Tag Archives: Novella

Indelicacy by Amina Cain

Alongside the reissues of modern classics from writers such as Natalia Ginzburg and Madeleine Bourdouxhe, the publishing arm of Daunt Books has been promoting an ‘Originals’ list featuring bold and inventive contemporary writing in English and in translation. Having loved Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho and The Pachinko Parlour from this list, I was keen to try Amina Cain’s 2020 novella Indelicacy, described by the publisher as ‘a ghost story without a ghost, a fable without a moral and an exploration of the barriers faced by women in both life and literature’. Happily, it did not disappoint. This is a beautiful, enigmatic book – cool and clear on the surface but full of hidden depths, a combination that gives the story a subtle, meditative quality in its exploration of the protagonist’s inner world.

The novella is narrated by Vitória, a relatively young woman who works as a cleaner in a museum of art. Although Vitória has little money or creature comforts, she finds enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life such as reading books, buying a new pair of brightly coloured stockings or writing about the paintings surrounding her at work.

Every morning and night I walked through that city, to and from the museum, fall turning into winter. Each doorway, even mine, its own theatre of something, with its own suggestion or promise. (p. 14)

The desire to write is something of a passion for Vitória, driving her to make notes on the artworks in the museum, some of which form part of the novella’s text.

In this painting, Mary is lying down but she’s awake to something. She’s looking up, her eyes open just enough to see what’s in front of her, or perhaps what she’s seeing is inside her own mind. Her white robe is slipping from her shoulders, her hands clasped, her arms resting on her pregnant belly. A red blanket. A dark room. It must be cold outside. Inside too. (p. 17)

However, while Vitória longs to write, furthering her connections to art and the natural world, her friend Antoinette (another cleaner at the gallery) yearns for a different kind of escape – a life with a wealthy lover and the beautiful possessions this will confer. 

One day, Vitória meets a man at the gallery, a visitor who comes to view the work of Caravaggio and Goya. In a matter of months, they are married, opening up a whole new life for Vitória – one of wealth, privilege and beautiful objects, just like the world of Antoinette’s dreams. Nevertheless, this new existence comes with its own challenges and constraints. While Vitória has an abundance of time on her hands, she finds it difficult to achieve the freedom to write. As far as her husband is concerned, Vitória should find another hobby or pursuit. There is no need for her work or prove herself; the household’s maid, Solange, is employed to clean the house, leaving Vitória free to entertain guests and manage the home. Consequently, Vitória writes in secret, mostly when her husband (whom she does not love) is out, and sometimes at the Botanical Gardens, where she finds solace in the retreat.

Also of concern for Vitória is the impact these changes have on her friendships with other women. For instance, when Vitória marries, she stops working at the gallery without a word to Antoinette, severing their relationship abruptly. In truth, Vitória feels somewhat guilty over her situation compared to Antoinette’s, especially given their respective desires and dreams. Guilt also plays a significant part in Vitória’s relationship with Solange, the rather resentful housemaid who shuns all attempts at closeness or friendship.

While these developments offer Vitória some new experiences – a degree of intimacy with her husband, the freedom of movement in ballet classes, a new friendship with classmate, Dana – she remains largely unfulfilled. Her husband is clearly the gatekeeper of this existence, someone Vitória must ask or seek permission from, even if her requests are rarely denied. As Vitória begins to nudge at the boundaries of this world – testing her ability to take control, to be indelicate or self-centred – she wonders whether this will be enough. How will she gain the freedom to write, to truly satisfy her creative desires while still having the resources to live – especially when her husband starts dropping hints about a baby? 

It was true, I was mean sometimes. But I didn’t have it in me to be kind to someone who saw me only in relation to property and propriety. To be domestic first and then to be a shallow vessel out and about in the world. Didn’t he understand that was not who I was? I wondered why he had chosen me. And why had I chosen him? Had it been for survival, for experience? Both of those things, I guess. (p. 102)

While Indelicacy can be viewed as the story of a woman’s desire for the freedom to create, the novella also explores several related themes, including social class, gender roles and expectations, female friendship and fulfilment. Interestingly, the novella is set in an unspecified time and place, which gives the story a timeless quality, possibly outside the conventional landscape of time. Certain clues point to a Victorian setting – references to carriages, a harpsichord and full skirts, for instance – while others, such as popcorn and a red sweater dress, suggest a later period, possibly the mid-20th century. Naturally, this adds to the slightly slippery feel of the environment we are inhabiting here, making it all the more intriguing to read.

Thematically, Indelicacy is predominantly concerned with women’s experiences. However, while many interior, character-driven novels delve deep into the protagonist’s inner feelings, Cain seems equally interested in Vitória’s relationship to her surroundings – for instance, the connections she forges with the artworks in the museum and the wonders of the natural world.

Now that I have so much time to myself, I wonder at my times of happiness, why I’ve been allowed them, even now when I am lonely. Why I can walk and how even walking, at the right hour, in this temperature or that one, the lights just coming on, or the sky lightening, I am able to love it. How much I am a person. (p. 77)

This preoccupation with consciousness reminded me a little of the work of other writers such as Clarice Lispector, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and possibly Virginia Woolf, whose essay A Room of One’s Own may well be a key touchstone.

So, in summary, this is a subtle, beautifully written novella of a woman’s desire for the freedom to write – an enigmatic exploration of the protagonist’s relationship with art, creativity and her inner and outer worlds. The type of story that gets under the reader’s skin…

(My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

Last Summer in the City by Gianfranco Calligarich (tr. Howard Curtis) 

The publication history of this terrific novella by the Italian novelist and screenwriter Gianfranco Calligarich is almost as fascinating as the book itself. Written when Calligarich was in his twenties, the book struggled to find a publisher until it dropped into the hands of the renowned novelist and essayist Natalia Ginzburg – a writer currently enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity due to the recent reissues from Daunt Books and NRYB Classics. Ginzburg was so enthused by Calligarich’s novella that she persuaded an Italian publishing house to issue it in 1973, resulting in both critical and commercial success.

However, not long after, the book slipped out of print, taking on the status of a cult classic amongst those in the know. Following a couple of revivals in the 2010s, Last Summer in the City is now available to read in English for the first time, courtesy of the translator Howard Curtis and Picador Books. It’s a wonderfully evocative read – intense, melancholic and richly cinematic, like a cross between Fellini’s La Dolce Vita and the novels of Alfred Hayes, tinged with despair.

Last Summer is narrated by Leo Gazzara, a thirty-year-old man from Milan who has come to Rome as a correspondent for a medical-literary magazine. When the publication folds, he finds himself drifting around the city, shuttling from one cheap hotel to another, picking up a little freelance work here and there when he needs money to get by. Having eschewed the usual trappings of respectability revered by his older sisters, Leo often relies on the generosity of others, feeding on their ‘leftovers’ in more ways than one. So when two relatively wealthy friends move to Mexico City for a year or two, Leo agrees to house-sit their apartment, providing him with a comfortable place to live as he meanders around Rome.

His life is a somewhat shallow, disorganised one as he drifts from one woman to another, one bar to another, one gathering to another, frequently hosted by his glamorous, generous friends. Alongside lassitude, alcohol is another demon for Leo, blurring his senses as he tries to kick the habit. Interestingly, Calligarich often depicts Leo in the morning after the night before, a leisurely time of day that our protagonist enjoys – after all, he has long been a magnet for women.

