Haunting, Dreamy Reads for Autumn

We are in September and autumn beckons – the season of red and gold leaves, coziness and even a whiff of melancholia. “Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize,” wrote George Eliot in a letter to Miss Lewis, 1841.

Autumn also seems the perfect time to immerse oneself in haunting, atmospheric, dreamy reads and here are eight books that fit the bill…

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader. The second book in the Septology series – I is Another – is pretty remarkable too, and I plan to read the final installment – A New Name (shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize) in the coming months.

WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. Haunting and mesmerizing, it’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

THE GATE by 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.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE-D’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for that ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading. 

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

On that particular autumn afternoon, as the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

INVISIBLE INK by Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

This is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill. Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

BLACK NARCISSUS by Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of obsession, madness and colonialism.

Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. 

Trust – Hernan Diaz

After many years, the Booker Prize longlist in 2022 has looked quite interesting. I thought Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was great (it was recently shortlisted for the Prize), as was The Colony by Audrey Magee. To this, I will now add Trust by Hernan Diaz, another excellent read from the list.

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The book comprises four sections of which the first is called “Bonds”, a book written by the author Harold Vanner, who has seemingly sunk into oblivion. “Bonds” narrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world.

Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny for itself out of little more than dross.

We are told of his privileged background – a gregarious and sociable father whose success has come from running the family tobacco business and cultivating relationships in gentleman’s clubs, the haven where men smoke cigars; and Benjamin’s mother, a woman always surrounded by her coterie of wealthy friends, who spend their days in each other’s homes. Compared to his parents’ need for company, Benjamin grows up as a lonely child with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and an outlook that differs sharply from that of his father’s.  On the death of his parents, Benjamin begins to chart his own course of success, one that is largely determined by his flair for numbers and staying ahead of the game in the world of high finance despite his awkwardness in social situations.

He was an inept athlete, an apathetic clubman, an unenthusiastic drinker, an indifferent gambler, a lukewarm lover. He, who owed his fortune to tobacco, did not even smoke. Those who accused him of being excessively frugal failed to understand that, in truth, he had no appetites to repress.

We are also introduced to Helen Rask, Benjamin’s wife – a reserved, introverted, deeply intelligent woman born into a family of eccentric aristocrats, parents who are often at odds with one another.  We learn of Helen’s precociousness as a child; her closeness to her father, who nurtures her talent and her thirst for knowledge; and her strained relationship with her mother, a woman with impeccable networking skills and a thirst for a vibrant social life.

Helen had left her childhood in Albany. Being constantly on the move, she met few girls her age, and those casual encounters never had a chance to blossom into full friendships. To pass the time, she taught herself languages with books she shifted between different homes and hotels…When books proved insufficient, she turned to her diary. The dream journals that her father had made her keep for a few years had instilled in her the daily habit of recording her thoughts. Over time, her writings turned away from her dreams and toward her musings on books, her impressions of the cities thy visited, and, during her white nights, her innermost fears and yearnings.

Benjamin and Helen’s marriage becomes a union of mutual respect and understanding given their respective solitary natures rather than love and passion, and while Benjamin goes on to amass unimaginable wealth from the soaring financial markets, Helen focuses her attention on philanthropy, culture, books and music. Until there comes a point when things begin to unravel as Helen’s health deteriorates and she is committed to a medical institute in Switzerland.

The second section titled “My Life” is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, who is the chief protagonist of Trust (or is he?), an unscrupulous and powerful man willing to go to any lengths possible to restore his public image which he believes has been unfairly tarnished. It quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself.

My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few. This has never concerned me much. What matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us. Still, because my past has so often overlapped with that of our nation, lately I have come to believe that I owe it to the public to share some of the decisive moments of my story.

Bevel’s autobiography is an account written in rough draft of his accomplishments as a financier par excellence, focusing mostly on his illustrious family history, his thoughts on the American economy and the rise of high finance, his instrumental role in shaping up the markets and the most important woman in his life, his wife Mildred Bevel.

