Five Books for Winter

As winter deepens and it gets colder, it’s time to curl up indoors in a cosy room with mugs of hot drinks and good books that capture the essence of the season. I wrote these seasonal posts for Summer and Autumn and now that we enter the last week of December, here are five atmospheric reads for Winter.

Click on the links for detailed reviews…

ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (tr. from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past. Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending this deeply atmospheric novella an other-worldly quality.

ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury. To make matters worse, Ethan and his wife Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan. In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan.

It’s a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

WINTER LOVE by Han Suyin

Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain during winter at the end of the Second World War.

Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses. During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across the beautiful, wealthy, dreamy Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).

The novel, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. 

THE ICE PALACE by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan)

The Ice Palace is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond in a narrative where things are implied, never explicitly stated. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship, redemption and recovery and the power of nature.

ICE by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred. When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves who continues to remain elusive. The disorienting nature of the book is precisely its strength, it’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not. Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers – the world she has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice, on the brink of an apocalypse.

The Fortnight in September – R C Sherriff

I love Persephone Books and some of their titles that I’ve read are just wonderful – Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven, Julia Strachey’s Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and Marghanita Laski’s The Victorian Chaise-longue are a few examples that come to mind. It is hardly surprisingly therefore when I state that The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff was also absolutely terrific. This is a book I should I have read in September instead of October but I happened to read it just before my own beach holiday and so it was perfect in that sense.

The man on his holidays becomes the man he might have been, the man he could have been, had things worked out a little differently. All men are equal on their holidays: all are free to dream their castles without thought of expense, or skill of architect.

There’s a scene on the first day of the Stevens’ holiday when the father Mr Stevens goes for a walk all by himself. It’s an essential part of the family’s travel philosophy (and one that I identify with) that the members occasionally break up to do things on their own, and for Mr Stevens this walk is therapeutic in the way it clears his mind and allows him to reflect on the past, more specifically the twin setbacks in his professional life that continue to cause him a bit of heartache. It is amazing how the abundance of greenery, lush landscapes and natural beauty can fuel a shift in perspective that is restorative and uplifting, and for Mr Stevens this solitary walk offers exactly that…

It had been the little chance things that made him aware of his yearning to understand far more than had come his way: little chance things that seemed to raise a curtain and reveal almost frightening depths beyond. He was glad that he had always had the instinct to step forward and not shrink back – to go groping on – exploring and probing for another beyond.

These wonderful nuggets of wisdom that make up everyday life punctuate the text at regular intervals to make The Fortnight in September – a beautiful, soothing novel about an ordinary family on holiday, an annual tradition they have adhered to over the years – a pleasure to read. 

The book opens with the Stevens family getting ready to embark on their journey. They are to leave for the seaside town of Bognor the next morning, 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 last evening at home is always a momentous occasion, tedious hours of work have finally been put behind and there is the big holiday – two whole weeks of it – to look forward to. Anticipation is running high, but for Mr and Mrs Stevens it is also a bittersweet moment – their two elder children Dick and Mary have turned twenty having unleashed vague hints of wishing to spend future holidays with friends. Thus, given that the future of this annual tradition seems mired in doubt, it heightens the significance of this family holiday for Mr and Mrs Stevens even more this time around.

How splendid it all was!—The whole family going away together again, after those dark, half-thrown hints from Dick and Mary about separate holidays with their friends. Thank God they had come to nothing!

On the day of travel, the weather turns out to be gorgeous (such a crucial factor for any holiday), and Mr Stevens in a spirit of generosity, makes tea for the entire family. There are some unpleasant duties to be carried out and only once the family boards the train does the feeling of freedom finally sink in.

At Bognor, the Stevens stay at the same guest house (‘Seaview’) as in the years before, but the gradual signs of decay and deterioration of the rooms and the furniture within are imminent and noticed by each of them in their own way.

For Dick and Mary, going once more into their old, familiar little bedrooms, had wondered with sinking hearts why they had never noticed in other years how dreadfully dingy and terribly poor they were. Was it a growing desire for better things?—or had these little rooms suddenly shrunk—become darker—and almost squalid?

Mr Stevens is disconcerted by these subtle signals which only highlight the transient nature of things, the looming spectre of change that is sometimes frightening but also a precursor to new beginnings.

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. Evenings are spent by the promenade enjoying band music and endless people gazing. At other times, Mr Stevens enjoying taking solitary walks and spending some hours in the local pub catching up with old friends and making new ones, and mildly flirting with the barmaid Rosie; Dick and Mary go for walks together by the promenade, and Mrs Stevens enjoys an evening alone at the guesthouse with her feet finally up and a glass of port with no constant demands on her time.

That’s really the crux of the novel and as you can see 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.