I slept until late morning, when I woke up to an empty apartment. I found coffee already made, along with a note. Stay as long as you like. I thought about it, as I lay in a bathtub filled with warm water, I thought about whether to stay or not, until I realised that the only thing I could do now was leave and never come back. And so, like so many other times, for the last time I got out of her bath, dried myself, finished the coffee, and left, firmly closing the door behind me. (p. 98)

One evening, at a party hosted by friends, Leo meets Arianna, a beautiful, unpredictable, impulsive young woman who catches his eye. After the soiree breaks up, Leo and Arianne drive through the city, flirting with one another, stopping for warm brioche at a bakery and driving to the sea before dawn. It’s the start of an intense yet episodic love affair that waxes and wanes over the summer and beyond. 

It was the hour when anyone who’s been on his feet all night demands something hot in his stomach, the hour when hands search for each other under the sheets as dreams become more vivid, the hour when the newspapers smell of ink and the first sounds of day start to creep out like an advanced guard. It was dawn, and all that reminded of the night were two shadows under the eyes of this strange girl by my side. (pp. 36–37)

Right from the very start, there is a sense of fatalism about this story, a feeling that Leo and Arianna’s relationship is doomed almost as soon as it gets underway. Here we see two disaffected, damaged souls, unmoored and adrift, never quite connecting with one another as they blow hot and cold. For instance, when Leo thinks he is falling in love with Arianna, she refuses to hear it, silencing his declarations of emotion and affection. Similarly, there are times when Leo rejects Arianna, preferring instead to retreat into his loneliness and anger.

This capricious, volatile quality also applies to their other relationships, particularly the one between Arianna and her rather jealous sister, Eva – a bond characterised by frequent quarrels and overly dramatic flounces, particularly from Arianna. 

Rome is almost a character in itself here – the city is home to the transient, the people that pass through, often searching for something new or different, even if they cannot define what that ‘something’ might be. Calligarich’s depictions of Rome are seductive and glamorous at times, especially at night. And yet, there’s something brittle and all-consuming about the capital, too – a darkness or destructive note that must be respected and borne in mind. Rome is a place that feeds a person’s needs and disaffections – by turns, charming, tolerating and spurning its inhabitants in response to the prevailing mood.  

…Rome by her very nature has a particular intoxication that wipes out memory. She’s not so much a city as a wild beast hidden in some secret part of you. There can be no half measures with her, either she’s the love of your life or you have to leave her, because that’s what the tender beast demands, to be loved. […] If she’s loved, she’ll give herself to you whichever way you want her, all you need to do is go with the flow and you’ll be within reach of the happiness you deserve. You’ll have summer evenings glittering with lights, vibrant spring mornings, café tablecloths ruffled by the wind like girls’ skirts, keen winters, and endless autumns, when she’ll seem vulnerable, sick, weary, swollen with shredded leaves that are silent underfoot. […] In this way you too, waiting day after day, will become part of her. You too will nourish the city. Until one sunny day, sniffing the wind from the sea and looking up at the sky, you’ll realize there’s nothing left to wait for. (pp. 7–8)

Calligarich’s prose is gorgeous and evocative, adding a sense of beauty to Leo’s loneliness and despair. There are times when the novella is infused with a sense of yearning for the past, a nostalgia for something that was lost or never fully attained. Calligarich’s portrayal of Leo’s father is especially poignant – a silent, orderly man who returned shattered from the War.

In summary, Last Summer in the City is a beautiful, melancholic story of a man lost and adrift in Rome. Here we have a piercing depiction of a doomed love affair, of two flawed, damaged individuals unable to connect – ultimately failing to realise what they could have had together until that chance has gone, frittered away like a night on the tiles. This intense, expresso-shot of a novella will likely resonate with those who have loved and lost.

Women in Translation – some book-and-wine matches, just for fun!

Something a little different from me today. Some book and wine matches to tie in with #WITMonth (Women in Translation), a month-long celebration of translated literature by women writers, which runs every August. This year’s event has just finished – possibly the most successful yet, with hundreds of recommendations and reviews flying around the web over the past few weeks.

This year, I’m trying to make ‘WIT’ a regular thing by reading and reviewing at least one book by a woman writer in translation each month rather than just thinking about them for August. Plus, there are lots of WIT reviews from my eight years of blogging gathered together in this area here.

So, here are a few of my favourite WIT reads, complete with suitable wine matches. For each book, I’ve tried to select wines made from grape varieties grown in the same region as the setting, just to keep the pairing as local as possible. Naturally, my fondness for European whites and rosés comes through quite strongly here, but please feel free to suggest some book-and-wine matches from further afield. South America in particular is a bit of a gap for me!

All Our Yesterdays by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

While I’ve enjoyed several reissues of Natalia Ginzburg’s work in recent years, All Our Yesterdays feels like the one I’ve been waiting to read – a rich, multilayered evocation of Italian family life spanning the duration of the Second World War. The novel focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town. While one family derives its wealth from the town’s soap factory, the other is middle-class and relatively short of money, contrasting the fortunes of these neighbouring households.

Ginzburg has written a truly remarkable novel here, a story of ordinary people living through extraordinary times, beautifully told with a warmth and generosity of spirit that reflects the Italian character. There are some lovely touches of dry humour throughout, as the author maintains a wry sense of detachment from life’s absurdities, despite the gravity of events. One of my favourite books this year.

Wine Match: Given that Ginzburg grew up in Turin, I’m looking at wines from the Piedmont region as suitable matches for this one. The area is famed for its Barolo and Barbaresco wines made from the Nebbiolo grape variety. However, these fine wines tend to be quite pricey. A Langhe Nebbiolo is a more approachable, cost-effective option. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Langhe Nebbiolo is a great example – made by the Rizzi estate, this wine has a lovely cherry, raspberry and rose-petal aroma with plenty of juicy red fruit on the palate. G. D Vajra is another excellent producer worth seeking out.

The House of Ulloa by Emilia Pardo Bazán (tr. Paul O’Prey and Lucia Graves)

This is a marvellous novel, a great discovery for me, courtesy of fellow blogger, Grant from 1streading. The House of Ulloa tells a feisty tale of contrasting values as a virtuous Christian chaplain finds himself embroiled in the exploits of a rough and ready marquis and those of his equally lively companions. Several scenes are rich in humour, but the novel’s darker undercurrent is never too far away – the gothic atmosphere of the Ulloa mansion is beautifully evoked. There are hunting expeditions, some rather boisterous banquets and plenty of quieter moments, too. This classic of 19th-century Spanish literature is a joy from start to finish, packed full of incident to keep the reader entertained.

Wine Match: Bazán’s novel is set in Galicia in northwest Spain, home to the Godello grape variety, one of my favourite Spanish whites. The Maruxa Godello, from the Valdeorras Denominación de Origen (DO), is a great example. There’s plenty of lemony and peachy fruit here, with enough body to stand up to chicken or fish. The Valdesil Montenovo Godello (from the same DO) is another winner, too.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (tr. Irene Ash vs Heather Lloyd)

A quintessential summer read, Bonjour Tristesse is an irresistible story of love, frivolity and the games a young girl plays with other people’s emotions, all set against the background of the glamorous French Riviera. Seventeen-year-old Cécile is spending the summer on the Côte d’Azur with her father, Raymond, and his latest lover, Elsa. Everything is leisurely and glorious until another person arrives on the scene, the glamorous and sophisticated Anne, whose very presence threatens to disrupt Cécile’s idyllic life with her father.  Sagan’s novella is an utterly compelling read with a dramatic denouement. My review is based on Heather Lloyd’s 2013 translation, but if you’re thinking of reading this one. I would strongly recommend Irene Ash’s 1955 version – it’s more vivacious than the Lloyd, with a style that perfectly complements the story’s palpable atmosphere and mood.

