A Month of Reading – May 2021

These are the books I read in May, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, golden age crime, and 20th century women’s literature. All were very good, but my favourites were the Barbara Comyns, Jhumpa Lahiri and Muriel Spark. Here is a brief look at the books…

IF YOU KEPT A RECORD OF SINSAndrea Bajani (tr. Elizabeth Harris)

When as a young boy, Lorenzo’s mother abandons him and his stepfather and relocates to Bucharest (Romania) to make the most of a career opportunity there, Lorenzo is left feeling unmoored. Having completely lost contact with her since then, Lorenzo is a young adult now, and travels to Bucharest for the first time to attend his mother’s funeral. Through a series of conversations with the people there who were close to his mom, he gleans information on the tragic fate she suffered – despite all the promise in the beginning, the last few years of her life were spent in squalor, and her business partner-cum-lover ditches her for a younger woman. In a second person narrative (the ‘you’ is his dead mother) and taking the reader through a series of flashbacks, Bajani throws light on the themes of grief, loss, a fractured mother-son bond, and a portrayal of Romania emerging from the shadows of a dictator. Tenderly written, the book aches intensely with loneliness, and is a tale of a son trying to understand a mother who was largely absent in his life.

WHEREABOUTSJhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.

THE HOUSE ON THE STRANDDaphne du Maurier

When the narrator Richard Young, at a crossroads in his life, begins consuming an experimental psychedelic drug, he is transported back in time to the 14th century. Mesmerized by what he sees, his addiction to the drug dangerously mounts putting in peril his marriage and family. The House on the Strand is an excellent, absorbing tale of a man literally caught between two worlds where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the narrator.

SYMPOSIUMMuriel Spark

The beauty of Muriel Spark’s books lies in the fact they when you pick one up, you are never quite sure where it’s going to take you. The focal point in Symposium is a dinner hosted by the elegant couple Chris Donovan (a sophisticated, wealthy woman) and her partner Hurley Reed (a painter). With a guest list that comprises eight interesting people, various layers of their personalities and circumstances are revealed to us gradually through expertly woven flashbacks. Throw in a series of unexplained deaths, an active burglary ring, and a convent of Marxist nuns who believe in Lenin more than in God, and you have all the ingredients for a typical ‘Spark’ian fare. This cleverly told tale with its pitch perfect character sketches packs quite a punch, and is a wonderful reminder of how Spark whets the reader’s appetite for the unexpected.

A POCKET FULL OF RYE & A BODY IN THE LIBRARYAgatha Christie

Two excellent books featuring her wonderful creation Miss Marple. In A Pocket Full of Rye, when a wealthy man is found dead with grain in his pocket, the focus shifts to the famous nursery rhyme, and a sumptously described afternoon tea. In The Body in the Library, Miss Marple is summoned by her good friends Colonel and Mrs Bantry when they wake up one morning and discover a body in their library, of a person they have never seen before. In both these mysteries, Miss Marple displays a flair for making astute observations on human nature drawing on parallels from village life.

MR FOXBarbara Comyns

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny. When Caroline is unable to find a way out of her predicament and is left with no choice, she moves in with the dubious schemer Mr Fox for financial support. One of the most unique features of this novel is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life. Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

A Month in the Country – J. L. Carr

A Month in the Country had been getting so many rave reviews over the years, that I can’t believe it took me so long to get to it. It is as fabulous as everyone said it was.

A Month in the Country 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.

Our narrator is Tom Birkin, who is now in his 70s, telling us the story of that particular period in his youth, a time that holds a special place in his heart. 

Rewind to the summer of 1920 and Birkin who had been a soldier in the First World War, arrives in the idyllic village of Oxgodby in Yorkshire on a mission. Birkin is a shattered man, having suffered from shell shock, which physically manifests in the form of a twitch when he is stressed. With a past he would like to forget, and a future that is uncertain, Birkin is looking for some solace in the present by plunging headlong into a project requiring a skill he possesses.

The village church has been left a legacy on the condition that a suspected medieval wall painting above the chancel arch should be expertly restored. Birkin has been commissioned to complete this task – to clean away the elements that have obliterated the painting over the ages.  The mural is around 500 years old and appears to depict a typical scene of Judgement where the virtuous enter the gates of heaven and the sinners are condemned to the fires of hell.

