Salka Valka – Haldór Laxness (tr. Philip Roughton)

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

THAT HAUNTING OPENING SCENE…

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

Nobody can envisage a life here, but on that cold, bleak winter’s night two figures emerge from the steamer – a woman called Sigurlina and her 11-year old daughter Salvor (Salka Valka). Sigurlina and Salka Valka have made this journey from the North, certain circumstances having driven them away, and while Reykjavik seems to be their final destination, Sigurlina, reduced to a state of penury, cannot afford the cost of the trip further.

Oseyri, then, becomes her destination for the time being, she hopes to find a job that will help her make enough money to embark on the journey south. However, fate as we shall see has other plans…

Thus begins this wondrous, 552-paged, ambitious novel of Salka Valka, an immersive, brilliant, often harrowing tale of a beleaguered fishing community and the indomitable spirit of a woman who prides on her independence and strives to improve their lot.

ESSENCE OF PLOT & STRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

RICHLY DRAWN, COMPLEX CENTRAL CHARACTERS

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

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

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

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

PANOPLY OF THEMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

STARK WEATHER – A FORCE IN ITS OWN RIGHT

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

AN EPIC NOVEL, EXPANSIVE IN SCOPE

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

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

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

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

IN A NUTSHELL…

Epic in scope and ahead of its times, Salka Valka, then, is a simmering cauldron of various delectable ingredients – a coming-of-age tale, a statement on world politics, a strange beguiling love story, and an unforgettable female lead. Highly recommended!

Somebody Loves You – Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You first came to my attention when it was shortlisted this year for the Goldsmiths Prize, always an interesting prize to follow…and it turned out to be an excellent read.

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

Thus begins the second chapter in Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You, a beautifully written, poetic, coming-of-age novel on family, mental illness, immigrant life and the trials of growing up.

Comprising a series of vignettes (the kind of storytelling I’ve come to love), this novel is mostly from Ruby’s point of view who from an early age decides to become silent on her own terms, refusing to speak.

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again. I was certain about this the next morning and even more certain about it the day following that. I uttered absolutely nothing. It became the most certain thing in my life. 

These myriad snapshots coalesce to paint a picture of a family struggling to come to terms with their inner demons and the demands of the world outside.

Ruby is the youngest member of her family that comprises her parents and her older, more voluble and fiery sister Rania. Her father is an “untidily put together man with a mild temperament.” Her mother is prone to bouts of depression which entails days and months of absence from home until one day she never comes back. During these days called Mugdays (“Mugdays start with unpredictable and approximate mornings”), when the mother’s melancholy moods take centrestage and performing simple tasks becomes a challenge, the burden of responsibility falls on Rania and Ruby who are compelled to do the heavy lifting.

Gradually we are given a glimpse into Ruby’s circle of friends, family members and neighbours. As far as the extended family goes, there’s Biji, the maternal grandmother, who relies on potions and superstitions to ward off the cloud of despondency that has descended upon Ruby’s mother as well as various ills that afflict Ruby in her early years; Auntie Number One, who Rania and Ruby dislike because “she almost always appeared when there was some crisis or other in the family”, her presence a constant reminder that things at home are not well. Biji derides Auntie Number One for her modern outlook, remarking that she is “tainted by the bitterness of unmarriage and the foul bile that builds up in a barren womb.” But there’s something about their aunt that also impresses the girls…

Rania and I knew the truth about Auntie Number One; we had come across her once on The High Street. We knew she lived with a man; we caught sight of her putting up posters for the Labour Party with someone who wore a leather jacket; they kept leaning into each other and sharing a kiss and a roll-up cigarette. Rania was impressed. ‘Look, Ruby, he’s not even bad-looking – good for Auntie Number One. She actually seems happy!’

We learn of Ruby’s friendships with a boy called David, who is nonjudgmental and accepts her for who she is (“he was complicated and sensitive and had been adopted”); her best friend Farah who longs for a normal life and to be accepted by her peers only to be estranged from Ruby when her wish is granted.

The next time I see her at school she’s been adopted by her classmates again and is becoming prettified. This time the makeup sticks and the clothes hang spectacularly on her long body. She is spectacular. Her little teeth are glinting in happiness. When I am in the library, I meet her in the doorway; her eye makeup is in three different shades and matches her jumper, good for her. This is Farah. The other Farah is dying softly in another room.

