September 2020 turned out to be another stellar month of reading. My favourites were Passing, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Birds. But, the Wharton and the Penelope Fitzgerald were also superb.
Here’s a brief summary of the books I read…with links to detailed reviews wherever applicable.
Passing– Nella Larsen
Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.
The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good. Not having revealed to her husband that she is black, Clare Kendry’s dangerous deception means that she is constantly living on the edge.
At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.
The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)
The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.
At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.
The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.
The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald
There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.
The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s, and when the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie has left him. The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions.
The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Along with its evocative portrayal of Russia, the novel is made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns
Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh.
Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy frame of mind, although we will soon read that this happiness has come at a considerable price. Immediately then, the reader is taken to a period in her life eight years back – Sophia’s story begins when she meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent.
Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch. In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.
The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)
The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged (everyone calls him Simple Simon), and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.
Mattis is quite an unforgettable character, saddled with the burden of not being able to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” But the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show.
The Birds is a sensitively written novel of uniquely etched characters subtly displaying a gamut of emotions. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both.
The Pear Field – Nina Ekvtimishvili (tr. Elizabeth Heighway)
Set in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a newly independent Georgia, our protagonist Lela at eighteen is the oldest student at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or, as the locals call it, the School for Idiots. The plot is essentially driven by Lela’s single-minded focus on two objectives – (1) to help Irakli, a nine-year old student, make most of a good opportunity offered to him, after which she would leave the school to start afresh, and (b) to kill her history teacher Vano, who we are told has sexually abused her when she was younger, as he has countless newly inducted, young girls before her.
The novel contains a diverse range of characters – students and staff as well as some families in the neighbouring buildings. The pear fields stretch nearby and the air of neglect that surrounds them in some way serves as a symbol of the overall moral decay of the school.
At a little less than 200 pages, The Pear Field was a quick read, and while I liked the novel, I didn’t exactly love it. However, what I did enjoy very much were the sumptuous descriptions of Georgian food sprinkled throughout the book.
The New York Stories of Edith Wharton
There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface.
This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.
In Mrs Manstey’s View, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A Journey, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.
In After Holbein, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, Autres Temps, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.
The last story in the collection, Roman Fever, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.
That’s it for September. I hope to read some fab books in October too and have begun with Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which only a few pages in, is already promising to be a special book.