Tag Archives: #ReadWomen

Simple Passion by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

The critically-acclaimed French writer Annie Ernaux is fast becoming one of my favourite chroniclers of the female experience. She writes with remarkable honesty, clarity and a note of vulnerability about various aspects of life, including adolescence, lovemaking, abortion and family. Throughout her work there is an interest in broader society, from social development and progression, to the relationship between individual and collective experiences. 

In Simple Passion (which clocks in at just under 40 pages), Ernaux reflects on the emotional impact of her two-year affair with an attractive married man in the late 1980s. Ernaux is approaching fifty at this time, while her lover — a smart, well-dressed Eastern European with a resemblance to Alain Delon — is thirteen years younger. The passion she feels for this man – referred to as ‘A’ in the book – is all-consuming, to the extent where virtually everything she does revolves around their liaison.

I had no future other than the telephone call fixing our next appointment. (p. 13)

All other activities — work, reading, the routines of day-to-day life — are for Ernaux simply a means of filling in time between their hastily-arranged meetings. He communicates with her by phone, often at short notice, whenever an opportunity arises for him to get away.

What Ernaux does so well here is to convey the emotional impact of living her life almost entirely to fit around the availability of her lover. She captures the uncertainly of waiting by the phone, not knowing when he will call; the rush to get dressed and put on make-up once she knows he is about to come; their pleasurable afternoons of lovemaking; and the overwhelming rush of fatigue she experiences once he’s gone – swiftly followed by the pain of absence.

As soon as he left, I would be overcome by a wave of fatigue. I wouldn’t tidy up straight away: I would sit staring at the glasses, the plates and their leftovers, the overflowing ashtray, the clothes, the lingerie strewn all over the bedroom and the hallway, the sheets spilling over on to the carpet. I would have liked to keep that mess the way it was – a mess in which every object evoked a caress or a particular moment, forming a still-life whose intensity and pain could never, for me, be captured by any painting in a museum. (p. 16)

Ernaux is not giving us an objective, factual account of a liaison here; as far as she is concerned, the most important thing is to reflect the key determinant of her mood, i.e. the distinction between the absence and the presence of her lover. Similarly, she has no desire to search for the origins of her passion in her past or recent history, nor does she seek to rationalise or justify this experience — only to capture and convey it through her prose.

As ever with Ernaux, the approach is deeply introspective, moving seamlessly between her recollections of the ‘feel’ of the affair and the process of writing about it here. There are times when Ernaux feels she is living out her passion in a similar way to writing a book, channelling her natural determination to capture every scene correctly, with the same attention to detail without lessening or diluting the desire.

During all this time, I felt I was living out my passion in the manner of a novel, but now I am not sure in which style I am writing about it, whether in the style of a testimony, or possibly even the sort of confidence that can be found in women’s magazines, maybe a manifesto or a statement, or perhaps a critical commentary. (p. 21)

Throughout their affair, this man becomes an obsession of sorts for Ernaux, prompting her to actively avoid things that prevent her from basking in the pleasures of passion. Nevertheless, after six months or so, Ernaux becomes convinced that ‘A’ is seeing another woman, to the extent that she cannot enjoy his company in quite the same way when he reappears. In truth, she dreads his eventual departure, and her pleasure in the moment becomes tinged with future pain. On the one hand, there is a longing to end the affair so as not to suffer further, but on the other, the emptiness that ultimately lies ahead proves a powerful deterrent.

In time, ‘A’ leaves France to return to his home nation, leaving Ernaux to pick up the threads of her life. At first, the pain is unbearable and she no longer cares if she lives or dies. While the act of writing doesn’t diminish the impact of her loss, it does offer an outlet for her thoughts and feelings. Nevertheless, there is an element of vulnerability here, a slight reluctance to share something private, potentially attracting questions or judgements from others.

To go on writing is also a means of delaying the trauma of giving this to others to read. I hadn’t considered this eventuality while I still felt the need to write. But now that I have satisfied this need, I stare at the written pages with astonishment and something resembling shame, an emotion I certainly never felt when I was living out my passion or writing about it. The prospect of publication brings me closer to people’s judgement and the ‘normal’ values of society. (pp. 43–44)

As with Happening, her remarkable book on sourcing an illegal abortion in the early 1960s, Ernaux hopes to create something meaningful and universal from her experiences, capturing emotions that may prove useful to others.

Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things or, if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal. Maybe I would also like them to live out these very emotions in turn, forgetting that they had once read about them somewhere. (p. 41)

Once again, the writing is clear, precise and emotionally truthful. There is a beauty to Ernaux’s prose – a degree of elegance that belies its simplicity.

In summary then, this is an exquisite book by a very accomplished writer – so honest, so insightful, so true. Best read in one sitting to maximise the impact.

