Checkout 19 – Claire-Louise Bennett

In 2016, I was highly impressed by Pond, a book that featured on my Best of 2016 list that year. Not surprisingly, I was really looking forward to Checkout 19, and was lucky to procure a signed copy from the Blackwell’s UK website.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The book comprises a total of seven pieces. I began the book thinking that these are seven different chapters, but on progressing further, I noticed many themes and motifs that are intertwined, denying it the neat classification of a short story collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on some of the pieces separately, because I don’t know how else to approach it.

In the first piece called ‘A Silly Business”, the narrative voice is first person plural (as if they are complicit with the reader) and we are immediately plunged into Bennett’s highly original writing, as our narrator begins talking about books and our attitude towards them. She highlights how we go to a library, pull out six to eight books, and once we have them, we can’t really get engrossed in them. Once we begin reading a book, we immediately begin to wonder what lurks in the pages of the other tomes.

It really was just the same no matter which book we picked up. As long as there were other books we thought about the sorts of words they might contain non-stop and were thus precluded from becoming engrossed with the very book we had in our hands. The very book. A silly business. Yes, it was a silly business.

Bennett, then, dives into our narrator’s childhood love for reading, how the books she read had an aura of exclusivity about them, a hobby greatly encouraged by her mother, and yet there was a hidden corner in the house which displayed a row of books that were out of bounds for young readers. It didn’t stop our narrator from secretly opening this cupboard with mixed feelings of curiosity and anxiety, and pulling out a book – “We were looking at things that were no business of ours. Illicit things.”

In the second piece called ‘Bright Spark’, our narrator elaborates on her deep craving for solitude, and the crush she has on her English teacher, Mr Burton, highlighting how he is a critical force in her school years, encouraging her talent as a writer and in a way laying a foundation for her career. She adores him, his classes are lively and exciting, but she hates how he is seemingly quite pally with the boys, a sort of male bonding that excludes her. She wonders about his life outside the classroom. Then, one day, he fails to appear for a class and his place is taken by a substitute teacher who is no patch on Mr Burton. In a fit of boredom, our narrator begins doodling on the back of her exercise book, and failing to capture Mr Burton’s facial features in an attempted drawing, she begins to feverishly pen a story. Mr Burton later chances upon it and a bond is formed.

He was with me very strongly when I lay in the dark, it was almost as if I was made of him. Writing could do that. Here was a way of reaching someone, of being with them, when you were not and never could be. Here was where we met. Here was where the distinction between us blurred. When he returned my story to me the following Tuesday the paper was covered with him – touching it was like touching his skin.

The third piece, ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, the longest and my favourite of the lot, is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and reality dotted with a dazzling array of authors and books which played an important role in shaping our narrator’s world. Our narrator tells us how when she was in her twenties, she penned the story of Tarquin Superbus – “a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” The era is never defined, but when he is having conversations with the Doctor, our narrator imagines “gentlemen in the mid-1800s so to speak – byzantine, comical and portending.” Where is his apartment situated? Vienna possibly, but Venice seems apt – “if his grasp on reality is a little shaky to say the least, Tarquin Superbus is in Venice, because, after all, what reality is there to be found in Venice?”

Our narrator subsequently chronicles a chain of events in Superbus’ life – his close relationship with the Doctor who looked like Death (“there was nothing inside of him, he was vaporous, empty as a hologram, he achieved movement, not via the mechanism of his body, but by the fact that he consisted of a substance lighter than air – Death.”), but more importantly the central feature in his life which is the acquisition of a large library of books. The possession of such a gargantuan library, at first, makes Superbus a figure of awe and reverence, and he revels in his sense of importance. But this respect quickly gives way to contempt and derision, which begins to trouble Superbus deeply.

When he confides to his close friend the Doctor, the latter enters Superbus’ visually stunning library, begins pulling out various books off the shelves and feverishly turning their pages. He delivers his shocking verdict – all the pages in the books are literally blank, there is not a single printed word.

That is the original outline of the story penned by our narrator in her twenties, an enterprise that is thwarted by an incident revealed in the final pages of this piece.  In later years, however, she adds to it the dramatic revelation by the Doctor…

The pages Tarquin, are all blank, except for one page. Within the collection there is one page that is not blank – at least not entirely. It has upon it one sentence; that’s all, that’s it – one sentence. And this one sentence contains everything. Everything.

