Missing – Alison Moore

I was introduced to Alison Moore’s writing when her novel The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. It’s been a while since I read it, and while I will need to revisit the novel to recall the basic plot point, I do remember being impressed at the skill she displayed in creating intriguing and compelling protagonists.

And it’s a feat she has accomplished in her latest offering – Missing – as well.

Missing

They say when you lose someone, carrying on with daily routine is one way of coping, of blunting the sharp edges of pain.

That certainly seems to hold true for the main protagonist in this novel, Jessie Noon. When the book opens, we learn that Jessie is in her late forties, and living in Hawick, somewhere along the Scottish borders.

She lives alone with her dog and cat as companions, her second husband having walked out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message in steam on the bathroom mirror.

Will left in the middle of winter, and now winter was coming again. At first, people had kept asking where he was, and she sometimes thought they asked in a way that made her sound responsible, as if she had been careless with him, or as if she might be keeping him trapped somewhere in the house. But after a while, word got around; he was known to have left, and people stopped asking about him. When Will had been gone for nine months, Jessie began using her own name again.

Jessie also has a son Paul from her first marriage. But relations have soured there too, although we are not told why. All we know is that Paul walked out of Jessie’s life even before she moved to her home in Hawick.

Jessie, meanwhile, is a freelance translator, and when she is not working or reading a biography on D.H. Lawrence, she is immersed in daily household chores which involve feeding the animals, gardening, cooking, doing laundry or taking the dog out for a walk.

And certain happenings in the spare room – noises, cracks in the windowpane and so on – convince her of the presence of a ghost. Is there really one, or is it just her imagination prompted by an early trauma?

but she thought about the fissures that had appeared in the house, as if it were succumbing to some pressure or force. She thought about her favourite glass, cracked, and her special mug, broken. She felt watched, and she did not feel forgiven.

There are two narrative threads in the novel. One is in the present, and this alternates with the other story thread set in 1985 when Jessie was in her late teens. That particular time period is significant because of a family tragedy that leaves a lasting scar on Jessie.

That’s as far as the basic plot goes.

What is amazing about the novel is the incredibly nuanced way in which Alison Moore has fleshed out Jessie’s character.

Jessie is a translator, for whom choosing the right words is probably a matter of life and death. But ironically, in her dealings with others, she displays a curious mix of uninhibitedness and lack of tact.

It is not deliberate though and her heart is in the right place; yet her inability to effectively communicate and lack of assertiveness lead to misunderstandings that are quite heartbreaking – we see this with her best friend Amy, her neighbor Isla and her son Alisdair and more importantly with her brother-in-law Gary.

Missing is also an examination of loneliness and alienation. As her life plays out, Jessie feels abandoned both literally and figuratively, it’s almost like she exists and doesn’t at the same time, and it’s the stability and comfort of her household chores that ultimately keeps her going.

The routine of Jessie’s days and weeks was much the same now as it had been during their marriage, as it had been before their marriage: she woke at fifteen minutes to seven, lay in bed until seven, and then got up, took a shower, made a cup of tea, ate fruit for breakfast.

There’s more here…

It had been necessary for her to find a new afternoon routine. After eating lunch at home, she did some cleaning. She went to the swimming pool at the leisure centre, where she ploughed up and down the pool, doing a punishing hour of crawl; or she went to a class, to aerobics or Zumba, something with thumping music.

At less than 200 pages, Alison Moore has composed a novel that is rich in the minute details of everyday routine while at the same time maintaining a tone that is suspenseful and an atmosphere that is unsettling.

The name of the novel – Missing – is quite apt signifying how events have unfolded in Jessie’s life. Friends, family members disappear from her life, and she loses things such as her favourite pair of turquoise earrings. There is a sense that Jessie could be on the verge of falling apart too, as if her sense of self is likely to crumble anytime.

As the novel progresses, and the author gradually and masterfully peels off the layers, Jessie emerges as a richly etched character and your heart just goes out to her.

It’s a superb novel. Highly recommended.

 

Advertisements

Basic Black With Pearls – Helen Weinzweig

My exposure to Canadian literature is rather limited. The only books I have read I think are by Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin, Cat’s Eye, Lady Oracle – all wonderful. But then Margaret Atwood is also rather well known outside of her country.