Simple Passion is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

The Trouble with Happiness by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Back at the beginning of June, I wrote about Tove Ditlevsen’s 1952 short story collection, The Umbrella, which forms the first part of the recent Penguin reissue, The Trouble with Happiness. The book as a whole takes its name from the second collection included here – a volume of eleven stories, published in Danish in 1963. Ditlevsen experienced severe depression, addiction to drugs and alcohol, and several broken marriages during her life – she divorced four times. As such, many of these influences, alongside those of her austere childhood in working-class Copenhagen, have made their way into her books, these stories included.

The titular piece feels particularly autobiographical in nature, a quality augmented by its personal, almost confessional style. Here we see a talented, seventeen-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood, desperate to spread her wings and escape the constraints of her family. The girl’s mother is severe and judgemental, while the father remains largely absent or asleep, adding to the fractured nature of life in the family’s cramped apartment. As an account, it’s shot through with a palpable sense of sadness – a melancholy mood that resurfaces now and again in the protagonist’s thoughts several years down the line.

But sometimes – when someone has left me, or I discover inadvertently in the eyes of my children a glimpse of cold observation, of merciless, unsurmountable distance, I take out my brother’s pretty little sewing case and slowly open the mother-of-pearl inlaid lid. Fight for all you hold dear, plays the worn old music maker, and an unnamed sadness swells inside my mind, because they are all dead or disappeared, and my brother and I no longer communicate. (p. 184)

Ditlevsen has an innate ability to convey the devastating effects of loneliness and isolation that women sometimes feel, especially when their marriages break down. In Perpetuation, one of my favourites in the collection, Edith finds that history is repeating itself when her husband, an academic in his mid-forties, has an affair with a much younger woman. Consequently, Edith cannot help but reflect on her father’s earlier desertion of his family under similar circumstances. Will Edith’s children blame her for the collapse of the marriage? How long will it be before their father forgets them?

What if she told her children the truth? The truth about a father whose love for a woman and tenderness for three children was diminished to a little prick in his conscience when once in a while – because it had to happen – on a street, in a trolley, or on a train, he saw a child who resembled one of them? A little pain that diminished with every embrace, every passionate night, and which in the end disappeared completely in the terrible power radiating from the body of a young, beautiful woman. (pp. 168–169)

The danger posed by youth is also a factor in The Little Shoes, another brilliantly-observed piece in this piercing collection of stories. When Helene employs Hanne, a rather self-important, insolent twenty-two-year-old girl, as a housekeeper, she begins to regret her decision, especially when the family’s stability is put at risk. With her air of working-class resentment and self-righteousness, Hanne might just be fooling around with Helene’s fifteen-year-old son, adding to a pattern of behaviour that Helene finds infuriating.

Helene had to fight back the impulse to fire her on the spot. She stood there until the girl slowly got up, wearing a shameless smile that radiated the consciousness of the sexual superior superiority of idiotic youth.

Helene took it as the kind of smile you give to an older, discarded fellow female, and she was infuriated. (p. 144–145)

Ditlevsen spares little in her withering depiction of men in these stories, many of whom are at best absent or neglectful and at worst cruel or deceitful.

In A Fine Business, a young couple, imminently expecting a child, are looking for a new house which they plan to buy with a recent inheritance. After several fruitless viewings, their estate agent alights on an ideal property, armed with the knowledge that the owner – a vulnerable mother – needs to sell quickly following the breakdown of her marriage. It’s a situation the male buyer is all too keen to exploit, working in partnership with the estate agent to secure a reduced price – an action that reveals a mercenary side to the buyer’s character. Only his heavily pregnant wife, Grete, can see the injustice of this scenario, empathising with the downtrodden seller, particularly given her own condition.

There is such a sad, hopeless atmosphere in this house, bereft as it is of much of its former furniture. And yet, this excellent story reveals so much about the characters, particularly through Ditlevsen’s insights into Grete’s private thoughts.

Why has he looked that way at the little stain on the ceiling? It was the same way he looked at the woman and a little girl, almost as if there were two defects in the house that could drive down the price. He probably wasn’t going to buy this house either. And when they got home, he would act as if he had made the most ingenious deal in his life. (p. 128)

Also rather troubling is the father’s behaviour in The Knife, an arresting story in which a mentally disturbed man feels constrained by his wife and son.

They existed like shadows inside him, thought foetuses he couldn’t get rid of, products of a weakness in him which he tried with all his might to overcome. (p. 96)

Other highlights include Anxiety, a terrifying tale of a woman cowed into submission by her intolerant husband – a newspaper copy editor who works nights and hates having his sleep disturbed during the day. Consequently, this woman is afraid to move around in her own home in case she makes a noise. Moreover, any occasional visits to her sister also come with their own problems, especially if she stays out for too long – who knows what her husband might need while she is away…

Two Women is also worthy of a mention – a beautifully observed story of a restless, depressed woman who fails to empathise with her hairdresser, despite experiencing similar anxieties and concerns. In truth, Britta has come to the beauty parlour for an escape from her own troubles, not to be dragged down by those of another.

