The Island – Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Ana María Matute’s The Island came to my attention in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic lockdown, when it was released with another title from the Penguin Modern Classics range – Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman. The Aleramo was great, and now I can say the same for Matute.

At a certain point in The Island, the protagonist, 14-year old Matia is on the veranda with her cousin Borja, smoking cigarettes in harmony. It’s a secret but frequent ritual for the two when sleep eludes them and the quietness of the hours when the household is in slumber seems the perfect time. At such moments of contemplation and quiet companionship, Matia listens to Borja reminiscing about his past with rapt attention, or the two grumble on the state of limbo they’ve been hurled into by the seemingly never ending war. For the most part, Matia is lost in her own thoughts (“I had formed another island belonging only to me”), reflecting on the cruel and alien world of adults, the sharp realization that both she and Borja were in no man’s land, that murky space between childhood and adulthood where they felt lost with no clear sense of identity.

What an alien race adults were, how strange were men and women. And how alien and absurd were we. What strangers to the world, to the passing of time. We were no longer children. But neither, suddenly, could we say what we were.

That sense of futility and lament against a ruthless, vindictive adult world is a refrain that will run throughout the novel. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island, then, is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. The father, subsequently, leaves her with his ageing housekeeper Mauricia, and Matia has happy memories of early childhood there despite the chaos of her upbringing. Once Mauricia falls ill though, the grandmother Dona Praxedes, a domineering woman, takes matters into her own hands and Matia is sent to live with her (“My grandmother had white hair rising in a wave over her forehead, which made her look irate”).

The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. That intimidating personality extends to her dealings with people too including her family and those working for her. She is a sharp woman, forever perched on her chair by the window, focusing her gaze on the Slope where most of the island’s tenant farmers reside. Nothing misses her eye.

After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private dining room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false – she would inspect the white houses on the Slope…

Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. Daily household chores are taken care of by the housekeeper Antonia; and her son Lauro (Borja’s nickname for him is Chinky), studying to become a priest, is employed to tutor both Borja and Matia. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

And while we anxiously waited for news, which was always unsatisfactory (the war was barely six weeks old), the four of us – my grandmother, my aunt Emilia, my cousin Borja and myself – stewed in the heat, the boredom, the loneliness and the silence of that corner of the island, in the far-flung vanishing point that was my grandmother’s house.

Matia’s loneliness and alienation are heightened by her homesickness for Mauricia, her impression that she belongs nowhere, and her only source of comfort is her little black doll, Gorogo.

Our holidays were interrupted by a war that seemed eerily unreal, at once remote and immediate, perhaps more frightening for being invisible.

Things are further complicated by Matia and Borja’s love-hate relationship. As a teenager (15), Borja has a dubious, slimy personality with the ability to plot and connive and have his way even if it’s through blackmail (“He could be sweet and gentle when it suited him to be so in the company of certain adults. But never have I met a more pig-headed and deceitful traitor, nor a sadder little boy, than Borja”). Matia quickly discerns that he has some hold on Lauro, knowledge that gives him power to treat Lauro like dirt even under his tutelage.And yet, Matia, has no one else for company and readily tags along with Borja, even earning his respect and admiration for being expelled from school.

The island of Mallorca may be cut off from the Spanish mainland, but the ideological differences and deep fault lines are mirrored on the island even percolating down to the daily lives of its inhabitants. News from the outside, mostly about the war, filter into Matia’s world through morbid tales spun by Antonia (“They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and throwing people into vats of boiling oil”).

Indeed, violence is a permanent feature of the island fuelled by age-old prejudices that create deep fractures impossible to fill. The gang wars between Borja and Guiem alternate regularly with occasional periods of truce as fragile as water sliding off a duck’s back. These aren’t just vocal matches but involve rifles, meat hooks and other forms of ghastly weapons. But that’s nothing compared to the terror unleashed by the Taronji brothers, a couple of extreme right-wing fascists, whose death squads send waves of fear across the island leaving a behind a trail of destruction. The violence is also manifest in the treatment of minorities, particularly the Jewish community – the little Jewish square on the island is a grim reminder of the Inquisition’s persecution of the Jews, the echoes of which reverberate even in the present, accentuated by the gang wars and burning of bonfires.

