The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments – Ann Quin

I have somehow always confused Ann Quin and Anna Kavan. They are obviously different writers and yet there are similarities. Both have experimental styles of writing. And both have had a brush with mental illness.

Since I had already read, loved and reviewed Anna Kavan’s Ice earlier this year, it only felt right to explore Ann Quin.

But rather than begin with her famous novel Berg, I decided to first tread the waters by dipping into this story collection recently released by the publisher And Other Stories.

The Unmapped Country

The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments, is difficult book to write about, simply because of Ann Quin’s experimental and sometimes challenging writing.

However, for those looking at a Quin appetizer before launching into the main course that is her novels, this is the best and the only place to start. As the whole title suggests, this is a collection of 14 pieces, stories, fragments; selected and edited by Jennifer Hodgson. They venture into a variety of genres – traditional narratives, horror, science fiction, stream of consciousness…

It begins with ‘Leaving School – XI.’ This is a piece of memoir writing where the narrator, which could very well be Quin herself, talks on a wide range of subjects. Here’s how it opens…

Bound by perverse securities in a convent, RC Brighton for eight years. Taking that long to get over. The Holy Ghost. The Trinity. The Reverend Mother. I was not a Catholic. I was sent to a convent to be brought up ‘a lady’. To say gate and not gaite – the Sussex accent I had picked up from a village school in my belly-rubbing days had to be eliminated by How Now Brown Cow, if I wanted to make my way in the world. According to Mother.

Besides her life in the convent, the narrator goes on describe her attempts first to try her hand at theatre, and the various dead end jobs she takes during the day – in a solicitor’s office in Brighton, as a secretary in a publishing firm in London, so that she can draft her novels in the evenings.  But it was not always easy.

In winter I lived on potatoes, saved on the gas fire by going to bed, hotwaterbottled, typerwriter balanced on knees. I rarely went out in the evenings, but was a voyeur, in the sense of watching from my window the prostitutes…

And then she describes her trysts with mental illness…

I decided to climb out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.

We then have a grotesque but compelling piece called ‘Nude and Seascape’ where a man tries to create an artistic still life composition with a woman’s dead body on the beach. Not content with how things are panning out, he resorts to a bizarre tactic.

Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time.

This is followed by one of my favourites in this collection – ‘The Double Room’. This is a delicious tale about a pretty unremarkable couple. It is a tale of an extra marital affair and the woman is contemplating whether she should take up her married partner’s offer of going away for the weekend to the seaside.

Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time.

It is not exactly a match made in heaven. Both are quite nervous and tetchy and unable to consummate their relationship. The dreary seaside only heightens the woman’s sense of isolation.

‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’, is a story that focuses on a child’s mind, her enchanting perceptions of an adult world combined with an unflinching depiction of old age.

‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’ and ‘Ghostworm’ are stream of consciousness, experimental tales. In both, one is not really sure what is going on. Both are tales of lovers, that much seems clear. And yet, they are fascinating because of the impressions formed, and the sense of going through an experience. It’s all surreal as landscapes, words, sensual feelings swirl and merge to form an abstract painting.

Here are some tasters…

This is from ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’…

Later when they touched, it was as if someone else touched her. She gave herself up to this. From out of the past, with lovers she would not see again, be committed to. It was new. The lovemaking. Slower. Sensual. Longer. Backwards. Forwards. Sideways. She no longer placed herself over cliff edges.

‘Ghostworm’ opens thus…

I’ll take the ashes to his wife tomorrow. Idiot. No not again – go away. Never. Get off my back. You’re obsessed.

Clearly, there are two voices here. And here’s an image from the same piece…

Wind blew the curtains sideways. Lifted the Indian rug suspended from wooden beams. Wind across her feet. Face. Across his. As they lay on the mesa between rocks. The desert under his arms. She watched rain in the distance. Curtains of rain moving slowly. Wanting to watch that.

We then have ‘Motherlogue’, which is an interesting narrative because it is in the form of a telephone call and we only hear one side of the conversation – the mother talking to her daughter. And yet in this we get a glimpse of the daughter’s life as well.

And then there is the title story, ‘The Unmapped Country’, which was unfinished, but a dazzling piece told from the point of a view of a woman feeling trapped in a mental asylum.

She suddenly felt claustrophobic, the smell of women penetrated her nose, mouth, ears and eyes. She went again into the dormitory, where it was dark, silent. She lay down and slid into black velvet. A sea of velvet that tossed her gently, and somewhere above her the sound of ice breaking.

And then were a few lines in the story, which conjured up images of Anna Kavan’s Ice….

