Pedro Páramo – Juan Rulfo (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden)

Born in 1918, Juan Rulfo was considered an esteemed figure in the world of Spanish literature, and his novella Pedro Páramo, particularly, appears to have influenced the writing of many authors including Gabriel García Márquez who provides an introduction for this Serpent’s Tail edition. That’s not surprising because I thought this was a remarkable book.

Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo is a hypnotic, fever dream of a novel of death, ghosts, visions, violence, and vengeance.

It’s a tad difficult to articulate my thoughts on this novella, its vivid imagery is striking and still etched in my mind, but there’s a slippery feel to the story that’s hard to capture.

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.

The Comala of the present is a ghost town – deserted, barren, almost dystopian (“In the shimmering sunlight the plain was a transparent lake dissolving in mists that veiled a grey horizon. Farther in the distance, a range of mountains. And farther still, faint remoteness”).

Most people that Preciado encounters are probably ghosts, a town where the dead outnumber the living with every likelihood that Pedro Páramo is dead too.

“What happens with these corpses that have been dead a long time is that when the damp reaches them they begin to stir. They wake up.”

As he traverses these empty streets craving for the company of real people but is instead assailed by sounds or voices, Preciado meets several people along the way, but alas, they are probably apparitions or a figment of his imagination; indeed, Preciado himself is tormented by dreams and illusions, overwhelmed by fears and sometimes claustrophobia. Frequent references are made to purgatory and hell; many of Comala’s dead have not been forgiven for their sins, the doors to heaven are forever closed.

Interspersed with the present are flashbacks to Comala’s past, a period that seems more grounded in reality simply because it was a robust town of the living then. And yet, it’s a tortured place, simmering with violence, and driven by revenge, where boundaries – both physical and personal – are often encroached not only by Pedro Páramo but also by his illegitimate son Miguel. The timeline of these dramatic forays into the past is non-linear, fragments that when pieced together give a broader picture of the doomed fate of the town and its inhabitants.

Various characters are fleshed out as the novella progresses. We are told about Lucas Páramo, Pedro’s father who died a gruesome death and had a low opinion of his son; we learn of Pedro Páramo’s indifference towards his wife Dolores (Juan Preciado’s mother) who abandons him to settle in another town and his yearnings for Susanna who leaves Comala with her dad at a very young age.

The day you went away I knew I would never see you again. You were stained red by the late afternoon sun, by the dusk filling the sky with blood.

To Pedro, Susanna is the love of his life, the woman he desperately wants. Thirty years later, Susana returns with her father since reports of armed rebellion compel the pair to leave their remote hut on the site of the abandoned La Andromeda mines and head for Comala. Pedro’s happiness knows no bounds, although hints emerge about Susana’s madness, the true nature of which becomes clearer later on, and forms the kernel of Pedro Páramo’s desire to wreak havoc (“And all of it was don Pedro’s doing, because of the turmoil of his soul”).

“Don’t you believe it. He loved her. I’m here to tell you that he never loved a woman like he loved that one. By the time they brought her to him, she was already suffering – maybe crazy. He loved her so much that after she died he spent the rest of his days slumped in a chair, staring down the road where they’d carried her to holy ground. He lost interest in everything. He let his lands lie fallow, and gave orders for the tools that worked it to be destroyed. Some say it was because he was worn out; others said it was despair. The one sure thing is that he threw everyone off his land and sat himself down in his chair to stare down that road.”

Pedro wields a considerable influence over Comala (“He is, I haven’t a doubt of it, unmitigated evil”), a town he rules through frequent recourse to violence, a warped legacy he passes on to Miguel, who unsurprisingly given his brash personality, meets an untimely death in a freak accident. Despite his longing for Susana, Pedro also seems to be a chronic womanizer having fathered many children; at the very beginning Preciado comes across a tone-deaf man called Abundio Martinez who informs him that “Pedro Páramo’s my father too.”

So potent is Pedro’s power in Comala that even the priest, Father Rentaria, is compelled to pardon Miguel at his funeral, even when he internally revolts at the idea (Miguel had killed his brother and raped his niece).

“I know you hated him, Father. And with reason. Rumour has it that your brother was murdered by my son, and you believe that your niece Ana was raped by him. Then there were his insults, and his lack of respect. Those are all reasons anyone could understand. But forget all that now, Father. Weigh him and forgive him, as perhaps God has forgiven him.”

