Two Months of Reading – April & May 2023

I somehow missed posting about my April reading mostly due to lack of time as we were busy getting ready for our holiday to the Czech Republic. Now since it’s the end of May, it made sense to combine my reading of both months in one post and I’m glad to have read some excellent books. Italy was a dominant theme as four of the eight books are set in the country during and after the Second World War. Four are translated works of literature (written by women) – two Italian, one Catalan, and one Turkish. All eight books are great, but if I had to pick favourites, it would be Céspedes and Ginzburg.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the eight books…You can read the detailed reviews on the first six by clicking on the title links.

THE STONE ANGEL by Margaret Laurence

Set in the fictional region of Manawaka modeled on the province of Manitoba where Margaret Laurence grew up, The Stone Angel is a brilliant, poignant tale of loss, heartbreak, and old age with a fiery, unforgettable female character at its core.

We meet Hagar Shipley, the protagonist and narrator of this Canadian classic, who when the book opens is an old woman in her nineties staying with her eldest son Marvin and his wife Doris, who are in their sixties. Even at that age, Hagar still has her wits about her, and yet there are unmistakable signs that her health is failing, a fact that she is too proud to acknowledge. With the burden of caregiving proving to be quite onerous at least for Doris, they outline plans of shifting Hagar to an old age home where she can receive all the care she needs and it is this intention that ultimately unsettles Hagar. She rebels, both outwardly and inwardly, and makes one last attempt to fight for her independence, relying on her resourcefulness that has helped her move forward in a life that has only doled out disappointments, many of them a direct consequence of Hagar’s stubbornness. Enmeshed with Hagar’s present and attempts to cope with old age are flashbacks and reflections on her past that are often triggered by certain objects or episodes in the current moment – her tumultuous marriage to Brampton Shipley and her complicated relationship with both her sons Marvin and John.

A beautifully observed, haunting tale about a deeply flawed woman, The Stone Angel is a novel I’m glad to have read.

BOULDER by Eva Baltasar (tr. Julia Sanches)

As hot as molten lava erupting from a volcano, Boulder is a tightly compressed, intense novella of love, sex, motherhood, and freedom; a book that derives its strength from the originality of its prose and the unconventionality of its protagonist.

Boulder, a cook on a merchant ship and our narrator meets Samsa, a Scandinavian geologist, at an inn during one of the ship’s regular stops fuelling a desire that is sharp and intense.  A serious relationship ensues although the two women could not have been more different. Samsa is social, successful, earning well, and even the one making major decisions, while Boulder for whom her passion is the driving force, seems okay to just tag along. But then Samsa expresses her wish to have a child that knocks Boulder off-kilter. Samsa is determined to be a mother; she’s past forty and doesn’t want to miss the chance of motherhood. Boulder could not have been more uninterested but is unable to find the courage to express her true feelings.

What makes Boulder so striking is the language – strange, smoldering, feral, and sensual – as it captures the range of thoughts and emotions that rage within our narrator trying to adapt to a slew of significant changes unfolding around her.

ALL OUR YESTERDAYS by Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Angus Davidson)

Set in a smaller town in Italy before and during the Second World War, Natalia Ginzburg’s All Our Yesterdays is simply wonderful; a big-hearted, bustling novel of family, friendships, politics, and war pitted against a backdrop of immense turbulence, and narrated in a style that captures Ginzburg’s customary dry wit.

Essentially a family saga, the book is divided into two sections. In Part One, Ginzburg focuses her gaze on an ensemble cast – two families living in a smaller town in Northern Italy. Much of the story is told from Anna’s perspective although this is not a first-person account. Shy and reserved in nature, Anna’s very young age and reticent demeanour mean that she is hardly noticed in the house, but she notices various aspects of her family the significance of which she does not always comprehend. In Part Two, many of the characters who had a minor presence in the first part become central to the story, while the central figures in Part One get pushed to the periphery although never entirely forgotten. Thus, the spotlight shifts to the considerably older Cenzo Rena (who marries Anna) and he becomes the axis around which much of the plot of Part Two revolves. 

