Notes from Childhood – Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.

These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. Our narrator’s big family comprises her parents, elder sisters (Irene, Marta, Georgina), and younger siblings (Susana and Eduardo).

Flickering and joyous, broken by only a single night, the first journey we made from Buenos Aires to Mendoza emerges from my memory like a landscape recovered through a misted pane of glass.

As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.

She begins by describing the “three windows that looked into her childhood” – her father’s study with its imposing furniture upholstered in leather, a very formal place Norah could visit only occasionally; her mother’s sewing room, which was inviting and emanated warmth as the sewing baskets overflowed with ribbons and lace, a place where her children could unburden themselves; her eldest sister Irene’s room as she regaled them with tales of kidnappings, of elopements, and how she would one day run away from home.

Our narrator then dwells on her sisters and their personalities – the brooding and intense Marta, whose peeled hands “looked like the pages of a well-loved book whose edges curl backward.” There’s Georgina with her immaculate, poised figure, always ready to help with anything and the apple of their mother’s eye. Then there’s Susana, younger but closer to Norah in age, so that they bond better coupled with the fact that both have flaming red hair.  

Shards of surrealism, seen through the prism of a child’s vivid imagination, pierce these scenes. For instance, one such piece conveys how Norah always tried to slip into the faces of people she observed.

At the age of six, whenever I noticed a pronounced curve in the nose of any of the important men who filed through my house, I would laugh. Then I would slide into their faces, positioning my body inside to adjust to their silhouette.

Another touching snippet showcases the tragic death of her father’s horse and the deep impression it leaves on young Norah’s mind. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the horse could not adapt to its old age and was sidelined for a younger one.

He died of jealousy. That’s how I understood it, and that’s what I wish to keep on believing forever.

Of course, any family life is punctuated by its fair share of highs and lows, so while the birth of their youngest sister Esthercita brings immense joy to the family, the father’s death leaves them feeling adrift as they venture into an uncertain, unknowable future.

Occasionally news from the outside world penetrates the fabric of their domestic life. Even though Buenos Aires is physically and figuratively far away from Europe, the hotbed of strife during the First World War, snatches of it reaches the ears of the sisters inducing feelings of dread.

…the events of the First World War were for us a hazy, distant reality, and once settled in Buenos Aires we were so cut off from all that went on in the world that we ended up forgetting it entirely.

One afternoon, rumors flew through the neighborhood that the Germans were winning. Terrified, and convinced that their victory would mean any number of humiliations, that we would be forced to marry them and to speak their language, we decided to barricade ourselves in the house.

Our narrator, meanwhile, as a child is beset with fears and obsessions (“At one time, it occurred to me to make a list of my obsessions, to contemplate them coldly and perhaps try to free myself of one”). Her role is akin to that of a voyeur, as she observes her sisters and acquaintances surreptitiously, often hidden from full view – she snoops on Marta bathing naked in the moonlight, she peeks into a room where Irene is breastfeeding their younger brother, she yearns to spy on her French teacher’s daughter through a crack in the door so that she can see the latter faint during a dress fitting.

There is joy to be found in simple pleasures – an outing to the cinema (“a room filled with a thick and mysterious darkness we sensed would be unlike any other we’d known”) stimulates feelings of intense excitement and wonder; the crowning glory of those perfect Saturday nights is exemplified by hot baths at dusk complete with lit stoves in the bedrooms, warm towels and nightgowns; while Christmas conjures up glowing images of “huge parcels, that late, keen ritual, that poignant and slightly dreamy midnight…”

I loved to contemplate even more from the next day, in the tangible truth of the gifts that were proofs of its fleeting, mysterious, tender reality.

But this microcosm of a happy family is shattered when the father dies, plunging his wife and children into hardships and poverty, their misery amplified when they are compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice – sell their piano.

Together, we all had sensed that the worse was to come, since though we’d suspected it many times, the sale of the piano was something we didn’t dare countenance for even an instant. The side table, the enormous mirror in the drawing room, and nearly all the furniture we brought from Mendoza had already gone, but giving up the piano represented a decisive, unmistakable poverty.

