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. 

WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Japan, Korea & China

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, one that I always look forward to. I thought I’d write a post every week on few of my favourite reads in recent years that are worth considering for this month. So without much ado, first up is a look at some excellent literature from Japan, Korea and China.  For detailed reviews, you can click on the title links.

Translated from Japanese

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s. Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere.

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

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

The book opens with a scene of Takiko, a young, 21-year old woman, at home in her bed grappling with an intense pain in her belly. She immediately knows that she’s in labour and gets ready to make the arduous journey to the municipal hospital where she has reserved a place. Takiko is hell bent on going there by herself, trudging alone in the scorching hot midsummer sun, in pain but with a will of steel, determined not to let her mother accompany her. Once comfortably settled in the hospital, she gives birth to a healthy baby boy (called Akira).

That’s the end of the first chapter, and the subsequent chapters move back and forth, dwelling on the daily challenges of new motherhood that Takiko must embrace, while at the same time giving a glimpse into her immediate past – her dismal family circumstances, the brief paltry affair that results in her pregnancy and the venom and abuse her parents subject her to when she decides to keep the baby.

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

THE MEMORY POLICE by Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.

Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.

In the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.

Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. 

THE TEN LOVES OF MR NISHINO by Hiromi Kawakami (tr. Allison Markin Powell)

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Translated from Chinese

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.

Translated from Korean

UNTOLD NIGHT AND DAY by Bae Suah (tr. Deborah Smith)

Bae Suah’s Untold Night and Day is a deliciously disorienting and strange book. At a basic level, the plot centers around Ayami, a woman who has been working at a nondescript audio theatre for two years. The theatre is now on the verge of being shut down and Ayami’s future is quite uncertain. But that is barely scratching the surface.

Throughout the novel, perspectives keep shifting, the book abounds with repetitions of descriptions (both people and places). The reader is never sure of standing on solid ground, a ground that keeps disintegrating. The novel is made up of four sections, and each section has something new in it while also echoing many elements of what has gone on before giving the novella a circular structure. A large part of what makes the book so readable is Bae Suah’s writing. The prose is elegant and a pleasure to read and the repetitions only enhance its hypnotic quality. 

THE WHITE BOOK by Han Kang (tr. Deborah Smith)

Han Kang’s The Vegetarian made it to my Best of the Year list in 2015 (pre-blog days), and was unlike anything that I read that year. The White Book is a completely different book, but brilliant in its own way. Hang Kang focuses on white objects as a medium through which she explores themes of grief, loss, finding peace and solace. The novel is in the form of fragments, short paragraphs each fitting on a page, and told in a style that is haunting and lyrical.

Love in a Fallen City – Eileen Chang (tr. Karen S. Kingsbury)

Eileen Chang is one of those authors whose books I have been collecting over the years without actually reading them. Until now. As I was scouring some potential reads for WITMonth, I felt the time was ripe to finally delve into some of her work. And Love in a Fallen City published by the ever reliable NYRB Classics is what I decided to go with.

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.

Eileen Chang’s real life itself was quite dramatic and full of upheavals and possibly provided her with some rich material for her writing. Chang’s father was deeply traditional and an opium addict. Her mother, on the other hand, was a sophisticated woman of cosmopolitan tastes. With such a varied outlook on life, her parents eventually divorced and Eileen initially chose to stay with her father. But that experience proved traumatic as she was beaten for defying her stepmother and locked in her room for nearly half a year. She managed to escape. While she studied in Hong Kong, Japanese invasion of the city in 1941 forced her to return to occupied Shanghai where she first published the stories included in this collection, making her a literary star.

So here’s a brief taster of her novellas and some of the themes that are displayed in them…

In the first novella “Aloeswood Incense”, the protagonist finds out that love is not a simple, romantic affair, rather more of a business transaction. In the opening pages, young Weilong visits the residence her wealthy aunt who is otherwise estranged from the family. Weilong’s parents have decided to move to Shanghai but Weilong wants to stay back in Hong Kong and complete her schooling. Thus, she approaches her Aunt Liang with a request that she be given a room to stay in the house. Aunt Liang, at first, is hesitant given her strained relations with the girl’s family. But she relents on the condition that Weilong actively participates in various social gatherings in her home and learns the attributes of being a good hostess. Gradually, Weilong is introduced to a world of fine dresses, parties, flirting and socializing with rich men. When she does actually fall in love, she realizes that it’s not all smooth sailing and she resigns to a pact of compromise.