Against this menacing landscape of war and violence, the lives of Borja and Matia play out. The pair smokes cigarettes in the deep of the night, they confide about their earlier lives steeped in nostalgia, and explore the island, its many nooks and crannies and secret hiding places, some of which can only be accessed by boat. It’s during one such expedition that Matia gets her first taste of real violence – on a beach cove, they come across a dead body riddled by bullets. The body belongs to José Taronji, a Jew, and thus, Matia comes face to face for the first time with Manuel, José’s son.

Because of their Jewish heritage, Manuel, his mother Malene and his two younger siblings are treated with contempt and disrespect, Malene mostly is dismissed as a ‘loose woman’. Manuel’s persona is mysterious, he is barely talkative, but there’s something good about him that’s a sharp contrast to the evil in Borja. It’s as if Borja is trying to get himself noticed by Manuel who remains indifferent, and yet as the novel progresses, Matia and Manuel strike up a friendship, the repercussions of which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Intertwined in their storyline and crucial to the plot, is the mystical figure of Jorge of Son Major, previous employer of José Taronji, who had donated some plot of land to Malene and José years earlier, and is now living as a recluse in his castle with his companion Sanamo, a guitarist. Borja idolizes Jorge which perplexes Matia, and things only get murkier when an inkling of some past friction between Jorge and their grandmother becomes palpable.

To see him, Jorge of Son Major, in his walled garden, wearing his threadbare blazer, taking refuge in memories ad dark roses, made me want to touch, drink in his memories, swallow down his sadness (‘thank you, thank you for your sadness’), take refuge in it so I could escape as he had done, submerge myself forever in that great glass of pink wine, to be filled up magically with his nostalgia.

The defining feature of The Island, though, is its vivid sense of place, an aura of otherworldliness all around (“The sun’s pink veil lay over everything, like a dream.”)

The sun was full and ripe that afternoon. We were entering a golden season of full-bodied light, shining read and mauve between the trees. A warm sun like vintage wine, which had to be sipped slowly so it wouldn’t go to our heads. We had entered the month of October.

 It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to a book that is awash with stunning descriptions – the grey sky “swollen like an infection”, the whitening stones of walls “like enormous rows of teeth”, the fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge “shattering like bits of crockery”, sand that glints on Borja’s ankles “like tiny slivers of tin”, and so on.

The Monsignor was playing dreamily with an opaquely initialled goblet, and its bluish crystal was like the light when it rains, beautifully opalescent. On transparent nights he drank an orange liqueur, lucid as water, and on cloudy days he drank Pernod, because he said drinks bore a strong relation to the atmosphere or the colour of the sky. (At high noon, amontillado, and in the evening, solemn and translucent liqueurs.) When he said this my mouth and nose would fill with violent perfumes; I even felt a little dizzy.

Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

The brightness was everywhere. It was so deep inside me that everything – the perished boats, the sand, the prickly pears, my own body – was submerged in painful depths of light. I could hear the sea, the waves that were on fire and would overwhelm me with thirst.

Friendship, betrayal, the pains of growing up (the transformation from a life of innocence and naiveté to one of knowledge, treachery and even cowardice), the crippling impact of an endless legacy of violence and hatred, the cruel role of fate and destiny, how our pasts can shape up our future with damaging consequences, are some of the core themes explored in The Island. In a nutshell, Matute has written a stunning novel where the power of its themes blends beautifully with the poetry of her prose, churning up a golden-hued heady cocktail that deliciously courses through the body and is unforgettable.

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A Month of Reading – March 2022 (…and a Milestone)

My father passed away in March. He was ailing for a while, with both cancer and heart disease, and had always managed to pull through, but this time things became too complicated. It was a tough month and not surprisingly, I hardly read much. I did manage four books though, and thankfully they were all excellent.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first three books you can click on the links.

FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.

The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh. When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends.

Later, when Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately, they set in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.

The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures.

The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

HONEYCOMB (PILGRIMAGE 1) by Dorothy Richardson

Honeycomb is the third novel in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – after Pointed Roofs and Backwater – where we find Miriam in a new role, governess to the two Corrie children.

