Favourite Books Set During Summer

It’s scorching hot in Mumbai, the summer having reached its peak. Today, when I lifted my head from the computer, I saw dust motes swirling in the funnel of light streaming through the window, a scene that reminded me of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series and the wonderful way in which she depicts the magnificence of light.

Anyway, it got me thinking about summer light and books set during this season. And so without much ado, here are some of my favourite ‘summer’ books read in the last couple of years; they display a range of themes and emotions – passion, nostalgia, innocence, desire, violence, dreaminess and joy.

THE GREENGAGE SUMMER by Rumer Godden

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky). Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.

But all their best laid plans go awry when the mother falls ill. Thus, once at the hotel, the children are largely left to their own devices and latch on to the mysterious Elliott who takes them under his wing much to the chagrin of his lover and the owner of the hotel, Mademoiselle Zizi.

This is a beautiful book with evocative descriptions of a languid French summer. Despite the joys of new experiences, there are darker currents with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide.

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

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

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

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

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

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

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.

A MONTH IN THE COUNTRY by J. L. Carr

Tom Birkin, a soldier in First World War and having suffered shell shock, arrives in Oxgodby in the summer of 1920 to uncover a medieval wall painting in the village church. This is a gorgeous novella of sheer perfection portraying themes of the transient nature of time, the fleeting moments of happiness, and the process of healing through the restorative power of art. It has everything – nostalgia, an art mystery, romance, and atmospheric descriptions of an idyllic village life.

THE ISLAND by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island 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. Dona Praxedes, her grandmother, is a domineering woman, who takes matters into her own hands ensuring that Matia is sent to live with her. The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person.

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. 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.

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. 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.

That’s it for now. I hope to do more such themed posts going forward, a lovely reminder of some excellent books I’ve read in the past.

A Month of Reading – April 2022

April was a superb month. I managed to read seven books (including three during a lovely beach holiday) which I’m pleased about because my new job means that I will not be able to keep up that pace in the coming months. But more importantly, all the books were simply excellent. While my favourites were Woman Running in the Mountains, Gentleman Overboard and Foster, ultimately I would heartily recommend them all.

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

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. Geraldine Harcourt)

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.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s 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 ISLAND by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island 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. Dona Praxedes, her grandmother, is a domineering woman, who takes matters into her own hands ensuring that Matia is sent to live with her. The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person.

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. 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.

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. 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.

GENTLEMAN OVERBOARD by Herbert Clyde Lewis

Gentleman Overboard is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. But when the hours slip by and the Arabella disappears from the horizon, Standish is forced to confront the possibility that he is likely to die.

It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic.

ART IN NATURE by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection, while one of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process.

MRS CALIBAN by Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

When one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined. The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances; a chance for excitement, love and adventure…

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. 

FOSTER by Claire Keegan

Foster is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change, she becomes absorbed in the Kinsella household’s daily routine and begins to blossom under their care.

This book is a mini marvel and one of its greatest strengths is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, where Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space.

THE TUNNEL (PILGRIMAGE 2) by Dorothy Richardson

The Tunnel is the fourth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater and Honeycomb. It’s the longest novel in the series so far and the most interesting.

Each of the three novels preceding The Tunnel see Miriam arriving with her suitcase to a new destination and lodgings in the first chapters – in Pointed Roofs it’s the girls’ boarding school in Hanover (Germany), in Backwater we see Miriam employed as a teacher in the Perne school in Banbury Park (North London), and Honeycomb sees her alighting at the Corrie estate in the countryside to take on the post of a governess.

It’s no different in The Tunnel, as we see Miriam being shown her room in a house run by Mrs Bailey in Tansley Street, London. In this book, Miriam for the first time is living independently in London and also for the first time is not employed as either teacher or governess. The novel records Miriam’s experiences in the bustling metropolis working as a dentists’ assistant at a private practice on Wimpole Street.

Chapter One, where Miriam settles into her new room, can be a bit disorienting as it plunges into heady stream of consciousness style, where various people and places are mentioned with no context. But what we gauge is that in her mind Miriam is comparing the various places she has stayed in so far, and comes to the conclusion that Mrs Bailey’s is the best.

