidly on the table. A hand that touches another hand in this way is saying something; Jens knows this but dares not respond. (pg 201)

Alongside their physical struggle to survive, there are other journeys taking place, other battles being fought. Jens, sullen and uncommunicative, is deep in thought wrestling with his feelings for Salvör, a woman who has experienced darkness in her past. He knows he should open his heart and express his feelings to her, otherwise he risks losing a chance to find contentment. But so far he’s been unable to commit.

The boy, meanwhile, is trying to anchor himself following the loss of loved ones. As an adolescent, he’s also grappling with new emotions and thoughts of Ragnheiður, a girl from the fishing village, flicker through his mind. Keen to talk, the boy probes Jens about the cause of his soul-searching.

During their journey Jens and the boy develop an understated, yet heartfelt, bond. They come dangerously close to losing one another, but Jens remains mindful of the need to take care of his young companion. Up on the heaths and mountains, the space between life and death seems very narrow as we become acutely aware of the fragility of life.

Night is surely approaching and death is surely approaching, that invisible being, constantly lurking, stealing jewels, hoarding rubbish, doesn’t turn up its nose at anything, and sends fatigue, cold, hopelessness and surrender out ahead, four savage dogs that sniff out anything living in blind storms. (pg 181)

The Sorrow of Angels is a spellbinding novel, beautifully written in a lyrical, poetic style. Everything seems to flow seamlessly, from Stefánsson’s luminous prose through to Philip Roughton’s excellent translation. Stefánsson creates an ethereal, almost otherworldly atmosphere in this novel and it vividly captures man’s struggle with the adversities of life.

The publisher’s notes indicate that all parts of this trilogy can be read independently. However, having read The Sorrow of Angels, I do wish I’d had sufficient time to start with Heaven and Hell before embarking on part two of the trilogy. I just felt a little disorientated at the beginning of the narrative and I’m sure I missed some of the nuances and subtleties in the interplay between characters in the village community. That said, of all the books longlisted for this year’s IFFP, The Sorrow of Angels is most certainly in my top three. I’m delighted to see it in our shadow-group shortlist and the closing scenes left me yearning for the next part in the trilogy. And of course I shall have to go back and read Heaven and Hell to fill in those gaps.

I read this book as part of an IFFP-shadowing project led by Stu at Winstondad’s blog. Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed The Sorrow of Angels: Tony Malone, Tony Messenger, Stu and Bellezza – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was first published as a guest post on David Hebblethwaite’s blog (13th April 2014) and David has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Final note: I’ve now read Heaven and Hell, the first book in this series, and as one might expect, the two books share the same shimmering prose and ethereal atmosphere. And having read the first volume, I gained so much more from my second reading of Sorrows. Both books are just wonderful.

The Sorrow of Angels is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: library copy.

Brief Loves That Live Forever by Andreï Makine, tr. by Geoffrey Strachan

When the IFFP longlist was announced in early March, I was excited to see this novel amongst the contenders. While I haven’t read any of Andreï Makine’s previous books, I know Stu (at Winstonsdad’s blog) rates this author very highly, so I was eager to get to this one.

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Brief Loves That Live Forever comprises of a series of eight episodes set within the context of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union; each of these vignettes could be considered a short story in itself, yet they are connected by the same narrator looking back on particular moments in his life.

The book opens as our unnamed narrator recalls walking home with a friend, a dissident by the name of Dmitri Ress. Ress, a dying man in his mid-forties, has experienced a sequence of imprisonments primarily for attacking the totalitarian regime and railing against the charade of National parades.  During the walk Ress seems keen to steer our narrator towards a particular route; by so doing they encounter a woman and a young boy as they emerge from an official car. Ress turns away and it seems as if there may be some connection between him and the couple. As our narrator recalls this encounter with Ress it seems to spark memories of other times in his youth — moments of tenderness, fleeting glimpses of beauty and love — and it is these transient moments that endure and resonate most strongly in his life:

What remains is the pale patch of a dress, on the front steps of a little wooden house. The gesture of a hand waving me goodbye. I walk on, drawing further away, turning back after every five paces, and the hand is still visible in the mauve, luminous spring light.

What remains is a fleeting paradise that lives on for all time, having no need of doctrines. (p. 91)

From here onwards Makine uses this theme to lead us through a series of experiences in the narrator’s life, all of which touch upon brief snatches of love, compassion or grace. We see a young girl desperately searching for a grandmother whom she has never met; a grief-stricken young woman mourning the passing of her husband; an elderly couple of seeking shelter from a storm; a lover immersing her face in a bouquet of flowers. Here’s our narrator recalling this moment in their affair:

She comes in, kisses me, sees the bouquet. And asks no questions. She quite simply leans forward, buries her face in the subtly scented halo of flowers, closes her eyes. And when she stands up, her eyes are misty with tears. “They smell of winter,” she says. “We met in December, didn’t we…”

That night there is an unaccustomed gentleness in the way we make love, as if we had found one another again after a very long separation, having suffered greatly and grown old. (p. 131-132)

These moments also offer glimmers of light in our protagonist’s world, forming the greatest defence against the grim reality and hollow emptiness of the Soviet system. The encounters are played out against the backdrop of the political development of The Soviet Union from the 1960s to the 1980s and representations of the totalitarian regime are never very far away. Early in the novel we see our narrator when, as a young boy, he becomes trapped within the imposing entrails of a grandstand used for parades:

Sunk in the torpor of a condemned man, I saw I was in a vast spider’s web spun from iron. This three-dimensional trellis was everywhere…My terror was so profound that, within this prison-like captivity, I must have glimpsed a more immense reality concerning the country I lived in, whose political character I was just beginning to grasp, thanks to snatches of conversation here and there… (p.36)

There are other symbols of the Brezhnev-era regime too; the leader’s ‘imposing face, an authoritarian gaze beneath bushy eyebrows’ on a vast hoarding on the facade on a railway station (p. 98) and an enormous sterile apple orchard, ‘an example of a Potemkin village, Soviet style’ (p. 139).

Brief Loves That Live Forever is a wonderful novel studded with beautifully haunting images, many of which are almost certainly set to drift through my mind in the days to come. Stu, in his review, likened the experience of reading this book to looking through a collection of old sepia-tinged photographs and how these can evoke memories of the past…and that’s very much how it feels for me, too. While each episode could work as a short story in its own right, they build and come together to form a more powerful, more resonant whole. And at the end of the book we come full circle and return to our narrator’s memories of Dmitri Ress, where we learn a little more about his past, causing us to reflect on our impressions of events and themes introduced in the first chapter.

There’s a melancholy, almost meditative quality to Makine’s writing, and in this respect I think it shares something with Javier Marías’s The Infatuations (also longlisted for the IFFP). Such elegant writing, too; everything seems to flow effortlessly, from Makine’s prose through to Geoffrey Strachan’s sensitive translation from the French. (Siberian-born Makine now lives in France and writes in French.)

Brief Loves That Live Forever is one of my favourite books longlisted for this year’s IFFP. I’m delighted to see it on our shadow group’s shortlist, if not the official one.

Other members of the IFFP shadow group have also reviewed this book: Stu, Tony Malone, Tony Messenger and David Hebblethwaite – just click on the links to read their thoughts. This review was originally published as a guest post on Stu’s blog (17th March 2014) and Stu has kindly granted his permission for me to republish it here.

Brief Loves That Live Forever is published in the UK by MacLehose Press. Source: personal copy.