Racism, violence against women, mental illness, loss, sisterhood are some of the themes woven into the fabric of this novel that make it such a haunting, elegiac read. As their mother’s moods become increasingly unpredictable, and the father struggles to cope, the sisters appear to share the kind of bond that helps them tentatively navigate challenges at home, school as well as the heartaches of plain growing up. One gets the feeling that Rania is the stronger sibling, protective of her younger sister, and those roles get reversed later when a traumatic event compels Rania to seek solace in Ruby’s companionship, Ruby’s silence is a balm to the clamour in Rania’s heart.

The spectre of racism looms large – when Ruby is born, her mother is attended “by a health visitor who was suspicious about Indian mothers and their baby-mother-habits”; a pen friend is forbidden by her father to write letters to Ruby (“I’m not allowed to be your pen friend anymore because he found out you’re a Paki”). Hints of violence against women disturbingly abound, Rania will go on to face the worst of it as the novel progresses.

Mental illness and its impact on a family unit is a core theme, particularly, explored. For Ruby’s mother suffering from chronic depression, gardening becomes a hobby that sustains her – the positive vibes from plants and flowers growing and blossoming with tender loving care adds that extra spring to her step, even if her family does not share her passion. However, the menacing approach of winter when most activities in the garden cease is a portent of darkness once again enveloping the mother’s mind. 

When the garden’s asleep for winter, when there’s nothing to nurture, nothing to fight for or revive on the borders, when my mother has put away her tools and potting soil in our shed, that strange look of blank hunger takes up residence.

Employing a style that is episodic and non-linear, this is a sensitively written novel – quietly devastating and lush with vivid imagery and poetic descriptions. For instance, the very first vignette has shades of a dream logic, where Ruby puts a blue egg into her mouth which transforms into a slew of birds filling the room “with their iridescent turquoise feathers and clamour of yellow-black beaks”; the word ‘agony’ to Ruby is the worst of all the ‘a’ words because “there was a sliver of glass in the middle of the brittle ‘o’.”

Ruby might be silent but her voice is unforgettable as she tries to comprehend and cope with various forces at play often resisting the growing pressure to blend in (“’Are you listening?’ Farah persists. ‘Because sometimes I think you are drifting further and further from what is normal’”).  While the tone is often melancholic, the sheer beauty of the writing and a unique way of looking at the world makes Somebody Loves You an astonishing read.

O Caledonia – Elspeth Barker

I hadn’t heard of Elspeth Barker until in the last few months her only novel O Caledonia featured regularly in various monthly book stack photos on Twitter, and then my curiosity was piqued. Having now read it, this book blew me away and is sure to find a place in my year end list.

There’s a scene in the final pages of the novel, when Vera, the mother, takes Janet, her eldest daughter and child to a shop to select a dress for the hunt ball. Having turned sixteen, Vera is keen to launch Janet into society, and the hunt ball has been planned for this very purpose. Despite the strained relationship between Vera and Janet, Vera harbours hope, however slim, that this shopping expedition might just turn out to be an occasion for bonding. Vera chooses a beautiful white delicate gown for Janet to try on, but Janet is unhappy. Instead, she selects a loud purple dress that Vera thinks is hideous but which she accepts with resignation, a reminder that the gulf between mother and daughter will forever remain unbridgeable.

Enamoured by purple, her absolutely favourite colour, Janet loves the dress and genuinely believes it to be an expression of her individuality and she does stand out at the party but as a figure of scorn rather than of admiration.

This, then, is the fate to always befall Janet in Elspeth Barker’s O Caledonia, a brilliant, immersive, haunting tale of an intelligent often misunderstood young woman who unable to conform to societal expectations seeks solace in books, animals and her wild, vivid imagination.  

The book opens with an arresting scene in an isolated Scottish castle. The play of filtered light on the stained-glass window refracts a splash of vibrant colours on the great stone staircase. And at the bottom of the stairs lies Janet clad in her mother’s black evening gown “twisted and slumped in bloody, murderous death.”  Regarded as a difficult, troublesome girl by her family, she is soon forgotten, but the only living creature who pines for her is Claws, Janet’s beloved jackdaw who mournfully roams around her room searching for her in vain only to finally die (“At last, in desolation, like a tiny kamikaze pilot, he flew straight into the massive walls of Auchnasaugh and killed himself”).

The rest of the book then is a flashback that spans sixteen years as the reader is given an account of Janet’s short, turbulent life and the events leading to her death.