Our narrator is no stranger to poverty having glimpsed this condition early on in the book when a man approaches her father for a safety pin to fasten his shirt so that he can properly mourn the death of his wife – “I believe no case of poverty has touched me so much since then.”

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.

In her afterward, translator Charlotte Whittle talks about how Lange was inspired by collage artwork  – characterized by varied images stuck together to produce one vibrant piece of art – while composing this memoir. An indication of this is given earlier on in the novel where our narrator entertained herself with her favourite pastime that involved “clipping words from local and foreign papers, arranging them into little piles.”

Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he. If Herself will excuse my language.

Elena is now entirely dependent on Levodopa, a drug routinely given to increase dopamine, a critical chemical in the body, a messenger of sorts that carries signals from the brain to the limbs.

And he said, an illness of the central nervous system that degrades, or mutates, or changes, or modifies the nerve cells in such a way that they stop producing dopamine. And then Elena learned that when her brain orders the feet to move, for example, the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further.

But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and pushes the inspector to do more, to interview potential suspects so that the true facts of Rita’s death can come to light. Because there is one aspect of her daughter’s personality that Elena knows could not have caused Rita to voluntarily visit this local place of worship. So terrified was Rita of being struck by lightning that she always chose to stay away from the church in stormy weather. And it was raining on that fateful day. That explains Elena’s conviction that Rita could not have possibly entered the bell tower (“it’s the town lightning rod”) of her own accord, someone clearly dragged her there and killed her.

The local police indulge her by meeting her regularly but don’t really take her seriously. Elena finds no solace in religion either especially since the priest insists that she put the matter to rest and move on.

When it dawns on her that there is now only one avenue left, Elena braces herself to locate Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but had lost touch since then. Elena’s mission is simple – she is hoping that by calling in an old debt, she gets the help required in catching Rita’s murderer. But given Elena’s illness, finding Isabel is a challenge akin to climbing a steep mountain. She would have to walk a few blocks to the station, ride the train, and after that either walk or taxi to Isabel’s home, hoping against hope that Isabel hasn’t relocated in all that time. It’s a game of chance; yet, Elena is resolved and feels herself equal to the task. Hence, she patiently waits for the clock to strike ten so that she can consume her next pill of the day giving her the fillip to embark on her arduous journey.

That’s the central premise of the story and I don’t want to reveal anything more. But as the novel progresses we are given a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between Elena and Rita, more colour on Rita’s belligerent personality and the crucial encounter between Rita and Isabel twenty years ago, an incident whose repercussions Elena will be compelled to deal with now. The chapters alternate between the present where Elena sets off on her journey, and the past which shines a light on the life she shared with Rita.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease, a hard-edged look at the daily struggles of performing commonplace activities, and the loss of dignity that it involves. Among many things, the illness completely alters Elena’s perception of time, which is now not governed by the clock but pills that she has to take at hourly intervals. Once the effects of the pill wear off, Elena can’t move till she takes her next dose. Her neck perpetually droops and restricts her gaze to a certain height, and her mouth is always dribbling.  She understandably resents being helpless but is painfully aware that she has no choice. And yet, does she still have the will to live on despite her failing body?

Then there is Rita, her daughter, a dominant force in the book, even if she is now dead. Elena and Rita share a love-hate relationship. Given that both women are headstrong, fights are a regular feature when they are together, frequently hurling cruel words at each other.

They repeated the same routine everyday. The walk, the whip cracks, the distance, and finally the silence. The words changed, the reasons behind the fights were different, but the cadence, the tone, the routine, never varied…

As Elena’s disease progresses, the burden of caring for her falls on Rita, who fights through her teeth to ensure health insurance covers her mother’s mounting medical bills. This aspect of the novel brings two critical problems to the fore – the challenges of caregiving and the tediousness of having to deal with seemingly insurmountable red tape. Both these issues highlight how lack of requisite support, both practical and emotional, can make it hard for the caregiver to cope, paving the way for anxiety and depression.