In terms of length, while most of the chapters are anywhere between 2-4 pages, Chapter Three is the longest in the book where we are given a detailed account of a day in Miriam’s working life. The reader for the first time gets a flavour of her workplace and the people that run it. Mr Orly and Dr Hancock are the partners of the dental practice; the former is a senior member, but Dr Hancock is the brilliant one and the most professional of the lot as evident from the number of patients that prefer his services. Miriam’s work is multi-faceted – cleaning the surgical instruments, making preparations to get the rooms ready before scheduled surgeries, tending to the account books, answering letters and responding to telephone calls. The days are hectic and tiring but also rewarding in a way, her salary instills a sense of worth given that Miriam has had a taste of poverty and therefore values money. We are also introduced to the others in the practice – Mrs Orly, who is the house manager, and Dr Leyton, the Orlys’ son and the youngest dentist there. Miriam, meanwhile, is impressed by Dr Hancock’s professionalism and also learns of his interest in Japanese art, theatre and concerts.

In sharp contrast, Chapter Seven is the shortest chapter in the book, barely a paragraph, and is rather elliptical in the way it depicts Miriam’s strong reaction to Teetgen Teas. The glimpse of the tea-shop possibly reminds Miriam of her mother, who commits suicide at the end of Honeycomb.

The Tunnel is a novel where Miriam is struck by the wonder of new experiences. First, it’s the city itself, there’s palpable excitement of being an independent woman living in an exciting city such as London. She often meets up with Mag and Jan, who represent the free women of the time, and although Miriam frets about the pressure of saying clever things when she is with them, she is nevertheless invigorated by their company and the fascinating conversations they have, which to me were some of the best parts of the novel.

…The weekend stretching out ahead immensely long, the long evening with the girls, its lateness protected by the coming Sunday, waking lazily fresh and happy and easy-minded on Sunday morning, late breakfast, the cigarette in the sunlit window space, its wooden sides echoing with the clamour of St Pancras bells, the three voices in the little rooms, the hours of smoking and talking out and out on to strange promontories where everything was real all the time, the faint gradual coming of the twilight, the evening untouched by the presence of Monday…

Miriam visits an artist’s home in the company of Miss Szigmondy, attends musical concerts with Dr Hancock and even watches the adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Lyceum theatre all by herself. But most importantly, Miriam discovers the pleasures of bicycling, particularly the sense of freedom that comes with it.

One of the strongest and most interesting aspects of The Tunnel is Miriam’s scathing, unflinching views on the differences between men and women, especially on how women are restricted to limited roles. Seen entirely from her perspective, the men don’t come off great, and some of the women have faults too (“What was the secret of the everlasting same awfulness of even the nicest of refined sheltered middle-class Englishwoman?”).  Here are some examples…

On page 221…

They despise women and they want to go on living – to reproduce – themselves. None of their achievements, no ‘civilization’, no art, no science can redeem that. There is no pardon possible for man. The only answer to them is suicide; all women ought to agree to commit suicide.

On page 220…

If, by one thought, all the men in the world could be stopped, shaken and slapped.

On Page 210…

In speech with a man a woman is at a disadvantage – because they speak different languages. She may understand his. Hers he will never speak nor understand.

The other important development takes place in the earlier part of the novel when she is invited for the weekend to the country estate of her friend Alma Wilson. Her husband is the renowned writer Hypo Wilson (a fictional depiction of HG Wells with whom Richardson goes on to have an affair). In this book though, Miriam encounters a slew of literary people at the Wilson residence and is even encouraged by Hypo Wilson to take up writing, although Miriam remains plagued by self-doubt (“It would be wrong to write mediocre stuff”).  

Miriam spends her summer break with Gerald and Harriett, who is expecting a baby…and she also bicycles to Marlborough to pay a short visit to the plush Green residence where Eve is a governess, where Miriam is disconcerted to learn of Eve’s poor health.

What I have loved about all the four books in the series are the gorgeous descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life – the way the light filters in or shimmers around Miriam’s surroundings be it in her room or outside, the beauty of commonplace objects, the sense of coziness that envelops Miriam when she dines in an ABC or sinks into the sofa and savours tea after a tiring day. What I have also observed about Richardson’s writing is this – the thoughts that swirl in Miriam’s mind can sometimes be opaque, and it’s not always easy to grasp the meaning of each and every sentence, and I have learnt not to get bothered by it, but to carry on, a strategy that I’ve come to rely on and ultimately find rewarding as long as I appreciate the gist of Miriam’s thinking.

As I mentioned before, I found this to be the most interest book so far simply because of the range of experiences that Miriam is exposed to and the people she meets…probably the title of this book refers to the tunnel of self-discovery for Miriam as her world expands.