In subsequent years, our narrator often goes back to this story, rewriting it and embellishing it with books and authors that have influenced her way of thinking with the result that as a reader what we are reading is a retelling of the Superbus story.

The Doctor provided no explanation of this sort in the story I wrote all those years ago. The pages of Superbus’ library were blank, and that was all there was to it. It seems in the retelling I have got carried away. But then I have read so much and written so much since then it is hardly to be wondered at that in the meantime some ideas pertaining to the potency of the written word, based upon direct and seismic experiences, have been developing inside of me and should find their way out…

It’s a story that acts as a framing device as our narrator then deviates from that path and ventures into a range of topics and life experiences that occupy her thoughts – how women in the earlier century, restricted to the household, were belittled driving them to point of madness; how she is drawn to shadows rather than light citing Tanizaki’s concept of ‘visible darkness’; a boyfriend who mocks her reading choices; a trip to Florence influenced by Foster’s A Room with a View; a journey to Tangier and Fez prompted by Paul Bowles’ life (“what kind of person, who had the kinds of connections and opportunities that Paul Bowles must certainly have had, feels that life in New York would be boring nevertheless?”), how she is of the view that Anais Nin should be read later on in life, “when one has solidified and feels so very sure of themselves and would perhaps benefit from coming undone, from perhaps going out of their minds”, how her boyfriend Dale keeps poetry by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath out of her reach because they committed suicide, and whether she has what it takes to be a writer.

I had read a few books by Francoise Sagan, including “Bonjour Tristesse”, which I discovered she’d written when she was just eighteen, and that threw me into a tizz for a little while because I would have been that exact age when I read “Bonjour Tristesse”, but the things I was writing at that time when I was that age had none of the clarity and assuredness of Sagan’s work, they were autotelic and inscrutable and quite often when I read back over them I didn’t understand them at all, they perplexed and disturbed me, they didn’t tell a story, they expressed confusion and despair and desire and anger, irrepressible forces which issued out of dissonance that existed between my interior life and the world around me, and nobody would want to read that…

In the fifth piece ‘We Were the Drama’, among many things, our narrator recalls her impromptu trip to the seaside city of Brighton, a spur of the moment excursion that considerably distresses her boyfriend Dale. She talks about how she had no idea about Brighton’s best kept secret at the time – Ann Quin, but subsequently comes to love her imaginative work, particularly Berg. She also dwells on how Quin’s working-class circumstances stifle and terrorize her, how her job in a Cornwall hotel is a symbol of mind-numbing tedium. Her travels to the US are a bright spot, but the return to menial work again fills her with dread and consequently compels her to committ suicide. But Ann Quin’s suicide is the not the only one that haunts the pages of this piece, our narrator witnesses another disturbing death of an unknown person in an unfamiliar place that leaves an indelible impression on her mind.

As I said before, the boundaries of genre in Checkout 19 are pretty blurred, but interestingly, the second and third parts (‘Bright Spark’ and ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’) form the essential core of the book and the subsequent pieces build on the ideas showcased in those two sections cementing the idea that this is possibly a novel with its seemingly disparate pieces bound together by the recurrence of certain themes, motifs, incidents and images. For instance, the man who pushes a book into our narrator’s hand when she is a supermarket cashier assigned to checkout 19, reappears later as a Russian guy who glides through the aisles at the speed of light always pushing the basket in front of him. The increasingly possessive boyfriend Dale who makes his first appearance in ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, becomes a kind of a central figure in “We Were the Drama.” Glimpses of our narrator’s story that captures the imagination of her English professor in ‘Bright Spark’ are revealed to us in some of the final pieces.

What about our narrator herself, what do we know about her? She is certainly vulnerable, yearns for solitude, is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, finds herself in relationships with the wrong men who thwart her creative ambition, who are a disturbing presence in her life. But there are people who also value her love for books and writing, particularly Mr Burton, her mother, her friend Natasha.  

Checkout 19, then crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality.

I’m not sure whether I have done a good job of conveying the mood and essence of this book, but my assertion – that it is poised to be one of my favourites this year – will hopefully compel you to crack open its pages and delve into Bennett’s vibrant world.

