Tag Archives: Novella

Happiness, As Such by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Minna Zallman Proctor)

Last August, for Women in Translation Month, I read Voices in the Evening (1961), an episodic, vignette-style novel by the Italian writer Natalia Ginzburg. It’s one four books by this writer recently reissued by the publishing arm of Daunt Books (you can find more details here). While Happiness, As Such is a later novel than Voices, it explores similar themes – centred as it is on the lives and loves of the members of an Italian family in the mid-20th century. If anything, I think it’s an even stronger (better integrated?) work than Voices. Nevertheless, both books are well worth checking out, especially if you’re interested in the messy business of families and the insights into humanity novels can offer us.

Set in the early 1970s, Happiness, As Such takes the form of a series of letters interspersed with brief passages of exposition written in the third person. Central to the novel is Michele, the grown-up son of an Italian family, his parents having separated some years earlier. Michele – who appears to have been actively involved in politics – has fled to England leaving several loose ends in his wake. His mother, Adriana, writes letters to her son, berating him for various things – not least the fact that his former lover, Mara Martorelli, has turned up with a son who may or may not be his. The default tone of these letters is passive-aggressive, highlighting Adriana’s disenchantment with her former husband as well as her son.

If this Martorelli baby is yours, what will you do, you don’t know how to do anything. You didn’t finish school did you. I don’t think your paintings of owls and falling-down buildings are that good. Your father says they are and that I don’t understand painting. They look to me like the paintings your father did when he was young, but not as good. I don’t know. Please tell me what I should say to this Martorelli and if I need to send her money. She hasn’t asked but I’m sure that’s what she wants. (pp. 8–9)

Mara for her part is a bit of a mess – careless, unreliable and promiscuous, she flits from one place to another, unable to settle or establish any degree of stability.

When Michele needs to call in various favours, he writes to Angelica, his long-suffering sister and closest confidante within the family. At various points in the narrative, there are books to be sent, papers to be procured and guns to be disposed of – the later adding to the possibility that Michele’s disappearance may well have been politically motivated.

Also in the mix is Osvaldo, Michele’s close friend and possibly lover – there several reflections on the ambiguity surrounding Osvaldo’s sexuality throughout the book. Through his relationship with Michele, Osvaldo is drawn into the extended family, supporting Mara by finding her a job and a place to live, neither of which last very long due to Mara’s inherent fickleness and instability. Furthermore, Osvaldo proves himself to be a strange kind of comfort for Adriana when her former husband dies, particularly as Michele fails to return home for his father’s funeral.

Like Voices, Happiness, As Such can be though of as a novel of tensions – in this case between former lovers and the different generations of an extended family. On the surface, Ginzburg’s prose seems unadorned and straightforward, but this apparent simplicity belies the complexity of emotions running underneath. Evasion, resentment, grief, spitefulness, confession and compassion all come together to form a richly textured, multi-faceted narrative. Moreover, the nature of the largely epistolary form means that many of the novel’s key incidents and conversations take place outside of the letters, requiring us to read between the lines of the various missives to piece together a more nuanced picture of the family dynamics.

While Ginzburg’s tone is often very amusing – there is a wonderfully rich vein of wry humour running through the book – the impression we are left with is one of palpable melancholy. There is a sense that we are all fragile and at risk of finding ourselves stuck in a form of stasis, unable to break free without assistance.

[Letter from Angelical to Michele:] Your friend Mara has left Colarosa. She wrote to me from Novi Ligure where she is staying with her cousins’ maid. She’s not doing well, she doesn’t have anywhere to live, and has nothing to call her own, except for a black kimono with sunflower embroidery, a fox-fur coat and a baby. But I feel like all of us are vulnerable to the gentle art of ending up in terrible situations that are unresolvable and impossible to move out of by going either forward or back. (p. 153)

At the heart of the book are various reflections on happiness, particularly the idea that we may not be cognisant of this feeling as and when it is happening to us. Happiness is often fleeting and best appreciated in retrospect when we can look back on events from a distance. In other words, ‘we rarely recognise the happy moments while we’re living them. We usually only recognise them with the distance of time.’

In creating Happiness, As Such, Ginzburg has crafted a beautiful, wryly humorous, deeply melancholy novel of family relationships. Her characters are complex, flawed and nuanced – qualities that make them feel real and humane as they navigate the difficulties of family life. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates something of the book’s biting humour as Adriana passes judgement on her sisters-in-law, Mathilde and Cecilia, following the death of their brother, Michele’s father.

[Letter from Adriana to Michele:] Your father left you a series of paintings, the ones he did between 1945 in 1955, and the Via San Sebastianello house, and the tower. I get the impression your sisters are going to come out of this with much less than you. They’ll get those properties near Spoleto, many of which have been sold off, but there are some left. Matilde and Cecilia are going to get a piece of furniture, that baroque, Piedmontese credenza. Matilde immediately observed that Cecilia gets the better end of that deal because Matilde wouldn’t know what to do with a credenza. Can you just imagine. What joy will half-blind, decrepit Cecilia get from a credenza? (pp. 94–95)

My thanks to the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy. Should you wish to buy a copy of this book, you can do so via this link to Bookshop.org (see the disclosure on the home page of my website). 