We are given glimpses into the thinking of each of the family members – their hopes, aspirations, fears, disappointments – and how the holiday becomes the perfect setting for tranquil reflections on the past and altered perceptions about the future laced with hope and energy.

Both father and son worry about their careers staring at an uncertain future, but while Dick is just launching himself into the professional world quite lost without a sense of purpose or direction, Mr Stevens could very well be staring at an end. For instance, we learn about the frustrations that mark Mr Stevens’ working life – having steadily worked his way to near the top, Mr Stevens is forced to confront the possibility of his career having reached a dead end based on his limitations in terms of ability and background. At the opposite end of the spectrum is Dick, who is just starting out, his career like a pristine piece of clay to mold as he chooses, and yet he remains increasingly fretful about his prospects. Thanks to his father’s efforts, Dick lands a position in a respectable firm, but is quite unhappy and thus guilty for feeling this way lest his father thinks him ungrateful.

Mrs Stevens is a woman whose schedule has always revolved around her husband and children, she is not as excited as her family about the holiday in general and keeps those feelings strictly to herself, but she cherishes the moments when she is alone at Seaview with time only for herself. Mary feels like there’s so much about the world she does not know, she envies the smartly dressed girls who talk so confidently with men and yearns for a personality along those lines, a leap into a world which is not marked by poverty and constrained circumstances.

Some of the core themes explored in the novel are family life, career, the importance of fresh perspectives but it is also a novel that examines wealth and class. The Stevens have come up the hard way bringing in its wake some disillusionment as is expected, yet there is something heroic about how they are grateful about the things that they do possess without harbouring deep resentment or bitterness about their fate. There is a particular set piece in the novel, when Mr Stevens unexpectedly meets a wealthy valuable customer of his firm and the whole family is invited for tea to their extravagant palatial home and yet despite the differences in wealth and class, it the Stevens that come away as the richer family.

The Fortnight in September, then, beautifully captures the simple pleasures that make such a difference to the ordinariness of everyday life, how holidays offer that much needed shot in the arm for rejuvenation, how a change of surroundings can refresh the mind, vitalize the body and provide some clarity of vision.

So much of the travel details as highlighted by Sheriff strike a chord – anxiety mixed with euphoria on the day of travel (the holiday to look forward to but also not missing any train connections), the sense of disorientation on reaching the holiday destination when it’s all new and one has to still blend in (“they had reached the strange, disturbing little moment that comes in every holiday: the moment when suddenly the tense excitement of the journey collapses and fizzles out, and you are left, vaguely wondering what you are going to do, and how you are going to start”), how time plays tricks on the mind (it flies so much faster on holidays than it does otherwise)…

But he knew that time only moved evenly upon the hands of clocks: to men it can linger and almost stop dead, race on, leap chasms and linger again. He knew, with a little sadness, that it always made up its distance in the end. To-day it had travelled gropingly, like an engine in a fog, but now, with each passing hour of the holiday it would gather speed, and the days would flash by like little wayside stations. In a fortnight he would be sitting in this room on the last evening, thinking how the first night of the holiday seemed like yesterday—full of regrets at wasted time…

In a nutshell, The Fortnight in September is just superb, a novel fraught with poignancy and the fleeting nature of things, tints of nostalgia and slices of bittersweet moments woven into a fabric that otherwise throbs with the humble delights of a family enjoying a good time together. It is a timeless story, joyous and laden with quiet courage, but sometimes achingly sad when it dwells on its characters’ yearnings, missed opportunities and a growing sense of loss. As the blurb aptly states it is an extraordinary story of an ordinary family and one I highly recommend.  

Ghostly Stories – Celia Fremlin

The Faber Stories collection is a fascinating project – a single short story or two packaged as little, compact books, which as I wrote before, are akin to wine tasting where you want to sample a sip before deciding to go in for a bottle. It’s how I discovered the joy of Claire Keegan’s writing through her poignant story The Forester’s Daughter, as well as another terrific tale called Paradise written by Edna O’ Brien, whose work I had never read before. Mr Salary by Sally Rooney was also excellent and now to these stellar books I add Celia Fremlin’s Ghostly Stories.

My first brush with Celia Fremlin’s work was through her marvellous, unsettling novel – The Hours Before Dawn – which portrayed the travails of early motherhood with that extra dash of suspense.

There is something similar at play here, in this collection called Ghostly Stories that in keeping with the Faber Stories format focuses on two tales, each centred on a house.