Piñeiro’s bio mentions that she is an active figure in the fight for legalization of abortion in Argentina, so it’s not surprising that she also addresses this topic head-on in the novel, how every woman has the right to make her own choice regarding her body and she employs Rita’s actions as a vehicle to explore this point. As readers are made privy to a slew of Rita’s eccentricities, we are told how she avoids walking past the midwife Olga’s house and always crosses the pavement when she approaches her place. Olga also performs abortions, a fact that Rita finds hard to digest. Rita is a woman driven by her own convictions with not much respect for other people’s choices. She has fixed ideas on moral code and behaviour and an unwelcome aggressiveness in pushing her views on others. 

Roberto and Rita were united by their convictions more than anything else, that way they both had of stating the most broad, arbitrary, clichéd notions as absolute truths. Convictions about how another person should experience something they themselves had never experienced, how people should walk through life along the roads they’d walked down and the ones they hadn’t, issuing decrees about what should and shouldn’t be done.

Ultimately, both Elena and Rita are flawed, unlikeable characters (Rita, I thought, was even worse, particularly for being a busybody), but it’s hard not to feel sorry for their plight accentuated by the difficulties of Elena’s illness. As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Elena is forced to confront some hard truths and a possibly growing realization that her earlier opinions about many things might not hold much water. Can she bring herself to accept that at her age?

In a nutshell, Elena Knows is a riveting, tightly constructed novel that turns the crime genre on its head by providing social commentary on pressing issues that remain relevant even today. That she manages to do so by not being too preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.   

An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

A Month of Reading – July 2021

I have been very, very late in putting up my July reading post for various reasons. It was not a great month in terms of quantity of books read, I barely managed three. But that’s also because I was occupied by family stuff which affected my concentration quite a bit. However, all the three books were great, so definitely a good month quality-wise. Without further ado, here is a look at the books…

THE PROMISE – Damon Galgut

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I hope the book goes on to win the Booker Prize.

THREE SUMMERS – Margerita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.

First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”

Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us – the sexually bold Maria, the beautiful and distant Infanta, the imaginative and rebellious Katerina, also the narrator of the story.

Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.

THE LIGHT YEARS (VOL. 1 OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES) – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Light Years is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in England just a few months before the advent of the Second World War. It is a novel teeming with characters providing a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family over a course of two summers spent in the Sussex countryside.

William Cazalet and his wife Kitty (known as Duchy to their children and grandchildren) own a country estate in Sussex called Home Place where their unmarried daughter, as well as their three sons and respective families gather every summer to spend the holidays. Their eldest son Hugh had fought and been wounded in the First World War and the scars of that traumatic experience haven’t entirely healed. His wife Sybil is expecting their third child – the first two offspring are Polly and Simon, both in their teens. Hugh and Sybil love each other and have a successful marriage although there is a sense that both in their desire to please the other don’t really express their true feelings.

The middle son Edward, handsome and insouciant, is married to Viola (Villy) and the couple has three children – Louise, Teddy and Lydia (Louise and Teddy are close in age to Polly and Simon). Prior to her marriage, Villy was a dancer with a Russian ballet company but gives up her dancing career once she marries Edward. With not much to occupy her mind, Villy is beset with a feeling of emptiness and existential angst. Edward, meanwhile, continues to have extra-marital affairs of which Villy remains in the dark.

The youngest son Rupert is a painter compelled to hold a regular teaching job to support his family. Rupert has two children – Clary (in the same age group as Louise and Polly) and Neville. With the death of his first wife Isobel when Neville is born, Rupert subsequently remarries. When the book opens, Rupert has only recently wed Zoe who is much younger to him. Rupert and Zoe behave like a young couple in love but Zoe enjoys the finer things in life and is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way. Rupert is always on the edge trying to please her. To complicate matters, Zoe does not care for motherhood and has a fraught relationship with Clary. Rupert, meanwhile, laments at not having his space to paint…his day job and family affairs take up most of his time not leaving any room to pursue his vocation and passion.

Along with their father, Hugh and Edward are heavily involved in the family business (a company selling timber), Rupert is not yet part of it. Financially, Hugh and Edward are comparatively well-off, while Rupert struggles to meet expenses, particularly, Zoe’s extravagant tastes.