The Story of Stanley Brent by Elizabeth Berridge (1945)

This is wonderful – a story that compresses the key moments of a man’s life into just 75 pages. It’s the debut novel (or novella) by the English writer Elizabeth Berridge, whose Sing Me Who You Are (1967) I read earlier this year.

The novella opens with a notable event as Stanley – an assistant at a traditional Estate Agents in Belgravia – proposes marriage to his girlfriend, Ada, following an outing in the rain. It’s a touching, self-effacing scene, one that captures something of the tone in this thoughtful little book.

After a long engagement, Stanley and Ada marry. However, their hopes of a bright, optimistic future are somewhat tainted by a difficult honeymoon, particularly as their attempts at lovemaking leave Ada traumatised by the experience. Stanley, for his part, feels angry and ashamed, trapped in his own sense of isolation as he surveys the world outside.

The sight of the flat sands, the quietness of the night, emphasised by the slight sea-noise of dark waters, bought him uncomfortably face to face with himself. Time seemed absent. This was an hour that would not tally with his accustomed thoughts – not only was Ada a stranger to him, he was a stranger to himself. He was conscious of life and death flowing in and around him, desolating and building his spirit, testing and judging. He had never felt so helpless. (p. 22)

On their return home, the Brents slip into a life of routine and domesticity. Two daughters come along; various illnesses and disabilities are hinted at; and suddenly WW1 breaks out (although Stanley is not admitted to the army, presumably for health reasons).

What Berridge does so well throughout the book is to convey the feeling of a life slipping by. Stanley is rather passive and unambitious, qualities that are reflected both in his marriage and in his approach to work. Despite being made a junior partner at the firm, Stanley fails to see that the world around him is changing. He is too snobbish and wedded to tradition to take advantage of the demand for modest properties, a trend that accelerates in the years following the war. There is a degree of passivity too in Stanley’s response to his wife’s brief dalliance, something that gives Ada a sense of freedom and enjoyment. In another affecting scene, the two briefly reconcile when Ada realises the foolishness of her actions and Stanley reveals his deep-seated fear of loss.

As the years go by, the Brents continue to drift apart, fuelled by Ada’s ambitions for her daughters and Stanley’s inherent inertia and possibly depression – signs of an increasing dependence on alcohol begin to appear, especially when Stanley enters middle age.

…but he, Stanley Brent, why should he be lonely? Was it his own fault that Ada treated him so impatiently? Was he so impossible? Take that remark she had flung at him this morning, so final it had sounded. She seemed to know just what to say to agitate and make him appear muddle-headed. What he thought of as calmness was to her merely torpor. But what had she said? Like a splinter it had penetrated the surface of his mind; he could feel it working on his nerves, hurtfully. (p. 56)

There is such poignancy in Berridge’s portrayal of Stanley, which succeeds in capturing the loneliness a man can feel, even when he is surrounded by his family. As a novella, it highlights the small yet significant moments in day-to-day life, the unspoken tragedies of missed opportunities and other lives that might have been lived. Berridge accentuates this theme with a recurring motif, an unfinished tune on a violin that signals a connection between Stanley and Ada’s step-father, Monsieur Boucher, another man whose life seems shrouded in melancholy.

I really loved this novella, which manages to pack an impressive depth of feeling into a very compact story. The book itself comes in a beautiful hardback edition from Michael Walmer’s publishing house. My thanks for kindly providing a review copy.

Child of Fortune by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I’ve written before about Yuko Tsushima, the Japanese writer whose dreamlike novella, Territory of Light, was one of my highlights from last year. In her work, Tsushima frequently explores the lives of women on the fringes, individuals who defy societal expectations of marriage and motherhood – themes which are prominent again here.

First published in Japan in 1978, Child of Fortune revolves around Kōko, a thirty-six-year-old divorced woman, and her eleven-year-old daughter, Kayako. As the novel opens, Kōko is living alone in her apartment, Kayako having recently moved in with her Aunt Shōko, Kōko’s sensible older sister. Ostensibly, Kayako cited a need to focus on her schoolwork as the reason for the change in living arrangements; nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder if the real reason was somewhat more complex than this…

For much of her adult life, Kōko has been defying her relatives’ wishes by raising Kayako on her own, away from the traditional family unit. The more conventional Shōko clearly considers her sister’s approach to motherhood to be ill-judged and reckless. Kōko’s job giving piano lessons to children is hardly steady, offering little in the way of financial stability for the future. In short, there is nothing that Shōko would like more than to meddle with her sister’s lifestyle – after all, it is Shōko who will need to step in if things go wrong.

–That’s not what I call a real job– Kōko’s older sister had said to Kayako. –It’s only part-time. What makes her think she can support herself and a daughter on her pay? If anything goes wrong she’ll turn to us in the end. Which means in fact that she’s relying on us all along. Of course she has to, she couldn’t expect to make ends meet otherwise, so she should stop being so stubborn and simply come and live here. We’d be delighted to have her. She is my only sister, after all. Really, for someone who’s thirty-seven she has less sense than you, Kaya dear.– (p. 3)

As Kayako is drawn further into the fold of Shōko’s family, Kōko is left feeling marginalised and isolated – somewhat alienated from her own daughter. 