Birkin is happy to stay in the church belfry since he has no money to pay for formal lodgings. As Birkin begins to settle down in his new, bucolic surroundings, he and the reader are introduced to a slew of characters. The vicar, a taciturn man named Keach, is against the idea of restoring the painting, but really has no say in the matter, since the terms and conditions have already been set in stone by the benefactress, the late Mrs Hebron. Birkin, meanwhile, strikes a friendship with the archeologist Charles Moon, also a fellow soldier. Having suffered similar hellish experiences of war and tragedy in love, Birkin and Moon are in a way cut from the same cloth and understand each other. Moon has been commissioned to locate the burial site of Mrs Hebron’s ancient ancestor.

We are introduced to the Ellerbacks – the stationmaster and his family including his young, teenaged daughter Kathy – at whose residence, Birkin is regularly invited for Sunday dinners. And last but not the least, is Alice Keach, the vicar’s wife and a stunningly beautiful woman. Birkin finds himself attracted to her and often contemplates on her marriage with Keach, of what could possibly have brought about a union between the two.

To reveal anything more would be to spoil the plot, so I will touch upon some essential themes that give the novella such a rich flavor.

At its core, A Month in the Country is about finding peace, contentment and a sense of purpose through the healing power of art. The restoration of the wall painting can be interpreted as a metaphor for Birkin looking to restore his sense of self.

You know how it is when a tricky job is going well because you’re doing things the way they should be done, when you’re working in rhythm and feel a reassuring confidence that everything’s unraveling naturally and all will be right in the end. That’s about it: I knew what I was doing – it’s really what being professional means.

The novella also explores the notion of what constitutes hell. There is the depiction of biblical hell in the mural, but what about hell on earth? After all, Birkin, traumatized, has experienced his own version of hell on the battlefields. Birkin, meanwhile, displays a flair for his craft, as he assiduously works on the mural, slowly but surely revealing its true splendor. It dawns on him that what he has uncovered is a masterpiece by a painter unknown to the world.

Who was he! I couldn’t even name him. People don’t seem to understand those far-off folk. They simply weren’t us. Our idea of personal fame was alien to them. This man of mine, for instance, knew nothing of earlier artists, so why should he suppose anyone would want to know anything of him? So it wouldn’t occur to him to sign his work.

Awash with the blazing heat of summer, Oxgodby also represents a microcosm of the idyllic village life, a place where time stands still, where the pace is slow, and life is simple. All of this provides a therapeutic tonic to Birkin, a soothing balm for his bruised soul, as he begins to cherish the place and make new friends.

Day after day that August, the weather stayed hot and dry. These days we call it real holiday weather but, then, only the well-to-do in those parts went far afield and even a week at Scarborough was remarkable. Folk stayed at home and took their pleasure from an agricultural show, a travelling fair, a Sunday-school outing or, if they had social pretensions, a tennis party with cucumber sandwiches…

…And this steady rhythm of living and working got into me, so that I felt part of it and had my place, a foot in both present and past; I was utterly content.

But there is so much more going on. Certainly, the reader can feel a whiff of romance in the air – Will Birkin’s attraction to Alice Keach transform into something more than just a longing? An aura of mystery surrounds the wall painting – a man with a crescent on his forehead is depicted falling into the flames of hell. Who is this man and why was his image obscured immediately after the painting was completed all those years ago?

We are also compelled to ask ourselves – Can we truly preserve the past and what are its repercussions on the future? Moreover, the book frequently alludes to the ephemeral nature of time, how those flashes of joy if not snatched could be lost forever.

If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvelous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.

Seen through sepia-tinted lens, Carr’s prose is sublime whether he is describing the lazy, languid summers, the vibrancy of the painting as it comes alive, the longing for those heady, tranquil days of the past, or while capturing instances of piercing sadness.

We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever – the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on a belfry floor, a remembered voice, the touch of a hand, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.

Teeming with a tinge of nostalgia, an evocative art mystery and a scent of romance, A Month in the Country is a delicious confection meant to be savoured. I adored this novella.

A Month of Reading – May 2020

May turned out to be quite an incredible month in terms of quantity and quality of books I read while the lockdown continued. Here is a brief round-up…

Untold Night and Day – Bae Suah (tr. from the Korean by Deborah Smith)

The first book I read during the month, Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure.

