Loop – Brenda Lozano (tr. Annie McDermott)

The first Charco Press title that I savoured was Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz. That was one impressive read and it found a place on my Best of 2018 list. This year, particularly, I have tried quite a few of their books, and the experience has been great. Both The German Room and Fish Soup were fabulous as was The Wind That Lays Waste.

So without much ado, let me delve right into one of their newest releases, Loop.

Loop is narrated in the form of diary entries that our unnamed narrator (a woman) jots down in her Ideal notebook, as she waits for her boyfriend Jonas to return from his trip to Spain. The recent death of his mother prompts Jonas to go on this trip with his father and sister.

The Ideal notebook is a recurring motif in the novel. It’s a notebook not easily available in stationary shops. In a way, the narrator compares her act of writing (composing and erasing thoughts and ideas) in her notebook to that of Penelope weaving and unravelling the shroud as she waits for Odysseus’ return in Homer’s Odyssey.

The entries are not made in any linear fashion. Instead, it is more of a circular narrative as a lot of the themes, ideas and motifs recur at various points in the novel, just as thoughts generally do. It also explains why the novel is titled Loop.

Gradually, we get a glimpse of the narrator’s personality and a bit of her everyday life. She might be pining for Jonas but she is not entirely alone given her rich circle of friends. These are friends with whom she attends parties, conferences or even dinners.

If I wrote about my friends, I’d dedicate chapters to Tania, Julia, Carolina, Guillermo, Tepepunk, Antonio and Luis Felipe.

Our narrator carries her Ideal notebook with her all the time, and it especially comes in handy when she is waiting either in reception rooms or at airports. These serve as the perfect places to pen her thoughts on tangible stuff such as music (David Bowie and Shakira make frequent appearances), literature, the availability of Ideal notebooks, to more philosophical musings like Jonas’ return, relationships with parents, metamorphosis, love and death as well as many other abstract ideas. For instance, there is one chapter that explores the concept of an island and loneliness.

As our narrator waits for Jonas, she is also plagued by doubts about whether he will really return. And even if he does, will things ever be the same?

Sometimes I’m afraid. I wonder what will happen when Jonas returns from his trip. Sometimes I worry that when he comes back this will all be over, but then, I’m scared of endings in general. It’s a consequence of the accident.

The accident incidentally was a near fatal one but our narrator manages to stage a gradual recovery.

When the recovery begins, when you’re gradually getting better, there’s a window, a small frame through which you can project yourself into another time – into the future. At the end of the day, that’s what low points are for: to open that window. I thought a lot about doing everything I’d been afraid to do, and that was the window I had.

A heady cocktail of reflections and recurring patterns swirl in our narrator’s mind. Numerous references are made to the dwarf next door that sets off a chain of thoughts on scale and size.

The dwarf, who’s a different height, who can sit in a chair and not touch the floor with his shoes. Who lives on a different scale. Who lives in a strange sort of margin. Who has the same abilities as you. Who walks down the same pavement as you. And yet.

Our narrator is also fascinated by useless things and by people who are on the margins.

Marginal, useless work. Infact I’m drawn to the very idea of uselessness because there’s something almost fictional about it. A piece of work, an object, the more ridiculously useless it seems, the more fascinating I find it. All those objects, all those services that serve no one seem to me like the triumph of fiction.

On a minor scale, she writes about her cat…

The cat’s in the living room playing with the pencil I dropped; I’m feeling sleepier and sleepier. It’s like the cat and I are working shifts on an office reception, taking it in turns behind the desk. I don’t know what that means, of course, but it’s the kind of thing I write, as if I’m playing with this pencil. Writing is my way of being a cat and shedding fur, or phrases, onto the armchair.

…And in some entries, her range of writing expands to the political as she laments the violence in her country, Mexico.

Have we got used to cruelty?

Changes in the cabinet, a change of president and the numbers don’t change. I wonder what would happen if each parent, each child, each person who’s lost someone in the last few years picked up the microphone to talk about their loss…every single one of those stories out loud.      

Other than The Odyssey, Loop deliciously abounds with references made to literary works and figures. Here’s a taster:

Beckett: So is this the story of waiting? ‘Waiting for Godot’, waiting for Jonas?

Kafka: Speaking of Kafka, have I told you he’s one of the authors I read for self-improvement?

Wilde: My first story was about a giant because the first thing I read and fell in love with was about a giant, I was seven when I read that Oscar Wilde story.

