Here’s what I read in October – a mix of translated literature, contemporary lit and early 20th century lit. It was a slow reading month, but I am pleased that atleast the books were high quality. My favourites, however, were The Other Name by the Norwegian author Jon Fosse, and Dead Girls by the Argentinean writer Selva Almada.
Dead Girls – Selva Almada
Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.
At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:
Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.
Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.
The Other Name – Jon Fosse
The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.
The Fountain Overflows – Rebecca West
The Fountain Overflowsis a lovely depiction of childhood and family life as it centers on the talented Aubrey children comprising Cordelia, Mary, Rose and Richard Quin (Rose is the narrator). Their father’s financial instability reduces them to near poverty and their mother frets over their circumstances, but the children’s appetite for adventure remains intact. This is a book filled with music, poltergeists, wonderfully described Christmas gatherings, and a murder trial. West’s writing is warm and charming, and reading the book had been pure delight.
Ankomst – Gohril Gabrielsen
In Ankomst, our narrator is a woman, a scientist whose job is to study the impact of climate on the behavioral patterns of seabirds. For the purposes of her research, she decides to spend six months in isolation in a remote cabin in northern Norway, way up in the Arctic. And yet she has no plans of really being alone. Rather she awaits the arrival of her lover, who is reluctant to come because he has a daughter to look after. Our narrator is also married with a daughter of her own. Gradually, it emerges through a series of flashbacks that her marriage is troubled as she is a victim of domestic violence. Not to mention, she is also plagued by the guilt of abandoning her daughter. The sense of place in the novel is excellent, the feeling of isolation against a backdrop of snow, ice and freezing temperatures. Gabrielsen also racks up the tension as the reader wonders whether the abusive husband will be successful in tracing our narrator’s whereabouts. As the drama builds up, so does our narrator’s feelings of isolation and possibly disorientation. And then, in the final pages there is a knock on her cabin door – is it her lover who has finally arrived, or is it her violent husband?
Academy Street – Mary Costello
Academy Street is about Tess Lohan, a book that journeys through six decades of her life. Born in a rural farm in Ireland, Tess is confronted with a tragedy as a young girl – the death of her mother due to tuberculosis. Raised in a big family of brothers and sisters, prone to not expressing their feelings, she is overwhelmed by a sense of stasis and longs for escape. Pouncing on an opportunity to train as a nurse, she migrates from Ireland to New York in the 1960s, seeing America as a land of many possibilities. And then she falls in love, and this has consequences. This is a beautifully rendered tale, full of heartache, and compassion and Tess is a wonderfully realized character. The prose is lovely, which is always to be expected from Irish authors, who are truly masters of the language.
That’s it for October. I plan to read a few novellas in November and have started on Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. It’s been very good so far, but my concentration had dwindled largely due to the anxiety over US elections. With Biden finally (and thankfully) emerging as a victor, I am hoping to resume reading soon.