Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!

The Krull House – Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

I am slowly making my way through Georges Simenon’s novels, particularly his ‘roman durs.’ Having previously written about The Blue Room and Act of Passion, both very good, I thought The Krull House was another excellent novel, quite absorbing and also frightening.

The Krull House is a prescient and suspenseful tale of how close-knit communities harbor feelings of mistrust towards outsiders, how they are excluded because their perceived foreignness make them objects of suspicion and resentment. Although this book was penned in the late 1930s, its themes remain relevant even today.

When the novel opens, we are told that the Krull family, whose origins are German, lives on the fringes of a rural town in France, near the canal. The head of the family, Cornelius Krull, weaves and sells baskets and for the most part is seen in his workshop engrossed in his tradecraft. Originally from Germany, Cornelius through the course of his wanderings in Europe, suddenly decides to stop at this French town and settle there. Cornelius’ wife Maria runs the family bar and shop. The couple has three children – the eldest daughter Anna, who helps Maria with the household chores, Joseph who is studying to become a doctor, and Liesbeth, who is a budding pianist.

Because of their background, the town residents shun the Krull establishment, but the family members need to survive and so they resign themselves to do business with the bargees on the canal.

Their closed-off, hermetic existence, though, is rattled when cousin Hans comes to live with them. Hans is Cornelius’ nephew (his brother’s son) but they have not been in touch for many years. Hans is a typical German Krull – brash, insouciant and carefree, whereas the French Krulls are anything but – their manner is quiet and restrained.

From the outset, Hans’ presence unsettles the family. Although his father is dead, Hans withholds this information, giving them the false impression he is alive, and concocts some story about why he is in France. He willingly admits he lied, however, to Liesbeth with whom he begins an affair.

Meanwhile, we learn that Joseph, attracted to a girl named Sidonie, has been following her and her friend Germaine, because he can’t muster the courage to ask her out, a development that does not escape Hans’ ever watchful eye. To complicate matters, Hans with his wild, assertive behaviour continues to irk the Krull family members who are desperately trying to fit in and not attract unnecessary attention.

Things come to a boil when Sidonie’s body is found floating on the canal one morning. Clearly, she has been murdered…And the Krull family, unwillingly, finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom that threatens to erupt into violence.

Simenon is brilliant at capturing the personalities of the various Krull family members, the way they are at complete odds with their neighbours, and how they slide into a predicament they have no wish to be a part of.

Cornelius is an amazingly quiet man, so much so that the family hardly notices his presence. Although he has made a home in this French town, he hasn’t made any special efforts to integrate or blend with its inhabitants and barely mingles with the townspeople. Even after all these years, he isn’t fluent in French, and having forgotten much of German, he speaks in a language that is a curious amalgam of both that only his family can understand. Is there more to him than meets the eye though?

It was then that Maria Krull was struck by Cornelius’ attitude. He still hadn’t moved. He was looking down at the tablecloth, and no emotion could be seen in his eyes. But he seemed older, all at once. There he was, silent, motionless, and nobody knew what he was thinking.

The rest of the family tries hard to fit in with not much success. Maria Krull, in a way, is the rock of the family scrambling to hold the ship together but is frustrated at how they are always at the receiving end. In this regard, a conversation between Hans and Liesbeth highlights the family dilemma…

Liesbeth: ‘People have been so awful to us!’

Hans: ‘Why?’

‘Because of everything! Because we’re foreigners! At school, the children called me the Kraut, and the teacher would say to me in front of the whole class: “Mademoiselle, when one receives a country’s hospitality, one has to double the duty to behave well.” 

 Meanwhile, Joseph and Hans could not have been more different. Both men are in their mid-twenties, but whereas Joseph is shy, awkward, lacking in self-esteem, Hans is insolent, bold and socially at ease. No wonder then, while Joseph resents Hans immensely, Hans eyes him with undisguised contempt.