Kayako now returned to her mother’s apartment only on Saturday nights. She kept strictly to this schedule, arriving on Saturday evening and leaving early Sunday morning. She would set off to take a practice test, or to meet a friend, or for some such reason. Each time, Kōko felt she was being tormented for her own weakness – it was always the same, always a turned back that she was forced to look at. She wanted to keep her daughter with her on Sunday morning at least. But to tell her so might be taking as nagging, and then Kayako mightn’t come near her at all. (p. 4)

The picture is further complicated when Kōko realises that she might be pregnant, the consequence of a fairly casual approach to a liaison with Osada, a friend of her former husband. While Kōko seems to have invited this situation, there is one thing she begins to ponder…

Only one thing gave her pause, a slight concern – after all – about what people would think. And even that small hesitation seemed unlikely to survive her highhanded view of life, for, living as she chose until now, she’d come to care little about appearances at this stage. Maybe she was reaching an age where it was senseless to want a fatherless child; but, precisely because of her age, she didn’t want to make a choice that she would regret till the day she died. Lately she was more convinced than ever that there was no point worrying about what people thought. She would soon be thirty-seven. The only person watching Kōko at thirty-seven was Kōko. (p. 40)

I’m keeping this post quite brief, mainly because the book itself is quite compact and best experienced in person rather than secondhand through a review. As the narrative unravels, we come to realise just how conflicted and vulnerable Kōko really is. Memories from the past begin to resurface: a childhood marked by the loss of her congenitally disabled brother at the age of twelve; the breakdown of her marriage to Kayako’s father; the disappointment of a lover returning to his pregnant wife. These things and more begin to flit through Kōko’s mind.

Child of Fortune is another haunting, beautifully-written book from Tsushima, one that explores themes of marginalisation, motherhood and the pressure to conform to conventional societal expectations. (The setting of 1970s Japan is highly significant here.) It is by turns subtle, reflective and deeply melancholic. And yet there is a glimmer of hope at the end, a sense of Kōko finally seizing control, once again ready to forge her own path in life.

(This is my first read for August’s focus on Women in Translation, a.k.a. #WITMonth – if it’s of interest, you can find more details about it here.)

Child of Fortune is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Who Among Us? by Mario Benedetti (1953, tr. Nick Caistor, 2019)

My contribution to this year’s Spanish Lit Month is Who Among Us?, an intriguing, elusive novella from the Uruguayan author and journalist, Mario Benedetti, who uses a variety of different forms to examine this timeless story of love and misunderstandings.

Miguel and Alicia have been married for eleven years, but over time their relationship has drifted and soured, partly due to another element in the frame – that of their childhood friend, Lucas, whose shadow hangs over the couple like a ghostly presence. Many years earlier, it seemed as if Alicia might marry Lucas, the pair arguing passionately together, with Miguel observing quietly from the sidelines. However, it wasn’t to be; in time, Alicia became convinced that Miguel was the better of the two men, prompting her to choose him over Lucas when deciding on her future.

Miguel’s side of the story is presented as a series of undated diary or journal entries – possibly a notebook that Alicia may well get to read at some point. Through these reflections, Miguel comes across as a passive, unambitious man – neither jealous nor envious of Lucas and his position in their relationship. Rather, Miguel views himself as somewhat subordinate or second-rate; a spectator as opposed to a participator. Possibly as a consequence of this, he now sees his marriage to Alicia as something of a mistake.

The present crisis has arisen out of a gradual conviction: that Alicia has always preferred Lucas. I don’t think she was guilty of any kind of manipulation when she apparently chose me. She was terribly confused, that’s all. She couldn’t see clearly. I am the one who was responsible from the start. Even then I knew it wasn’t right; and yet I closed my eyes and pretended to believe in the unbelievable; it was a form of self-harm. (p. 53)

The turning point comes when an opportunity arises for Alicia to travel to Buenos Aires on a family matter. Miguel takes full advantage of this event, encouraging his wife to meet with Lucas while she is in the city – Lucas having moved there following Miguel and Alicia’s wedding several years before. 

In the book’s second, relatively brief section, we see another side of the story through a letter Alicia has written to Miguel. By contrast with the reflective nature of Miguel’s journal, Alicia’s missive is somewhat barbed and emotional, laying much of the blame for the breakdown at Miguel’s door.

You and I have made lots of mistakes, but I sense now that our greatest single, our most unpardonable, error has been never to talk about them. We missed out on that chance for openness, the one most couples seize as they daily insult and curse each other, finding equal pleasure in these moments of hatred as they do in those of appeasement. (p. 63)

My dearest, our marriage has not been a failure, but something far more terrible; a misspent success. All our happiness, which was more subtle than the usual kind, all our love, which was more honest than our fear, proved unable to prevail over all your pent-up rancour, all those compromises of pride and apathy, all that rigid, silent shame. (p. 66)

The triangle is completed with Lucas’s perspective, presented as a fictional version of his meeting with Alicia. It is, in effect, a short story, complete with footnotes which explain certain aspects of the text and their relationship to actual events.