Sadly, many other Canadian authors are not. Helen Weinzweig is an author I had never heard of. So when NYRB Classics re-issued her novel Basic Black With Pearls, the title itself intrigued me.

The result? I thought the novel was brilliant, and is a dead cert to make my Best of the Year list.

Here’s why…

Basic Black with Pearls

Basic Black With Pearls is arresting right from the first page and immediately hooks you in. The novel centres around Shirley, a married woman with kids, having an affair with another married man Coenraad.

When the novel opens, she is in an exotic city in the tropics on a secret rendezvous with Coenraad, as has been the case many times before.

Night comes as a surprise in the tropics. There is no twilight, no preparation for the disappearance of light. One moment the eyes must be protected from a merciless sun and the next, it seems, all forms vanish into the black night. I was sleepless in Tikal.

We learn that Coenraad is an international spy and works for a nebulous organization simply known as The Agency. Because of the clandestine nature of his work, their affair has to remain a secret at all costs. So they devise a complex code, known only to the two of them, by which they can communicate and decide on their next meeting – a code hidden in the pages of the National Geographic.

That’s not all. Being a spy, Coenraad is a natural in disguising himself, which means Shirley has to be alert to all possible clues pointing to his identity in whatever locales they are in. Meanwhile, Shirley has no illusions about herself admitting that she is an unremarkable, middle-aged woman. She always wears a basic black dress and a string of pearls (as in the title of the novel) to their meetings. And yet, she assumes the name of Lola Montez and when she is with her lover, she becomes vitalized and her persona undergoes a sea of change.

That’s the basic outline of the novel, all of which we learn in the first few pages.

Coenraad and Shirley carry on their affair in cities as exotic as Tikal, Tangier, Genoa, Marseilles, Rome to name a few. And although their time together is brief, it is suffused with a great deal of passion. To Shirley it is a rich life of travel, intrigue, adventure and meaning.

If all this gives the impression of an espionage novel with a straightforward plot, it is not. That would be describing it too simply and doing injustice to an incredibly multi-layered novel.

Now, things take an unexpected turn for Shirley when Coenraad, out of the blue, informs her that the next destination is going to be Toronto. It is a city that Shirley knows intimately but the last place she wants to go to. But meet Coenraad she feels she must, and off to Toronto she goes, albeit reluctantly.

What follows thereafter are long solitary walks through the city’s myriad streets, as she longingly searches for Coenraad afraid that she might have misinterpreted the clues.

It takes a great deal of energy to wait. Although I am quiet, I feel as if I were running all the while to a point in the distance, panting for breath. My entire being strains towards that moment when he will appear. Time is suspended; it goes on without me. And then, at the sight of him, in one split second, the waiting comes to an end: the clocks started their wild clacking, their hands race towards the time when he will go back out the door.

And that is one major theme of the novel – loneliness.  Shirley is lonely in her marriage, married to a man who is highly predictable in his ways, and does not really love her.

I was thinking particularly of Sundays at home when Zbigniew comes back from the stables, hangs up his riding crop beside the mantel-piece and settles in with the week’s newspapers.

In sharp contrast, Coenraad conjures up an image of a man with a vibrant personality.

When I see that stance of Coenraad’s all fears disappear: babies don’t die, cars don’t collide, planes fly on course, muzak is silenced, certitude reigns. That is how I always recognize my love: the way he stands, the way I feel.

But these trysts also have a price that she must pay; while her time with Coenraad is highly fulfilling, it also means that she has to deal with long waiting spells. And it is the waiting that can also many a time be quite lonely. It reaches its peak in Toronto –a city she knows like the back of her hand, and therefore there being no novel way for her to kill time.

It’s not all about Coenraad though. Her walks through Toronto also bring her face to face with many women whose stories of emotional imprisonment, suburban despair and impoverished immigrant experiences mirror her own.

The other major layer in this rich novel is the character of Shirley herself and her unique voice. This is where we realize that Weinzweig’s story is not just an espionage tale but something else entirely. This is Shirley’s narrative and it is through her that we get a glimpse of her inner world as she embarks on an erotic odyssey with Coenraad.

