Haunting, Dreamy Reads for Autumn

We are in September and autumn beckons – the season of red and gold leaves, coziness and even a whiff of melancholia. “Is not this a true autumn day? Just the still melancholy that I love – that makes life and nature harmonize,” wrote George Eliot in a letter to Miss Lewis, 1841.

Autumn also seems the perfect time to immerse oneself in haunting, atmospheric, dreamy reads and here are eight books that fit the bill…

THE OTHER NAME by Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader. The second book in the Septology series – I is Another – is pretty remarkable too, and I plan to read the final installment – A New Name (shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize) in the coming months.

WHEREABOUTS by Jhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. Haunting and mesmerizing, it’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections.

COLD ENOUGH FOR SNOW by Jessica Au

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au 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. The trip is the daughter’s idea and while the mother is reluctant at first to accompany her, the daughter’s persistence pushes her to finally relent.

What’s interesting about this novella is the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, 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.

THE GATE by Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE-D’AVRAY by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for that ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading. 

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

On that particular autumn afternoon, as the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

LOVE IN A FALLEN CITY by Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Love in a Fallen City is a collection of four novellas and two short stories offering a fascinating glimpse into the lives of people in 1930s/1940s Shanghai and Hong Kong.

I really liked the flavor of the four novellas in this collection accentuated by the fact that Eileen Chang’s writing is elegant and incisive with a lovely way of describing things. She has a flair for painting a detailed picture of the social mores of the time and well as for her perceptive depictions of the inner workings of her characters’ minds. And she also highlights the subtle differences between Hong Kong, which has more of a British essence, and Shanghai which is more Chinese.

Ultimately, there is something tragic about the men and women (the latter particularly) in her novellas, a sense of melancholy that leaves its mark on the reader.

INVISIBLE INK by Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

This is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill. Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

BLACK NARCISSUS by 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 obsession, madness and colonialism.

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. 

The Island – Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Ana María Matute’s The Island came to my attention in 2020 during the peak of the pandemic lockdown, when it was released with another title from the Penguin Modern Classics range – Sibilla Aleramo’s A Woman. The Aleramo was great, and now I can say the same for Matute.

At a certain point in The Island, the protagonist, 14-year old Matia is on the veranda with her cousin Borja, smoking cigarettes in harmony. It’s a secret but frequent ritual for the two when sleep eludes them and the quietness of the hours when the household is in slumber seems the perfect time. At such moments of contemplation and quiet companionship, Matia listens to Borja reminiscing about his past with rapt attention, or the two grumble on the state of limbo they’ve been hurled into by the seemingly never ending war. For the most part, Matia is lost in her own thoughts (“I had formed another island belonging only to me”), reflecting on the cruel and alien world of adults, the sharp realization that both she and Borja were in no man’s land, that murky space between childhood and adulthood where they felt lost with no clear sense of identity.

What an alien race adults were, how strange were men and women. And how alien and absurd were we. What strangers to the world, to the passing of time. We were no longer children. But neither, suddenly, could we say what we were.

That sense of futility and lament against a ruthless, vindictive adult world is a refrain that will run throughout the novel. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island, then, 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. The father, subsequently, leaves her with his ageing housekeeper Mauricia, and Matia has happy memories of early childhood there despite the chaos of her upbringing. Once Mauricia falls ill though, the grandmother Dona Praxedes, a domineering woman, takes matters into her own hands and Matia is sent to live with her (“My grandmother had white hair rising in a wave over her forehead, which made her look irate”).

The grandmother rules her lands with an iron fist, by reputation if not in person. That intimidating personality extends to her dealings with people too including her family and those working for her. She is a sharp woman, forever perched on her chair by the window, focusing her gaze on the Slope where most of the island’s tenant farmers reside. Nothing misses her eye.

After lunch she would drag her rocking chair to the window of her private dining room (mist and gloom, the scorching, damp wind tearing itself open on the agaves or pushing the chestnut coloured leaves under the almond trees; swollen, leaden clouds blurring the green brightness of the sea) and from there, with her old jewel-encrusted opera glasses – the sapphires were false – she would inspect the white houses on the Slope…

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. Daily household chores are taken care of by the housekeeper Antonia; and her son Lauro (Borja’s nickname for him is Chinky), studying to become a priest, is employed to tutor both Borja and Matia. 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.