Wine Match: As we’re in the South of France for this one, it’s got to be a rosé from Provence! There are several good producers here, and it’s pretty hard to go wrong. The Wine Society’s Exhibition Côtes de Provence Rosé (from Château des Mesclances) is a good bet when available. Dangerously drinkable with lovely redcurrant and strawberry fruit, this round, fresh-tasting rosé is made from Cinsault – maybe with a touch of Grenache in the blend. The Mirabeau en Provence Classic Rosé (readily available from Waitrose) is another excellent choice.

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

This striking portrayal of a determined young woman in Weimar-era Cologne is an underrated gem. 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 impressive book in more ways than one.

Wine Match: Cologne is not too far from the Mosel-Saar-Ruwer wine region, making Riesling a great match for Gilgi. The von Kesselstatt Rieslings tend to be excellent. Their Niedermenniger Riesling Kabinett is round and racy with plenty of citrus fruit. Off-dry in style with a nice balance between acidity and sweetness, this wine would pair brilliantly with Chinese or Thai food. The Rieslings from Dr Loosen and J.J. Prūm are worth checking out, too.

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. It’s 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.

Wine Match: Empty Wardrobes is set in Lisbon, making a white wine from the Lisboa Valley a potential choice. Alvarinho is grown here – the same grape variety as Albariño, found in the Galicia region of Spain. The AdegaMãe Lisboa Valley Selection looks like a fun one to try. A blend of Arinto, Viosinho, Alvarinho and Viognier, the wine notes promise stone and citrus fruits with a touch of Atlantic freshness and zest. Alternatively, if you’d prefer a red, a wine made from Touriga Nacional or Tinto Roriz (known as Tempranillo in Spain) would be an excellent bet.

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.

Wine Match: Italian white wines from the Campania region would be ideal here. Luckily, they’re also some of my favourites, making this novel a pleasure to match. A wine made from either Fiano, Falanghina or Greco would be perfect for this one. The Falanghina from the Feudi San Gregorio estate is delicious – fresh and vibrant with some lovely citrus and stone fruit notes, this is summer in a glass. Alternatively, some of the major supermarkets have partnered with reputable producers to offer own-label wines, including those made from Fiano or Falanghina – and these are always worth a try.  

So, I hope you enjoyed that little tour around some of my favourite WIT reads and wines of Europe. Feel free to let me know your thoughts on these books, together with any wine matches or recommendations of your own in the comments below!

The Pachinko Parlour by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

A couple of years ago, I read and loved Winter in Sokcho, a beautiful, dreamlike novella that touched on themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to societal norms. Set against the backdrop of a rundown guest house in Sokcho, the book centred on an intriguing relationship between a young French-Korean woman and a Frenchman staying at the hotel. Now Elisa Shua Dusapin is back with her second book, The Pachinko Parlour, another wonderfully enigmatic novella that shares many qualities with its predecessor.

As in her previous work, Dusapin draws on her French-Korean heritage for Pachinko, crafting an elegantly expressed story of family, displacement, fractured identity and the search for belonging. Here we see people caught in the hinterland between different countries, complete with their respective cultures and preferred languages. It’s a novel that exists in the liminal spaces between states, the borders or crossover points from one community to the next and from one family unit to another.

At first sight, the story being conveyed here seems relatively straightforward – a young woman travels to Japan to take her Korean grandparents on a trip to their homeland, a place they haven’t seen in fifty years. Dig a little deeper, however, and the narrative soon reveals itself to be wonderfully slippery – cool and clear on the surface yet harbouring fascinating layers of depth, a combination that gives the book a haunting or spectral quality, cutting deep into the soul. 

The novella is narrated by Claire, a young woman on the cusp of turning thirty, brought up in Switzerland, where she now lives with her boyfriend, Mathieu. It is summer, and Claire has travelled to Japan to stay with her Korean grandparents in the Nippori area of the city, home to the sizeable Zainichi community of exiled Koreans. But despite having lived in Japan for the past fifty years, Claire’s grandparents have not fully integrated into the Japanese community and culture, almost certainly because their move was prompted by the Korean Civil War in the early 1950s. A displacement process that forced Koreans to choose between the North and the South of the country, should they wish to keep their Korean identity while living in Japan.

The transition proved particularly challenging for Claire’s grandmother, who resisted assimilation into her adopted country by not speaking Japanese. Now in her nineties, she is showing signs of dementia, regressing into childhood as she plays with her dolls. Meanwhile, Claire’s grandfather must work till he drops, managing the faded Pachinko parlour (a legal, low-stakes gambling emporium) opposite the couple’s house. Aside from the Pachinko parlour – ironically named Shiny as it is anything but – the grandparents have virtually no social contact with other people, existing largely within their own limited, claustrophobic world.

With the proposed trip to Korea merely weeks away, Claire is struggling with the situation in Japan. Her grandparents are showing little enthusiasm for the trip, avoiding any discussions or preparations for the journey, despite their longstanding ties to the country. Communication seems to be a significant barrier for the trio, particularly as Claire is more fluent in Japanese than Korean, having studied the former at a Swiss university. Consequently, she spends much of her time lying on the ground floor in the suffocating heat, playing games on her phone or looking up Korea on the net. The atmosphere in the house is dizzying and oppressive as the noise from the nearby Pachinko parlours proves impossible to shut out…

The only respite for Claire is the time she spends with Mieko, a ten-year-old girl who lives with her mother – the rather cold and judgmental Mrs Ogawa – in an abandoned hotel. Mrs Ogawa – a French literature tutor by profession – has employed Claire to teach Mieko French during the school holidays, a task the mother shows little interest in helping with herself.

As the days slip by, a tentative friendship develops between Claire and Mieko – a slightly awkward yet touching bond born out of a shared sense of loneliness and loss. (Of significance here is Mieko’s father – no longer on the scene, having abandoned his family several years before.) The dialogue between this unlikely duo is beautifully expressed, perfectly capturing the awkwardness of the age gap between Claire and Mieko. Moreover, the young girl’s curiosity is also a factor, indicating a growing awareness of the mysteries of the adult world.  

Dusapin’s style is wonderfully pared back and minimalist, almost like a prose poem at times, leaving plenty of space for the reader to fill the gaps. Thematically and stylistically, the book is somewhat reminiscent of Jessica Au’s Cold Enough for Snow, another haunting exploration of isolation and loss through a distanced family relationship. And yet, there is something unsettling here as well, echoing the signs of tension that run through Winter in Sokcho. In Pachinko, we find passing mentions of disturbing elements, from dying species and the presence of toxins in the earth to the shocking death of one of Mieko’s classmates. The story is punctuated with unnerving motifs, hinting at a troubled world where humanity must learn to coexist – both with itself and with the natural environment.

In Claire’s grandparents, we see people buffeted by history and events outside their control, wounded by the longstanding pain of Korean-Japanese history and the conflict of Civil War. Meanwhile, Claire is grappling with questions of identity and belonging herself, having grown up in Switzerland following her mother’s flight from the Zainichi community in Japan, largely for the opportunities that Europe could provide. As such, Claire too is caught between cultures, struggling to communicate across the societal and linguistic divides, prompting a sense of separation from her elderly grandparents. If anything, it is Mathieu – Claire’s absent boyfriend, busily working on his thesis in Switzerland – who seems to have the stronger relationship with the elderly couple, having bonded with them relatively easily during a previous trip.