In fact, early on in the novel, it becomes vaguely apparent that things are not necessarily what they seem, and as the novel progresses the line between fact and fiction begins to get blurred. It all has the impact of disorienting the reader but in a highly compelling way.

There’s more. To me, Basic Black with Pearls is also a feminist novel because it gives an inkling (but not explicitly) of the limited roles for women in society and how the conventional roles of wife and mother are not something every woman wishes for. And it is also about a woman’s right to feel and express her desire (otherwise assumed to be only the man’s domain).

In fact, Shirley’s story, to a certain degree, also reminded me of Edna Pontellier, the protagonist in Kate Chopin’s wonderful, feminist novel The Awakening, and her yearning for an independent, creative life outside of marriage and motherhood. Another novel that comes to mind with a similar theme is Brian Moore’s excellent The Doctor’s Wife, all the more remarkable because it was authored by a man.

Helen Weinzweig’s writing is superb. Her prose is brisk, poetic and addictive. There is a surreal, dreamlike feel to it all that can be bewildering but is ultimately rewarding. And in Shirley, the author has wonderfully brought to life a complex, rich and an unforgettable character.

In a nutshell, Weinzweig has crafted an exquisite, haunting and poignant novel – leaving you in a daze, making you think a lot, long after you turn the final pages.

A note on the cover:

The covers of NYRB Classics are always top notch, but there is something about this one that caught my eye. The image is from the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Women series, and quite an apt one for this book.

It is also the image that captured Weinzweig’s imagination. Here’s what an interesting article in the Quill and Quire had to say:

When Weinzweig approached Anansi with an idea for her second book, about a middle-aged Toronto woman looking for coded signs from her lover in the pages of National Geographic, Polk admits he initially hesitated, but was intrigued by one of her influences: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series. Weinzweig was moved by the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere. She told Polk, “That’s what I want to capture in prose.”

But she clearly did more than that, because her creation Shirley is anything but a one-dimensional woman.

An image from the same article – Michael Snow’s ‘Four’ from the Walking Woman series:

Four from the Walking Woman series

 

The Expendable Man – Dorothy B. Hughes

If you are a film buff, you would have probably seen the 1950 film In a Lonely Place starring Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame. Its classic, vintage noir fare and a film that has garnered accolades; Bogart’s performance in particular was considered to be his finest.

I have yet to see the movie. But what caught my eye was that it was based on a novel of the same name written by the author Dorothy B Hughes.

Typically, whenever there is a film adaptation of a book, I prefer reading the book first (there are exceptions to this self-imposed rule of course; Game of Thrones is one that comes to mind where I dived right into the TV series without having read the books).

In a Lonely Place was no exception. A couple of years ago, I read the book, and I loved it. Sometime in the future, sooner rather than later, I hope to view the film too.

The point is, I was so impressed by In a Lonely Place that I decided to pick up another of Hughes’ works and settled on The Expendable Man.

The Expendable Man

This is going to be a short review simply because The Expendable Man is one of those novels where the less said the better.

When the novel opens, Hugh Denismore is on his way from Los Angeles to Phoenix, in his mother’s Cadillac, to attend a family wedding. We are in the desert region here, as the opening lines tell us…

Across the tracks there was a different world. The long and lonely country was the color of sand. The horizon hills were haze-black; the clumps of mesquite stood in dark pools of their own shadowing. But the pools and the rim of dark horizon were discerned only be conscious seeing, else the world was all sand, brown and tan and copper and pale beige. Even the sky at this moment was sand, reflection of the fading bronze of the sun.

While he is driving, Hugh glimpses a young woman sitting under a tree, possibly looking to hook a ride.

It looked as if there were someone resting under the tree. It couldn’t be possible, here, close to fifteen miles out of town. There wasn’t a car in sight in either direction, and there was no habitation of any sort in any direction. Yet it looked like a person’s shadow.

It was just that. The shadow, raised up from its haunches, waited for his car to approach. He knew better than to pick up a hitchhiker on the road; he’d known it long before the newspapers and script writers had implanted the danger in the public mind. Most assuredly he would not pick up anyone in this strange, deserted land.