That’s it for April. I began May with Han Suyin’s Winter Love in the gorgeous McNally Editions paperback, Edith Wharton’s bleak but brilliant Ethan Frome, as well as Sara Stridsberg’s The Antarctica of Love. And of course, I’ll also be reading the fifth book from the Pilgrimage series – Interim.

Foster – Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan is a wonder. I absolutely loved her short story The Forester’s Daughter as well as her latest novella Small Things Like These, the latter having garnered rave reviews, and very rightly so. With Foster, her earlier penned novella, she continues to impress.

“God help you, Child,” she (Mrs Kinsella) says. If you were mine, I’d never leave you in a house with strangers.”

There’s a moment in this achingly beautiful novella when our narrator, a young girl, is asked by Mr Kinsella whether she can run. She is confused by the question, but what Mr Kinsella wants to know is how fast she can sprint from the end of the lane to the post box. When she runs as fast as she can, Mr Kinsella is impressed by her speed given it’s her first time but indicates that they will try again tomorrow to test whether she can improve. The girl is struck by the idea that she is expected to run any faster to which Mr Kinsella replies, “By the time you’re ready for home you’ll be like a reindeer.” That haunting scene of the young girl racing down the lane is once again presented to the reader in the final pages, but rather than something as innocuous as collecting letters from the postbox, it’s for a reason that’s much more sad and heartbreaking.

Foster, then, is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. The girl has many siblings, she’s born into a family that continues to grow, and her mother is once again expecting another child shortly. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period.

Her father leaves her at the Kinsella home with no suitcase of fresh clothes other than the ones she is already wearing. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change.

As the days roll by, she becomes absorbed in the daily routine of the household, helping Mr and Mrs Kinsella in the house, kitchen and on the farm, deriving joy from these simple pleasures. The aroma of good, wholesome food instills a sense of wellbeing, and she revels in warm baths (“The water is deeper than any I have ever bathed in. Our mother makes us bathe in what little she can, and makes us share.”)

The Kinsellas buy her new clothes and she develops a fine camaraderie with Mr Kinsella who takes her out on walks and to the beach, and expands her worldview by introducing her to books.

We fold my clothes and place them inside, along with the books we bought at Webb’s in Gorey: ‘Heidi’, ‘What Katy Did Next’, ‘The Snow Queen.’ At first, I struggled with some of the bigger words but Kinsella kept his fingernail under each, patiently, until I guessed it and then I did this by myself until I no longer needed to guess, and read on. It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy.

But the Kinsellas harbour a terrible secret and its discovery makes the girl realize for the first time how easily her idyll could shatter to pieces.

Among other things, Foster is a stunning meditation on class differences and the pivotal role a child’s upbringing plays in the shaping of its future. It’s a poignant depiction of how a little bit of compassion and tender loving care can make a marked difference in an individual’s life, considerably altering it for the better. For instance, given that our narrator’s parents have to grapple with financial constraints and are barely making ends meet, it does not help matters that the family keeps expanding. Lack of time and money only exacerbates their precarious situation – her siblings are neglected too and must learn to fend for themselves. For our narrator, life with the Kinsellas is a whole new world altogether, akin to being transported to another orbit and she marvels at how different it is from her family experiences so far. The Kinsellas don’t have children and are relatively well-off and it is no surprise that she begins to blossom under their care.

I go down steps until I reach the water. The sun, at a slant now, throws a rippled version of how we look back at us. For a moment, I am afraid. I wait until I see myself not as I was when I arrived, looking like a tinker’s child, but as I am now, clean, in different clothes, with the woman behind me.

The greatest strength of Foster, though, is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, and how Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space. Her writing drips with so much beauty and tenderness; there’s something soulful about her spare, finely chiseled sentences that leaves a deep impression on the mind. As with a perfectly composed piece of music, absolutely nothing in this novella strikes a false note. In a nutshell, Foster is an 88-page display of sheer virtuosity, a mini marvel that I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

Art in Nature – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

I love Tove Jansson’s books. Many years ago, I was very impressed with The True Deceiver published by NYRB Classics, while The Summer Book by the same publisher found a place on my Best of 2021 list. And now, Art in Nature, published by Sort Of Books, is another work of hers I would highly recommend.

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection. The scene of action is a summer art exhibition, outdoors in a park, and our protagonist is the caretaker, the only member of staff to stay overnight at the exhibition premises. He is proud of this art show where the mediums of expression on display are so varied – painting, graphic arts and the like…but what the caretaker loves best are the sculptures.