A Month of Reading – August 2021

August turned out to be a terrific month of reading. Barring My Phantoms, I read the rest of the four for #WITMonth, and all were excellent. However, my favourites were the Riley, Mizumura and Piñeiro. You can take a look at my full length reviews for each of them by clicking on the titles. So, without further ado, here are the books…

MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.

The relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if the mother is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds with much aplomb.

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further. But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and knowing fully well that the police don’t take her seriously, she decides to approach Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but since then they had not been in touch.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.

A WOMAN by Sibilla Aleramo (tr. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.

Our narrator is an unnamed woman whose idyllic childhood takes a turn for the worse when her mother attempts suicide but fails. The apple of her father’s eye, but full of contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband, our narrator only begins to understand her mother’s plight when she finds herself eerily in a similar situation. Both women are trapped in a loveless marriage, our narrator in fact is frequently assaulted by her husband, and yet the two women respond differently. While the mother plunges into the depths of mental illness, our narrator fights back on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and the fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing.

A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions. Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time and only heightens its power.

NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.

These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.

Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

That’s it for August. For September, I have almost finished reading Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, the latest Peirene title and very good, as well as Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, the final volume in her ‘Living Autobiography’ series, and which has been simply terrific.

A Woman – Sibilla Aleramo (tr. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.

This unnamed woman is our narrator and from a certain vantage point several years later, she is now looking back on her past and recalling the events that have led up to her present circumstances. So there’s the benefit of hindsight, and also the necessary distance gained from those events to be able to analyse her situation with a certain modicum of detachment.

Our narrator’s first memories are of her childhood in Milan, those carefree days when she is blessed with robust health, charm and intelligence. She is the apple of her father’s eye and they share a special bond, while her mother never stands in the way of her wishes. Our narrator’s formative years are shaped by her father who guides her in her studies and her reading. She always excels in class and there is every indication of a bright future in front of her.

However, being thoroughly self-absorbed, her idyllic childhood blunts her to the harsher realities at home. The father is a dynamic, charismatic man but quite the tyrant. The mother is a frail woman, resigned and unhappy. As a young girl, our narrator has no qualms about displaying contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband.

The months passed, my mother’s sadness grew, Father’s attentiveness towards her dwindled, as did the shared walks; and I, not a little girl anymore, continued to live my life as if it wasn’t threatened in any way. Why? I was as absorbed in my admiration for my father as I had been when a child, but this alone hardly accounts for my blindness. Perhaps Mother herself, in her painful reticence about her illness, was avoiding an all too immature confidante: one who was too exclusively devoted, moreover, to the very person who was the source of her suffering.

When the father is presented with an opportunity to manage and lead a factory, the family relocates from the bustling metropolis of Milan to a smaller working class seaside town in the South. It would mean a disruption in her studies, but our narrator is not daunted and is struck by the beauty of the place. She begins to show an interest in working at the factory and the father encourages that ambition.

Things coast along smoothly until a tragic event causes our narrator’s best laid plans to go completely awry. When in a fit of abject despair, the mother attempts suicide, our narrator is shocked to the core. The mother survives, but her actions cast a pall of gloom over the entire family.

Subsequently, the mother’s over apologetic stance and feeble attempts to placate the father (in vain) only make matters worse. But the incident casts a new light on the father and changes the way our narrator perceives him. Disillusioned on learning that her father is having an affair, he is no longer the ideal she considered him to be, and when during a heated argument she sides with her mother, she is fired from the factory.

And herein lies the irony – Utterly alone and anchorless, our narrator finally begins to understand her mother, of her travails, of why she is so unhappy in a loveless marriage. At her most vulnerable, our narrator is lured by the attentions of a man working at her father’s factory and she gives in to him, if only to escape the desolate environment at home. After a night when he sexually assaults her, she is coerced into marrying him, and from then on even the most fragile connection she shared with her father finally breaks leaving her isolated.

In her marital home, our narrator is faced with the painful reality that there is not much to distinguish between her own predicament and her mother’s plight. With love and respect virtually absent in the marriage, the husband is a devious, cruel man subjecting her to persistent mental and physical abuse.