Ginzburg seamlessly places these family dynamics against a wider political backdrop – Fascism, the approaching rumblings of World War Two with the big question of the mode of Italy’s participation, and later on the horrors of the Holocaust. But what is truly astonishing about All Our Yesterdays is the sheer range of humanity on display – each of the characters is beautifully etched, they are endearing in different ways despite their flaws and foibles. 

FORBIDDEN NOTEBOOK by Alba de Céspedes (tr. Ann Goldstein)  

There’s a scene in Forbidden Notebook where Valeria Cossatti, our protagonist and the narrator is having lunch with her glamorous friend Clara at her place, a penthouse apartment in Rome. Divorced from her husband, Clara is now an independent woman and a successful filmmaker, but by then Valeria’s position has become much more complex. Her outward façade continues to be that of a traditional woman confined to the role of a homemaker and catering to the needs of her husband and two children, but inwardly Valeria has begun to seethe and resist these conventional norms she is expected to adhere to. Clara believes that Valeria has been lucky to achieve all that she wanted by marrying, but by then Valeria and the reader know the reality to be entirely different – Valeria has been experiencing a deep sense of disillusionment, a feeling she is unable to share with Clara.

It is this intense conflict, growing resistance, and the dual nature of her thoughts and emotions that forms the essence of Alba de Céspedes’s Forbidden Notebook – a rich, multilayered novel of domestic dissatisfaction and awakening seen through the prism of a woman’s private diary. Set in 1950s Rome, not only does the book boldly challenge the validity of restrictive, orthodox roles thrust upon women, and the heartaches of motherhood, but it also dwells on writing as a powerful tool for a woman to find her voice and be heard when those closest to her fail to do so.

Billed as a feminist classic, Forbidden Notebook is a masterclass of insight and imagination, brilliant in the way it provides a window into a woman’s interior life, an internal struggle that oscillates between the desire to discover her true self and also keep it hidden. 

COLD NIGHTS OF CHILDHOOD by Tezer Özlü (tr. Maureen Freely) 

Cold Nights of Childhood is an unflinching portrayal of a woman’s quest for independence, freedom, sex and love, as well as her struggles with mental illness told in a writing style that is cinematic and impressionistic without conforming to the rigid structures of conventional storytelling.

At barely 70 pages and set between 1950 and 1970, the novella is divided into four chapters and begins with a flavour of our narrator’s childhood and school years in the Turkish town of Fatih. Later, we move on to the time our narrator spends in Istanbul and Ankara, and abroad in Europe’s great capital cities (Berlin and Paris). We learn of her string of lovers, her unsuccessful marriages, and above all her incarceration in mental asylums. This predominantly forms the essence of the book, and yet the narrative is not as linear as it seems. Moody, evocative, teeming with rich visuals and a palpable Jean Rhys vibe, Cold Nights of Childhood is a beautifully penned novella that I’m glad to have discovered. 

THE FEAST by Margaret Kennedy

With its combination of wit, social commentary and mystery, The Feast by Margaret Kennedy is a terrific novel; an excellent upstairs-downstairs drama and comedy set in Cornwall post the Second World War featuring a seaside hotel in danger of being buried, an eccentric ensemble cast with hidden secrets, and the high voltage interactions and tensions between them.

We first learn in the prologue that the Pendizack Manor Hotel lies buried in a mound of rubble after a huge mass of cliff collapses on it. Seven guests perish, one of whom is Dick Siddal, the owner of the hotel, while the others survive. At that point, the identities of the casualties as well as the survivors are not revealed to the reader, and that in essence forms the mystery element of the plot. After the prologue, the reader is then taken back to a week earlier, from whereon the book charts the arrival of the guests at the hotel, its other inhabitants, as well as the chain of events leading up to the tragedy in question.

Displaying a sharp, astute vision, Kennedy’s writing is top-notch as she weaves in elements of a social satire and morality fable with those of a thriller. Her gimlet-eyed gaze on the foibles and failures of her finely etched characters make both the endearing as well as the horrible ones pretty memorable. 


