These are the books I read in May, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, golden age crime, and 20th century women’s literature. All were very good, but my favourites were the Barbara Comyns, Jhumpa Lahiri and Muriel Spark. Here is a brief look at the books…
IF YOU KEPT A RECORD OF SINS – Andrea Bajani (tr. Elizabeth Harris)
When as a young boy, Lorenzo’s mother abandons him and his stepfather and relocates to Bucharest (Romania) to make the most of a career opportunity there, Lorenzo is left feeling unmoored. Having completely lost contact with her since then, Lorenzo is a young adult now, and travels to Bucharest for the first time to attend his mother’s funeral. Through a series of conversations with the people there who were close to his mom, he gleans information on the tragic fate she suffered – despite all the promise in the beginning, the last few years of her life were spent in squalor, and her business partner-cum-lover ditches her for a younger woman. In a second person narrative (the ‘you’ is his dead mother) and taking the reader through a series of flashbacks, Bajani throws light on the themes of grief, loss, a fractured mother-son bond, and a portrayal of Romania emerging from the shadows of a dictator. Tenderly written, the book aches intensely with loneliness, and is a tale of a son trying to understand a mother who was largely absent in his life.
WHEREABOUTS – Jhumpa Lahiri
In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.
THE HOUSE ON THE STRAND – Daphne du Maurier
When the narrator Richard Young, at a crossroads in his life, begins consuming an experimental psychedelic drug, he is transported back in time to the 14th century. Mesmerized by what he sees, his addiction to the drug dangerously mounts putting in peril his marriage and family. The House on the Strand is an excellent, absorbing tale of a man literally caught between two worlds where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the narrator.
SYMPOSIUM – Muriel Spark
The beauty of Muriel Spark’s books lies in the fact they when you pick one up, you are never quite sure where it’s going to take you. The focal point in Symposium is a dinner hosted by the elegant couple Chris Donovan (a sophisticated, wealthy woman) and her partner Hurley Reed (a painter). With a guest list that comprises eight interesting people, various layers of their personalities and circumstances are revealed to us gradually through expertly woven flashbacks. Throw in a series of unexplained deaths, an active burglary ring, and a convent of Marxist nuns who believe in Lenin more than in God, and you have all the ingredients for a typical ‘Spark’ian fare. This cleverly told tale with its pitch perfect character sketches packs quite a punch, and is a wonderful reminder of how Spark whets the reader’s appetite for the unexpected.
A POCKET FULL OF RYE & A BODY IN THE LIBRARY – Agatha Christie
Two excellent books featuring her wonderful creation Miss Marple. In A Pocket Full of Rye, when a wealthy man is found dead with grain in his pocket, the focus shifts to the famous nursery rhyme, and a sumptously described afternoon tea. In The Body in the Library, Miss Marple is summoned by her good friends Colonel and Mrs Bantry when they wake up one morning and discover a body in their library, of a person they have never seen before. In both these mysteries, Miss Marple displays a flair for making astute observations on human nature drawing on parallels from village life.
MR FOX – Barbara Comyns
Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny. When Caroline is unable to find a way out of her predicament and is left with no choice, she moves in with the dubious schemer Mr Fox for financial support. One of the most unique features of this novel is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life. Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.