Wind ruffled snow. The north wind bringing the sound of ice. She saw again three gulls circle the ship’s mast, and heard the movement of wood against ice: saw the icebergs like fallen statues move slowly past. Points of light from islands pinpricked the disturbed darkness.

There are a couple of pieces I thought were pretty uninspiring. One was in the form of a manifesto, on behalf of one of Quin’s boyfriends Billy Apple. And the other is a tale in the form of cut-ups called ‘Living in the ‘Present’, which I couldn’t really get into.

But otherwise, this is a superb collection and gives a rich flavour of Quin’s innovative writing. There is no doubt that Ann Quin’s work is an acquired taste. But if you develop a liking, the journey is worth it.

And end up like me – yes perhaps it would be an experience for you that’s what you want EXPERIENCE in caps period. To live beyond myself. Such a craving.

 

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Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.

 

Things We Lost in the Fire – Mariana Enriquez

Last year, the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream made it to My Top 12 Books of 2017 list. As I pored over the glowing reviews of that novel in the cultural sections of newspapers, I stumbled across another translated book from Argentina, and published in the same year. But it was a short story collection this time, and penned by a writer previously unknown to me.

Not surprisingly, this collection was published by Portobello Books, a rather excellent publisher which introduced me to Han Kang and Andres Barba among others.

Things we lost in the fire

Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of 12 wonderful short stories steeped in Gothic horror. The difference – it’s not set in Victorian London, the birthplace of Gothic fiction, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In most of them, there are many traces of supernatural elements, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships.

The translator, Megan McDowell, gives some perspective on the backdrop against which these stories are set…

Argentina’s twentieth century was scarred by decades of conflict between the leftist guerrillas and state and military forces. The last of many coups took place in 1976, three years after Marian Enriquez was born, and the military dictatorship it installed lasted until 1983. The dictatorship was a period of brutal repression and state terrorism, and thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. Since the dictatorship fell, Argentina has lived its longest period of democracy in recent history.

The collection opens with the story ‘The Dirty Kid.’ In this the narrator is a young woman who chooses to stay alone in her ancestral home in Constitucion, a dangerous neighbourhood rife with poverty and drug junkies. One day, she comes across a homeless woman, and her five year old son. Then, all of a sudden after some days they are gone, and the body of a child surfaces in the neighbourhood. Is it the same dirty kid?

There is a hint of violence that seeps through the story, but equally chilling is the narrator’s casual observation…

I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.

In Enriquez’s stories, violence is a part of everyday, ordinary life and occurs with alarming regularity. Children, in particular are at the centre of many of her stories, either as sufferers or the ones inflicting harm on others.

In one of my favourites ‘Adela’s House’, a group of three children are drawn to a house that is supposedly haunted, expressing extreme eagerness to explore it. But do all of them emerge unscathed?

The idea of going inside the house was my brother’s. He suggested it to me first. I told him he was crazy. And he was, he was obsessed. He needed to know what happened in that house, what was inside. He wanted it with a fervor that was strange to see in an eleven-year old boy. I don’t understand, I could never understand what the house did to him, how it drew him in like that. Because it drew him to it, first. And then he infected Adela.

In ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, the protagonist Pablo is a tour operator taking tourists on a popular murder tour of the city. But one day he sees the apparition of one of the most famous murderers on the tour.

But it was impossible for him to be there, where Pablo saw him standing. The Runt had died in 1944 at the Ushuaia penitentiary in Tierra del Fuego, a thousand miles away, down at the end of the world. What could he possibly be doing now, in the spring of 2014, a ghost passenger on a bus touring the scenes of his crimes?

In her novel Fever Dream, Schweblin uses the supernatural as a tool to expose the ground realities in her country such as the harmful effects of agricultural pesticides. In a similar vein, Enriquez’s haunting and unsettling story ‘Under the Black Water’ mixes the eerie with the stark reality of Argentina’s hazardous, industrial waste dumped in a river.

He also explained to her that the Riachuelo’s deep and rotten stench, which with the right wind and the city’s constant humidity could hang in the air for days, was caused by the lack of oxygen in the water. Anoxia, he’d told her. “The organic material consumers the oxygen in the liquid,” he said…

Horror drips off the pages of this collection, and yet it’s not the only factor that punches you in the gut. Argentina has had a troubling past, it is still transitioning into a democracy, and is grappling with all the problems that a typical developing country faces. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.

Enriquez’ stories also explore relationships, in particular the weaknesses in men and their inability to understand the women they are in a relationship with.

‘The Neighbour’s Courtyard’ for instance focuses on a young couple; the woman is prone to depression, and how her partner just does not get it.