He placed a handful of gold coins on the prie-dieu and to his feet: “Take this as a gift for your church.”

Tired, defeated and burdened by the knowledge that he had set in motion a chain of events that got out of control, Father Rentaria seeks salvation himself from a fellow priest, but is refused. Salvation is not always forthcoming to Comala’s people. Father Rentaria, on his part, refuses to pardon a destitute woman called Dorotea who confesses to having brought girls to Miguel, this is revealed to us in her conversation with Juan Preciado in their graves…

“I don’t know, Juan Preciado. After so many years of never lifting up my head, I forgot about the sky. And even if I had looked up, what good would it have done? The sky is so high and my eyes so clouded that I was happy just knowing where the ground was. Besides, I lost all interest after padre Rentaría told me I would never know glory. Or even see it from a distance… It was because of my sins, but he didn’t have to tell me that. Life is hard enough as it is. The only thing that keeps you going is the hope that when you die you’ll be lifted off this mortal coil; but when they close one door to you and the only one left open is the door to Hell, you’re better off not being born. For me, Juan Preciado, heaven is right here.”

Pedro Páramo, then, 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, where the boundaries between dreams and reality are often blurred. It’s an enthralling mood piece; prose that has a filmic texture to it, an amalgam of non-chronological snapshots patched together to form a rich reel of an ill-fated town. Not to mention the limpid, poetic sentences pulsating with haunting sensory images.

Green pastures. Watching the horizon rise and fall as the wind swirled through the wheat, an afternoon rippling with curling lines of rain. The colour of the earth, the smell of alfalfa and bread. A town that smelled like spilled honey…

Pedro Páramo is a vessel of collective voices and whispers as it effortlessly moves between the realms of the living and dead; the narrative switches between the first person in the present (Preciado is the narrator to be joined in the second half by Dorotea as the two begin conversing) and a third person point of view when the focus shifts to events of the past. Cinematic in scope, strange and unique, Pedro Páramo can be a disorienting experience in the beginning but then transforms into something magical as it coasts along. Highly recommended!

The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi (tr. John Bester)

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!

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. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.

In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking mission, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.

The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.

The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.  

When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy.  Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.

Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.

Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.

As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another young woman called Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.

Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.

Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.

Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.

The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.  

If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s managerial skills when it comes to matters relating to handling Yukitomo’s plethora of estates and other business matters.

As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.

There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.

Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.

The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.

General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown:  “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”

Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state. 

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.

It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.

The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!

Salka Valka – Haldór Laxness (tr. Philip Roughton)

It was the Mookse and Gripes podcast in December 2022 that finally gave me the impetus to pick up Salka Valka; it was featured in Trevor’s Top Five of the year. It’s the first Haldór Laxness novel I’ve read and based on how wonderful it was, won’t be my last. This is also my contribution to #NordicFINDS23 hosted by AnnaBookBel.

THAT HAUNTING OPENING SCENE…

In the opening pages of Salka Valka, a coastal steamer stops at the port of a small, remote fishing village called Oseyri. Surrounded by looming mountains and fjords, the village is now in the throes of deepening winter, relentlessly hounded by driving snow. Oseyri is such a nondescript, isolated village (“you get the impression that nothing in the world could be more insignificant and meaningless than such a small village under such high mountains”), that a couple of idle tourists aboard the steamer at the time of its docking, can’t help wondering about it – “How do people live in such a place? And how do they die?”

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…

Thus begins this wondrous, 552-paged, ambitious novel of Salka Valka, 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.

ESSENCE OF PLOT & STRUCTURE

Salka Valka is divided into four sections, each section comprising two parts. In the first section, we meet Salka when she is an 11-year old girl, defiant and spirited even at that young age. She accompanies Sigurlina when she knocks at several doors, desperate to find work and in this way, along with her the reader is also introduced to some of the prominent inhabitants of the village. The foremost is Jóhann Bogesen, a wealthy merchant who has a monopoly on the village’s fishing operations (the community’s primary source of livelihood), while also managing the store; the villagers’ employment status is defined by the opening of an account with Bogesen. Sigurlina fails to find employment there as a maid and her subsequent visits to the church Dean and the village doctor also yield no results. Mostly viewed as strangers, the dean and the doctor remain suspicious of her background, it is alleged that Salka is an illegitimate child (which is true), and consequently turn both mother and daughter away.

