I love Patricia Highsmith. The first novel I read all those years ago was the one she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. That was a tremendous book and I subsequently went on to read the next two books in the ‘Ripliad’ – Ripley Underground and Ripley’s Game, both excellent, though I still rate the first book higher.
But Highmith also wrote non-Ripley books. And many of them are brilliant. The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary come to mind. And to this list, I will also add This Sweet Sickness.
‘For eliciting the menace that lurks in familiar surroundings, there’s no one like Patricia Highsmith.’ – an apt quote displayed in the opening pages of my Virago edition.
In This Sweet Sickness, we are in classic Highsmith territory. The opening paragraph immediately draws the reader into her dark, troubling world…
It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.
He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night.
The ‘Situation’ in a nutshell is like this – David Kelsey is deeply in love with Annabelle and at one point they even briefly courted. But a job change, promising a better pay, compelled David to move to another city. In the meanwhile, Annabelle married another man Gerald and set up home with him. David, therefore, is distraught and deeply jealous.
David is a chemical engineer at Cheswick Fabrics, very good at his job and also respected. On weekdays, he resides in a boarding house in Froudsburg run by the chatty and jovial Mrs McCartney. As far as the other boarders and Mrs McCartney are concerned, David is a model resident. He does not drink, does not entertain women late at night in his room, and visits his ailing mother in a nursing home without fail on weekends.
But nothing is as it seems in Highsmith’s universe. The reader soon realizes that there is something fishy about the last bit. David’s mother died ages ago. So, he spends his weekend, not in a nursing home, but in a house he has bought in Ballard, some miles from the boarding house in Froudsburg.
It’s his own home, cozy and comfortably furnished, a home he plans to settle in with Annabelle once she divorces Gerald. Because you see, David is dead sure of this happening. For him, the husband is just an inconvenience to be straightened out.
Life was very, very strange, but David Kelsey had an invincible conviction that life was going to work out all right for him.
But there’s more. When David is living in his house, he is no longer David Kelsey but rather William Neumeister. It’s the alias he used when he purchased the property too. It’s a secret existence and nobody in his life (not even Annabelle) know of his ‘other’ identity.
And sometimes, after the two martinis and a half bottle of wine at dinner, he imagined that he heard Annabelle call him Bill, and that made him smile, because when that happened, he’d gotten tangled up himself. In this house, his house, he liked to imagine himself – William Neumeister – a man who had everything he wanted, a man who knew how to live, to laugh, and to be happy.
There are other characters who get embroiled in David’s drama, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. There’s his best friend Wes Carmichael, also his colleague at work, who is stuck in a bitter, joyless marriage. And Effie Brennan, who also lodges at the same boarding house where David stays and is secretly in love with him.
David, meanwhile, continues to write to Annabelle, continuously expressing his wish to see her.
‘Dave, this business about your house – that’s why I’m calling. You don’t seem to understand when I write to you. I can’t ever come to your house, Dave, not the way you want me to come.’
‘Naturally, I was thinking – you’d finally get a divorce.’
Dave, I don’t want a divorce. Can’t you understand that?’
Listen, Annabelle, would you like me to come to Hartford? Right now?’
‘No, Dave, that’s why I’m calling. How can I say it? You’ve got to stop writing me, Dave. It’s just causing more and more trouble. Gerald’s fit to eb tied and I do mean that.’
‘I don’t give a damn about Gerald!’
‘But I do. I’ve got to. Just because you can’t understand—-‘
Things come to a head when one day Gerald turns up at David’s weekend home. How did he learn of David’s secret house? And how will their confrontation play out?
In This Sweet Sickness then, Highsmith is once again at her riveting best as she explores the themes of identity and dangerous obsession. It’s a novel with great psychological depth, a genre Highsmith clearly excels at. Can different identities really change at the core who you are? In what way does disturbing obsession make a person lose his touch with reality?