These two narratives have similarities and yet differ significantly on crucial aspects. Andrew Bevel and his fictional avatar Benjamin rise to the pinnacle of wealth not only during the unsustainable boom of the stock markets in the 1920s, but they also earn immense profits during the massive Wall Street crash in 1929. But the stories differ on how Bevel’s meteoric rise is perceived. Vanner’s novel paints Rask as an opportunist, his greed for wealth and power starkly apparent and resented at a time when the country is plunged into the doldrums, while Bevel painstakingly paints a picture of a highly intelligent gifted man, who having engineered the country’s economic success is now unfairly accused of instigating its downfall.

The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally. After a few sessions with Bevel, Ida is disconcerted to find that rather than give a shape to the facts of Bevel’s life, Ida’s job is really to invent a narrative that aligns with the story Bevel wishes to tell, a large part of it centred on projecting Mildred’s “watered-down” personality to the world. This fuels her quest for the truth, a research that she secretly carries out on the side, if only to untangle fact from fiction.  

“Miss Partenza, I am writing this book to stop the proliferation of versions of my life, not to multiply them. I most emphatically do not want more perspectives, more opinions. This is to be my story.”

And in the fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

In terms of structure, Diaz’s Trust employs a slew of narrative devices that add depth to the book – a novel within a novel, an unfinished autobiography, memoirs and journals – conjuring up varied perspectives on the same set of events.

With respect to subject matter and themes, in replaying the events of the halcyon years of Wall Street and the debilitating crash thereafter that sparked the depression of the 1930s, one could say that Trust is an exploration of the enigmatic and competitive world of finance, the immense greed and corruption that fuels it, the inequality bred by concentrated wealth at the hands of the very few. Diaz has excellently captured the milieu of the rich – the hush and the quiet, the aura of awe and invincibility that it exudes. One could also say that the novel takes a closer look at the topics of mental illness, deception in relationships and limited roles for women during the early part of the 20th century who languished in the shadows of men.

But at the end of the day, Trust is really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

“It seems to me that you don’t understand what any of this is all about.”

“I do.”

“Is that so?”

“Bending and aligning reality.”

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

Elisa Shua Dusapin’s enigmatic and mysterious Winter in Sokcho was one of the highlights of my reading year in 2020, so another novel from her was certainly exciting news, and now I’m glad to say that The Pachinko Parlour is also excellent.

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. However, since they are Zainichi Koreans, the grandparents were given the license to run a pachinko parlour, a kind of a casino where the mode of exchange relies on barter and not currency, lending the novel its name (“Pachinko isn’t seen as gambling because the balls are exchanged for sweets, toilet paper, bottles of water, toothpaste”).

They’d heard rumours of a flourishing industry in Japan, run by Zainichis. There was nothing in terms of entertainment in those pot-war days: no cinema, no theatre. The black market was everywhere, with cigarettes the most prized commodity. Koreans were locked out of the Japanese labour market by virtue of their nationality. So, they invented a game: vertical tray, metal balls, a lever. And cigarettes in exchange for balls.

Claire, meanwhile, has grown up in Switzerland, occasionally visiting Japan to meet her grandparents. Claire’s parents lead busy lives and are never around – the father is a sought after musician constantly on tour accompanied by Claire’s mother, and the communication between mother and daughter is often through emails.

But for Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. Claire’s efforts to discuss the details of their journey meet with a certain modicum of resistance, her grandparents skirt the issue and the discussion inevitably gets postponed.

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. Cooped up in the basement room, the narrow slit window offering a view of the streets and people hurrying off somewhere, Claire’s isolation and tedium is only heightened in the sweltering apartment.

Noises drift in from the street. Car exhausts, heels on the tarmac, and all night long, the sandwich-board woman’s monotonous chant, relayed on playback through a loudspeaker.

The window is at street height. Lying on the ground, I can see people’s legs as they hurry past, heading for the narrow streets of Uguisudani, where the love hotels are.

On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way. Mieko’s family life is also weighed down with problems – Henriette and Mieko reside in a makeshift apartment in an abandoned hotel due to be redeveloped soon, their burden amplified by an aura of uncertainty, their lives in a state of flux.

Mieko’s insistence on being taken to see the pachinko parlour is as palpable as Claire’s desire to push her grandparents towards revisiting Korea, but will both succeed in getting what they want?