Proust: I like what I’m reading so much that if Proust were a madeleine I’d dress as a cup of tea. In fact, if Proust were alive and in Chicago, I’d invite him to the party. I bet it would be fun to go to a party with Proust. He’d be the first on the dancefloor.

Pessoa: This morning I walked past a café. I imagined Pessoa ordering five different drinks, one for each of his heteronyms.

Emmanuel Bove: Emmanuel Bove’s first novel is called ‘My Friends.’ I’ve been looking for this book for years. To no avail. If I weren’t going to the cinema tonight, I’d write a version of ‘My Friends’.

Machado de Assis: My dear friend Tepepunk gave me ‘The Alienist’, by Assis. There’s a minor character who nowadays seems hard to imagine: the rattle man.

My verdict? I loved Loop.

Brenda Lozano’s voice is fresh, irreverent, and her unique imagination peppered with flights of whimsy is at full display here. There is a beguiling quality to her writing that makes Loop quite an addictive read. The narrative is fragmentary and introspective, and the repetition of ideas heightens Loop’s novelty rather than detract from it.

The book is immensely quotable. That said, instead of elaborating further, I would instead urge you to experience Loop yourself. Another wonderful title from Charco Press and I look forward to their publishing schedule for 2020.

Meaning that being thirty-one and waiting for Jonas to come back from his trip, plus a cat, some plants, some books and an apartment aren’t the average.

Why the fervent desire to be part of the norm? How to get away from it? What’s the most distant point?

Sudden Traveller – Sarah Hall

Sarah Hall writes exquisitely. Of this I was convinced when I first feasted on her novel Haweswater, a passionate love story set in the Lake District, which also examines the impact of dam building and consequent displacement of the people in the valley. Interestingly enough, the only other novel I read since then is her last one, The Wolf Border – a novel which I thought was good but not great, although I do recall some bits of it simply because the central premise was so original.

When it comes to the short stories though, Sarah Halls’ writing takes on a whole new level. She has now released a total of three collections – The Beautiful Indifference, Madame Zero, and now Sudden Traveller. All are miniature works of art.

Faber & Faber Hardback Edition
The front cover image is from ‘Mother and Daughter’, 1913 by Egon Schiele

Sudden Traveller is a slim book at 124 pages and comprises seven stories.

The first story ‘M’ has shades of ‘Mrs Fox’, of her earlier collection Madame Zero. In ‘M’, the protagonist is a woman and a lawyer who decides to do pro bono work for a shelter. This is a shelter for women – beaten down, abused, and out of luck. Her efforts are in vain though, as the shelter is eventually demolished.

But while this avenue shuts down, another one opens up, as the central character undergoes a physical transformation.  

The last decision of life, and the monetary drop, a first rush, like the waterfall’s crest, the brink of climax. For that second, such kinetic beauty, trust in nothingness. Then – a crack behind her, huge and dull and viscose, as the wings extend, unfurl and are filled, begin her flight. Suddenly, the city is far below, turning slowly in relied, roadways, estates and parks, contoured and furrowed and rapidly passing, a new landscape, a map of the hunt.

She becomes a mythical creature at night who can fly. And she sets about providing relief to the women who have been wronged.

Such a raucous call. There are so many – she could not have known before. And she cannot find them all. She seeks first the ones who transmit loudest, smell strongest, those who cannot hide and for whom it will be worst. Girls. The girl given animal tranquillisers, shared by seven of them, a lottery of seed inside.

But it doesn’t stop there. Earlier, only concerning herself with rescuing the women, she now branches out into punishing the men responsible for their sorry plight. In other words, she becomes an avenger of sorts. This is vintage Hall with all her trademark themes of feminism, and transformation.

After the visceral quality of the first story, the second one ‘The Woman the Book Read’ is mellower but no less beautifully penned. It begins hauntingly enough…

Ara. The name was unusual; he wouldn’t have recognized her otherwise. If she’d walked past him in the street, even if she’d been sitting opposite him in the café and he’d had time to study her, he probably wouldn’t have guessed.

Our male protagonist is in a beach town in the Middle East. One day, while in the midst of discussing business with a colleague, he hears the name Ara being called out. The invocation of this name brings back a flood of memories and transports him into his past.

We learn that Ara was the daughter of the woman he was involved with then. At the time, Ara was a child and the two develop a bond, which over the years fades away. In the present, Ara is now a grown woman who may or may not remember the man her mother was in a relationship with all those years ago.