Hans, however, is very perceptive and is acutely aware of why the locals view the Krulls the way they do. In his many conversations with Maria Krull he points out a fault in them which he thinks is crucial – the Krulls are either too eager to please people or too laidback to do anything about it, there is never any middle ground.

Throughout the book, Simenon’s prose is spare and simple and there’s an atmosphere of menace and dread that permeates the novel as we wonder how these various elements are going to play out.

This novel was published in 1939 at a time when the rumblings of a Second World War were beginning to get louder and Hitler was marching across Europe. It also meant that the general distrust towards Germans was probably at its peak. Thus, the Krulls, by virtue of being German, were singled out even though they had been French residents for a long time. Maybe they never had a chance.

The Krull House, then, is a powerful, unsettling exploration of how unfairly society judges outsiders, a fact that is even more pronounced in smaller communities, the hostile treatment meted out to them, and how they become dead ducks when something goes wrong. The abundance of malicious rumours flying around unsupported by any shred of concrete evidence, makes their attempt to establish themselves futile from the start.

These are the very forces that hurtle like a juggernaut towards the unfortunate Krulls as the novel reaches its terrifying conclusion.

A Change of Time – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books in the year so far, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans was pretty impressive too, and now Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time is another worthy addition to this list.

A Change of Time is a gorgeous, reflective novel of a woman re-inventing herself after the death of her husband and reclaiming her lost sense of self, brimming with sentences that ache with beauty and sadness.

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, the story is narrated to us through the diary entries of the schoolteacher and protagonist Lilly Hoy or Fru Bagge as she is now known.

In the opening pages, we learn that Fru Bagge has been visiting the hospital every day to be near her ailing husband Vigand Bagge, who is a respected doctor in the village of Thyregod. It’s immediately clear that something is amiss, notably communication between the two is sorely lacking. It seems that Vigand, although, well aware of the serious nature of his illness, chooses to keep his wife in the dark. Even when the time comes for him to finally admit himself in the hospital, it’s with the realization that he has single-handedly made arrangements for it without his wife having any clue.

Why was I not allowed to help you when you were dying, Vigand?

On Vigand’s death, Fru Bagge, married to him for some 20 odd years, is suddenly alone and must fend for herself. Gradually, their personalities revealed to us dip by dip, give us a sense of how the Bagges were an ill-matched pair.

We were married for twenty-two years. And although it has been a time in which many things have happened – a world war, motor cars, electricity, women’s suffrage – indeed an entire world would seem to have wound down and been replaced by a new one, I would still venture that those years have been one long and unbroken day.

Vigand Bagge is a competent doctor and the villagers look upon him with awe, but he is mostly a stoic, cruel, sarcastic man lacking empathy and the requisite bedside manner. He is a practical man, sometimes extremely so, and is impatient with those who unabashedly display their weaknesses. There is a tendency in him to mock people, and here even his wife is not spared.

On his death, Vigand does his duty of providing well for Fru Bagge with clear instructions, so that she can lead her life with dignity with no worries on the financial front. But with security and comfort of money, comes the painful and inevitable knowledge that there was a serious lack of connect in their marriage. It could be that Vigand was several years older to her, and never therefore treated her on an equal footing, adopting a more condescending attitude. It was a marriage that lacked compassion and tenderness, qualities that Fru Bagge wanted more than anything from her husband, but, alas, in vain.

Can one ask a person to show that they love you? Reason, that most faithful onlooker to the tribulations of others, says no.

But what says unreason?

Vigand’s death, thus, suggests a kind of freedom for her to embrace life anew. But it also leaves in its wake a trail of bitterness for all the years she has already lost.

In my darkest moments I understand only too well what misfortune can leave a person in such a place. Bitterness is a very soft and comfortable armchair from which it is difficult indeed to extract oneself once one has decided to settle in it.

As the novel progresses, the diary entries begin alternating between Fru Bagge’s past and the present. In the immediate now, she must choose a new accommodation for herself. And in an act of defiance, she buys back the car Vigand had sold and begins to learn driving.