His first instincts tell him to carry on, but the idea of leaving the woman there alone does not appeal to him either, and so he stops to drop her to her destination.

From the glimpse, a teen-age girl. Even as he slowed the car, he was against doing it. But her possible peril if left here alone forced his hand, He simply could not in conscience go on, leaving her abandoned, with twilight fallen and night quick to come. He had sisters as young as this.

At the outset the class distinction becomes clear. Hugh is a medical intern at a reputed college in LA. His family is highly respected, educated, and well to do. It’s a large close knit family with solid social connections. It would be fair to say that Hugh’s has been a privileged, comfortable life so far.

The complete opposite holds true for the young woman he picks up. Her family life seems dysfunctional with not much income. And she is rather brash and rude.

Throughout the ride, Hugh is rather uneasy and on the tenterhooks. One instance being when a car filled with kids passes him on the road.

In his rear-view mirror, he watched until it disappeared in the distance. Just for a moment, he had known fear. It might have been the same group which had hectored him in town. The trap might be sprung by his picking up the girl; they might swing about and come after him. Only when the car had disappeared from sight, did he relax and immediately feel the fool. It was surprising what old experiences remembered could do to a presumedly educated, civilized man.

Why is Hugh uncomfortable? What is he afraid of? At that point, we don’t know.

But, it is enough to prompt him to drop the girl at a bus station rather than all the way. And, he heaves a huge sigh of relief when she finally takes leave of him.

Or does she? Unfortunately for Hugh the matter does not end there. In fact, a violent crime takes place, and Hugh finds himself embroiled in it much against his wishes.

That’s the basic premise of the story.

But it is about a quarter into the novel, where things get really interesting. That is where author Dorothy Hughes expertly introduces a ‘twist’.

This twist is an eye-opener because it ultimately forms the core around which the novel revolves. It makes you go back and recollect what you have read so far. And it makes you question your assumptions and prejudices.

It’s really rather well done and takes the novel up a notch.

Besides this central premise, The Expendable Man is also a novel that examines class and wealth, and how having both does not always guarantee ‘safety’ as commonly perceived. It can be an illusion and an untoward event, in a single stroke, can simply destroy it.

Is that what happens to Hugh Denismore? Does he extricate himself from this sticky situation?

This is another solid, superb noir fare from Hughes’ pen.

Die, My Love – Ariana Harwicz

When it comes to translated literature, independent publisher Charco Press is the new kid on the block. But if the quality output it has churned out so far is anything to go by, one can safely say it is a publishing house worth watching out for.

Charco Press’ mission? To find outstanding contemporary Latin American literature and bring it to new readers in the English-speaking world.

And with this, I decided to try out one of their earlier releases – Die, My Love. This novel has already garnered rave reviews and shortlisted for book prizes and I am only happy to add to the praise.

So here goes…

Die, My Love

Just like the eye-catching title Die, My Love is a raw, visceral tale of a woman struggling to adapt to motherhood and instead yearning for freedom.

But first, if you look at the author profile on the flap of the book, this is what it says:

Compared to Nathalie Sarraute and Virginia Woolf, Ariana Harwicz is one of the most radical figures in contemporary Argentinian literature. Her prose is characterized by its violence, eroticism, irony and criticism of the clichés surrounding the notions of the family and conventional relationships.

It is apparent in this novel too; from the opening lines which hit you right in the gut…

I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool…I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother and wife of those two individuals?

Society assumes that every woman wants to be a mother or that motherhood naturally comes to every woman. But that does not necessarily have to be the case.

In the novel, the narrator is unnamed and we learn that becoming a mother was not something that she chose; rather motherhood was thrust upon her. And it is a role she struggles to conform to.

The tale is set in the bucolic French countryside although the exact location is not named. She feels like a foreigner in her surroundings and her erratic behavior only heightens her sense of not exactly fitting in.

Her role as a housewife bores her, and motherhood to her is a chore. Not only does she not want to embrace the responsibilities of being a mother, she also feels she is incapable of it.

She feels trapped and stifled, detesting conventional norms she feels forced to adhere to, dying to break out. But where will she run?