So, in summary, a superb collection of stories, beautifully expressed in a spare, emotionally truthful style, perfectly capturing the underlying sadness and loneliness therein. Here we have stories of fractured minds, lonely, isolated women, marginalised or abandoned in their marriages by careless or cruel men. Supportive friends or family members seem few and far between, adding to the unhappiness that surrounds these protagonists. But as ever with Ditlevsen, the writing is brilliant, a factor that helps balance some of the heartbreak we find within. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for lovers of interiority in fiction.

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.)

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!

Life Ceremony by Sayaka Murata (tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori)

Last year I read and thoroughly enjoyed Sayaka Murata’s novella Convenience Store Woman, a wonderfully offbeat story that posed some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. There’s more of that strangeness here in Life Ceremony, a collection of thirteen short stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. It’s an excellent collection, raising provocative questions about why certain things are deemed acceptable while others are not.

By exploring our societal constructs, Murata exposes the absurdities and hypocrisies of various conventional beliefs, destabilising our perceptions of what is ‘normal’ vs ‘weird’ or taboo. Many of these stories are set either in the near future or in an alternate reality where societal practices have changed, shifting the boundaries of which behaviours are considered off-limits.

As with most short story collections, some pieces resonate more strongly than others, so my aim is to give you a flavour of the highlights and underlying themes. While the longer pieces are particularly effective, even Murata’s short sketches have something interesting to offer – the germ or an idea or a lasting impression to consider.

In the opening story, a First-Rate Material, we enter a world in which human bones, skin and other body parts are routinely repurposed into useful objects following a person’s death. These recycled items are not only considered acceptable but highly desirable, frequently attracting high price tags due to their quality and beauty. The young lovers in the story have wildly different perceptions of this practice, prompting us to question who is behaving strangely here – the young woman who longs to fill her new home with furniture made from bones, or the young man who baulks at the idea of these furnishings and wedding rings made of teeth?

Murata’s story asks us to question the man’s objections to this form of recycling. Why shouldn’t human bodies be repurposed in this way following death? Surely that’s less wasteful than being cremated, thereby allowing parts of the body to have an extended ‘life’, converting them into items to be admired and enjoyed by others? Taboo-busting ideas as far as our current society is concerned, but not in the world that the author portrays here.

The titular tale, Life Ceremony, takes some of these ideas even further, challenging our perceptions of the nature of human flesh. In the environment depicted here, funerals have been replaced by life ceremonies, where the deceased’s flesh is cooked and made into a meal for their family and friends to feast on – a joyous celebration of life as opposed to the solemn mourning of a death. As an additional flourish, guests are encouraged to find an insemination partner to have sex with in a public place – thereby continuing the circle of life, should the conception prove successful. Attitudes towards sex have changed over time due to a population decline, and procreation is now seen as a form of social justice to support the ongoing survival of the human race.

While the custom of eating human flesh has become deeply ingrained in this society, the narrator – a woman in her mid-thirties – can recall a time in her childhood when such practices were forbidden, highlighting the shifts in attitudes and the boundaries of ‘normality’. There is a sense that humans are becoming more like animals in this rather affecting story – a darkly humorous tale tinged with a dash of poignancy. Another thought-provoking piece designed to challenge our preconceptions and impressions of what feels ‘right’ vs taboo.

Our perceptions of sex are also pertinent to A Clean Marriage, another provocative story that plays with conventional norms. In essence, this piece explores the idea that sex for pleasure and sex for procreation are two completely different concerns, to the point where a person might seek separate partners or ‘processes’ to fulfil these contrasting aims. As with other stories in this collection, there is the germ of a rational concept here which Murata cleverly develops through her slightly skewed scenario. Another excellent tale that derives humour from life’s absurdities (as depicted here).

Food is another recurring theme or motif, sometimes acting as a cultural signifier as in A Magnificent Spread – one of the less controversial pieces in the collection. In this humorous story, a newly-engaged couple host a lunch for their respective families to meet for the first time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, each member of the extended family comes with their own deep-seated preferences for food, ranging from an obsession with ‘Happy Future’ functional health foods to a fondness for insects and grubs foraged from the natural world. In essence, the story illustrates the importance of respecting other people’s cultures and values rather than forcing them to accept our own. Naturally, our attitudes towards different foods are a key part of these cultural codes, as Murata’s highly amusing story neatly demonstrates.

