Dead Girls – Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)

I first heard of Selva Almada last year, when Charco Press released her excellent novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, which fuelled my appetite for more of her work. So I had high expectations from her second book published this year – Dead Girls – and I must say it turned to another impressive offering.   

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina.

It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

In 1983, Maria Luisa Quevedo, a fifteen-year old girl, working as a maid, was raped, strangled and dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city of Sáenz Peña.

Sarita Mundín was twenty when she disappeared in March 1988. One year later her disfigured body is found washed up on a river bank in the Córdoba province.

The case of nineteen-year old Andrea Danne, who was training to be a psychology teacher, is even more disturbing because she was murdered while sleeping in her bed in the alleged safety of her own home in San José.

Almada’s investigation into these three murders reveals a shocking societal structure where casual violence is the norm rather than the exception, and while men are the clear culprits, this misogynistic attitude has been ingrained into the psyche of the women too.

I didn’t know a woman could be killed simply for being a woman, but I’d heard stories that gradually, over time, I pieced together. Stories that didn’t end in the woman’s death, but saw her subjected to misogyny, abuse and contempt.

In her introduction, Almada tells us that she completed writing the book in three months, but the research required for it took three years. As part of her extensive fieldwork, Almada pored over police reports, case files and newspaper articles. She communicated with the family members of the three victims either by meeting them personally or through mail. She also had extensive consultations with the Señora – a medium and a tarot card reader – to gain some perspective on the circumstances surrounding those three deaths.

Dead Girls is as tense and gripping as a crime novel but what sets it apart is that Almada is not interested in finding out who committed the murders. The investigation is more to seek out patterns, threads of similarities between the murders of which there are plenty – widespread gossip when these deaths were discovered, lack of serious intent by the police or the law to nab the culprits, and the general sense of apathy – of how little the society cared for what happened to these girls.

Hence, the focus of the book is entirely on the victims, to ensure that their stories do not sink into complete obscurity. Given the unforgivable nature of these crimes, any attempt to extensively explore the motives and reasons behind them would only mean devoting more space to the perpetrators. Why give them that importance?

We are given a glimpse of the potential suspects in each case and the arrests made, but we are also told that lack of concrete proof hampered efforts to build a watertight case with the consequence that the criminals went punished and the murdered girls never got justice.

What also comes to the fore is the malicious gossip and “trial by the public” aspects in each of the three cases. Absence of solid evidence, at the time, did nothing to prevent tongues from wagging, with the result that the victims’ families suffered too. For instance, in Andrea Danne’s case, her mother found herself at the receiving end and judged harshly for slipping into a state of shock and displaying a calm demeanor because this response did not fit in with society’s expectations of wailing and crying. 

Though Almada’s narrative centres on these three girls, while also giving a flavor of the community and neighbourhood they were a part of, she also weaves in elements of her own personal experiences, of the dangers she herself faced as a woman.

I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.

In her powerful introduction as well as in the epilogue, Almada makes it clear that her fate could easily have mirrored that of Maria Luisa, Sarita and Andrea, and if she is alive today it’s only because of sheer luck.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.

Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

A couple of years ago, I was blown away by Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace, a haunting exploration of the friendship between two young girls – a novel that made its way into my Best Books of 2018 list. Wanting to read more of his work, I settled for The Birds, and it turned out to be another incredible book.

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is known as Simple Simon in the village. It’s a label that has fastened on to him because of his inability to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” He envies those people who are endowed with the three qualities he realizes he is not blessed with, but for which he yearns – strength, wisdom and beauty.

Hege and Mattis survive on the income that Hege brings home by knitting sweaters. In a way, the burden of providing for the two of them falls on her, and she is frustrated and tired. She implores Mattis to look for work on the farms everyday, but to no avail. Mattis dreads the prospect of physical labour, knowing fully well that he lacks ability. The farmers are aware of this too and therefore don’t want him working for them either.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable, memorable character, although the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show. While Mattis’ awkward conversations with Hege and some of the villagers form one aspect of the novel, Vesaas also peppers the story with some unique set pieces – occurrence of events that are fascinating to Mattis and offer us a glimpse into his mind.

For instance, at the start of the novel, Mattis observes a woodcock flying over their cottage. Woodcocks typically do not alter their flight paths, and the fact that this one has is a source of marvel to Mattis.

Mattis sat waiting almost breathless. For if it was a proper flight, the bird would return in a little while, along the same path, again and again during the short hour that the evening flight lasted. He knew this from other areas where flights occurred. Early in the morning, too, the bird moved along the same path, a fowler had told him so. On dry marshlands he had sometimes seen the marks of woodcocks’ beaks, next to the imprints of their dainty feet.

