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.

My Phantoms – Gwendoline Riley

A few years ago, I was very impressed with Gwendoline Riley’s First Love, a book that received accolades and featured on many prize lists. Hence, I was quite keen to read her latest offering My Phantoms especially after all the rave reviews it has been garnering.

Family can be so complicated. This certainly holds true in My Phantoms, 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 book begins with Bridget’s recollections of her childhood and those traumatic “access” visits with their father that she and her sister Michelle could not avoid. Since Helen Grant had divorced Lee, the girls were legally mandated to spend Sundays with their father, a prospect that filled them with dread.

Riley’s evocation of the father’s self-centred personality is brilliant – he’s a man Bridget did not really think of as a person but more as a phenomenon.

I’m not sure I even thought of him as a person, really. He was more just this – phenomenon. A gripper of shoulders. A pincher of upper arms. If I was wearing a hat, a snatcher of hats. If I was reading a book, a snatcher of books. Energized bother, in short. And yes, legally mandated.

While the bulk of the book dwells on Bridget’s musings on her mother, trying to fathom the motives and thinking behind her behaviour, Bridget states how she felt no such desire to quiz her father. Her reason – he simply wasn’t an enigma like her mother. In Bridget’s words – “His nature had to generate satisfaction for itself. That was it. Getting one over. Being an exceptional case. There was nothing else. With him the difficulty came in dealing with that relentless uniformity of purpose.”

That uniformity of purpose finds various outlets, but one particularly memorable one is when Lee makes all that fuss around Bridget reading Chekhov’s Five Plays where he goes on and on about how she’s into posh Russian books. There is one specific monologue of his that is pretty incredulous and weirdly funny and leaves young Bridget speechless…

“You do know there’s no point reading things in a translation,” he said.

“Because it’s not the original language,” he explained. “It could be anything.”

“Intelligent people learn the language if they’re really interested,” he said.

“What you’re reading could be anything,” he said, again.

But My Phantoms essentially revolves around Helen Grant, Bridget’s mother. It is never explicitly stated whether there were any specific incidents in her childhood that harboured feelings of resentment or fuelled the toxic relationship between Helen and Bridget. But from the outset it is clear that their exchanges have all the makings of a performance and not always genuine.

Helen Grant is portrayed as a woman insecure on many fronts and unable to really open up. She prefers conversations that follow a certain course for her to be in a comfort zone, otherwise she gets flustered and clams up. Helen is an independent woman though. Having held a job for most of her adult life (despite hating it), she lives on a good pension and has enough funds to have a flat she can call her own (first in Liverpool, then in Manchester) and live life on her own terms.

However, what she lacks is good company. With two divorces behind her, Helen has clearly been unlucky in love. On one hand she is extroverted, attending all possible openings, concerts, jazz festivals, book readings and even engaging in volunteer work, on the other hand she hardly has any real friends to speak of or a thriving social life.

Substantial sections of the book shine the spotlight on the stilted conversations between Helen and Bridget. Although they are not always in touch, Helen makes it a point to visit London on her birthday and spend an evening with her daughter. Their conversation is often fraught with silences and the pressure to conform to a script, leaving no room for genuine communication, warmth or even unburdening oneself.

For the most part I found myself sympathizing with Bridget. Being in a situation where she has to continuously rack her brains to get their conversations going can be exhausting and frustrating. For instance, when Bridget gifts Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels to Helen on her birthday, she does so with the hope that they have much to talk about when they meet next, based on her own rewarding experience of the discussions she has had with her friends on those books. But that gesture reaches a dead end when Helen confesses to being muddled with the primary characters’ names.

But Bridget has her faults too. Although from Bridget’s point of view, Helen is not the ideal mother, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and is prone to making cruel remarks and coming across as quite unsympathetic. For instance, she comments on how Helen’s had two awful husbands and should not be aiming to get married again. She is uncomfortable about introducing Helen to her partner John however much Helen insists. And when Helen is ill, it is her sister Michelle who does much of the heavy lifting and running around. Bridget also leaves no stone unturned in making Helen aware of the meaninglessness of her existence – how despite engaging in so many activities and social outings, she remains essentially empty. There is one poignant moment when Helen’s defences are down, and in a rare display of vulnerability it seems that she might finally confide and express her true feelings. Bridget certainly thinks so but realizes that she has no inkling of how to deal with it or help her mother.