The focus on obsession brought to mind another brilliant novel I had read a few years ago – Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, although David Kelsey is neither really down on luck nor does he spend his days in seedy bars as Hamilton’s protagonist does.
I found shades of similarity with The Talented Mr Ripley too, in that both David Kelsey and Tom Ripley seamlessly live double lives even though their motives are different.
There was another maybe significant difference. One of Highsmith’s greatest strengths is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for the psychopath or the murderer. It happened with Tom Ripley. In a way, it also happened with Vic in Deep Water. Interestingly though, I didn’t feel the same with David Kelsey, although he was a fascinating enough creation.
That in no way suggests that the book is any lesser for it. It has all the trademarks of Highsmith’s writing – prose that is hypnotic and compulsively readable, the sense of palpable unease and creeping dread oozing from the pages, and characters so unhinged and enthralling that the reader is interested enough to find out how it will all turn out.
All in all, an excellent book. I intend to take a break before pulling another Highsmith from the shelves, but when I do it will be a toss between Strangers on A Train and The Blunderer.
The Faber Stories is a wonderful series of short books devoted to either a single story or a couple of them by an author. They are akin to wine tasting – you want to sample a sip before deciding whether to go in for the bottle.
On a recent weekend getaway, I packed two of them in a suitcase – Paradise by Edna O’ Brien and The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan. Honestly, I had never heard of Claire Keegan before and was dimly aware of Edna O’Brien. Both the writers are from Ireland and these stories are a great reminder of how rich Irish literature really is.
Both the stories come in at around 60 pages in these Faber Stories editions. And both have done their job of piquing my interest in trying out more of their work in the future.
Since these stories are short, I intend to keep the reviews brief too.
Paradise – Edna O’Brien
In Paradise, the protagonist – an unnamed woman – is on vacation with her millionaire lover, who is also not named. They are holidaying in the countryside and staying in his mansion. They are not alone though. Guests stream in and out on all days and the couple are required to entertain. It is a milieu of wealthy people.
At once we are made aware of the woman’s discomfort in these surroundings. There is this unspoken code of the super-rich she is pressured to confirm to, which causes her great distress. It is mainly evident in the swimming lessons she takes everyday despite the fact that she enjoys neither the sea nor the water.
To the rest of the guests, swimming is akin to any other activity that naturally comes to them. Thus, the woman is burdened by the expectations placed on her of becoming a swimmer when the lessons end in the final days of their stay.
‘Am I right in thinking you are to take swimming lessons?’ a man asked, choosing the moment when she had leaned back and was staring up at a big pine tree.
‘Yes,’ she said, wishing that he had not been told.
‘There’s nothing to it, you just get in and swim,’ he said.
How surprised they all were, surprised and amused. Asked where she had lived and if it was really true.
‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming as a child.’
‘Can’t imagine anyone not swimming, period.’
Meanwhile, the sex with her lover is great but she feels that when it comes to intimacy they are not yet on the same level; he is particularly reticent. Given that he already has had a few marriages under his belt, everyone around is pretty sure that his relationship with the woman is not going to last either. Painted in nuanced scenes, the strength of their relationship is something the woman begins to question too.
She knew she ought to speak. She wanted to. Both for his sake and for her own. Her mind would give a little leap and be still and leap again; words were struggling to be set free, to say something, a little amusing something to establish her among them. But her tongue was tied. They would know her predecessors. They would compare her minutely, her appearance, her accent, the way he behaved with her. They would know better than she how important she was to him, if it were serious or just a passing notion.
Paradise then is a gorgeous story about the pressures of meeting expectations imposed by society, the differences in class, and how the wealthy have invisible barriers around them that are difficult to break in order to be accepted. There’s a sense of dread throughout the story that keeps you on the edge – will the woman survive the ordeal or will she snap?
Edna O’Brien is an assured writer and her prose drips with elegance. Luckily, I do have a collection of her short stories Love Object sitting on my shelves, so I am eager to savour them too, hopefully sooner rather than later.