In stark contrast to her present, though, a series of flashbacks reveal a different facet of her personality – her growing ambition of being a teacher, and her efforts to realize that dream.

Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young schoolmistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.

A scent of missed opportunities also wafts in the air, a sense of ‘what could have been’ – possibilities of serious relationships with a man from her student days, and later in Thyregod itself when she accepts a teaching position.

At its core, A Change of Time is a character study or a portrait of Fru Bagge/Lilly Hoy – the promise of making a mark in her youth wiped away by years of repression and being undermined in her marriage. In many ways, the book’s title heralds the dawn of a fresh start for Lilly. It is also a subtle depiction of changes that Lilly introduces or accepts to enhance the life of the village and its inhabitants, particularly, in the teaching profession, and also in many ways, one of the various lifelines thrown to her to help her regain her lost bearings after Vigand’s death.

Atmospheric and lyrically written, A Change of Time is wonderfully slow-paced in a way that is soothing for the soul and swells with warmth and tenderness, but is also suffused with a tinge of sadness and melancholia. Inherently inward-looking and fraught with potent silences, it’s a novel of finely etched characters and restrained emotions…and a quiet meditation on things left unsaid, finding pleasure and a sense of purpose in the smallest of things, and a chance of having a second go at life.

We are often told that being alone is a harbinger of loneliness, but there is nothing worse than being lonely in a marriage. While it’s perfectly fine to feel disoriented at first, if the end of a debilitating relationship means a newfound hope for freedom and joy, then it’s worth embracing it with open arms.

This strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed. I have begun to expect it, to look forward.

An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun was released with much fanfare recently, and I have duly procured a copy. Meanwhile, having loved the Booker winner The Remains of the Day, I felt like reading an earlier novel of his and picked up An Artist of the Floating World, which I agree, is another hit from his oeuvre.

An Artist of the Floating World is an unusual, wonderfully accomplished novel of a man looking back on his life and wondering if it was all worth it. It also takes a look at Japan’s widening generation gap and how individuals aiding efforts during World War II are shunned by subsequent generations who are more liberal and value progress, peace and prosperity.

The book opens with our protagonist Masuji Ono telling us about how he came into the possession of his current house at a bargain before the war – a sprawling mansion where he now resides with his younger daughter Noriko. While it’s a beautiful structure, it could not escape the ravages of war and certain sections of the abode have been damaged. The impact of war has insinuated itself in Masuji’s personal life as well, his wife of many years is now dead. He is left with his two daughters, now adults – the elder Setsuko is married with a son called Ichiro. The younger daughter Noriko stays with him in their mansion.

From the outset we are made aware of something unsavoury in Masuji’s past without the details. But there’s a growing sense that this past has made him a social pariah in the aftermath of the war because people are vary of associating themselves with him. It is certainly presented as a possible explanation for why Noriko remains unmarried. Noriko was all set to marry into the Miyake family, but all of a sudden that family pulled out without any explanation, and speculation is rife that it could possibly be attributed to Masuji’s prior misdeeds.

Masuji, meanwhile, is a talented artist who enjoyed his fair share of renown for the art he produced in his heydays, before the war changed things. A profession looked down upon his father, Masuji is determined to pursue art anyway and begins to work in a commercial Japanese firm, which is much more interested in the speed at which paintings are churned out rather than quality. His subsequent decision to train under the legendary Seiji Moriyama, however, takes Masuji’s painting skills to the next level. Moriyama is a teacher specializing in aesthetics depicting Japan’s sensual world of nightlife and courtesans in his paintings. And his fellow students are encouraged to experience the ‘floating world’ – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink.

Masuji reminisces about his wonderful days in the pleasure district, the convivial atmosphere of those times, an environment which also served as a perfect backdrop to train his own protégés, notably the talented Kuroda.

But then at the height of his career, unwilling to devote his art solely to the celebration of physical beauty, Masuji makes a life changing decision of putting his work in the service of the imperialist movement that leads Japan into the Second World War.

“Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light.  It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world.  My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.”