What I really liked about this book was how each of the two subsequent sections – those from Alicia and Lucas – cast a different light on the reflections from Miguel, reframing his perception of events, thereby questioning our understanding of them too. Assumptions are made; doubts are cast; and misunderstandings prevail. We’re never quite sure which of the three accounts is the most representative of the true situation, if indeed such a thing exists – who among us can make that judgement when presented with these individuals’ perceptions of their relationships with others?

It’s also an interesting way of presenting what some might consider a rather familiar narrative – a love triangle involving three closely-connected individuals, where the relationships between them change and develop over the years. While Benedetti flexes his style from one section to the next, certain aspects of the book – Miguel’s account in particular – reminded me of some of Javier Marias’s work with its focus on self-examination and self-reflection.

In writing this thoughtful, jewel-like novella, Benedetti has given us a multifaceted story of love, missed opportunities and mismatched emotions. Recommended for those who enjoy character-driven fiction, particularly in a variety of different styles.  

Grant (at 1streading) has also written about this book – you can read his review here.

Who Among Us? is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

The End of Me by Alfred Hayes

The British-born novelist and screenwriter Alfred Hayes – a man who spent much of his working life in the US and Italy – is fast becoming one of those ‘experience everything’ writers for me. His slim, expertly-crafted novellas, with their piercing portrayals of the pain of ill-fated relationships, remain some of my favourites in recent years. (I read the superb My Face for the World to See (1958) before setting up this blog, but my thoughts on In Love (1953) and The Girl on the Via Flaminia (1949) – a book that made my 2018 highlights – can be found by clicking on the links.)

The End of Me (1968) is a later novella, and the passing of time is somewhat reflected in the book’s narrator, Asher, a fifty-one-year-old screenwriter whose career is on the rocks. Having observed his socially-ambitious second wife in flagrante with her tennis partner, Asher flees his home in L.A. for the relative anonymity of New York, a bruised and anguished man. It is a city that has healed Asher in the past — ‘her crowds, like enormous blotters’ possess the ability to absorb his life.

Once ready to reconnect with the world, Asher pays a visit to his elderly Aunt Dora, who views him as the successful one in the family – the one with a good job, a fine wife, and comfortable home in the eternal sunshine. Unwilling or unable to dispel this idyllic vision, Asher submits to the falsehood, assuring Aunt Dora that everything is relatively well in his world. In reality, he lacks a sense of purpose and is pondering what to do. 

As a consequence of the visit, Asher agrees to meet Dora’s grandson, Michael, a young man with ambitions to be a poet; but when Michael comes to see Asher in his hotel suite, their meeting is a disaster. Asher is riled by Michael’s somewhat surly, disdainful manner, and his subsequent silence prompts Michael to leave.

The following day, Asher is ashamed of his behaviour; contrition sets in, and he calls Michael to invite him for cocktails at the hotel. When Michael arrives, he is accompanied by Aurora, a striking girl of southern European descent. The attraction for Asher is immediate and intense; Aurora intrigues him, and yet he knows she is part of Michael’s world.

She had immense dark eyes. The lids were whitened; the lips had been administered to with a pale lipstick. She wore her hair caught up in a rich, somewhat loose, coil that threatened if she laughed too hard (and she did, she always laughed too hard, she laughed, if I may amend Michael’s more graphic description of her laughter, vaginally) to come down in a disorderly mass. I wondered, then, how far it would reach: her hair. Down to where. Down to what. The skin was marvelous. And she was Michael’s girl. (p. 31)

In his keenness to reconnect with the past, Asher asks Michael to accompany him around NYC to revisit various places from his youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, much of the city has now changed, neatly echoing the feelings of damage and loss that are central to the book. In return, Asher will read Michael’s poems – pieces that turn out to be rather crude and derivative, reflecting a poisonous, destructive form of love. However, Asher holds back from telling Michael what he really thinks of his poems, choosing instead to describe them as ‘interesting’ – a carefully-chosen word with an ambiguous meaning.

Despite all this, Asher finds himself drawn to Michael, seeing him as someone who might be able to learn something from Asher’s own experiences of life. There is an element of self-delusion on the part of Asher here – a sort of self-flattery, hinging on the belief that he can to pass into the world of the young, albeit temporarily.

Perhaps what I wished, not admitting it entirely to myself, was to attach the boy somehow to me. To establish between us (where the non sequitur existed) a connection of a kind. It wasn’t that I felt fatherly to Michael; I couldn’t even honestly say I liked him: it was simply that I felt he had a certain irritating importance for me. I might have been flattering myself, but I felt that, after all, something could be learned, that if I were rich in nothing else I was rich in experience, though perhaps not too rich in it. The generations touched somewhere. (p. 52)

In tandem to this, Asher begins to see Aurora – something he does with Michael’s permission. They meet in the park, chat together and go to the cinema. During these scenes, we learn more about Asher’s former loves, the relationships that have spoiled and soured. In contrast to these women, Asher finds Aurora intriguing and desirable. It is perhaps only with the benefit of hindsight that he appreciates quite how sly and calculating Aurora can be.