The Forester’s Daughter – Claire Keegan
While in Edna O’ Brien’s Paradise, the spotlight is on a mansion peopled with the moneyed class, The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan is set in the heart of the Wicklow countryside in Ireland. The protagonist is Victor Deegan, a hardworking, sincere farmer who is struggling to make ends meet and hold on to his house (both literally and figuratively).
When Victor’s father dies and his siblings express no interest in taking over from him, Victor inherits the house. He takes a loan against the property to buy out his brothers’ share so that the place now truly becomes his own. But being indebted has its own share of ills, and Victor is under constant pressure to ensure that there is a steady income to pay off the loan after a certain number of years while at the same time keeping the expenses minimal. The prospect of a comfortable, retired life is what keeps him going.
Wanting to settle down, Victor persuades country girl Martha to marry him. Martha is unsure at first, but seeing that she has had no good marriage proposals, succumbs to his demands.
It is clear at the outset though that the marriage is an unhappy one. Both fail to live up to expectations that they have from their union.
Before a year had passed the futility of married life struck her sore: the futility of making a bed, of drawing and pulling curtains. She felt lonelier now than she’d ever felt when she was single. And little or nothing was there to around Aghowle to amuse her.
The couple go on to have three children – two sons and a daughter. To Victor, the sons are a disappointment. The eldest has no interest in farm life and yearns to move to Dublin when the right opportunity comes along. The second son is a simpleton. It is the daughter who has the intelligence and brains. While her presence somehow makes Victor uncomfortable, she is Martha’s favourite child.
One day, Victor comes across an abandoned gun dog when out in the fields. Having no clue who the owner is he takes the dog home and gives him as birthday gift to his daughter. She is thrilled. To her this is evidence that her father loves her.
And so the girl, whose father has never given her so much as a tender word, embraces the retriever and with it the possibility that Deegan loves her, after all. A wily girl who is half innocence and half intuition, she stands there in a yellow dress and thanks Deegan for her birthday present. For some reason it almost breaks the forester’s heart to hear her say the words. She is human, after all.
But Martha is not happy, she knows better. She is filled with foreboding that it is all going to end badly.
And while the story hurtles towards its sad but inevitable conclusion, there is nevertheless a ray of hope expressed in the possibility of new beginnings.
The Forester’s Daughter then is a wonderful, riveting tale of the consequences of an unhappy marriage and how it affects others around them, particularly the children. It is also a statement on the mundaneness of everyday life and the constant struggle to keep head above water financially, all of which can have a crippling impact on any family unit. Is there any meaning to it all?
I don’t have any Claire Keegan on my shelves and a book buying ban means I don’t see reading more of her work anytime soon, but I will be looking out for her books later.
All in all, two excellent reads from the Faber Stories collection!
This was a post I was not going to write. But when a flurry of Best of the Decade write-ups began doing the rounds, it got me thinking on my reading over all these years.
And I must say, in this regard, the last decade has been nothing short of spectacular. So much so that the prior periods don’t even come close. Not by a long shot.
So what made this decade such an amazing one for my reading?
Well, I started following a lot of amazing fellow book bloggers, who introduced me to a whole range of excellent books out there. Most of these books were completely new to me. It also inspired to me to start a blog of my own, even though that was pretty much towards the end of this decade.
The online marketplace also changed the scenario dramatically. Making a note of the books that looked tempting was one thing. But being able to buy them online changed the game altogether for me, simply because most of these books were not stocked in bookshops I visited in Mumbai.
And then of course, I feasted upon releases and reissues by publishing imprints such as NYRB Classics, Pushkin Press, Peirene Press, Penguin Modern Classics and some more. In the latter half of the decade especially, my reading widened to translated literature as well.
What I have done for this post is to select the top two books in each of the ten years. These were the best books I read that year (and not necessarily published that year).
So without much ado, I present to you My Best Books of the Decade…
The Impostor – Damon Galgut
Damon Galgut was a big find for me in 2010 as I devoured three of his books in quick succession. I couldn’t really decide between The Impostor and In A Strange Room, but finally picked up the former. On any other day, that could very well change, which in a nutshell really means that both are great. Here I will focus on The Impostor though.