Relationships of adults with children is a dominant theme in the third story too called ‘The Grotesques’. Here the central focus is a mother-daughter relationship. It’s 30-year old Dilly’s birthday and her overbearing mother, who is hosting a family get-together for Dilly, sends her out to run a few errands.

Dilly, meanwhile, is having a miserable day. She comes across a cruel prank played on a homeless man, is caught in the rain – wet and wretched by the time she reaches home, and is pining for a hot scone at her own party.

In ‘The Grotesques’, Hall has brilliantly conveyed the sense of claustrophobia in close family settings. Dilly’s mother is outspoken, at the centre of things, and her dominating personality confines Dilly to the sidelines.

Mummy could change a story or revise history with astonishing audacity, and seemed to instantly believe the new version.

Dilly is awkward and introverted as compared to her more accomplished siblings, and this puts her at odds with her mother – the two are as different as chalk and cheese.

Vengeance again is the central theme of the story ‘Who Pays?’, a story set in a Turkish forest with a very fairytale feel to it.

Who sees? Who pays? Always the women.

Sex and eroticism is an element that is vital to Hall’s writing. In ‘Orton’, an elderly woman with a heart disease, and fitted with technology, decides to visit a place in the moors called Orton. It is the scene of a previous sexual encounter with a man in her youth, before she married. Although purely a physical contact, it is a memory that is still vivid in her mind, enough for the woman to want to revisit the place.

Hall’s descriptions of the moors are gorgeous….

The moor hadn’t changed. The grass was restless, bleached and occasionally bright auburn when the sun lit it. Long walls ran upwards towards the fells, and the cleaved limestone pavements sat pale and dull on the slopes. Wind-leant trees, peat gullies, flocks of heather and the occasional darting thing. Under the clouds, great dark shadows moved across the hills.  

The title story ‘Sudden Traveller’, which to me is the highlight of the collection, is a beautiful meditation on death, loss and grief. It is also a piece in which she has expertly juxtaposed birth (of the protagonist’s child) with death (of the protagonist’s mother).

One can’t help but feel if there is a touch of the personal here. Hall gave birth to her child around the same time that her mother died.

Not surprisingly, the opening is a cracker…

You breastfeed the baby in the car, while your father and brother work in the cemetery. They are clearing the drains of leaves and silt, so your mother can be buried.

We learn of the mother’s illness, the endless hospital visits and waiting in her final days and the final act of burial. The grief and the coping involved. Against this, we are given a glimpse of the early days of motherhood: a happy one, but challenging nevertheless…

You are so tired there are moments you are not sure if you are awake any more. It feels like those early newborn days, the fugue state of new motherhood, when the baby was in a separate plastic cot at your bedside.

It’s not all gloom though. Rays of hope shine through, as does the prospect of picking up your life and starting again.

Nothing is unchanging. Rain that seems unstoppable, that seems impossible to see through, that keeps coming down, obscuring the world, washing away time, will end. Like everything else, it is only passing spirit.

And then you know how it will be. Breaking cloud, sky with discernible colour, fantastic-seeming sunlight. The rain will lift. The river will recede.

Overall, Sudden Traveller is a fascinating collection of stories that explores the themes of feminism, of what it is to be a woman, metamorphosis, and motherhood.

The collection is aptly titled with multiple meanings that convey not only physical travel but also journeys of the mind. It could either be harking back to the past or staring into an unknowable future. A lot of the characters in these stories witness a big change or are thrust into situations suddenly and are compelled to survive and make best of the situation. 

This rain is not helping: savage, unrelenting, incanting, strange even for here, making it hard to see anything clearly or think clearly. What you sense is mutability, the selves within the self. The terror of being taken, ahead, into sheer darkness. What is coming? Not just this lesson of a dying mother. But travel — You can do no more than intuit. You suspect your dreams are communicating far more destruction than you have interpreted, and in this you are correct. The future is a window that cannot be opened until it is opened.

Sarah Hall’s voice is unique and utterly captivating. There is a fierce, sensual quality to her writing that is entirely her own. She excels at lush descriptions and creating arresting images. It also explains why her short stories are so much better than the longer novels – her razor sharp sentences and spare, lyrical, staccato like prose comes across more vividly in the shorter form.