Janet is the first child born to Hector and Vera in wartime on a “fog-bound winter night in Edinburgh.” Once Hector is called away to the front, Vera moves with Janet to an Edwardian mansion by the sea owned by Hector’s parents. From an early age, Janet displays a lively imagination, an aptitude for books and learning and a special bond that she shares with her grandparents, especially the grandmother. But as the family keeps expanding, Janet is quickly sidelined and her fiery, rebellious nature increasingly makes her feel like an outsider within her own family. In subsequent years, Francis is born, and then Rhona to be followed by Lulu and Caro and Janet becomes contemptuous of her siblings failing to attain any kinship with them.

The fact that Janet is sometimes an awkward girl, clumsy with the tasks thrust upon her often instigates the ire of her mother and Nanny, a strict, God-fearing nurse employed to look after the children. Surrounded by a family that fails to understand her because she refuses to bend to its set, conformist ways, Janet turns inward, seeking refuge in her books and her thoughts, and developing a keen love for animals. The feeling of isolation only heightens, when her grandmother, the only family member she was very close to suddenly dies.

But then the war is over, and the family subsequently moves to a solitary Scottish castle called Auchnasaugh, a property left to Hector by his uncle on the condition that his cousin Lila is allowed to stay on there. Hector has no problem with the arrangement, but Vera is livid though helpless to do anything about it.

Auchnasaugh, the field of sighing, took its name from the winds which lamented around it almost all the year, sometimes moaning softly, filtered through swathes of pine groves, more often malign, shrieking over the battlements and booming down the chimneys, so that the furnace which fed the ancient central heating system roared up and the pipes shuddered and the Aga top glowed infernal red. Then the jackdaws would explode in a dense cloud from their hiding places on the roof and float on the high wild air crying warning and woe to the winter world. ‘A gaunt place,’ said the village people, and they seldom passed that way. 

Vera detests Auchnasaugh, but Janet loves it passionately. The remoteness and solitary quality of the castle reflects Janet’s state of being, the sense of aloneness she experiences even amongst people.

Indeed, for her Auchnasaugh was a place of delight and absolute beauty, all her soul had ever yearned for, so although she could understand that many a spirit might wish to return to it, and she hoped that in time she too might do so, she felt the circumstances and mood of such visitations could only be joyous. She had no fear of its lofty shadowed rooms, its dim stone passages, its turrets and towers and dank subterranean chambers, dripping with verdigris and haven to rats. So running now down the narrow twisting road through the forest, she looked forward to the moment when it dropped to the dark, secret glen, where the great hills rose steeply on each side and halfway up one of them, hidden by its trees, stood the castle.

She is most comfortable in the company of her eccentric cousin Lila – a despondent, lonely whisky-swigging woman accused of being responsible for her Russian husband’s death and branded as an outcast. Lila’s narrow world is defined by her filthy room (a den of discarded food and assorted bric-a-brac among other things), heavy drinking and a passion for growing mushrooms and other forms of fungi, and her raggedy cat Mouflon. For the most part, Lila stays out of the family’s way, but an occasional presence only fuels Vera’s anger further.

About the room were many other desiccated trophies bracket fungi like Neanderthal livers, long-dead roses in jam-jars green with algae, bracken and rowan berries hung in shrivelled swags round the mirror frames, straw hats pinned to the walls, dust lying heavy on the brims, turning their wreathed flowers a uniform grey. The crumpled rugs s bore a patina of cigarette ash, the ashtrays brimmed, books lay open on the floor and tables, stained with coffee, dog-eared and annotated. These books were in Russian, for Lila, like the Heraclea, originated there.

If Janet had her way, she would have happily continued to stay on in Auchnasaugh, but that is not to be. She is sent to a boarding school, St Uncumba’s, for further studies where her sense of isolation only deepens (“But nothing could assuage the cold, familiar dereliction of night in the dormitory, with the sea below the cliff and the sea wind whipping the sleet against the windows”). Despite what she perceives as a claustrophobic, two-dimensional world, Janet finds within her a way to survive, but she is forced to admit much to her dismay that even to be accepted by her classmates is to pander to their expectations. She cannot flower or let her own personality develop because that would make her an object of ridicule. For instance, Janet abhors sports, but those showing a prowess in games are lauded, while on the rare occasion when Janet displays her keen intelligence, she is immediately made to pay for being a show-off.