After being kicked out of his job in Johannesburg, Adam Napier moves into an abandoned dwelling on the dusty edge of a remote small town. It’s a ramshackle property lent to him by his brother, a crooked developer. The house is located in the Karoo, a kind of a semi-desert in South Africa, practically in the middle of nowhere, where the atmosphere is eerily still and ominous.
Adam, meanwhile, is hoping to recover from the loss of his job and his house in the city. He has accepted that “disappointment is the dominant theme of his life.” And yet, he has ambitions to become a poet and hopes the solitude in this new environment will get his creative juices flowing.
One day, by chance, Adam meets Canning – a mysterious and shadowy figure from his past. Canning immediately recognizes Adam as his childhood friend and greets him warmly, but Adam has no clue who he is. To make matters murkier, Adam is intrigued by Canning’s enigmatic and beautiful wife, Baby.
While The Impostor has all the delicious ingredients of a thriller, the novel is also a statement on the greed and corruption in South Africa post-apartheid. Galgut’s prose is top notch – spare, lyrical and absorbing with not a word wasted. There is a sinister air that pervades the novel, which is both unsettling and gripping at the same time.
Any Human Heart – William Boyd
Any Human Heart is a wonderful, ambitious novel by Boyd told in the form of diary entries of a single man’s life against a landscape spanning the twentieth century in many continents – the Bloomsbury set, the General Strike, the Spanish Civil War, 1930s Americans in Paris, wartime espionage, and New York avant garde art. The central character is Logan Mountstuart and he chronicles his life from his early childhood in Montevideo, through his years at a Norfolk public school and Oxford, tracing his haphazard development as a writer.
We learn of his successes, his failures, his marriages and his alcoholism, with 20th century events serving as the backdrop and a richly etched supporting cast.
Stoner – John Williams
Stoner sank without a trace when it was first published in 1965. But once NYRB Classics reissued it in 2003, ‘Stoner’ went on to become a cult classic. It is now also published by Vintage Books.
The protagonist in the novel is William Stoner, born in poverty to parents who are small farmers. They just about scrounge some money to pay for his education. But they make it clear that he needs to major in a degree related to agricultural sciences. So that he can put to use the knowledge gleaned in the farm when he takes over from his father.
Stoner starts out his education accordingly, but as the year progresses, he decides to switch to a completely different subject. Agriculture is not for him. He develops a passion for literature and language and chooses to become a professor in this field.
The book then is an account of both his professional and personal life. Professionally, we learn of the crippling politics that mar university life and how Stoner is not spared from it either.
Of his personal life, we are given a glimpse of his marriage to Edith, the subsequent unhappiness in this union accentuated by lack of communication, an awkwardness also present in his relationship with his daughter Grace. And then comes along a passionate affair which has ramifications for Stoner both professionally and personally.
Stoner, then, is by no means a flashy hero. But he leads a full life and that too with dignity. This is a beautifully rendered novel and John Williams’ sensitive writing makes the story of this ordinary man quite extraordinary.
The Slaves of Solitude – Patrick Hamilton
The Slaves of Solitude was the first Patrick Hamilton novel that I read and I fell in love with it.
The backdrop is England in the middle of World War II, a war that seems to show no signs of ending. Meanwhile, the main setting is the boarding house located in the suburban town of Thames Lockdon. The central character is Miss Roach, a middle aged woman, who is renting a room in this boarding house run by Mrs Payne. Here on a daily basis she has to deal with mind numbing boredom and the bullying at the dinner table by the nasty Mr Thwaites.
Miss Roach is savvy and sensible but to escape from her drab surroundings, she starts going out drinking with a wayward American lieutenant, a relationship based on rather shaky grounds. And then comes along Miss Roach’s friend Vicki Kugelmann, whose presence makes the proceedings in the boarding house only livelier.
