The Victorian Chaise-longue – Marghanita Laski

Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue is a chilling, unsettling tale of time travel, a kind of psychological drama cum horror story where a woman wakes up to find that she has been transported back to an earlier century. It’s a fascinating novella because Laski plays with the reader’s mind without providing the comfort of a neat resolution, but the mood and tone captured makes it a compelling, frightening read.

Note on the postcard: Fife Terrace, Islington, the setting for The Victorian Chaise-longue (1953). Especially commissioned painting by David Gentleman for Persephone Books.

When the book opens, we are in the 1960s and our protagonist is Melanie, who was recently afflicted by tuberculosis and is limping back to recovery. Atleast we are given to believe so, as evinced from Melanie’s opening lines (“Will you give me your word of honour that I am not going to die?”), a question to which Dr Gregory gives his assurance that she is on the mend.

Melanie is happily married to Guy, a successful lawyer and the couple resides in London in a house by the canal. They have just become parents for the first time. But Melanie’s illness has kept her away from her baby and from experiencing the joys of motherhood and she longs to be united with her child.

Meanwhile, both Guy and Dr Gregory agree that a trip to a brighter clime filled with fresh air and sunshine, notably Switzerland, will do Melanie a world of good. Note that the men make the decisions for Melanie, her views on the matter are not sought. But before embarking on that journey, the doctor recommends that she find a sunny, cheery spot in her home first as a refreshing change of scene, particularly since Melanie has been cloistered in her bedroom for far too long.

It’s around that time that the three spot the Victorian chaise-longue.

It was ugly and clumsy and extraordinary, nearly seven foot long and proportionately wide. The head and foot ends of the seat curled round a little as though to meet each other, raising, above the elaborately carved legs and frame, a superstructure of wine-red crimson felt.

Its Regency ancestor had probably been delicate and enchanting; this descendent was gross, and would certainly have been inadmissible in such a home as Guy’s and Melanie’s were it not for the singular startling quality of the berlin-wool cross-stitch embroidery that sprawled in bright gigantic roses over the shabby felt…

A piece of ungainly furniture that Melanie had purchased at an antique shop at Marylebone, this item is now arranged facing the windows in the drawing-room for Melanie to lounge and relax. And she does so, the languor of the afternoon slowly lulling her into sleep.

Through the open windows the spring poured in. From her couch, bathed in soft sweet air, Melanie could not see the canal that lay beside her home, but it flowed through imagination, dark and still and beautiful…from one of the brambles, a branch curved high and free to lie across the blue sky in the window, dark leaves and paper-pink flowers suffused with sunlight faintly swaying across the pale blue sky. Drowsy, Melanie looked at the flowers and the sky…

Time died away, the solitary burden of human life was transformed in glory, and Melanie withdrawn in ecstasy, fell asleep.

And it is then that her nightmare begins. When Melanie wakes up, she is in for a rude shock. There is something not quite right about her surroundings, the room is dull and dark. She spots a woman called Adelaide and a maid called Lizzie loitering in there. And to her immense horror, Melanie gradually realizes that she has woken up in the year 1864 in the persona of Milly Baines.

For an instant, forever, Melanie was bound in timeless fear. Her eyes were forced open, rigid and unblinking, her mouth hung open, the rigid lips stretched in a terrible grin, all her being was rigid with unimaginable terror. For she knew that this was true.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I will not reveal more. But as the book progresses, Melanie’s sense of terror and confusion increases as she struggles to find a way out of her predicament. She’s aware, though, that the one object common to the two time periods is the Victorian-chaise longue.

Some of the key themes explored in this novella are entrapment, isolation, confusion of identity, and the bending of time.

Melanie finds herself trapped by circumstances beyond her control and her attempts to explain and make herself understood are not taken seriously. Indeed, in many ways, when lying on it, the chaise-longue unflatteringly symbolizes a helpless woman at the mercy of those around her. For some reason, I was reminded of Betty Draper in Season One of Mad Men, lying on the psychotherapist’s couch, vulnerable while confessing to a man of dubious morals. No control at all over her circumstances.  