Other stories explore unconventional family units, highlighting the value participants gain from these relationships despite a lack of understanding from other, more ‘conventional’ sectors of society. Two’s Family is an excellent example of this – a beautiful, touching story of two women, Yoshiko and Kikue, who had previously decided to live together for life if they remained unattached by the age of thirty. Now in their seventies, the two women have enjoyed living together in a non-sexual relationship for forty years, raising three daughters conceived through artificial insemination from a sperm bank. While Yoshiko is quite guarded at heart, Kikue is more outgoing, having enjoyed several lovers over the years. But with Kikue now undergoing treatment for cancer, Yoshiko wonders what will become of her should Kikue die. Like a marriage of sorts, life with Kikue is all Yoshiko has ever known. This very affecting story works brilliantly, especially as a contrast to some of the book’s other, more controversial pieces.

Finally, I must mention the penultimate story, Hatchling, because it’s probably my pick of the bunch. Narrated by a Haruka, a young woman planning her wedding, Hatchling explores the benefits and dangers of code-switching – the practice of flexing our personality to fit in with different social groups, depending on the ‘tone’ each group requires. Since junior high, Haruka has become so used to adapting her behaviour that she no longer knows who she really is. Maybe she doesn’t even have a genuinepersonality of her own, only a series of five or six ‘characters’ dictated by each particular situation or environment. For instance, she is the straight-A student ‘Prez’ with her junior high classmates, the goofball ‘Peabrain’ for her high school friends and the girly ‘Princess’ with her film club at Uni. The real problem comes when Haruki contemplates her forthcoming wedding. Which ‘character’ should she adopt there, given the mix of friends attending? And perhaps more importantly, which personality would her fiancé prefer? Maybe this depends on the character he will be playing on the day, and how will she know in advance?

This is an excellent piece, full of cleverly-constructed scenes that Murata plays out in a highly amusing manner. In short, the story highlights the dangers of adopting a carefully-curated persona in front of others, especially if we lose sight of our inherent values and behaviours.

So, in summary, a truly excellent collection of stories, many of which challenge conventional societal norms and longstanding taboos. What Murata does so well here is to skew our world just enough to destabilise our preconceived notions of the boundaries of acceptability. She challenges us to look at the world afresh by exploring the validity of an alternate, less constrained view.

Life Ceremony is published by Granta Books; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing an early proof copy.

Trespasses by Louise Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trespasses is published by Bloomsbury; personal copy.

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.

Through Sally Rooney’s excellent introduction to the novel, we learn how Natalia and her first husband, the Jewish anti-fascist activist Leone Ginzburg, were sent to Southern Italy during the war as a form of internal exile. In 1944, Leone was imprisoned, tortured and killed by the incumbent regime for his covert work on an anti-fascist newspaper. By the war’s end, Natalia was in her late twenties, a widow with three young children and a debut novella under her belt. As such, she channelled her experiences into her work, publishing All Our Yesterdays in 1952. It’s a brilliant novel, full of warmth, intelligence and humanity, punctuated by wry observations on the tangled business of life.

The book focuses on two Italian families living opposite one another in a small Northern Italian town, with the story opening in the late 1930s during the run-up to war. 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. As the novel unfolds, Anna – the youngest daughter in the middle-class family – gradually emerges as the main protagonist, an ordinary, impressionable teenager alert to developments around her. With his wife no longer alive, Anna’s father (a former lawyer) devotes his time to writing his memoirs, a long, sprawling series of anti-fascist declarations that will fail to see the light of day.

While Anna’s older sister Concettina – an attractive girl who bemoans her flat chest – works her way through a sequence of fiancés, her brother, Ippolito, helps their father by typing up his memoirs late into the night. Completing the family are younger brother, Giustino, and an eccentric old maid, Signora Maria, a former companion to the children’s deceased grandmother.

With Mussolini in power and fascism on the rise, Ippolito becomes increasingly interested in politics, debating the issues of the day with Emanuele – the eldest son from the wealthy family opposite – and their principled friend, Danilo, one of Concettina’s many fiancés. Full of the exuberance of youth, the trio pore over newspapers and dream of revolution, drawing up plans that Anna begins to glean…

She seemed to understand about the sitting room, and the sentences in German, and Ippolito stroking his face, and his restless eyes that were always looking for something. They were talking politics in the sitting room, they were once again doing a dangerous, secret thing, as the book of memoirs had been. They wanted to overthrow the fascists, to begin a revolution. (p. 47)

Over time, a friendship develops between Anna and Emanuele’s younger brother, Giuma, a rather arrogant, insensitive boy who seems more interested in himself than anyone around him. At sixteen, Anna finds herself pregnant by Giuma, who subsequently abandons her with a 1000-lire note, sufficient money to cover an underground abortion.