Little wonder then that Sigurlina finds some solace in the Salvation Army, its religious teachings and chanting re-ignite her faith in Christianity. The village church looks down upon the Salvation Army branding it a heathen place, but it is perhaps a tad ironic that while both espouse the tenets of Christianity, it is the Salvation Army that welcomes Sigurlina in a way that the formal church does not.

Meanwhile, Salka Valka’s fiery persona is evident right from the very beginning as she hurls insults at Argantyr, Bogesen’s son, while at their palatial home (when Sigurlina is looking for work). In a village whose personality is largely shaped by fish and fishing, it is Salka who boldly approaches Jóhann Bogesen for the purpose of opening an account with him and demands to be given a job washing fish. Concerned that she is too young, the villagers are, nevertheless, struck by her will of steel, and she soon begins working with them because all said and done extra hands are needed for the job.

It’s also in the first section that we encounter two men who will have an important bearing on how the story unfolds and will play a pivotal role in how Salka’s destiny shapes up. First is the creepy sailor Steinþor, a raging alcoholic prone to destructive fits of anger. Steinþor helps Sigurlina find lodgings when no one else does and immediately begins an affair with her much to Salka’s chagrin. Salka also meets Arnaldur, a dreamy man, hired as her tutor for a brief period. Arnaldur lives with his irascible grandfather and an upright aunt; his mother has abandoned the family and his father is now a cultivated man settled abroad. Arnaldur is tormented by dreams of his mother which he confides to Salka, and regales her with visions of alternate worlds more captivating to him than his current circumstances.  

Part Two forwards to several years later, and Salka is now a young woman, self-reliant, living in her own house with a share in a fishing boat. She is also instrumental in forming a fisherman’s union successful in negotiating a wage hike. Despite her loathing for Steinþor Steinsson, Salka is not averse to the lure of money and there are rumors that payments received from America (notably from Steinþor) have helped fund the purchase of her home. In that sense, she is reasonably well-off in a village, where most others still struggle financially in their daily lives.

Politics, revolutionary ideals, and socio-economic issues make up for a bulk of the second section as the largely ignorant working class of Oseyri begins to get a whiff of the scent of Bolshevism, while the capitalists in the village resist its growing influence.

RICHLY DRAWN, COMPLEX CENTRAL CHARACTERS

Salka Valka, the titular character, is a remarkable heroine and a force to reckon with in Oseyri. Bold and enterprising, she is fiercely independent right from an early age, and a source of financial support to her mother who gradually sinks into despondency as her relationships fail. During her teenage years, Salka is treated like an outsider in Oseyri, often left out, and constantly humiliated by the jeers and insults of peers but she soldiers on. She is ugly when measured against the standards of conventional beauty, tall and strong, awkward even and often naïve when it comes to relationships, but sharp and intelligent in matters relating to business and money. Salka has a fraught, complex relationship with Steinþor, a man she abhors who nearly rapes her in the first section, yet she has no qualms about accepting money from him, because she understands the value of currency.

Then there’s Sigurlina who cuts a sorrowful figure, succumbing to men especially in her yearnings for love and support, and Steinþor who has a towering, disturbing presence in the lives of both women, Sigurlina wishes to marry him despite their abusive relationship. Increasingly moody and violent particularly when sozzled with drink, Steinþor desires Salka, and often disappears for long periods on sea when things get too hot for him in the village. Steinpor has grand ambitions of uprooting Bogesen’s unshakeable position but no one takes him seriously when he is so regularly drunk.

Arnaldur Björnsson casts a spell over Salka with his “face shining out of the darkness of the night, radiant with belief in another world.” Hired as Salka’s tutor, the two share a close bond which waxes and wanes over the course of the novel. Educated and immersed in books, a passionate revolutionary and an effective orator, Arnaldur’s communistic fervor awakens the interest of the Oseyri workers to the tenets of communism, but while his intensity as a rabble rouser is electrifying, he does not seem to be cut out for the execution of his ideology or the grunt work that it involves. Salka often wonders whether Arnaldur’s interest in communism is fuelled by his need to always argue and fight his enemies, only to lose interest once there’s nothing left to fight for.  

And last but not the least is Jóhann Bogesen, the wealthy merchant, who runs the show, and pretty much controls the economic pulse of the village. The Oseyri residents need him for their survival and at the same time despise him because they are at his mercy.