In one of her interviews with Guardian, a few years ago, here’s what Hall had to say on writing short stories…

“You’re required to fit much more in. It’s the world-on-the-head-of-a-pin thing. It was excellent discipline for me, the baggy, sloppy novelist, to think about form and plot.”

Here’s a quote in another equally interesting interview with Guardian (after the publication of the rather wonderful collection Madame Zero)…

“I do like short stories to be a powerful distilling. It is a place for dark psychology and a potent literary dosage. When I start out it usually stems from a thought, or something I heard in the news that gives me a shape. I like reading stories that give you a huge wallop, one you don’t see on the surface.”

In a nutshell, Sarah Hall’s short stories are rich, flavourful, and meant to be savoured slowly.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor

It was only a few years ago that I discovered the writing of Elizabeth Taylor. It didn’t help that she shared the same name with the famous actress. At the time, NYRB Classics had reissued her novel A Game of Hide and Seek, and since I am a big fan of the imprint, that was the first Taylor novel I read. It was excellent and what stood out for me was Taylor’s keen perception of human nature, and a sharp eye for describing the social mores of the period.

For reasons I cannot quite fathom, I didn’t read any more of her work since then. But lately there has been a lot of love for her novels on Twitter and the blogging world, and I knew that I had to once again jump on the Taylor bandwagon.

It was a tussle between Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and A View of the Harbour, both highly regarded, and I finally selected the former. To make a long story short, I loved this novel.

It also means that this is the second novel on ageing I have read this year, the first one being the rather wonderful Memento Mori by Muriel Spark.

Mrs Laura Palfrey is an elderly lady, having recently lost her husband. When the book opens, she is on her way to the Claremont Hotel with the aim of residing there. We learn that she has a married daughter settled in Scotland and a grandson who works at the British Museum.

Staying with her daughter is not an option, which means that Mrs Palfrey has to fend for herself. Meanwhile, in a couple of sentences, Mrs Palfrey is wonderfully described to the reader…

She was a tall woman with big bones and a noble face, dark eyebrows and a neatly folded jowl. She would have made a distinguished-looking man and, sometimes, wearing evening dress, looked as Lord Louis Mountbatten might in drag.

Once at the Claremont, she as well as the reader are introduced to the hotel guests, who have also been residents there for a while. It is hinted that aged people live at the Claremont for an indefinite period of time until it comes to a point when they become completely dependent. When that happens, it’s time to shift to a nursing home to spend the remaining days of their lives there.

At the Claremont we meet the regulars. Elizabeth Taylor’s descriptive powers are second to none and she has a knack for etching out the idiosyncrasies and the foibles of each of her characters.

There’s Mr Osmond, an opinionated man, who tries to push his views on the hotel staff or anyone willing to listen, which is pretty much no one. When he is not verbally airing his views, he is busy writing to newspapers and magazines mostly critical of a variety of subjects.

Mrs Arbuthnot is another resident who makes Mrs Palfrey feel welcome when the latter is trying to get accustomed to her new surroundings. However, Mrs Palfrey will soon get a taste of Mrs Arbuthnot’s malice, which she realizes is borne out of frustration.

Mrs Burton loves to have a rocking drinking session every evening in the hotel lounge much to the distaste of the other residents.

He (Mr Osmond) could not hide his annoyance when Mrs Burton came down to his part of the lounge and kept pressing the bell for whiskies. She spent a great deal of money on whisky, which was a marvel to the other ladies – throwing money down her throat, Mrs Post said. She had other extravagances, such as mauve-rinsed hair, and what Mrs Arbuthnot always referred to as chain-smoking although it was not. Mrs Arbuthnot, perhaps because of her arthritis, found it in her nature to be disparaging.

And last but not the least is Mrs Post, who Mr Osmond thinks is the silliest of the bunch.

Life at the Claremont is fairly routine and dull. For the most part, the residents are on their own compelled to find ways to amuse themselves. Occasionally, friends or family members may come to visit. These are visits the residents eagerly look forward to.

As she waited for prunes, Mrs Palfrey considered the day ahead. The morning was to be filled in quite nicely; but the afternoon and evening made a long stretch. I must not wish my life away, she told herself; but she knew that, as she got older, she looked at her watch more often, and that it was always earlier than she thought it would be. When she was young, it had always been later. 

Keeping up appearances matter at the Claremont Hotel. In her early days, Mrs Palfrey is flustered by her solitary life and the fact that she has no visitors. Her daughter is far away in Scotland and although they write to each other, we learn that they are not really close. Mrs Palfrey’s grandson Desmond is working at the British Museum but cannot be bothered to respond despite Mrs Palfrey’s attempts to persuade him to visit her at the Claremont.