She was alone, she was alone and no one said anything to her, she was alone in her room with her grass-stained, crumpled dress and her violently trembling hands. She was alone with Giuma’s face that gave her a stab of pain at her heart, and every day she would be going back with Giuma amongst the bushes on the river bank, every day she would see again that face with the rumpled forelock and the tightly closed eyelids, that face that had lost all trace both of words and of thoughts for her. (pp. 152–153)

As personal relationships in these families are forged and fragmented, the Germans continue their irrepressible march across Europe, advancing into Belgium and Holland – and then France. The boys are particularly aware of these developments, knowing full well that Italy will likely align itself with Nazi Germany. But while Emanuele remains relatively calm in the face of events, Ippolito is deeply unsettled, pacing his room at night and avoiding contact with others. Through their contrasting responses to the encroaching war, Ginzburg is showing us how the political seeps into the personal, highlighting the devastating impact on young, impressionable minds.

Concettina, too, is disturbed by the situation in Europe. Recently married to Emilio, the father of her baby boy, she fears for the family’s safety – consequently, her nights are haunted by dreams of fleeing should the Germans advance further. Ginzburg is particularly adept at highlighting how everyday life appears meaningless and futile in the face of war, especially when external factors feel uncertain and threatening.

But Concettina had not forgotten the war, and she looked incredulously at the cradle and the coverlet with the mushrooms on it that Signora Maria was embroidering, and she wondered how much longer the baby would sleep in that big cradle of blue taffeta, she already saw herself running away with the baby in her arms amongst tanks and the whistling of sirens, and she hated Signora Maria with her mushrooms and her futile chatter. (pp. 160–161)

Meanwhile, as Anna decides to seek an abortion, an unexpected lifeline appears in the shape of Cenzo Rena, a family friend who suddenly proposes marriage while agreeing to take on the baby. At forty-seven, Cenzo Rena seems like an unlikely match for Anna, but he is kind, thoughtful and generous – qualities to be admired irrespective of appearances.

They looked like two people who had been flung against each other by chance in a sinking ship. For them there had been no fanfare of trumpets, he said. And that was a good thing, because when fate announced itself with a loud fanfare of trumpets you always had to be a little on your guard. (p. 210)

Despite her family’s objections, Anna marries Cenzo Rena and moves to his house in the South, a strange collection of large, sparsely-furnished rooms adorned by the myriad of useless objects he has amassed from his travels abroad.

Cenzo Rena is an influential figure in the area, with several contadini calling on him for sound advice. And it’s here in the village of Borgo San Costanzo – an impoverished, insular community with multiple health problems – that the presence of war really makes itself felt. Jews from some Italian Northern cities are sent to the South, shunting them off to villages where they cannot ‘harm the war’. San Costanzo receives four Jewish internees under this initiative – three old women and a Turkish Jew, who ultimately becomes Cenzo Rena’s friend. A Polish Jew named Franz, a friend of Emanuele’s father, also makes his way to San Costanzo, further complicating the situation. In true Italian fashion, Franz is married to Emanuele’s sister, Amalia, having been involved with the siblings’ mother, Mammina, some years before. (The novel’s network of romantic entanglements is suitably complex but relatable – a delight to observe!)

Once again, the juxtaposition between the micro-level tensions of family life and the broader drama of world events is highly compelling, underscoring the radical sociopolitical changes unfolding across the country.

He [Cenzo Rena] looked out of the window at the refugees from Naples who were now going hither and thither about the lanes of the village, carrying mattresses and babies, he looked and said how sad it was to see all these mattresses carried about here and there all over Italy, Italy was now pouring mattresses out of her ravaged houses. And perhaps they too might soon be forced to run away, with their mattresses and the little girl and La Maschiona and the dog and the deckchairs, to run away to goodness knows where through the burning dust of the roads… (pp. 328–329)

Unsurprisingly, there is an eccentric cook/housekeeper here too, a rather foolish woman referred to as La Maschiona, whose devastating actions drive the novel’s denouement.

As the novel draws to a close, Anna is happy to be reunited with Emanuele and Giustino, reflecting on those who died during the war, a time of immense fear, confusion and uncertainty. However, she also understands that the future comes with its own challenges – a ‘long, difficult life’ full of all the things they don’t know how to do.

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. It’s also clearly a novel informed by personal experiences and memories, written by a woman who lived through the turmoil of a country at war – a point that adds a genuine sense of poignancy and authenticity to the story as it unfolds.

All Our Yesterdays is published by Daunt Books; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.)

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.

Falling by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

First published in 1999, when Elizabeth Jane Howard was nearing the twilight of her career, Falling was inspired by real-life events. When Howard was in her seventies, she fell for the charms of a con man – a seemingly attentive man who took advantage of the fact that she was unattached and vulnerable yet receptive to admiration. At first, Howard was flattered by the attention, but the affair proved devastating when her lover’s true intentions became clear. Having been badly bruised by these events, she channelled her experiences into Falling, a fictionalised version of the story that feels horribly real. It’s an excellent book – engrossing, chilling and beautifully written, like a slow-burn thriller in the Patricia Highsmith vein.