Melanie is also increasingly isolated not just in the present, but also in the past. Her illness in the present confines her to a bedroom with no option of human interaction. And in the past, consumption has rendered her so weak that she’s nearly an invalid chained to the chaise-longue. There’s no prospect of human contact in that period either other than Adelaide, who is Milly’s sister and quite a cold woman.

But most importantly, Melanie experiences a loss of identity, her sense of self is blurred. Is she Melanie trapped in Milly’s body? Melanie knows the mind is hers, but who does the body belong to? Or is she really Milly Baines where her future (Melanie’s present) is only a vision? It’s possible that Milly is Melanie’s alter ego, after all there are some similarities in their circumstances and personalities – they are restricted by illness, bound and chained, the expression of their thoughts curtailed.

Has Melanie really lost all sense of time? Is it all a horrible dream, a nightmare and it’s only a matter of time before sanity is restored and she finally finds herself where she belongs? Or is she slowly descending into madness?

Somewhere along the way, a passionate affair is hinted at, there’s a sense that Milly was engaged in inappropriate behaviour but the details remain hazy. But it definitely makes Melanie ponder on the concept of sin and how it changes as time moves on.

We seem to be together now, she (Melanie) explained, you and I both hopeless. I think we did the same things, she told her, we loved a man and we flirted and we took little drinks, but when I did those things there was nothing wrong, and for you it was a terrible punishable sin. It was no sin for Melanie, she explained carefully, because the customs were different; sin changes, you know, like fashion.

In a nutshell, cranking the fear factor up a notch and evoking a creeping sense of dread, The Victorian Chaise-longue, then, is an excellent novella where Laski has effectively employed the time travel angle to showcase a well-crafted tale of psychological horror. It’s one of those stories that throws up more questions than answers, which is always a good thing.

As an aside, this is the second time travel story I’ve read this year, the first being Daphne du Maurier’s excellent The House on the Strand.

A Month of Reading – September 2021

I am very late in publishing this post, I had written it a while back but strangely forgot to put it up. But better late than never especially since September was such an excellent month of reading. I really enjoyed all the eight books I read that month, and I am also glad that I could read that many, because October in terms of the number of books read has been quite poor so far for many reasons. Interestingly, out of the five books in translation, four turned out to be French. Anyway, if I had to pick up favourites they would be the Fosse, Levy, Bennett and Ernaux.

You can take a look at my full length reviews for each of them by clicking on the titles. So, without further ado, here are the books…

CHECKOUT 19 by Claire-Louise Bennett

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality. Ultimately, this is a wonderful book about books.

HAPPENING by Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it.

Rewind to 1963 in Rouen and Ernaux is a young woman of twenty three, studying at a university and not in any serious relationship.  She has missed her periods for a week and a visit to her gynecologist Dr N confirms her worst fears – she is pregnant. Ernaux is very sure she does not want to keep the child. But at a time when abortion is not legalized in France, Ernaux’s options are limited. She has to find a backstreet abortionist and keep the whole affair shrouded in secret, confiding in her parents is certainly not an option.

The rest of this novella, then, charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion.

Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and not mincing on details. This was my first book by Annie Ernaux and it won’t be my last.

REAL ESTATE by Deborah Levy

Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy, the third and final volume of her triumphant “Living Autobiography’ series, a book that explores the idea of having a home, a place of our own that defines our personality.

When Real Estate begins, Levy once again finds herself at crossroads – she is approaching sixty, her youngest daughter has just turned eighteen about to leave home and begin a new chapter in her life. With her children having flown the nest, Levy is now yearning for a house, a place she can truly call her own.

A quest that fires up her imagination, her real estate fantasies come in various striking avatars. Maybe a grand old house with an egg shaped fireplace and a pomegranate tree in the garden. At times, she dreams that this property is well endowed with fountains, wells and majestic stairways, at other times she longs for it to be close to either a river or the sea.