And while we anxiously waited for news, which was always unsatisfactory (the war was barely six weeks old), the four of us – my grandmother, my aunt Emilia, my cousin Borja and myself – stewed in the heat, the boredom, the loneliness and the silence of that corner of the island, in the far-flung vanishing point that was my grandmother’s house.

Matia’s loneliness and alienation are heightened by her homesickness for Mauricia, her impression that she belongs nowhere, and her only source of comfort is her little black doll, Gorogo.

Our holidays were interrupted by a war that seemed eerily unreal, at once remote and immediate, perhaps more frightening for being invisible.

Things are further complicated by Matia and Borja’s love-hate relationship. As a teenager (15), Borja has a dubious, slimy personality with the ability to plot and connive and have his way even if it’s through blackmail (“He could be sweet and gentle when it suited him to be so in the company of certain adults. But never have I met a more pig-headed and deceitful traitor, nor a sadder little boy, than Borja”). Matia quickly discerns that he has some hold on Lauro, knowledge that gives him power to treat Lauro like dirt even under his tutelage.And yet, Matia, has no one else for company and readily tags along with Borja, even earning his respect and admiration for being expelled from school.

The island of Mallorca may be cut off from the Spanish mainland, but the ideological differences and deep fault lines are mirrored on the island even percolating down to the daily lives of its inhabitants. News from the outside, mostly about the war, filter into Matia’s world through morbid tales spun by Antonia (“They say they’re killing whole families over there, shooting priests and throwing people into vats of boiling oil”).

Indeed, violence is a permanent feature of the island fuelled by age-old prejudices that create deep fractures impossible to fill. The gang wars between Borja and Guiem alternate regularly with occasional periods of truce as fragile as water sliding off a duck’s back. These aren’t just vocal matches but involve rifles, meat hooks and other forms of ghastly weapons. But that’s nothing compared to the terror unleashed by the Taronji brothers, a couple of extreme right-wing fascists, whose death squads send waves of fear across the island leaving a behind a trail of destruction. The violence is also manifest in the treatment of minorities, particularly the Jewish community – the little Jewish square on the island is a grim reminder of the Inquisition’s persecution of the Jews, the echoes of which reverberate even in the present, accentuated by the gang wars and burning of bonfires.

Against this menacing landscape of war and violence, the lives of Borja and Matia play out. The pair smokes cigarettes in the deep of the night, they confide about their earlier lives steeped in nostalgia, and explore the island, its many nooks and crannies and secret hiding places, some of which can only be accessed by boat. It’s during one such expedition that Matia gets her first taste of real violence – on a beach cove, they come across a dead body riddled by bullets. The body belongs to José Taronji, a Jew, and thus, Matia comes face to face for the first time with Manuel, José’s son.

Because of their Jewish heritage, Manuel, his mother Malene and his two younger siblings are treated with contempt and disrespect, Malene mostly is dismissed as a ‘loose woman’. Manuel’s persona is mysterious, he is barely talkative, but there’s something good about him that’s a sharp contrast to the evil in Borja. It’s as if Borja is trying to get himself noticed by Manuel who remains indifferent, and yet as the novel progresses, Matia and Manuel strike up a friendship, the repercussions of which will haunt them for the rest of their lives.

Intertwined in their storyline and crucial to the plot, is the mystical figure of Jorge of Son Major, previous employer of José Taronji, who had donated some plot of land to Malene and José years earlier, and is now living as a recluse in his castle with his companion Sanamo, a guitarist. Borja idolizes Jorge which perplexes Matia, and things only get murkier when an inkling of some past friction between Jorge and their grandmother becomes palpable.

To see him, Jorge of Son Major, in his walled garden, wearing his threadbare blazer, taking refuge in memories ad dark roses, made me want to touch, drink in his memories, swallow down his sadness (‘thank you, thank you for your sadness’), take refuge in it so I could escape as he had done, submerge myself forever in that great glass of pink wine, to be filled up magically with his nostalgia.

The defining feature of The Island, though, is its vivid sense of place, an aura of otherworldliness all around (“The sun’s pink veil lay over everything, like a dream.”)

The sun was full and ripe that afternoon. We were entering a golden season of full-bodied light, shining read and mauve between the trees. A warm sun like vintage wine, which had to be sipped slowly so it wouldn’t go to our heads. We had entered the month of October.