Set during the Second World War and seen from Italy’s perspective, both A Chill in the Air and War in Val d’Orcia are Iris Origo’s real-time war diaries covering the periods 1939-1940 and 1943-1944 respectively, a record of daily life in her adopted country in conflict. Iris was Anglo-American married to an Italian, and much before the war the couple bought and revived a derelict stretch of the Val d’Orcia valley in Tuscany and created an estate. At the height of the war, and at great personal risk, the Origos gave food and shelter to partisans, deserters, and refugees. While A Chill in the Air captures the mood of the Italian people just before Italy entered into the war reluctantly siding with Germany, War in Val D’Orcia records a slew of events at the height of the war.  Both published diaries are first-hand accounts of the complexity of Italy’s position, the politics prevailing at the time, and the difficulty of going about daily life. These are books filled with a mix of facts, anecdotes, and her astute observations on the extraordinary scenes unfolding around her. I read these thanks to Kim’s #NYRBWomen23 reading project, and plan to put up a detailed post soon. For the time being though I’ll say that these books were brilliant, particularly War in Val d’Orcia.

That’s it for April and May. I plan to begin June with Rattlebone by Maxine Clair and I’ll be joining in for the #NYRBWomen23 read-along of Love’s Work by Gillian Rose. Other than that I haven’t decided anything yet and will pick up books depending on what catches my fancy at the time.


The Stone Angel – Margaret Laurence

I must thank Dorian, Frances and Rebecca, hosts of the lovely bookish podcast One Bright Book for bringing Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel to my attention; they will be discussing this novel in their next episode (very much looking forward to it). I loved it so much that I’ve already bought the next book in the Manawaka series, A Jest of God, and plan to read the others as well.

Set in the fictional region of Manawaka modeled on the province of Manitoba where Margaret Laurence grew up, The Stone Angel is a brilliant, poignant tale of loss, heartbreak, and old age with a fiery, unforgettable female character at its core.

The image of the stone angel greets the reader in the novel’s opening pages described by the protagonist as “my mother’s angel that my father bought in pride to mark her bones and proclaim his dynasty, as he fancied, forever and a day.” Placed in the Manawaka cemetery and made of marble, we are told that she was not the only angel there, but “she was the first, the largest and certainly the costliest.” As the years pile on, this marble angel loses much of her sheen due to neglect and apathy, and it is this deterioration that pretty much mirrors the journey of the novel’s central character.

And so we come to Hagar Shipley, the protagonist and narrator of this Canadian classic, who when the book opens is an old woman in her nineties staying with her eldest son Marvin and his wife Doris, who are in their sixties. Even at that age, Hagar still has her wits about her, and yet there are unmistakable signs that her health is failing, a fact that she is too proud to acknowledge.

For the most part, Hagar resents having to be looked after by Marvin and Doris; she desperately craves her independence, but even at her most vulnerable moments she’s forced to admit that she needs them. Marvin and Doris struggle to deal with Hagar’s intransigence; they aren’t young anymore either and their first suggestion of selling the house and moving to a smaller place is vehemently opposed by Hagar. But with the burden of caregiving proving to be quite onerous at least for Doris, they outline plans of shifting Hagar to an old age home where she can receive all the care she needs and it is this intention that ultimately unsettles Hagar. She rebels, both outwardly and inwardly, and makes one last attempt to fight for her independence, relying on her resourcefulness that has helped her move forward in a life that has only doled out disappointments, many of them a direct consequence of Hagar’s stubbornness.

Enmeshed with Hagar’s present and attempts to cope with old age are flashbacks and reflections on her past that are often triggered by certain objects or episodes in the current moment. We learn about Hagar’s childhood, particularly her relationship with her father Jason Currie whose stubbornness she seems to have inherited. Jason Currie was a self-made man who through sheer hard work and industriousness ran the Currie store in Manawaka, and these are qualities that he strives to imbibe in Hagar and her two brothers.