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families.

For instance, Claire is not alone per se. She has her grandparents for company, she keeps in touch with her parents and back home in Switzerland she appears to be in a steady relationship with Mathieu, who is very encouraging of her attempts to reunite her grandparents with their homeland. And yet, one gets the sense that she is adrift and lonely. Physically her boyfriend is far away, she rarely sees her parents given their hectic touring schedules and her relationship with her grandparents often seems tenuous; language, particularly being an issue. Mieko is a lonely child too as is Henriette; the two are often not on the same wavelength, but Mieko becomes attached to Claire, a kinship however precarious.

The theme of identity, uprootedness and living in exile is particularly heightened in Claire and her grandparents’ circumstances. Having never been to Korea, Claire can’t speak Korean. She is fluent in French but can’t converse with her grandparents in that language. Japanese seems the obvious choice but not an option.

We communicate in simple English, with a few basic words in Korean and an array of gestures and exaggerated facial expressions. We never speak in Japanese.

The grandparents are isolated as well since they largely keep to themselves. Their existence does not extend beyond the pachinko parlour and they haven’t entirely embraced Japan despite being residents in the country for many years.  

They don’t socialise at all with the other Zainichis, Japan’s Korean community: exiles, people who came, as my grandparents did, to escape the Korean war, and others, who were deported during the Japanese occupation of Korea.

The Pachinko Parlour is also about how past histories, both public and deeply personal, can define our lives. In Claire’s case, her grandparents’ displacement fuelled by war has led to subsequent generations losing touch with their roots. Mieko’s case is more personal and something of an enigma; an absent father has thrown her family life into turmoil with mother and daughter staring at an unreliable future imbibed with a feeling of all they have lost.

Dusapin is great at capturing the fraught mental and emotional states of her characters, their impression of being either stuck or at the cusp of a momentous change. The sense of place that was so evocative in Winter in Sokcho vividly comes alive in The Pachinko Parlour too – the oppressive heat of summer in Tokyo (“The city is suffused with light, Mount Fuji drained of colour. The sun’s last rays filter through the spaces between buildings”), the smoky haze suspended like a curtain over the city’s skyscrapers, muggy rains, the lethargy and disorientation that seeps into Claire who is sort of caught in a no-man’s land mentally.

Food, such a vital feature in Winter in Sokcho, is also symbolic in The Pachinko Parlour, in the way it subtly depicts a certain emotion or the frailty of her characters’ minds. For instance, the kwabaegi (a twisted doughnut) signifies the bond between Claire and Mieko; the pile of bento boxes or takeaway meals piling up outside their home distresses Claire because it indicates the deteriorating health of her grandmother who in the past was instrumental in teaching Claire traditional home cooked Korean dishes. On Claire’s infrequent visits to Mieko’s home, Henriette serves her elaborately prepared crabs and oysters because it conjures up images of a life she once shared with her now absent husband.

I thought back to the hours we used to spend together cooking, making pancakes, soups and stews: eomuk and soegogi-jin, kimchi and miyeok-guk; and sweet dishes like honey ice cream and hotteok.

Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

A Month of Reading – August 2022

August was a great month of reading in terms of quality, especially because it also focused on Women in Translation (WIT). I read three books for WIT Month (a novel, a novella and a short story collection) covering three languages (Japanese, Spanish and Danish), along with a Booker Prize longlisted title, a contemporary debut novel, and of course, the seventh book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Revolving Lights.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

SPACE INVADERS by Nona Fernández (Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

In her novella Space Invaders, using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernández brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. They vaguely recall rigid class assemblies and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor. Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). 

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of childhood, the loss of innocence it entails, and real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

 A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

CHILDREN OF PARADISE by Camilla Grudova

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers. Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building. Holly is hired on the spot, but in the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. Holly also grapples with loneliness as her colleagues, a circle of close-knit oddballs, are initially hostile towards her. Gradually, the ice breaks and Holly finds herself enmeshed in their world, made up of cinema, drugs and casual flings. Until one day, a major development threatens to uproot their already fragile existence.