He sat waiting, full of excitement. The moments seemed to drag on, and his doubts grew stronger.

But hush, there it was. The flapping wings, the bird itself, indistinct, speeding through the air straight across the house and off in the other direction. Gone again, hidden by the gentle dusk and the sleeping treetops.

Then Mattis said in a firm voice: “So the woodcock came at last.”

To him, this heralds new possibilities of their lives changing for the better. But when he attempts to express this to Hege, she barely gives it the importance he thinks it deserves.

Hege is a practical woman, worried about the trials of everyday life and ensuring there is food on the table. But Mattis is mostly in his own world, seemingly inept at carving out the kind of living as defined by society.

And yet, there are activities that give Mattis pleasure because he can do them well – rowing a boat is one of them. Hege pounces on this and encourages him to become a ferryman, just to have him out of the house, knowing fully well that there will be no takers and no money coming from this futile enterprise.

Mattis, though, is optimistic and on his first day on the lake, he ferries across the one customer he will ever have – a lumberjack called Jorgen. Jorgen spends the night in their home, and subsequently settles there – Jorgen and Hege have become lovers.

While a man in her life brings Hege much needed happiness, Mattis feels threatened and unsure of his own position in the house in the new scheme of things.

One of the many things that Vesaas excels at in The Birds is visual imagery. The flight of the woodcock becomes a thing of wonder to the reader as much as it is to Mattis. Then there is the time when Mattis spends the day toiling on a turnip field.  Vesaas beautifully captures the sense of futility that creeps up on Mattis as he struggles to keep pace with the farmer and a young couple on the field. Beset by a stream of thoughts, Mattis is much more arrested by the sight of the couple – sweethearts as he calls them – rather than the work in front of him. A little later on in the novel, when he is rowing his boat out on the lake, a chance encounter with two holidaying girls – Anna and Inger – fills him with joy and instills in him a confidence he never knew he possessed.

Was this happiness? Happiness had come to him on a bare, rocky island, without any kind of warning. He hadn’t done anything to bring it about. He could even make sharp-witted remarks.

There lay the two girls, who weren’t a bit afraid of him. They were so near, he could have put out his hand and touched them. The sun was turning them golden brown for him, had been shining on them for fourteen days.

He had to do something. And it had to be something out of the ordinary.

But for the larger part of his existence, Mattis is always pondering the bigger questions – “Why are things the way they are?” And on those occasions when he musters up the courage to put them forth, no one really bothers to answer him.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel, subtly displaying a gamut of emotions and filled with uniquely etched characters. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both. Being ‘different’ from the others is always tough, but so is the responsibility of being the sole caregiver.

A Month of Reading – September 2020

September 2020 turned out to be another stellar month of reading. My favourites were Passing, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Birds. But, the Wharton and the Penelope Fitzgerald were also superb.

Here’s a brief summary of the books I read…with links to detailed reviews wherever applicable.

Passing– Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.

The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good. Not having revealed to her husband that she is black, Clare Kendry’s dangerous deception means that she is constantly living on the edge.

At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s, and when the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie has left him. The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Along with its evocative portrayal of Russia, the novel is made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh.

Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy frame of mind, although we will soon read that this happiness has come at a considerable price. Immediately then, the reader is taken to a period in her life eight years back – Sophia’s story begins when she meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged (everyone calls him Simple Simon), and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable character, saddled with the burden of not being able to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” But the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel of uniquely etched characters subtly displaying a gamut of emotions. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both.

The Pear Field – Nina Ekvtimishvili (tr. Elizabeth Heighway)

Set in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a newly independent Georgia, our protagonist Lela at eighteen is the oldest student at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or, as the locals call it, the School for Idiots.  The plot is essentially driven by Lela’s single-minded focus on two objectives – (1) to help Irakli, a nine-year old student, make most of a good opportunity offered to him, after which she would leave the school to start afresh, and (b) to kill her history teacher Vano, who we are told has sexually abused her when she was younger, as he has countless newly inducted, young girls before her.

The novel contains a diverse range of characters – students and staff as well as some families in the neighbouring buildings. The pear fields stretch nearby and the air of neglect that surrounds them in some way serves as a symbol of the overall moral decay of the school.

At a little less than 200 pages, The Pear Field was a quick read, and while I liked the novel, I didn’t exactly love it. However, what I did enjoy very much were the sumptuous descriptions of Georgian food sprinkled throughout the book.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface.

This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.

In Mrs Manstey’s View, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A Journey, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.

In After Holbein, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, Autres Temps, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.

The last story in the collection, Roman Fever, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.

That’s it for September. I hope to read some fab books in October too and have begun with Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which only a few pages in, is already promising to be a special book.