Then there’s Rachel Cazalet, the only sister among the three brothers, and unmarried. Rachel is in love with her woman friend Sid. But while both the women are crazy about each other, their backgrounds and personas throw up many obstacles. Rachel is deeply devoted to her family often thwarting her chance of happiness with Sid. And Sid, whose origins are humble, refuses to accept any favours from Rachel and her family out of pride.

The children, meanwhile, are absorbed in their own world, made up of picnics, games, friendship, fears, anxieties, and trying to get a grip on the bewildering realm of adults.

At more than 500 pages, Elizabeth Jane Howard, has ample scope to let the characters breathe and develop at a languid pace with the result that each of them has a distinctive personality. Also, to make things easier, the beginning of the book displays the Cazalet family tree as well as a list of the primary characters.

Reading The Light Years was an immersive experience – it’s an evocative read with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Composed entirely of a wide range of set-pieces, it’s like opening a photograph album that provides a glimpse into its vast array of people and their unique, complex stories. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature.

Observing the Cazalets enjoying their annual summer holiday is akin to settling in with them for a nice, comfort read. The sumptuous country meals are tastefully described and I came across food items I had not heard of before – Charlotte Russe cake and angels on horseback, particularly, come to mind.

But despite the convivial holiday atmosphere, the threat of disruption and their lives being upended hangs like a Damocles Sword over the Cazalets. The novel is set in 1937 when Hitler had started capturing territories but Britain was not sure whether the political environment then could escalate into a full-blown war. Of course, as readers we know otherwise, but the Cazalet family remains on the edge and gripped by mounting uncertainty especially in the second half of the novel. Against this broader landscape, what makes this novel so interesting is the rich, layered interior lives of the family members, many of whom are either battling their own demons or have dark secrets to hide…all of this is gradually revealed to the reader as the novel progresses.

In a nutshell, with its domestic themes and a cast of fully realized characters, The Light Years is a brilliant read, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Can’t wait to begin the second installment of the series – Marking Time.

That’s it for July. August is Women in Translation Month and I am currently in the midst of reading A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo and An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, both excellent so far.

My Phantoms – Gwendoline Riley

A few years ago, I was very impressed with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a book that received accolades and featured on many prize lists. Hence, I was quite keen to read her latest offering My Phantoms especially after all the rave reviews it has been garnering.

Family can be so complicated. This certainly holds true in My Phantoms, a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship.

Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.

The book begins with Bridget’s recollections of her childhood and those traumatic “access” visits with their father that she and her sister Michelle could not avoid. Since Helen Grant had divorced Lee, the girls were legally mandated to spend Sundays with their father, a prospect that filled them with dread.

Riley’s evocation of the father’s self-centred personality is brilliant – he’s a man Bridget did not really think of as a person but more as a phenomenon.

I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really. He was more just this – phenomenon. A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energized bother, in short. And yes, legally mandated.

While the bulk of the book dwells on Bridget’s musings on her mother, trying to fathom the motives and thinking behind her behaviour, Bridget states how she felt no such desire to quiz her father. Her reason – he simply wasn’t an enigma like her mother. In Bridget’s words – “His nature had to generate satisfaction for itself. That was it. Getting one over. Being an exceptional case. There was nothing else. With him the difficulty came in dealing with that relentless uniformity of purpose.”

That uniformity of purpose finds various outlets, but one particularly memorable one is when Lee makes all that fuss around Bridget reading Chekhov’s Five Plays where he goes on and on about how she’s into posh Russian books. There is one specific monologue of his that is pretty incredulous and weirdly funny and leaves young Bridget speechless…

“You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,” he said.

“Because it’s not the original language,” he explained. “It could be anything.”

“Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,” he said.

“What you’re reading could be anything,” he said, again.

But My Phantoms essentially revolves around Helen Grant, Bridget’s mother. It is never explicitly stated whether there were any specific incidents in her childhood that harboured feelings of resentment or fuelled the toxic relationship between Helen and Bridget. But from the outset it is clear that their exchanges have all the makings of a performance and not always genuine.