One day, Mrs Palfrey is out on one of her regular walks, and falls on the pavement. She is helped by a young man Ludovic Myers or Ludo as he is called. From thereon, an unlikely friendship develops between them. What’s more, Mrs Palfrey invites Ludo to the Claremont for dinner and convinces him to pose as her grandson Desmond, a deception she subsequently enjoys despite some anxious moments of being possibly found out. Ludo is more than happy to play along hoping to find some rich material for his novel in progress.

Ludo, meanwhile, is a struggling writer, eking out a living on means that are meager. In a way he is like a real grandson that Mrs Palfrey always wanted but never had.

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont then is a novel about aging – the increasing sense of loneliness as you become older, a sense of nostalgia for those good days in the past, and the fear of being dependent and unable to function on your own.

Here’s Mrs Post during one of her weak moments…

‘As one gets older life becomes all take and no give. One relies on other people for treats and things. It’s like being an infant again.’

Mrs Palfrey, meanwhile, misses her husband and the companionship between them, of him not being there to accompany her on her walks or generally being around to care for her.

If all this sounds rather bleak, somehow it isn’t. In less capable hands the tone of the book would have felt downright miserable. But Taylor’s writing is so gorgeous that she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age.

But even in a subject matter of this sort, Taylor has a flair for humour. There is one particular set piece in the last few pages of the novel which is laced with comic moments. It is a party held at Mrs de Salis’ house, a temporary resident at one time at the Claremont, and here the eccentricities of the long term residents – Mr Osmond, Mrs Post and Mrs Burton – are in full display.

‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’ Mrs de Salis said, waving her hands. ‘Never again, I promise. It was a mistake, I admit. I was only trying to be kind, as is my wont.’

‘The little one in beige and grey was drunk, I think,’ Aunt Bunty said.

‘Well, serve her bloody right.’

‘The noisy one most certainly was.’

‘She had the gall to pick up that Meissen bowl and look at its bottom.’

‘Only it isn’t Meissen,’ Willie said.

‘Don’t fight with me, boy!’

Another set piece that I loved and was rather beautifully done was a cosy dinner that Mrs Palfrey shares with Ludo at his rundown apartment earlier on in the novel.

Paul Bailey, in the introduction of my Virago edition, aptly writes:

The residents of the Claremont are drawn by Elizabeth Taylor with a sympathy that is strengthened, not diminished, by her beady-eyed detachment from them. Her peculiar gift is for noticing the casual cruelty that people use to protect themselves from the not always casual cruelty of others. Her ear for insult is, every so often, on a par with Jane Austen’s.

Overall, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont was an excellent read and is sure to find a place in my end of the year list, which I will reveal next month. Meanwhile, of her other novels, I have A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness on my shelves and those are the ones I will be getting to next, hopefully soon this time.

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino – Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

A couple of months back when I wrote about Yukio Mishima’s The Frolic of the Beasts, I mentioned how there is so much of Japanese literature out there that I have yet to savour.

This time around I decided to settle for a contemporary book and selected Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino.

I had greatly enjoyed Kawakami’s surreal and unsettling novella Record of a Night Too Brief issued in those lovely Pushkin Press Japanese Novellas series. And a fuller length work by her was now beckoning to me.

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino comprises ten stories, each told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. Essentially, these are short chronicles that chart Nishino’s relationships from a period spanning his student days to when he becomes an older mature man. The liaisons are either legitimate relationships or extramarital affairs.

There is no linear progression in the stories as they back jump back and forth in time.

Indeed, in the first piece called ‘Parfait‘, Nishino makes his presence felt as a ghost. The narrator is a woman called Natsumi. Natsumi has a grown up daughter Minami who is twenty five.  But Natsumi harks back to the past when she had an affair with Nishino when Minami was a seven year old child. Sometimes Minami tagged along when they decided to meet. During such times, Nishino would order a strawberry parfait for Minami.

Natsumi, meanwhile, believes she was in love with Nishino but is not sure whether Nishino reciprocated her feelings. He gave the impression that he did though.

‘Hey, Natsumi, when I die, I’ll come to you,’ he once said.

‘What?’

‘When I die, I want to be by your side.’

‘I bet you say that to all the girls,’ I replied flippantly.