Masuji is forced to confront the fact that his war efforts do not carry any weight in the present. Some of his contemporaries, in a similar position, have chosen to atone for their sins by claiming their own lives. The younger generation’s attitude towards Masuji is revealed to us through his interactions with his son-in-law Suichi (Setsuko’s husband), a man who thinks that Japan’s participation in the war was sheer waste, and who believes in implementing the American ideals of democracy.

For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions.

This brings us to the nuances of Masuji’s character itself. Set between October 1948 and November 1949, the narrative is in the first person, it is Masuji who is telling us his story. In a meandering style laced with anecdotes, a mature Masuji takes a trip down memory lane that offers him both escape and redemption – his years as a student training for his craft, his formative years as an artist, his growing talent up until the war, to his present family life, and how he is beset by guilt, as he grapples with the consequences of his past actions. Masuji also dwells on his relationship with his disciples, particularly Kuroda – how that dynamic transforms from one of mutual admiration and respect to a point where Kuroda severs all ties with Masuji.

To the reader, the details of Masuji’s disgrace are only provided towards the end, so for the most part we are left wondering as to the exact nature of his downfall. Was Masuji involved in committing graver war crimes? Or were his actions, on closer inspection, not so bad and worth forgiving now? 

For his part, Masuji acknowledges his mistakes and is ready to assume full responsibility for them. In an extraordinary set-piece, which involves a formal meeting of him and Noriko with her prospective match – Taro and his parents – Masuji vocally apologizes for his role pre-war. To the reader, Masuji is a layered and complex creation evoking both sympathy for his present fate as well as some degree of unease and dread for his past dealings.

Ishiguro’s writing as ever is elegant, understated and restrained. There is a quietness and precision to his prose that is strangely alluring and pulls the reader into Masuji’s orbit. In many ways, Masuji is an unreliable narrator, for he alludes to how various conversations in his recollections may not have happened exactly the way he has put them forth, but which he justifies by saying that given the circumstances it could not have been much different.

An Artist of the Floating World, then, is also a depiction of Japan’s political landscape, how it transitioned from Imperialism to democracy and how a man having witnessed both the worlds is forced to alter his perceptions and viewpoints. At the very best, we can’t really change the past, but even if we venture to make amends for our wrongs, it can be construed as a step, however miniscule, towards progress.

A Month of Reading – March 2021

These are the books I read in March, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature and travel. All were excellent, but my favourites were the Kazuo Ishiguro and Ida Jessen.

I have already reviewed some of them, you can access them by clicking on the links. I plan to put up detailed reviews for the rest over the coming days. Meanwhile, here’s a brief write-up for each book.

THE FACES – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally)

The Faces is about a woman’s journey through mental illness and recovery, unique for its striking language and poetry in prose – all hallmarks of Ditlevsen’s writing. In The Faces, our protagonist Lise is a famous author of children’s books, although she hasn’t penned anything in the last two years. In her personal life too, Lise is on the edge. Her current husband, Gert, has been consistently unfaithful to her. Their housekeeper, Gitte, is a toxic influence on the family – she is sleeping with Gert as well as Lise’s elder son. Finding her home environment increasingly unbearable and claustrophobic, Lise overdoses on her pills and it’s her subsequent stay in the psychiatric hospital that forms a substantial chunk of the novel. Ditlevsen essentially offers a glimpse into the lived experience of mental illness, the inability to separate reality from illusion. By sleight of hand, she recreates the experience of madness from the inside, letting us explore the shifting contours of Lise’s mind and her unreliable perception of the world around her.

THE KRULL HOUSE – Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

The Krull House is an excellent, prescient and suspenseful tale of how close-knit communities harbor feelings of mistrust towards outsiders, how they are excluded because their perceived foreignness make them objects of suspicion and resentment. The Krull family is German and lives on the fringes of a rural town in France, mostly shunned by the town residents. Their hermetic existence, though, is rattled when cousin Hans comes to live with them. Hans is a typical German Krull – brash, insouciant and carefree, whereas the French Krulls are anything but – their manner is quiet and restrained. Things come to a boil when the body of a woman is seen floating on the canal one morning. And the Krull family, unwillingly, finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom that threatens to erupt into violence. The novel, then, is a powerful, unsettling exploration of how unfairly society judges outsiders, and how they become dead ducks when something goes wrong. Although this book was penned in the late 1930s, its themes remain relevant even today.

