A Month of Reading: January 2020

January was a good month of reading. All the books were excellent. Here’s a snapshot:

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld
Alternating between a remote British island (where the timeline moves forward) and the Australian outback (events move backwards in time), this is a riveting tale of a woman on the run.

And the Wind Sees All by Gudmundur Thorsson
A gorgeously written novella exploring life in a small Icelandic fishing village.

Paradise by Edna O’Brien
A woman is vacationing in a resort with her millionaire lover but the milieu of the super-rich rattles her.

Madonna in a Fur Coat by Sabahattin Ali
A heartbreaking love story between a young Turk and a Jewish artist set in Ankara and 1920s Berlin.

Tell Them of Battles by Mathias Enard
Set in 1506, Michelangelo flees Rome when he is invited by the Sultan to Constantinople to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. This is when Michelangelo is at the peak of his creative powers, having been commissioned by the Pope to paint the Sistine Chapel.

The Forester’s Daughter by Claire Keegan
Set in an Irish countryside, this is a story about a hardworking farmer struggling to make ends meet, and his unhappy wife. They have two sons and an intelligent daughter. Things begin to heat up when the father gifts a dog to the daughter on her birthday.

My favourites from this bunch were the Evie Wyld, Gudmundur Thorsson and Edna O’Brien.

And the Wind Sees All – Gudmundur Andri Thorsson (tr. Bjorg Arnadottir & Andrew Cauthery)

The ‘Home in Exile’ series from Peirene Press is a real hit. I had loved both Soviet Milk and Shadows on the Tundra as soon as they were released, but somehow missed And the Wind Sees All, the third in the series. I am glad that I read it now because this was a gorgeously written novella.

And The Wind Sees All is set in a small, Icelandic fishing village called Valeyri. We are transported into this region by the wind, which comes in off the sea…

I see the secrets. I see people cooking, peeing, pottering or skulking about. Some weep, some listen, some stare. I see people silent, or screaming into their pillows. I see people throwing out rubbish and useless memories, and I don’t look away. I never look away. I see all.

As Kata, a choir conductor wearing a polka dot dress, bicycles her way to the concert hall, she passes through the village lanes and is seen by almost all the residents as she flits past their homes.

This framework gives the book an impressionistic feel, as it is composed of short vignettes on the characters that make up the village. It is almost as the entire lives of the villagers are encapsulated in the single time horizon of two minutes (that it takes Kata as she cycles past).

As is the case in small communities, everyone pretty much knows everybody else, it is difficult for secrets to stay hidden for long. But the village somehow accepts who you are and moves on.

The first chapter focuses on Kata and we get a glimpse of her relationship with Andreas suffused with sadness and missed opportunities. Although Kata becomes merely a presence in the subsequent chapters, the sense of lost chances remains.

Love and loss

A sense of profound loss dominates the lives of many of the characters. There’s Arni Moneybags later nicknamed Arni Going Places, with a successful advertising career under his belt. He has an instinct for creating stellar campaigns, and captivating the minds of the audiences. But his relationship with his partner gradually deteriorates. While Arni is glued to his computer, Agusta increasingly withdraws into herself until one day she disappears.

We are also introduced to husband and wife Gudjon and Sveinsina, who are in the same room physically, but miles apart in thoughts. Sveinsina, particularly, reminisces about her first husband Biggi, a guitarist, and how she lost him so young when their son Teddi was only five.

She is thinking about Biggi and the long winter when he dies, that winter in Reykjavik in that godforsaken block of flats, and Teddi was only five and followed his daddy out onto the balcony and watched him climb over the rail on the seventh floor and jump, watched his daddy briefly soar through the air – soar through his white and wonderful dimension – before hitting the pavement.

In another vignette, Gunnar finds the presence of his childhood sweetheart, who he meets after many, many years, almost too painful to bear. Josa, meanwhile, ruminates on her relationship and subsequent marriage with Kalli before he abandons her for another woman Sigga. And yet, they all manage to co-exist in that small community.

Cast of varied characters

More people and sketches of their lives abound. A lot of the characters are in some way related. After her husband Kalli leaves her, Josa is aware that there is life outside but prefers an existence of solitude indoors. Her one contact is her son Gummi, who occasionally visits her to cook a sumptuous meal, and during one of these visits admits to being in relationship with a woman during the height of the Balkan War only to lose contact with her later.

Svenni is an industrious foreman in the factory machine room, polite and respected. And yet he has those days when he calls in sick and holes himself up in the house with bottles of drink.

Sigga is married to Kalli after he left Josa and although she is welcomed in the village wonders whether she really fits in.  

There is one particular piece called the Aroma of Ashes, which focuses on two well-to-do couples who are also best friends. Their lives are filled with expensive holidays and family get-togethers. We learn that while one of one of the couples has a stable marriage, the other pair has a strained relationship.

The sanctity of village life

Is life better in a bigger city such as the capital Reykjavik? Svenni’s parents certainly didn’t think so. Settled in Reykjavik, they send their then 11-year old son to the countryside to appreciate the virtues of hard work and toughen up in the process.

His parents thought that it would be much better for a boy to spend the summer months in the countryside than on the streets of Reykjavik, which would just mean hanging about like a slob and losing his appetite. He would become a pale, apathetic couch potato. In the country, he would find out what real life was all about.

For Teddi, possibly haunted by his father’s suicide when Teddi was five, the village and his vibrant family are beacons he hangs on to remain sane.

As you make for the harbor, there is this peace inside you. The beacon is there, and all you need to do is to aim for the beacon, if you stick to that you’re safe, whereas if you forget about it you are lost, you end up in the shallows, fall, sink into the deep.

Complex lives

And the Wind Sees All ultimately shows us that human lives are complex, whether you stay in a bucolic fishing village or in a fast paced larger city.  Indeed, people staying in small communities also have their share of disappointments, relationship issues, happiness and success. This is beautifully expressed in each of the vignettes, which cumulatively leaves a much larger impression on the reader of how the characters have intricate inner lives.

A gorgeous gem

And the Wind Sees All then is an exquisite novella where the language is lush and lyrical. In descriptions of both man and nature, the author’s writing is rich heightening the feeling of a calm exterior beneath which secrets and emotions simmer.  

All this movement: the sea is eternal, it nourishes, heals, rinses, gives and takes, is made of currents that have been in motion for millions of years, slipping beneath each other in one continuous swirl, because the sea is, above all, movement.

Although not as hard hitting as either Soviet Milk or Shadows on the Tundra in the ‘Home in Exile’ series, slivers of sadness, nevertheless, seep through each sketch dedicated to a character or group of characters in the novel.

All in all, Peirene Press has clearly scored a hat-trick with this particular series.

This Sweet Sickness – Patricia Highsmith

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.

Two Faber Stories – Edna O’Brien & Claire Keegan

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!