After the clamour and noisiness of Northern London that so distressed Miriam and the loneliness that overwhelmed her, the Corrie country estate called ‘Newlands’ is much more welcoming; a place that promises richness, calm and beauty (“And this one evening was more real than all the fifteen months at Banbury Park. It was so far away from everything, trams and people and noise – it was in the centre of beautiful exciting life; perfectly still and secure”). The Corries are Felix, a respected lawyer and his wife Julia (Rollo), and the couple has two children, 12-year old Sybil and an 8-year old boy who is not named.

In Backwater, we witnessed Miriam debate with herself on the merits of the teaching profession, and if she were to continue, she aspired for the position of a governess in a wealthy home with the prospect of a better pay, without the burden of the cumbersome environment that Banbury Park was steeped in. Stepping into the deliciously luxurious world of the Corries seems to offer just that.

When Miriam got out of the train into the darkness she knew that there were woods all about her. The moist air was rich with the smell of trees – wet bark and branches – moss and lichen, damp dead leaves. She stood on the dark platform snuffing the rich air.

In the first few chapters, Miriam is enamoured by the wealth and lushness of her new abode, the quiet comfort, the plush surroundings and exotic food she has never tasted before. But more importantly, she is entranced by the abundance of light all around – the dazzling rays of the sun that filter into the rooms and cast a spell over her…as she reflects on how the Corries have that ability, befitting their class, to attract brightness and light into their lives, in sharp contrast to the dreariness of Miriam’s family home fuelled by the Hendersons’ precarious financial circumstances.

People with money could make the spring come as soon as the days lengthened. Clear bright rooms, bright clean paint, soft coloured hangings, spring flowers in the bright light on landings.

The yearning for a comfortable life minus the monetary worries is so immense that at first Miriam revels in the luxuriant atmosphere at Newlands, soaking up the light and new experiences eagerly.

Now she knew what she wanted. Bright mornings, beautiful right rooms, a wilderness of beauty all round her all the time – at any cost…Youth, the glory of youth. So strong. She had got herself into this beautiful life, found her way to it; she would stay in it for ever, work in it, make money and when she was old, have soft pink curtains and fragrant things to remind her, as long as she could lift her hand. No more ugliness, no more schools or mean little houses. Luxuries, beautiful gleaming things…a secret happy life.

She hopes to make the most of her employment, even possibly aiming for a longer tenure…and yet, she can’t completely shake off the essence of her upbringing, so different from the comfortable lives of the Corrie children who have only ever known a life of privilege.

During her second week of giving the children their morning’s lessons, Miriam saw finally that it was impossible and would always be impossible to make their two hours of application anything but an irrelevant interval in their lives. They came into the schoolroom with languid reluctance, dreamily indolent from breakfast in bed, fragrant from warm baths.

Meanwhile, we see Miriam getting acquainted with the Corries’ extended circle of friends who regularly frequent Newlands, but are quite vacuous. But what of the Corries themselves? While a stylish woman, it gradually becomes apparent to Miriam and to the reader that Mrs Corrie is quite crass and frivolous in her outlook, while as mentioned above, her children have had it easy in life and are quite spoiled.

A slew of beautiful set-pieces punctuate the novel largely centred on Miriam’s musings when she is by herself. There’s one where Miriam composes a letter to her elder sister Eve enumerating the pleasures of reading…

…and the world was full of books…It did not matter that people went about talking about nice books, interesting books, sad books, ‘stories’ – they would never be that to her. They were people. More real than actual people. They came nearer. In life everything was so scrappy and mixed up. In a book the author was there in every word.

…and another whole chapter devoted to Miriam’s impressions while taking a stroll alone through the streets of London…

Wide golden streaming Regent Street was quite near. Some near narrow street would lead into it.

Flags of pavement flowing – smooth clean grey squares and oblongs, faintly polished, shaping and drawing away – sliding into each other…I am part of the dense smooth clean paving stone…sunlit; gleaming under dark winter rain; shining under warm sunlit rain, sending up a fresh stony smell…always there…dark and light…dawn, stealing…

Light streamed up from the close dense stone. With every footstep she felt she could fly.

Moreover, in typical fashion we have come to associate with Miriam, she ponders on men and women, and the differences between the two genders (“Why did men and women dine together? It was extraordinary, this muddle of men and women with nothing in common”).