With an unusually serious look, Nishino said, ‘I don’t.’

And he does make an entry in the final pages of this story as an apparition.  

In the subsequent pieces, some of the tales cleverly overlap. For instance, in ‘Goodnight’ – one of my favourite pieces in the book – we are introduced to Manami, and Nishino is now filtered through her lens.

Nishino and Manami know each other through their workplace where she is the head of the department and he is her subordinate. Manami finds herself falling in love with Nishino despite increased resistance and numerous attempts to quell those feelings.

That May, Yukihiko won me quite easily. Like a butterfly collector who spreads the wings of his specimen on a board, and pins them in place. Gently and carefully handling the now-dead body of an insect he has captured. I suppose you could say that Yukihiko had already entrapped me. Without us ever having shared a caress. Without us even having shared a glance.

When the two are going out, Nishino bumps into an old flame Kanoko, and invites her to have dinner with him and Manami. Nishino is clearly oblivious to how awkward this meal can actually be.

Manami, being the sophisticated woman that she is, tries to make the best of this situation.

Yukihiko remained calm throughout the meal. Everything was extremely proper. We drank an appropriate amount of sake. The conversation was innocuous. The evening wore on, gradually. Kanoko seemed to have decided to treat me lightly. Oh, this woman is Yukihiko’s new girlfriend? How boring! She barely even tried to conceal these thoughts. For my part, I behaved like an adult (like a sensible, mature woman three years their senior), drinking my sake with a radiant smile and when the dessert of pear sorbet arrived, dipping my gleaming silver spoon into it with relish.

In the subsequent story called ‘The Heart Races,’ the narrator is now the other woman Kanoko. We now look at the same dinner from her point of view…

Manami was the type of woman who could drink in moderation, but who also enjoyed dessert. I had dinner with the two of them after they became an item. How had I got myself into such a situation? I was not such an idiot as to have brazenly inserted myself into an old boyfriend’s date with his new girlfriend – that had not been my intention – but somehow it was how things ended up.

Manami was polite from start to finish – her cheerfulness was resolute.

While Nishino is clearly the central figure in the novel, this book is as much about the women in his life. Through the lens of their relationship with him, we get a glimpse of their personalities and are privy to their wants, and emotions.

Nishino, meanwhile, comes across as a puzzling creation, inscrutable in fact. When in a relationship, he seems to be deeply in love, and yet due to various shortcomings is unable to hold on to the women he is involved with. And yet he has a charming enough demeanor that makes him attractive and interesting in the first place.

It is really difficult to figure out just what it is he wants from his relationships. In each of the ten perspectives on display here, he seems to be deeply involved, and yet eventually those relationships fizzle out with no commitment.

I loved Kawakami’s writing style in these interconnected tales of love. I was drawn to the beguiling, lucid and other worldly quality of the prose. The simplicity of the writing was marked by Kawakami’s keen insights and observations.

While the overall feel of these vignettes was playful and lighthearted, there were also darker elements that kept surfacing. One in particular revolved around the death of Nishino’s sister. The two siblings were very close, and his sister’s suicide had a profound impact on Nishino. There was an unsettling and hard hitting set piece around the two of them in the second story titled ‘In the Grass’, which is only heightened when we learn of what is to follow later. Overall, I thought The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino was a remarkable piece of work.

This is the first Kawakami book I have read and on the strength of this alone I am now keen to explore Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop.

The Levant Trilogy – Olivia Manning

Early this year, I raved about The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. That book was fabulous and what stood out was Manning’s ability to paint a picture of a city where invasion is imminent, and yet its citizens are in a state of denial. The sense of uncertainty, that grips ordinary people during times of war as they sit around in cafes discussing and analyzing the situation, was spot on. I reviewed the first two books in the trilogy – The Great Fortune and The Spoilt City – but somehow never got to writing about the third, Friends and Heroes.

It was time to move on to the next installment, The Levant Trilogy. And I found it to be equally compelling.

Levant Trilogy

The first two books in The Balkan Trilogy were set in Bucharest, Romania, while the city in focus in the third book was Athens, Greece.

In The Levant Trilogy, the action has now moved to Cairo in Egypt with the bulk of the trilogy based in the city.

In The Levant Trilogy were are introduced to a new character Simon Boulderstone, a twenty-year old recruit who has received orders to fight in the Desert War. This is how the first book in the trilogy opens…

Simon Boulderstone, aged twenty, came to Egypt with the draft. For nearly two months, as the convoy slid down one side of Africa and up the other, he had been crowded about by other men. When he reached Cairo, he was alone.