Utterly tormented, the only silver lining is the birth of her child, a son whom she loves unreservedly, who gives her a fresh purpose in life, whose upbringing and welfare gets her through her darkest days. But even then, moments of desperation seep in, and eerily similar to what her mother went through, our narrator’s fragile state of mind ultimately snaps as she plunges rock bottom.

And yet, unlike her mother who has plunged into the depths of mental illness, our narrator escapes that fate on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and a fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing. Her vocation for writing finds an outlet when she is offered a position at the offices of a feminist magazine in Rome. There, surrounded by like-minded people and serious thinkers, our narrator experiences a broadening of her mind and an expansion of her worldview.

I realized that after a prolonged paralysis, my critical facility had seemingly expanded and intensified; and at the same time I discovered that I had a kind of heartfelt nostalgia for all the things that my education had lacked. Poetry, music, the arts of colour and form remained almost unknown to me, while the whole of my body longed for the rapture they might bring; the thought by which I lived sometimes wanted to take flight, to mingle with light and with sound.

A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions.

But I sometimes tormented myself by thinking of the book that needed to be written; a book about love and sorrow that would be both harrowing and inspirational, relentless and compassionate; that would show for the first time what it was really like to be a woman now, and that for the first time would inspire in those unhappy brothers of ours, men, both remorse for the past and desire for a better future…

Was there a woman in the world who had suffered what I had suffered, who had received from both animate and inanimate things the lessons I had received, and who would know how to extract the essence from such an experience, to create the masterpiece that could properly represent a life?

Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time. This was an era when opportunities for women were pretty limited with not many avenues open to make a mark for themselves, they were still fighting for various rights (for instance, it was in 1911 that Italy’s first national Feminist Congress was formed which called for divorce rights for women). Yet Aleramo, through our narrator, questions why marriage cannot be a union of equal partners and how women need to fight for their own individuality to bolster their self-worth and in the process command respect from their children. She also explores how women have the right to lead a life outside of marriage and motherhood, a topic that sparks debate even today.

But in the early 1900s, when the odds were heavily favoured towards men in a marriage, our narrator knows that once she leaves her husband she will lose full access to her child, a notion she finds unbearable. The dilemma that confronts her, therefore, is this – Should she stay in a demeaning marriage for the sake of her child she loves deeply knowing fully well the loss of freedom that it involves, or should she escape her fate to pursue her dreams and hope that her son understands and respects her decision later?

Aleramo’s writing style is formal and pretty intense throughout, and the feverish tone of the worldviews and emotions expressed make it a tad difficult to read the book for longer stretches of time – while exhilarating, it also leaves you catching your breath, but in a good way. Indeed, given how the mood of the book is so passionate, it makes sense to savour this novel in measured doses to let it all sink in.

Fiercely bold, brave and eye-opening, A Woman, then, is a paean to feminism with its core message centred on a woman’s right to choose freely the destiny that she desires.

To love, to sacrifice oneself, and to submit! Was this what all women were destined for?

Notes from Childhood – Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.

These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. Our narrator’s big family comprises her parents, elder sisters (Irene, Marta, Georgina), and younger siblings (Susana and Eduardo).

Flickering and joyous, broken by only a single night, the first journey we made from Buenos Aires to Mendoza emerges from my memory like a landscape recovered through a misted pane of glass.

As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.

She begins by describing the “three windows that looked into her childhood” – her father’s study with its imposing furniture upholstered in leather, a very formal place Norah could visit only occasionally; her mother’s sewing room, which was inviting and emanated warmth as the sewing baskets overflowed with ribbons and lace, a place where her children could unburden themselves; her eldest sister Irene’s room as she regaled them with tales of kidnappings, of elopements, and how she would one day run away from home.

Our narrator then dwells on her sisters and their personalities – the brooding and intense Marta, whose peeled hands “looked like the pages of a well-loved book whose edges curl backward.” There’s Georgina with her immaculate, poised figure, always ready to help with anything and the apple of their mother’s eye. Then there’s Susana, younger but closer to Norah in age, so that they bond better coupled with the fact that both have flaming red hair.  

Shards of surrealism, seen through the prism of a child’s vivid imagination, pierce these scenes. For instance, one such piece conveys how Norah always tried to slip into the faces of people she observed.

At the age of six, whenever I noticed a pronounced curve in the nose of any of the important men who filed through my house, I would laugh. Then I would slide into their faces, positioning my body inside to adjust to their silhouette.