Paula convinced herself that it had been the stress from the move; she’d read once that moving was the third most stressful life event, after the death of a loved one and being fired. In the past two years she’d gone through all three: her father had died, she’d been fired from her job, and she’d moved. And then there was her idiot of a husband, who thought she could get over it all just by trying.

In a nutshell, this is a strange, macabre and superb short story collection, making Argentina a thriving hotbed of exciting literature. There’s loads to explore!

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife – Meena Kandasamy

Here is another example of a major literary prize bringing to my attention a new author. Meena Kandasamy’s When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife has been shortlisted this year for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, the winner of which will be announced in the first week of June.

When I Hit You

When I Hit You Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Wife is a raw and visceral story of an abusive marriage. It is also a novel that explores how writing helps the woman, the unnamed narrator, find solace and make sense of what is happening.

When the novel opens, we already know that the unnamed narrator managed to walk out of this violent marriage.

Here’s how it begins:

My mother has not stopped talking about it.

Five years have passed, and with each year, her story has mutated and transformed, most of the particulars forgotten, the sequence of events, the date of the month, the day of the week, the time of the year, the etcetera and the so on, until only the most absurd details remain.

The mother prefers her story telling in metaphors and finds various ways to convey how her daughter suffered in her marriage without really finding the need to explicitly dwell on the actual chain of events.

But the narrator is having none of it. She is firm that she must write her own story.

Much as I love my mother, authorship is a trait that I have come to take very seriously. It gets on my nerves when she steals the story of my life and builds her anecdotes around it. It’s plain plagiarism. It also takes a lot of balls to do something like that – she’s stealing from a writer’s life – how often is that sort of atrocity even allowed to happen? The number one lesson I have learnt as a writer: Don’t let people remove you from your own story.

We learn how the narrator meets her abusive husband – she was a student then leaning towards the Left, and he was a revolutionary who seduced her with his ideas.

He was a college lecturer, but as far Left as they came and as orthodox as it was possible to be. He wore his outlaw air with charm, his Communist credentials without guile. He had been a Naxalite guerilla (‘Maoist,’ he corrected me). An underground revolutionary. He had assumed at least ten different names in three years. The element of danger provided an irresistible aura around him. I loved this sense of adventure. I loved his idealism, I found the dogmatic obsession endearing.

They marry and it all begins to unravel. He gradually starts controlling her. It begins in a relatively minor but incredibly frustrating way. He forces her to close down her Facebook account, keeps tabs on her emails and her phone calls. The narrator begins to find her herself isolated as she is cut away from any meaningful contact with the outside world.

But as the days go by this escalates into full blown abuse – beating and rape.

He is channelling his anger, practicing his outrage. I am the wooden cutting board banged against the countertop. I am the clattering plates flung into the cupboards. I am the unwashed glass being thrown to the floor. Shatter and shards and diamond sparkle of tiny pieces. My hips and thighs and breasts and buttocks. Irreversible crashing sounds, a fragile sight of brokenness as a petty tyrant indulges in a power-trip. Not for the first time, and not for the last.

Kandasamy’s storytelling is non-linear. This means that while we do get an idea of the chain of events, the story is not narrated in the order in which these events occurred. Rather Kandasamy picks up various themes and each chapter is dedicated to that.

Thus, in one chapter the narrator focuses on the tumultuous two year relationship she has with a much older politician much before her marriage to her current husband. She talks about her naivete and what she assumes to be love, only to realize that when pushed towards making a choice, the politician goes for his career.

In another chapter, the narrator talks about the letters she writes to ‘lovers she has never seen, or heard, to lovers who do not exist, to lovers she invents on a lonely morning.’

But in every chapter there is always a sense of menace lurking around, that uneasy feeling of an impending disaster ahead. Indeed, the chapters which focus on the actual physical violence and rape are quite gut-wrenching and disturbing.

However, the narrator finds some sort of meaning in her chosen profession – writing. Writing helps her deal with her suffering and pain, something her husband does not like, instead finding ways to thwart her at every turn.

I cannot agree with what he has to say. To me, it sounds strange, alien almost, to imagine that my poem will be the source of future trouble, that a poem will prevent us from healing.  The poem is the healing, I tell him. It’s by writing this that I can get over it.

Despite such a gruesome subject matter, the story is not without hope. After enduring so much, the narrator manages to walk out of the marriage in the nick of time. And her parents finally support her, even though they were slow to accept the realities much earlier on for fear of being judged by Indian society.

Of course, when the topic is as grim as an abusive marriage, any novel can come across as nothing but a misery memoir.

But not in Kandasamy’s hands. She writes with poetic intensity and grace, and her intelligence simply shines on every page. Her prose is lush, and her narrative quite compelling making you want to keep turning the pages.