 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 a book that is awash with stunning descriptions – the grey sky “swollen like an infection”, the whitening stones of walls “like enormous rows of teeth”, the fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge “shattering like bits of crockery”, sand that glints on Borja’s ankles “like tiny slivers of tin”, and so on.

The Monsignor was playing dreamily with an opaquely initialled goblet, and its bluish crystal was like the light when it rains, beautifully opalescent. On transparent nights he drank an orange liqueur, lucid as water, and on cloudy days he drank Pernod, because he said drinks bore a strong relation to the atmosphere or the colour of the sky. (At high noon, amontillado, and in the evening, solemn and translucent liqueurs.) When he said this my mouth and nose would fill with violent perfumes; I even felt a little dizzy.

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.

The brightness was everywhere. It was so deep inside me that everything – the perished boats, the sand, the prickly pears, my own body – was submerged in painful depths of light. I could hear the sea, the waves that were on fire and would overwhelm me with thirst.

Friendship, betrayal, the pains of growing up (the transformation from a life of innocence and naiveté to one of knowledge, treachery and even cowardice), the crippling impact of an endless legacy of violence and hatred, the cruel role of fate and destiny, how our pasts can shape up our future with damaging consequences, are some of the core themes explored in The Island. In a nutshell, Matute has written a stunning novel where the power of its themes blends beautifully with the poetry of her prose, churning up a golden-hued heady cocktail that deliciously courses through the body and is unforgettable.

Two Atmospheric French Novellas – Patrick Modiano & Dominique Barbéris

This post takes a look at two French novellas, different yet similar in many ways – they are haunting, gripping, set in and around Paris, and narrated in first person where the narrator is not really the central character. While I have reviewed a Patrick Modiano novella on this blog before – After the Circus, Barbéris is completely new to me. Long story short, both these novellas are excellent.

INVISIBLE INK – Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

Jean’s task is divided into three steps – first ask the concierge of a certain apartment building in the 15th arrondissement whether he has heard from Noelle; second, make his way to the General Delivery window of the post office and use Noelle’s card to retrieve her mail, and then stop at the café where Noelle spent a lot of her days and ask around about her. When the first two tasks culminate in a dead end, Jean proceeds to the café Noelle frequently haunted, hoping to pick up some sort of clue.

There he runs into Gerard Mourade, Noelle’s acquaintance and an aspiring actor, who reveals that Noelle was married to Roger Behaviour and lived in the same neighbourhood as the café. But Roger’s whereabouts also remain unknown.

Meanwhile, there’s the client himself – Georges Brainos – who has approached the Hutte Agency for the purpose of locating Noelle, leaving Jean to wonder what Brainos’ motive could possibly be. One day, on intercepting a letter meant for Noelle from the General Delivery, it dawns on Jean that Noelle had wed Sancho Lefebvre, and the mystery only deepens.

As the years roll on by, and even much after Jean is no longer employed at the agency, he manages to amass information in bits and pieces from various people who circled Noelle’s orbit, but no one can shed any meaningful light on either her true identity or her whereabouts.

It’s not a case that Jean single–mindedly broods over as time passes, but it hasn’t been completely erased from his mind either. What’s more, there remain substantial memory gaps that he can’t account for.

There’s something about Noelle’s case that holds a spell over him. Could it be that he had come across her, met her in the past, but had no inkling of her name?

Invisible Ink, then, is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. But even then, those memories are seemingly never whole, but jagged pieces mired in uncertainty. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill.

Truth be told, I’ve never owned a datebook and never kept a diary. It would have made my job easier. But I didn’t want to quantify my life. I let it flow by, like mad money that slips through your fingers. I wasn’t careful. When I thought about the future, I told myself that none of what I had lived through would ever be lost. None of it. I was too young to know that after a certain point, you start tripping over gaps in your memory.

The central character haunting the novella’s pages is, of course, the enigmatic Noelle Lefebvre, whose disappearance decades ago has clearly left a deep impression on Jean’s mind. Some details do emerge – she worked at a dance club owned by Georges Brainos who also had another restaurant to his name. But connecting all these dots does not make the job of finding her any easier.

As he tries to rake up the past in his quest for Noelle, Jean realizes that his memories are as elusive as the woman he is trying to find. Noelle is a paradox, both a presence (as a point of obsession for our narrator), and an absence in many ways. Is she even real or just a ghost, a figment of imagination?

Indeed, Jean’s investigation is fraught with abstract conclusions and the absence of any concrete forms or meaningful results. Things are hinted at, not effectively proven, until it all moves towards a fascinating finale.

Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE d’AVRAY – Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

In terms of mood and atmosphere, the qualities of a Modiano novel are reflected in A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray too – the air of melancholia and sadness. This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading.

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Otherwise, she is mostly left to her own devices stifled by boredom and seclusion of this calm, leafy suburb. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

Jane and Claire Marie seldom see each other, in fact Jane’s visits to Ville-d’Avray are pretty rare. While the distance is an issue, her partner Luc hates visiting the place because he finds Claire Marie boring and the dullness of their lives gets on his nerves.

On that particular autumn afternoon, however, Jane makes a visit to Ville-d’Avray on her own. As she settles in the garden outside waiting for her sister to come out with drinks, a gamut of memories flood her mind. Those flashbacks particularly dwell on the sisters’ lonely, isolated childhood, those dreary Sundays when the hours dragged on interminably as both the sisters engaged actively in a make-believe world filled with wild landscapes and romance conjured up by books they read, notably Jane Eyre. For the people around them, those Sunday evenings mostly invoked feelings of fear – of seeing the day end, or of stirring up an antique sadness.

As the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Revealing his name as Hermann, he shares his story of his “other life” in communist Hungary, how he escapes that country to choose a life of exile abroad. It’s a story that seems as shadowy as his import-export business he claims to own.

Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

While Jane is our narrator, it is Claire Marie really who is the nucleus of the book. Despite her outwardly unruffled and passive demeanour, she unsettles Jane greatly. Jane recalls how several years ago, Claire Marie stumped her with the loaded question – “Are there ever times when you dream of something else?” It’s a question that gets under Jane’s skin and makes her wonder whether her sister is happy with the life she has chosen.

What of Claire Marie? We are told that as a child, Claire Marie had a dreamy disposition, living in a world of her own, often staring out of the window for hours on end, waiting for exactly what? Did the world outside signify something infinitely better than her lonely existence at home?

Claire Marie noticed that, without thinking, she was going more and more often to the window and looking out, the way she’d done when she was little. All night long on the border (so he’d told her), searchlights would illuminate the barbed-wire fences and the watchtowers; and when she looked out at her street, those luminous circles and those pockets of darkness were what she’d see, as they’d been seen in former times by people desperate to leave, to change their lives.

As Jane grows up and transforms into a more practical adult, Claire Marie never really grows out of her passive, not-in-this-world persona, and Jane is often left to ponder what her sister expects from her life.

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. Is a life of contentment preferable to one that boasts of drama and intrigue? The mood and tone captured is excellent – feverish, deeply unsettling and rife with lurking dangers as Claire Marie wanders alone in the dense forest and near the ponds depicted in Corot paintings.

I could practically see my sister strolling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder (which is always the case with Corot).

The flavor of autumn is also superbly realized, a time when the mornings and evenings are drenched in chilly, torrential rains; the gardens are darkened with showers; the asphalt and slate roofs glisten with water; the brown leaves lie sodden in heaps. An aura of ruin, desolation can be felt all around where patches of reflected light alternate with shadows settling in.

Set during an afternoon that is burnished the colour of molten gold, like the light that shimmers over the sea, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, then, is a haunting, elegantly written novella where the tension is palpable under a seemingly calm surface. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

The Cemetery in Barnes – Gabriel Josipovici

The Goldsmiths Prize is awarded every year to the most innovation fiction in Britain and Ireland. It is for fiction that ‘opens up new possibilities for the novel form’. It is a prize I look forward too and those looking for something different than the usual fare (read the Booker Prize), can always find something interesting on this shortlist, irrespective of who the ultimate winner is. In the last many years, certainly, the books on the Goldsmiths shortlist have been much stronger than the ones on the Booker list.

I had never heard of Gabriel Josipovici’s novel The Cemetery in Barnes until the shortlist was announced. But boy, I am so glad to have read this one because it was brilliant. It will surely cement a place on my Best of the Year for 2018 list.

Cemetery in Barnes
Carcanet Press

The Cemetery in Barnes opens quietly enough to deceptively give you the impression that this is going to be a straightforward story…

He had been living in Paris for many years. Longer, he used to say, than he cared to remember.

When my first wife died, he would explain, there no longer seemed to be any reason to stay in England. So he moved to Paris and earned his living by translating.

Our narrator is a translator who is living in Paris alone. We learn that he is a creature of habit and quite successful in his profession.