Janet began to hate the sea. There was so much of it, flowing, counter-flowing, entering other seas, slyly furthering its interests beyond the mind’s reckoning; no wonder it could pass itself off as sky; it was voracious marine confederacy. She saw how it diminished people as they walked along the shore; they lost their identity, were no more than pebbles, part of the sea’s scheme. Once there had been a great forest below the cliffs; there the hairy mammoth had browsed and raised his trunk and trumpeted. There had been mountain crags and deep, sweet valleys of gentle herbivores. The sea had come and taken them.

In Janet, Elspeth Barker has created a wonderful, brilliant character – nonconformist, dreamy and a misfit within the conventional boundaries of society. She is a doomed young girl but her fierce determination to remain true to herself and staunch refusal to be molded as per the dictates of others makes her utterly remarkable. A deep love for reading, an alternate world conjured up by her imagination and an intense fascination with the natural world propels her forward when all else around her seems bleak. She is drawn towards Lila, because she is subconsciously aware of how similar they are, how they are shunned by so-called “normal” people. And yet, as she grows older so does the raging conflict within her – although she hates people and the idea of being sociable, there’s a part of her that desires to be accepted and included, but on her terms and not theirs.

Loneliness, a troubled mother-daughter relationship, sibling rivalries, the feeling of being an outcast within your own family and a misfit in society, a lone woman’s struggle for acceptance, the yearning to live life on your own terms are some of the major themes featured in O Caledonia articulated in a style that is so original and striking.

The biggest highlight of O Caledonia though is Barker’s stunning writing. It’s truly a feast for the senses dotted with rich, kaleidoscopic imagery, lush language, dazzling manner of expression, and haunting dreamlike vibes. For instance, there’s Nanny bearing down “with a face like the North Sea.” A purple silk flower has “petals lapped in all shades of mauve, violet, heliotrope.” At the beach, the children run on “the mirror-bright sand filmed in water”, and the beach itself “spread in a great curve, fringed by mournful dunes.” There’s the giant hogweed grove at Auchnasaugh, whose great heads of flowers “swayed in menace against the windy sky and its serpentine stems reared triumphant and rutilant.” During a particularly exquisite summer Janet watches the “silent golden day bring glory to the sombre pines.” And then the view from Janet’s dormitory window “where the grey sea imperceptibly merged into the grey sky” that was like “living at the end of the world.” Here’s another example…

Fuller’s was the good thing about trips to the dentist. With faces frozen by the sleety wind and the jaw-scrunching needle they would step from the you granite street and the granite sky into a warm lamp-lit haven. The carpets were pink and dense so that moved soundlessly; there were no windows; you could forget the outer world. Teaspoons clinked on porcelain saucers, tiered stands shone, laden with the snowy glory of Fuller’s walnut cake. Reverently the waitress raised the silver dome from a fragrant mound of buttered toast, flaccid and dribbling with amber rivulets. 

Deeply atmospheric with a trancelike quality, O Caledonia is steeped in gothic overtones – a draughty, solitary castle perched atop a hill in the wilds of Scotland; the vast, immense, unyielding sea that heightens Janet’s loneliness; lonely moors; wintertime accentuated by shrieking owls, leafless beeches and a hush, stark landscape. A gorgeous evocative mood piece, O Caledonia pulsates with elements that are reminiscent of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and even Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour.

O Caledonia, then, is a poetic and beautiful novel, an ode to individuality, nature and literature with an unforgettable heroine at its heart. Highly, highly recommended!

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

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

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

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

That sense of futility and lament against a ruthless, vindictive adult world is a refrain that will run throughout the novel. Against the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Island, then, is a dark, brilliant, deeply atmospheric coming-of-age novel set in the island of Mallorca where passions and tensions simmer, ready to erupt like lava from a volcano.

Matia, our narrator, is a wild, rebellious girl recently expelled from her convent school for kicking the prioress. She is adrift – her mother is dead since she was a little girl, and she has vague memories of her father who is at the front fighting on the opposite side – with the Communists – a fact that distresses the grandmother. The father, subsequently, leaves her with his ageing housekeeper Mauricia, and Matia has happy memories of early childhood there despite the chaos of her upbringing. Once Mauricia falls ill though, the grandmother Dona Praxedes, a domineering woman, takes matters into her own hands and Matia is sent to live with her (“My grandmother had white hair rising in a wave over her forehead, which made her look irate”).