As the novella draws to a close, there is a gradual increase in tension as the family’s departure draws near. Interestingly, just as in Sokcho, Dusapin ends Pachinko on an enigmatic note, prompting the reader to question the true meaning of the book. Whose journey are we witnessing here? Is it Claire’s grandparents’ pilgrimage – possibly the last chance to return to their homeland before illness or death intervenes – or is it Claire’s, a quest for attachment and belonging in a fractured, multicultural world?

I’ll leave you to figure that out for yourself – ideally by reading the book, which I highly recommend. This is a beautifully judged novella, a layered exploration of displacement, belonging and unspoken tragedies from times past. A beguiling read for #WITMonth and beyond.

The Pachinko Parlour will be published by Daunt Books on 18th August. My thanks to the publisher and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a proof copy.

The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis

Back in May, I read and thoroughly enjoyed Alice Thomas Ellis’s 1980 novel, The Birds of the Air, a very well-observed tragicomedy featuring a wonderfully dysfunctional family. It was part of a set of four Penguin editions of this author’s early novellas that I’d found in a charity shop, each featuring a charming cover image by the artist Ian Archie Beck.

The 27th Kingdom was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1982, and I do wonder how it would be received by the equivalent panel now. In truth, it’s a rather peculiar book, to the point where my feelings about it oscillated quite markedly throughout. On the upside, there are some wonderfully eccentric characters here – most of them thoroughly unlikeable, which always makes for interesting reading. The setting and premise also promise much in the way of potential drama, although I think Ellis could have gone a little further with her ideas in the end. Most troublesome though is the dialogue, some of which feels clunky and cliched, even considering the period. More on that later as we get into the book…

This story – which takes place in 1954 – revolves around Aunt Irene, a rather eccentric middle-aged émigré who shares a home with and her adult nephew, Kyril. The dwelling in question is Dancing Master House, a small boarding house in London’s Chelsea – an environment that immediately ticks one of my boxes for interesting fiction. Kyril, an art dealer by trade, is a particularly unlikeable character – handsome, sardonic and vindictive, the type who enjoys stirring up trouble just for the thrill of it. Unsurprisingly, his chief target is Mr Sirocco, a timid little man who boards at Irene’s house.

He [Kyril] was fed up with little Mr Sirocco, who had turned out to be resolutely virtuous and very earnest in a dim and blundering fashion, and had quite refused to produce any free samples from the firm of wine shippers where he worked. ‘You must give up taking in deserving cases,’ he said [to Aunt Irene]. ‘They’re boring.’ (p. 13)

Aunt Irene is no paragon of virtue herself, viewing the boarders as an appreciative audience for her artistic talents, ‘raw materials to dispose of and manipulate’ as the fancy takes her. There are hints of dodgy activities too – possible tax evasion and the receipt of black-market goods – things that Irene’s charlady, the sharp-eyed Mrs Mason, has noticed over the years.

Mrs Mason, rolling up the sleeves of her cardigan, thought Aunt Irene looked like one of those backyard hydrangeas. It was significant that she had so many clothes – not all of them pre-war by any means and nothing Utility. Mrs Mason was absolutely convinced that Aunt Irene had traded with Mrs O’Connor in black-market clothing-coupons throughout the Duration. Her face grew lined and set with jealousy and she wished the taxman would come back – she could tell him a few more things. (p. 89)

Mrs Mason is a marvellous character who features prominently in the book’s wittiest passages, showcasing Ellis’s talents for a dry style of humour. The tensions between Mrs Mason and her employer are particularly well-observed.

Neither of these ladies were satisfied with the other, each being aware with a different degree of resentment that Mrs Mason was not designed by nature or nurture to be a char. (p. 16)

In truth, Mrs Mason is somewhat resentful of the need to work as a cleaning lady, a task she mainly undertakes to placate her dreadful husband, Colonel Mason, an abusive alcoholic who spends most of his time down the pub.

Early in the novel, Irene receives a letter from her sister, Berthe, the Reverend Mother of a Convent in Wales. Berthe wants Irene to take in Valentine, a postulant (or apprentice nun) as a sort of test of the girl’s faith. In truth, Berthe is somewhat unsettled by Valentine’s unusual powers, which have proven somewhat difficult to rationalise or pin down – in other words, she may or not be a saint. After a certain amount of hesitation, Irene duly accepts, welcoming Valentine to Dancing Master House, where she is installed in Mr Sirocco’s room. As such, the downtrodden Mr Sirocco is casually ejected, ultimately ending up in a depressingly barren room in the house next door.

Valentine is tall, beautiful and black, a composed young woman whose presence in the house should be rather calming. That said, Kyril is somewhat flummoxed by this new arrival when she fails to rise to his taunts. It’s a response he’s never encountered before, a development that leaves him rather perplexed.

While various peculiar things happen in the book – Irene hosts a party, someone dies, and a strange man is seen watching the house – this is not a plot-driven novel as such. Instead, the primary focus seems to be on the characters as they dance around one another, exposing their flaws and failings as various tensions ensue. In addition to the main characters already mentioned, there are some interesting supporting players here – perhaps most notably Focus, Irene’s wonderfully fluffy cat.

Focus found the atmosphere lowering and asked to be let out of the front door.

‘Well, be careful,’ warned Aunt Irene. ‘Some awful person might make you into a muff. Don’t leave the garden.’

Normally Focus wouldn’t have dreamed of leaving the garden. He would sit under the magnolia daring its blossom to compete with his beauty, and watching the birds, but he was no different from anyone else when it came to being ordered about. He didn’t like it. (p. 123)

Where the book falls down (for me at least) is in its depiction of the O’Connor family, a bawdy band of tricksters who specialise in house clearances and black-market goods. It’s here that the characterisation feels thin and cliched – especially in the cockney dialogue, which quickly begins to grate.     

‘Valentine, nip roun’ Peabody Buildin’s and look for a pram, ‘n’ when you’ve foun’ one fin’ out ‘oose it is and make ‘er give you the baby’s orange juice. Tell ‘er it’s a matter of life ‘n’ deaf. ‘S the only fing,’… (p. 96)

Sadly, there are some rather unfortunate examples of casual racism here too, such as the use of ‘half-caste’ and ‘piccaninnies’ by one of the characters to describe Valentine and her family. While Aunt Irene clearly disapproves of this behaviour, it doesn’t make these passages any easier to read.

So, in summary, there’s quite a lot to enjoy in this novel, even if the cliched dialogue and casual prejudices take the shine off it somewhat. As the story unfolds, we learn more about Valentine’s tragic past, an event that ties her to one of the secondary characters in the story. At one point, I wondered whether the book was heading down a Lolly Willowes-ish route, with its flashes of tragedy, spiritualism, absurdity and levitation, but it doesn’t entirely take off in that fashion. Something of a missed opportunity, perhaps, at least in part…

Nevertheless, I’ll finish with a final passage that points to Ellis’s flair for a wicked touch. There are some wonderfully mordant images here, hinting at the small savageries of family life.

On the table were some warlike scarlet tulips in a Chinese bowl writhing with dragons. It was a room for the night time and looked at once wicked and pitiful in the dawn light… (p. 25)

Space Invaders by Nona Fernández (tr. Natasha Wimmer)

The publishing arm of Daunt Books has been on quite a roll over the past few years, issuing books by some of my favourite women writers in translation – Natalia Ginzburg, Madeleine Bourdouxhe and Elisa Shua Dusapin, to name but a few. Now I can add Nona Fernández to that list, courtesy of her remarkably powerful novella Space Invaders, recently released in this stylish new edition. (My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.)