They grew up out of the grass, huge dark monuments in smooth incomprehensible formlessness or in tangled convulsions, challenging and disturbing. They stood everywhere among the birches as if they’d sprung up from the soil, and when the summer night arrived and the mist drifted in from the lake they were as beautiful as granite crags or withered trees.

One night past the closing hours, he comes across a bonfire, cans of beer and a middle-aged couple arguing about a work of art they have recently purchased. They are quarrelling because they can’t see eye-to-eye on what this contemporary work essentially conveys. Until the caretaker surprises them with a whole new perspective on how they can view it.

One of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art. A young cartoonist, Sam Stein, is employed by a leading newspaper to step into the shoes of his predecessor – the popular and famous Allington who one fine day suddenly decides to step down. Allington is the creator of Blubby, a comic strip that has run for 20 fruitful years, guaranteeing his success.

Not ready to tamper with something that has worked so well, the newspaper decides to keep the comic strip running without Allington’s absence being noticed by his loyal readers, but this would involve hiring another artist to continue the strip in Allington’s name. That responsibility falls on the shoulders of rising cartoonist Sam Stein, and while the job is by no means a piece of cake, Stein rises up to the challenge. Working in Allington’s room and surrounded by his paraphernalia, Stein remains tormented by the suspense surrounding Allington’s disappearance and he wishes to dig deeper into the incident.

All he wanted was to try and find Allington. He needed to understand. He had a seven-year contract and he needed to be calmed or alarmed, one or the other, but he had to know.

What he subsequently discovers depresses him even further and he begins to question his sanity and the merits of his profession.

Jealousy and rivalry take centrestage in “The Doll’s House”, which begins on an innocuous note but steadily descends into violence. The artist in this tale is Alexander, an upholsterer of the old school, exceptionally skilled with a “craftsman’s natural pride in his work.” Alexander has lived in an apartment for 20 years with Erik, a banker by profession. Despite their vocations being as different as chalk and cheese, both men “have the same respect for lovely objects.” A day dawns when Alexander finally hangs up his boots and sells his upholstery workshop, while Erik retires from the bank.

They put Alexander’s samples in a cupboard and drank champagne to celebrate their new freedom.

Adapting to their new circumstances is difficult at first…

In fact, he (Alexander) didn’t care about reading as much as he once had. Perhaps books had tantalized him only as a stolen luxury in the middle of a working day.

But then Alexander is struck by the idea of building a doll’s house; a hobby that completely engrosses him to the point of obsession. Cracks begin to appear in his relationship with Erik who is relegated to the role of cooking and cleaning, while Alexander continues to be absorbed in his newfound passion. And when Alexander strikes up a friendship with a man who shares his zeal for the doll house, Erik’s role in the household further diminishes, a development that has repercussions.

Accurate portrayal of a part in a play or film requires study and research and this path takes an unexpected and novel turn in “A Leading Role”.

It was the biggest part she’d ever been given, but it didn’t suit her, it didn’t speak to her.

In this tale, our protagonist, Maria Mickelson, is a theatre actress who is expected to portray a timid woman called Ellen, a proposition she considers challenging and difficult (“An insignificant, anxious, middle-aged woman, an obliterated creature without any personality whatsoever!”). But then she realizes that the role entrusted upon her bears an uncanny resemblance to the personality of her distant cousin, Frida. Taking advantage of the fact that Frida is enamoured by the glamour of the theatre milieu, Maria invites cousin Frida to spend a few days with her at their desolate house in the country.

It was early summer, and she had driven out to their country house to open it for the season. The weather was dreadful, an ice-cold fog as grey and impenetrable as the role of Ellen. Down by the dock, the reeds vanished out into the empty nothingness of the lake, and the spruce trees were black with moisture. The fog forced its way into the house and the fire wouldn’t burn.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation (“And Flora fell asleep on her fur coat and the day passed into evening and she awoke and drank a little champagne, just one glass so she could experience everything with that much greater clarity”), while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

Given that Tove Jansson was an artist herself – writer and creator of the Moomin strips – it’s perhaps no surprise that art and artists dominate much of these stories. The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process – the joys of being good at what you do, and the perils of being devoted to it to the exclusion of everything else.

The characters in these tales are often isolated individuals treading an unfamiliar terrain and often at odds with the demands of the outer world. In a nutshell, Art in Nature is a lovely book, another gem from Jansson’s oeuvre.