I had a good December in terms of reading and managed to finish five books. I also started Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, most of which will definitely spill over to next month, so hopefully it’s a book that will feature in my January 2022 post. Anyway, of the five books this month, my favourites were Small Things Like These, Nightmare Alley and Suite for Barbara Loden.
So, without further ado, here are the books…As usual, for detailed reviews on the first two books you can click on the links, while there are a couple of reviews I plan to put up in January.
Small Things Like These is a quiet, haunting, atmospheric tale that dwells on how kindness can make a difference in people’s lives and how having a purpose can instill a sense of meaning or fulfillment.
This novella is set in a small Irish town and the year is 1985. We are introduced to our protagonist Bill Furlong, a respected coal and timber merchant and a decent man. Bill’s business provides comfortably for him and his family, but the work is physically demanding.
During one of his coal deliveries to the Convent, by chance he comes across a group of women working hard at scrubbing the floor, one of whom walks up to him and implores him to rescue her. The arrival of a nun restores the scene to what it was, but that one fleeting moment unsettles Bill greatly.
The developments at the Convent form the central story arc of this novella and are modeled on the horrific Magdalen laundries that sprung up in Ireland till the late 20th century.
Small Things Like These is a compact gem, a timely reminder of how simple gestures of kindness and empathy are crucial in communities, especially at a time when we live in an increasingly fraught and polarized world.
This book had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…
Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.
The first chapter is striking where our protagonist Stan Carlisle, a magician at the carny show, is mesmerized by the geek in the enclosure, a man who has sunk to the lowest of depths, is akin to a beast biting the heads of chicken. Carlisle subsequently learns that he is a man-made geek, a drunk who can be manipulated by the lure of the bottle. Meanwhile, Stan, an ambitious man, wants to rake in moolah, and we subsequently follow his journey from his days at the carny to becoming a preacher and plunging headlong into full-blown spiritualism where he latches on to wealthy, gullible clients as prey. Until he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.
Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical. It’s a terrific novel and highly recommended.
FATALE by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)
Chaos runs supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim, stylish novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. We are introduced to the quintessential femme fatale, Aimee Joubert, a highly trained killer who has left a trail of bodies behind her, mostly of the wealthy and privileged set. Aimee is now on her way to a town called Bleville, particularly heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhoods. Once ensconced in that wealthy set, Aimee sets about putting her plan in motion of extracting money, but a baron with Marxist tendencies veers her from her path.
In terms of themes, Fatale, can be looked upon as a statement on the dark, dirty side of capitalism, and an indictment of status and class privileges. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing, atleast in the two noir books I’ve read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad.
NECKLACE/CHOKER by Jana Bodnárová(tr. Jonathan Gresty)
Necklace/Choker by Jana Bodnárová is among the first titles released from Seagull Books’ newly created Slovak List, one of the books I purchased from its recently concluded excellent Winter Sale.
It’s a book about memories, nostalgia for a way of life that has vanished, the debilitating impact of war on ordinary citizens, the power of art as a means of protest and how it can be snuffed out by totalitarian regimes.
When the book opens, we are introduced to Sara who has returned after a longtime to her hometown in Slovakia, to the bungalow which belonged to her father, the renowned painter Imro. Sara’s return is solely to wrap things up, hand over the bungalow to the municipal authorities to convert it into a museum. In this project, she is joined by her friend Iboja, a woman some years elder, and who lived across from Sara and her family when they were both children.
As Sara and Iboja spend an evening at the bungalow quaffing wine, relishing food and enjoying the beautiful night in the garden, they begin to reminisce about the past, about their parents and their own personal lives. In that sense, through their flashbacks, we are presented in a way a brief history of Slovakia right from the glorious pre-war days, to the terrifying life under the Nazis, the brutal impact of the World War to be followed by the cruelty of Soviet rule.
Through Sara, we learn about her father Imro, his Jewish heritage, his passion for painting, how Imro’s parents find it difficult to adapt to the harsh realities of Nazis and the war, followed by his marriage to Sara’s mother and the birth of Sara.
Through Iboja, we learn about her grandparents. How her grandfather ran Hotel Aurora, a classy, beautiful hotel filled with wealthy, stylish patrons, smoky jazz evenings, music, gaiety and laughter. How he and Imro’s father were good friends and his fondness for Imro. But the brutality of war and the massive scale of political upheavals take its toll on running the hotel, it becomes increasingly clear that things will never go back to what it was once.