A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

The Wall – Marlen Haushofer (tr. from the German by Shaun Whiteside)

The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love. While holidaying in an Alpine hunting lodge, our unnamed narrator wakes up one day to an unimaginable catastrophe. She is possibly the last living person although she is yet to grasp the significance of this.

Against such a terrifying backdrop, the bulk of the book is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest. The deep bond that she forms with her coterie of animals is very sensitively portrayed and is one of the highlights of the book. And there are some wonderful passages on existentialism and the meaning of life, love and caring, and the evolution of the physical and metaphysical selves. Ultimately, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes the book so beautiful.

A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark

I became a Spark convert last year when I read three of her novels – Memento Mori, The Girls of Slender Means and The Driver’s Seat, all wonderful. I hope to read more of her work this year and eventually make my way through the 22 novels she penned.

The world that Spark creates in her books is superbly off-kilter, with elements of strangeness mixed in with the ordinary. Beneath the surface, there is also a darker current running and this was evident in A Far Cry from Kensington too.

The novella is set in 1950s London. The protagonist Mrs Hawkins is a young widow staying in a guesthouse peopled with eccentric characters, the chief one being the Polish seamstress Wanda and this forms one plot point in the book. Further, Mrs Hawkins is a considered a capable woman working in publishing at a time when publishing jobs were much sought after. But then a dramatic encounter with the hack journalist Hector Bartlett ensues. Mrs Hawkins continuously labels him ‘pisseur de copie’ (meaning that Bartlett urinates bad prose), and this leads to some unexpected consequences.

In a little under 200 pages, Spark marries these two plot points and weaves a deft world which includes blackmail, a bizarre scheme involving a Box, and a dig at the publishing world where one pays a price for speaking the truth. This, then, is another superb Spark novel!

Winter in Sokcho – Elisa Shua Dusapin (tr. from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Winter in Sokcho is a haunting, dreamlike novella set in the seaside town of Sokcho in the far northeastern part of South Korea and close to the border with its impenetrable neighbour. Our protagonist is a young woman working as a maid and cook in a dead end guesthouse and nothing much happens there until the arrival of an enigmatic French graphic artist Kerrand.

It’s all very atmospheric and the author wonderfully captures the remoteness of Sokcho which in a way that mirrors the sense of alienation the protagonist feels. There are some sumptuous descriptions of food thrown in with a bit of background on the tensions with North Korea. Overall, this is a beautifully written novella with its dreamy quality and a wonderful sense of place. I read it on Kindle.

School for Love – Olivia Manning

Olivia Manning’s superb books – The Balkan Trilogy and The Levant Trilogy – were the highlights of my reading in 2019. Set in locations as varied as Bucharest, Athens, Cairo, Jerusalem, Manning has brilliantly captured the feel of these cities on the brink of war and the feeling of uncertainty that grips its inhabitants.

School for Love is set in Jerusalem during the last few years of World War Two. It is a poignant, coming of age story of young and orphaned Felix Latimer (possibly sixteen years old) who arrives all alone in Jerusalem after his mother dies in Baghdad. A relation of his father, Miss Bohun offers to lodge him in the guesthouse that she runs. Miss Bohun is miserly in her dealings with everyone and this only accentuates Felix’s sense of loneliness. And then one day, Mrs Ellis, a young widow, comes to stay in the guesthouse and stirs things up.

Manning has wonderfully brought to life the café culture in Jerusalem with Arabs and Jews gathering to discuss politics and art. But she has also captured with keen insight the gamut of emotions that Felix goes through – from despair and loneliness fuelled by his mother’s death to his infatuation with Mrs Ellis and its consequences. This book is another gem from Manning’s oeuvre.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

Sally Rooney’s Normal People is as wonderful as Conversations with Friends, which made my ‘Best of’ list last year.

The story begins in high school when Connell and Marianne (both in their teens) fall in love. In school, Connell is the popular, nice guy, while Marianne largely keeps to herself and is not much liked. The tables, however, turn when they move to Trinity College in Dublin where Marianne finds her kind of crowd, while Connell struggles to fit in. The book then goes on to chart the on and off relationship between these two over the years.

The story is pretty simple. But what Rooney captures so well is the complexities and uncertainties of young adult love as they struggle against class differences and their own personal demons. The writing is sensitive, fresh and honest and the dialogue between the two feels very real. I loved this book.