Oh, she acted. She played complicated games. As at the French film. Perhaps she even lied a little. Or teased me a little. Amused herself with me. But why not? I was the damaged one. Damaged by age, damaged by the profession I had chosen, damaged by marriage. She was whole, and young, and there wasn’t anything of value I could really offer her. I wasn’t going to fall in love with her; it would be absurd to expect her to fall in love with me. Besides, there was Michael: she was, in some way they accepted among themselves, by their definitions, his girl. Whatever being one’s girl at the moment meant. I wasn’t really too anxious to find out. I was being, by some consent, allowed to share her. (p. 95.)

With Michael pulling the strings, Aurora flirts wildly with Asher, twisting him round her little finger and manipulating him for the fun of it – lies, deceit and calculation are all part of the game. There is a form of ritual humiliation going on here, something designed to expose Asher for his past failings, reducing him to the status of washed-up hack with his productive, successful years far behind him. Michael, in particular, shows great contempt for Asher’s generation, the men who believe they were born into one of the great eras of historical truth, the time of America’s Depression. (The damaging impact of WW2 is part of the backdrop to much of Hayes’s work, and it remains in evidence here.)

There is a ruthless, fatalistic tone running through The End of Me, something that feels detectable from the outset. The impending sense of doom in the narrative is crystal clear; and yet there is something hugely compelling in the telling of it. Asher knows he is being played, but by quite how much only becomes apparent towards the end.

There is a brutal honesty to Hayes’s portrayal of various facets of human nature – perhaps most notably, desire, egotism, ruthlessness, vulnerability and cruelty. Once again, I find myself marvelling at this author’s ability to distil this degree of psychological insight into such an economical yet beautifully-written book.

In short, this is a bitter espresso-shot of a novel – a dark, concentrated gem of destruction and despair. Naturally, I adored it… (Annabel has also written about it here.)

The End of Me is published by NYRB Classics; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.  

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

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

The Offing by Benjamin Myers (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dig by Cynan Jones (2014)

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

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

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

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

‘After?’ asked his mother.

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

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

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

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

In writing The Dig, Jones has crafted an enduring story of loss, isolation and savagery in a harsh, unforgiving world. And yet there is great tenderness here too, a sense of beauty and poetry in the language, particularly in Daniel’s memories of times past. The writing has a meditative quality to it, perfectly capturing Daniel’s love for his wife and the intense pain of her loss. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates this aspect of the novella.

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

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

Winter in Sokcho by Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. Aneesa Abbas Higgins, 2020)

I loved this. A beautiful, dreamlike story encompassing themes of detachment, fleeting connections and the pressure to conform to society’s expectations.

The setting for the novella – this French-Korean writer’s debut – is Sokcho, a coastal city in the far north-east of South Korea, close to the North Korean border. Dusapin’s story revolves around a young woman in her early twenties, currently working as a cook and housemaid in a run-down guest house struggling to keep up with the new hotels in the city.

The narrator – 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. Moreover, she is being made to feel inadequate by her conventional Korean mother, a woman who sells seafood at the nearby fish market. There are repeated references to the narrator’s weight and her status as an unmarried woman, both of which give rise to pressure from the mother. The narrator, for her part, feels at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to her boyfriend, Jun-oh, an aspiring model intent on furthering his career in Seoul.

Into the narrator’s 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, an undeniable charge that feels detectable to the reader. 

I felt a chill as a draught blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, staring hard as if he were trying to make sense of the image in front of him. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots, hardening to form a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.

‘You should be more careful.’

‘I didn’t do it on purpose.’

‘Just as well.’

 He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. (p. 8)

With few contemporaries of her own age close at hand, the young woman is intrigued by Kerrand and his reasons for coming to Sokcho, particularly in the low season. In truth, the Frenchman is looking for inspiration for his new book, the final instalment in a series featuring a travelling archaeologist – a loner who bears a striking resemblance to Kennard with his dark looks and striking features.

At night, the young woman hears Kennard sketching in the next room, a sound shot through with sadness and melancholy, seeping into her consciousness as she tries to fall sleep.

In bed later, I heard the pen scratching. I pinned myself against the thin wall. A gnawing sound, irritating. Working its way under my skin. Stopping and starting. I pictured Kerrand, his fingers scurrying like spiders’ legs, his eyes are travelling up, scrutinising the model, looking down at the paper again, looking back up to make sure his pen conveyed the truth of his vision, to keep her from vanishing while he traced the lines. (p. 67)

There is a sense that the narrator is disturbed by Kennard’s potential vision of her, reflected in some of the drawings she secretly watches him sketching.

As the narrative unfolds, the connection between Kennard and the narrator waxes and wanes, defined by occasional moments of intensity interspersed with significant periods of latency. At first, the young woman does not reveal her dual nationality to him, choosing to communicate in broken English instead of her competent French. He eschews the Korean meals she cooks for the guests, preferring instead to pick up Western-style junk food which he eats alone in his room. Nevertheless, Kennard is sufficiently interested in the narrator to ask her to show him something of Sokcho. A trip to the border with North Korea follows, complete with a visit to the museum whose ghostly souvenir shop is staffed by a waxwork-like attendant, her face frozen as if in aspic.