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

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

Matia has company though, if not always welcome. There’s her cousin Borja, a sly character and a petty thief, and his timid, vacant mother (Aunt Emilia to Matia) who is patiently waiting for her husband Alvaro to return from war. Daily household chores are taken care of by the housekeeper Antonia; and her son Lauro (Borja’s nickname for him is Chinky), studying to become a priest, is employed to tutor both Borja and Matia. But cut off from the outside world, Matia and Borja are increasingly bored, fretful and biding their time, waiting for something the essence of which they can’t quite fathom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 It’s a very hypnotic, evocative novel where the languid heat of the summer and the vibrant kaleidoscope of colours lend a surreal, dreamlike quality to a book that is awash with stunning descriptions – the grey sky “swollen like an infection”, the whitening stones of walls “like enormous rows of teeth”, the fringe of golden seashells at the water’s edge “shattering like bits of crockery”, sand that glints on Borja’s ankles “like tiny slivers of tin”, and so on.

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

Matute’s rendering of mood and atmosphere is superb – an air of menace and creeping dread pervades the island along with a sense of loss and deep lingering sadness.

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

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

The Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden

Rumer Godden was a discovery for me last year, her novel Black Narcissus found a place on my Best Books of 2021 list. Naturally, I wanted to read more and settled on The Greengage Summer.

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

Our narrator is the charming Cecil Grey, aged thirteen and at the cusp of womanhood. Cecil has an elder sister, the beautiful Joss aged sixteen, while the younger siblings are Hester and the Littles (Will and Vicky).

Cecil’s father is a botanist, often away from home for long stretches of time. Relying on her brother (called Uncle William by the children) for financial and emotional support, Cecil’s mother and the children reside in lodgings in the dreary, seaside town of Southstone.

Southstone lacks character and Joss and Cecil absolutely loathe it. The pair also bemoans the family’s strained monetary circumstances.

I think now that the discontent was because we were never quite comfortable in Southstone and the rudeness came from the discontent; it was as-if a pattern-mould were being pressed down on us into which we could not fit.

Fed up with their continuous grumbling, the mother whisks them off to France to see the battlefields hoping that some kind of an exposure and knowledge about other people’s sacrifices will open their eyes to how self-absorbed they are.

Excited by the idea of a short stint in Paris on the way for shopping and visiting museums, Joss, Cecil and the gang are in a state of great anticipation but the trip is doomed right from the start. The mother gets bitten by a horse-fly, her feet swell and she begins to develop a fever. Beset by fear, anxiety and a sense of being lost in a strange, unfamiliar country, the family somehow makes it to Vieux-Moutiers region to finally land at the enchanting Les Oeillets hotel.

However, things do not get easier when they reach the hotel – the mother’s condition deteriorates, language being a barrier the children struggle to communicate, and the hotel manager, Madame Courbet, is not particularly welcoming. Madame Courbet refuses to have a sick patient under her roof, and is not keen on the idea of assuming responsibility for the children. Angered by the terrible treatment meted out to them, Joss is all set to storm out of the hotel with the rest of the gang in tow, when Mademoiselle Zizi and Eliot make an entry.

An Englishman, Eliot quickly gauges the predicament of the family, the mother is settled in a room, and subsequently transferred to the hospital. Meanwhile, he offers to be a guardian to the children.

In the initial days, Joss is also struck by illness and is confined to her room. Thus, Cecil, Hester, Will and Vicky are pretty much left to their own devices and given free rein. Cecil is overcome by the newness and strangeness of not just the hotel, but also its people and their unique mannerisms.   

The staircase was paneled in pale green, riddled with curious holes, but the holes did not take away from its elegance. The hall was elegant too. It was odd that we, who had never seen elegance before – though it was our favourite word – immediately recognized it.

Reveling in their newfound freedom, the kids begin to explore the hotel, the gardens and the orchards around it gorging on greengages that give the novel its name.

Stepping in dew, my head in the sun, I walked into the orchard and, before I knew what I had done, reached up to touch a greengage. It came off, warm and smooth, into my hand I looked quickly round, but no one came, no voice scolded and, after a moment, I bit into the ripe golden flesh. Then I ate another, and another, until replete with fruit and ecstasy, I went back to my post.

Vicky latches on to Monsieur Armand, the hotel cook. Wills finds a spot under the cherry tree to be alone and pore over French fashion books. Cecil and Hester befriend Paul, the cook’s helper, who regales them with hotel gossip. It gradually emerges that Eliot and Zizi are lovers; Zizi especially is besotted with him. Madame Courbet, devoted to Zizi, despises Eliot but is powerless.