First published in Chile in 2013, this dazzling, shapeshifting novella paints a haunting portrait of a generation of children exposed to the horrors of Pinochet’s dictatorship in the 1980s, a time of deep unease and oppression for the country’s citizens – several of whom were kidnapped, tortured and murdered for resisting the regime. The book focuses on a close-knit group of young adults who were at school together during the ‘80s and are now haunted by a jumble of disturbing dreams, interspersed with shards of unsettling memories – suppressed during childhood but crying out to be dealt with now. Collectively, these striking fragments form a kind of literary collage, a powerful collective memory of the group’s absent classmate, Estrella González, whose father was a leading figure in the State Police.

Right from the very start, Fernández injects her narrative with a chilling sense of oppression, creating an ominous atmosphere that pulses through the book. Memories of the protagonists lining up in a regimented grid-like fashion at school – or later as adults marshalled together in the street – recur throughout the narrative, the context subtly shifting each time the passage appears.

Displaying clean fingernails, ringless hands, bright faces, hair brushed into submission. Singing the national anthem every Monday first thing, each according to their ability, in piercing off-key voices, loud and almost bellowing voices enthusiastically repeating the chorus, as up front one of us raises the Chilean flag from where it rests in somebody else’s arms. The little star of white cloth rising up, up, up till it touches the sky, the flag finally at the top of the staff, rippling over our heads in time to our singing as we stare up at it from the shelter of its dark shadow. (pp. 9–10)

Fernandez adopts a fascinating combination of form and structure for her book, using the popular Space Invaders game as both a framework and a metaphor for conveying the story. As such, the text is divided into four sections, each one focusing on a different time in the 1980s, with the title reflecting one of the lives assigned to a Space Invaders player during the game (e.g. ‘First Life’, ‘Second Life’ and ‘Game Over’). Moreover, the children’s situation can be likened to that of the targets in the Invaders game, their lives literally being shattered – both physically and psychologically – by the horrors of the Pinochet regime.

We’re pieces in a game, but we don’t know what it’s called,’ cites one of the protagonists as they recall those dictatorial line-ups at school – a statement that changes to ‘we’re pieces in a game that we don’t know how to stop playing,’ when it reappears towards the end of the book. As such, it implies that the battle seems never-ending, indicating a scenario where everyone feels trapped.

And when the last one died, when the screen was blank, another alien army appeared from the sky, ready to keep fighting. They gave up one life to combat, then another, and another, in a cycle of endless slaughter. (p. 16)

As the book unfolds, mostly through the sequence of dreams, partial recollections and letters between Estrella and her best friend, Maldonado, a composite picture of the missing girl emerges – a typical schoolgirl, alive to the wonders of life, despite her vulnerable situation. Each classmate sees Estrella slightly differently, viewing her from their own unique perspective; nevertheless, common threads are visible amongst the various voices, images and words.

One thing Fernández does brilliantly here is to draw on some remarkably striking imagery – often from the Space Invaders game itself – to convey the nightmarish world these children were exposed to. For instance, one of the group, a boy named Riquelme, is haunted by dreams of an army of prosthetic hands – an image prompted by the sinister wooden hand worn by Estrella’s father following his accident with a bomb.

Now Riquelme dreams about that never-seen cabinet full of prostheses and about a boy playing with them, a boy he never met. The boy opens the doors of the cabinet and shows him the prosthetic hands lined up one after the other, orderly as an arsenal. They’re glow-in-the-dark green, like the Space Invaders bullets. The boy gives a command and the hands obey him like trained beasts.

Riquelme feels them exit the cabinet and come after him. They menace him. They chase him. They advance like an army of earthlings on the hunt for some alien. (p. 19)

In some instances, dreams can provide an escape from the brutality of life, a safe space to retreat when seeking liberation or solace. However, in the scenario reflected here, any glimpses of freedom and joy are swiftly replaced by more frightening imagery, signalling grave danger as the threats close in.

The sand is swirling. Everything is draining. There’s a hole in the bottom of the pool and it’s beginning to swallow up my classmates. It swallows Bustamante. It’s swallows Fuenzalida. It swallows Maldonado. And I hear screams and the dream turns dangerous and I’m scared. I knew I shouldn’t have jumped into the water… (p. 67)

As the narrative continues, the story becomes progressively darker. More sinister signs and imagery appear. The relative familiarity of school assemblies, lessons and plays gives way to horrific events. Two active dissidents – young men barely out of school – are shot and killed by the State Police. Suspected militants are kidnapped, killed and dumped, their throats slit for all to see. Other individuals are abducted, arrested or beaten up; homes are searched; threatening phone calls are received. In short, the situation becomes increasingly gruesome. Suddenly, the signs of death prove impossible for the children to ignore as their understanding of the reality around them grows – a force they are powerless to tackle.

No one is exactly sure when it happened, but we all remember that coffins and funerals and wreaths were suddenly everywhere and there was no escaping them, because it had all become something like a bad dream. Maybe it had always been that way and we were only just realising it. Maybe Maldonado was right and we were too young. Maybe we were distracted by all that history homework, all those maths tests, all those enactments of battles against the Peruvians. Suddenly things sprang to life in a new way. The classroom opened out to the street, and, desperate and naive, we leaped onto the deck of the enemy ship in the first and final attempt doomed to failure. (p. 57)

It would be unfair of me to reveal what happened to Estrella during this time; you’ll have to read the book to discover it yourself. Suffice it to say we learn enough from the narrative to piece her story together (including the reasons for her disappearance) – a story inspired by actual events from the author’s childhood.

Fernández’s style is visual, engaging and stylishly poetic. While the world portrayed here is brutal, there is wonderful lightness of touch to the author’s approach – an exquisite layering of details for the reader to assemble. Despite its brevity, this is a novella with hidden depths, a highly memorable narrative for such a delicately-etched text. In particular, Fernández skilfully illustrates how in childhood we suppress thoughts and images of traumatic events, only for them to resurface later, often unexpectedly, to be filtered, aggregated and processed in the context of adult life. In short, this is a fractured narrative reflecting fractured lives. A stunning achievement by a remarkable writer – definitely someone to watch.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks

Every now and again, a book comes along that captivates the reader with its elegant form and glittering prose. Maud Martha is one such book, the only novel by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. First published in the US in 1953, this exquisitely-written novella has recently been released in the UK for the first time, making it available to a much wider audience of readers than before.

Maud Martha comprises a sequence of around thirty short vignettes, each one an evocative prose poem presenting a snapshot of the titular character’s life from childhood to early adulthood. As the writer Margo Jefferson points out in her excellent introduction, Brooks – an African American woman from the working classes – drew on her own life to create Maud Martha, tweaking various elements, dialling them up or down to portray the story.

Like Gwendolyn Brooks herself, Maud Martha Brown was born in 1917 to a relatively poor African American family from Chicago. As such, the novella’s early chapters offer glimpses of Maud’s childhood in the city’s South Side, a tough, uncompromising environment punctuated by flashes of beauty in the day-to-day. Dandelions glitter like ‘yellow jewels for everyday, studding the patched green dress’ of the Browns’ back yard, while the beginning of class is heralded by the peal of a bell, ‘a quickening of steps’ and the ‘fluttering of brief cases.’ Right from the very start, the reader is struck by the author’s use of imagery to convey a glorious sense of wonder in the routine and mundane.

Over the course of the novel, we follow Maud Martha through childhood, her early romances as a teenager, to marriage and motherhood, moving seamlessly from the early 1920s to the mid-’40s. The girl is bright, virtuous and imaginative – not as pretty or dainty as her older sister, Helen, but virtuous nonetheless. She dreams of a life in New York with all its attendant glamour and culture – alluring but unobtainable, for the moment at least.