Despite its ambitious scope, Necklace/Choker is a quiet, elegantly written novel. While I enjoyed it, I’m not sure it effectively conveyed the uniqueness of Slovakia, somehow I felt a sense of place was missing.
SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN by Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon)
Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is part of a triptych of books that include Exposition and The White Dress. The book is based on the actress Barbara Loden and the only film she directed Wanda. Before embarking on the book, I decided to watch Wanda first and was pretty struck by its subject matter. Wanda is a woman completely adrift and rootless. She has abandoned her husband and kids, has been kicked out of her job at a sewing factory (she is too slow), and is now homeless and practically penniless. The only real thing she clings on too is her prized possession – a white handbag. As she aimlessly roams the streets of Pennsylvania, she runs into the robber Mr Dennis and for the rest of the film hangs on to him, even agreeing to become his accomplice in an attempted bank robbery.
Loden’s inspiration for the film came from a newspaper article she read which reported on the arrest and sentencing of a woman for being an accomplice in a failed bank robbery. Her partner having been shot at the scene of crime, this woman is pronounced guilty and actually expresses relief for being locked away, and this fact plants a seed of an idea in Loden’s mind.
Meanwhile, Léger’s mandate from her editor is to prepare a short encyclopedic entry on Loden but Leger can’t bring herself to commit to such a narrow task. She desires to research deeply on Loden, on Wanda, on how bits of Loden’s life and Wanda’s circumstances are intertwined. It also explains why Loden cast herself as Wanda in the film, because, in many ways, she was Wanda.
Suite for Barbara Loden, then, is a hybrid book, a wonderful amalgam of film appreciation, biography and memoir. Indeed, just as the creation and filming of Wanda was part of Loden’s vision to express a part of herself, so is Suite for Barbara Loden a vehicle for Léger to examine her own motives which include her relationship with her mother who finds herself abandoned by an abusive husband. In short, this is a wonderful book on what drives us to make art, on being a woman, on relationships and the desire to be accepted.
That’s it for December. I had an excellent reading year and last week released My Best Books of 2021 with a total of 21 books. I loved them all and would heartily recommend them. Hoping for an equally amazing 2022 bookwise and everything else!
Nightmare Alley had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…
Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.
The novel’s opening chapter is striking. We are taken to the scene of action, the Ten-in-One carnival show. Stan Carlisle is stationed well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure where a ‘geek show’ is in progress. Stan is the novel’s protagonist, the carny magician with his impressive sleight of hand and a host of tricks up his sleeve. But he is not the show stealer in the first chapter. That crown belongs to the carny geek, a near madman with bloodshot eyes, cradling snakes like they were his babies and biting off the heads of chicken. Stan is merely an observer, but he is mesmerized. The “marks” attending the carny, are both disgusted and fascinated by this geek and despite their revulsion they can’t take their eyes off him, they want to witness this freak show and egg on the geek to get at the chicken. It’s a show that panders to their basest instincts.
Later in the chapter when conversing with the carny boss Clem Hoately, Stan is stunned to realize that the geek is a man-made phenomenon (“Well, listen – you don’t find ‘em. You make ‘em”). Since the man playing the geek is a raging alcoholic who fears the tremors associated with withdrawal, Hoately explains how the lure of the bottle and a little bit of manipulation compels the guy to become a geek if only to ensure that he can continue drinking. But that fact leaves an indelible mark on Stan’s mind – that every individual is gripped by hidden fears, fears that can be exploited to one’s advantage.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to a slew of characters that form the pulse of the Ten-in-One carny show. The doyenne, Zeena Krumbein, is the show’s “mind reader” and an expert at tarot cards. Stan is impressed with her ability to understand human nature and play into the crowd’s emotions…
Magic is all right, but if only I knew human nature like Zeena she has the kind of magic that ought to take anybody right to the top. It’s a convincer – that act of hers. Yet nobody can do it, cold. It takes years to get that kind of smooth talk, and she’s never stumped. I’ll have to try and pump her and get wised up. She’s a smart dame, all right. Too bad she’s tied to a rumdum like Pete who can’t even get his rhubarb up any more; so everybody says. She isn’t a bad-looking dame, even if she is a little old.
Pete is Zeena’s drunk husband and a shell of his former dynamic self. At one time, Zeena and Pete as a team were unbeatable, working up a code-act that transfixed the audience. But fear gets the better of him and Pete these days is nothing but an alcoholic. Zeena remains loyal to him much to Stan’s chagrin.