And if I want to leave my baby in the car when it’s forty degrees out with the heat index, I will. And don’t tell me it’s illegal. If I want to opt for illegality, if I want to become one of those women who go around freezing their fetuses, then I will. If I want to spend twenty years in jail or go on the run, then I won’t rule those possibilities out either.

But Harwicz’s protagonist does not withdraw into a shell. Rather, she is filled with rage and directs her violence outside.

They’ve been treating my cuts for several days now. I can’t see my whole body, but I’ve gotten them all over: on my shoulder blades, my chest, my belly, my neck.

Not content in the house, with a feeling of the walls closing in around her, most of the time she is outdoors, the vast expanse brimming with possibilities.

Then there is her husband. She does not have a high opinion of him either and finds faults in his actions. Though interestingly, the husband does not really abandon her despite their fights and puts up with her moods.

We’re one of those couples who mechanise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other.

And sometimes she wonders why…

So many healthy and beautiful women in the area, and he ended up falling for me. A nutcase. A foreigner. Someone beyond repair.

In all of this chaos, a mysterious motorcyclist emerges on the scene and embarks on an affair with the woman. Is this her way of craving for excitement?

Spellbound by a woman who wears flared skirts and spends her afternoons sprawled out like an amphibian on her lawn. I see her for as long as the slowest speed of my motorcycle allows. Those few fatal seconds. I think about her and heave with desire.

How is all of this going to turn out?

At 122 pages in the Charco Press edition Die, My Love is a short book that packs quite a punch. There is no plot per se and the drama is all internal. And even then, there is no real action in the traditional sense in the woman’s domestic surroundings – the action is all in her head; it’s her mind that’s all over the place.

Therefore, what makes this novel so unique is the narrative voice. It’s angry, violent, intense and scathing. The language is akin to a knife piercing your skin – provocative, and confrontational. And yet there is a poetic and lyrical feel to it too.

On one level, you could interpret this novel as an examination of postpartum depression, although that is just an inference and never explicitly stated.

Overall, Die, My Love is an immersive and rewarding experience, and not a novel one will forget anytime soon.

Indeed, as far as Harwicz’ writing is concerned, the blurb at the back of the book could not have put it better:

In a text that explores the destabilizing effect of passion and its absence, immersed in the psyche of a female protagonist always on the verge of madness, Harwicz moulds language, submitting it to her will in irreverent prose.

And that is why credit must also go Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff for superbly translating it.

The Wardrobe Mistress – Patrick McGrath

I was first introduced to Patrick McGrath’s writing when I read his well-known novel Asylum. It was an incredibly well written and well plotted novel focusing on an extra marital affair and the theme of obsession. What also made the novel so interesting was the narrative voice, which I will not discuss here, but will urge you to read that novel instead.

But clearly, Patrick McGrath was an author to watch out for and I was eager to read more of his work. Port Mungo followed, which was an immersive read too, with many of the traits that made Asylum so good.

After a long hiatus, it was time for me to try my hand at another McGrath, and I chose his latest offering – The Wardrobe Mistress.

Wardrobe Mistress

When the novel opens, the famous theatre actor Charlie Grice is dead. The funeral is attended by many of his friends and well-wishers. And of course, also present is his wife, Joan Grice (the wardrobe mistress of the title), and his daughter Vera Grice, who is also set to become an established actress in her own right.

We are in London, in 1947, just after the end of the Second World War. It is also one of those bitterly cold winters, and a time when England is struggling to rebuild from the ruins of the war.

We are introduced to Julius Glass, Vera’s husband, who was having an argument with Charlie Grice when the latter fell and died. Just what the bone of contention was, we don’t know.

Joan, meanwhile, is shown to be a well-known costume designer in the theatre world. She is grappling to come to terms with her grief. It does not help that her daughter Vera is prone to bouts of hysteria, and at such times Joan misses having Charlie around, to tell her what to do. Also, it seems that Vera and Julius Glass are having problems in their marriage.

That is one story thread in the novel.

We also get an inkling of the other thread early on in the novel – Germany has been defeated, but the fascism hasn’t entirely died away, even in England.