PANOPLY OF THEMES

One of the core themes that the novel addresses is the ugly side of abject poverty and the struggles of the working class. This is represented by the pathetic living conditions of Oseyri’s inhabitants – steeped in debt and dirt, riddled with illness and death, often at the mercy of natural calamities and the indifference of humanity. This is a deeply religious community, but the burden and worries of day to day living, not surprisingly, also fuel a wavering of faith and a hopeless resignation towards their doomed fate which God and the church does nothing to alleviate.  

Part Two of the novel assumes political overtones; the plight of the working class becomes the foundation for politics bringing in its wake sharp contrast in viewpoints. At the time when the novel is set, Iceland was part of the Kingdom of Denmark, while at the same time Russia was riding on the wave of communism and Bolshevism, the winds of this ideology blowing across the rest of Europe as well. In Salka Valka, these varying ideologies are epitomized by its central characters – Bogesen is the capitalist and a proponent of individual initiative, Arnaldur is the passionate Bolshevist and a budding revolutionary, while there are others who believe in self-determination and express a wish to break away from Denmark as well.

This novel was originally published in the early 1930s but Laxness’ stellar rendering of the intricate working of Iceland’s economy and the various cogs in the wheel (Oseyri being the hub) that support it has striking parallels with the financial crisis that crippled the nation in 2008. The rippling effects of union strikes, the ceasing of production, bad debts piling up with banks highlights a capitalist system where the fortunes of the wealthy are dented but pale in comparison to the plight of the poor, who caught between a rock and hard place, suffer the hardest.

Through debates and arguments between the principal characters, Laxness brings to the fore the complexity of myriad philosophies at play, always highlighting both sides of the coin – Bolshevism Vs Capitalism, independent initiative Vs mass production and community living, and so on.

Salka Valka is also in many ways a feminist tale. Salka’s zeal to lead her life on her own terms is strong not only because of her inherent personality but also because deep down she abhors her mother’s dependence on men to survive. That women have to bear the brunt of misogyny and grapple with shame and ostracization from the misdeeds of men is also explored.   

The novel also lays bare the widening gulf between the rich and poor in terms of money and opportunities. The Bogesens live in lavish comfort in Oseyri, and the merchant’s children enjoy the privilege of education in Copenhagen giving them an air of elegance and sophistication if not empathy, while Salka and her lot remains ignorant of the world outside, inhabiting a narrow space where nothing much happens and the only preoccupations centre around daily fishing activities.

STARK WEATHER – A FORCE IN ITS OWN RIGHT

In a novel replete with fully realised characters, Salka Valka also pulsates with a vivid sense of place – the mountains and fjords among which Oseyri is nestled, lends it a remote, distant quality; a place whose fate is determined by the vagaries of nature, the relentless brunt of thunderstorms and stark, severe winters.

AN EPIC NOVEL, EXPANSIVE IN SCOPE

Salka Valka, then, is a big, beautiful novel, expansive in its scope and incredibly absorbing. The first section is particularly haunting when depicting the plight of Oseyri’s villagers and workers crushed by poverty and barely making ends meet. The unraveling of Sigurlina’s fate is also imminently sad as she is engulfed by hopelessness and unbearable disappointment from the men she falls in love with.

Salka’s forceful spirit combined with her awkwardness and heightened sense of isolation during her early years in Oseyri are also strikingly depicted, as are the gamut of emotions she experiences with Arnaldur that oscillate between friendship and kinship to scorn and jealousy. Not to mention the increasing hatred she feels for Steinþor who lusts for her and bewilders her with his poetic fervor.

Part One is intense in the way the dynamics between the central characters play out and is in that sense more personal, while in Part Two that intensity takes a different path as the focus becomes more political.

This is entirely a third person narrative and one can’t help get a feeling that Laxness is an omniscient narrator particularly when he makes certain observations about his characters, his views subtly disguised in wit and comedy.

IN A NUTSHELL…

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. Highly recommended!

My Best Books of 2022

2022 turned out to be a superb year of reading. Purely because I wanted another reason to showcase my reading highlights, just like last year, I decided to strike a balance between sticking to a specific number and yet not being too rigid about it. So, 21 books it is!