As the novel progresses, despite the comfort of her material surroundings, cracks begin to appear in the way Miriam perceives the Corries, as she gets to know them better. We get a sense that, initially, Miriam possibly has a crush on Felix Corrie, although that fades away quickly when he resists being challenged on his opinions during a dinner party…and Miriam’s disillusionment with the Corries and their set is complete.

The bulk of Honeycomb is set in the Corrie residence, while the final two chapters find Miriam back home – the penultimate one focuses on the weddings of her sisters Sarah and Harriett to Bennett Brodie and Gerald Ducayne respectively. We also get a glimpse of the men interested in Miriam – the elder Bob Grenville, a dull man who tires her so, and then the ascetic, brooding Mr Gove whom she meets for the first time at the weddings.

The last chapter is the darkest of them all, very sombre, as it dwells on Miriam’s mother, her severe depression and resultant suicide. Miriam accompanies her mother to the seaside town of Hastings with the hope that the refreshing sea air will do her a world of good, but the mother continues to sink into despondency which Miriam finds greatly disconcerting. The wonderful Reading Pilgrimage website exclusively devoted to the novels, offers a more detailed look at the mother’s suicide, modeled on Dorothy Richardson’s own mother and talks about how this incident is the most extreme example of her indirect approach to conventional plot and narrative.

In a nutshell, Honeycomb is another excellent installment in the Pilgrimage series and I’m all set to embark on The Tunnel, which is considerably longer than the last three books.

A MILESTONE

WordPress notified me that I reached a milestone in March – my blog turned 5. Time really flies! Since I hardly accessed my blog for most of the month, for reasons stated right at the beginning, I completely missed it. But I’m very happy at completing five years of blogging, a very enjoyable hobby next to reading, and I appreciate all the comments on my posts too. Long may it continue!

That’s it for March. I began April with the absolutely wonderful Woman Running in the Mountains by Yuko Tsushima (translated from the Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt), and am completed immersed in the International Booker shortlisted Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree (translated from the Hindi by Daisy Rockwell). And of course, I’ll also be reading the fourth book from the Pilgrimage series – The Tunnel.

Woman Running in the Mountains – Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

I was so impressed with Yuko Tsushima’s Territory of Light, a gem of a book I read in 2018, that this brand new release by NYRB Classics was something I was eagerly anticipating. The wait was worth it, I loved Woman Running in the Mountains so much.

Somewhere in the latter half of Woman Running in the Mountains, our protagonist Takiko Okada is haunted by a vision – she is on the top of the mountain slope, at its feet the world stretches away endlessly. It’s a world composed of people, land and houses, but Takiko does not belong there, although she yearns to be a part of it. She is mesmerized by the expanse of this glittering world where “rivers trace silver lines” and the “drifting ice appears and expands into a world of white”, and starts running down the mountain slopes for that one thing she really wants but which will forever remain elusive.

It’s a beautiful scene that captures the essence of Takiko’s emotions and state of mind; that she is alone in a world that does not always accept her or cares enough to understand her circumstances – embarking on a path less trodden that in one fell swoop pushes her to the fringes of society.

The world below is clearly visible from the mountain slope, stretching away beyond the rustling vine leaves. All too clearly and minutely visible. The world where people live. Countless grains of light glitter as if every surface had been sprinkled with quartz dust. A world that appears even more distant than the blue peaks floating on the skyline but it is this world that she wants more than anything to watch, when she could look away and spare herself this slowly welling sadness. When she needn’t know how alone she is.

The girl on the mountainside can’t take her eyes off the glittering world below, although she is about to burst into tears. If only she could leave the mountains. But there’s no place for her away from these slopes, no other place where she is herself. Whenever the tears threaten to brim over, the barefoot girl breaks into a run…

Woman Running in the Mountains, then, is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly. She immediately knows that she’s in labour and gets ready to make the arduous journey to the municipal hospital where she has reserved a place. Takiko is hell bent on going there by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time giving a glimpse into her immediate past – her dismal family circumstances, the brief paltry affair that results in her pregnancy and the venom and abuse her parents subject her to when she decides to keep the baby.