Hamilton is great at portraying London at the time of war, the great uncertainty permeating daily living, and the drab and dull existence of its inhabitants. And his depiction of the claustrophobic confines of a boarding house – the politics, the nastiness, the excruciating boredom – is spot on. In addition to this, there are also some wonderful comic scenes in the novel, all of which make The Slaves of Solitude a heady cocktail not to be missed.
Mrs Bridge – Evan S Connell
Mrs Bridge is a gorgeous novel told in 117 short vignettes. It is based in Kansas City and centres around a well to do family – Mr and Mrs Bridge and their three children. However, as the title of the novel suggests, the story is mostly from the perspective of the mother.
Mrs India Bridge is a housewife in Kansas City and much of the action and drama is of a domestic nature either at home or the social clubs of which she is a part of. Her husband, Walter Bridge, has a steady, well-paying job allowing the family to live in comfort, but he is away most of the time.
The novel has no plot as such. A lot of it revolves around the fears and anxieties of Mrs Bridge, which is conveyed to us through her actions, rather than being explicitly stated. Mrs Bridge, then, addresses many themes such as the claustrophobia of domestic life where a housewife is waiting for something to happen, class differences, and the dynamics of family life in a smaller American city. It’s a stunning novel and its sequel Mr Bridge (told from the husband’s perspective) is just as good.
The Doctor’s Wife – Brian Moore
I have read only a couple of Brian Moores, but both have been brilliant – The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and The Doctor’s Wife.
Sheila Redden is a quiet, thirty-seven-year old doctor’s wife and is on a holiday in the French Riviera. It’s where she and her husband had their honeymoon twenty years ago, and she is looking to recreate some of that magic. Sheila’s husband is delayed because of his work, but Sheila heads to France anyway.
Little does she suspect that after a chance encounter in Paris she will end up spending her holiday with a man she has only just met, an American ten years her junior.
Four weeks later, Sheila is nowhere to be found. Own Deane, her brother, follows her steps to Paris in the hopes of shedding light on her disappearance. But will Sheila ever reappear?
The Doctor’s Wife is a gripping, poignant read. As ever, Brian Moore is brilliant in his portrayal of women when faced with an internal crisis.
My Face for the World to See – Alfred Hayes
This is the first Alfred Hayes I read (a fab one), and a good reminder that I need to read his other two books too.
As per the blurb on Goodreads…My Face for the World to See is set in Hollywood, where the tonic for anonymity is fame and you’re only as real as your image. At a party, the narrator, a screenwriter, rescues a young woman who staggers with drunken determination into the Pacific. He is living far from his wife in New York and long ago shed any illusions about the value of his work. He just wants to be left alone. And yet without really meaning to, he gets involved with the young woman, who has, it seems, no illusions about love, especially with married men. She’s a survivor, even if her beauty is a little battered from years of not quite making it in the pictures. She’s just like him, he thinks, and as their casual relationship takes on an increasingly troubled and destructive intensity, it seems that might just be true, only not in the way he supposes.
Hayes is great at conveying the desperation in this relationship and the trappings of Hollywood. A stunning, stunning book.
The Ripley Novels – Patricia Highsmith
Patricia Highsmith was a real find this decade. I began with the novel she is most famous for – The Talented Mr Ripley. And having loved that one, went on to devour the next two books in the Ripley series – RipleyUnderground and Ripley’s Game.
Tom Ripley is a murderer and a psychopath. But what is so fascinating about Highsmith’s storytelling is her uncanny ability to make the reader root for him. There is great psychological depth in her characters and an overall feeling of delicious dread and unease all due to the sheer quality of her writing, which is stylish and compulsively readable.
Also, while the Ripley Novels are a great place to start if you have not read her before, her non-Ripley books are equally brilliant. Those which I would particularly recommend are The Cry of the Owl, Deep Water, Edith’s Diary and This Sweet Sickness.