When Maud Martha meets Paul, her body sings beside him – this man who craves the pleasurable things in life, ‘spiffy clothes, beautiful yellow girls, natural hair, smooth cars, jewels, night clubs, cocktail lounges, class’. Marriage swiftly ensues, with the couple settling for a tiny kitchenette and a shared bathroom despite their aspirations for something more spacious. But, while there are moments of brightness – occasional trips to the cinema and other small pleasures – life is hard for the newly-married Maud, whose skin is darker than her husband’s, something of a barrier to maintaining his affections.

What I am inside, what is really me, he likes okay. But he keeps looking at my color, which is like a wall. He has to jump over it in order to meet and touch what I’ve got for him. He has to jump away up high in order to see it. He gets awful tired of all that jumping. (p. 56)

Brooks’ vignettes range from depictions of commonplace, quotidian activities (sparing a mouse; gutting a chicken; shopping for a hat) to more notable occasions (first beau; giving birth; her grandmother’s death). Perhaps unsurprisingly, some of the most affecting snapshots illustrate how Maud Martha navigates the casual prejudices and racism she experiences on a day-to-day basis. The telling looks, the unguarded remarks, and the more blatant, explicit injustices are all captured so carefully and subtly through Brooks’ poetic prose. For instance, in one early vignette, a trip to an uptown cinema – a place where people of colour are rarely seen – proves somewhat uncomfortable for Maud Martha and Paul, despite the beautiful setting.

When the picture was over, and the lights revealed them for what they were, the Negroes stood up among the furs and good cloth and faint perfume, looked about them eagerly. They hoped they would meet no cruel eyes. They hoped no one would look intruded upon. (pp. 49–50)

When Maud Martha takes a job as a domestic ‘help’ in the wealthy suburb of Winnetka, she realises just what Paul has to put up with in his service job – especially when her exacting employer, the insensitive Mrs Burns-Cooper, proceeds to rattle off a litany of boasts. Nevertheless, there is an admirable degree of dignity in how Brooks’ protagonist deals with this put-down and other similar incidents, a quiet seam of resilience in the face of hurtful slights.

Shall I mention, considered Maud Martha, my own social triumphs, my own education, my travels to Gary and Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio? Shall I mention my collection of fancy pink satin bras? She decided against it. She went on listening, in silence, to the confidences until the arrival of the lady’s mother-in-law (large-eyed, strong, with hair of a mighty white, and with an eloquent, angry bosom.) (p. 103)

Perhaps the most affecting example of racism occurs when Maud Martha takes her daughter, Paulette, to visit Santa at the local department store. While Santa welcomes the white children with smiles and open arms, Paulette is roundly ignored – to the point where her mother has to intervene. For the most part, Maud Martha is mindful of keeping the occasional ‘scraps of baffled hate’ hidden inside her, unvoiced and constrained, but in this instance, she can barely hold back the tears. It’s a deeply moving vignette, poignantly evoked through Brooks’ expressive prose.    

But despite the myriad of challenges for a young, black, working-class woman like Maud Martha, there is something wonderfully uplifting about this book, just like its protagonist’s attitude to life itself. The vignettes glow with evocative imagery – like jewels that shimmer as their facets catch the light.  

The Ball stirred her. The Beauties, in their gorgeous gowns, bustling, supercilious; the young men, who at other times most unpleasantly blew their noses, and darted surreptitiously into alleys to relieve themselves, and sweated and swore at their jobs, and scratched their more intimate parts, now smiling, smooth, overgallant, the drowsy lights; the smells of food and flowers, the smell of Murray’s pomade, the body perfumes, natural and superimposed… (pp. 53–54)

As we leave Maud Martha – pregnant with her second child, her brother, Harry, freshly returned from the Second World War – there’s a glorious sense of optimism in the air. Here is a woman with a world of possibilities ahead of her. ‘What, what, am I to do with all of this life?’, she muses, fearless and ready for anything, despite unsettling news of racially-motivated lynchings elsewhere.

In crafting Maud Martha, Gwendolyn Brooks has created something remarkable, a celebration of resilience, grace, dignity and beauty – a powerful image of black womanhood that remains highly relevant today.

Maud Martha is published by Faber & Faber. My thanks to Andy Miller, whose rave on a recent episode of Backlisted pushed it up the reading pile – spot on again!

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

Recently shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, Heaven was first published in Japan in 2009 – it’s my first experience of Mieko Kawakami’s work, but I definitely plan to read more in the future. The 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 only known to us 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. Kawakami is particularly insightful on the rush of thoughts swimming around in the narrator’s head as he thinks about the situation at school, from the reasons for the bullying to catastrophising about the future with all its underlying anxieties.  

I could finish school and change my surroundings, but as long as my eye was lazy, I couldn’t rightfully expect any substantial change. It was more likely that things would get much worse, or maybe they already were, and I hadn’t yet realized the extent of it. Maybe I would kill myself like that kid from TV, or maybe someone else would kill me first. Maybe I was already dead. These ideas flooded my mind to the point where I wasn’t sure what I was thinking. I was numb with a mix of fear and nausea. (p. 50)

Early in the novel, a tentative friendship develops between the narrator and a girl in his class, Kojima, who also finds herself on the receiving end of bullying. The other girls perceive Kojima as poor and dirty, referring to her as ‘Hazmat’ due to her scruffy appearance and lack of personal hygiene. In reality though, Kojima is making a personal choice to look this way as a form of solidarity with her impoverished father (now separated from the family) – a sign of kinship, so to speak, despite her mother’s newly-acquired wealth.

At first, the friendship between the narrator and Kojima develops through the notes they leave for one another inside their desks, but in time they begin to meet in a safe place on a fortnightly basis. Kawakami portrays this relationship in such a touching and tender way that feels entirely believable – in essence, both are seen as outsiders by their peers, singled out as ‘different’ due to their physical appearances. It’s also clear that Kojima’s friendship and secret notes – some of which are presented in the text – are the only things that give the narrator a sense of solace as he struggles to get through the days.

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 level, 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, and how important (or not) are moral codes and social norms in shaping their actions? It also considers different strategies for counteracting the bullies, spanning the spectrum from passive submission to active defiance. Perhaps most importantly, Kawakami explores whether there is a kind of strength to be gained by experiencing suffering and pain, a sense of meaning or moral reward for getting through it.

As the discussions between Kojima and the narrator evolve, it becomes clear that the two teenagers see the bullying somewhat differently from one another, particularly in terms of context. While the narrator remains passive when being attacked, trying to distract himself as a means of getting through it, Kojima attaches a deeper meaning to the experience, viewing her endurance of the abuse as a kind of strength, almost as if she’s making a moral stand by suffering in this way. There’s also a sense that Kawakami is making a broader societal point here, drawing attention to the complicity of bystanders who turn the other cheek. By ignoring these acts of cruelty, are we effectively condoning the bullies’ actions by not speaking out? 

[Kojima:] “…We know what’s important, and we know what’s wrong. That’s just not true for anyone else in class. They pretend they don’t know what’s going on. They act nice to the ones who step all over us just to stay on their good side, and to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to them. They act like their hands are clean, but they aren’t. They don’t get it, not at all. They’re no different from the ones who hurt us…” (p. 92)

Kawakami adds another viewpoint to the mix through the character of Momose, the ordinarily silent sidekick to the bullies’ ringleader, Ninomiya. In a chance meeting after the novel’s most harrowing instance of bullying, the narrator encounters Momose in a hospital waiting room, and a discussion between the pair ensues. In short, Momose presents the view that everything in life is random, nothing happens for a reason, and there is no such thing as right or wrong. Rather, people do what they feel like doing – moral codes or reasoning simply don’t come into it.