Eliot, meanwhile, develops a soft spot for the Grey family much to Zizi’s chagrin. When Joss, having recovered from her illness, finally emerges out of confinement, things begin to hot up. Eliot is mesmerized by her beauty and can’t take his eyes off her, Zizi is insanely jealous, and Cecil becomes a reluctant spectator watching Joss become embroiled in a messy drama…What’s more, thrown into this mix is the renowned French painter, Monsieur Joubert…

Eliot is an interesting, mysterious character, by turns warm and inscrutable whose motives remain hazy to the children. He is generally fond of them, but Cecil also glimpses the occasional changes in mood, the coldness and curt responses which are a sign to her to keep her distance. There is a part of him that remains inaccessible and bewilders Cecil, but his suave, charming personality endears him to the gang and they find themselves loyal to him despite his faults.

He had a carnation in his buttonhole, a dark-red one, and it seemed to symbolize Eliot for us. Why are flowers bought by men so much more notable than those bought by women? I do not know, but they are. Father brought flowers into the house but they were dried, pressed brown, the life gone out of them; with Eliot the flower was alive.

Blessed with striking good looks, Joss has awakened to her sexuality and is aware of the effect it has on men including Eliot. But it is Cecil who, in many ways, is the show stealer with her flair for storytelling and for being in the thick of things. She has reached that point in her life where she wants to be treated like an adult, but still remains innocent in many aspects. The torment that she suffers because of this conflict has been astutely conveyed by Godden. Compared to Joss, Cecil considers herself plain with unremarkable features, a fact that she resents. But she is a wonderful narrator, displaying the naiveté of her age, while occasional moments of astuteness shine through.

The Greengage Summer, then, is a heady cocktail of themes – the loneliness of entering into adulthood, loss of innocence, the intensity of love, and lies and deceit that pepper the world of adults. Under the veneer of languid summers and the joys of new experiences, run currents of darkness with hints of violence, death, sinister happenings. Cecil, accustomed to the straightforward world of children, is often confused by the behaviour of the adults around her, the ease with they lie and extricate themselves from a challenging situation. And she and Joss are faced with the possibility that Eliot may not be what he seems, he has his own secrets to hide.

We were told not to come back until four o’clock and the boundary we were set was the box hedge. On one side lay the house and its happenings, a shifting and changing pattern of Eliot, Mademoiselle Zizi, Madame Corbet, Paul, Monsieur Armand, Mauricette, the carloads and chars-a-bancs of visitors; when we were away from it, it was as unreal as the cocktails they all drank…

On the wilderness and orchard side was an older, more truthful world; every day as we passed into it, I caught its older, simpler scents.

The novel sizzles with the sensuousness of French summer – the light filtering in through the canopy of lush green trees, the shimmering surroundings burnished into gold by the rays of the sun, the languor of the heat, the liquid, dreamy atmosphere inducing feelings of exhilaration and being alive. The exotic food, delectable pastries, sparkling champagne and various others sights, sounds and smells dazzle Cecil and Joss, it is such a stark contrast to the dullness of their English existence. Breathing in the air of elegance and sophistication, they are intoxicated by the ease and glamour of the French way of living. Godden’s storytelling is wonderfully absorbing and she is great at describing things.

At that time of day the sun sinking behind the trees struck through the landing window and turned the staircase into a funnel of light; even the treads of the stairs seemed barred with gold, and through the round window came the sound of trills and flutings, the birds singing their evening song in the garden, before it dropped to silence. The staircase might have been Jacob’s ladder, stairs to heaven.

And here she is describing the ambience in a restaurant…

…As the patron cooked our steaks in front of us and dusk came down, shutting the little glass-sided restaurant into a world of its own, the disappointment went. Eliot gave us vin rosé, and the rose-coloured wine, the réchaud flame, the lights were reflected in the windows over and over again, shutting us into a warm lit world.

The prose is simple and unadorned and perfectly captures the voice of its naïve yet perceptive teenaged narrator.

What is also astonishing about The Greengage Summer is that much of it is autobiographical, based on true events. My edition of this novel has a preface by Rumer Godden and an introduction by Jane Asher. In her preface, Godden reveals to us the actual events that took place during their French holiday in 1923, the richness of material giving birth to this novel (Cecil is Rumer), while Jane Asher gives a flavor of her experiences of filming the book and of being cast in the role of Cecil. Both make for fascinating reading, but I would suggest reading them after the novel.

In a nutshell, The Greengage Summer is a glorious read with its evocative portrayal of summer, a meaty storyline and a cast of memorable characters. Highly recommended!