We then come to Hagar’s tumultuous marriage with Brampton Shipley and her difficult relationship with her sons that ultimately form the backbone of the novel; a central tragedy buried deep that Hagar refuses to talk about in the ensuing years, only to finally open up in the book’s final pages as these repressed emotions resurface.  

Sexually attracted to Brampton, a man around ten years older to her, Hagar marries him much against her father’s wishes, possibly as an act of rebellion, subsequently severing ties with him. But Hagar remains unhappy in their marriage; she is repelled by Brampton’s uncouth behaviour and his coarse manners which have none of the refinement familiar to her. Brampton is a farmer, but with no inclination to put in the discipline and hard work that the vocation requires; he latches on to frivolous money-making schemes that lead nowhere and shows a penchant for long bouts of drinking that frustrate Hagar.

Hagar’s relationship with her two sons is even more complicated, where she openly displays her favouritism – deeply loving one son while pretty much ignoring the other. Marvin, her eldest, is unfairly looked upon with scorn only because she perceives him to be similar to Brampton who she has grown to loathe. It is her younger son, John, who becomes the apple of her eye, to the point that she pins all her hopes on him. However well-intentioned she deems her motives to be, there’s a sense that she’s controlling John and he is trying hard to escape her claustrophobic influence. For all the love and sacrifice she showers upon John, he chooses a path that does not align with her vision for him. John slides into a vagabond life causing Hagar much anguish (“Wait until you have a son, and plan for him, and work like a navvy and it all comes to nothing”), and it is ironic that the qualities of sincerity and drive that she values so much and tries to instill in John pretty much go unnoticed in Marvin. This irony is not lost on John, who during one of their many heated discussions, states with crystal clear clarity (‘You always bet on the wrong horse,’ John said gently. ‘Marv was your boy, but you never saw that, did you?’).

Difficulties of old age, the heavy price of pride, how choices made in your youth can have an irreversible impact on the way your life subsequently shapes up, the complexity of family dynamics with its unshakeable baggage, and the notions of freedom and independence are some of the core themes explored in the novel. It is also a novel about how the same mistakes or behavioral traits often get passed down generations – for instance, Hagar had no qualms about rebelling against her father but struggles to understand John’s resistance towards her.

But The Stone Angel is all about Hagar Shipley; hell, the stone angel is Hagar Shipley, a symbolism made all the more poignant and powerful when the biggest tragedy of her life produces no tears as if she has turned into a figure of stone. Tough, resourceful, fierce, and a force to reckon with, Hagar’s life is marked by losses and failures which she has not been ready to accept. Displaying an unyielding personality for most of her life, she remains a disappointed woman whose decisions and choices cause deep, unbridgeable rifts in relationships with those closest to her. Hagar’s world is defined only by the way she sees it, she is unwilling to consider other viewpoints and it is this intransigence that in many ways forms the root cause of the tragedies she endures. If she has reached the age of ninety, it’s her resilience and determination to take things in her stride that have carried her there, but the reader senses no joy within her in the path she has chosen. It is perhaps telling that a fiercely proud woman who values freedom and independence above all else, is not free but bound by the shackles of her pride. Hagar likes to think that she does not care for what people think of her, but the reality is quite different and much of Hagar’s viewpoints and decisions are coloured by other people’s opinions.

Pride was my wilderness, and the demon that led me there was fear. I was alone, never anything else, and never free, for I carried my chains within me, and they spread out from me and shackled all I touched. Oh, my two, my dead. Dead by your own hands or by mine? Nothing can take away those years.

It is only in the last couple of chapters as Hagar is forced to come to terms with the difficulties and indignities of old age that the hardness that was stored up inside her begins to thaw; in a chapter where she miraculously bonds with a stranger, Hagar releases all her pent up emotions, particularly in connection with her son John. That revelation may have arrived a tad too late, but then perhaps not – Hagar does get an opportunity to finally acknowledge Marvin and there’s a sense that she may have ultimately found some peace.