It seems that Kandasamy is examining every facet of this doomed marriage from an angle – writing is something that helps her do that – as she ponders over her role as a housewife which her husband chains her to, the pressure on her to produce a child, and her parents’ initial reaction to her abuse telling her to bear with it in the hopes that the husband will turn over a new leaf. In a culture where divorce has negative connotations, and given they are in denial, they would rather their daughter stick it out rather than be berated by society.

Kandasamy also reflects on the right of a woman to express desire, and how in many cases it is always assumed to be a man’s prerogative.

When I Hit You in many ways is autobiographical – Kandasamy was the victim of an abusive marriage. But she refused to bow down, crafting instead a powerful novel in a unique voice. And she brought to the fore the sad truth that even educated women can become victims of domestic violence – both physical and mental.

The Quarry – Damon Galgut

In my last post, I talked about how when you come to love certain authors, all their books (both the backlist and the forthcoming releases) become essential reading.

Deborah Levy is one of them.

In that list, I would also include the South African author Damon Galgut.

Incidentally, as was the case with Levy, it was the Booker Prize which once again introduced me to this excellent writer.

The Quarry

The Quarry is a tense and unsettling tale of cat and mouse set in the bleak, desolate terrain of rural South Africa. It explores the concept of freedom, and the price that one has to pay for it.

Here’s how the book opens:

Then he came out of the grass at the side of the road and stood without moving. He rocked very gently on his heels. There were blisters on his feet that had come from walking and blisters in his mouth that had come from nothing, except his silence perhaps, and bristles like glass on his chain.

The main protagonist is never named but it is clear from the opening ages that he is a man hunted and on the run. Just what exactly he is escaping from is something we will never know.

As he walks resolutely across the harsh and barren landscape, he runs into a minister who is on his way to a town to take up a new position there. He offers to give the man a ride.

In due course, they reach a quarry – abandoned and empty – on the side of the road and halt there.

There were boulders at the bottom of the quarry and trees warped into crazed curious shapes and what appeared to be holes in the earth. He could see no clear path down and it was a wonder to him how men had ever mined this hole.

The minister and the man spend some time by the quarry, knocking down a few drinks while in the car, and trying to make conversation.

And then something terrible happens.

All of it takes place within the first few pages itself, and I will not reveal any further.

But as the novel progresses, we are introduced to some more characters – the policeman, and a couple of petty criminals, who are brothers named Valentine and Small.

Somewhere along the way the lives of Valentine and Small become entwined with that of the main protagonist, so much so that you feel it’s all blurred, with not much to distinguish between the fates that befall the three of them.

And then there is one point in the novel, where you get the feeling that even the hunter and the hunted are one.

He sat down on the ground and waited. When the policeman climbed back out of the dam he got up again and went on. He was no longer sure that there was a difference between them or that they were separate from each other and they moved on together across the surface of the world and the sun went down and it got dark and still they continued in duet. They moved through the night in faintest silhouette like dreams that the soil was having.

Midway through the novel, the protagonist is consumed by this persistent urge to clear his conscience, and in the process sets off a chain of events leading to the final outcome.

In a novel of this kind where not much can be revealed for fear of spoiling the plot, it makes sense to focus more on the quality of writing.

It’s where Damon Galgut excels.

His prose is lean but lyrical, stripped back, and bare, pretty much like the stark South African landscape.

The story reads like an allegorical tale and a sense of unease prevails throughout. This is characteristic of most of Galgut’s novels, set as they are in a South Africa where the transition post-apartheid has been anything but easy.

Rural South Africa is unflinching and unyielding – heightened by Galgut’s descriptions…

It was early afternoon and the sun was hot as they drove. They passed the carcass of an animal next to the road on which three black crows were feeding and one of them flapped up ahead of the car and lumbered off over the veld. The road went through a salt pan that was cracked like a mirror and in which there was nothing alive. There were river beds that were dry.

And then later on…

The sun went down in a sewage of colour and the landscape looked violent an strange. At first the darkness was complete. The only light came from the stars. He thought he could change course in the night but the sky to his left grew paler and he could see the horizon and then the moon came up. It was full and round with a blue barren face and it cast its radiance down. The grass was like metal in the thin blue light and everything could be seen.

Indeed, The Quarry is an apt name for the novel signifying as it does both – the deep mining pit where quite a bit of the action takes place, as well as the man being pursued by the hunter.

As we race towards the conclusion, we will keep wondering – Will the protagonist find an ace up his sleeve and manage to dodge the law? Or will the law get the better of him?