Surreal and immersive, Children of Paradise effortlessly packs in an array of themes – cinema, capitalism and camaraderie – into its 196 pages, churning out an offering that is truly original in the way it views the world.

REVOLVING LIGHTS (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

Revolving Lights is the seventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim and Deadlock.

Revolving Lights immediately follows the events from Deadlock, but at the same time is also marked by a series of flashbacks with Miriam recalling certain events in the immediate past.

In terms of structure, it again differs from the earlier books – there are four long chapters, each focusing on certain key episodes during Miriam’s life. The book begins with Miriam’s thoughts as she walks the streets of London to Mrs Bailey’s boarding house on Tansley Street. As Miriam reminisces on various events we learn of her conversation with Hypo Wilson where she talks about Michael Shatov and airs her views on women artists…

“Well, the thing is, that whereas a few men here and there are creators, originators … artists, women are this all the time.”

“My dear Miriam, I don’t know what women are. I’m enormously interested in sex; but I don’t know anything about it. Nobody does. That’s just where we are.”

“You are doubtful about ‘emancipating’ women, because you think it will upset their sex-life.”

“I don’t know anything, Miriam. No personality. No knowledge. But there’s Miss Waugh, with a thoroughly able career behind her; been everywhere, done everything, my dear Miriam; come out of it all, shouting you back into the nursery.”

“I don’t know her. Perhaps she’s jealous, like a man, of her freedom. But the point is, there’s no emancipation to be done. Women are emancipated.”

“Prove it, Miriam.”

“I can. Through their pre-eminence in an art. The art of making atmospheres. It’s as big an art as any other. Most women can exercise it, for reasons, by fits and starts. The best women work at it the whole of the time. Not one man in a million is aware of it. It’s like air within the air. It may be deadly.”

She recalls a picnic with the Orlys in the previous summer around the time of Leyton Orly’s engagement…

And they had suddenly asked her to their picnic. And she had been back, for the whole of that summer’s afternoon, in the world of women; and the forgotten things, that had first driven her away from it, had emerged again, no longer mysterious, and with more of meaning in them, so that she had been able to achieve an appearance of conformity, and had felt that they regarded her not with the adoration or half-pitying dislike she had had from women in the past, but as a woman, though only as a weird sort of female who needed teaching. They had no kind of fear of her; not because they were massed there in strength. Any one of them, singly, would, she had felt, have been equal to her in any sort of circumstances; her superior; a rather impatient but absolutely loyal and chivalrous guide in the lonely exclusive feminine life.

At one point, Miriam is also disconcerted by the sudden appearance of the opportunistic Eleanor Dear (“lliterate, hampered, feeling her way all the time. And yet with a perfect knowledge. Perfect comprehension in her smile”).

I could have kept it up, with good coats and skirts and pretty evening gowns. Playing games. Living hilariously in roomy country houses, snubbing “outsiders,” circling in a perpetual round of family events, visits to town, everything fixed by family happenings, hosts of relations always about, everything, even sorrow, shared and distributed by large rejoicing groups; the warm wide middle circle of English life … secure. And just as the sense of belonging was at its height, punctually, Eleanor had come, sweeping everything away.

The next key episode focuses on her evening with Michael Shatov and his friends the Lintoffs, who are revolutionaries. But more importantly, Shatov proposes to Miriam and she firmly declines…

“You know we can’t; you know how separate we are. You have seen it again and again and agreed. You see it now; only you are carried away by this man’s first impression. Quite a wrong one. I know the sort of woman he means. Who accepts a man’s idea and leaves him to go about his work undisturbed; sure that her attention is distracted from his full life by practical preoccupations. It’s perfectly easy to create that impression, on any man. Of bright complacency. All the busy married women are creating it all the time, helplessly. Men lean and feed and are kept going, and in their moments of gratitude they laud women to the skies. At other moments, amongst themselves, they call them materialists, animals, half-human, imperfectly civilised creatures of instinct, sacrificed to sex. And all the time they have no suspicion of the individual life going on behind the surface.”

Although Miriam does not regret her decision, she does waver for a moment (“All the things she had made him contemplate would be forgotten…. He would plunge into the life he used to call normal…. That was jealousy; flaming through her being; pressing on her mind”).