Molly is a victim of bad luck too. Always her daddy’s girl, Molly adored her father, a real estate man, who could talk himself out of a jam in any situation. His death leaves Molly rootless until she finds a place in the carny show as “Mademoiselle Electra.” Zeena takes her under her wing and is protective of her.
Ever ambitious and with a desire to master Zeena’s tricks of the trade, Stan begins an affair with her but is irritated with Pete’s continual presence. But then an “incident” at the camp provides Stan an opportunity to team up with Zeena and he grabs it with both hands.
A turning point occurs when a policeman raids the carny premises and threatens to arrest Molly for indecency (she is in the midst of her act wearing skimpy clothes to give the impression of electricity passing through her body). Displaying a tremendous presence of mind, Stan gives the policemen a “cold reading” of the kind that only Zeena is capable of and averts that threat. Stan’s inspired act earns him new found respect from his colleagues, but he craves for something more, something big where the payoff will be huge (“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough”).
Teaming up with Molly, who is smitten by him (particularly by his smooth talking ability which reminds her of her father), Stan and Molly breakaway from the carny to venture out on their own. Not content with only vaudeville, Stan has big plans and flings himself headlong into full-blown bizarre spiritualism to become a preacher where he finds his audience in gullible, wealthy patrons who are more than willing to buy into his nonsensical ramblings desperate to get a glimpse of their dead, loved ones through mediums and séances.
Meanwhile, enmeshed into this narrative are Stan’s forays into his troubled past. We are provided a peek into his childhood as he becomes overwhelmed by a flood of memories – an abusive father, a distant mother in the throes of an affair, and hints of animal cruelty.
There is one recurring image that keeps haunting Stan – a sense of being trapped in an alley, a “nightmare alley” that gives the novel its name, where the walls around him are closing in, and the exit (or the light at the end of the alley) seems so far away that he might not reach it in time.
Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream. He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.
Thus, tormented by his past and super stressed in his attempts to always stay one-up in his charade as a spiritualist, Stan finally consults a psychoanalyst – Dr Lilith Ritter – a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.
The other fascinating image that keeps popping up in Nightmare Alley is the symbol of tarot cards. The novel is made up of 22 chapters, each depicted by a tarot card at the beginning. In his introduction, Nick Tosches gives an interesting commentary on these cards and how Gresham used it to structure his book. These 22 cards are figured trump cards beginning with ‘The Fool’ and ending with ‘The World.’ However, Gresham chooses to shuffle the deck and the last chapter in the novel is thus titled ‘The Hanged Man.’ Therefore, from the index alone, one can gauge in a broader sense where the novel is headed and who the ‘hanged man’ refers to, even if we don’t know the details yet.
A cynical vision brews at the heart of Nightmare Alley, fumes of fear leap up from its pages. Stan spots this window into fear – that raw, base emotion – in the very first chapter when he learns about the geek, and an idea begins to ferment in his mind.
The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they are afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key.
This bleak view is further cemented when Stan is reading Pete’s old notebook. Written on its pages are not only Pete and Zeena’s trade secrets but also these lines…
Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature.
As an aside, capitalizing on fear and greed is a potent marketing tool even in the corporate world. This strategy of playing on people’s fear and greed reminded me of my stint in a financial firm that tracked stock markets. For instance, when stock markets are in a downward spiral, fear becomes the dominant emotion as investors stare at massive losses in their portfolios. In such times, the marketing copy emphasizes on how a particular strategy can help investors preserve their wealth when there is chaos all around them. That strategy changes in a rising market, when investors are greedy, they want to make big profits and the marketing copy adjusts its tone and message accordingly, highlighting the huge returns to be made from investing in a particular set of stocks.
Anyway, the point here is that Stan’s dreams of making it big in the world are dependent on exploiting this fear. In that sense, the novel explores the foibles of human nature – how people readily abandon reason when they are beset by fear or are promised something that they desperately want; how they become the perfect targets for con artists, crooks and evil doers.
Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical.
The speech fascinated him. His ear caught the rhythm of it and he noted their idioms and worked some of them into his patter. He had found the reason behind the peculiar, drawling language of the old carny hands—it was a composite of all the sprawling regions of the country. It was the talk of the soil and its drawl covered the agility of the brains that poured it out. It was a soothing, illiterate, earthy language.
There is loads of tough talking but at various moments the poetry of the prose shines through such as in these lines…
Loneliness came over him, like an avalanche of snow. He was alone. Where he had always wanted to be.