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill
Dept. of Speculation is a wonderful, heartbreaking read. A slim novel, the story is a portrayal of the first heady days of romance to the bitter reality of the protagonist’s husband having an affair. While this is a theme done to death in countless novels, where Offill excels is in the narrative technique. The story is told to us in scraps and fragments, which taken together form a very powerful whole.
Offill is also brilliant at depicting the early days of motherhood – the mundaneness of looking after the baby’s needs interspersed with moments of unrequited and unquestionable love for the child. The novel also examines the role of women – Can they be mothers and have a fulfilling career at the same time?
For instance, in the novel, the protagonist in particular wanted to be an ‘art monster.’
‘Women almost never become art monsters, because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.’
Offill’s writing is fresh and raw and tugs at the heartstrings.
Traveller of the Century – Andres Neuman
What a fabulous book this turned out to be. Here’s the central premise of the novel…
Searching for an inn, the enigmatic traveler Hans stops in a small city on the border between Saxony and Prussia. The next morning, Hans meets an old organ-grinder in the market square and immediately finds himself tangled in an intense debate—on identity and what it is that defines us—from which he cannot break free.
Indefinitely stuck in Wandernburg until his debate with the organ-grinder is concluded, he begins to meet the various characters who populate the town, including a young freethinker named Sophie. Though she is engaged to be married, Sophie and Hans begin a relationship that defies contemporary mores about female sexuality and what can and cannot be said about it.
Traveller of the Century then is a wonderfully intellectual novel, brimming with ideas and discussions on art, philosophy, literature and love. Very immersive reading!
The Vegetarian – Han Kang
I keep harping about how amazing The Vegetarian is. And this is another chance for me to do so.
One day, Yeong-hye decides to stop eating meat – an act of revolt unheard of in Korean society, thereby shocking her family. Combining three tales told from the viewpoints of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister (Yeong-hye is the central focus in the novel although we never hear her voice), The Vegetarian is an excellent novel that examines rebellion, mental illness, and desire. It’s the book that has made me a fan of Han Kang and I intend to read every novel of hers that is released.
The Awakening – Kate Chopin
First published in 1899, The Awakening is a remarkable book and is widely seen as a landmark of early feminism.
Edna Pontellier is a wife and mother with a comfortable home and a conservative husband. But marriage with its insistence on social conventions distresses her and so does motherhood with its relentless demands. She yearns for independence and a creative life of her own.
And then one day she meets Robert Lebrun and succumbs to his devotion. It also unleashes a desire in her to discard social mores much to the alarm of her husband and pursue her passion for art. What will be the consequences of these actions for her and those around her?
The novel was considered radical in its time and sent shockwaves through American society and a lot of its themes resonate even today.
The Blue Room – Hanne Orstavik
Just a few weeks before I talked about how Hanne Orstavik is a writer to watch out for when I wrote about her superb novella, Love. But what made me want to read Love in the first place? It was because of how brilliant her earlier novel The Blue Room was.
Johanne is a young woman in her twenties who lives in Oslo with her mother. When she falls in love with Ivar, she finally feels ready to leave home. The couple plan a trip to America. But on the morning of her departure, Johanne wakes up to find the door of her room locked.
Has her mother locked the door? Why? It’s Johanne who is the narrator of the story. But how reliable is she?
The Blue Room is an excellent portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship, one where the mother seems to be overprotective. It’s a novel dripping with uneasiness, something that is the trademark of Orstavik’s writing as was amply visible in Love too.
Play It as It Lays – Joan Didion
Play It as It Lays begins with an internal monologue by Maria Wyeth, who is in her early thirties and in a psychiatric institution. The only thing keeping her going is her daughter Kate. Maria is not keen on going over her past, a topic that the psychiatrists are interested in exploring. But we do learn of what went on before, and this is narrated to the reader in short, sharp chapters that make up the rest of the novel.
A not so happy account of Hollywood ensues and Maria’s journey oscillates between highs and lows, as she hurtles towards a statis in her acting career and a collapse of her personal life.