The hunt for this property or ‘unreal estate’ as she puts it becomes the prism through which Levy examines various facets of her life, friends and family who form an integral part of it, her career and ambitions, and what the concept of a home means to her.

A wandering meditation on relationships, friendships, womanhood, art and writing, Deborah Levy is uniquely perceptive with a flair for digressions that can take you down unexpected paths. Intelligent and deeply personal, Real Estate, then, is an astonishing piece of work, a fitting end to her ‘Living Autobiography’ trilogy.

I IS ANOTHER by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship and picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. Thus, as a new day dawns, and despite how exhausted he is, Asle is all set to make yet another trip to Bjorgvin to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery and while there also check up on his namesake who is in the hospital in a terrible state.

This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales. This flurry of flashbacks filter through his mind’s eye, when Asle drives to Bjorgvin in icy, cold weather, the snowflakes falling in heaps and bounds on the windshield of his car, and later when he is lying on the bench at home or staring out to the sea.

Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative thsat is utterly unique. The book is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE-d’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading. 

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

On that particular autumn afternoon, as the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. 

Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

INVISIBLE INK by Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

This is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill.

Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

WINTER FLOWERS by Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

Winter Flowers is a poignant, sensitively written tale on the devastating consequences of war and myriad forms of loss left in its wake.

Set during the closing stages of the First World War, the novel charts the story of Toussaint Caillet, his wife Jeanne and their young daughter Léo who Toussaint hasn’t seen growing up. While Toussaint, like all men mobilized for the war, is away on the frontlines, Jeanne, like all women, is home managing day to day life and hoping fervently for the safe return of her husband. Toussaint does return home, but his face is deeply disfigured and he is mentally scarred reduced to a state of silence, a new normal that Jeanne struggles to accept.

Intertwined with this main storyline is that of Sidonie, Jeanne’s best friend and confidante, both women finding mutual support and companionship in each other. When Sidonie’s only son and sole family is killed, the grief she experiences is unimaginable. Winter Flowers, then, is a poignant, profound meditation on grief and how can one possibly measure loss. It’s a quiet, devastating novella that sensitively depicts the heavy burden of war, how debilitating it is psychologically not just on the men but also on the women who are left behind.

BEAUTIFUL WORLD, WHERE ARE YOU by Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s new novel Beautiful World, Where Are You (BWWAY) was released with the kind of fanfare that was not surprising. Indeed, the previous two novels were also hyped so much that it put me off reading them as soon as they were published. But I ended up liking both the books very much. And felt the same way about her latest offering.

At the heart of BWWAY are four characters – Alice, Felix, Eileen and Simon, all somewhere in their late twenties, early thirties. Alice, a successful novelist with two books and wealth under her belt (shades of Rooney herself, maybe) has camped at a rambling home in a seaside town some miles away from Dublin. Part of the reason is to get away from the limelight as she has recently suffered a nervous breakdown. There she strikes up a seemingly casual relationship with Felix, who works in a warehouse, and invites him to accompany her on her book tour in Rome. The beginning of their acquaintance is tentative, class definitely plays a big role in how their relationship subsequently pans out.

Meanwhile, Alice’s best friend, Eileen, an editor at a literary magazine, is trying to find her bearings after the end of a serious relationship. She finds solace in her friendship with Simon, who is a deeply religious man. Eileen has known Simon since childhood, she once harboured romantic feelings for him and even now probably does. Simon himself is involved with another woman, and yet he and Eileen on some level connect again.

For the bulk of the novel, the chapters alternate between letters that Eileen and Alice write to each other, and the relationship dynamics between the two couples. These letters are both personal and political – both Eileen and Alice keep each abreast of what’s happening in their personal lives but they also have discourses on the state of the world they inhabit, on fame, climate change anxiety, class distinction and relationships. The other chapters are more intimate as they dwell on actual interactions between Alice and Felix, Eileen and Simon as they must navigate through a complex web of communication, love and sex.

