A Month of Reading – March 2021

These are the books I read in March, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature and travel. All were excellent, but my favourites were the Kazuo Ishiguro and Ida Jessen.

I have already reviewed some of them, you can access them by clicking on the links. I plan to put up detailed reviews for the rest over the coming days. Meanwhile, here’s a brief write-up for each book.

THE FACES – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally)

The Faces is about a woman’s journey through mental illness and recovery, unique for its striking language and poetry in prose – all hallmarks of Ditlevsen’s writing. In The Faces, our protagonist Lise is a famous author of children’s books, although she hasn’t penned anything in the last two years. In her personal life too, Lise is on the edge. Her current husband, Gert, has been consistently unfaithful to her. Their housekeeper, Gitte, is a toxic influence on the family – she is sleeping with Gert as well as Lise’s elder son. Finding her home environment increasingly unbearable and claustrophobic, Lise overdoses on her pills and it’s her subsequent stay in the psychiatric hospital that forms a substantial chunk of the novel. Ditlevsen essentially offers a glimpse into the lived experience of mental illness, the inability to separate reality from illusion. By sleight of hand, she recreates the experience of madness from the inside, letting us explore the shifting contours of Lise’s mind and her unreliable perception of the world around her.

THE KRULL HOUSE – Georges Simenon (tr. Howard Curtis)

The Krull House is an excellent, prescient and suspenseful tale of how close-knit communities harbor feelings of mistrust towards outsiders, how they are excluded because their perceived foreignness make them objects of suspicion and resentment. The Krull family is German and lives on the fringes of a rural town in France, mostly shunned by the town residents. Their hermetic existence, though, is rattled when cousin Hans comes to live with them. Hans is a typical German Krull – brash, insouciant and carefree, whereas the French Krulls are anything but – their manner is quiet and restrained. Things come to a boil when the body of a woman is seen floating on the canal one morning. And the Krull family, unwillingly, finds itself in the middle of a maelstrom that threatens to erupt into violence. The novel, then, is a powerful, unsettling exploration of how unfairly society judges outsiders, and how they become dead ducks when something goes wrong. Although this book was penned in the late 1930s, its themes remain relevant even today.

TWELVE NIGHTS – Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

Set in the Black Forest in the deeps of winter, Twelve Nights is a wonderfully atmospheric novella of family, love, guilt, reconciliation and redemption. The book opens with our protagonist, Manfred, traversing a snowy landscape on foot, making his way to his family home, a place he has not visited in the last forty odd years on account of a crippling family feud. The sole occupant of the house now is his younger brother, Sebastian, a recluse hardly ever seen by the people in the village. Manfred learns of the aura of bad luck surrounding Sebastian – the farm is falling apart and his wife Minna is long dead. A story rooted in folklore, tradition, and superstitions, Manfred reflects on his mother, on the bond he shared with Sebastian and more importantly on Minna, the love of his life, who he thought he was destined to marry. Twelve Nights, then, is lush with writing that is poetic, spare, and haunting. It’s a novella replete with dreamy prose and vivid imagery and packs a slew of weightier themes in a miniscule package.

VENICE, AN INTERIOR – Javier Marías (tr. Margaret Jull Costa)         

Venice is a picture postcard city, a magnet for tourists all over the world who descend on it in hordes every year. It’s a place that has enthralled and transfixed many a traveller. It certainly occupied a special place in the heart of the Spanish author Javier Marías who between December 1984 and October 1989 flew to Venice fourteen times. At barely 55 pages, Venice, An Interior is the author’s own fascinating perspective on what makes this city so unique. There are pieces describing the people of Venice. And he puts forth his ideas on how Venice is an unchanging city, a city of contradictions, and how every area of the city is unmistakably Venice, while also displaying its own distinctive features.

THE MERMAID OF BLACK CONCH – Monique Roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a lovely, bittersweet, fable-like story with a mermaid at its centre, encompassing weighty themes of womanhood, desire, slavery, animal rights, and our attitude towards outsiders. The tale is set in April 1976 in St Constance, a tiny village on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. Our protagonist is Aycayia, a beautiful young woman who has been cursed by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid and she has been swimming in the Black Conch waters for many centuries now. She is rescued by a black fisherman David, and begins her transformation back into a woman. But given that certain inhabitants on the island bear her ill will, will this fairy-tale like story have a happy ending? Despite some amount of melodrama in the final pages (the bad guys chasing the good guys in a Hindi movie potboiler kind of way), The Mermaid of Black Conch is a story with a big heart, a beautiful, seamless amalgam of the mythical with the real, and a novel where Roffey pushes the boundaries.

AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD – Kazuo Ishiguro

An Artist of the Floating World is an unusual, wonderfully accomplished novel of a man looking back on his life and wondering if it was all worth it. It also takes a look at Japan’s widening generation gap and how individuals aiding efforts during World War II are shunned by subsequent generations who are more liberal and value progress, peace and prosperity. Masuji Ono is a talented artist who enjoyed his fair share of renown for the art he produced in his heydays, before the Second World War. But we are made aware of something unsavoury in Masuji’s past, something that has made him a social pariah in the aftermath of the war. Set between October 1948 and November 1949, in a meandering style laced with anecdotes, a mature Masuji takes a trip down memory lane that offers him both escape and redemption. Ishiguro’s writing as ever is elegant, understated and restrained. There is a quietness and precision to his prose that is strangely alluring and pulls the reader into Masuji’s orbit.

A CHANGE OF TIME – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and find meaning in life again. It is an exquisitely written novel, and I plan to write a separate review of it in the coming days.

All in all, some good reading done in March. I have started April with Doireann Ní Ghríofa’s A Ghost in the Throat, shortlisted for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. I am halfway through and it’s been very impressive so far. I have also begun Ross Macdonald’s The Chill, the eleventh book in the Lew Archer series, and it’s addictive and interesting as always.

