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.