The second novella “Love in a Fallen City” has a happier ending but not without a sword of uncertainty hanging over the couple’s heads. As the novel opens, our protagonist Liusu has already come back home to stay with her large, extended family. Liusu was married, but having suffered constant abuse by her husband, she is compelled her to divorce him. When Liusu’s family learns of his death, they pressurize her to go back to her married home and assume the role of a dignified, mourning widow.  Liusu flatly refuses and this further strains her relations with her family making living with them quite unbearable. Meanwhile, having given up hopes of Liusui ever remarrying given her age, the family begins focusing on getting her younger sister married off. A suitable match is found – his name is Liuyuan. However, when the family goes for an outing with Liuyuan, it is Liusu who catches his fancy.

The matchmaker offers to take Liusu with her as a companion to Hong Kong. Liusu readily accepts because it also means it is an opportunity for her to meet Liuyuan and also get away from her family. However, when Liusu and Liuyuan regularly start seeing each other, she still remains uncertain of her position in their relationship. Until one day, Japan invades Hong Kong in December 1941.

Family tensions are also palpable in the third novella “The Golden Cangue”, the only one that has been translated by Eileen Chang herself. Our protagonist is a woman called Ch’i-ch’iao who is married into the well-to-do Chiang family. However, Ch’i-ch’iao’s husband is a cripple and Ch’i-ch’iao herself comes from a family of traders (they run a sesame oil shop), a social background that is looked down upon by the Chiangs. Her origins as well as her irascible personality alienate her from the Chiang family and several years later she vents her frustration on her son and daughter.

Ch’i-ch’iao lay half asleep on the opium couch. For thirty years now she had worn a golden cangue. She had used its heavy edges to chop down several people; those that did not die were half killed. She knew that her son and daughter hated her to the death, that the relatives on her husband’s side hated her, and that her own kinsfolk also hated her.

Women are the central figures in the first three novellas but in “Red Rose, White Rose” our protagonist is Zhenbao, who has worked his way up and is a self-made man. Here’s how the novella opens:

There were two women in Zhenbao’s life: one he called his white rose, the other his red rose. One was a spotless wife, the other a passionate mistress.

Coming from a poor background, he becomes an engineer through sheer hard work and secures a good position in a textile company. Zhenbao takes it upon himself to provide for his mother and also fund the education of his brother and sisters. And then he becomes passionately involved with his friend’s wife Jiaorui who is a progressive woman with a London upbringing. Not wanting to damage his reputation and irk his mother with this alliance, Zhenbao ends it and marries a traditional woman called Yanli. But he remains disappointed and the zeal with which he aspires to be a so-called ‘good’ man does not give him much satisfaction. Yanli, for her part, also finds herself trapped in a claustrophobic setting.

In these stories, the one theme that stands out is the limited opportunities available to women in Chinese society in the early 20th century. Having a career, in the way we understand it today, was pretty much unheard of. The only way to climb up the society ladder and attain financial security was by marrying a well-to-do man. For instance, in “Love in a Fallen City” when Liusu can no longer stand the presence of her family, she realizes that a good marriage is the only way she can escape their clutches and that too quickly rather than finding a job and establishing herself, which will turn out to be a slow, painstaking process.  

Married men having mistresses is rampant and the women in Chang’s world can’t do much about it. But if it’s all about the money, even mistresses can attain financial means. This is apparent in “Aloeswood Incense”, where Weilong’s aunt is financially secure simply because she was well provided for despite her status as a mistress.

And yet, despite such a constrained environment, the women in Chang’s novellas are not necessarily doormats. Even in such confined circumstances, they harbor ambitions of getting ahead.

The other striking feature in Chang’s novellas is the prevalence of sexual politics. It is vividly described in conversations when couples are either flirting or courting seriously. A simple declaration of love is not taken at face value but is only an indication that there is something more simmering under the surface.

Chang’s novellas also bring to the fore a blend of traditional and modern values. Men, who have been abroad for a while and have seen something of the world, are fascinated by traditional Chinese women back home. And yet, divorces, although probably looked down upon, were not entirely non-existent in early 20th century China.

Difficulties of being an offspring with a mixed heritage are also hinted at in this conversation between Weilong and a girl called Jijie whose origins are an amalgamation of Arab, Indian, Negro, Indonesian, Portuguese with a dash of Chinese.

“I’m mixed-blood myself and I’ve been through it all. These mixed-blood boys are the ones we’re most likely to marry. We can’t marry a Chinese – we’ve got foreign-style educations, so we don’t fit in with the pure Chinese types. We can’t marry a foreigner, either – have you seen any whites here who aren’t deeply influenced by race concepts? Even if one of them wanted to marry one of us, there’d be too much social pressure against it. Anyone who marries an Oriental loses his career. In this day and age, who could be that romantic?”

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.

It was a humid spring evening, and the Hong Kong hills are famous for their fog. The white Liang mansion was melting viscously into the white mist, leaving only the greenish gleam of the lamplight shining through square after square of the green windowpanes, like ice cubes in peppermint schnapps. When the fog thickened, the ice cubes dissolved, and the lights went out.

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.