Another touching snippet showcases the tragic death of her father’s horse and the deep impression it leaves on young Norah’s mind. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the horse could not adapt to its old age and was sidelined for a younger one.

He died of jealousy. That’s how I understood it, and that’s what I wish to keep on believing forever.

Of course, any family life is punctuated by its fair share of highs and lows, so while the birth of their youngest sister Esthercita brings immense joy to the family, the father’s death leaves them feeling adrift as they venture into an uncertain, unknowable future.

Occasionally news from the outside world penetrates the fabric of their domestic life. Even though Buenos Aires is physically and figuratively far away from Europe, the hotbed of strife during the First World War, snatches of it reaches the ears of the sisters inducing feelings of dread.

…the events of the First World War were for us a hazy, distant reality, and once settled in Buenos Aires we were so cut off from all that went on in the world that we ended up forgetting it entirely.

One afternoon, rumors flew through the neighborhood that the Germans were winning. Terrified, and convinced that their victory would mean any number of humiliations, that we would be forced to marry them and to speak their language, we decided to barricade ourselves in the house.

Our narrator, meanwhile, as a child is beset with fears and obsessions (“At one time, it occurred to me to make a list of my obsessions, to contemplate them coldly and perhaps try to free myself of one”). Her role is akin to that of a voyeur, as she observes her sisters and acquaintances surreptitiously, often hidden from full view – she snoops on Marta bathing naked in the moonlight, she peeks into a room where Irene is breastfeeding their younger brother, she yearns to spy on her French teacher’s daughter through a crack in the door so that she can see the latter faint during a dress fitting.

There is joy to be found in simple pleasures – an outing to the cinema (“a room filled with a thick and mysterious darkness we sensed would be unlike any other we’d known”) stimulates feelings of intense excitement and wonder; the crowning glory of those perfect Saturday nights is exemplified by hot baths at dusk complete with lit stoves in the bedrooms, warm towels and nightgowns; while Christmas conjures up glowing images of “huge parcels, that late, keen ritual, that poignant and slightly dreamy midnight…”

I loved to contemplate even more from the next day, in the tangible truth of the gifts that were proofs of its fleeting, mysterious, tender reality.

But this microcosm of a happy family is shattered when the father dies, plunging his wife and children into hardships and poverty, their misery amplified when they are compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice – sell their piano.

Together, we all had sensed that the worse was to come, since though we’d suspected it many times, the sale of the piano was something we didn’t dare countenance for even an instant. The side table, the enormous mirror in the drawing room, and nearly all the furniture we brought from Mendoza had already gone, but giving up the piano represented a decisive, unmistakable poverty.

Our narrator is no stranger to poverty having glimpsed this condition early on in the book when a man approaches her father for a safety pin to fasten his shirt so that he can properly mourn the death of his wife – “I believe no case of poverty has touched me so much since then.”

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.

In her afterward, translator Charlotte Whittle talks about how Lange was inspired by collage artwork  – characterized by varied images stuck together to produce one vibrant piece of art – while composing this memoir. An indication of this is given earlier on in the novel where our narrator entertained herself with her favourite pastime that involved “clipping words from local and foreign papers, arranging them into little piles.”

Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

Elena Knows – Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

And she wonders if Parkinson’s is masculine or feminine, because even though the name sounds masculine it’s still an illness, and an illness is something feminine. Just like a misfortune. Or a curse. And so she thinks she should address it as Herself, because when she thinks about it, she thinks ‘fucking whore illness.’ And a whore is a she, not a he. If Herself will excuse my language.

Elena is now entirely dependent on Levodopa, a drug routinely given to increase dopamine, a critical chemical in the body, a messenger of sorts that carries signals from the brain to the limbs.

And he said, an illness of the central nervous system that degrades, or mutates, or changes, or modifies the nerve cells in such a way that they stop producing dopamine. And then Elena learned that when her brain orders the feet to move, for example, the order only reaches her feet if the dopamine takes it there.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further.

But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and pushes the inspector to do more, to interview potential suspects so that the true facts of Rita’s death can come to light. Because there is one aspect of her daughter’s personality that Elena knows could not have caused Rita to voluntarily visit this local place of worship. So terrified was Rita of being struck by lightning that she always chose to stay away from the church in stormy weather. And it was raining on that fateful day. That explains Elena’s conviction that Rita could not have possibly entered the bell tower (“it’s the town lightning rod”) of her own accord, someone clearly dragged her there and killed her.