And again I saw that I’d got it very wrong. That it was a mean trick, suddenly to be so rational and practical in the face of her distress. It was as if I’d delicately pulled on a pair of butler’s gloves. Or passed the whole thing on to a different department.

Bridget’s tirade against her parents for judging themselves in the light of what “other people” think and say also hits closer home. While these “other people” are more often than not nebulous beings, she uses it as a medium to explore one fundamental difference between her mother and father…

I wanted to say, What bloody people? But that would have been cruel, wouldn’t it? So she had me there.

It did strike me, though, that at least those spectral associates my father raised didn’t persecute him. They were a supporting cast: a wise counsel or a happy coterie, rushing in to fill coveted positions in his court. Leave it to my poor mother to have these awful tormenting busybodies as her imaginary fellows.

Obviously, the core theme of My Phantoms is the difficulties of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. There are many facets of Helen’s personality that Bridget finds trying and yet Helen remains an integral part of her life, Bridget cannot completely cut her off. But the novel is also fascinating for the many things left unsaid, giving the reader much to think about. Bridget is haunted by her mother’s unyielding persona, but does Michelle feel the same? We know that siblings growing up in the same environment can be affected by things differently. Is Michelle tormented by her parents’ personalities to the same degree as Bridget?

Gwendoline Riley has a way with words and language that is striking. For instance, here’s how she describes Lee Grant…

And so Lee Grant strode untroubled through his subjected realm, where he was, variously, the kindly king and the swashbuckling bandit, the seen-it-all sage and the rude clown, the tender-hearted swain and the blue-eyed boy, and on and on…Exceptional cases, every one.

And here’s another snippet when Helen announces her decision to travel the world…

In order to live, in order to be Hen Grant, she had to step out of a tangle of very mouldy old rope. She had to go forth, announcingly. Relentlessly and internationally.

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 and does so with much aplomb.

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!

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino – Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

A couple of months back when I wrote about Yukio Mishima’s The Frolic of the Beasts, I mentioned how there is so much of Japanese literature out there that I have yet to savour.

This time around I decided to settle for a contemporary book and selected Hiromi Kawakami’s The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino.

I had greatly enjoyed Kawakami’s surreal and unsettling novella Record of a Night Too Brief issued in those lovely Pushkin Press Japanese Novellas series. And a fuller length work by her was now beckoning to me.

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino comprises ten stories, each told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. Essentially, these are short chronicles that chart Nishino’s relationships from a period spanning his student days to when he becomes an older mature man. The liaisons are either legitimate relationships or extramarital affairs.

There is no linear progression in the stories as they back jump back and forth in time.

Indeed, in the first piece called ‘Parfait‘, Nishino makes his presence felt as a ghost. The narrator is a woman called Natsumi. Natsumi has a grown up daughter Minami who is twenty five.  But Natsumi harks back to the past when she had an affair with Nishino when Minami was a seven year old child. Sometimes Minami tagged along when they decided to meet. During such times, Nishino would order a strawberry parfait for Minami.

Natsumi, meanwhile, believes she was in love with Nishino but is not sure whether Nishino reciprocated her feelings. He gave the impression that he did though.

‘Hey, Natsumi, when I die, I’ll come to you,’ he once said.

‘What?’

‘When I die, I want to be by your side.’

‘I bet you say that to all the girls,’ I replied flippantly.

With an unusually serious look, Nishino said, ‘I don’t.’

And he does make an entry in the final pages of this story as an apparition.  

In the subsequent pieces, some of the tales cleverly overlap. For instance, in ‘Goodnight’ – one of my favourite pieces in the book – we are introduced to Manami, and Nishino is now filtered through her lens.

Nishino and Manami know each other through their workplace where she is the head of the department and he is her subordinate. Manami finds herself falling in love with Nishino despite increased resistance and numerous attempts to quell those feelings.

That May, Yukihiko won me quite easily. Like a butterfly collector who spreads the wings of his specimen on a board, and pins them in place. Gently and carefully handling the now-dead body of an insect he has captured. I suppose you could say that Yukihiko had already entrapped me. Without us ever having shared a caress. Without us even having shared a glance.