Rooney, as usual, is great at depicting the vulnerabilities and uncertainties of her characters – all the four are deeply flawed – as they struggle to express their thoughts and communicate their innermost feelings.

So, that’s it for September. October started off well but I haven’t read as much as I would have liked to. I finished Marking Time, the second book in the ‘Cazalet Chronicles’, which was also excellent like the first, and was also impressed by the deeply unsettling novella The Victorian Chaise-longue. As I write this, I am well into the third Cazalet book, Confusion, and enjoying it immensely.

I is Another (Septology III-V) – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I is Another, the second book in the Septology trilogy, is a stunning meditation on art, God, alcohol and friendship.

Just like the two sections in The Other Name, the book opens with Asle staring at his latest work, a painting that depicts two lines intersecting in the middle with the paint dripping down the canvas.

As depicted in The Other Name, Asle has had a tiring couple of days. He had driven to Bjorgvin for groceries, came back home to drop them off, drove again on the same day to check on his namesake Asle who he finds drunk and unconscious on the street. An alcoholic, Namesake Asle is hospitalized and main Asle spends an anxious night at the hotel there, before returning home to Dyglja with the former’s dog Braggi.

I is Another picks up from where The Other Name ends. It’s nearing Christmas and Asle has to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery in Bjorgvin for the exhibition, an annual tradition adhered to just before Christmas. Thus, as a new day dawns, and despite how exhausted he is, Asle is all set to make yet another trip to Bjorgvin to deliver his paintings to the Beyer Gallery and while there also check up on his namesake who is in the hospital in a terrible state.

This mundane, everyday present is juxtaposed against vivid forays into his past; memories that begin to provide some shape to Asle’s persona, particularly his childhood and developmental years as an artist, the beginning of some crucial friendships and his first meeting with his wife-to-be Ales. This flurry of flashbacks filter through his mind’s eye, when Asle drives to Bjorgvin in icy, cold weather, the snowflakes falling in heaps and bounds on the windshield of his car, and later when he is lying on the bench at home or staring out to the sea.

We first encounter a young Asle unhappy in school because he has no aptitude for mathematics or science. He does have a flair and passion for art (he wants to paint away the pictures in his head), and it’s his desire to eventually attend art school that keeps him going.

A short stint as a guitarist in a band goes awry when Asle realizes he lacks the talent to be a musician, and quits. Around that time he runs into Sigve for the first time, a slightly older boy, who has just been released from prison (he was arrested for arson and drunkenness) and an awkward friendship ensues.

Young Asle (with his black velvet jacket, brown satchel and scarf) is also unhappy at home feeling trapped by an overbearing mother and a mostly silent father who toils day and night building boats with little income to show for it. An opening into The Academic High School in Aga fills him with anticipation, a chance to get away from his parents and live independently even though the idea of school instills a sense of dread. But he has to attend High School if he wants to attend Art School he is told, so he steels himself for this new phase in his life.

When settling into his new quarters in Aga, Asle bumps into Sigve again, a friendship that resumes with the prospect of beer and talk even though Asle is an introvert and would prefer being left to his own devices. But Sigve mentions seeing another man at Stranda, a man also called Asle, the namesake, who bears a lot of resemblance to main Asle. Intrigued by this, main Asle agrees to accompany Sigve to Stranda if only to satisfy his curiosity and meet his namesake for the first time – the other Asle is also a painter but acutely short of cash compelling him to settle for coffee when he would rather have beer.

When in the past, we are also given a window into Asle’s budding artistic career – an exhibition organized by him to display his paintings leads to an introduction to Beyer, who will subsequently go on to become his biggest patron.

As the book progresses, Asle’s reclusive nature comes to the fore – in the present, his only friends are Asleik, a fisherman-farmer who without fail buys a painting every year from Asle to gift to his sister Guro, and Beyer who owns the Beyer Gallery. But this withdrawn demeanour is palpable even in his youth – Asle prefers to be absent on the day of his first ever showing at the Beyer Gallery, even when Beyer insists that it’s the best opportunity for him to meet prospective customers who have never experienced his art before.