The local police indulge her by meeting her regularly but don’t really take her seriously. Elena finds no solace in religion either especially since the priest insists that she put the matter to rest and move on.

When it dawns on her that there is now only one avenue left, Elena braces herself to locate Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but had lost touch since then. Elena’s mission is simple – she is hoping that by calling in an old debt, she gets the help required in catching Rita’s murderer. But given Elena’s illness, finding Isabel is a challenge akin to climbing a steep mountain. She would have to walk a few blocks to the station, ride the train, and after that either walk or taxi to Isabel’s home, hoping against hope that Isabel hasn’t relocated in all that time. It’s a game of chance; yet, Elena is resolved and feels herself equal to the task. Hence, she patiently waits for the clock to strike ten so that she can consume her next pill of the day giving her the fillip to embark on her arduous journey.

That’s the central premise of the story and I don’t want to reveal anything more. But as the novel progresses we are given a glimpse into the tenuous relationship between Elena and Rita, more colour on Rita’s belligerent personality and the crucial encounter between Rita and Isabel twenty years ago, an incident whose repercussions Elena will be compelled to deal with now. The chapters alternate between the present where Elena sets off on her journey, and the past which shines a light on the life she shared with Rita.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease, a hard-edged look at the daily struggles of performing commonplace activities, and the loss of dignity that it involves. Among many things, the illness completely alters Elena’s perception of time, which is now not governed by the clock but pills that she has to take at hourly intervals. Once the effects of the pill wear off, Elena can’t move till she takes her next dose. Her neck perpetually droops and restricts her gaze to a certain height, and her mouth is always dribbling.  She understandably resents being helpless but is painfully aware that she has no choice. And yet, does she still have the will to live on despite her failing body?

Then there is Rita, her daughter, a dominant force in the book, even if she is now dead. Elena and Rita share a love-hate relationship. Given that both women are headstrong, fights are a regular feature when they are together, frequently hurling cruel words at each other.

They repeated the same routine everyday. The walk, the whip cracks, the distance, and finally the silence. The words changed, the reasons behind the fights were different, but the cadence, the tone, the routine, never varied…

As Elena’s disease progresses, the burden of caring for her falls on Rita, who fights through her teeth to ensure health insurance covers her mother’s mounting medical bills. This aspect of the novel brings two critical problems to the fore – the challenges of caregiving and the tediousness of having to deal with seemingly insurmountable red tape. Both these issues highlight how lack of requisite support, both practical and emotional, can make it hard for the caregiver to cope, paving the way for anxiety and depression.

Piñeiro’s bio mentions that she is an active figure in the fight for legalization of abortion in Argentina, so it’s not surprising that she also addresses this topic head-on in the novel, how every woman has the right to make her own choice regarding her body and she employs Rita’s actions as a vehicle to explore this point. As readers are made privy to a slew of Rita’s eccentricities, we are told how she avoids walking past the midwife Olga’s house and always crosses the pavement when she approaches her place. Olga also performs abortions, a fact that Rita finds hard to digest. Rita is a woman driven by her own convictions with not much respect for other people’s choices. She has fixed ideas on moral code and behaviour and an unwelcome aggressiveness in pushing her views on others. 

Roberto and Rita were united by their convictions more than anything else, that way they both had of stating the most broad, arbitrary, clichéd notions as absolute truths. Convictions about how another person should experience something they themselves had never experienced, how people should walk through life along the roads they’d walked down and the ones they hadn’t, issuing decrees about what should and shouldn’t be done.

Ultimately, both Elena and Rita are flawed, unlikeable characters (Rita, I thought, was even worse, particularly for being a busybody), but it’s hard not to feel sorry for their plight accentuated by the difficulties of Elena’s illness. As the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, Elena is forced to confront some hard truths and a possibly growing realization that her earlier opinions about many things might not hold much water. Can she bring herself to accept that at her age?

In a nutshell, Elena Knows is a riveting, tightly constructed novel that turns the crime genre on its head by providing social commentary on pressing issues that remain relevant even today. That she manages to do so by not being too preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.