I didn’t read as much translated literature as I would I have liked, something I hope to remedy in 2023, but in the meanwhile from the ones I did read, 6 translated works made the cut covering 5 languages (Norwegian, Spanish, Danish, Russian and Japanese). Again, I’ve read more women authors this year, and this is reflected in the list as well (women to men ratio is 18:3).

2022 was also the year when I committed myself to a long reading project – the 13 volumes of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – thanks to the #PilgrimageTogether reading group on Twitter led by Kim McNeill and Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books. It was both a challenging and rewarding project (I plan to read the last three novels this month) and I’ve written about the first ten throughout my monthly posts this year but I want to highlight that the fourth novel The Tunnel was to me the best so far.

Coming back to this list though, it is a mix of 20th century literature, contemporary fiction, translated literature, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography. I simply loved them all and would heartily recommend each one.

So without further ado, here are My Best Books of 2022, in the order in which they appear in the picture below (Click on the names if you want to read the detailed reviews)…

THE GREENGAGE SUMMER by Rumer Godden

The Greengage Summer is a gorgeous coming-of-age tale of love, deceit and new experiences, a beguiling mix of light and darkness set in the luxurious champagne region of France.

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky). Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are. But all their best laid plans go awry when the mother falls ill. Thus, once at the hotel, the children are largely left to their own devices and latch on to the mysterious Elliott who takes them under his wing much to the chagrin of his lover and the owner of the hotel, Mademoiselle Zizi. This is a beautiful book with evocative descriptions of a languid French summer. Despite the joys of new experiences, there are darker currents with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings.

THE FORTNIGHT IN SEPTEMBER by R C Sherriff

The Fortnight in September is a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years. The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to leave for the seaside town of Bognor, preparations are in full swing and a sense of excitement is palpable. Mr Stevens, a thorough and meticulous man, has drawn up a “to-do” list called “Marching Orders” in the Stevens lexicon, with precise set of instructions on the various duties to be carried out by each family member before they lock up the house and set off.

The rest of the novel then charts the entire fortnight of the family holiday – lounging in the beach hut, swimming in the sea, hours of leisure on the golden sands soaking up the sun, and indulging in sports and games. That’s really the crux of the novel and it’s largely plotless and yet such a wonderful, immersive read because there are so many aspects of the Stevens’ personalities and travel mantras that are familiar and spot on. What’s truly remarkable about the novel are the character studies – the Stevens’ are ordinary people, not too financially well-off, but they have a goodness of heart that make them so memorable.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow is a haunting, beautifully sculpted novella of the mysteries of relationships and memories, familial bonds, finding connections, and life’s simple pleasures. The novel opens with a woman and her mother embarking on a short trip together to Japan, a journey and destination that promises the opportunity for both to bond and connect. But we get a sense from the outset that mother and daughter are not always on the same page.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between the two women, which remains elusive despite the hazy impression that they get along well. The book is largely from the daughter’s point of view and so the mother’s reminisces and flashbacks are told to us from the daughter’s perspective lending it an air of unreliability or conveying the idea that the mother’s experiences are filtered through the daughter’s eyes so that it fits her narrative.

There’s an elusive, enigmatic feel to the novella, of things left unsaid that might mean more than what’s been stated, a sense that things lie outside our grasp, that full knowledge is always on the fringes, on the periphery of our vision. To me Cold Enough for Snow was like a balm – the quiet, hallucinatory prose style and range of sensory images was very soothing and I could easily lose myself in the dreamy world that Au created.

MAUD MARTHA by Gwendolyn Brooks

First released in the US in 1953, Maud Martha is the only novel published by Gwendolyn Brooks, a Pulitzer-prize winning poet. It’s a striking and evocative portrayal of black womanhood in 1940s Chicago told with poetic grace and intensity.

Composed of 34 vignettes, sometimes bite-sized, sometimes running into not more than four pages, these mini-portraits build up to beautifully convey not only the experiences and dreams of the titular character but also the broader aspirations of her community and the difficulty in attaining them due to class and race barriers. Maud Martha lives life on her own terms, and refuses to let regrets, disillusionments and the cruelty of racism bog her down. It’s her refusal to let the ways of society dictate her actions that is testament to her spirit and individuality and gives the novella its power.

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.

O CALEDONIA by Elspeth Barker

Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia is an immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet, our protagonist, clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. 