Threaded through the novella are signs of tension between the South and the North. At Naksan these are highly visible, from the barbed wire on the beaches to the bunkers with sub-machine guns poking out from their openings. While the scars from WW2 on the beaches of Normandy are old and worn, those in South Korea remain raw, signalling a country still at war with its neighbour.    

Our beaches are still waiting for the end of a war that’s been going on for so long people have stopped believing it’s real. They build hotels, put up neon signs, but it’s all fake, we’re on a knife-edge, it could all give way any moment. We’re living in limbo. In a winter that never ends. (p. 88)

Body image is another running theme, particularly the various pressures – both external and self-imposed – an individual can experience to look ‘perfect’ or attractive. Several aspects of the story tap into these anxieties, from the narrator’s battle with bulimia to her boyfriend’s obsession with modelling to a female guest’s recovery from plastic surgery. Food too plays an important role in the novella, mostly through the traditional meals the young woman prepares at the guest house, frequently using octopuses from her mother’s stall. The pufferfish is also highly symbolic here, a poisonous delicacy that must be prepared correctly to avoid death on consumption.

This novella is beautifully-written, characterised by Dusapin’s clipped, crystalline prose. The desolate South Korean landscape is skilfully evoked, the stark imagery reflecting feelings of division and alienation. Winters in Sokcho are especially cold and bleak. As the narrator reflects, one has to live through them to understand this, defined as they are by the essence of the city – the sights, the smells and the isolation – these are the elements that seep into the soul.

The book finishes on an enigmatic note, an ending that feels at once both mysterious and strangely inevitable. All in all, this is a haunting yet captivating novella of great tenderness and beauty. Very highly recommended indeed.  

Winter in Sokcho is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers/Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Strange Hotel by Eimear McBride

Back at the end of February (before the current guidance on social distancing came into place), I was lucky enough to attend an evening hosted by Faber & Faber, a showcase for recently published and forthcoming books. Eimear McBride was there, and she read a passage from her latest novel, Strange Hotel, a book I’d already been thinking of picking up before the reading. McBride introduced it by saying – and I’m paraphrasing from memory here – ‘if you want to know about hotels, this is not the book for you’. A very apt statement as it turns out…

Strange Hotel is not a typical ‘hotel novel’, the type of story peppered with interactions between various characters (frequently odd or idiosyncratic), thrown together for the duration of their trips. Instead, it’s a somewhat abstract or enigmatic work, the type of book where inner thoughts and self-reflections are more prominent than narrative and plot.

As the novel opens, the central character – an unnamed female protagonist in her mid-thirties – is checking into a hotel in Avignon, the first of five anonymous rooms we see during the novel, each in a different city. While the specific reason for these visits is never made explicit, there does seem to be a guiding principle or ‘plan’ underpinning the woman’s actions. She drinks wine, toys with the idea of a one-night-stand with a fellow guest, even goes as far as the act of sex itself – just as long as there are no requirements for either party to linger around afterwards.

For the protagonist, there is a degree of enjoyment in the dance, a sense of pleasure from reading the signals correctly – sometimes taking things to their natural conclusion should she feel so inclined. Nevertheless, in certain instances there is frustration too, especially if the man she decides to go to bed with doesn’t seem to understand the unwritten rules of the game.

She thinks she was as explicit as she could’ve been from the earliest on so she cannot attribute it to a lack of communication. He’d seemed bright enough not to arrive with any inexplicable assumptions and, initially, gave no indication he had. As far as she’s concerned, the first stage was fine. Both bodies performed exactly as planned. In fact, in every way as well as she’d hoped. He had also seemed happy enough. It was only afterwards things took a turn for the worse. She hadn’t intended to hurt his feelings. To be honest, she’s not even sure if she has. Well, obvious interpretations of knitted brows and the snatching-up of discarded clothing aside, how could she be? She is also without inclination to press. She has absolutely no interest in violating what is private, his feelings are his business alone. She just wishes he hadn’t presumed she possessed quite so many of her own. (pp. 53–54, Faber & Faber)

As the woman travels from city to city – alighting in Avignon, Prague, Oslo, Auckland and Austin – little hints of her backstory gradually begin to emerge. There are glimpses of an earlier relationship, once happy and contented, but now very much in the past. She envies other people’s optimism, their faith in a future that seems reasonable and alive, emotions she recalls experiencing herself some years earlier, only for this existence to shatter and disappear. The old life must remain where it belongs; otherwise it may well prove fatal, breaking her will and desire for self-protection.

No.

Stop.

Turn.

She should and should not think of this. If the past comes in it will wring her neck. So, she prevails upon her memory to recollect it as though from far away. And it is far away. Now, very far away. (p. 71)

There is an unsentimental directness to the protagonist’s encounters with men, a refreshing lack of expectations or underlying emotions in these transient pairings. It is only during the final vignette in the book – a one-night-stand with a man in Austin – that any deeper feelings threaten to break through. As memories from the past are stirred and resurrected, the woman tries to distance herself from them, attempting to re-establish the barrier designed to prevent emotional involvement. There is no room in her life for impulse or attachment now. These notions are part of her earlier life, elements that should remain hidden or suppressed.