Don’t Look Now and Other Stories – Daphne du Maurier

Daphne du Maurier has written some excellent novels – Rebecca, Jamaica Inn, My Cousin Rachel to name a few – but she was also quite adept at penning short stories.

My edition contains nine tales pulled from various collections and here is a glimpse into a couple of them…The title story Don’t Look Now is set among the canals in Venice where a couple who have recently lost their child come across a pair of old ladies who have clairvoyant abilities. In The Blue Lenses, a woman undergoes an operation to improve her vision but when the new lenses are inserted into her eyes what she begins to see disturbs her greatly.

All of these nine tales are unsettling and macabre and display to great effect du Maurier’s excellent storytelling skills.

Isolde – Irina Odoevtseva (tr. from the Russian by Bryan Karetnyk)

Left to her own devices in Biarritz, fourteen-year-old Russian Liza meets an older English boy, Cromwell, on a beach. He thinks he has found a magical, romantic beauty and insists upon calling her Isolde. Meanwhile, she is impressed with his Buick and ability to pay for dinner and champagne.

Disaffected and restless, Liza, her brother Nikolai and her boyfriend Andrei enjoy Cromwell’s company in restaurants and jazz bars later in Paris – until Cromwell’s mother stops giving him money. When Liza and Nikolai’s own mother abandons them to follow a lover to Nice, the group falls deeper into its haze of alcohol and murky dealings.

Isolde is a quite a dark tale of young Russian exiles feeling alienated and out of place in a foreign city. Liza yearns not only for her mother (who has no time for her) but also for her motherland Russia (which also seems out of her reach). It all moves towards a conclusion that seems inevitable and yet tragic.

The House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende (tr. from the Spanish by Magda Bogin)

Set in an unnamed Latin American country (possibly Chile), The House of the Spirits spans three generations beginning with the taciturn and volatile landowner Esteban Trueba who marries the clairvoyant Clara after the latter’s beautiful sister Rosa dies mysteriously.  

Besides being a family saga revealing both tragedies and triumphs, the novel is also peppered with politics. The younger generation increasingly embraces Socialism and fights for the rights of workers clashing with the landowners and conservatives represented by Trueba. While for the most part, the book was engrossing, the ‘magical realism’ elements at times felt a bit over the top. Also, I felt the book could have been a lot shorter. The House of the Spirits is worth reading but I wasn’t blown away by it.

Three Poems – Hannah Sullivan

I loved the first poem in this collection called ‘You Very Young in New York’ which is a wry look at the possibility of romance, disappointment and unattainability of innocence. Sullivan’s descriptions of the New York cocktails bars are quite sensual suffused with a lot of atmospheric imagery. Lights going off one by one are compared to ‘a diminished Mondrian’, while bartenders are figuring out the winter cocktail lists ‘telling each other that Cygnar, grapefruit bitters, and a small-batch Mezcal will be trending in the new year…

Here’s how the poem begins…

Rosy used to say that New York was a fairground.

‘You will know when it’s time, when the fair is over.’

But nothing seems to happen. You stand around

On the same street corners, smoking, thin-elbowed,

Looking down avenues in a lime-green dress

With one arm raised, waiting to get older.

And that concludes my reading in May – 10 books in total. My favourites were the Haushofer, Manning, Spark, Rooney and Bae Suah, while Winter in Sokcho and the du Maurier short stories were also special. Hope to discover some more great books in June.

A Month of Reading – April 2020

The whole of April was spent in lockdown. I was somehow drawn towards authors whose books I had loved before, and this plan really worked because almost all the books I read were marvelous.

Like last month, I read six books in April too. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in April…

We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson

This is a fabulous book – an unsettling tale about an ostracized family sprinkled with doses of dark humour and one of the most strangest and unforgettable narrators ever – the eighteen year old Merricat Blackwood. Jackson is great at creating atmosphere that is seeped in gothic elements – the creeping sense of dread as we read about the fate of the Blackwood sisters in their large home – even if there are no actual ghosts present. 

Whose Body? – Dorothy L. Sayers

This is classic golden age crime and the first book in the delightful Lord Peter Wimsey series, who calls himself an amateur detective. A naked corpse is discovered in a bathtub and the owner of the house has no clue who it is. While the identity of the corpse and circumstances of death continue to perplex the detectives, at around the same time a well-known financier goes missing. The link between the two is for Wimsey to decipher.