The Quarry, published in 1995, is one of Galgut’s earlier works and all the more impressive for that.

However, he became known to a much wider audience (that includes me) post the Booker shortlisting of his wonderful novel The Good Doctor in 2003.

Subsequently, he went on to pen two more brilliant but very different novels – The Impostor, and In A Strange Room – which remain my favourites of all his books I have read so far, and which I wholeheartedly recommend.

As an aside, In A Strange Room was also shortlisted for the Booker…in 2010.

The Cost of Living – Deborah Levy

Though I don’t always agree with the winners and shortlist selection of The Man Booker Prize, it has nevertheless introduced me to some interesting authors, whom I had never heard of before but have subsequently gone on to love.

Deborah Levy is one of them, and I first heard of her when her novel Swimming Home was shortlisted for the prize in 2012. It did not win that year, but I loved that book – it was unsettling and intense.

More importantly, I became a fan of Levy’s writing with every intention of exploring her backlist as well as her forthcoming novels.

She did not disappoint. Hot Milk, another wonderful novel (it made its way into my Best of 2016 list), was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 only to miss out yet again.

So when her latest offering The Cost of Living was recently released, I knew I had to read it…

Cost of Living

The Cost of Living is Deborah Levy’s second book of memoirs, or what can otherwise be called a ‘living autobiography.’ Levy touches upon a wide range of topics – writing, feminism, motherhood, and her marriage.

Here’s how it begins:

As Orson Welles told us, if we want a happy ending, it depends on where we stop the story.

After a life with her husband for more than a decade, their marriage falls apart. Levy very eloquently describes how her life completely changes when she is approaching her fifties, with the result that she now has to carve out a new beginning with her teenage daughters.

Can she manage? Is she in the right frame of mind and the right age to start afresh? Yes, she strongly affirms.

Chaos is supposed to be what we most fear but I have come to believe it might be what we most want.

Levy’s life suddenly becomes hectic. She is a single mother now with two kids, and has to also find the space and the time to pursue her career as a writer. Not only because she enjoys doing so, but also because she has bills to pay.

When I was around fifty and my life was supposed to be slowing down, becoming more stable and predictable, life became faster, unstable, unpredictable. My marriage was the boat and I knew that if I swam back to it, I would drown.

Many sections are devoted to describing her new life in a new apartment and new surroundings, and as she juggles different sets of responsibilities, she still manages to find humour.

The bleak communal corridor walls of the building had been painted a speckled grey in the 1970s, which I suppose matched the grey plastic that had been laid over the mangy green carpets. These corridors were lit all day and all night, a sinister, unchanging twilight. At other times they felt amniotic and trippy, as if we were floating in grey membrane. My friends thought they looked like something out of The Shining. I started to call them The Corridors of Love.

Change is never easy, but Levy faces it head on…

The new situation had freed something that had been trapped and stifled. I became physically strong at fifty, just as my bones were supposed to be losing their strength. I had energy because I had no choice but to have energy. I had to write to support my children and I had to do all the heavy lifting. Freedom is never free. Anyone who has struggled to be free knows how much it costs.

Levy had to write, she wanted to write. But her apartment is not conducive to writing. Then, a guardian angel in the form of Celia comes to her rescue. Celia offers Levy her shed giving the latter her own private space to continue her craft.

It also gives Levy the opportunity to discuss what she loves best – writing. She completes three books in the shed, one of which is Swimming Home. As mentioned earlier, it goes on to being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, giving Levy the recognition that she deserves.

Levy also talks about what it is to be a woman. She discusses the role of women in history and the part they play in society – how over the years they have been expected to confirm to certain norms that are carved out for them.

It is so mysterious to want to suppress women. It is even more mysterious when women want to suppress women. I can only think we are so very powerful that we need to be suppressed all the time.

Obviously, they don’t hold much water today because women can now change the script of the story in a way that suits them and allows them to thrive and excel.

Levy also ruminates on the death of her mother, the relationship that they had, and motherhood in general. Being a mother is a complex role, as she puts it:

If we do not disclose our feelings to her, we mysteriously expect her to understand them anyway. And if she moves beyond us, comes close to being a self that is not at our service, she has transgressed from the mythic, primal task of being our protector and nurturer. Yet, if she comes too close, she suffocates us, infecting our fragile courage with her contagious anxiety.

The section where she describes her mother’s last days, and how Levy ensures that her mom gets to eat her favourite ice lollies is particularly poignant.

The Cost of Living then is another incredibly lovely piece work; of rumination and reflection by Levy. It’s a memoir that is intelligent, witty and humane. As with her earlier novels, Deborah Levy’s writing is sensual, and her prose always has that extra bite and verve that makes her unique. It draws you into her spell.