TWELVE NIGHTS – Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

Set in the Black Forest in the deeps of winter, Twelve Nights is a wonderfully atmospheric novella of family, love, guilt, reconciliation and redemption. The book opens with our protagonist, Manfred, traversing a snowy landscape on foot, making his way to his family home, a place he has not visited in the last forty odd years on account of a crippling family feud. The sole occupant of the house now is his younger brother, Sebastian, a recluse hardly ever seen by the people in the village. Manfred learns of the aura of bad luck surrounding Sebastian – the farm is falling apart and his wife Minna is long dead. A story rooted in folklore, tradition, and superstitions, Manfred reflects on his mother, on the bond he shared with Sebastian and more importantly on Minna, the love of his life, who he thought he was destined to marry. Twelve Nights, then, is lush with writing that is poetic, spare, and haunting. It’s a novella replete with dreamy prose and vivid imagery and packs a slew of weightier themes in a miniscule package.

VENICE, AN INTERIOR – Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)         

Venice is a picture postcard city, a magnet for tourists all over the world who descend on it in hordes every year. It’s a place that has enthralled and transfixed many a traveller. It certainly occupied a special place in the heart of the Spanish author Javier Marías who between December 1984 and October 1989 flew to Venice fourteen times. At barely 55 pages, Venice, An Interior is the author’s own fascinating perspective on what makes this city so unique. There are pieces describing the people of Venice. And he puts forth his ideas on how Venice is an unchanging city, a city of contradictions, and how every area of the city is unmistakably Venice, while also displaying its own distinctive features.

THE MERMAID OF BLACK CONCH – Monique Roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a lovely, bittersweet, fable-like story with a mermaid at its centre, encompassing weighty themes of womanhood, desire, slavery, animal rights, and our attitude towards outsiders. The tale is set in April 1976 in St Constance, a tiny village on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. Our protagonist is Aycayia, a beautiful young woman who has been cursed by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid and she has been swimming in the Black Conch waters for many centuries now. She is rescued by a black fisherman David, and begins her transformation back into a woman. But given that certain inhabitants on the island bear her ill will, will this fairy-tale like story have a happy ending? Despite some amount of melodrama in the final pages (the bad guys chasing the good guys in a Hindi movie potboiler kind of way), The Mermaid of Black Conch is a story with a big heart, a beautiful, seamless amalgam of the mythical with the real, and a novel where Roffey pushes the boundaries.

AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World is an unusual, wonderfully accomplished novel of a man looking back on his life and wondering if it was all worth it. It also takes a look at Japan’s widening generation gap and how individuals aiding efforts during World War II are shunned by subsequent generations who are more liberal and value progress, peace and prosperity. Masuji Ono is a talented artist who enjoyed his fair share of renown for the art he produced in his heydays, before the Second World War. But we are made aware of something unsavoury in Masuji’s past, something that has made him a social pariah in the aftermath of the war. Set between October 1948 and November 1949, in a meandering style laced with anecdotes, a mature Masuji takes a trip down memory lane that offers him both escape and redemption. Ishiguro’s writing as ever is elegant, understated and restrained. There is a quietness and precision to his prose that is strangely alluring and pulls the reader into Masuji’s orbit.

A CHANGE OF TIME – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and find meaning in life again. It is an exquisitely written novel, and I plan to write a separate review of it in the coming days.

All in all, some good reading done in March. I have started April with Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. I am halfway through and it’s been very impressive so far. I have also begun Ross Macdonald’s The Chill, the eleventh book in the Lew Archer series, and it’s addictive and interesting as always.