I have been having a good run with Archipelago Books in the year so far, having read and loved Cockroaches by Scholastique Mukasonga and Difficult Light by Tomás Gonzélez. An Untouched House by Willem Frederik Hermans was pretty impressive too, and now Ida Jessen’s A Change of Time is another worthy addition to this list.
A Change of Time is a gorgeous, reflective novel of a woman re-inventing herself after the death of her husband and reclaiming her lost sense of self, brimming with sentences that ache with beauty and sadness.
Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, the story is narrated to us through the diary entries of the schoolteacher and protagonist Lilly Hoy or Fru Bagge as she is now known.
In the opening pages, we learn that Fru Bagge has been visiting the hospital every day to be near her ailing husband Vigand Bagge, who is a respected doctor in the village of Thyregod. It’s immediately clear that something is amiss, notably communication between the two is sorely lacking. It seems that Vigand, although, well aware of the serious nature of his illness, chooses to keep his wife in the dark. Even when the time comes for him to finally admit himself in the hospital, it’s with the realization that he has single-handedly made arrangements for it without his wife having any clue.
Why was I not allowed to help you when you were dying, Vigand?
On Vigand’s death, Fru Bagge, married to him for some 20 odd years, is suddenly alone and must fend for herself. Gradually, their personalities revealed to us dip by dip, give us a sense of how the Bagges were an ill-matched pair.
We were married for twenty-two years. And although it has been a time in which many things have happened – a world war, motor cars, electricity, women’s suffrage – indeed an entire world would seem to have wound down and been replaced by a new one, I would still venture that those years have been one long and unbroken day.
Vigand Bagge is a competent doctor and the villagers look upon him with awe, but he is mostly a stoic, cruel, sarcastic man lacking empathy and the requisite bedside manner. He is a practical man, sometimes extremely so, and is impatient with those who unabashedly display their weaknesses. There is a tendency in him to mock people, and here even his wife is not spared.
On his death, Vigand does his duty of providing well for Fru Bagge with clear instructions, so that she can lead her life with dignity with no worries on the financial front. But with security and comfort of money, comes the painful and inevitable knowledge that there was a serious lack of connect in their marriage. It could be that Vigand was several years older to her, and never therefore treated her on an equal footing, adopting a more condescending attitude. It was a marriage that lacked compassion and tenderness, qualities that Fru Bagge wanted more than anything from her husband, but, alas, in vain.
Can one ask a person to show that they love you? Reason, that most faithful onlooker to the tribulations of others, says no.
But what says unreason?
Vigand’s death, thus, suggests a kind of freedom for her to embrace life anew. But it also leaves in its wake a trail of bitterness for all the years she has already lost.
In my darkest moments I understand only too well what misfortune can leave a person in such a place. Bitterness is a very soft and comfortable armchair from which it is difficult indeed to extract oneself once one has decided to settle in it.
As the novel progresses, the diary entries begin alternating between Fru Bagge’s past and the present. In the immediate now, she must choose a new accommodation for herself. And in an act of defiance, she buys back the car Vigand had sold and begins to learn driving.
In stark contrast to her present, though, a series of flashbacks reveal a different facet of her personality – her growing ambition of being a teacher, and her efforts to realize that dream.
Thinking back, I almost feel envious of that young schoolmistress. In fact, there is no almost about it.
A scent of missed opportunities also wafts in the air, a sense of ‘what could have been’ – possibilities of serious relationships with a man from her student days, and later in Thyregod itself when she accepts a teaching position.
At its core, A Change of Time is a character study or a portrait of Fru Bagge/Lilly Hoy – the promise of making a mark in her youth wiped away by years of repression and being undermined in her marriage. In many ways, the book’s title heralds the dawn of a fresh start for Lilly. It is also a subtle depiction of changes that Lilly introduces or accepts to enhance the life of the village and its inhabitants, particularly, in the teaching profession, and also in many ways, one of the various lifelines thrown to her to help her regain her lost bearings after Vigand’s death.
Atmospheric and lyrically written, A Change of Time is wonderfully slow-paced in a way that is soothing for the soul and swells with warmth and tenderness, but is also suffused with a tinge of sadness and melancholia. Inherently inward-looking and fraught with potent silences, it’s a novel of finely etched characters and restrained emotions…and a quiet meditation on things left unsaid, finding pleasure and a sense of purpose in the smallest of things, and a chance of having a second go at life.
We are often told that being alone is a harbinger of loneliness, but there is nothing worse than being lonely in a marriage. While it’s perfectly fine to feel disoriented at first, if the end of a debilitating relationship means a newfound hope for freedom and joy, then it’s worth embracing it with open arms.
This strange gravity, the peculiar peace that descends in the evenings when the houses turn inwards and people retire to bed. I have begun to expect it, to look forward.
Danish author Tove Ditlevsen became known to the wider world a couple of years ago when her stunning memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy, were released. With the dexterity of an alchemist turning minerals into gold, Ditlevsen mined her real life for raw material which she transformed into polished, haunting works of art. Those elements are very much on display in The Faces too, written around the same time as the memoirs.
Reality disappeared behind her like someone on a railway platform as the train pulls away.
The Faces is about a woman’s journey through mental illness and recovery, unique for its striking language and poetry in prose – all hallmarks of Ditlevsen’s writing.
Our protagonist Lise is a famous author of children’s books, although she hasn’t penned anything in the last two years. While professionally, a writer’s block has hampered her creative output, in her personal life too, Lise is on the edge. To her ex-husband Asger, “a wife who wrote something as ridiculous as children’s books was suddenly a liability.” Her current husband, Gert, has been consistently unfaithful to her, not exactly the ideal husband material. Their housekeeper, Gitte, is a toxic influence on the family – she is sleeping with Gert as well as Lise’s elder son Moyen.