The Blackshirts that got banged up during the war under Regulation 18b – sympathy for enemy powers – they were back out on the streets.

They marched through the East End three abreast, they held public meetings, they papered walls with swastikas, spewed hatred like they’d never been gone, like there hadn’t even been a war, which they’d lost.

At first, Joan is a difficult character to pin down. She seems probably cold and distant?

We’ve heard Joan Grice called a beautiful woman. A striking-looking woman, certainly, and a formidable one. Her hair was black and without a thread of silver. She wore it pulled back with some severity from her face, the better, it was said, to come at the world like a scythe. As tall as her late husband and a slim woman, her face was pale and sculpted, with the chin carried high, the whole seeming forged from some hard white stone; the effect could be dramatic. But oh dear – we hate to say it – her teeth were horrible!

But then, about halfway through the novel, she stumbles upon Charlie’s secret and her world turns upside down. It is then that our sympathies shift towards her.

But before that happens, Joan finds solace in gin – Uncle Alcohol as she calls it – and an understudy called Frank Stone. That’s the third thread in the novel.

Frank Stone piques Joan’s interest because of his convincing portrayal as Malvolio in Twelfth Night. It is a part that Charlie Grice excelled in before his death, and Frank Stone has now replaced him. Stone effectively portrays ‘Charlie’s portrayal of Malvolio’, and that is why he comes alive as Charlie Grice to Joan. They begin an affair.

Joan, in the meanwhile, is hearing Charlie’s voice, and is also haunted by ghosts in his bedroom cupboard. Is this a woman who is deeply grieving or a woman who is slowly losing her mind?

Besides the character study of Joan, there are two aspects which make The Wardrobe Mistress compelling.

The first is McGrath’s superb portrayal of the theatre world – the rehearsals, the pressure before a performance, the ambition of the actors to get noticed, and the backstabbing to get ahead.

For instance, Frank Stone is cast in a minor role in the same play where Vera Grice is playing the lead. But he is eyeing any opportunity that will help him bag the male lead opposite Vera.

Then there is Vera herself. She is blossoming into an exciting actress, following her father’s footsteps. She is all set to play the lead role – that of the Duchess – in the dark and tragic play The Duchess of Malfi. But she is stressed, afraid of not doing a great job.

And yet, as the rehearsals progress, her confidence blooms. In the days leading to the opening night, McGrath wonderfully conveys the intensity and the anticipation is.

First…

She felt she possessed a charge of human passion like a fermenting spirit in a corked bottle which, once released would inebriate the world.

And then…

She’d entered what she recognized as the impatient period which occurred in the days before the first dress rehearsal when the role has been learned and the character so thoroughly assimilated that any delay is fraught with the risk of loss of vital energy.

Now with the Duchess she was impatient to step out of the wings and into the light and find herself at home and in control and in every fibre of her being so alert it was a kind of ecstasy, yes, acting was ecstasy when the work had been done, all the blind alleys gone down, all the wild risks taken, and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that, yes, she had it!

The other interesting aspect of the novel is the narrative voice that McGrath employs. It is a choral ‘we’ (or first person plural, if you will), like in the ancient Greek plays.

We saw her in the pub around this time. We thought we should take her out, cheer her up. There were a few of us she knew, old friends… We knew what she was thinking about, it was Gricey, of course, who all that time had had a secret, and herself practically the only one who didn’t know it because nobody wanted to be the one to tell her. Well, why would we?

It is a bit tricky at first, but ultimately McGrath pulls it off.

Tragedy is clearly the dominant theme in the novel – either in ancient or today’s modern times. We have Joan and her grief over Charlie’s death, we have Vera herself acting in a tragic play, and then we have the ‘theatrical chorus’ narrative voice commonly displayed in Greek tragedies.

The Wardrobe Mistress then is a gripping theatre novel with the characters of Joan and Vera Grice coming alive on every page.

But there is a quibble. For this reader, while the depiction of theatre life was fascinating, the fascism angle didn’t quite work.

Although still not up there with the rather excellent Asylum, The Wardrobe Mistress is nevertheless a strong read.

 

 

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.

 

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.