Miriam spends a long summer vacation with the Wilsons – Hypo (modeled on H.G. Wells) and Alma. Miriam’s has conflicted feelings about Hypo. On the one hand, she revels in the knowledge that he is interested in her thoughts, but on the other hand, she is repelled by his views on  women (“To shreds she would tear his twofold vision of women as bright intelligent response or complacently smiling audience”).  

While Revolving Lights for the most part focuses on Miriam’s thoughts and her flashbacks, there is often a sudden but interesting switch in narration from the third person to the first person, a technique I first came across in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. Revolving Lights also continues to focus on Miriam’s strong opinions on the dynamics between men and women, the pleasures of solitude, the joy of London and the sense of freedom she experiences when strolling the city’s streets, a feeling particularly accentuated after she immediately rejects Shatov’s proposal. Richardson also excels in the way she describes light, which particularly comes alive during Miriam’s stay with the Wilsons, at their Bonnycliff residence by the sea. One gets the sense that Miriam has evolved a great deal since Pointed Roofs, both by the substance of her interior monologues and the way social encounters and interactions have shaped her. Revolving Lights didn’t always make for easy reading, but it was interesting enough for me to want to continue with the series. On to The Trap and Oberland next!

That’s it for August. In September, I started Hernan Diaz’s Booker longlisted novel Trust as well as Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour, both very good. Plans on the anvil also include reading the seventh and eighth books from the Pilgrimage series – The Trap and Oberland (I continue to lag behind for #PilgrimageTogether).

Children of Paradise – Camilla Grudova

I was a big fan of Camilla Grudova’s collection of stories The Doll’s Alphabet, one of the earlier titles published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2017 list. Children of Paradise is Grudova’s first novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it; it retains many flavours of what made her short story collection so memorable.

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers.

Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building and Holly is immediately struck by its appearance…

The Paradise cinema had a gaudy interior and a pervasive smell of sweet popcorn and mildew. It was built on the ground floor of a block of flats around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, its entrance like the building’s gaping mouth, a sparkling marquee teeth grin with the word PARADISE written in pale yellow neon. They tore down some of the flats to put the cinema in. I imagined someone with a giant cake knife cutting out whole living rooms and bedrooms with people in them, and throwing them away, replacing regular, mundane lives with glamorous Hollywood ones.

Holly applies to the post and is subsequently interviewed by the manager of the cinema theatre – a heavily made up woman wearing a vintage dress called Sally. Holly is hired on the spot (“I don’t know why she hired me, but I later learned that Sally had mysterious ways of doing things”), and as Sally shows her the ropes, she (and the reader) are introduced to a slew of characters working behind the scenes at the cinema – the assistant manager Otto who “was aloof, carrying a clipboard, a pen behind one year”;  Patricia and her “large plastic glasses with greasy popcorn fingerprints on them”; Paolo who “looked like a beautiful Roman soldier, covered in jewels he had plundered”; the taciturn Flynn whose “voice became normal and friendly when talking to customers but he never smiled at them”; Flynn’s dad Pete who is the master of the projection room and so on.

In the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. The theater is often grimy laced by dirty plates and cups, half eaten food, wasted drinks, and other paraphernalia strewn across the seats, making her job of scrubbing and cleaning all the more harder.

The carpet of the screen after a show was dirtier than any restaurant floor. There was so much broken glass that everything looked covered in a fine layer of frost. I guess people found an animalistic pleasure in eating and drinking in the dark, in making a mess, leaving bags, boxes and cans behind. Spilled popcorn, contraband glass bottles of wine, champagne and beer that people snuck in, candy bar wrappings, banana peels, strangely heavy Pepsi cups, sunglasses, umbrellas and, occasionally, toenails and semen, feathers even, as if someone had brought a dead chicken to pluck.

It does not help that Holly’s colleagues, a close-knit circle, are initially hostile towards her. Holly does not feel welcome, and she hardly speaks to anybody. In the evenings, after the cinema is finally empty of viewers, Otto and the rest of the cinema gang watch movies on the screen by themselves, a sort of a tradition…but Holly distances herself from these screenings. Wracked by loneliness, Holly seeks refuge in her bleak rented room watching films on TV instead all by herself.