Here she is quoting the author Marguerite Duras to whom ‘writing comes like the wind’…

It’s naked, it’s made of ink, it’s the thing written, and it passes like nothing else passes in life, nothing more, except life itself.

And with this, Levy presents to us, her readers, her latest and wonderful published memoir.

Cost of living sign

The White Book – Han Kang

It is always exciting to discover a new author. Even more so when you have a gut feeling of pretty much loving each and every book that author writes.

There are many that fit the bill. But today I will be focusing on Korean author Han Kang.

I was introduced to her writing, when her novel The Vegetarian was translated and released to an English speaking audience a couple of years back. Although she has penned quite a few books, The Vegetarian was the first to be translated into English by the ever reliable and interesting publisher Portobello Books.

It garnered rave reviews in the book blogging world. And all of it highly justified. Because I was blown away by the novel, and it made into my Top Books of the Year list in 2015.

The Vegetarian is about a supposedly unremarkable woman (and this is her husband’s point of view), who one day decides to stop eating meat. Not such a big thing in today’s world. But in a strict society such as Korea with its set ways and traditions, it is an act of rebellion that shocks her family. It is a novel like no other and wonderfully translated by Deborah Smith.

Since then, a couple of novels have been translated – one is Human Acts (which I have yet to read), and the other is The White Book, which is the one I will be reviewing.

And as was the case last time, Deborah Smith’s translation of The White Book is incredible too.

Onto the novel itself then…

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The White Book is a haunting piece of work about grief, loss and healing.

This is no linear narrative; the author chooses to tell her story in a fragmentary style, in a series of short paragraphs on every page. The tone is quiet and meditative.

Here’s how the book opens:

In the spring, when I decided to write about white things, the first thing I did was to make a list.

The list?

Salt, snow, ice, moon, rice, waves and so on.

It is through the listing of these objects that the author explores various themes throughout the book.

One major theme that dominates is her sister’s death, two hours after she is born prematurely.

Now and then her mother would be struck by a sense of foreboding and give a corner of the quilt a tug, but the baby’s eyes opened only briefly, grew dim and then slid shut. At some point, even that scant response was no longer forthcoming. And yet, before dawn, when the first milk finally came from her mother’s breasts and she pressed her nipple between the tiny lips, she found that, despite everything, the baby was still breathing. Though she had, by now, slipped from consciousness, the nipple in her mouth encouraged a soft swallowing, gradually growing stronger. Still with her eyes closed the whole time. Not knowing what boundary, she was now passing over.

The narrator ponders the randomness of her birth and life itself, and reflects – Would she have been born if her sister hadn’t died?

This life needed only one of us to live it.  If you had lived beyond those first few hours, I would not be living now.

My life means yours is impossible.

Only in the gap between darkness and light, only in that blue-tinged breach, do we manage to make out each other’s faces.

This is also a book about nature, about how fleeting life is…

In the distance, the surface of the water bulges upwards. The winter sea mounts its approach, surging closer in. The wave reaches its greatest possible height and shatters in a spray of white. The shattered water slides back over the sandy shore.

Standing at this border where land and water meet, watching the seemingly endless recurrence of the waves (though this eternity is in fact illusion: the earth will one day vanish, everything will one day vanish), the fact that our lives are no more than brief instants is felt with unequivocal clarity.

Not surprisingly, the colour ‘white’ is a prominent thread weaving its way through this work – it highlights cleanliness, newness, and purity…

Here she is on ‘salt’…

One day she took a handful of coarse salt and examined it closely. Those crystals had a cool beauty, their white touched with grey. For the first time, she had a real sense of the power that lay within this material: the power to preserve, the power to sterilize and to heal.

And on freshly laundered bed linen…

Is it because of some billowing whiteness within us, unsullied, inviolate, that our encounters with objects so pristine never fail to leave us moved?

There are times when the crisp white of freshly laundered bed linen can seem to speak. When that pure-cotton fabric grazes her bare flesh, just there, it seems to tell her something. You are a noble person. Your sleep is clean, and the fact of your living is nothing to be ashamed of.  

But ‘white’ signals harshness too…

The sun’s rays pale slightly as the frost begins to form. Trees shiver off their leaves, incrementally lightening their burden. Solid objects like stones or buildings appear subtly more dense. Seen from behind, men and women bundled up in heavy coats are saturated with a mute presentiment, that of people beginning to endure.

Occasionally other colours seep in…a crane by the water’s edge one summer day in Seoul is “entirely white save for its bright-red feet”, or when the narrator as an eight-year old sees “a thousand points of silver sweep in from the distant sea” which she is told is an anchovy shoal. Death is compared to “black writing bleeding through thin paper.