Meanwhile, in the present, as Asle drives to Bjorgvin or even lies down home in front of the fire out of sheer tiredness, he ponders on the bigger questions of faith, religion, art and death. Faith is something Asle particularly struggles with fuelled by the sudden death of his young sister Alida. Unable to fathom how she died so young, Asle is deeply scarred by the incident. The priest’s eulogy at her funeral leaves him cold affirming his need to renounce Catholicism. And yet, he is converted and finds it in himself to believe again after his marriage to Ales, exemplified by the slew of rosaries she gifts to Asle on his birthdays.

As Asle sits on a chair in his home staring at a particular point on the waves of the Signe Sea, he muses on the nature of art and God, how both are inextricably bound together.

…a person comes from God and goes back to God, I think, for the body is conceived and born, it grows and declines, it dies and vanishes, but the spirit is a unity of body and soul, the way form and content are an invisible unity in a good picture, yes, there’s a spirit in the picture so to speak, yes, the same as in any work of art, in a good poem too, in a good piece of music, yes, there is a unity that’s the spirit in the work and it’s the spirit, the unity of body and soul, that rises up from the dead, yes, it’s the resurrection of the flesh, and it happens all the time…

…still I’ve found my place in The Church, I think, and seeing oneself as Catholic isn’t just a belief, it’s a way of being alive and being in the world, one that’s in a way like being an artist, since being a painter is also a way of living your life, a way of being in the world, and for me these two ways of being in the world go together well since they both create a kind of distance from the world, so to speak, and point towards something else, something that’s in the world, immanent, as they say, and that also points away from the world, something transcendent, as they say…

Asle is also beset by moments of doubt, fears and panic attacks. This tendency towards panic attacks is first pronounced during his high school years when the task of reading out aloud in class prompts the onset of terror, the onslaught of these sudden attacks continue well into adulthood. Moreover, self-doubts continue to linger over his calling as a painter – sometimes he wrestles with thoughts that his paintings are mediocre, at other times he realizes he has reached the pinnacle of his career, either way he feels he has a reached a point in his life where he wants to call it a day and paint no more.  

It’s also a precursor to how Asle gradually slides into excessive drinking, only stopping to comply with Ales’ wishes and because it interfered greatly with his painting. While the other Asle can’t bring himself to do so paving the way for the eventual breakdown of his personal life (in this book his painting career is yet to take off commercially but his hands are already full with responsibilities having to support his partner and their child), and the destruction of his body.

Similar to The Other Name, the striking feature of I is Another is Fosse’s highly original, melodious slow prose where the writing dances to a rhythmic flow, the sentences swell with musical cadences and there’s a dreamy, hallucinatory feel to the narrative that is utterly unique.

I think that the sea is always there to be seen, yes, I can see all the way out to the mouth of the fjord and the open sea, yes, I see the Sygne Sea and the islets and reefs out there, the holms and skerries, and the islands protecting the mouth of the fjord, and then I see the spaces between the islands where it opens out and you can see the ocean itself, yes, even if its dark or snowing hard or a heavy rain or there’s a fog I can see the water, the waves, the ocean and it’s impossible to understand…

There’s a wonderful depth to Asle’s personality – his formative years and how they influence his character and vocation, his loneliness, fears and anxieties, his fervor for art but the uncertainty of whether he has talent, his descent into alcoholism and a sort of a resurrection when he stops, then to finally reach a point where contemplates hanging up his boots.

I is Another, then, is an exquisite continuation of the Septology series, a hypnotic blend of the everyday with the existential, and I am looking forward to the final installment in this trilogy.

Winter Flowers – Angélique Villeneuve (tr. Adriana Hunter)

Winter Flowers is a poignant, sensitively written tale on the devastating consequences of war and myriad forms of loss left in its wake.

What exactly was a war? An enormous grey mass, intangible and impossible. incomprehensible.