In the novel, the narrative is conveyed through alternating chapters, giving readers an insight into both central characters – Henry Kent, a relatively good-looking man in his sixties with a background in gardening, and Daisy Langrish, a successful playwright, also in her sixties. Having separated from his wife, Hazel – a woman who always resented his lack of success – Henry is living from one day to the next, camping out on a dilapidated boat while its owners are abroad. With no money to speak of, Henry is on the lookout for a well-heeled woman, preferably someone middle-aged with no thoughts of having children. Of course, a faded beauty would be ideal, a neglected divorcee or widow just ripe for the picking; but most importantly, she must be comfortably off, wealthy enough to support Henry without his needing to work…

When Daisy Langrish (aka Redfearn) moves into a nearby cottage, she quickly becomes the target of Henry’s attention. With two bruising marriages behind her, Daisy is wary of getting her fingers burnt again. In particular, she was badly hurt by her second husband, Jason, a successful actor who left her for a much younger woman following two years of wedded bliss. Nevertheless, despite a few reservations, she agrees to let Henry sort out the garden for her when he calls to enquire.

The ‘Henry’ sections of the book are written in the first person, giving the reader full access to his thought processes right from the very start. Consequently, we can see how quickly Henry sizes Daisy up, pinpointing her vulnerabilities and planning his strategy accordingly. He knows he needs to win Daisy’s trust, carefully disarming her as gently as possible.

Trust. I could clearly recall that the first time our eyes met hers were full of wary defence; she was not accustomed to trusting people. I must disarm her, but so gradually that she would be hardly aware of it. (p. 70)

Almost immediately after their initial meetings, Daisy has to go the US for a couple of months, much to Henry’s dismay. While abroad, Daisy breaks her shoulder and foot during a trip to Mexico – an accident that leaves her hospitalised in the US for several weeks as she recovers from the injuries. Meanwhile, Henry is eager to discover more about Daisy, viewing this as a way of bolstering his chances. As far as Henry sees it, the more he knows about his target, the deeper the connection he can forge. So, he breaks into the cottage and rifles through Daisy’s belongings, reading her diary and personal letters – all of which give him an insight into her painful break-up with Jason.

Armed with this information and a few sob stories of his own, Henry starts writing to Daisy in hospital, gradually developing their relationship while she is vulnerable and alone. Moreover, when Daisy is finally well enough to return to the UK, Henry makes himself invaluable to her recovery, fetching groceries and keeping an eye on her as she settles back into the cottage.

Slowly but surely, Henry inveigles his way into Daisy’s life, steadily planning his advancement with the ultimate goal of marriage. At first, Daisy remains on her guard, fearful of a degree of intimacy that she certainly doesn’t want. For years now, she has kept herself emotionally closed down, fearful of opening up as a means of self-protection. Nevertheless, she has to acknowledge Henry’s attentiveness – his tenderness, even. It’s almost as if he can anticipate her needs without encroaching too far on her privacy. Maybe, just maybe, he actually loves her? Could this be her last chance of happiness, an opportunity to come first in someone else’s affections? As Henry works his magic, Daisy begins to wonder…

She was touched by his candour and his courage. Here she stopped. Was she not more than touched, more than grateful? For over two weeks now he had tended her with a delicacy and kindness that was surely unusual in any man, only credible, indeed, if some kind of love was involved. Perhaps he did love her, actually love her. The possibility, the faintest chance, that this might be so, might actually be real… (p. 268)

Something that Howard does so well here is to show us the relationship from two different perspectives, illustrating the true intentions behind Henry’s actions – and how Daisy is ultimately taken in by this technique. While the ‘Daisy’ sections are mostly written in the third person, some passages are presented as letters or diary entries, giving us direct access to her thoughts. Her gradual surrender is incredibly painful to observe, especially as we know just how devious and manipulative Henry can be. At first, one might consider him a fantasist, the sort of man who feeds off his own delusions; but as the narrative gradually unfolds, his psychopathic tendencies become increasingly clear…

My abstinence I intended her to interpret as my extreme love for her, and this was entirely successful; indeed, I had every kind of success and it was a sweet triumph to see her at ease, looking up at me with a kind of grateful radiance. I told her that she was beautiful and that I loved her (one cannot do this too often), and she answered that I made her feel beautiful. I knew then that I had accomplished much; was more than halfway to her becoming mine. (p. 307)

Howard also gives the reader just enough information to piece together Henry’s disreputable past as the story goes along. Slowly but surely, we learn of his underlying personality and habits – more specifically his short fuse and tendencies towards violence, his dislike of interference from those he considers outsiders, and his lack of any social contacts or real friends. He really is a very nasty piece of work.

Howard is such an astute observer of human nature, exploring her characters’ motivations with insight and understanding. The supporting players are beautifully drawn too, particularly Daisy’s agent, Anna, who is suspicious of Henry from the start. Even Daisy’s somewhat distanced daughter, Katya, has some nagging doubts about her mother’s lover, exacerbated perhaps by her own marital problems.