Indeed, The White Book is a novel that reads like a lyrical poem. It has the effect of a soothing balm on jangled nerves. Reading it is akin to an experience that is mysterious and otherworldly. You never quite know what to make of it but that is really not the point – it’s the journey that’s affirming.

Despite the weight of bereavement, the narrator has hope…

The sight of a dish of wrapped sugar cubes still evokes the sense of witnessing something precious. There are certain memories which remain inviolate to the ravages of time. And to those of suffering. It is not true that everything is coloured by time and suffering. It is not true that they bring everything to ruin.

There is something pleasing about the physical book too. The hardcover is white as is the dustjacket. Inside, most of the paragraphs fit on a page – on the right side, while the left side is left blank. Thus, not only does the writing evoke a reflective mood but the generous expanse of white washing over you is also quite exhilarating.

It’s not all about the reader though and what he/she experiences coursing through the book.

Writing it has been therapeutic too. The narrator hopes that the process of writing “would be transformative, would itself transform, into something like white ointment applied to a swelling, like gauze laid over a wound. Something I needed.”

The White Book is something we need too.

Ice – Anna Kavan

I had meaning to read Anna Kavan – specifically Ice – for quite some time now but the tags ‘science fiction’ and ‘difficult book’ probably made me hesitant. But then I saw new versions of this novel being released by Peter Owen Classics and Penguin Modern Classics. These brilliant covers finally gave me the push I needed.

And as I kept turning the pages, I had to admit that all my prejudices were unfounded. Indeed, it dawned on me that to simply label Ice as science fiction was plain lazy, because there is so much more going on. Anyway, to cut a long story short; I absolutely loved Ice.

Ice Peter Owen

Ice is one of those books that are easy to read but difficult to write about.

Here’s what Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote in a foreword to the book:

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a work of literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type.

Essentially it’s a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred.

When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves.

I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar.

We learn that the narrator and this girl were seeing each other in earlier days, although for a brief period.

I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection.

There’s more to her…

Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.

We then learn that she suddenly ditches the narrator and marries another man. The narrator goes to meet the couple at their home, and sees that she remains in a state of terror and submission in the marriage as well.

Later the husband tells the narrator that the girl has escaped, and from then onwards, the narrator decides to make his quest for finding the girl his sole purpose, above anything else.

This is also where the novel begins to take on a dream like quality, and as a reader you are strangely compelled to go along with the flow rather than try to make any sense of it.

Throughout the book, the sequence keeps on repeating…the narrator boards a ship, he reaches a town where he sees the girl only to lose her again.

For instance, in the initial pages, the narrator reaches an unnamed town and gathers that it is governed by the Warden, a powerful and brutal man. He knows that the girl is with him and makes a request to see her, but his efforts prove futile.

It’s a recurring pattern, as the girl continues to remain elusive. And yet, the narrator can’t let go of her. He wants to find her at all cost, even when during some moments of rationality, he acknowledges that he needs to abandon this desperate need to go after her.

Ice then is a tale of male obsession and desire, also giving us an uncomfortable glimpse into female objectification.

It’s a book that is disorienting and defies logic and that is precisely its strength. It’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not.

Ice also has streaks of science fiction elements running through it. The world Kavan has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice. It is a world on the brink of an apocalypse. It’s also in the description of this environment, where Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers…

She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice-walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an overhanging ring of frigid, fiery colossal waves about to collapse upon her.

And here…

Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling lava had poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path.

There are many set pieces in this novel each with more or less the same result, but it’s where Kavan’s writing clearly excels. One such section to me was quite hypnotic. It was when on learning about the ice catastrophe, the Warden flees his country and forces the girl to go with him.

It was incomprehensible to her, this extraordinary flight that went on and on. The forest went on forever, the silence went on and on. The snow stopped, but the cold went on and even increased, as if some icy exudation from the black trees congealed beneath them. Hour after hour passed before a little reluctant daylight filtered down through the roof of branches, revealing nothing but gloomy masses of firs, dead and living trees tangled together, a dead bird often caught in the branches, as if the tree had caught it deliberately.

Ice Penguin Modern

Just as Ice is an incredibly fascinating read so is its author’s profile. Kavan was married twice and once her second marriage ended, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns for which she was confined to a clinic in Switzerland.

Kavan also suffered bouts of mental illness and was addicted to heroin for a considerable period. In a sense, there are influences of this in her novels. The hallucinatory effect of Ice probably corresponds to the unreal, surreal world that exists for a drug addict.

