A Month of Reading – April 2021

Putting up this post a bit late, but better late than never. So these are the books I read in April, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, crime, short stories and 20th century women’s literature. All were excellent, but my favourites were the Rumer Godden and Barbara Pym.

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

BLACK NARCISSUS – Rumer Godden

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, it is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling.

THE DRY HEART – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

It’s a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

A GHOST IN THE THROAT – Doireann Ní Ghríofa              

A Ghost in the Throat is a wonderful book that came to my attention because of its shortlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It’s a difficult book to define – it is part memoir, part essay, part historical fiction, if you will. A Ghost in the Throat tells the stories of two women, born centuries apart – Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and Doireann Ní Ghríofa herself. The author traces Eibhlín through her shadowy past, she is the woman who has penned the 18th century poem and lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Doireann combines a blend of research and rich imaginings to weave a story around Eibhlin, her family and the violent death of her fiery husband Art, who dies in a duel. At the same time, while deep in her research, Doireann writes of her own life as a mother in language that really soars – lyrical, moving and gorgeously descriptive. Her portrayal of the daily grind of motherhood is quite something – Doireann finds great joy and beauty in her chores, it instills in her a sense of purpose. There is a particular chapter which dwells on how she nearly lost her daughter, born prematurely, that makes for very poignant reading. This is a “female text” that deserves to be read for its themes of domesticity, desire, creativity, and what binds women across ages.

JANE AND PRUDENCE – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy for him, although Jane remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it. Meanwhile, an introduction to Fabian Driver, a good-looking widower in her village, brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions Fabian to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other. Will it result in a significant announcement being made?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. In this novel, particularly, with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL – Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. When she spots Rose Arbuthnot staring wistfully at the ad too, she approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

THE CHILL – Ross Macdonald     

The Chill is another fine, intricately woven crime novel in Ross Macdonald’s brilliant Lew Archer series with a fascinating, byzantine plot and a stunning twist in the final chapter.

Here are the bare bones of the story…A distraught, young man Alex Kincaid approaches private detective Lew Archer with the hope of hiring him to locate his runaway bride. Alex reveals that his wife Dolly Kincaid nee McGee ditched him just a couple of days into their honeymoon and the police are not taking him seriously. Despite Dolly’s weird behaviour, Alex is a supportive, steadfast man and refuses to annul the marriage even when others are advising him to do so. The duo quickly locates Dolly, but it’s clear that there is more to the matter than meets the eye. For one, Dolly appears psychologically disturbed, and it does not help that subsequently she finds herself entangled in two murders practically decades apart.

Characters are aplenty in the book, some of whom are – Roy Bradshaw, dean of the college where Dolly has enrolled herself; his formidable, overbearing mother Mrs Bradshaw; the flirtatious college professor Helen Haggerty; the over-protective psychiatrist Dr Godwin; Dolly’s aunt Alice Jenks, a self-righteous and allegedly principled woman, to name a few.  As the world weary Lew Archer digs deeper, he is often stonewalled when questioning the various cast of people connected with the case, but steadily their defenses break down and the skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet.

The plot in The Chill is extraordinarily deep and complex, but in Macdonald’s assured hands, it is never difficult to follow. This is a tale of mistaken identities, dark family secrets, fractured relationships, deceit and trauma. Plus, it has all the trademarks of a theme that the author continually explored in his books – how the ghost of the past always haunts an increasingly fragile present. The final twist is quite unexpected but also strangely satisfying.

A PERFECT CEMETERY – Federico Falco

This is a good collection of stories – five in total – with a strong sense of nature and place. In ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’ when the titular character, a 16-year old girl, informs her parents that she is abandoning her Christian faith, she decides to convert into a Mormon. Her reason is misplaced though – it has nothing to do with religion, but is largely driven by her infatuation with a Mormon missionary. It’s a story that also explores Silvi’s relationship with her parents – her mother Alba Clara, a deeply religious woman who is tormented by SIlvi’s lack of faith, and her father, who is a much more tolerant man and uses a different approach to communicate with Silvi.

In ‘A Perfect Cemetry’, Victor Bagiardelli, is awarded the biggest assignment of his life – to design a cemetery for Mayor Giraudo’s father in the town of Colonel Isabeta. Mayor Giraudo’s father, called Old Man Giraudo is not yet dead, but because of his frail health, he is being cared for in an old age home. Bagiardelli begins to envisage what to him is ‘a perfect cemetery’, the abundance of land given to him for the project fuels his creative energies to transform it into his best design yet. His plans also include transporting an ancient oak tree to the premises under which will lie Old Man Giraudo’s grave. Bagiardelli, even visits the old man, and describes the cemetery he has created, but Old Man Giraudo is a tough character and is not ready to hang up his boots yet, he is determined to live on. It’s a story that explores the uncertainty of death and how a man’s all consuming passion for his craft can make him oblivious to the other possibilities in his life.

In ‘Forest Life’, after losing their family home, Wutrich desperately offers his daughter Mabel’s hand to any man who will take them in. Mabel finally marries a Japanese settled in town, but will she learn to adapt to her new life, or will her yearning for the past unravel her like it does for Wutrich?

Connecting with nature, loss of home and faith, grief, and radically reinventing the self to new circumstances are some of the themes explored in this collection.

All in all, April was a great reading month. I started May with Jhumpa Lahiri’s brilliant new offering Whereabouts, a fragmentary novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections. I am also dipping into The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which has been compiled and edited by Lahiri, and am enjoying it immensely. There are 40 authors covered and so this book is going to keep me nicely occupied for a month.

Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!