Two NYRB Classics – Natsume Soseki & Barbara Comyns

I read some wonderful books from NYRB Classics in September and because I am rather behind in my reviews, I decided to write about two of them – The Gate and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – in this post. They are as different as chalk and cheese, but excellent in their own way.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple and frugal life on the outskirts of Tokyo. Sosuke works as a clerk in a company and almost never takes a day off. Oyone manages the house. It’s a routine they have been following for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining.

But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku. Koroku is almost ten years younger than Sosuke. In stark contrast to his older brother, Koroku is a selfish and brash man, who has had it easy for much of his life and cannot come to terms with his recently reduced circumstances. Koroku wants Sosuke to approach their aunt and come to an arrangement regards his education, but becomes increasingly impatient with Sosuke’s laidback attitude. Sosuke is in no hurry to move things along.

Koroku reminds Sosuke of his own youth, of how confident he once was with dreams of completing university…only it all fizzles away. Subsequently a series of flashbacks offer a glimpse of Sosuke and Oyone’s background, how they marry and become estranged from their respective families and how they lead an existence of isolation with not many ties.

And yet, Sosuke and Oyone are content in their closed world, happy in their marriage in their own way.

Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little else that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.  

The one blemish is their inability to have children. On this front, the book is laced with some heartbreaking passages, which elucidates this tragic development in some detail and how it affects both of them.

While Koroku’s predicament is the driving force of the tale, there are also some other smaller moments of tension that propel the narrative along such as Oyone’s illness and the sale of a Meiji period screen the couple possess.

As the novel progresses, while on the one hand Sosuke forges a new friendship with favourable consequences, on the other, the possibility of a chance encounter looms large, which has the danger of raking up a past he is keen to forget.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. I was first entranced by the completely off-kilter The Vet’s Daughter and then followed it up with the brilliant The Juniper Tree which found a place on my Best Books of 2019 list.

In both those books, there was something fascinating about her female characters and their unique narrative voices and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is no different, although this story is more straightforward compared to the other two.

The narrator in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy place, although this happiness has come at a considerable price. Here’s the opening passage…

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

This paragraph is important because we are immediately taken back to Sophia’s grim past filled with poverty and harrowing ordeals that she has to endure, and it’s those opening lines that make some of the difficult moments in the novel bearable.

The story begins when Sophia meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. Sophia at the time is working at an artist studio with a regular pay, while Charles has not been too successful in selling his paintings yet.

Charles’ parents are separated and both oppose the marriage at first – his mother strongly opines that marriage will greatly hamper Charles’ artistic career. But eventually they come around.

The couple move into their new flat – small but within their budget. Things are hunky dory at first but quickly, it becomes clear that Charles is a selfish man, not capable of taking on responsibilities. The only thing that interests him is his painting. Meanwhile, Sophia is struggling as she juggles her job with domestic duties. And then she finds out she is pregnant, a development which both delights and unnerves her, but greatly horrifies Charles.

What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent. Not surprisingly, their marriage begins to falter.

Charles and Sophia’s circumstances are not always bleak though. There are some periods in their life when money does come their way and they are able to enjoy the finer things in life – a better flat, a larger friend circle involving a lot of entertaining, and good food. But the ground beneath them is always shaky, and the prospect of money running out continuously hangs like a sword over their heads.

That’s the basic outline of the story, but suffice to say a lot more happens as the novel moves forward.

The most striking feature about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia’s voice – frank, captivating and quite child-like. Sophia is naïve about a lot of things, especially birth control, thinking that “if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.”

Barbara Comyns’ writing is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. It blunts to a greater effect the sharp edges of her suffering and prevents the novel from being utterly tragic. There’s also solace in the knowledge that she makes it through that difficult period in her life, as clearly shown in the first chapter.

The book also highlights some of the problems that women had to grapple with in the early 20th century. For instance, when Sophia announces her pregnancy to her boss, she is fired – the protection of maternity leave was pretty much non-existent at the time. Also, treatment in public hospitals especially maternity wards left a lot to be desired. There are a couple of chapters focusing on the time when she is in labor – she is shunted from room to room despite being in immense pain made all the more horrifying by the nurses’ obvious lack of compassion.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Comyns’ earlier work – her second novel in fact – and there are a lot of autobiographical shades to it. Indeed, here’s one of the things displayed on the copyright page…

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

It’s another brilliant novel from Comyns and I plan to gradually make my way through all of her books as and when they become available (there are quite a few that are out of print and hard to obtain).

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

Until now, I had read two Penelope Fitzgerald novels – The Bookshop and The Blue Flower – both of which I had thoroughly enjoyed. I must admit, though, that having read them many years back, I have only a hazy recollection of the two and maybe a re-read somewhere in the future is in order.