Helen Grant is portrayed as a woman insecure on many fronts and unable to really open up. She prefers conversations that follow a certain course for her to be in a comfort zone, otherwise she gets flustered and clams up. Helen is an independent woman though. Having held a job for most of her adult life (despite hating it), she lives on a good pension and has enough funds to have a flat she can call her own (first in Liverpool, then in Manchester) and live life on her own terms.

However, what she lacks is good company. With two divorces behind her, Helen has clearly been unlucky in love. On one hand she is extroverted, attending all possible openings, concerts, jazz festivals, book readings and even engaging in volunteer work, on the other hand she hardly has any real friends to speak of or a thriving social life.

Substantial sections of the book shine the spotlight on the stilted conversations between Helen and Bridget. Although they are not always in touch, Helen makes it a point to visit London on her birthday and spend an evening with her daughter. Their conversation is often fraught with silences and the pressure to conform to a script, leaving no room for genuine communication, warmth or even unburdening oneself.

For the most part I found myself sympathizing with Bridget. Being in a situation where she has to continuously rack her brains to get their conversations going can be exhausting and frustrating. For instance, when Bridget gifts Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Helen on her birthday, she does so with the hope that they have much to talk about when they meet next, based on her own rewarding experience of the discussions she has had with her friends on those books. But that gesture reaches a dead end when Helen confesses to being muddled with the primary characters’ names.

But Bridget has her faults too. Although from Bridget’s point of view, Helen is not the ideal mother, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and is prone to making cruel remarks and coming across as quite unsympathetic. For instance, she comments on how Helen’s had two awful husbands and should not be aiming to get married again. She is uncomfortable about introducing Helen to her partner John however much Helen insists. And when Helen is ill, it is her sister Michelle who does much of the heavy lifting and running around. Bridget also leaves no stone unturned in making Helen aware of the meaninglessness of her existence – how despite engaging in so many activities and social outings, she remains essentially empty. There is one poignant moment when Helen’s defences are down, and in a rare display of vulnerability it seems that she might finally confide and express her true feelings. Bridget certainly thinks so but realizes that she has no inkling of how to deal with it or help her mother.

And again I saw that I’d got it very wrong. That it was a mean trick, suddenly to be so rational and practical in the face of her distress. It was as if I’d delicately pulled on a pair of butler’s gloves. Or passed the whole thing on to a different department.

Bridget’s tirade against her parents for judging themselves in the light of what “other people” think and say also hits closer home. While these “other people” are more often than not nebulous beings, she uses it as a medium to explore one fundamental difference between her mother and father…

I wanted to say, What bloody people? But that would have been cruel, wouldn’t it? So she had me there.

It did strike me, though, that at least those spectral associates my father raised didn’t persecute him. They were a supporting cast: a wise counsel or a happy coterie, rushing in to fill coveted positions in his court. Leave it to my poor mother to have these awful tormenting busybodies as her imaginary fellows.

Obviously, the core theme of My Phantoms is the difficulties of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. There are many facets of Helen’s personality that Bridget finds trying and yet Helen remains an integral part of her life, Bridget cannot completely cut her off. But the novel is also fascinating for the many things left unsaid, giving the reader much to think about. Bridget is haunted by her mother’s unyielding persona, but does Michelle feel the same? We know that siblings growing up in the same environment can be affected by things differently. Is Michelle tormented by her parents’ personalities to the same degree as Bridget?

Gwendoline Riley has a way with words and language that is striking. For instance, here’s how she describes Lee Grant…

And so Lee Grant strode untroubled through his subjected realm, where he was, variously, the kindly king and the swashbuckling bandit, the seen-it-all sage and the rude clown, the tender-hearted swain and the blue-eyed boy, and on and on…Exceptional cases, every one.

And here’s another snippet when Helen announces her decision to travel the world…

In order to live, in order to be Hen Grant, she had to step out of a tangle of very mouldy old rope. She had to go forth, announcingly. Relentlessly and internationally.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds and does so with much aplomb.