A hint of discreet violence is palpable in the first story, “The Hated House”, as our protagonist Lorna, a young woman of sixteen, enters her home. Lorna’s hatred and contempt for her home is loud and striking and immediately hooks the reader from the first page…

Now that she had it to herself, Lorna felt that she could almost enjoy hating her home so much. She flung her school coat and beret on to the sofa, dumped her satchel down in the middle of the floor, and watched with satisfaction as the books and papers spilled out over her mother’s spotless, well vacuumed carpet. It was nice to be able to mess it up like that, without risk of reprimand. She gazed round the neat, firelit room with contempt. 

Lorna can’t stand the hypocrisy latent within her family. Her mother’s insistence on a neat and clean home bordering on fanaticism is in sharp contrast to her relationship with her husband; the couple constantly bickers and argues. The house may be the epitome of order, but their marriage is rife with chaos and unhappiness.

When Lorna enters her house she is immediately relieved and a tad bit excited. It is one of those evenings when her parents are away and she relishes the prospect of spending not the just the evening but also the night alone.

Ah, but this was the life! Lorna slid yet deeper and more luxuriously into the cushioned depths of the chair. Tea when she liked; supper when she liked; homework when she liked; music when she liked. Lorna’s eyes turned with lazy anticipation towards the pile of pop records stacked under the record player. 

We are given brief details of Lorna’s parents early on – the father is a tyrant always yelling at the mother, and the latter unable to stand for herself seeks refuge in meticulous cleaning and tidying.   Lorna loves annoying her Dad who later vents his frustration at the mother, and Lorna detests her mother’s meek attitude and for putting up with his bullying.

It’s misery-polish that Mummy puts on everything, it’s dishonesty polish, trying to make this look like a happy home when it isn’t! It’s because she’s too cowardly, too much of a doormat, to stand up to Daddy’s tempers, so she tidies the house instead… I bet she’s tidied the kitchen even better than usual today, just because she’s nervous about leaving me alone! She thinks tidiness is a substitute for everything! 

As Lorna settles into a blissful evening of solitude immersed in her music records, the lamps lit and blazing fire imparting warmth and an aura of coziness, she experiences a state of utter contentment and joy. But then this idyll is shattered by the persistent ringing of the telephone followed by the visit of a strange girl. This is a brilliant tale, a wonderful blend of the eerie with the mundane, its core theme being the burden of a toxic marriage on women and its impact on the entire family unit.

The second story, “The New House”, is from the first person point of view and is narrated by a middle-aged woman called Madge.

Madge begins her unnerving tale with an account of her niece Linda, who is her late sister Angela’s daughter. We learn that Linda came to stay with Madge when she was barely a girl of twelve. Madge has always been anxious about Linda; she was never particularly a robust girl, her frail constitution always a cause for worry.

And yet, Madge admits that the unexplainable dread assailing her over the past few weeks has nothing to do with Linda’s health. Linda is now a grown woman about to be married to a nice enough young man and the couple is now engrossed in building their new home.

But one gusty September evening, the autumn season in full force, Madge who is otherwise a strong, stoic woman feels an all pervading tiredness descend upon her even after a normal hard day of work, and along with that an indefinable foreboding.

The dampness and the autumn dusk seemed to have crept into my very soul, bringing their darkness with them.

A hot cup of tea and a warm glowing stove fail to assuage her fears. And to make matters worse, when she goes to sleep she is haunted by nightmares that vaguely hint at some sort of danger confronting Linda.

It was late afternoon in my dream, and the pale rainy light gleamed on her (Linda’s) flaxen-pale hair making it look almost metallic-a sort of shining grey.

And as I watched her, I began to feel afraid. She looked so tiny, and thin, and unprotected; her fair, childlike head seemed poised somehow so precariously on her white neck-even her absorption in the painting seemed in my dream to add somehow to her peril. I opened my mouth to warn her- of I know not what – but I could make no sound, as is the way of dreams.

With a subsequent brief glimpse into a family secret that could have terrible consequences, “The New House” is a disconcerting, chilling tale of jealousy, doomed love and repressed feelings where the skills of Fremlin’s storytelling shines through.

In both these concise works, Fremlin is in supreme command of her craft. These are short, sharp tales of great psychological depth, tales of domestic horror where the fears and perceived sense of threat comes not from otherworldly beings but from real people who are close to the protagonists.

Thwarted love, toxic relationships, how the ghosts of the past come back to haunt us in the present, and a succinct look into women’s lives are themes that vividly come alive on these pages. Both the stories are a perfect amalgam of mood and atmosphere – the dusky autumn evenings, the chill of the rains form a stark background to the well-lit cozy rooms that lulls you into a false sense of well-being, but where the menace is lurking on the periphery. At barely 40 pages in the Faber edition, this compact gem can be read in the course of an afternoon and thus very apt for the last day of October that is Halloween.  

