Tag Archives: Martin Aitken

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

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

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

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

Novellas

The Dig by Cynan Jones

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

The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark

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

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

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

The Harpole Report by J. L. Carr,

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

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

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

Non-Fiction

Motherwell: A Girlhood by Deborah Orr

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

Square Haunting by Francesca Wade

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

The Lonely City by Olivia Laing

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

Broken Greek by Pete Paphides

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

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

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

The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey

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

House of Glass by Hadley Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love by Hanne Ørstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle (review)

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s leading contemporary novelists, and This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (originally published in 2011) is the first of her books to be translated into English. It’s a strange novella. I wasn’t sure whether to review it at first, but in the end, something about it got under my skin.

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The story is narrated by twenty-year-old Dorte, a student at Copenhagen University. At least that’s what she tells her family and acquaintances – she doesn’t seem to have many friends. Instead she spends her days drifting around Glumsø, the small town where she lives by the railway, or travelling to Copenhagen to wander the streets and shopping malls. Dorte lives by herself, and her existence is desperately quiet and isolated save for a few random off-beat encounters with the neighbours and passers-by:

I bought a roll and a cup of coffee at the bakery in the arcade. The place was expensive, but you could sit there as long as you liked and they didn’t charge for water. I sat right at the back against the wall. I got my book out and tried to read. After almost an hour I went to Scala. I went round the different floors, looking at jewellery and jeans, I took the escalator up to the cinema, but there was nothing on that I wanted to see. Before I went home I bought a melon in the Irma supermarket. I sat on a train with it in my canvas bag, looking out at the back garden and sheds and little houses. I thought about my own bungalow with the apple tree and no curtains. It was a very sad melon. I put it in the window in the kitchen, it stayed there until well into November. (pg. 44, Harvill Secker)

As the story unravels, we learn more about events in the past two or three years in this young girl’s life. At eighteen, while working as an au pair, Dorte drifts into a relationship with a boy called Per, ‘he didn’t know what to do with himself either.’ She ends up moving in with Per, the young couple sharing a new bedsit on the first floor of the family’s home. This isn’t the first time Dorte has left home though (and possibly not the last either) as Helle slips the following statement into the story:

It was the third time I’d left home. My mum and dad gave us a pewter mug as a moving-in present, but they never got the chance to see the place. (pg. 36)

This short passage is indicative of the author’s approach. This is a book where certain aspects of Dorte’s life are clear from the narrative, but so much of what’s actually happening here is implied or suggested that the reader must endeavour to fill in the gaps. A more distinct picture only comes into focus as we try to look beyond the words on the page, making connections between what Dorte is telling us and what we suspect is happening. For instance, by the time we reach the end of the following passage we have a pretty good sense of what has happened to Dorte. Elsewhere in the narrative, however, the text seems more oblique:

Per went with me to work and back again, he tickled me on the waterbed until I nearly fainted, he took his clothes off and put them back on again several times a day, went with me to the doctor’s when I got pregnant and on the bus to the hospital seven long days later, and on the way back that same afternoon he’s got me a present, a hair slide from a silversmith, made out of a spoon with a proper hallmark. I was so relieved and felt so much better despite the anaesthetic, we couldn’t stop laughing until the driver told us to be quiet. But then in the evening I had to go and lie down before dinner. Per told his parents I was feeling a bit off colour. (pg. 47)

Dorte’s relationship with Per doesn’t last. There’s a sense that she’s simply ‘waiting for it all to fall apart,’ and so she packs her suitcase and leaves – it seems like ‘the only thing to do.’ She slips in and out of relationships with a few other men. None of these attachments seem to be going anywhere. The only constant in Dorte’s life comes from the relationship with her aunt (who also happens to be called Dorte). Aunt Dorte has her own troubles, and when her backstory is revealed it feels like a punch to the guts.

Helle Helle’s prose strips everything back, and her matter-of-fact style matches the sparse nature of Dorte’s life – even her bungalow has little in the way of furniture, the windows lack curtains. There is a focus on the mundane, the directionless feel to Dorte’s life, and this approach may not appeal to every reader. It would be quite easy to give up on this book; I nearly abandoned it after 40 pages, but something about the sadness and isolation in Dorte’s life drew me in. She cries and has difficulty sleeping at night. I wondered if she was suffering from depression.

I read this novella several weeks ago, back in November in fact, and I’m still thinking about it. Gradually we discover that this girl is at a complete loss as to what to do with herself or how to move forward with life. There are moments when Dorte realises that she needs to take positive action, but she seems numbed by the reality of it all. I’ll finish with a quote that captures this feeling:

I painted my nails and decided I needed a new look and a new way of thinking and walking. I even thought I might put a piece together for a newspaper, I just didn’t know what about. There was nothing in particular I was good at, except perhaps writing lyrics for party songs, but I didn’t even do that any more. Instead I wrote a list of things I ought to see and do in Copenhagen. I was full of good ideas. For once, I fell asleep straight away, but then woke up again far too early. The front room looked like an explosion in a second-hand shop, and I’d got nail varnish on the lamp. I tidied up and got dressed. I was ready before six. I caught the five-past-nine. (pgs. 79-80)

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense (tr. by Martin Aitken) is published in the UK by Harvill Secker. Source: library copy.