“…Sometimes you just want to do something. You get these, like, urges. Like you want to punch someone, or kick someone, whoever happens to be there. The only reason those things happened to you is that you were around when someone was looking for someone to punch. That’s all.” (p. 114)

“…It couldn’t be any simpler. People do what they can get away with.” […]

As the narrator tries to counteract Momose’s argument, the discussion touches on wider societal issues, highlighting once again various contraindications and inconsistencies in our behaviours. In particular, Kawakami raises questions about the dual standards in certain aspects of society – how in some instances, people are willing to do things to others (such as paying a young woman for sex) that they would not wish to happen to members of their family.

By expressing these different viewpoints through her characters, Kawakami does an excellent job of raising some of the issues related to abuse in quite an open, non-leading way, making the novel a fascinating choice for book groups. There’s certainly plenty to discuss.

Inevitably, for a story like this to feel truthful and authentic, there must be a certain degree of detail in the descriptions of the bullying itself – and it’s fair to say that Kawakami doesn’t hold back on this front, expressing the physical and mental aspects of the abuse in all its heartbreaking cruelty. An extended incident in a gymnasium – where the narrator is basically used as a human football – is particularly vicious.

Ensconced in a darkness whose color I could not define, and unable to allow myself to stand, I spun and writhed, searching for a defense. I had no clue what my body was doing. A tepid lava, black and leaden, rose over my ankles and climbed my legs. It probed my mouth and pumped into my lungs. In no time, it was melting me, working from the inside. I moved my legs, trying to escape, but lost my balance and fell flat. (p. 83)

Nevertheless, the story ends on a hopeful note, a welcome ray of optimism that may give the narrator a route out. A beautifully written novel about a tough, uncompromising subject that deserves to be widely read. Highly recommended, as long as you’re prepared for some uncomfortable scenes.  

Heaven is published by Picador; personal copy.

Boarding-house novels – a few of my favourites from the shelves  

A few weeks ago, I posted a list of some of my favourite novels set in hotels, featuring much-loved modern classics such as Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel, Anita Brookner’s Hotel du Lac and Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont. The post proved quite a hit, with many of you adding your own recommendations in the comments. Many thanks for those suggestions – I now have several excellent possibilities to check out!

As promised in the ‘hotels’ post, here’s my follow-up piece on boarding-house novels, an interesting variant on the theme. While boarding houses have been around since the 19th century, they were particularly common in the first half of the 20th century, offering each ‘boarder’ the opportunity to rent a room cost-effectively, particularly in towns or cities.

Just like hotel guests, every boarder comes with their own backstory, habits and peculiarities, throwing up the potential for drama, romance or tension as different individuals interact, especially in the communal areas of the house. There’s also a seedy ‘feel’ to many boarding houses, a sleazy, down-at-heel atmosphere that adds to their appeal – certainly as settings for fiction if not places to live!

So, without further ado, here are a few of my favourite boarding house novels from the shelves. 

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys (1934)

Voyage is narrated by Anna Morgan, an eighteen-year-old girl brought to England from her former home in the West Indies by her stepmother, a selfish woman who all but abandons Anna after her father’s death. What follows is a gradual unravelling as Anna drifts around in a state of depression, moving from one down-at-heel room to another, slipping unconsciously into a state of dependency, turning to drink and sleeping with men in the hope of some much-needed comfort. This is a brilliant, devastating book, played out against a background of loneliness and despair – all the more powerful for its connection to Rhys’ own life.

The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton (1947)

Perhaps the quintessential boarding house novel, this darkly comic tragicomedy revolves around Miss Roach, a spinster in her late thirties whose drab and dreary existence is mirrored by the suffocating atmosphere in her lodgings, The Rosamund Tea Rooms. Located in the fictional riverside town of Thames Lockdon, The Rosamond is home to a peculiar mix of misfits – lonely individuals on the fringes of life. Holding court over the residents is fellow boarder, the ghastly Mr Thwaites, a consummate bully who delights in passing judgements on others, much to Miss Roach’s discomfort. Hamilton excels at capturing the stifling atmosphere of the boarding house and the stealthy nature of war, stealing people’s pleasures and even their most basic necessities. A brilliant introduction to the boarding-house milieu. 

Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (1947)

Set in the 1940s, this marvellous novel is narrated by Richard Fanshawe, a young man who finds himself in the unenviable position of trying to eke out a living by selling vacuum cleaners to sceptical housewives. The story is shot through with dark humour, much of which stems from Maclaren-Ross’ wonderfully sharp observations on Fanshawe’s experiences as a salesman and life at the boarding house where he rents a room. Constantly in arrears with the rent and heavily reliant on credit, Fanshawe never seems to have enough money in his pockets. He’s living from one day to the next, but there’s always the hope that wealthy Uncle George will come through with a cheque to tide him over for a while. Meanwhile, Fanshawe’s landlady is on the lookout for any signs of money…Running alongside this storyline is a touch of romance as Fanshawe falls for a colleague’s wife, Sukie, while her husband is away – a relationship played out against the backdrop of prying landladies, seaside cafes and picnics in the woods. This terrific novel is highly recommended, especially for Patrick Hamilton fans.

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark (1963)

The setting for this one is The May of Teck, a large boarding house/hostel ‘for Ladies of Slender Means below the age of Thirty’, situated in London’s Kensington. Despite the novel’s wartime setting, there’s a wonderful boarding-school-style atmosphere in The May of Teck, with a glamorous Schiaparelli gown passing from one girl to another for various important dates. Spark is particularly good on the social hierarchy that has developed within the hostel, with the youngest girls occupying dormitory-style rooms on the first floor, those with a little more money sharing smaller rooms on the second, while the most attractive, sophisticated girls occupy the top floor, a status that reflects their interesting jobs and active social lives. By turns sharp, witty, touching and poignant, this evocative novel touches on some dark and surprising themes with a dramatic conclusion to boot.

The Boarding-House by William Trevor (1965)

I loved this darkly comic novel set in a South London boarding house in the mid-1960s. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each lodger possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, a little flawed or inadequate in some way, hovering on the fringes of mainstream society. Residents include Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity in such a way that gently elicits the reader’s sympathy. Moreover, their existences are marked by a deep sadness or loneliness, an air of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as life has passed them by. In short, this is a brilliantly observed novel, a wickedly funny tragicomedy of the highest order.

The House of Dolls by Barbara Comyns (1989)

We’re back in Kensington for this one, set in a London boarding house in the midst of the swinging ‘60s. Amy Doll, a widow in her mid-thirties, has four female boarders – all middle-aged or elderly, all divorced or widowed and cast adrift from any immediate family. Low on funds and in need of support to pay the rent, the ladies have turned their hands to a little light prostitution, fashioning a sort of ‘lounge’ for elderly gentlemen in Amy’s drawing-room. Central to this operation are Berti and Evelyn – both stick-thin and well past their prime. With her dyed red hair and skin-tight clothes, Berti is the more formidable of the pair, a rather nosy, bawdy woman who proves difficult for Amy to control. Almost as troublesome is Evelyn – ‘a poor man’s version of Berti’ with her blue rinse and slightly tragic air. This is a charming, wickedly funny novel with some serious themes at its heart – how sometimes our hands are forced by unfortunate circumstances – loneliness, poverty, abandonment or adversity. A lesser-known Comyns, but well worth your time.