The Mermaid of Black Conch – Monique Roffey

The Mermaid of Black Conch has been making waves on the prize circuit. It won the Costa Book of the Year in 2020 and was shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize that same year. Three months into 2021, the novel also found a place on the shortlists of both the Folio Rathbones Prize and the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. These achievements are pretty remarkable for a book that at one point was almost not published.

The Mermaid of Black Conch is a lovely, bittersweet, fable-like story with a mermaid at its centre, encompassing weighty themes of womanhood, desire, slavery, animal rights, and our attitude towards outsiders.

The tale is set in April 1976 in St Constance, a tiny village on the Caribbean island of Black Conch. Our protagonist is Aycayia, a beautiful young woman who has been cursed by jealous wives to live her life as a mermaid and she has been swimming in the Black Conch waters for many centuries now.

One day, while strumming his guitar on one part of the coast, a young fisherman called David spots Aycayia rising above the water, staring intently at him. David is entranced by her, by how exotic she is. Subsequent attempts to glimpse her turn futile, and then after many days he spots her again. Clearly, he is bowled over by her and Aycayia, in turn, is mesmerized by David’s singing.

But then things take a turn for the worse when a couple of American fishermen arrive at the village to participate in a fishing competition. Thomas Clayson is hoping that this expedition will enable some bonding between him and his son Hank, who he thinks spends too much time reading. He wants to enforce in his son, his twisted ideas of masculinity. Enlisting some locals as their crew, the Claysons embark on their fishing trip and manage to entrap Aycayia, who is unwittingly lured towards their ship by David. Aycayia struggles for several hours, but is ultimately defeated…the Americans capture, gag and bind her and take her onshore. As the revelry and celebrations begin full swing at the village inn, David stealthily tiptoes towards where she’s held hostage and rescues her.

He takes her home. From thereon, not only does he start taking care of her with great tenderness, but Aycayia also begins her transformation back to a woman. She loses her mermaid tail, her fins and scales, and must now learn to walk and talk the language of the island.

Zoom to another section, and we are introduced to the character of Arcadia Rain, a white woman and a landlady who owns practically much of the Black Conch island. Arcadia lives alone in a mansion atop a hill with her deaf son. Her partner, a black man called Life, abandons her while pregnant, because he can’t stand being ‘owned’ by a white woman and craves to make a name for himself in the art world. Arcadia hates him and yearns for him at the same time.

Every afternoon, around three o’clock, David dropped Aycayia to Miss Rain’s for lessons. There at the table in the grand room with wooden floors, sat an indigenous woman of the Caribbean; cursed to be a mermaid by her own sisterhood, whose people had all but died out, slaughtered by the Castilian Admiral and his kind; a woman who, as a mermaid, was pulled out of the sea by Yankee men who wanted to auction her off and if not that, stuff her and keep her as a trophy; a woman who was rescued by a Black Conch fisherman; a mermaid who had come back to live as a woman of the Caribbean again. She sat quietly as she learnt language again, from another woman she wasn’t sure she could trust. This woman was white, dappled with freckles, and no matter what she wasn’t, she was of the type who had wiped her people out. Arcadia [Rain] was self conscious, because she only spoke Black Conch English, a mixture of words from the oppressor and the oppressed.

Other characters dotting the story are Priscilla, an evil, bitter woman, who in her greed for money making schemes does not care about hurting others. And a policeman whose help she enlists when she notices something ‘fishy’ going on in David’s home.

All these various story threads come together as the novel reaches its dramatic conclusion. But, will this fairy-tale like story have a happy ending?

The narrative structure is interesting. In every chapter, there’s blend of a third person voice, David’s diary entries some 40 years later recalling his time with Aycayia, and Aycayia’s unique voice presented to us like free-verse poems.

There’s a lot going on in The Mermaid of Black Conch and it is rife with some big ideas. One of them is the legacy of slavery and its burden on subsequent generations. Arcadia Rain is a fair woman and treats the island people well but the taint of her ancestors’ actions (they were plantation owners keeping slaves) sticks to her even when she is trying to erase that blot.

The other dominant viewpoint displayed to the reader is the cruelty perpetrated on outsiders, on people who are significantly different from us. Plus, the novel could also be interpreted as a statement on how exotic creatures are seen through a prism of unabashed greed and shameless profiteering. These themes are explored though the despicable actions of both the American fishermen and Priscilla.

There are some beautiful moments in the book – the blooming of love between David and Aycayia, and the special bond formed between Aycayia and Arcadia’s deaf son as both navigate the intricacies of language and communication.

But The Mermaid of Black Conch is also a novel about womanhood and desire. When Aycayia’s transformation into a woman is complete, the attraction between her and David sparkles like electricity and they give in to desire. Hell-bent on learning the ropes about relationships, David for once is clear about not engaging in flings, but instead taking their relationship to the next level. But is that what Aycayia wants? Aycayia is content being a woman and learning things anew, but she also yearns for the sea where she has spent such a large part of her life. And while her life on land broke the shackles of her curse which bound her in a mermaid’s body, will marriage feel like a trap again?

I want to stay my woman self

even here when my people long dead

I want to be here on land again

but deep inside I know there is still some mix up

I am still half and half

half woman and half cursed woman

cursed still in this new place

The sea is a strong pull

Despite some amount of melodrama in the final pages (the bad guys chasing the good guys in a Hindi movie potboiler kind of way), The Mermaid of Black Conch is a story with a big heart, a beautiful, seamless amalgam of the mythical with the real, and a novel where Roffey pushes the boundaries while exploring myriad motifs of enduring love, racial tension and Caribbean folklore.