In a story that is drenched with heartbreak and moments of sadness, it is Hagar’s powerful voice that balances the darkness with moments of pungent, acerbic wit; an aspect evident as much as in her conversations as in her interior monologues. These snatches of humour are particularly amplified in her observations as an old woman, which display a blend of both – wisdom gained through hindsight and a staunch refusal to bend to the will of others. She is particularly hard on poor Doris, who to be fair is not entirely likeable, but some of Hagar’s opinions on her daughter-in-law, as she gives her mind free rein, are priceless…

All would be lovely, all would be calm, except or Doris’s voice squeaking like a breathless mouse. She has to explain the sights. Perhaps she believes me blind.

‘My, doesn’t everything look green?’ she says, as though it were a marvel that the fields were not scarlet and the alders aquamarine. Marvin says nothing. Nor do I. Who could make a sensible reply?

On the face of it, Hagar Shipley is not exactly an easy character to like, but it is a testament to Laurence’s brilliant, sensitive writing that the reader is ultimately moved by the pain she has endured as well as by her willingness to finally let her defenses drop.

Laurence’s descriptive powers are also on full display throughout the novel, she has a way with words that conjures up a vivid sense of place. Here is one such passage when Hagar finds herself in a forest…

Enormous leaves glow like green glass, the sunlight illuminating them. Tree trunks are tawny and gilded. Cedar boughs hold their dark and intricate tracery like gates against the sky. Sun and shadow mingle here, making the forest mottled, changing, dark and light.  

A beautifully observed, poignant tale about a deeply flawed woman, The Stone Angel is a novel I’m glad to have read.

Hard to imagine a world and I not in it. Will everything stop when I do? Stupid old baggage, who do you think you are? Hagar. There’s no on like me in this world.

The Best of the Blues – Fitzcarraldo Editions

One of my favourite UK based independent publisher is Fitzcarraldo Editions, which specializes in publishing contemporary literature, a combination of translated lit and those with English as the original language. What distinguishes them are the covers – plain and simple, and yet stylish and striking. These covers come in two colours – Blue (for fiction), and White (for non-fiction, typically essay collections). I have read only the ‘Blues’ so far, and these are some of them that I have loved and would recommend.  

Of course, this list will evolve and change, as I keep reading more of their books, and also begin delving into the ‘Whites.’

POND by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond is an intriguing book, an absorbing and lyrical work, and can be interpreted as either a short story collection or a novel with chapters of varying length, all with the same protagonist. Some of these chapters are just one page, others run into twenty pages. Essentially, the book dwells on the thoughts of a woman living by herself in a rented cottage on the west coast of Ireland as she ponders over the pleasures and pitfalls of a life in solitude.  Bennett has flair for making poetic observations about mundane, everyday life, and at the same time also creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. This was the first book that I read from the Fitzcarraldo catalogue, and since then I have always kept an eye on their new releases, which are always interesting and well worth exploring.

THE DOLL’S ALPHABET by Camilla Grudova

The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories, each fantastical, and weird but in a good way. Here’s how the first story ‘Unstitching’ opens:

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

Another strong story ‘Agata’s Machine’, is a tale of two eleven year olds – the narrator and Agata, who is a genius excelling in maths and science. One day, Agata shows a sewing machine in her attic to the narrator, and for days on end both the girls are mesmerized by it.  This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling. There is also a whiff of feminism in some of the stories, and an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

TELL THEM OF BATTLES, ELEPHANTS & KINGS by Mathias Enard (Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell)

I love Mathias Enard and pretty much plan to read everything he’s written. I was mesmerized by Compass, and the only reason why I have not included that book here is because I read the Open Letter edition.

But his shorter and latest work, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is also excellent. At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence. One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople. There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.

But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art. It is a short book and a great entry point into Enard’s work, if one is daunted by his bigger books.  

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes)

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. Set in the decrepit village of La Matosa in rural Mexico, the book begins when a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal, immediately identified as that of the Witch. The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

The murder of the Witch then forms the foundation upon which the bulk of the novel rests. We are presented with four main narratives which circle around and closer to her murder, providing more details as the novel progresses. But other the gruesome killing itself, Melchor highlights a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty, casual violence, and sexual abuse ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future.

Despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless.

THE OTHER NAME (SEPTOLOGY I-II) by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

I have been waxing eloquent about The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, one of my favourite books this year, and one which I will highlight again here. The Other Name 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.

As I write this, I have been reading another latest Fitzcarraldo Edition – The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, a novella that is less than 100 pages, and as fascinating as I expected. Maybe, it will join the list the next time I compile one.

A Month of Reading – July 2020

July 2020 was another excellent reading month. I managed to read seven books all of which were very good. My favourites were Earth and High Heaven, Look At Me and The Weather in the Streets.

Here is a round-up of the seven books with links provided for those I have reviewed in detail separately.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The implication of racial prejudice is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations.

Erica Drake, an English Canadian born to a wealthy family, falls in love with Marc Reiser, a Jewish man with origins in Austria. Erica’s parents are highly opposed to this relationship because of their deep-seated prejudices against the Jews and they refuse to cast them aside and see Marc as an individual. Will the couple surmount all odds and eventually marry?

Earth and High Heaven is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting.

Look At Me – Anita Brookner

At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.

By day, our narrator, Frances Hinton works in a medical library and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly enjoying herself. Until something terribly goes wrong and Frances finds that the Frasers are no longer interested in her.

Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.

Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside. 

The Invitation to the Waltz – Rosamond Lehmann

Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate and present her with gifts. The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the dance, hopes for a schedule full of dance partners alternating with the fear of being left alone.

Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.

The Weather in the Streets – Rosamond Lehmann

Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.

Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.

From thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair that is played out behind closed doors and shrouded in a veil of secrecy.

Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.  

Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.

The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin

“I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.”

Thus begins Celia Fremlin’s wonderful novel The Hours Before Dawn. The protagonist Louise Henderson is an utterly exhausted housewife. Her newborn son Michael insistently wails every night at an odd hour thereby disrupting her sleep. So as to not disturb her husband Mark and her daughters Margery and Harriet, Louise often takes Michael to the scullery to calm him down as soon as he starts crying in the dead of the night.

The lack of sleep is debilitating for Louise because for a larger part of the day she is trying to complete the household chores in a dazed state leaving her very tired. The day is busy as she has to juggle her daughters’ school activities, meals for the family and keeping the house clean, all of which begin to take a toll on her physically and mentally.

Louise has to do it all single-handedly. Her husband Mark is not much of a support. Michael’s night crying annoys him. And his meager attempts to show concern for her only ends up stressing Louise more.

Moreover, the neighbours are of no help either. They are judgmental, they consistently complain about the noise the children make, and Louise finds herself apologizing all the time. Louise is also wracked with guilt and inadequacy as she struggles with all the multi-tasking expected of her.

Into this household, comes a new lodger to stay – Vera Brandon. When Louise shows Vera the room, she accepts it without asking any questions which surprises Louise but doesn’t particularly distress her at the time since the family needs the extra income with a new baby born.

Things begin to get sinister when a friend of Louise’s, Beatrice, makes a chance remark that Vera had approached her husband Humphrey to enquire about the Hendersons. This unsettles Louise since she is under the impression that Vera had responded to the Hendersons’ advertisement in the newspapers.

As Louise’s suspicions about Vera grow, so do her exhaustion levels so much so that there are times when her dreams begin to merge with reality.

This is a wonderful novel, which besides having shades of a psychological thriller, also has moments of black comedy thrown in. In a world where it is taken for granted that motherhood is only full of joys, Fremlin provides a realistic portrayal of how challenging being a mother can be and how society is not always kind in understanding this.  

Who Among Us? – Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)

This is a story of an unusual love triangle where the reader gets to see the perspective of all the three participants.

Miguel and Alicia fall in love when they are teenagers and their relationship proceeds simply until the charismatic Lucas turns up on the scene. Miguel sees the spark grow between Alicia and Lucas as they have passionate discussions on various topics, and he assumes that he and Alicia have no future. And yet, Alicia chooses to marry Miguel, and Lucas fades away. After eleven years of marriage (and two kids), Miguel somehow comes to see their union as a mistake. Thus, he persuades Alicia to meet Lucas whence a chance for a trip to Buenos Aires turns up.