Set during the closing stages of the First World War, the novel charts the story of Toussaint Caillet, his wife Jeanne and their young daughter Léo who Toussaint hasn’t seen growing up.

While Toussaint, like all men mobilized for the war, is away on the frontlines, Jeanne, like all women, is home managing day to day life and hoping fervently for the safe return of her husband. However, with income dwindling and crippling rations taking their toll, Jeanne must somehow make ends meet. After all, she now alone bears the responsibility of raising their daughter. With her qualifications, she finds work at a flower-making workshop, creating flowers that are ‘naturals’, an array of blooms with vivid colours that also give the novel its name.

When making flowers, Jeanne metamorphoses into an incredibly self-possessed creature whose focus, skill and attention to detail enthrall anyone who has the opportunity to watch her work. She can make 900 cowslip flowers in a day. Her hands produce improbable tea roses as opulent as lettuces, explosive swells of petals speckled with a shimmer of blood red or cherry red. She conjures up clusters, stalks and ears, umbels and flower heads, all more beautiful and more real than the real thing.

Given that jobs for women have become scarce and unreliable during war, she is grateful to have found work to occupy her, but the hours are long and deeply tiring.

Meanwhile, news reaches Jeanne that Toussaint is alive but grievously injured, his face has taken the brunt of the injury requiring facial reconstruction. Jeanne wants to meet him at the Val-de-Grace hospital but is deeply troubled by Toussaint’s explicit instructions that he has no desire to meet her yet.

And then suddenly one day, Jeanne comes home to discover that Toussaint has returned. He is unrecognizable, one side of his face is lopsided covered in bandages.

At first Jeanne stays rooted to her chair, entirely consumed with watching him and avoiding him. She knows what she should see, though, where she should look, but it bounces about, slips away from her. What she does grasp is that he’s taller, and handsome in his uniform, and unfamiliar too.

She doesn’t think, He’s here, she thinks, It’s here. This unknown thing that’s coming home to her. That she’s dreaded, and longed for.

But although Toussaint is back safe, Jeanne immediately realizes that he is the not the man she once knew. The trauma of the war and facial injuries have rendered him shell shocked and unable to communicate. Where he once was a dynamic, jovial man, he has now been reduced to a silent wreck.

Toussaint introduces something new, not just within the walls of the small fourth-floor room, but also into Jeanne’s life and, to a lesser extent, into Léo’s: silence.

The mother and daughter whisper around him, in the narrow spaces relinquished to them by this silence.

Intertwined with this main storyline is that of Sidonie, Jeanne’s best friend and confidante, both women finding mutual support and companionship in each other.

So the two women see a good deal of each other. They share what little they have, the coffee and heating, the lack of coffee and lack of heating. The silences and absences. Their meager  meals too, occasionally.

Sidonie stitches clothes for a department store and has led a hard life. Having lost two husbands and four sons in tragic circumstances, Sidonie’s sole family is her son Eugene, who writes to her regularly but these letters stop when he is reported missing. The eventual confirmation of his death unleashes a wave of unimaginable grief in Sidonie.

What could Jeanne have added, with her own semi-tragedy – what placating promises, what lies? Toussaint, by contrast, would eventually heal, would get used to it, settle and pull himself together; at least, she could try to believe this and picture herself coming to terms with the man he’d turned into, with his injuries and his memories.

But what about Sidonie?

Winter Flowers is a poignant, profound meditation on grief and loss. How do we measure loss? Is death the only defining feature of a loss? What about the loss of a person’s spirit and personality, the very essence of one’s being? The story moves fluidly between the present where Jeanne and Toussaint must begin life anew just when peace is around the corner, and the past when rumblings of the war had just begun fuelling heightened tension and a sense of growing unreality.