We also know that his first wife has died. Perhaps that is why he settled in Paris to heal his wounds and busy himself in work?

After the death of his first wife what he needed most was solitude, he said. Not that he wanted to brood on what had happened, he just wanted to be alone. I suppose I took on more work than was strictly necessary, he would say, but I think I needed to feel that when one book was finished there was always another waiting for me, and then another.

But this phase of solitude is not permanent because very quickly it becomes apparent that he married again and has been living with his second wife in a farmhouse in Wales.

So essentially it’s a novel in three parts across three time frames – the translator with his first wife in Putney London, the translator alone in Paris, and then the translator with his second wife in Wales.

The narrator and his second wife often have friends and acquaintances who drop by at their farmhouse.

Because his wife – his second wife – knew how to make them comfortable and welcome, it was a pleasure to sit there in the old converted farmhouse in the mountains, sipping good wine  and looking out over the rolling hills and valleys spreading out below them. Most of the time he talked about his life in Paris.

In a way they form a chorus for the story as the couple engages in friendly banter essentially touching on the narrator’s life before he married her, his passion and work (music and translation), and the life they are leading now.

I’m so uneducated, she would say. When I met him I thought a saraband was something you wore round your waist.

You had other qualities, he would say, smiling.

But an appreciation of classical music was not one of them, she would say.

Gradually, some tidbits from each phase of his life are doled out to us.

In London for instance, his first wife was a ‘trainee solicitor and amateur violinist’. They had a routine wherein he would pick her up once her work was over and both would, hand in hand, go strolling in the park or walk through the city streets.

But were they happily married? It would seem so given that the narrator chose to relocate to Paris once she died to blunt his grief. It is also appears so from the conversations between him and his second wife wherein the latter emphasizes on how lonely he was (which the narrator denies) and in a way needed to be rescued from himself.

And then we come across these paragraphs which makes us question the nature of his relationship with his first wife.

He felt at times as if he did not understand her at all. She was there and yet she was not there. He held her and yet he did not hold her. As they walked, hand in hand, he sometimes felt he was walking with a stranger.

And it only gets a bit eerie later…

Occasionally, in Putney, he would wait outside Putney Bridge tube station, but not in his usual place. Hidden behind a newspaper stand he would observe the commuters streaming out of the station, heads bowed, eyes blank with weariness. Then he would see her. She would stand for a moment at the exit, not looking round for him but simply waiting for him to come up to her if he was there.. After a few seconds, when he did not appear, she would start off across the street and disappear under the shadow of the footbridge.

He would give her time to climb the stairs, then slowly follow.

In Paris, the narrator is a man of habits, and a well-defined routine, which he seems to be following to the tee, deviating from it once in a while.

Most of the time he stuck to his routine without a thought: rise, shave, dress, Pantheon, breakfast, work steps, coffee, shopping, lunch, steps, work, tea, steps, supper, steps, music, Pantheon, bath, bed.

He relishes his moments of solitude and finds joy in his work of translation. Indeed, we are given a glimpse into his craft – its pleasures, pitfalls and challenges, be it translating tedious works or beautifully constructed poems (particularly du Bellay’s rhymes).

In Wales, he lives a harmonious existence with his second wife in their spacious farmhouse, possibly envied by their friends and acquaintances although the couple do not have many things in common but have gelled well in their relationship despite this.

That’s the overall story arch. To reveal more would be to spoil the experience.

So let me touch on what makes The Cemetery in Barnes such a wonderful, compelling tale. First, at a mere 100 pages, there is so much that Josipovici packs into the story – the three plots, rumination on the art of translation, references to Orfeo, the French poet du Bellay’s poems, and Monteverdi’s opera – without making it all seem complex and knotty. I must admit that even though the Orfeo and Monteverdi references sailed right above my head, in no way did it diminish the pleasure I derived from this book.

Second, although there are three distinct plots, these do not follow one another in any strict linear fashion. Instead, the three story threads are expertly woven into each other to form one seamless narrative. In other words, there is nothing disorienting about it, which is testament to Josipovici’s storytelling skills.

Third, the prose is elegant and gorgeous. It maintains a quiet undertone throughout with enough hints of something dark simmering under the calm surface. Sentences and episodes are often repeated and retold, like the chorus in a soundtrack (our protagonist loves music, hence the music references above), building up to an effect that is hypnotic and mesmerizing.