Miguel’s perspective on the events is in the form of undated notebook entries as he analyses in deep detail the nature of the relations between the three of them. Through his entries, it becomes apparent that Miguel is a passive man who considers himself second-rate. We see Alicia’s perspective in the form of a letter she writes to Miguel which casts a different light on what we have read in Miguel’s account. Alicia loved Miguel but acknowledges that their marriage has deteriorated and largely blames him for it. Lucas’ viewpoints are displayed to us in the form of a short story, including footnotes, which explains the text and how it relates to the reality of what happened.

At less than 100 pages, Who Among Us? is an absorbing novella that explores the themes of love, missed opportunities and misunderstandings.

Solea – Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)

I had read the first two books in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy – Total Chaos and Chourmo – a few years back. Billed as Mediterranean noir, these books featured the cynical, beaten-down cop Fabio Montale and his attempts to solve the crimes surrounding his best friends Manu and Ugi killed by the Mafia and cops respectively.

What also stood out in these books is the vivid evocation of Marseilles, its sights and smells, various mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink. It also highlighted the uglier side of the city – the poverty, crime, racism towards immigrants and the crippling corruption.

Both of them were very atmospheric books but for some reason I completely forgot about the third installment in this trilogy – Solea.

In Solea, Montale’s former lover and investigative journalist Babette is on the run from the Mafia as she is about to publish some shocking details about the organization. The Mafia wants Montale to find her for them. To show that they are dead serious about it, two people very close to Montale are murdered.

That’s the basic premise of the plot and I won’t reveal more. But Solea is also suffused with Montale ruminating a lot about his past and the level of growing corruption and extremism in Marseilles and on a larger scale in France. In that sense, the novel is quite cynical and bleak.  While Solea is a solid book, I somehow felt that it was not on the same level as either Total Chaos or Chourmo.

That’s it for July.

I intend to devote August entirely to Women in Translation (WIT Month), and have begun my reading with Olga Tukarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas Love in A Fallen City, both of which I am enjoying.

Earth and High Heaven – Gwethalyn Graham

I have a very small Persephone Books collection. But what I have read from their catalogue so far has been simply great. Earlier this year, in March, I really liked Isobel English’s Every Eye, and followed it up with Gwethalyn Graham’s Earth and High Heaven this month. What a lovely novel it turned out to be.

Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.

The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The opening lines pretty much sets the tone for what is to follow…

One of the questions they were sometimes asked was where and how they had met, for Marc Reiser was a Jew, originally from a small town in northern Ontario, and from 1933 until he went overseas in September 1942, a junior partner in the law firm of Maresch and Aaranson in Montreal, and Erica Drake was Gentile, one of the Westmount Drakes. Montreal society is divided roughly into three categories labeled ‘French, ‘English’, and ‘Jewish’, and there is not much coming and going between them, particularly between the Jews and either of the two groups, for although, as a last resort, French and English can be united under the heading ‘Gentile’, such an alliance merely serves to isolate the Jews more than ever.

We know from this that Erika Drake and Marc Reiser fall in love with each other but we are also made aware of how the couple are going to have a long struggle ahead given the backgrounds they come from. Racial tension was rampant in Montreal at the time, but Graham points out that the Jews weren’t necessarily singled out although they bore most of the brunt. There were nuances in discrimination within various strata of Montreal society.

Hampered by racial-religious distinctions to start with, relations between the French, English and Jews of Montreal are still further complicated by the fact that all three groups suffer from an inferiority complex – the French because they are a minority in Canada, the English because they are a minority in Quebec, and the Jews because they are a minority everywhere.

Erica is an English Canadian born in the affluent Drake family. Her father Charles Drake is the President of the Drake Importing Company and the family resides in a sumptuous home in Westmount. Erica has two siblings – an elder brother Anthony and a younger sister Miriam. Both Anthony and Miriam marry partners against Charles Drake’s wishes, but ultimately it doesn’t matter much because he is not close to either of them and does not care greatly for their opinion.

