Well, 2023 has begun on a fabulous note, I read some stellar books this month; a mix of translated lit (from Iceland, Japan & Mexico), a collection of short stories, a contemporary novella, and a surreal feminist tale. I also enjoyed contributing to various reading challenges and readalongs, notably #NYRBWomen23, #JanuaryInJapan & #Japaneselitchallenge16, #NordicFINDS23 and A Year With William Trevor.
So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the six books…You can read the detailed reviews on each one by clicking on the title links.
THE ENGLISH UNDERSTAND WOOL by Helen DeWitt
In The English Understand Wool, our protagonist is Marguerite; a 17-year old young woman raised in Marrakech, her mother (Maman) has French roots, while the father is English. The phrase “mauvais ton” (loosely translated as ‘bad taste’) features regularly in Maman’s parlance who has strong opinions on the subject. Maman comes across as a conceited woman with superior standards, and she leaves no stone unturned in ensuring that the daughter becomes a connoisseur herself; a way of fine living that Marguerite perfects to the tee because she has known no other. And then quite out of the blue, a crucial piece of information is revealed carrying massive weight that throws a different light on Marguerite’s current circumstances.
The English Understand Wool, then, is a wonderfully rendered tale brimming with all the hallmarks of DeWitt’s acerbic, deadpan prose. Right from the very beginning, her sardonic wit is on display whether she is commenting on the ludicrousness of Maman’s exacting ideals or poking fun at the way the publishing industry operates. It’s a very cleverly told tale of dubious morals where appearances can be deceptive; a highly original story that has only fuelled my appetite for more of Helen DeWitt’s work.
THE HEARING TRUMPET by Leonora Carrington
If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.
The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. Marian is not welcome in the house and with the aid of a hearing trumpet gifted to her by her charming loquacious friend Carmella, Marian’s learns of her family’s plot to park her in an old age home.
The old-age home is unlike anything she had imagined, and Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Just superb!
AFTER RAIN by William Trevor
Tender and exquisite, After Rain is a finely chiseled collection of twelve stories that is truly a joy to savour. The first, ‘The Piano Tuner’s Wives’, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first; while ‘A Friendship’ is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. ‘Child’s Play’ is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved; the titular story ‘After Rain’ is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on.
Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully.
SALKA VALKA by Haldór Laxness (tr. from Icelandic by Philip Roughton)
Salka Valka is a wondrous, 552-paged, ambitious novel; an immersive, brilliant, often harrowing tale of a beleaguered fishing community and the indomitable spirit of a woman who prides on her independence and strives to improve their lot.
In the opening pages of Salka Valka, a coastal steamer stops at the port of a small, remote fishing village called Oseyri. Nobody can envisage a life here, but on that cold, bleak winter’s night two figures emerge from the steamer – a woman called Sigurlina and her 11-year old daughter Salvor (Salka Valka). Sigurlina and Salka Valka have made this journey from the North, certain circumstances having driven them away, and while Reykjavik seems to be their final destination, Sigurlina, reduced to a state of penury, cannot afford the cost of the trip further. Oseyri, then, becomes her destination for the time being, she hopes to find a job that will help her make enough money to embark on the journey south. However, fate as we shall see has other plans…
Salka Valka is divided into four sections, each section comprising two parts – the first section focuses on Salka’s time in Oseyri as a teenager, and the second section fast forwards to several years when she is a young woman, independent with her own house and a share in a fishing boat. One of the core themes that the novel addresses is the ugly side of abject poverty and the struggles of the working class, and the second half particularly becomes more political as the debate between capitalism and Bolshevism reaches fever pitch. Epic in scope and ahead of its times, Salka Valka, then, is a simmering cauldron of various delectable ingredients – a coming-of-age tale, a statement on world politics, a strange beguiling love story, and an unforgettable female lead.
THE WAITING YEARS by Fumiko Enchi (tr. from Japanese by John Bester)
Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.
Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. In the very first chapter, she is sent to Tokyo to find a respectable young girl who will become her husband’s mistress, a terrible and heartbreaking task she is compelled to carry out. As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time. Enchi beautifully captures the internal turmoil that rages not just within Tomo but also within Suga, Yukitomo’s mistress. The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind.
PEDRO PÁRAMO by Juan Rulfo (tr. from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden)
Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance. In the opening pages, Juan Preciado makes a promise to his dying mother that he will make the journey to Comala to visit his father, Pedro Páramo, a man he has never met before. Complying with her dying wish (“Make him pay, Son, for all those years he put us out of his mind”), Preciado sets off for Comala (“you can see Comala, turning the earth white, and lighting it at night”); a town that both he and the reader soon realise is haunted by the dead.
Pedro Páramo is a novella about dashed hopes, twisted love and boundless tragedy, the fates of its characters inextricably linked to the senseless actions of a mercurial, brutal man. There’s a trancelike, hallucinatory quality to the storytelling that flits between past and present; it’s a book suffused with rich imagery that lends it much power.
That’s it for January. I have begun my February reading with Vicki Baum’s Grand Hotel for #NYRBWomen23 as well as Nona Fernández’s The Twilight Zone for #ReadIndies and they have been terrific so far.