When the two are going out, Nishino bumps into an old flame Kanoko, and invites her to have dinner with him and Manami. Nishino is clearly oblivious to how awkward this meal can actually be.

Manami, being the sophisticated woman that she is, tries to make the best of this situation.

Yukihiko remained calm throughout the meal. Everything was extremely proper. We drank an appropriate amount of sake. The conversation was innocuous. The evening wore on, gradually. Kanoko seemed to have decided to treat me lightly. Oh, this woman is Yukihiko’s new girlfriend? How boring! She barely even tried to conceal these thoughts. For my part, I behaved like an adult (like a sensible, mature woman three years their senior), drinking my sake with a radiant smile and when the dessert of pear sorbet arrived, dipping my gleaming silver spoon into it with relish.

In the subsequent story called ‘The Heart Races,’ the narrator is now the other woman Kanoko. We now look at the same dinner from her point of view…

Manami was the type of woman who could drink in moderation, but who also enjoyed dessert. I had dinner with the two of them after they became an item. How had I got myself into such a situation? I was not such an idiot as to have brazenly inserted myself into an old boyfriend’s date with his new girlfriend – that had not been my intention – but somehow it was how things ended up.

Manami was polite from start to finish – her cheerfulness was resolute.

While Nishino is clearly the central figure in the novel, this book is as much about the women in his life. Through the lens of their relationship with him, we get a glimpse of their personalities and are privy to their wants, and emotions.

Nishino, meanwhile, comes across as a puzzling creation, inscrutable in fact. When in a relationship, he seems to be deeply in love, and yet due to various shortcomings is unable to hold on to the women he is involved with. And yet he has a charming enough demeanor that makes him attractive and interesting in the first place.

It is really difficult to figure out just what it is he wants from his relationships. In each of the ten perspectives on display here, he seems to be deeply involved, and yet eventually those relationships fizzle out with no commitment.

I loved Kawakami’s writing style in these interconnected tales of love. I was drawn to the beguiling, lucid and other worldly quality of the prose. The simplicity of the writing was marked by Kawakami’s keen insights and observations.

While the overall feel of these vignettes was playful and lighthearted, there were also darker elements that kept surfacing. One in particular revolved around the death of Nishino’s sister. The two siblings were very close, and his sister’s suicide had a profound impact on Nishino. There was an unsettling and hard hitting set piece around the two of them in the second story titled ‘In the Grass’, which is only heightened when we learn of what is to follow later. Overall, I thought The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino was a remarkable piece of work.

This is the first Kawakami book I have read and on the strength of this alone I am now keen to explore Strange Weather in Tokyo and The Nakano Thrift Shop.

The Best of 2016

It’s been a great year of travel, and armchair travel!

Here are my top ten reads for 2016. Unique voices, innovative and sharp writing, and strong themes make them stand out.

Relationships dominate the list but they are not always romantic. ‘The Blue Room’ and ‘Hot Milk’ explore the complex relationship between mother and daughter as the daughters struggle to gain individuality. ‘Hot Milk’, particularly, was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize during the year.

‘Her Father’s Daughter’ beautifully captures the growing love a young French girl feels for her father who has just returned from war and who she is seeing for the first time.

Can two sisters, in a remote northernmost part of Norway, live harmoniously together? Or is each one deliberately trying to wreck the life of the other? ‘The Looking Glass Sisters’, a much darker work, had me riveted.

In ‘Attachment’, a French student reminisces on her romantic relationship with her professor and how it was received by her family. ‘Paulina & Fran’ throws light on bohemian life in art colleges and how the reality, once you graduate, can be different.

However, human contact is not something one craves all the time. ‘Pond’ is a captivating tale of the pleasures of a life in solitude told by an unnamed young woman in a series of vignettes.

‘Manual for Cleaning Women’ has been a real find. Berlin led an eventful life. 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 while raising four boys all one her own. All of her experiences are captured in this rich collection of short stories in prose that is simply luminous.

And no one writes about California and LA as brilliantly as Joan Didion does in Play It As It Lays. The novel brutally dissects 1960s American culture.

The Faulkner is of course a classic and very rightly so.

That rounds up a truly wonderful reading year!

And oh, I just noticed that Faulkner is the only male author on the list:)

2016-12-20-12-08-54