Takiko’s family life is horrendous. Disabled by an accident, Takiko’s father is an embittered man, choosing to drown his sorrows in heavy drinking. Unemployed and a raging alcoholic, the father unleashes all his frustrations on Takiko which typically descends into horrific physical abuse. It only worsens when he becomes aware of Takiko’s pregnancy. The parents, themselves, have a strained relationship, having separated once, only to get back together again. With the father unwilling to contribute to the family income, the bulk of this burden falls on the mother who is not always in the pink of health. Takiko’s relationship with her mother is much more complex. In Japanese society, an illegitimate child is a disgrace, and the mother is horrified by Takiko’s predicament, fearing the social stigma that will befall them. Persistently and vehemently, she urges Takiko to go in for an abortion, but Takiko resists.

The details of the affair are as brief as the affair itself, the man being someone she occasionally had to interact with in her job. Takiko misses the initial signs of pregnancy, but the dawning realization that she is going to bring a baby into the world does not particularly terrify her. In some way, she is in denial – she can’t understand her situation other than what it is, that she is pregnant, but the wider implications of it (the circumstances of her pregnancy and the pitfalls of single motherhood) escape her. She remains ambivalent about abortion until it is too late, when it is clear now that the baby must be born. The mother also resigns to the fact that abortion is no longer an option on the table. She offers to help Takiko during the time of her delivery, but Takiko, unsurprisingly, refuses…accusing her mother of being a hypocrite. However, the mother does visit Takiko at the hospital daily, also coming to pick her up on the day she’s discharged.

The grimness of her family life only heightens her resolve to chart her own path, to break away from her parents, find her own place and begin life anew with her baby. But that’s easier said than done, Takiko quickly realizes. Motherhood forcibly alters the way Takiko sees the world. Before the pregnancy, Takiko was like any other student with a vibrant social life and a slew of boyfriends, indifferent towards her career, although she does manage to secure a job. But the birth of Akira and her role now as a single mother changes all that.

The next few chapters are an absorbing depiction of the daily grind of motherhood – finding a suitable day care center for Akira while Takiko hunts for a job (she is compelled to accept that she must find work first before she can even consider buying a house). She treads a fine line; struggling to navigate the requirements of the jobs she does manage to secure, overwhelmed by the pressure to stick to timelines and deadlines, not to mention, taking care of Akira once home.

It’s only when she comes across Misawa Gardens later does Takiko find a job of her calling, and along with it a sort of an awakening, the awareness of deep new feelings and a chance for love.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in both Woman Running in the Mountains and Territory of Light; a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. What’s interesting though is how this theme evolves in different ways in both novels. In Territory of Light, the protagonist is divorced, and she struggles to balance the demands of motherhood (she has a young daughter) with the desire to have a life of her own. The scenario is different in Woman Running in the Mountains, where the responsibility of single parenting falls on Takiko simply because she gives birth to a child without marrying. For Takiko her life with Akira, despite the slew of hurdles associated with early motherhood, is akin to an oasis in a barren desert.

The book explores the theme of a woman’s quest for freedom, to carve out an independent life for herself. By keeping her baby, Takiko chooses to forge her own path and make her own decisions; in many ways, defying traditional, conservative Japanese norms, at a time when single motherhood let alone an illegitimate child were unheard of. An element of control also imposed by society does not deter her. This is particularly exemplified by her mother who accuses Takiko of being casual and careless as a mother when that is hardly the case; Takiko is well aware of the practical matters of motherhood and rises to the challenge despite various setbacks.

Woman Running in the Mountains is also a beautiful meditation on loneliness and alienation and how our minds find unique ways to cope. Crippling poverty, the weight of motherhood and a toxic family environment heighten Takiko’s sense of alienation. On the one hand, there’s nothing much to distinguish her experiences of motherhood from those of countless women in the same boat. It’s hardly a big deal, and yet Takiko is always made aware of the fact that as far as she is concerned it is a big deal. Other women have husbands and the children are a product of marriage. Takiko is a single mother and her son is born out of wedlock; both factors unthinkable in Japan at the time.

Just like the superb Territory of Light, Woman Running in the Mountains pulsates with flashes of intense light; a prominent feature that floods Takiko’s soul, offering the promise of respite and hope, when all areas of her life are shrouded in darkness. It’s a book bursting with stunning visions that evoke sensations of joy and wonder in Takiko; visions that sustain her when all else seems bleak. These dreams and visions morph into various forms – vast expanses of white, men hurtling on sleds, the glittering frozen sea and Takiko herself always running; the latter particularly being a symbol of freedom rather than escape.

