In a year that was full of wonderful reads, December also turned out to be a good month. On the 14th of this month, I released My Best Books of 2022 list, a mix of 20th century literature, translated lit, contemporary fiction, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography; books that truly enthralled me.
In December, I read five books – a combination of translated literature, Indian fiction, crime, short stories and volume 11 of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. My favourite was the Hjorth by a mile, a novel that also found a place on my year end list.
So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…
WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)
Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.
The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.
KILLING HAPPINESS by Friedrich Ani (tr. from German by Alexander Booth)
Friedrich Ani’s Killing Happiness is a dark, wintry, melancholic but beautifully written crime novel. Lennard Grabbe, Stephan and Tania’s 11-year old son, is found brutally murdered in a forest one cold December day after being missing for a month. This devastating news is delivered to them by Jakob Franck, now retired from the police force but not entirely out of it – he still performs the difficult duty of conveying news of death to the victim’s loved ones.
Her son’s tragic demise sees Tania spiraling into a depression, while Stephan is left to run their café. Holed up in her son’s room for most part of the day, communication between husband and wife is pretty much non-existent; cracks in their marriage leave no room for the couple to find solace in each other in their grief. For some reason though, Tania remains closer to her brother Maximilian, a shaky mysterious relationship the nature of which Jakob Franck and even Stephan can’t quite fathom.
Meanwhile, the case completely consumes Franck; a crime seemingly difficult to solve given the lack of clues and reliable witness statements (“Franck knew from innumerable question sessions that memories consisted of fissures, ellipses, misperceptions, loose sensory connections”). Heavy rain and thunderstorms on the day Lennard disappeared pretty much obliterates the chances of finding critical forensic evidence, and Franck is desperately seeking that crucial piece of information, or what he calls the ‘fossil’ (“that very material or immaterial link that placed the act’s past in an unassailable connection to the crime’s present and held the genome of the truth to solving the case”).
While Killing Happiness has all the traits of a crime novel, it is also very much a novel of marriage and family, the dark secrets that lurk within and how a hidden past can drive a wedge into already fragile relationships.
Franck is also an interesting character, effortlessly donning the dual roles of investigator and confidante. He assiduously and patiently chips away at the evidence before him, revisiting the crime scene innumerable times, probing witnesses to remember better, while his gentle, quiet personality compels Lennard’s family members to talk to him in a way one would to a therapist.
Published by Seagull Books, this is a novel I very much enjoyed and I plan to read Ani’s other work released earlier, The Nameless Day.
A SURPRISE FOR CHRISTMAS & OTHER SEASONAL MYSTERIES edited by Martin Edwards
This turned out to be an excellent Christmassy read in December; a terrific compilation of golden age crime stories and my first ‘British Library Crime Classics’ read.
The stories are mostly set around Christmas, and while Christmas itself might not be a dominant theme, quite a few are atmospheric, capturing the starkness of the wintry season. In GK Chesterton’s ‘The Hole in the Wall’, a country house fancy dress party in the depths of winter goes awry when the host mysteriously disappears; while Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Death on the Air’ is an excellent story of a dysfunctional family ruled by a tyrant with “a clever murder device and a cleverly hidden murderer.”
‘Person or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson is a historical mystery set in the Restoration period during Charles II’s reign centred on a love triangle gone wrong; ‘Dead’s Man’s Hand’ is an atmospheric, intense story where guilt is examined to brilliant effect; Cyril Hare’s ‘A Surprise for Christmas’ (lending the collection its name) is also wonderful where an old homicide gets unexpectedly discovered in a cosy domestic setting. A postman is killed in Margery Allingham’s ‘On Christmas Day in the Morning’ that combines the gloominess of winter with the warmth of the festive spirit in a surprise ending.
Medieval masked balls, notorious gangs, pantomime, ghosts among other things feature in these stories as do love affairs, fractured families and broken relationships. A collection comprising 12 stories, I have given a flavour of only a few but overall I thought this was a lovely collection well worth reading.
SOJOURN by Amit Chaudhuri
Sojourn was my first foray into Amit Chaudhuri’s work; I enjoyed this novella but didn’t quite know what to make of it. Our narrator/protagonist is unnamed, a middle aged Indian writer, who has been offered a short stint as a visiting Boll professor in a Berlin university where he is required to give weekly lectures.