After he is assigned to Major Perry’s unit in the desert, he has a couple of days of leave on his hands before the action begins.

He decides to visit Cairo. But more importantly, he wants to meet Edwina Little who is betrothed to his brother Hugo and who according to him is ‘the most gorgeous popsie in Cairo.’ Simon is presented with the task of buying a bottle of perfume on Hugo’s behalf and gifting it to Edwina.

Meanwhile, Simon finds himself dragged with a bunch of people who are being taken on a tour of Egypt by the brazen tour guide Clifford.

One of the people in the tour group is none other than Harriet Pringle, the central protagonist in The Balkan Trilogy.

At this point, we are only 30 pages into the novel, and the most distressing and heartbreaking scene in the book is only a few pages away.

One of the things that Manning brilliantly does is to convey the uncertainty inflicted upon the British expatriates in a foreign land. The ordinary British in Cairo have no clue what is really happening out there in the desert, and reliable information is hard to come by. Some can handle it, some cannot.

Clifford, the tour guide, is certainly impatient for news on the war front. So is Professor Pinkrose and Major Cookson, recurring characters from The Balkan Trilogy. Manning does a very good job of giving a brief refresher on the background of her secondary characters lest they have slipped from your mind.

Anyway, the group hits upon the plan of visiting Sir Desmond Hooper out in the Fayoum. According to Clifford, Sir Hooper is always wining and dining the army big shots, so he is bound to have some information to give them.

Some people in the group are aghast at the idea of strangers barging into Sir Desmond Hooper’s home. But the desperation for news takes over and the party unwillingly proceeds towards the Hooper mansion.

In the midst of their conversation with Sir Desmond Hooper, Lady Hooper makes a desperate entry.

They heard the heavy front door crash open and from the hall came the sound of a stumbling entry that conveyed a sense of catastrophe. A woman entered the room shouting, ‘Desmond. Desmond,’ and seeing the company, stopped and shook her head.

The men got to their feet. Bowen said, ‘Lady Hooper, is anything the matter?’ She shook her head again, standing in the middle of the room, her distracted appearance made more wild by her disarranged black hair and the town, paint-covered overall that protected her dress. Lady Hooper was younger than her husband. She was some age between thirty and forty, a delicately built woman with a delicate, regular face. She looked at each of the strangers in turn and when she came to Simon, she smiled and said, ‘I think he’ll be all right.’

Two safragis carried in the inert body of a boy.

I won’t reveal more but this particular section in the novel is quite distressing and incredibly sad.

Nothing more is heard of Lady Angela Hooper since that scene but she makes an entry again later in the book and goes on to become the most interesting character in the trilogy.

So far I have touched upon the basic outline of the plot that takes place in the first fifty pages, but since I don’t want to get into spoilers, I will write more about the development of characters and what makes The Levant Trilogy such an absorbing read.

Angela Hooper

Let’s begin with Angela Hooper. When we first meet her at the Hooper residence, she comes across as a tentative, distracted woman. That is not the case when we meet her again later.

The incident at the Hooper mansion having left a profound impact on her, Angela Hooper has decided to cast away her old life and begin afresh. When we meet her again, she has managed to secure a room in the Embassy quarters where Dobson is in charge (another figure from The Balkan Trilogy). She strikes up a friendship with Harriet Pringle, who has also managed to acquire lodgings there after initial hurdles.

Angela Hooper is immensely wealthy and is irreverent with the way she spends her money. She does not like to be bothered about the limitations of not having the means. This is in sharp contrast to the Pringles, who are struggling to eke out a living and are financially constrained.

Because of the ease with which she doles out cash, Angela Hooper becomes a regular fixture at the club called the Union along with Harriet, who drags along. Angela’s penchant for ordering whiskies attracts the company of Bill Castlebar…

‘Who’s this?’ she (Angela) asked Harriet.

‘Bill Castlebar; one of my husband’s time-wasting cronies. Describes himself as a poet.’

Soon, Castlebar and Angela Hooper are in a relationship, which has a lasting impact on the her. While to the outside world, there are no redeeming qualities in Castlebar, to Angela he becomes an important partner. It is a relationship of equals with both having mutual respect and love for one another. It means that this relationship pretty much defines Angela’s actions in the rest of the trilogy with equal moments of joy and distress.