Given that Ice refuses to follow conventional norms of fiction or storytelling, it is challenging to define it. But if you are willing to accept its arbitrariness, and its strangeness, then the experience of reading it is as exhilarating as any whiff of joint.

Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing.

Soviet Milk – Nora Ikstena

I always wait for a new Peirene Press title to be released. Peirene’s mantra is to publish the best of contemporary European literature and these come in the form of novellas, which when compelling can be devoured in a couple of sittings. A couple of years ago, three of their titles made it to my Best of the Year list.

For 2018, the theme is ‘Home in Exile’ and once again I found a winner in the first book in the series Soviet Milk.

Soviet Milk

Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Here’s how it begins, it is the daughter talking:

I don’t remember 15 October 1969. There are people who swear they remember their birth. I don’t. It’s likely that I was well positioned in my mother’s womb, because the birth was normal. Not particularly long, or particularly short, with the last contractions coming every five minutes. My mother was twenty-five, young and healthy. Her mental state, though, was not so healthy, as I learned later.

And then we hear from her mother:

I don’t remember 2 October 1944, but I can reconstruct it. Riga has been liberated from the Nazis. Bombs have shattered the maternity ward’s windows. It is damp and cold, and the women who have just given birth helplessly wrap themselves in their bloodied sheets. Exhausted nurses and doctors are bundling up dead newborns and drinking as they work. An epidemic that everyone is calling nasal typhoid fever is raging through the hospital. Sounds of wailing, bombs whistling in the air and, through the windows, the smell of burning. My mother has sneaked me out of the ward, bound to her chest, and is squirting her milk into my nose.

The mother’s life is chaotic right from the start. When she is very young, a group of soldiers suddenly arrive and start destroying her father’s spruce trees. When he protests, he is taken away, never to be seen for a while. The grandmother manages to hide in the cupboard with the mother and saves them both. Later with no news of the grandfather, the grandmother marries again. The mother now has a stepfather.

The mother, meanwhile, grows up to become a brilliant doctor working in the maternity hospital. But, she is a rebel and never really adjusts to life under Soviet rule with its rules, restrictions and set ways of doing things. She feels trapped and claustrophobic.

There is an incident where she meets a young woman stuck in an abusive marriage, but who is desperately trying to conceive. Using groundbreaking techniques (which we know today as IVF), the mother manages to impregnate the woman.

And yet, despite her intelligence, and her ability to experiment and excel, there is no recognition for the mother in her profession. On the contrary, her intellectual endeavors are always thwarted.

Later, when circumstances force her to commit murder, she is banished to the countryside and forced to eke out a living, working in an ambulatory centre there.

The daughter, meanwhile, tries to copes with her mother’s erratic moods. She adjusts to life under Soviet rule better somehow and ironically ends up being the one taking care of her mother.

But mother and daughter have their good moments too.

Sometimes she (the mother) would come home unexpectedly early, roast a crackling chicken and bake a delicious apple cake. We would eat while the dog waited under the table for tasty morsels. My mother would tell me strange stories, things no one had ever told me before. She said that we had once been free.  

Clearly, both of them share a strange bond. We get a glimpse of this right at the beginning when the daughter is a baby. The mother refuses to breast feed her and instead disappears for five days. It is the mother’s way of rebelling against the State. She does not want to feed her baby with milk that is poisoned by the State.

Throughout the story, milk is a recurring theme. There is the title of course. And then the mother’s refusal to breastfeed her baby. And then later, the daughter grows up to be lactose-intolerant and the mere smell of milk nauseates her.

Despite her mother’s moods, and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

Soviet Milk then is a very powerful and touching novella about the debilitating impact of occupation.

The mother, in particular, is yearning for freedom…

…there was something of the flower child in my mother. She wasn’t afraid of experimenting with herself and spend periods in a haze – whether through the use of some substance or thanks to her refusal to countenance the place and time in which she was fated to be alive. I remember her once, drunk on wine and high in a field of dandelions by the hippodrome, where the horses no longer raced. For her the hippodrome was evidence of some other, carefree and unfettered life. She ran through the dandelions like a young mare, and I skipped alongside getting under her feet.

She has what it takes to forge ahead in her chosen profession but is stalled at every turn. She feels isolated not just physically – from her family who loves her – but also mentally. There seems to be no way out.

Soviet Milk also focuses on the relationship between the three generation of women – the grandmother, the mother and the daughter. As the mother gradually sinks into depression, the daughter comes to rely on her grandmother for love and the desire for life.

This is another strong novella from the Peirene stable, and a cracking start for the 2018 ‘Home in Exile’ series.

Translation credits from the Latvian go to Margita Gailitis.

 

Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. A Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6