I remember both being very different. The Bookshop was more traditional, while The Blue Flower felt more elusive with much to read between the lines. In terms of style, The Beginning of Spring felt closer to the latter book.

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s – before the start of the World War I and the Russian Revolution – and is centred around an English family settled there.

When the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie and their three children – Dolly, Ben and Annushka – have left him.

The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. However, almost immediately, Frank gets a call from the stationmaster to pick up his three children, Nellie has apparently decided that she can’t manage the children after all.

This presents Frank with the urgent matter of finding someone to look after the children while he manages his printing business.

Frank Reid is thoroughly English but is born and brought up in Moscow. The printing business belonged to his father and passed on to Frank after the former’s death.

Gradually, a bit of Frank’s past is revealed to us, particularly his meeting and marrying Nellie. Nellie is from a small town called Norbury in England and Frank meets her while he is on training there. In many ways, Nellie finds Norbury very narrow minded and stifling and is determined not to let its residents “get the better of her.”

One of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions. Nellie is hardly there in the novel, except in flashbacks, but her absence is as vivid as the presence of the other characters. Maybe something about their circumstances compelled her to flee…it is possible that she could not adapt to the strangeness of Moscow although we are told that she felt much more at home in the city than in Germany where the Reids were stationed for a while immediately after their marriage. It could be that Nellie expected much more from Frank atleast as far as communication in their relationship went, a point which could possibly be construed from the opening pages…

Frank had been born and brought up in Moscow, and though he was quiet by nature and undemonstrative, he knew that there were times when his life had to be acted out, as though on a stage. He sat down by the window, although at four o’clock it was already dark, and opened the letter in front of them all. In all his married life he couldn’t remember having had more than two or three letters from Nellie. It hadn’t been necessary – they were hardly ever apart, and in any case she talked a good deal. Not so much recently, perhaps.

Meanwhile, the book is peopled with interesting characters. There’s Selwyn Crane, the accountant at Reidka’s (the Reid printing firm), who is a big fan of Tolstoy and believes in occupying the moral high ground. Selwyn has a way of making everyone feel guilty or so Frank believes. And when Nellie leaves Frank, Selwyn chooses to console him in an odd way by introducing him to the young, unfortunate girl Lisa, as a suitable candidate to take care of his children.

Now that he (Selwyn) saw everything was going well, his mind was turning to his next charitable enterprise. With the terrible aimlessness of the benevolent, he was casting around for a new misfortune.

With Frank finding himself attracted to Lisa, can one assume that Selwyn’s move was deliberate?

The children are quite memorable too. The conversations between Frank, Dolly and Ben show the two kids to be quite ahead of their age. Although when Lisa is introduced to the household, they immediately get along well with her, which points out to the flimsiness of their affections.

Frank’s printing business, Reidka, serves as a vehicle for the reader to get a glimpse of how business was done in Russia at the time – the bribes to be given to get things done, and the increasing uncertainty and fickle nature of various laws. So much so that even Frank is not sure of his position in the city although he has resided there all his life.

First they’d wanted him to stop, now they wanted him to go. Inspite of himself frank felt a deep pang at his first rejection from the magnificent and ramshackle country whose history, since he was born, had been his history, and whose future he could scarcely guess at. The Security, of course, might well change their minds again. In a country where nature represented not freedom, but law, where the harbours freed themselves from ice one after another, in majestic sequence, and the earth’s harvest failed unfailingly once in every three years, the human authorities proceeded by fits and starts and inexplicable welcomes and withdrawals. To try and work out why they had one opinion of him last week, and another this, would be a squandering of time.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Russia is beautifully evoked – its vibrant tearooms, the ice breaking on the river when it begins thawing and the coming prospect of spring when all the double windows in Moscow houses are taken out, in readiness for the few short months of summer. Here’s how a fashionable tearoom in called Rusalochka is described…

Since it was supposed to be devoted to tea-drinking, the walls were frescoed from smoky ceiling to floor in red-gold and silver-gold and painted with dancing, embracing and tea-swilling figures overlapping with horses, horse-collars with golden bells, warriors, huts prancing along on chickens’ legs, simpering children, crowned frogs, dying swans, exultant storks and naked women laughing in apparent satisfaction and veiled, to a slight extent, by the clouds of a glowing sunset. Service at Rusalochka’s was in principle a simple matter, since nothing was served but tea, cakes, vodka and listofka, slievanka, vieshnyovka and beryozovitsa, the liqueurs of the currant-leaf, plum, cherry and birch-sap.

In a nutshell, The Beginning of Spring is a treat of a novel – elusive, layered with a lot packed in, made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.