The village in the valley below isn’t all she can see. Beyond the far ridge lies a plain where she can trace a river, and then the sea, like a great liquid amethyst. The coastline stretches away to the north, sometimes straight, then curving, then rugged, until finally the sea ices over and glitters whitely. The girl likes that glittering whiteness best of all. Although it is the farthest thing she can see from the mountain, she feels drawn to the frozen sea. The swift figures of men on dog sleds haven’t escaped her notice either. The merest black dots, they glide freely through the white expanse. An apparently endless sea of ice.

Throughout the book, Takiko finds solace in the beauty of the natural world around her as well as the hallucinatory landscapes fuelled by her imagination. In a bid for relief from the horrible environment back home, especially during her pregnancy, Takiko’s walks to the boathouse take her to the edge of the water where “receiving that dazzling sparkle gave her a sense that something was rapidly melting”, during her hospital stay, the poplar tree with its finely burnished leaves and “the expanse of solid blue behind it made her feel momentarily cool whenever she looked out” amid the clamour and swirl of the ward. At the Misawa Gardens, the greenhouse with “its seething, swirling mass of every shade of green” and the calm and peace of the place enthralls her.

Takiko never resents being a mother and loves Akira wholeheartedly even when motherhood often frustrates her. And yet, on her chosen path that she must traverse alone, she does savour moments of kinship and contentment. For instance, she finds comfort in the hustle and bustle of the maternity ward and the camaraderie between new mothers, as well as during her daily trips to Midori Nursery to drop off and pick up Akira.

Woman Running in the Mountains radiates with the wonder of new experiences. For Takiko, motherhood is of course the biggest life altering experience ever, but she also discovers the beauty and sadness of falling in love, and the dawning realization that the life of a parent can come at a price – there’s no room for anything else. Takiko is also struck by facets of fatherhood previously alien to her… when she meets some young fathers at the Midori nursery and also later in her conversations with Kambayashi. These are particularly poignant given the disastrous men that have so far surrounded her – a violent father and the string of desultory relationships with men prior to parenthood.

Woman Running in the Mountains, then, is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read. The book sizzles with dazzling light, displaying a palette of emotions from the claustrophobia of an abusive family, to the joys and burdens of early motherhood, to the lingering, aching sadness in the last couple of chapters…and despite it all, to end with a glimmer of hope. Finally, it is a testament to the indomitable spirit of a woman, who despite all odds survives on her own terms and finds some modicum of peace in the process.

Free Love – Tessa Hadley

I had never read Tessa Hadley before and was all set to begin with her earlier novel The Past widely considered to be the best entry point into her work. But the best laid plans often go awry, and her newest novel Free Love is what I wanted to read first simply because I was fascinated by its premise. Anyway, long story short, I loved this novel.

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.

The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh.

When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. The Fischers have a well-appointed, cozy home, artistically decorated by Phyllis who has a flair for these things and is now well ensconced in her suburban life. In contrast to Phyllis’ flighty, flirty personality, Roger is more stable and well-grounded, but the couple seems to get along fairly well. They do have their disagreements though. One point of contention revolves around their son’s education. Roger believes that a stint in a boarding school will go a long way in shaping up Hugh’s character and career, while Phyllis sees no reason why his current life must be disrupted.

Phyllis is close to her son, but shares a volatile bond with Colette, her awkward but intelligent teenaged daughter. In terms of physique, Colette is ungainly but what she lacks in looks, she more than makes up for in intelligence.

Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.

And then there is Nicky, who has not turned up at the Fischer residence yet. Nicky does not look forward to the evening at all; he has merely accepted the dinner invitation on his mother’s insistence. He finally announces his presence at the Fischer home, terribly late, just when the family has already started dinner without him. Nicky, with his revolutionary bent and left leaning outlook, is contemptuous of the world in which the Fischers move, their bourgeoisie living and staid, conservative ideas. Dinner is a fraught affair with Nicky openly airing his radical views, and while Colette remains sullen throughout the meal, Roger is keenly interested in what Nicky has to say.  Phyllis is her old, flirty self but suddenly becomes self-conscious when Nicky inadvertently makes her feel her age.