THE ISLAND by Ana María Matute (tr. from Spanish by Laura Lonsdale)

Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. Dona Praxedes, her grandmother, is a domineering woman, who takes matters into her own hands ensuring that Matia is sent to live with her. The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to the book. Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

GENTLEMAN OVERBOARD by Herbert Clyde Lewis

The first of the Boiler House Press titles (from the Recovered Books imprint) that made this list Gentleman Overboard is a fabulous, taut, psychological novella of loneliness, emptiness, the randomness of fate, what it means to take one’s life for granted and how a radical change can bring about a shift in perception.

Henry Preston Standish is the “gentleman” of the novel and the opening lines tell us that when Standish “fell headlong into the Pacific Ocean, the sun was just rising on the eastern horizon.” In the immediate hours since his fall, Standish is ridiculously struck with shame instead of fear…secure in his belief that he will be rescued by Arabella when his absence aboard the ship is noticed. But when the hours slip by and the Arabella disappears from the horizon, Standish is forced to confront the possibility that he is likely to die. It’s short, gripping and powerful with an air of fatality running through it; superb on atmosphere and psychological insight, rendered in prose that is lush and melancholic.

FOSTER by Claire Keegan

Foster is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change, she becomes absorbed in the Kinsella household’s daily routine and begins to blossom under their care. This book is a mini marvel and one of its greatest strengths is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, where Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space.

TIME: THE PRESENT SELECTED STORIES by Tess Slesinger

Another excellent Recovered Books title, Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable. Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

Some examples – “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation, while Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky.” “Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a relationship, while “Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (tr. from Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop. The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

WOMAN RUNNING IN THE MOUNTAINS by Yuko Tsushima (tr. from Japanese by Geraldine Harcourt)

Woman Running in the Mountains is a stunning, immersive novel of single motherhood, loneliness and alienation; a novel tinged with beauty and melancholia, with darkness and light, where haunting landscapes of the natural world offer pockets of relief from the harsh reality of a brutal family life.

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly signaling she’s in labour. Takiko is hell bent on going to the hospital by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira). That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time dealing with her dismal family circumstances.

Single motherhood and its myriad challenges is one of the biggest themes in Woman Running in the Mountains, a topic obviously close to Tsushima’s heart given that she was also a single mother. It’s is a bracing, beautiful novel where Tsushima’s lyrical, limpid prose drenched in touches of piercing wisdom coupled with its range of vivid, haunting, dreamlike imagery makes it such a pleasure to read.

A VIEW OF THE HARBOUR by Elizabeth Taylor

A View of the Harbour is a beautifully written, nuanced story of love, aching loneliness, stifled desires, and the claustrophobia of a dead-end seaside town. The main plotline revolves around Beth Cazabon, a writer; her husband Robert, the town’s doctor; and Beth’s friend Tory Foyle who lives next door and is divorced. However, like the wonderful The Soul of Kindness, this is a book with an ensemble cast where the lives of the other members of the community are interwoven into that of the Cazabons. This is a drab, dreary seaside town where for desperate want of drama and excitement, the lives of its residents become fodder for speculation and gossip.

Taylor is great at depicting the small dramas playing out in the lives of these ordinary people with her characteristic flair for astute insights into human nature. This is a community struggling to feel important, where an annual innocuous, humdrum festival becomes an event to talk about given the lack of entertainment otherwise, and where the inhabitants’ lives never go unobserved. This is one of her finest books, simply top-tier Taylor.

THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing. Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. We then meet Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village, about the same age as Evelyn. To Imogen, Blanche is an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude. Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn begin an affair with Blanche, a development that pushes Imogen into a state of crisis.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. from Danish by Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness is a biting, scalpel-sharp collection of stories with its devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style.

Some examples – In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. In the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy

Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles. The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.

This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally.

LIFE AND FATE by Vasily Grossman (tr. from Russian by Robert Chandler)

A wonderful, wonderful book, big on ideas, set at the heart of World War Two during the historic Battle of Stalingrad. The cast of characters is huge and at the end of this gargantuan novel is a list running into several pages.  The Shaposhnikov family’s story forms the nucleus of Life and Fate, but Grossman does not focus his lens on them alone. A slew of subplots radiate from the central story arc, and the main characters in most of these subplots are connected in some way or the other to the Shaposhnikov family.