The Pringles – Guy and Harriet

The other most important feature of this novel is Harriet’s development and her increasing sense of independence.

For the whole of The Balkan Trilogy, Harriet and Guy were always together even if it meant Harriet had to unwillingly put up with the people in Guy’s ever increasing social circle. The striking feature in this trilogy is that for larger chunks of the novel, Harriet is mostly alone.

Whether it is spending evenings at the Union with Angela and the other expatriates, or going on sightseeing tours, Guy is absent most of the time. It comes to a point where Harriet increasingly begins to toy with the idea of living a separate life from Guy.

He had said the climate was killing her but now, seeing the relationship from a distance, she felt the killing element was not the heat of Cairo but Guy himself.

What is redeeming for Harriet is her friendship with Angela Hooper. Circumstances and subsequent events propel Harriet and Angela to become close friends – while Angela provides financial assistance to Harriet, Harriet becomes instrumental in giving emotional support to Angela.

More importantly, it means Harriet has a first true friend of her own, one who is not part of Guy’s friend circle. What is also satisfying is the manner in which Harriet stands up to Guy and is steadfast in maintaining her friendship with Angela, even if Guy does not have a good opinion of the latter.

Guy Pringle, in the meanwhile, continues to be as irritating as he was in The Balkan Trilogy. Perpetually and stubbornly immersed in his work and forever befriending people at the drop of her hat, he continues to have no regard towards Harriet’s needs and feelings. Even when there is a major crisis point in the final book of the trilogy, the reader has this sense that Guy will never change.

The Desert War up Close

There is a new element present in The Levant Trilogy, which was never really a prominent feature in the Balkan – the description of the actual battle scenes.

In The Balkan Trilogy, the realities of war and Germany’s invasion was always palpable, but the action was mostly centred around the daily lives of the people in the city.

In that sense, The Levant Trilogy is a bit different because we see the battle scenes up front through the eyes of the recruit Simon Boulderstone.

To give credit to Manning, the portrayal of the actual war – the uncertainty, the stretches of terror alternating with periods of boredom and tedium is very well done. Manning manages to make the Simon Boulderstone and the Desert War sections pretty fascinating. And yet, one can’t help feeling that the more interesting parts of the novel revolve around Angela Hooper and Harriet Pringle.

A Riveting Travelogue

In the third book – The Sum of Things – Harriet goes on a road journey in the Levant with two women, Mort and Phil, who are a lesbian couple and members of the para-military service. Their job involves making regular trips to Iraq with ammunition and other supplies.

Manning’s descriptions of this road trip are striking and evocative…

Sitting together in the cabin of the lorry, they (Mort and Phil) took it in turns to drive or sleep so they could keep going all day and all night.

Harriet, in the back among the cases of ammunition, hardly slept at all. The road over the desert was little more than a track and full of potholes. Each time she drifted into sleep, she was jolted awake as the lorry bumped or skidded or swayed into the sandy verge. In the end she sat up and stared into darkness, seeing waterfalls stumbling black through the black air, huge birds sweeping to and fro across the night, enormous animals that paused to stare back at her before lumbering away put of sight. When the dawn came, she saw nine of these things, only the empty road stretching from her, away into the desert hills.

Soon after daybreak, they stopped at a frontier barrier, then the lorry moved on to tarmac and Harriet, exhausted by the uneasy night, fell into a heavy slumber.

Meanwhile, Harriet manages to make a stop in Damascus in Syria for a few days all alone with not much funds and while she has enough wits about her to carry on, the sense of loneliness is intense. This particular book felt like a wonderful piece of travel writing – a daring solo trip by a woman in an unknown region filled with adventures but also a longing for company.

A Wonderful Sense of Place

Olivia Manning brings Egypt and the Levant brilliantly to life. Whether it is in describing Cairo during war or the desolation of the seaside city of Alexandria, the atmosphere created is superb. We also get a feel for Damascus and Jerusalem, as Manning has a command over conjuring a sense of place helped immensely by her having spent time in these cities during the war.

Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.

On a Final Note…

Both The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy have been the highlights of my reading this year. In the NYRB Classics editions (which I have), the Balkan is a hefty 900 odd pages and the Levant is around 500. This may seem daunting but don’t let the size put you off. Once you get going, both are extremely absorbing and immersive reads and the pages furiously fly by. I cannot recommend both the trilogies highly enough!