Those first few weeks were unbearably lonely. I’d walk home, in the dark, listening to OMD, New Order or Duran Duran on full blast. I hardly saw any of the city beyond the Paradise and the walk to and from my apartment. It was nothing but a grey blur between the Paradise and my cold bedroom.

However, things one day turn for the better, when Otto invites her to his home for dinner and movies, where the other members are also present, and the ice is finally broken. Holly gradually begins to feel a part of the extended Paradise family as they begin to accept her into their fold.  

But the Paradise staff is living on the edge, in danger of falling into an abyss, and mired in drugs, alcohol, and casual flings burdened as they are by an ambiguous future. The wages are poor, they live on the margins and barely get by, and the camaraderie is the only thing that sustains them but it is precarious.

As the days go by, Holly notices a loud-mouthed old lady introduced to her as Iris who frequently visits Paradise asking for the films being played. Holly tries to avoid her whenever possible, but observes that the rest of the staff indulges her because, she is told, Iris owns the theatre although she is not involved in running it, that responsibility has been entrusted on Sally. Holly’s orders are to cater to Iris’ whims even when they are contrarian to the overall theatre rules.

But then a tragic development occurs, and the fate of Paradise hangs in the balance, the staff has to grapple mounting insecurities, and they struggle to cope.

Loneliness is one of the central themes explored in the novel. We first experience this through Holly who increasingly isolated as a new employee withdraws more and more into herself. But even when she comes out of her shell and makes friends, the dregs of loneliness remain as she relies on the usual suspects to alleviate that aching aloneness – drugs and casual sex.  The rest of the Paradise members are no different, each feeling unmoored in his/her own way, and feel isolated due to their unstable circumstances even when surrounded by people.

Children of Paradise is also a novel of fragile friendships; bonds between friends as delicate as treading on eggshells. The Paradise staff comprises a band of eccentrics and misfits glued together by the lure and love of cinema and because they have an almost non-existent life outside of the theatre. But when faced with the harsh realities of an unforeseen event and the frightening prospect of unemployment, these bonds begin to fray and disintegrate just like the theatre around it.

The book also examines the murky side of capitalism – exploitation of employees, the soullessness of corporate takeovers led by an indifferent profit-hungry management, creativity losing out to commercialism, and how small businesses suffer as a result because when forced into these one-sided partnerships to stay afloat, they lose something of their integrity and uniqueness in the process. A tough tradeoff that can have debilitating consequences.

Grudova’s fascination with dirt, dereliction, and discarded objects is one of the factors that made The Doll’s Alphabet so compelling, and Children of Paradise is also drenched with ample doses of those ingredients.

Whenever I touched the table or moved my feet the entire bar seemed to rattle, the shelves of oddly shaped glasses for obscure cocktails, the dim-coloured liquors, the jar of pickled eggs, olives with tiny red tongues, cornichons and jalapeños floating in foggy water like dead slugs, Luxardo maraschino cherries and dusty peanuts.

In fact, the book’s gothic overtones and preoccupation with dirt also has shades of Angela Carter to it as depicted in the latter’s terrific novel The Magic Toyshop. Grudova has a flair for vivid descriptions which come alive when the object of focus is the gently decaying theatre…

The Paradise was a Frankenstein’s monster of a place. Over the years, rooms were added and rearranged but with all the same old rotting pieces, the same red, white and gold paint retouched, another layer put on.

There was a chandelier in the lobby, red carpeted floors, gold trim on the white walls, wide and narrow mirrors which gave it the feeling of a funhouse though they distracted from the oppression of the flats above – layer upon layer of furniture, crockery and lives.

The structure of the book is in keeping with the book’s cinema theme. Made up of several chapters, what’s striking about them are the headings – each chapter displays a different film title with the name of the director and the year that film was released. In many ways, Children of Paradise is homage to cinema, the reel world versus real life, and how for the book’s characters these realms often merge, the lines between them increasingly blurred.

Surreal and immersive, Children of Paradise effortlessly packs in an array of themes – cinema, capitalism and camaraderie – into its 196 pages, churning out an offering that is truly original in the way it views the world.