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.