As Jeanne struggles to adjust to Toussaint’s unsettling silence, she is often gripped by feelings of guilt. A part of her is relieved that Toussaint is alive. After all, so many others have suffered a much more terrible fate – either they are dead or worse, reported missing. And yet, she is painfully aware that Toussaint is a different man now, circumstances have made their life weary and fragile. Somehow they have to find that delicate balance, a way to adapt to this new, uncertain future and find their footing together. Subtle moments of joy do feature in the novel – the happy carefree days the couple enjoyed before the war, and even in the present when they find comfort in simple pleasures just when victory is in sight, a sense that things can limp back to a new kind of normalcy.

What about their daughter Léo? Having shared her space all her life with her mother, Leo has to come to terms with the sudden appearance of her father, a man she mostly never knew in flesh, only barely through a photo.

Winter Flowers, then, is a quiet, devastating novella that sensitively depicts the heavy burden of war, how debilitating it is psychologically not just on the men who were away fighting in harsh conditions, but also on the women they were compelled to leave behind, women who had to battle poverty, uncertainty, fear and emotional distress on a daily basis. Given that the act of war is often instigated by powerful people with ulterior motives, patriotism is often lauded. But the suffering and psychological damage is hardly ever acknowledged, damage that can also leave a lasting impression on subsequent generations.

Happening – Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it.

When the book opens, Ernaux is at a clinic, anxiously awaiting the results of an AIDS test. To her immense relief, the tests turn out negative. But the circumstances remind her of another kind of test she was compelled to take in her early twenties when she was not so lucky and the stress that she went through because of it.

Rewind to 1963 in Rouen and Ernaux is a young woman of twenty three, studying at a university and not in any serious relationship.  She has missed her periods for a week and a visit to her gynecologist Dr N confirms her worst fears – she is pregnant.

Ernaux is very sure she does not want to keep the child. But at a time when abortion is not legalized in France, Ernaux’s options are limited. She has to find a backstreet abortionist and keep the whole affair shrouded in secret, confiding in her parents is certainly not an option.

In the meanwhile, Ernaux has to go on with her life as if everything is normal. She attends her university lectures and visits her parents every weekend, although it all feels unreal to her and a sense of detachment creeps in, normal life starts feeling quite alien. Indeed, here’s how she describes that surreal phase – “I was living in a different world. There were the other girls, with their empty bellies, and there was me.”

The rest of this novella, then, charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion.

Ernaux, at the time, had no doubt she must end the pregnancy. The social stigma was just too great – first, the blemish on one’s reputation for raising an illegitimate child; second, the fear of being marked as a social failure, particularly exacerbated by her working class background.  But her decision unleashes a gamut of emotions – shame, loneliness spurred by her inability to confide to anyone about her predicament, alienation because suddenly she could no longer connect with her normal life.

The father of the child, a philosophy student called P, on learning of Ernaux’s pregnancy refuses to get involved and take any kind of responsibility. Ernaux must fend for herself. Both were equally involved in that passionate encounter, but in an unfair society, the man goes scot-free, the woman has to bear all the negative consequences. Ernaux talks about how it is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If an unmarried woman was expecting a child, she would be looked down upon for wanting to terminate the pregnancy, but should she choose to keep the baby her fate is even worse because then she will be judged harshly for bearing a child out of wedlock.

The question of class and its crucial bearing on her decision to abort is captured in this paragraph…

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.

This class distinction is also made painfully apparent to Ernaux when in a medical emergency she is admitted to the hospital post the abortion, reflected in the sudden change in the doctor’s attitude when he realizes that she is a university student and not just another uneducated, working-class woman.

Ernaux also makes a critical observation on law and how it is the axis around which abortion revolves.

As often was the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.

Happening, then, is a product of Ernaux’s desire or obsession forty years later to write about her abortion and “face the reality of that unforgettable event.” However, she finds it is not always an easy thing to do. Part of her fights against the idea of documenting that traumatic experience, but the other part wants to embark upon that venture at all costs and not be plagued by regret for not having taken that step.

I want to become immersed in that part of my life once again and learn what can be found there. This investigation must be seen in the context of a narrative, the only genre able to transcribe an event that was nothing but time flowing inside and outside of me.

Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and not mincing on details. This was my first book by Annie Ernaux and it won’t be my last.