She is certain of the rightness of all of this. So, she ushers herself back towards the listlessness that has, for all these years, kept her in the manner which she wishes she preferred. Collected. Other side of the glass. But she liked his face. She liked his laugh and the weird way their bodies kept insisting on contact. This, however, does not alter the fact that the only place for impulse is in her past. She knows this. She has made it like that so everything occurring, after the old life stopped, would simply be an again. A kind of repeat. Nothing new. Pathetic really, when she thinks of it. If she allowed herself to, she might admit she’s grown tired of her own loneliness, which she really doesn’t want to have yet. Because it has come to be all I know. (pp. 124–125)

Running through the book is a strong sense of self-reflection, mostly stemming from the explorations of the protagonist’s inner thoughts, her hypotheses and rationalisations. It’s a style I found very compelling despite the degree of ambiguity in the narrative – for instance, the significance of the cities and the reasons for the individual visits are never explicitly revealed. Plus, the protagonist herself remains somewhat mysterious, almost tantalisingly out of reach. (By the end of the book, she is in her late forties, prompting questions about what may have happened in the intervening years.) This adds to the elusive feel of the novel, making it an intriguing, hypnotic read – one where the subject matter and literary style seem to be working together in perfect harmony.  

McBride also excels at capturing the abstract nature of hotel rooms, liminal spaces that seem to be located between the boundaries of existence, enabling us to exist in a kind of alternate reality. They are places where we can adopt different personalities, act out our fantasies or simply step away from the pressures of life – for a day or two at least.

In summary, Strange Hotel is an immersive, enigmatic novel, one that explores themes of identity, self-reflection and some of our strategies for distancing ourselves from the past. I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone looking for an intriguing, somewhat abstract read.

Strange Hotel is published by Faber & Faber; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.

Don’t Look at Me Like That by Diana Athill

While Diana Athill was perhaps best known for her work as a literary editor and memoirist, she also produced a small number of works of fiction, particularly towards the beginning of her career. One of these books – a 1967 novel entitled Don’t Look at Me Like That – has just been reissued by Granta in a stylish new edition (very 1960s in terms of artwork). It is, in some respects, a coming-of-age story, imbued with the pleasure and pain of illicit love, all set within the bohemian milieu of Oxford and London in the 1950s.

The novel focuses on Meg Bailey, a socially awkward young woman with a talent for art. Home life for Meg has been frugal and conservative, the daughter of Church of England parson and a buttoned-up mother, reflective of the traditional attitudes of the era.

At school, Meg has only one friend, Roxane Weaver, whom she stays with from time to time during the holidays. Roxane’s family are the opposites of Meg’s: relaxed, sophisticated and socially adventurous at heart. It is during one of these visits that Meg meets Dick, a charming young man who encourages her to come out of her shell and dance. Dick also indulges Roxane’s mother, Mrs Weaver, playing up to her as a precocious nephew might do to a favourite aunt. Before long, Meg is holding Dick’s hand in the back of a car, Roxane and her companion in front oblivious to the developments going on behind them. For Meg it is a big moment, her first real experience of boys and everything this represents.

I wanted to rush on into unknown territory forever, safe in the warm intimacy of the car, the blanket rough against my chin, the men singing and joking, Roxane reaching into the back from time to time to feed me a chocolate, and neither of the two in front knowing that my hand was fast in Dick’s. I was eighteen and no one had ever held my hand before. Wilfred had always been too shy to attempt physical contact beyond bumping into me occasionally. This was a new move in the game, and a big one. (p. 45)

In her desire to escape the restrictions at home, Meg enrols in art school in Oxford where she stays with Roxane’s family, enjoying the buzz and activity of the Weavers’ household. By now, Meg is able to see Mrs Weaver for what she really is – a somewhat comic figure holding court over her gatherings or ‘salons’. It is during this period that Meg realises Mrs Weaver’s intentions towards Dick, as a future husband for Roxane – a match that seems natural and socially acceptable. Nevertheless, Meg has allowed herself to get emotionally involved with Dick, fantasising a little about his charm and easy-going manner.

A year or two later, Meg lands a job based in London, working as an illustrator of children’s books by an up-and-coming author, while Roxane and Dick begin their married life back at home. In the course of his work, Dick must travel to London on a fortnightly basis, bringing him into contact with Meg for various dinners and trips to the cinema. It is at this point that the situation between the two friends becomes more complex, rapidly developing into a passionate affair that extends over a number of years.

I don’t want to say too much about how the relationship between Meg and Dick plays out. That’s something for you to discover yourself should you decide to read the book. Instead, I’d like to mention something about the settings which are beautifully evoked. Athill captures the transient nature of a young woman’s life in London to great effect – from the poky, down-at-heel bedsits presided over by fearsome landladies to the friendly yet disorganised atmosphere of a house share, everything is conveyed in vivid detail.

