May turned out to be quite an incredible month in terms of quantity and quality of books I read while the lockdown continued. Here is a brief round-up…
The first book I read during the month, Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.
Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.
A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality.
The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.
Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.
A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark
I became a Spark convert last year when I read three of her novels – Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means and The Driver’s Seat, all wonderful. I hope to read more of her work this year and eventually make my way through the 22 novels she penned.
The world that Spark creates in her books is superbly off-kilter, with elements of strangeness mixed in with the ordinary. Beneath the surface, there is also a darker current running and this was evident in A Far Cry from Kensington too.
The novella is set in 1950s London. The protagonist Mrs Hawkins is a young widow staying in a guesthouse peopled with eccentric characters, the chief one being the Polish seamstress Wanda and this forms one plot point in the book. Further, Mrs Hawkins is a considered a capable woman working in publishing at a time when publishing jobs were much sought after. But then a dramatic encounter with the hack journalist Hector Bartlett ensues. Mrs Hawkins continuously labels him ‘pisseur de copie’ (meaning that Bartlett urinates bad prose), and this leads to some unexpected consequences.
In a little under 200 pages, Spark marries these two plot points and weaves a deft world which includes blackmail, a bizarre scheme involving a Box, and a dig at the publishing world where one pays a price for speaking the truth. This, then, is another superb Spark novel!
Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.
It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place. I read it on Kindle.
School for Love – Olivia Manning
Olivia Manning’s superb books – The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy – were the highlights of my reading in 2019. Set in locations as varied as Bucharest, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Manning has brilliantly captured the feel of these cities on the brink of war and the feeling of uncertainty that grips its inhabitants.
School for Love is set in Jerusalem during the last few years of World War Two. It is a poignant, coming of age story of young and orphaned Felix Latimer (possibly sixteen years old) who arrives all alone in Jerusalem after his mother dies in Baghdad. A relation of his father, Miss Bohun offers to lodge him in the guesthouse that she runs. Miss Bohun is miserly in her dealings with everyone and this only accentuates Felix’s sense of loneliness. And then one day, Mrs Ellis, a young widow, comes to stay in the guesthouse and stirs things up.
Manning has wonderfully brought to life the café culture in Jerusalem with Arabs and Jews gathering to discuss politics and art. But she has also captured with keen insight the gamut of emotions that Felix goes through – from despair and loneliness fuelled by his mother’s death to his infatuation with Mrs Ellis and its consequences. This book is another gem from Manning’s oeuvre.
Normal People – Sally Rooney
Sally Rooney’s Normal People is as wonderful as Conversations with Friends, which made my ‘Best of’ list last year.
The story begins in high school when Connell and Marianne (both in their teens) fall in love. In school, Connell is the popular, nice guy, while Marianne largely keeps to herself and is not much liked. The tables, however, turn when they move to Trinity College in Dublin where Marianne finds her kind of crowd, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book then goes on to chart the on and off relationship between these two over the years.
The story is pretty simple. But what Rooney captures so well is the complexities and uncertainties of young adult love as they struggle against class differences and their own personal demons. The writing is sensitive, fresh and honest and the dialogue between the two feels very real. I loved this book.
Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier
Daphne du Maurier has written some excellent novels – Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel to name a few – but she was also quite adept at penning short stories.
My edition contains nine tales pulled from various collections and here is a glimpse into a couple of them…The title story Don’t Look Now is set among the canals in Venice where a couple who have recently lost their child come across a pair of old ladies who have clairvoyant abilities. In The Blue Lenses, a woman undergoes an operation to improve her vision but when the new lenses are inserted into her eyes what she begins to see disturbs her greatly.
All of these nine tales are unsettling and macabre and display to great effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills.
Isolde – Irina Odoevtseva (tr. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)
Left to her own devices in Biarritz, fourteen-year-old Russian Liza meets an older English boy, Cromwell, on a beach. He thinks he has found a magical, romantic beauty and insists upon calling her Isolde. Meanwhile, she is impressed with his Buick and ability to pay for dinner and champagne.
Disaffected and restless, Liza, her brother Nikolai and her boyfriend Andrei enjoy Cromwell’s company in restaurants and jazz bars later in Paris – until Cromwell’s mother stops giving him money. When Liza and Nikolai’s own mother abandons them to follow a lover to Nice, the group falls deeper into its haze of alcohol and murky dealings.
Isolde is a quite a dark tale of young Russian exiles feeling alienated and out of place in a foreign city. Liza yearns not only for her mother (who has no time for her) but also for her motherland Russia (which also seems out of her reach). It all moves towards a conclusion that seems inevitable and yet tragic.
The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende (tr. from the Spanish by Magda Bogin)
Set in an unnamed Latin American country (possibly Chile), The House of the Spirits spans three generations beginning with the taciturn and volatile landowner Esteban Trueba who marries the clairvoyant Clara after the latter’s beautiful sister Rosa dies mysteriously.
Besides being a family saga revealing both tragedies and triumphs, the novel is also peppered with politics. The younger generation increasingly embraces Socialism and fights for the rights of workers clashing with the landowners and conservatives represented by Trueba. While for the most part, the book was engrossing, the ‘magical realism’ elements at times felt a bit over the top. Also, I felt the book could have been a lot shorter. The House of the Spirits is worth reading but I wasn’t blown away by it.
Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan
I loved the first poem in this collection called ‘You Very Young in New York’ which is a wry look at the possibility of romance, disappointment and unattainability of innocence. Sullivan’s descriptions of the New York cocktails bars are quite sensual suffused with a lot of atmospheric imagery. Lights going off one by one are compared to ‘a diminished Mondrian’, while bartenders are figuring out the winter cocktail lists ‘telling each other that Cygnar, grapefruit bitters, and a small-batch Mezcal will be trending in the new year…
Here’s how the poem begins…
Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground.
‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’
But nothing seems to happen. You stand around
On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed,
Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress
With one arm raised, waiting to get older.
And that concludes my reading in May – 10 books in total. My favourites were the Haushofer, Manning, Spark, Rooney and Bae Suah, while Winter in Sokcho and the du Maurier short stories were also special. Hope to discover some more great books in June.