Something in Disguise – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s wonderful series – The Cazalet Chronicles – were some of my favourite books in 2021; intelligently written, perfect comfort reads during a particularly difficult time. Her collaboration with Robert Aickman that produced six ghost stories (three each) in a collection called We Are for the Dark is also well worth reading. I have now embarked on her standalone novels and the first I chose to read was Something in Disguise, a book that I really liked very much.

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style.

The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative man, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, the brunt of the Colonel’s subsequent anger borne by May, who valiantly attempts to diffuse the situation. Worried that his sister will be expected to take up Alice’s mantle, Oliver immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. Elizabeth is guilty about abandoning her mother, but the desire to get away from the Colonel is simply too great.

Infact, one gets the impression that Alice also chooses marriage as a means of escape, to get away from the interminable tedium of household chores at Monk’s Close made worse by the Colonel’s irascible, dull personality. Poor May must manage alone. Oliver, meanwhile, is shown to be an erudite, intelligent young man, newly graduated from Oxford, blessed with brains but seriously lacking ambition. With no sense of purpose to guide him, Oliver appears to be aimlessly drifting, unable to settle into any job, and always flitting between girlfriends. He often jokes about marrying a rich girl to save him the indignity of hard work, and what’s more it does seem like he means it.

Elizabeth is nothing like him. She knows that Oliver is fond of her and often wonders why he puts up with her when she is incapable of making intelligent conversation. But she acknowledges the close bond that they share and is happy to play second fiddle to Oliver’s numerous friends and the parties at their place. Once in London, Elizabeth knows she will have to work to earn her living despite the allowance they get from their mother. Displaying a flair for cooking, she begins to professionally cook meals for dinners and parties for her clients – a job that begins on a shaky note but one that she subsequently settles into.

Enmeshed in this set-up is the ghastly house itself, Monk’s Close; a house that the Colonel forces May to buy with her money. He loves it with a zeal that May can’t simply fathom. The house is ugly, cold, airless, with no character whatsoever, and May is faced with the prospect of resigning to her fate, of spending the rest of her life there, dictated by a man who is stingy and a frightful bore. Little wonder then, she seeks refuge in some religious cult meetings her friend Lavinia introduces her to, an organization led by the dubious and opportunistic Dr Sedum. We are given a brief glimpse into May’s first marriage – a seemingly happy union until her husband is killed in the war. Elizabeth often wonders what made her mother marry the Colonel…

Her mother wouldn’t have married Herbert if she’d cared about an intellectual life. She certainly hadn’t married him for money, and at her age sex appeal was out of the question- – so what was it?

As the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds; May becomes increasingly bewildered by the Colonel’s moods and tempers and Alice is forced to admit to herself that her marriage to Leslie may not be the haven she was expecting.

One of the core themes explored in this novel is the loneliness that women feel in a marriage, depicted through the unhappy marriages of both May and Alice. Their thoughts and opinions are not given due weight or agency, often buried under the burden of their husbands’ conventional expectations and infuriatingly patronising attitude.  The men in the novel are deeply flawed, some are cowardly even, but when it comes to the unpopularity scale, the Colonel and Leslie take the cake; they simply possess no redeeming qualities.

The most memorable character in the novel is Claude, Alice’s cherished cat, and it is while portraying his demeanour and his utter contempt for humans and their ways that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s flair for wit and dark humour shines through. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the beginning of the novel whether the industrious Claude steals a couple of trout from the larder, which were to be cooked for the Colonel’s dinner…

He (the Colonel) had managed, during the service, to count the guests – roughly, anyway – and on the whole he felt he had been sensible to put away two of the cold salmon trout that the caterers had been laying out. Those fellows always produced too much food because then they could charge you for it. So he had simply taken away two of the dishes and put them in the larder…

Where Claude, who never had very much to do in the mornings, smelt it. He had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination.

Just like in the Cazalet Chronicles, especially The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard has a striking way of describing food, be they everyday meals or elaborate dinners. She is also terrific at conveying a wonderful sense of place, especially vivid in the chapter set in the south of France whether the languidness of the summer is beautifully evoked. Not to mention she effectively conjures up the atmosphere around Monk’s Close – chilly, dreary and sinister – that so weighs heavy on poor May. Overall there is something magical about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s writing style that is perceptive, intelligent and incredibly immersive.

It was now very hot: their wet heads steamed; cicadas had reached their seemingly endless zenith; the smells of hot thyme, juniper and resin from the pines thickened the hot and dazzling air. They slipped on sharp, slippery stones as they climbed: geckos froze into grace fully heroic attitudes as they approached, and then, when they got too near, disappeared with jerky speed – like odd pieces of silent film pieced together; butterflies loitered, bees zoomed, there were no birds, no fresh water and no shade. ‘A foreign land,’ thought Oliver, watching his sister climbing the path ahead of him.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.

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.