Maria begins to indulge in self-destructive behaviour. She plunges into long nights of compulsive driving, wandering Southern California’s freeways, through motels and bars, drinking and chancing sexual encounters with actors and ex-lovers before being finally institutionalized.
Didion’s evocation of 1960s Los Angeles and Hollywood is brilliant – a mix of glamour and grimness. But what stands out is the quality of her writing. It is intense yet detached, and endlessly fascinating.
Compass – Mathias Enard
Enard’s Compass is a massive 445-page tome and takes place over a single night; all in the mind of the Austrian musicologist Franz Ritter. Ritter is suffering from an unnamed illness, terminal probably and he is prone to bouts of insomnia.
This is one such night then when he is unable to sleep and so spends all those hours thinking about his travels in Istanbul, Aleppo, Damascus and Tehran. Most have been in the company of the French scholar Sarah for whom Ritter carries a torch; there are many sections where he reflects on his unrequited passion for this fiercely intelligent woman.
Enard’s basic theme is that Western writers, musicians, artists and Western culture in general owes a lot to influences from their Eastern counterparts. Thus, while in political terms there might not be much in common between the two regions, when it comes to culture, both the East and the West have learnt immensely from each other. Compass is erudite yet accessible and abounds in cultural references as diverse as The Arabian Nights, Agatha Christie, Mahler, Don Quixote, Kafka, Beethoven, Layla & Majnun.
It is a paean to the Orient, an ode to Otherness, and Enard’s passion for the Middle East shines through in this brilliant novel.
Solar Bones – Mike McCormack
Solar Bones is a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
The novel opens with the sound of the Angelus bell. Marcus Conway hears this bell as he enters his home and realizes it is empty with none of his family members around.
Marcus Conway uses this moment to reflect on his entire life, the moments of happiness interspersed with many trials and tribulations. We learn that Marcus is a civil engineer responsible in a small way for the building of roads, bridges, buildings during the boom time in Ireland, now all of it having gone bust.
Marcus also recalls his marriage, scenes of intimacy with his wife, and then her debilitating illness, which almost destroys her. He also thinks back on his relationship with his son who is in Australia trying to figure what to do with his life next. And with his daughter, who is a budding artist and holds her first solo exhibition with a painting medium that shocks him. But more often than not Marcus ruminates on the pressures of his job, and the corruption of highly placed officials in his field.
The narrative style is unusual and innovative, quite poetic infact. This is no linear narrative though as Marcus reflects on many things, not necessarily in any particular order. This then is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned.
The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici
Josipovici’s novel begins on a quiet note in Paris and then moves on to become darker and unsettling. In just 100 pages, we are introduced to three stories across three time spans in three places (London, Paris, Wales), all involving the protagonist who is a translator and good at his work. Our narrator ruminates on the art of translation, makes frequent references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – and because of Josipovici’s masterful storytelling skills, it all feels seamless and lucid without ever coming across as either complex or knotty. But the best thing about this book is how wonderfully ambiguous it is making it open to multiple interpretations.
Basic Black with Pearls – Helen Weinzweig
Here is the intriguing blurb from NYRB Classics – “Shirley and Coenraad’s affair has been going on for decades, but her longing for him is as desperate as ever. She is a Toronto housewife; he works for an international organization known only as the Agency. Their rendezvous take place in Tangier, in Hong Kong, in Rome and are arranged by an intricate code based on notes slipped into issues of National Geographic. But something has happened, the code has been discovered, and Coenraad sends Shirley to Toronto, the last place she wants to go.”
Told from Shirley’s point of view, it quickly becomes clear that things are not what they seem, and we are left with a narrative that is surreal and disorienting, but all in a good way. Is this then a straightforward espionage tale or something deeper and complex? Weinzweig’s idea for this multi-layered novel was inspired by the Canadian artist Michael Snow’s Walking Woman sculpture series – the concept of a one-dimensional woman moving nowhere.