These subplots are pretty wide ranging in terms of setting and scope adding layers of richness to the novel – we are privy to the lives and viewpoints of people engaged in combat on the battlefields (the tank corps, air force and soldiers), the grimness of Jewish ghettoes, the horrific, fatalistic journey to the gas chambers, political prisoners stationed in Siberian camps, a Stalingrad power station, an isolated Russian outpost called House 6/1 surrounded by Germans and led by the irreverent Grekov who refuses to send reports to his superiors, the surrealism of the vast Kalmyk Steppes, the Kafkaesque nature of the Lubyanka prison and so on.

But the throbbing pulse of Life and Fate lies in its unwavering focus on humanity and generosity, its examination of the complexities of human nature, and its persistent moral questioning.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two. There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues, shifting points of view and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

FREE LOVE by Tessa Hadley

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings. The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh. When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. Later, when Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately, they set in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is meticulously researched, painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, ageing and loneliness. It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

That’s about it, it was an absolutely wonderful year of reading for me and I hope it continues in 2023 too. What were some of your best books this year?

Cheers and Merry Christmas,

Radhika

Will and Testament – Vigdis Hjorth (tr. Charlotte Barslund)

Will and Testament was my first novel by Vigdis Hjorth and it was just amazing. I now have Long Live the Post Horn to look forward to as well as her latest Is Mother Dead, a copy of which is already on its way to me. But in the meanwhile, this novel will 100% find a place on my best of the year list.

They say that to find a solution to a problem you need to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. How can you find ways to resolve the issue if you are not willing to accept the existence of the very issue that needs resolving? It’s the same with family and relationships. Families can be complex and complicated. Arguments, deep seated resentments and differing points of view can cause cracks in the familial structure that maybe hard to fix. While reconciliation is always a preferred option and healthy communication between various parties is one way of achieving this, what if there are certain instances where this is definitely not an option? Especially, in a scenario where a serious crime in the family has been committed and differing versions of it exist, where the victim’s version is not acknowledged because it challenges the other family members’ sense of self and makes them uncomfortable?

That is the central theme that underlines Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament – 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.

Our protagonist is Bergljot, working as a magazine editor in Oslo writing theatre reviews. Bergjlot is now in her late fifties or earlier sixties with three grown up children (Soren, Ebba and Tale) and grandchildren, is in a relationship with a man called Lars and close to her friends Klara and Karen always pillars of support whenever a crisis erupts and she desperately needs someone to talk to.

Will and Testament 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. Before his death, the father had made a will leaving the two family cabins at Hvalar to his youngest children Astrid and Asa at very low valuations, a fact that angers Bard the eldest child and only son.

Bard vehemently challenges the terms of the inheritance but he is pretty much contesting a lone battle when the mother, father, Astrid and Asa refuse to budge from their position. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash, having severed contact with the family more than twenty years ago. The modern reader will immediately discern the reason for Bergjlot’s refusal to get entangled – having been abused by the father as a child, the subsequent ordeal and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely cut contact with her family in order to maintain her sanity.

Which is one of the reasons she does not wish to get embroiled in the feud; she thinks if she hasn’t bothered keeping in touch with her family, she cannot expect to be entitled to any inheritance. And yet the unfairness of the entire affair given how inextricably it’s linked with her past, persistently nags her compelling her to finally join the row siding with Bard; the two elder children against their mother and younger siblings.

Bard, a victim of neglect and physical abuse himself, argues about the principle of the matter, that the disagreement over the inheritance is not so much about money as it is about acknowledging the trauma inflicted upon them by their father, a view Bergjlot also shares. Isn’t it fair that he gets entitled to a half of one of the cabins as a form of compensation for a very difficult childhood?

The fractured family dynamics rub off on their children too. Bard’s daughters refuse to have anything to do with their aunts and grandparents, a development that causes the mother much heartache as she fears losing them completely. It’s the same with Bergjlot’s children who also remain ambivalent. Her daughter Tale refuses to attend family gatherings, but Soren and Ebba attend these get-togethers to keep up appearances although these occasions leave them uneasy.

While distribution of the property is a bone of contention in the present, much of the drama takes place in Bergjlot’s past, the root of all the discord in subsequent years. Through much of her growing up years and even post marriage, the abuse remains repressed in Bergjlot, life continues as if it never happened. But what is repressed is bound to resurface later and Bergjlot finally confronts her family only to be stonewalled. Branded as a liar by her mother, the father’s denial and lack of support from Astrid and Asa who choose to remain silent; Bergjlot is finally compelled to cut all contact.