In short, this is a thoroughly engrossing novel, a compelling exploration of just how easy it is to be seduced when we are vulnerable and alone. My thanks to Andrew Male, who recommended this book to me as one of Howard’s late masterpieces. He was absolutely right, of course. (How could he not be?) It’s a brilliantly unsettling read – my favourite EJH to date.

Falling is published by Picador; personal copy.

The Colony by Audrey Magee

This is a superb novel, probably one of the most assured and layered narratives I’ve read in recent years. Recently longlisted for the Booker Prize, The Colony is a thought-provoking exploration of the damaging effects of colonisation – touching on issues including the acquisition of property (in its broadest sense), the demise of traditional languages and ways of living, cultural appropriation and exploitation and, perhaps most importantly, who holds the balance of power in the resultant society. I found it timely, thoughtful and utterly compelling, a certainty for my reading highlights at the end of the year.

The novel is set on a small, unnamed island to the west of Ireland in the summer of 1979, deep in the midst of the Troubles, a political and nationalistic conflict over the status of Northern Ireland, fuelled by historical events. The island community has declined over the years, leaving twelve families to maintain the old traditions, heavily reliant on fishing (plus rent from the occasional visitor) to make a basic living.

As the summer gets underway, the island must steel itself for the intrusion of two visitors, a volatile combination that seems set to unsettle the community, possibly irreversibly. First to arrive is Lloyd, a fussy, punctilious artist from London who fancies himself as a modern-day Gaugin, keen to capture the island’s cliffs – and possibly the island’s inhabitants – in all their natural beauty. Following a ridiculous journey by rowing-boat, Lloyd further annoys the islanders by complaining about his accommodation, insisting on a rearrangement of the furniture to make the most of the dwelling’s light. While solitude and silence are crucial to his work, Lloyd is repeatedly interrupted by James; at fifteen, he is the youngest member of the local family that provide the visitor’s meals.

The second visitor arrives just as Lloyd settles into a rhythm, capturing the island’s landscape in traditional charcoals and oils. The man in question is JP Masson, a French linguist nearing the end of a five-year longitudinal study on the evolution of the island’s language, a traditional Gaelic dialect in danger of dying out. Compared to the demanding Englishman, Masson is well-liked by the islanders, his arrival heralded with a full tea and spread.

Masson is keen to protect the island’s language, fearful of any erosion by the encroachment of English phrases and intonations with the potential to disturb. Consequently, he is resentful of Lloyd’s presence on the island – surely a contaminating influence on the Gaelic dialect he wishes to preserve. Likewise, Lloyd is equally annoyed by Masson, viewing him as a disturbing presence to the silence required for his art. These tensions are only exacerbated when Masson discovers that Lloyd’s cottage is directly adjacent to his own, subtly highlighting one of the central issues of colonisation as the men divide up their territory, flinging turf around as they go.

He [Masson] picked up the turf straddling the dividing line and threw it into his basket. Mine, Lloyd, for I was here first. The whole yard is mine. Always has been. And damn you, anyway. For being here. For intruding. […] An Englishman. In this, my final summer. He shouldn’t be here, not on this island, not in this yard, for this is my place, my retreat,… (p. 87)

Mealtimes with James’ family prove particularly stressful for everyone, with Masson insisting the islanders speak Gaelic – a language Lloyd does not understand – while Lloyd prefers English, replete with its own troublesome associations. Deep-seated divisions soon emerge, questioning the validity and ownership of a dying language in a modern, English-speaking world.

It’s theirs to kill, said Lloyd. Not yours.

Masson shook his head.

You can’t speak on this. You have spent centuries trying to annihilate this language, this culture.

[…]

This is about Ireland, said Masson. About the Irish language.

And do the Irish have a say, said Lloyd, in your great plan for saving the language?

The English don’t, said Masson. (pp. 94-95)

Central to Masson’s study is the multigenerational O’Neill/Gillan family. At fifteen, James is the youngest, the only bilingual member, fluent in Gaelic and English, having been schooled on the mainland. The boy’s elders are pressuring him to become a fisherman, following in the footsteps of his father, uncle and grandfather, who drowned in a fishing accident when he was a baby. James, however, has other aspirations; he is a talented artist with a natural eye for composition – more promising than Lloyd, who is struggling to capture the island’s birds and subtle natural light.

As James starts producing his own paintings of island life, Lloyd ‘borrows’ the boy’s ideas, indulging in a form of artistic appropriation to further his own career. With Lloyd dangling the promise of a joint exhibition of their work in London, James hopes to use his creative talents as a possible means of escape. Anything to get away from fishing, the burden of providing for his family, not to mention continuing the Gaelic language as per Masson’s insistent wishes.