But what’s most striking about this novel is how wonderfully ambiguous it is. Lean, spare and quite unsettling, the tension steadily mounts, but you are not really sure what happened or what is about to.

It is a nuanced and layered narrative ripe with many meanings and open to multiple interpretations giving each reader a chance to come up with his/her own take on the novel.

Highly recommended!

 

Missing – Alison Moore

I was introduced to Alison Moore’s writing when her novel The Lighthouse was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. It’s been a while since I read it, and while I will need to revisit the novel to recall the basic plot point, I do remember being impressed at the skill she displayed in creating intriguing and compelling protagonists.

And it’s a feat she has accomplished in her latest offering – Missing – as well.

Missing
Salt Publishing Edition

They say when you lose someone, carrying on with daily routine is one way of coping, of blunting the sharp edges of pain.

That certainly seems to hold true for the main protagonist in this novel, Jessie Noon. When the book opens, we learn that Jessie is in her late forties, and living in Hawick, somewhere along the Scottish borders.

She lives alone with her dog and cat as companions, her second husband having walked out on her one day, leaving an enigmatic message in steam on the bathroom mirror.

Will left in the middle of winter, and now winter was coming again. At first, people had kept asking where he was, and she sometimes thought they asked in a way that made her sound responsible, as if she had been careless with him, or as if she might be keeping him trapped somewhere in the house. But after a while, word got around; he was known to have left, and people stopped asking about him. When Will had been gone for nine months, Jessie began using her own name again.

Jessie also has a son Paul from her first marriage. But relations have soured there too, although we are not told why. All we know is that Paul walked out of Jessie’s life even before she moved to her home in Hawick.

Jessie, meanwhile, is a freelance translator, and when she is not working or reading a biography on D.H. Lawrence, she is immersed in daily household chores which involve feeding the animals, gardening, cooking, doing laundry or taking the dog out for a walk.

And certain happenings in the spare room – noises, cracks in the windowpane and so on – convince her of the presence of a ghost. Is there really one, or is it just her imagination prompted by an early trauma?

but she thought about the fissures that had appeared in the house, as if it were succumbing to some pressure or force. She thought about her favourite glass, cracked, and her special mug, broken. She felt watched, and she did not feel forgiven.

There are two narrative threads in the novel. One is in the present, and this alternates with the other story thread set in 1985 when Jessie was in her late teens. That particular time period is significant because of a family tragedy that leaves a lasting scar on Jessie.

That’s as far as the basic plot goes.

What is amazing about the novel is the incredibly nuanced way in which Alison Moore has fleshed out Jessie’s character.

Jessie is a translator, for whom choosing the right words is probably a matter of life and death. But ironically, in her dealings with others, she displays a curious mix of uninhibitedness and lack of tact.

It is not deliberate though and her heart is in the right place; yet her inability to effectively communicate and lack of assertiveness lead to misunderstandings that are quite heartbreaking – we see this with her best friend Amy, her neighbor Isla and her son Alisdair and more importantly with her brother-in-law Gary.

Missing is also an examination of loneliness and alienation. As her life plays out, Jessie feels abandoned both literally and figuratively, it’s almost like she exists and doesn’t at the same time, and it’s the stability and comfort of her household chores that ultimately keeps her going.

The routine of Jessie’s days and weeks was much the same now as it had been during their marriage, as it had been before their marriage: she woke at fifteen minutes to seven, lay in bed until seven, and then got up, took a shower, made a cup of tea, ate fruit for breakfast.

There’s more here…

It had been necessary for her to find a new afternoon routine. After eating lunch at home, she did some cleaning. She went to the swimming pool at the leisure centre, where she ploughed up and down the pool, doing a punishing hour of crawl; or she went to a class, to aerobics or Zumba, something with thumping music.

At less than 200 pages, Alison Moore has composed a novel that is rich in the minute details of everyday routine while at the same time maintaining a tone that is suspenseful and an atmosphere that is unsettling.

The name of the novel – Missing – is quite apt signifying how events have unfolded in Jessie’s life. Friends, family members disappear from her life, and she loses things such as her favourite pair of turquoise earrings. There is a sense that Jessie could be on the verge of falling apart too, as if her sense of self is likely to crumble anytime.

As the novel progresses, and the author gradually and masterfully peels off the layers, Jessie emerges as a richly etched character and your heart just goes out to her.

It’s a superb novel. Highly recommended.