One of the striking aspects of Will and Testament are the superb character studies, Hjorth brilliantly captures the flawed personalities, fears and insecurities of not only Bergjlot but also those of the mother (Inga) and Astrid who are as damaged by the father’s actions but unwilling to admit them.

Bergjlot, particularly, is a richly drawn character struggling to be believed by a family that staunchly refuses to do so. Unsurprisingly and understandably Bergjlot’s scars run deep and manifests in the chaotic way her personal life pans out – she divorces her wealthy, “nice” husband when her children are young because she is deeply in love with an unscrupulous married man, a relationship that also ultimately sours prompting her to finally opt in for psychoanalysis as a step towards healing. Bergjlot’s severing of all ties with her damaged family works to her advantage, but she remains tormented by her mother’s digs and insults about her behaviour and her sisters’ refusal to accept her version of the past. She is deeply conflicted about a family that desperately tries to silence her while at the same time makes her feel guilty about her actions. She is flawed but vulnerable and it’s her dogged insistence on fighting back, on telling her story that lends the novel much of its power.

The mother is also a damaged individual, a woman with only looks to her credit with no money or prospects of her own, at the mercy of her husband, and unable to stand up for her children. Bergjlot’s mother has suspicions of her husband’s crime, but she chooses to look away. Having loved another man herself, that affair comes to nothing, and somewhere deep down she resents Bergljot for taking charge of her life which she considers a rebuke to her own inability to do so. Hjorth often refers to the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen in her depiction of the mother – in Ibsen’s The Doll House, Nora finally decides to abandon her husband and family in an attempt to begin life anew, a path the mother does not have the guts to embark on.

Mum didn’t feel good about herself. Mum was pretty, but had no education, no experience, no money, Mum was Dad’s possession, Dad was proud of his pretty possession, Mum radiated fear. Mum was innocent in the sense that she was inexperienced and naïve. Many men prefer and are attracted to inexperienced and naïve women, simple, childish ones who are easy to impress, awestruck, devoted, sincere, needy, those who don’t use irony, who don’t hold back. Mum was inexperienced, childish and chose to remain a child. If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable. 

Astrid desires the best of both worlds; she wishes her family to reconcile but without acknowledging the event that caused the rupture in the first place. She projects herself as a good person who wants to keep up appearances, and adopt a diplomatic approach towards the matter at hand, without accepting that there are times when you need to take a stand however unpleasant and even if it means a further rift in the family.

That was her mistake, Astrid’s mistake. She claimed to be neutral, but deep down she wasn’t because sweet-talking everyone isn’t being neutral if one party has hurt the other, only she didn’t factor that in or she didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.

Deep down, Astrid and Asa resent Bergjlot because they perceive her to be their parents’ favorite child given the attention they showered upon Bergjlot little realizing the nature of that attention. As grown-ups, Astrid and Asa maintain a strong relationship with their parents, a bond that also results in them benefitting financially, but their closeness with the parents and silence on the ‘unmentionable’ matter makes it very clear to Bergjlot whose side they are on even if they have not explicitly stated it. Asa, interestingly, is not much of a presence in the novel as Astrid, but that is because she does not care about mending relations in the way Astrid desperately does.  

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. This is a first person account; Bergjlot is the narrator where the repetition of events and episodes reflects her anxious, feverish state of mind as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her. The frenzied internal monologues capture Bergjlot’s distress to brilliant effect, the mounting dread and anxiety she experiences every time she is required to come face to face with her family. The tension palpable in Bergjlot’s voice, a product of her fretful personality lends an intense, gripping quality to the narrative propelling it forward.

If Bergjlot has deliberately abandoned her family, why should she bother what they think? If she has long ago given up the idea of any inheritance, why change her stance? Can such a fractured family ever reconcile when they are so intent on denying her reality and are busy brushing things under the carpet? These are the questions that repeatedly swirl in Bergjlot’s mind and raise pertinent questions about the limits of forgiveness in a family which repeatedly denies the existence of a grave crime.

Was it any wonder that I had felt troubled and ambivalent towards someone who wanted proof and reconciliation at the same time? That was the impossibility, the untruth which had lain unspoken underneath all our conversations, which now turned out to have been nothing but lies.

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic novel, timeless in its themes, and especially relevant given how difficult it is for abused women to come forward and be believed even in the current #MeToo era.