Some excellent set pieces pepper the novel – the geek show at the beginning, Stan’s inspired ‘cold reading’ to the policeman, the team learning a thing or two about tarot cards, one of Stan’s duped clients led into believing that her house is haunted by ghosts, Stan’s sessions with Dr Ritter and so on…
In a nutshell, Nightmare Alley is a terrific novel, a fascinating spectacle of manufactured horror and evil. Like the crowd at the geek show, we the readers are the viewers. We are horrified by what we see, but we can’t look away because it’s so utterly riveting. We have to follow this story right through to the end, and when we do those last lines are singed into our minds, lines that depict irony and a cruel twist of fate that is simply unforgettable.
Wishing you a Merry Christmas and loads of joy this festive season!
The last few months of the year were particularly challenging, but I spent a lovely day today with my closest family enjoying a delicious Christmas spread. And of course, books kept coming in through the post too.
Here are some pictures of today’s lunch and the books I bought during the week leading upto Christmas…
2021 turned out to be another excellent year of reading. Just like last year, I decided not to restrict the list to any specific number given that I had read 75 plus books.
Of the 21 books that made the cut, seven are translated works covering 6 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, French, Danish, Swedish and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 19:2). This list is a mix of fiction by 20th century women writers, new books published this year, translated literature, novellas, a short story collection, a memoir and an essay collection. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.
So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2021, in no particular order (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…
A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.
This is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality. A Wreath of Roses is one of Elizabeth Taylor’s darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom. Just as the book opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.
Saturday Lunch with the Brownings is a collection of twelve, unsettling, edgy, perfectly penned tales that disrupt the perceived bliss of marriage and motherhood. It’s also an uncanny depiction of the horrors lurking in the banality of everyday life. A woman and her five year-old son are locked out of a farmhouse in a remote French countryside, a seemingly innocuous family lunch swiftly culminates in a dramatic confrontation, a young woman on the brink of a miscarriage gradually reveals her true intentions. This is a marvelous collection – each piece is like a finely chiseled, perfectly honed miniature whose beauty and horror lingers in the mind long after the pages are turned.
An absorbing, immersive, and fabulous memoir in which Eleanor Perényi (who was American) writes about the time she spent managing an estate in Hungary in the years just before the Second World War broke out. What was immediately remarkable to me was Perényi’s spunk and undaunted sense of adventure. Marriage, moving across continents, adapting to a completely different culture, learning a new language, and managing an estate – all of this when she’s at the cusp of turning twenty.
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. The book 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 without mincing on details.
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. 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.
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. 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 wonderful book with a range of essays on artists’ lives, writers’ lives, women and alcohol, loneliness, British queer art, the conceptual art scene and pieces Laing wrote for the Frieze column to name a few. It’s a book that highlights how art can change the way we see the world and how important it is in the turbulent times in which we live.
These absorbing essays cover artists such as Agnes Martin, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Joseph Cornell; writers the likes of which include Deborah Levy, Hilary Mantel, Ali Smith, Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith; the pieces she wrote for the Frieze column; a section called Styles which explores British queer art as well as the Conceptual art scene in the country. Ultimately, Olivia Laing makes a compelling case for the different ways in which art can make a difference to our lives, its crucial role during moments of crisis, and its relevance during these politically turbulent times.
Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.
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.
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. 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.
‘The Cazalet Chronicles’, comprising five books (represented in the picture above by the first book The Light Years), is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in Sussex and London around and during the period of the Second World War. These are novels teeming with characters and provide a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family. The first one, The Light Years is set in the halcyon days before the advent of the Second World War, while the next two – Marking Time and Confusion – are set at the height of the war. The fourth one, Casting Off, takes place just after the conclusion of the war when the Cazalets must adjust to sweeping changes not only in the country but also in their personal lives, while the last one – All Change – is set about nine years after the events of Casting Off.
Reading The Cazalet Chronicles was an immersive experience – all the books are evocative reads with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. 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.
Real Estate is another stunningly written book by Deborah Levy 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. 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.
The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy. These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.
Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other. The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.
Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.
Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down.
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.
It 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.
My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant and through her 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 relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if she is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.
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 with much aplomb.
In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.
AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)
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. 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.
An I-Novel 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.
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 – racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era – explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts.
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 am happy this book won the Booker Prize.
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. Elena, a woman in her sixties, suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements. However, the real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita who was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide, but Elena is convinced it is murder.
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 and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.
Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.
Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London.
As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.
That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2022 too. What were some of your best books this year?