The Neapolitan Quartet – Elena Ferrante
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!
The Copenhagen Trilogy – Tove Ditlevsen
It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs.
Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.
One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.
That’s it from me. 20 fab books. Looking forward to another super decade of reading beginning tomorrow.
Hanne Ørstavik’s The Blue Room is one of my favourite Peirene novellas so far (the other Peirene favourite is The Looking Glass Sisters).
The Blue Room was among the top books I read in 2016. So when I learnt that Archipelago Books has released another of Ørstavik’s titles called Love, I knew I had to read it.
And what an excellent and dark little gem it turned out to be. Ørstavik clearly has the skill to bring out the uncanny in ordinary, everyday life.
Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter.
Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.
From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so.
He goes out for a walk to sell a bunch of raffle tickets for his sports club.
He (Jon) feels a draft now that he’s standing still. It’s from the front door. They should have it insulated, with weather stripping and draft excluders like he’s seen in other houses. He sticks his water pistol in his back pocket and puts on a different woolly hat. Vibeke needs to be on her own so that she can get things ready. If he’s out while she’s baking the cake it’ll be more of a surprise, he thinks to himself. He goes out. Reaching the road, he wishes he’d put his mittens on., but he won’t go back.
Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. Vibeke is a single mother and has managed to secure a job in an arts council in which she seems to have settled in well.
But Vibeke is in her own world. On that particular night, she chooses to go the library to collect some more books and also hopefully meet the engineer who had been flirting with her at work. But things don’t go as per plan. The library is closed and given that she took so much trouble to dress up, Vibeke wanders into the village fair.
For the rest of the evening, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.
That is the central set up of this novella.
It also makes Ørstavik’s storytelling technique unique and interesting. Given that each is on his/her own trip in the icy cold weather, the narrative keeps shifting between Vibeke and Jon and this happens in a series of alternate paragraphs rather than chapters. This is done quite seamlessly and in the blink of an eye. So for instance, the reader will move on to the first few lines of a paragraph thinking that he/she is still reading about Vibeke, when the narrative has already switched to Jon’s.
Ørstavik also infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son.
What makes it disconcerting for the reader is the ease with which Vibeke and Jon interact with strangers. Throughout the evening, Vibeke is in the company of a man called Tom, who works at the fair, and who Vibeke has met for the first time. When an old neighbour agrees to buy all the raffle tickets from Jon and tells him to go down with him to the basement, Jon willingly does so.
So much so that at one point in the novella, there’s a conversation that Jon has with another unknown woman…
‘Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to go with stranges?’
She rummages on as she speaks.
‘Not everyone’s as nice as me.’
She looks at him and smiles again. Her teeth are really quite small. He gets an urge to feel his own and compare.
‘My mom says everyone’s good on the inside.’
Love then is a novella that explores how both of the central characters are on a quest for intimate and deeper relationships. And yet paradoxically, they are not able to closely bond with each other. Jon, obviously, is seeking a loving connection with Vibeke, his mother. Vibeke is affectionate towards Jon, but its apparent she’s lonely.
She (Vibeke) reaches out and smoothes her hand over his (Jon’s) head.
‘Have you made any friends yet?’
His hair is fine and soft.
‘Jon,’ she says. ‘Dearest Jon.’
She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink.
For instance, Vibeke has hopes that her first encounter with Tom will slowly evolve into a more meaningful relationship. Jon keeps erroneously thinking that his mother is planning a surprise birthday for him, with a model train set as a gift, so he stays out for most of the evening with the fervent hope that Vibeke plans everything well.
What’s more, the lack of communication between mother and son is quite telling even on a basic level. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.
And to top it all, the ending comes as quite a shocker!
As mentioned earlier, Hanne Ørstavik first came to my attention with her novel The Blue Room. That one explored the troubled relationship between mother and daughter, but interestingly the mother in that book was overprotective.
Clearly, based on both these novellas alone, Ørstavik has perfected the art of making the stories of imperfect mothers absorbing and riveting.