But Charles shares a special bond with Erica. They get along very well and Charles respects her in a way he does not respect his other two children.

Marc Reiser is Jewish, his parents having migrated to Canada from Austria several years earlier. Leopold Reiser, Marc’s father owns a small planning mill in Manchester, Ontario. Marc has an elder brother David who is a doctor in a remote, rural region of the country.

The book opens right in the midst of a big dinner party held at the Drake residence. Marc Reiser is brought to the gathering by an acquaintance of the Drakes’ – the French Canadian Rene de Sevigny whose sister has married Anthony Drake. Marc Reiser knows no one at the party and soon Rene abandons him leaving Marc to fend for himself. Eventually Erica and Mark meet and strike up a conversation. They immediately hit it off. When it’s time to say goodbye, Erica offers to introduce Marc to her father but Charles looks through Marc and completely ignores him.

Erica is offended by Charles’ rudeness. Attempts to make him understand this are futile because Charles is set in his ways and refuses to budge from his deep-seated prejudices against the Jews.

Charles behaviour does not deter Erica from seeing Marc. Quite the contrary. Soon the relationship between the two blossoms and starts getting serious. And Erica’s parents are aware of this.

A significant chunk of the novel then revolves around the discussions that Erica has with her parents regarding Marc as she tries to make them come around to her point of view. Erica, thankfully, is not entirely on her own. Her sister Miriam supports her and immediately likes Marc when she is introduced to him for the first time. Their parents, however, think differently and judge Marc without even meeting him. Continuous quarrels with her parents finally begin to take a toll on Erica and her health.

Will Erica succeed? Will she and Marc eventually surmount all odds so that they can marry?

Erica Drake is an interesting creation. Her upbringing means that she grows up with the same set of prejudices but she is discerning enough to be ashamed of them and change her way of thinking.

She had met a good many Jews before Marc, but in some way which already seemed to her inexplicable she had neglected to relate the general situation with any one individual. Evidently some small and yet vital part of the machinery of her thought had failed to work until this moment, or worse still, she might even have defeated its efforts to function by taking refuge in the comfortable delusion that even if these prejudices and restrictions were actually in effective operation, they would only be applied against – well, against what is usually designated as ‘the more undesirable type of Jew’. In other words, against people who more or less deserved it.

Now she saw for the first time that it was the label, not the man, that mattered.

Indeed, by working as a reporter at the Post, she has no qualms coming down the society ladder a bit or two even among her own set.

When she was twenty-one, her fiancé had been killed in a motor accident two weeks before she was to be married; not long after, she awoke to the realization that her father’s income had greatly shrunk as a result of the depression and that it would probably be a long time before she would fall in love again. She got a job as a reporter on the society page of the Montreal Post and dropped, overnight, from the class which is written about to the class which does the writing,. It took people quite a while to get used to the change.

Marc loves Erica enough to keep meeting her till regimental duty beckons him, but at the same time he is bogged down by the seemingly insurmountable odds against them. He has a fatal sense of the relationship not surviving even though Erica thinks otherwise.

The implication of racial prejudice, then, is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations. Erica tries hard to make Charles see Marc as an individual and appreciate his many qualities rather than being dead set against him because of general racism towards Jews. Every individual is different and it is important to understand these nuances as against taking a collective approach and putting everyone on the same boat.

The other theme Graham looks at is the power play between men and women. This is displayed in details, such as Erica’s irritation when Rene orders lunch for her at a restaurant without consulting her and also explored a bit deeper when Charles tries to persuade Erica to leave her job at the Post and join the family business instead.

…as a woman you can just go so far and then you’re stuck in a job where you depend your life taking orders from some fathead with half your brains, whose only advantage over you is the fact that he happens to wear trousers.

Earth and High Heaven then is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting. The characters are wonderfully fleshed out. Plus, Graham has a deep understanding of the various facets of 1940s Montreal society and this is superbly articulated in various dialogues between the characters.

Highly recommended!