Once ensconced in a flat in his new surroundings, he meets the Bangladeshi poet Faqrul, an exile in Berlin, who takes our narrator under his wing, helping him navigate everyday living in the city. Our narrator ponders about the Japanese writer Oe in the bathroom, aimlessly wanders around the city – Brandenburg Gate, Jewish Museum et al – thinking about the history of Berlin and its present status, dines in restaurants with acquaintances, and so on. Faqrul then disappears as fast as he had made an appearance, and our narrator later gets entangled in a tentative relationship with Birgit, until a feeling of disorientation completely engulfs him in the final pages.
Throughout this novella, there’s a sense that our narrator is lost and maybe trying to find himself, akin to Berlin’s identity which also seems in flux; a unified city very different in the present but one that has not entirely shaken off the remnants of its past. The prose is elegant, pared to the bone, not a word wasted and an aura of uncertainty and rootlessness pervades the novel, the sense of being in no-man’s land further heightened by the fleeting nature of things and the impermanence of connections. Like I mentioned, I am not entirely sure of having grasped the essence of this novella and yet it was laced with the sort of suspense that made it fascinating.
CLEAR HORIZON (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson
Clear Horizon is the eleventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap, Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.
In Clear Horizon, Amabel continues to be a dominant presence, and a telegram from Michael Shatov sends Miriam reminiscing on their friendship and his marriage proposal which Miriam rejects, but in this book she considers introducing Shatov to Amabel. There’s also a sense that Miriam could be pregnant post her one night stand with Hugo Wilson in Dawn’s Left Hand, but then realises that not to be the case. That’s the first very long chapter and the second chapter entirely consists of a lengthy conversation between Miriam and Hugo Wilson, where Amabel is partly present at the beginning. This meeting only confirms Miriam’s opinion of how different her views are from Hugo’s who continues to be annoying and patronising. It’s then that Miriam decides that the end of her relationship with Hypo is now final.
It suddenly occurred to her that perhaps much of his talk was to be explained by the fact that he had never known that rapture. Had always been shut in and still, in spite of his apparent freedom, was enclosed and enmeshed? If this fact were flung at him, he would freely admit it, with an air of tragic hilarity, while overtly denying it, with a conspiratorial smile to emphasize his relatively large liberties, in order to use the admission as a point of departure for fresh insistence upon their neglected opportunities, while, hovering high above the useless to and fro, would hang the question, sometimes accepted by Amabel and sometimes wistfully denied, as to whether men, however fitted up with incomes and latchkeys and mobility, can ever know freedom-unless they are tramps.
Meanwhile, Richardson’s descriptive powers continue to enthrall as can be seen in the following passage…
And again, demanding no price for truant contemplation, the heavenly morning received her. Turning, in the fullness of her recently restored freedom, towards the light as towards the contemplative gaze of a lover, she felt its silent stream flood her untenanted being and looked up, and recovered, in swift sequence, and with a more smiting intensity than when she had first come upon them, the earlier gifts of this interrupted spring: the dense little battalions, along the park’s green alley, between tall leafless trees, of new, cold crocus-cups, glossy with living varnish, golden-yellow, transparent mauve, pure frosty white, white with satiny purple stripings; the upper rim of each petal so sharp that it seemed to be cutting for itself a place in the dense, chill air; each flower a little upright figure and a song, proclaiming winter’s end. Then tree-buds in the square seen suddenly, glistening, through softly showering rain. Then the green haze of small leaves: each leaf translucent in the morning and, at night, under the London lamplight, an opaque, exciting, viridian artificiality. And it was with power borrowed from this early light, and from the chance of stillness as perfect as its own, that these memories were smiting through her.
Just as The Tunnel marked Miriam’s entry into London as an independent woman with a career as a dental assistant to Dr Hancock, so does Clear Horizon mark the end of this period of Miriam’s life, a period that encompassed a decade. Having now read 11 of the 13 volumes of Pilgrimage, Miriam’s journey has certainly been interesting although I must say that to me the first six volumes (including Deadlock) were the best. I’m not yet sure whether I’ll continue with the remaining two volumes, we shall see.
That’s it for December. 2022 has been wonderfully rich in terms of reading and I hope that streak continues in 2023 too!