It was one thing to make resolutions about my sex life and another to carry them out. I didn’t know how to escape from Miss Shaw’s bed-sitter. London never seemed to me hostile, but its size and complexity daunted me so that every day my morning decision to start looking for another room would give way by lunchtime to the argument that any place cheap enough for me would be as depressing as this one. Once again I would group my reproductions and Roxane’s mug full of flowers where they caught the light and made a little island of colour and ownership, and would get into bed and hide in a book. (p 71)

It’s a testament to Athill’s skills as a writer that she encourages the reader to feel some sympathy for Meg in spite of the latter’s recklessness with the affair and her apparent lack of concern for Roxane. The accompanying notes on the inside cover suggest Athill drew on her own experiences of London in the 1950s as inspiration for the novel, a point that seems entirely believable given the tone and ‘feel’ of the book.

My only reservation relates to a minor thread depicting Meg’s relationship with Jamil, a fellow lodger in the bohemian house share that becomes her home. Ultimately, this element feels a little superfluous and tagged on, to the point where I’m left wondering whether Athill wrestled somewhat with the novel’s ending, unsure of how best to draw Meg’s story to a close. Nevertheless, this is a minor quibble in the scheme of things, especially as there is much to admire in this unsentimental portrait of a young girl’s life. This is a book I would definitely recommend to lovers of British fiction, particularly from the mid-20th-century.

Don’t Look at Me Like That is published by Granta Books, my thanks to the publishers / Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy.

Recent Reads Lie With Me by Philippe Besson and The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs

Another round-up post with some brief thoughts on a couple of recent(ish) reads, both recommended.

Lie With Me by Philippe Besson (2017, tr. Molly Ringwald, 2019)

Just the kind of short, beautifully-written novella I tend to love, especially in translation.

In brief, the book starts with a prologue in which the narrator – Philippe, a successful yet sensitive writer – catches sight of a young man who reminds him strongly of his first love, an attractive, charismatic young boy named Thomas. This chance encounter prompts Philippe to reflect on his adolescence and the passionate, fleeting relationship he experienced with his more popular classmate, Thomas.

This covert, mind-expanding liaison between the two boys sparks an awakening in Philippe, both sexually and emotionally. A quiet, apprehensive boy at heart, Philippe relaxes into his skin, becoming more at ease with himself and his relationships with others. However, alongside the intimacy and feverish pleasure of first love comes the loneliness and anguish of the virtually inevitable separation.

I discover that absence has a consistency, like the dark water of a river, like oil, some kind of sticky dirty liquid that you can struggle and perhaps drown in. It has a thickness like night, an indefinite space with no landmarks, nothing to bang against, where you search for a light, some small glimmer, something to hang on to and guide you. But absence is, first and foremost, silence. A vast, enveloping silence that weighs you down and puts you in a state where any unforeseeable, unidentifiable sound can make you jump. (p. 37)

Lie With Me is a tender, deeply moving book about the pain and passion of illicit love, the heartbreak that accompanies absence, and the difficulties of coming to terms with who we are. It is imbued with a strong sense of yearning for halcyon times; Besson’s prose is sublime.

The Large Door by Jonathan Gibbs (2019)

A smart, playful novel which explores a number of interesting themes with the lightest of touches.

As the novel opens, Jenny Thursley, a troubled linguistics lecturer in her early forties, is returning to Europe for a conference in Amsterdam, an event dedicated to the life and work of her former mentor, Leonard Peters. During the trip, Jenny must revisit and come to terms with certain events from her past, most notably how best to honour Leonard given their previous history – Leonard once made a clumsy pass at Jenny, an incident that was brushed under the carpet at the time and never spoken of again. Jenny’s task is made all the more challenging by the news that Leonard is dying from cancer – a revelation that everyone else seems to have known about long before Jenny.

The situation is further complicated by the presence of Jenny’s former lover, Frankie, at the conference. If truth be told, Jenny still holds a candle for Frankie, now fifty-three and a successful, sophisticated academic herself.

Frankie Gerrity was her dearest friend, still; her lover and partner for three-and-a-half crucial, bitter years – years that has expanded in the rear-view mirror until they seemed now to hold within them most of her significant life, especially now that they existed on the far side of another all-consuming relationship: the marriage to a man that had seemed to her at the time a definitive turning-over of her life, a gleeful flight across a burning bridge. She didn’t think that now. But equally she didn’t know how to think herself back to the person she had been before. (pp. 42–43)

Gibbs perfectly captures the sense of feeling unmoored, ‘turning hopelessly in the current’ in the hope of finding something stable to hold on to. The novel explores the messy business of relationships, connections and communications in a lively, intelligent way. There is a clever play on the subjunctive as Jenny agonises over her half-written speech for the conference and wonders whether it will ever be completed at all.

The need to face up to our mortality is another theme, as is our relationship with art and creativity. There is a captivating scene in the middle of the book where Jenny is taken to see a Dutch painting, and the realisation she experiences is beautifully observed.

All in all, this is a very erudite novel – smart, witty and elegantly conveyed. I liked it a lot.

Lie With Me is published by Penguin Books, The Large Door by Boiler House Press; my thanks to the publishers/authors for kindly providing review copies.