…because if I smell of something other than fish, of paints and oils, they might all see that I should leave, that I am not a fisherman, not a proper island boy, but something that has to be elsewhere, somewhere other than here looking after my mother, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and now they’re giving me the mother tongue to look after as well, to save that mother too, to save it all and the other mothers. I don’t want so many mothers. (p. 148)

One thing that Magee does particularly brilliantly here is to move the point-of-view from one character to another – often within the same paragraph or sentence – showing us the richness of each person’s inner world despite the limited nature of their existence. James’ mother, Mairéad, for instance – a woman who mostly speaks in Gaelic but has a reasonable understanding of English, enough to know what is being discussed at the table. As Mairéad knits a jumper for James, she ponders her grandmother’s attitude to knitting, another illuminating passage on the enduring pain of colonisation.

They take our land, she says, starve us and then to alleviate the poverty, to assuage their guilt, they set us up with knitting. Make jumpers this way and sell them, they said. Earn your living that way, they said. Earn your rent that way, they said, though, we liked earning our living the other way, from the land that was our land, the sea that was our sea. But they told us to knit, so now we knit. Well, I’m not knitting, says Bean Uí Fhloinn. Not that knitting. Their knitting. Their Scottish, English, Irish knitting. I’ll do my own knitting. Knit as my mother did. As my grandmother knitted. (pp. 163–164)

While still pining for her drowned husband, Liam, Mairéad treads a dangerous path, sleeping with Masson in the dead of night, then walking to the cliffside hut at dawn, where she poses semi-nude for Lloyd in the style of a Rembrandt muse. There is no sexual attraction for Mairéad in these sessions with Lloyd; only a desire for her essence to be captured in oils, then taken away from this deadly island – the place that has claimed her holy trinity of men – to hang in a gallery for posterity as an image to endure. Also relevant here is Liam’s temperamental brother, Francis, who ‘waits in the long grass’ for his widowed sister-in-law, Mairéad, the woman he desperately wants to possess.

Bean Uí Néill – James’ grandmother and Mairéad’s mother – is another woman scarred by loss and erosion. Wary of the islander’s visitors, she is fearful that Lloyd will paint the islanders – which he does, having already promised to stick to the cliffs. The presence of one outsider (Masson) on the island feels manageable for this matriarch, but two at the same time spells trouble – a prediction that ultimately comes to pass.

While Bean Uí Néill turns a blind eye to Mairéad’s visits to Masson’s bed – written off as a tolerable summer fling – she knows nothing of her daughter’s sessions with Lloyd. Bean Uí Fhloinn, on the other hand, misses nothing. Fully immersed in the Gaelic language, James’ great-grandmother is Masson’s prime subject, the source for his dissertation and subsequent book, which are sure to be a great success. Yet, in his own way, Masson is just guilty as Lloyd of cultural exploitation, using the islanders’ language to further his progression while casually sleeping with Mairéad. Interestingly, Magee adds another layer to her portrayal of Masson, exposing his own colonial heritage. Born to a brutal French father and a misguided Algerian mother, Masson was forced to learn Arabic in secret as a child, a practice that deepened the divisions within an already fractured household.

For a novel concerned with the preservation of language, Magee’s prose is suitably stunning, demonstrating a poetry and fluidity as it flows from one character to another, blurring the margins between observation, dialogue and inner thoughts and feelings.

He looked at the sky and began to draw

gulls

swirling and twisting

hovering, banking

across

cloudless blue (p. 11)

There’s some gorgeous descriptive writing here too, deftly capturing the play of light on the beautiful coastal landscape, complete with its active birdlife.

He attached paper to the easel and lifted a pencil to sketch long lines up and down the page, a low hum slipping through his lips as his fingers and hand moved across the sheet, hunting to recreate that first encounter, his first sighting of that ferocious beauty, page after page of light and dark, of unshaded and shaded, working late into the night and again in the early morning, relishing the stillness of the village, of the island, his doors and windows open to flood the cottage with light, with the sounds of the sea and the songs of the birds. (pp. 51–52)

As the novel draws to a close, there is a notable escalation in tension, a factor present throughout in the island’s power dynamics. Alongside these palpable pressures, Magee punctuates the narrative with radio bulletins on the Troubles – short, factual reports of terrorist incidents on the mainland, offering no judgements or opinions, just the cold, hard facts of death and sectarian violence. With the summer turning to autumn, the visitors finally prepare to depart, having planted emotional hand-grenades of their own with the potential to explode…

In a wise move, Magee doesn’t overplay the novel’s denouement, eschewing high drama for a more understated ending – still devastating in its own way, but quietly so, pregnant with uncertainties as to what the future will hold. We fear for these islanders – their traditions, their livelihoods, and ultimately their safety – lives disrupted by the self-centred interlopers, men who have sown the seeds of discontentment and potential violence for many years to come. 

The Colony is published by Faber; personal copy.