It’s only when the party embarks on a bizarre expedition to retrieve a neighbour’s son’s slipper from the pond that things take a quick and unexpected turn. Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately setting in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

What had been unthinkable yesterday, now felt inevitable and necessary: she saw that she was capable of being two contradictory things at once, wife and lover. The two sides existed as separate sealed chambers, both were necessary to her, only she had the key to both – how could that harm anyone?

Phyllis and Nicky, enamoured with each other, become immersed in a passionate affair, despite the significant age gap. For Nicky, with a trail of desultory, half-hearted relationships behind him, sex with an experienced woman like Phyllis is a revelation. For Phyllis, whose sex life with Roger borders on the awkward, the affair with Nicky is bracing and gives her a sense of liberation.

His lascivious uninhibited gaze was as arousing, almost, as if he touched her. She had never been seen like this before, or allowed herself to be seen, without any ironic deflection: not with Roger, nor that other man. Getting his pleasure, Nicky was so heedless and unconstrained – so that she, too, was unconstrained, and didn’t care how he saw her. Married love was too kind, she thought, it hovered on the threshold of this knowledge and never went inside, never took the necessary liberties.

But what is the price that Phyllis will pay for this newfound sliver of freedom?

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family.

Phyllis becomes increasingly drawn to Nicky’s bohemian world which is a stark contrast to her dull, orderly existence where beauty and polite conversations take precedence over ideas and new ways of thinking.

As the novel progresses, Phyllis’ relations with her family, unsurprisingly, undergo a sea of change; with the children, particularly, it reverses. Her son, the apple of her eye, disapproving of the path Phyllis has chosen, becomes increasingly estranged from her. Colette, visibly shaken by the breakdown of her family, feels unmoored and adrift, and yet slowly begins to bond with her mother. Roger is angry with Phyllis for throwing him into an embarrassing situation, and puts on an impenetrable exterior that only alienates his children. Struck by the difficulty in communicating his feelings, he struggles to cope, but then finds solace in an unexpected quarter.

Based on the premise alone, Free Love could easily have been a run-of-the-mill kind of a novel, but it is not…it’s quite the opposite. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

The characters are well-developed, fully realized…they are flawed and deeply humane as they struggle to navigate an uncertain future fuelled by the disintegration of their old world. Various facets of their personalities – desires, fears, hopes, secrets – are so sensitively presented, but Hadley never judges them. The point is not to dwell on their faults, as much as it is to delicately depict the differing perceptions of each of her characters as they grapple with a common dilemma. Hadley’s warmth, wisdom and understanding are on full display here as she beautifully renders the turmoil raging in her characters’ inner and outer lives.

In a nutshell, Free Love, is a profound meditation on the importance of a meaningful existence, and how that definition can mean different things to different people. Highly recommended.

Dance Move – Wendy Erskine

Irish writer Wendy Erskine’s first collection of stories, Sweet Home, received widespread acclaim and featured on many prize lists. I haven’t read it yet, but decided to begin instead with her latest and newest collection first, the deliciously titled Dance Move, and what a superb piece of work it turned out to be.

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites and those are the ones I will focus on here.

In the first story “Mathematics”, we are introduced to Roberta, a cleaning woman employed and trained by an agency run by Mr Dalzell. Roberta is thoroughly efficient at her job, excellent at following instructions to the tee, and is hired by Mr Dalzell when he observes her cleaning the floors at a restaurant. Her daily routine is fairly simple. She has to liaison with Gary Jameson who drives her in his van to the houses or hotel rooms she has to clean. He gives her the requisite house keys, to be returned as soon she finishes her work. If she finds items left behind by the occupants, she is free to keep them (“The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun”).

But one day, Roberta’s routine is upended. On her second job, while clearing up the remnants of a house party, she opens a bedroom door to notice a school girl of about eight or nine perched on the bed. She’s patiently waiting for her mother, instructed to stay quiet in the bedroom, while her mother partied the night before, but now it’s clear that the girl has been abandoned. Roberta has no idea who her mother is or how to go about finding her, but she manages to glean the name of the school the child attends daily. Meanwhile, she takes the girl with her to her own home, but keeps Mr Dalzell and Gary Jameson in the dark about these developments. As she begins to bond with the girl, snatches of Roberta’s childhood are revealed to us, the blurry details hinting at similarities in their fate. “Mathematics”, then, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present.