Wimsey’s mannerisms sometimes reminded me of Bertie Wooster and this was a solid mystery although I hear that the books subsequently get better.

Evening in Paradise (More Stories) – Lucia Berlin

A few years ago I was blown away by Lucia Berlin’s ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’, a collection of stories that mostly drew on rich material from her real life – and what a life it was! Brought up in the remote mining camps of the Midwest, she was a lonely child in wartime Texas, a rich and privileged young woman in Santiago, and a bohemian hipster in 50s New York. She held jobs as an ER nurse and cleaning woman among others while raising four boys all one her own.

Her writing is unique, full of personality and verve and this is in full display in Evening in Paradise too, which contains a fresh batch of stories. There are 22 pieces in this book and I thought they were every bit as good as in ‘A Manual.’

Some Tame Gazelle – Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym’s world of the parish, curates and garden parties is a real delight and there were dollops of this in Some Tame Gazelle. The book revolves around the Bede sisters – Belinda and Harriet – who are spinsters. Harriet is the outspoken of the two and is more interested in the young curates who come to work in the village, even though she continuously receives marriage proposals from an Italian count. Belinda, meanwhile, has been carrying a torch for the Archdeacon in the village who has been married to another woman for quite some time. But things gets shaken up a bit with the arrival of Mr. Mold and Bishop Grote. Both these men disturb the peace of the village and leave the sisters wondering if they’ll ever return to the order of their daily routines.

Pym’s comic timing is superb and there are some wonderful conversations between the characters particularly between the two sisters. Each character is wonderfully etched and even within the narrower contours of village life, Pym has a flair for bringing out the subtle differences in human nature.

The Soul of Kindness – Elizabeth Taylor

I plan to read every book that Elizabeth Taylor has written – her writing is sublime! In the Soul of Kindness, Taylor focuses on a group of characters at the centre of which is Flora Quartermaine. Flora is gorgeous, married to Richard and they live an enviable life with a comfortable home and a child. Flora has a circle of people she is close to – her best friend Meg, Meg’s brother and aspiring actor Kit, the writer Peter with whom Meg has fallen in love, Flora’s mother Mrs Secretan, Richard’s father Percy and Percy’s mistress Ba. Flora unwittingly believes in performing acts of kindness for them without realizing that these may not always be in their best interest. All of them strive to protect her from herself but there is one character called Liz, a painter unknown to Flora, who sees Flora for what she really is.

Taylor’s writing in The Soul of Kindness is a marvel – elegant, restrained with such a keen insight into the human mind, particularly when it comes to describing the insecurities and the loneliness her characters grapple with.    

The Custom of the Country – Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton’s ‘The Custom of the Country’ is a brilliant, brilliant novel that explores the subtle differences between old and new money in New York in the early 1900s and the implications of divorce for women during that time. All of this is examined through her unique and unforgettable anti-heroine, Undine Spragg whose burning ambition to climb the social ladder has serious repercussions on the people close to her. Wharton’s prose is as ever top-notch, elegant and incisive.

That about sums it up. I thought the Sayers was good, but the rest of the five were simply excellent.

As May begins, I have forayed into Korean Lit – Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day. It’s already super interesting and I am wondering where Suah will be taking me.

My Best Books of 2019

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.

On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.

Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.

All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.

Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:

One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).

So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…

(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).

The Best of 2019: The Winners

2019: Books of the Year

The Neapolitan NovelsElena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!  

Childhood, Youth, DependencyTove Ditlevsen

It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.

One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.

The Balkan Trilogy & The Levant TrilogyOlivia Manning

Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.

The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. 

While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

The Driver’s Seat Muriel Spark

2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).

Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.

This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!

Good BehaviourMolly Keane

Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. 

At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.

This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.

Vertigo & GhostFiona Benson

Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!

The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.

Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.

Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!

Slow Days, Fast CompanyEve Babitz

When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.

I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.

I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.

The Juniper TreeBarbara Comyns

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.

Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.

Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.

The German Room Carla Maliandi

In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.

Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.

Fish SoupMargarita Garcia Robayo

Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.

The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontElizabeth Taylor

There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.

The Man Who Saw EverythingDeborah Levy

I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.

I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.

In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.

Conversations with FriendsSally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!

The Ten Loves of Mr NishinoHiromi Kawakami

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…

That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.

Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!