Also worthy of an honourable mention or two:

  • R. C. Sherriff’s charming 1931 novel The Fortnight in September, in which the Stevens family take their annual holiday at Bognor’s Seaview boarding house, a traditional establishment that has seen better days;
  • Olivia Manning’s excellent 1951 novel School for Love, a wonderfully compelling coming-of-age story set in Jerusalem towards the end of WW2. Notable for the monstrous Miss Bohun, who presides over the central setting – a boarding house of sorts;
  • Patricia Highsmith’s The Sweet Sickness (1960) – an immersive story of obsession, desire and fantasy. David, the novel’s central protagonist, spends much of his time fending off unwanted attention from the other residents at Mrs McCartney’s boarding house, his shabby residence in New York;
  • Beryl Bainbridge’s An Awfully Big Adventure (1989) – a most enjoyable novel set in the theatrical world of 1950s Liverpool, with a down-at-heel boarding house to boot;

Do let me know your thoughts if you’ve read any of these books. Or maybe you have some favourite boarding-house novels that you’d like to share with others – I’m sure there are many more I’ve yet to discover, so please feel free to mention them below.

Tomorrow by Elisabeth Russell Taylor

Born in London in 1930, the English writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor – not to be confused with the other Elizabeth Taylor – wrote six novels and three short-story collections during her lifetime. The most prominent of these is perhaps Tomorrow, first published in 1991 and reissued by Daunt Books in 2018. Fans of Anita Brookner’s work will find much to enjoy here. It’s an exquisitely written story of love and loss – a deeply poignant lament to the sweeping away of a glorious existence, a world of innocence and sanctuary in the run-up to WW2.

Tomorrow revolves around Elisabeth Danzinger, a quiet, solitary forty-year-old woman who works as a housekeeper in London. Every summer, Elisabeth returns to The Tamarisks, a beautifully furnished guest house on the Danish island of Møn, a place that holds many memories of a once-idyllic past, particularly the time she spent there with her cousin and lover, Daniel Eberhardt.  

Early in the novel, we learn of Elisabeth’s family background, which is highly significant to the story. During the interwar years, Elisabeth’s father, Jurgen – a man of Aryan stock – taught English at a northern German University. By contrast, her mother, Anna, had a very different upbringing, hailing from a wealthy, cultured German Jewish family in Baden-Baden. Also relevant here are the Danzingers’ close relatives, the Eberhardts, due to the multiple connections between the two families. While Jurgen was teaching English in Germany, Horst Eberhardt – his best friend since their modest shared childhood in Hunsrück – specialised in Italian at the same university. Moreover, Horst’s wife, Charlotte, was in fact Anna’s twin sister – another cultured woman who found herself at risk from the growing prejudices against the Jews.

Thinking back to the Hunsrück the men remembered the extent to which their families were indivisible from their land. But they ignored the fact that German soil was being raked over for an unprecedented crop of anti-semitism; that less accomplished academics than they, jealous of their intellectual prowess and material privilege, revelled in the growing uncertainty that, tainted by association through their wives, the two would someday be checked. (p. 21)

In 1927, the Danzingers and the Eberhardts bought two adjacent holiday homes on Møn, partly as a retreat from the hustle and bustle of university life and partly as an insurance policy in case the situation in Europe escalated (which it subsequently did). The Danzingers’ second home was The Tamarisks, a beautiful house designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in the classic Elizabethan fashion. Meanwhile, the Eberhardts took charge of the nearby Tuscan Villa, which they tastefully furnished in the Italian style.   

The bulk of Russell Taylor’s novella takes place over a week in August 1960 as the forty-year-old Elisabeth Danzinger makes her annual trip to Møn. Being a steadfast creature of habit, Elisabeth inhabits the same ‘yellow’ room at The Tamarisks each year; and from there, she makes the same visits to each familiar place on her itinerary, ruminating on deeply ingrained sorrows as she goes about her pilgrimage. 

She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wondered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself accused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world. Life conducted itself independently of her. The scents from the sodden earth filled with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past. (pp. 54–55)

During her time on Møn, Elisabeth revisits various personal landmarks – a tree bearing the initials ‘E’ and ‘D’, and a bench inscribed with ‘à l’amitié pure’ (‘in pure friendship’) from a note they made in adolescence – testaments to her relationship with Daniel that have weathered the test of time. In each instance, Elisabeth runs her hands over the markings, contemplating their endurance in a world where so much has changed. There are other reminders of the cousins’ love for one another too, perhaps most notably a box containing a tiny ammonite and a note of the lovers’ bond with one another, hidden away behind the bath panel in Elisabeth’s room.

As this haunting, achingly sad story unfolds, there are flashbacks to 1939 – memories of an idyllic summer Elisabeth and Daniel spent together on Møn while their parents holidayed in South America. Returning to 1939, we follow the cousins as they work on survey of the island, visiting places of interest to take photographs for their collection. Over the summer, the lovers also deepen their shared love of music, planning a programme for a future recital before their time together runs out. Nevertheless, as the political situation in Europe reaches a crisis point, everything these two families hold dear is about to be shattered, their happiness at risk of being obliterated as the Nazis close in…

We know from the novella’s opening that this is a tragic story, but to reveal anything more at this stage might spoil it for potential readers. Elisabeth has a specific reason for these annual pilgrimages to the island, honouring her past with Daniel every August without fail. Once again, the reason for these visits is best left unsaid, enabling future readers to discover this for themselves.

This really is an exquisitely written book, full of painterly images of the mercurial island of Møn – sometimes quiet and peaceful, other times brooding and menacing as signs of darkness burst through the light. Russell Taylor makes excellent use of the unpredictability of the natural world here, harnessing the fickle nature of the sun, wind and sea, elements that can change in outlook in the blink of an eye.

The clouds parted and through them a beam of light fell on Sandweg church. It penetrated a stained-glass window, spreading lozenge shapes of iridescent purple, yellow, red and blue on the tiled floor. And then the clouds re-formed over the sun and the colours vanished, like spilt blood vanishes in the dark at the scene of a crime (p. 81)

Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue. (p. 51)

Tomorrow shares something in common with Hotel du Lac, especially in style and content (although it’s fair to say that Russell Taylor’s novella is more devastating than the Brookner). The settings in particular feel quite similar. For instance, there’s a sense of quiet efficiency about Fru Møller’s management of The Tamarisks, which is reminiscent of the Lac – an austere formality, perhaps, and an air of mutual respect.

Fru Møller’s expertise was nowhere more striking than in the dining-room. She succeeded an exercising complete control over the smooth running of mealtimes without appearing to be more than a vague presence in the Hall. […] At the end of dinner she gently persuaded her guests into the study, where she presided over the Cona coffee machine and orchestrated conversation between strangers. (p. 33)

And, just like the Hotel du Lac, The Tamarisks is frequented by a small coterie of eccentric regulars, idiosyncratic characters that Russell Taylor portrays with a wickedly comic flair. Most notable are the Colonel and his elderly wife Bo-Bo, a former actress who remains frozen in childhood, fussing over her dolls as if they were children with feelings. Bo-Bo’s world revolves around clothes, food and these toy-like figures, while the Colonel remains largely indifferent. In truth, he would like little more than to settle down to a life of companionship with Miss Danzinger, recognising in Elisabeth a like-minded soul.

By writing Tomorrow, Elisabeth Russell Taylor has gifted us a poignant, achingly sad story conveyed with elegance and grace – a haunting elegy to the loss of a generation as the horrors of Elisabeth’s past and present are gradually revealed. I’m definitely going to keep an eye out for more of this author’s fiction with its melancholy, steely edge.