One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism. The story opens in the present, where the protagonist Caro (short for Caroline) is living in a one-bedroom house in Belfast, slowly patching together the torn pieces of her life; twenty-five traumatic years wasted on a lost cause.

Bit by bit, we begin to get a colour of Caro’s past. Brought up in an indifferent household, Caro, in her student days, decides to break away from the smallness of the place she grew up in, and enrolls in a university in London to study linguistics. Soon, university life disillusions her, and at some moments Caro is even homesick, but her pride prevents her from going back. It’s at a student union talk that Caro’s life takes an unfortunate turn pretty much defining how the rest of her life shapes up. There she meets Bill, who introduces her to his set of friends, a bunch of people with vaguely defined ideas of fighting causes or making a difference.

Caro had started to visit that flat every week. There were speakers, demos, papers, house resolutions, discussions and debates and at times anger. But there was also a sense of optimism and imminence.

Soon, she becomes part of the nucleus which involves Bill, Maurice, the leaders and dominant personalities in the group, Bridget and Luis. Over the next many years, Caro finds herself enmeshed in their claustrophobic world where she is relegated to the unglamorous, thankless role of housekeeping, caregiving and cooking. Whatever attempts she makes at independent thinking are quickly squashed by Bridget. A clear case of abuse, Caro submits to the wand of control wielded by Bridget and Luis, until a slew of unfortunate occurrences give Caro the release that she deserves.

“Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived. We are introduced to Marty and Rhonda who are invited to a posh birthday party hosted for Rhonda’s cool, detached sister Eloise. Eloise and her husband Edgar are wealthy and doing well in life in a way Rhonda and Marty are not, which causes Rhonda much heartache and envy. Rhonda also has a tetchy relationship with Marty and is often embarrassed by him although Marty could not be bothered. To make matters worse, Rhonda is aggrieved that their marriage has not yielded children, while Eloise has been blessed with a daughter. The birthday party – the present – forms the focal point or the core, from which the story often makes detours into the reveries and desires of Marty, Rhonda, Eloise and Edgar – their disillusionment with how their life has evolved, and their yearning for things not meant to be.

While the little overhead vent on the plane had been blowing air in her face, Rhonda had been lying on a beach somewhere with Edgar. He had just brought her a drink in a tall glass. He rearranged the beach umbrella, and the little breeze stopped. It was endlessly sunny with Edgar and sometimes they lived in a house she had seen in an interiors magazine that belonged to a professor at Stanford; a house in Palo Alto, all greenness and beautiful wood. So warm there too. There was always golden late afternoon light when they had sex.

“His Mother” is a poignant depiction of a mother dismantling the ‘missing’ posters of her now dead son, the emotions of those days flooding her mind; while the title story “Dance Move” takes a look at generation gap underlined by the disconnect between a pushy mother and her rebellious daughter.

“Mrs Dallesandro”, a tale of unexpressed unhappiness, focuses its lens on a housewife on the day of her twenty-third wedding anniversary, who while at a tanning salon reminisces about a sexual romance in her youth. “Nostalgie” is an account of misplaced reasoning and regret where a singer is called upon by a paramilitary outfit to perform a hit song from his long forgotten music album from the distant past.

In “Bildungsroman”, a cocky young man becomes an unlikely confidante of his landlady’s dark secret which will later come back to haunt him, while “Memento Mori” is a tale of illness, death, the suddenness of both and its life-changing impact on the people left behind.

There’s a wide range of themes covered in this collection – failed relationships, abandonment, the quest for a better life, missed chances, thwarted dreams, unlikely friendships, illness, and the sense that the past can never entirely leave us. Many of the characters struggle to carve out a meaningful existence for themselves, often confronted with unexpected situations that leave an indelible impression on their minds, sometimes even offering relief from the tedium of the everyday. Lost and adrift, they are mostly ordinary people whose lives are somehow altered for the better or worse by chance encounters or events that befall them out of the blue.  Then there are some who try to make peace with their imperfect circumstances under false pretenses. For instance, Mrs Dallesandro is aware that her prosperous husband has a roving eye, but deludes herself into thinking that they are not really affairs, while Caro becomes a victim of manipulation and deceit under the false guise of making a difference.  

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”).

In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.