Lise is shown to be persistently tired, preferring the comfort of her bed and her pills. Then one night, in the novel’s first chapter, Gert confesses to her that his previous lover, Grete, has committed suicide. It profoundly unsettles Gert and Lise now feels stained by this incident too. One day, while having her bath, Lise overhears a heated conversation between Gert and Gitte through the bathroom pipes. Convinced, that they are plotting against her to induce her to take her own life like Grete did, Lise confronts them. Their vehement denial leaves Lise feeling dazed and confused. Yet her sense of unease is not quelled.
Finding her home environment increasingly unbearable and claustrophobic, Lise yearns to get away from it all. This desire compels her to overdose, not because she wants to die, but because she sees it as an opportunity to be transported somewhere else – a hospital.
Lise’s stay in the psychiatric hospital, then, forms a substantial chunk of the novel. It’s only in the hospital that the full extent of Lise’s illness becomes clear to the reader. Sadly, Lise may have escaped Gert and Gitte, but their voices continue to torment her. These taunting voices, playing on the frayed edges of her mind, are vividly real to her even when the reality is completely different. They assail her from all nooks and crannies, from the pipes to the non-existent speaking devices by her pillow. It’s not only the voices though, as she is increasingly haunted by disembodied faces too. Not only does Lise hear Gert and Gitte, she also sees them all over the hospital. To Lise, the faces of various staff members morph into the faces of these two, hounding her endlessly.
Lise is treading on eggshells as she tries to convince the doctors she is fine, while appearing surprised and disoriented on learning that they can’t experience the visions and hear the voices as she does. To complicate matters, Lise is wracked by guilt of being selfish and self-absorbed in her woes, for not being alive to the suffering of the wider world – a guilt that Gitte’s voice rubs like salt on her wound causing her much anguish.
As the title of the novel suggests, faces feature predominantly in the novel and the masks we allegedly don to keep up appearances forms one central theme.
They slept, and their faces were blank and peaceful and didn’t have to be used again until morning. Maybe they had even taken off their faces and placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest. In the daytime the faces were constantly changing, as if she saw them reflected in flowing water.
Ditlevsen essentially offers a glimpse into the lived experience of mental illness, the inability to separate reality from illusion. By sleight of hand, she recreates the experience of madness from the inside, letting us explore the shifting contours of Lise’s mind and her unreliable perception of the world around her.
Brief, intense and awash with sublime imagery, Ditlevsen’s writing is beautiful and clear as always, and the plethora of metaphors and similes dotting her prose are breathtaking. For instance, the voices which came back to her “could be unraveled from each other like the strands of a tangled ball of yarn.” A random childhood day was “preserved in her mind like a thousand-year old insect encased in a lump of amber.” When looking in the mirror, “three delicate wrinkles lay like a pearl necklace around her neck”, while the morning light “had a yellow, withered cast to it, like fading snapshots left in a drawer that no one opens anymore.”
As Lise limps towards a tentative recovery underlined by her fear, the reader is aware of the path being anything but smooth given the complexity of her feelings. For we can’t help but wonder despite everything – Would Lise prefer the comfort and solace in madness far more than the bitter ugliness of reality?
Since August was WITMonth, my original plan was to focus only on WIT books and to read as many as possible. That didn’t quite work out. I did read 4 WIT novels from Poland, Denmark China and Germany, which I ultimately felt was not too bad. And I also threw in a Ross Macdonald and the latest novel from Daisy Johnson.
So here’s a brief summary of all that I read in August 2020…
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead – Olga Tokarczuk (tr. from Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones)
Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead is a fascinating book, a heady cocktail of ingredients – offbeat murder mystery, subtle humour, and philosophical musings with an ethical bent at its core.
Set in a Polish village in deep midwinter, the novel begins with the discovery of a man’s body in his home in the dead of the night. Called Big Foot because of his enormous feet, the circumstances of this man’s death are quite mysterious. It is Janina, the novel’s central character as well as the narrator, who chances upon his corpse along with her neighbour Oddball. The local police are summoned but they cannot for the life of them figure out who killed the man and the motive behind it.
As the novel progresses, few other prominent men of the village are also found dead at regular intervals under similarly strange circumstances. These murders completely baffle law enforcement and increasingly spook the villagers.
Our narrator, Janina, finds herself to be the first person at these crime scenes a couple of times, and she has her own theory on these murders, which she persistently presents to the police but to no avail. It is perhaps significant that at most of these crime scenes she and her friend spot a set of footprints that belong to animals, specifically deer.
Janina is viewed as a cantankerous old woman in the village, not to be taken seriously. An engineer turned school teacher, she is also the caretaker of some holiday properties of owners who come to stay in the village during summer months. Janina clearly loves animals (possibly more than humans) and has strong opinions on hunting, animal brutality and non-vegetarianism. She also is a deep believer in astrology looking for answers in stars and cosmic planets to make sense of the chaos around her. And in her free time, she keeps herself busy translating poems of William Blake.
For most of the time, Janina is a recluse – “The best conversations are with yourself. At least there’s no risk of a misunderstanding”. She is nonconformist and is not afraid of expressing her opinions even if most of the time she is derided. Appalled by the extent of hypocrisy exhibited by the men in her village, Janina is like a lone crusader fighting for the rights of animals, and finds the popularity of hunting sport deeply disturbing.
Is it possible, then, that the men who were murdered finally got their comeuppance? Were these men killed by animals who spotted an opportunity at revenge? Janina increasingly begins to think so but is also aware of the futility of stating her suspicions out loud. After all, won’t people think that her views are the incoherent ramblings of a mad woman?
The most dominant theme of the novel, then, is man’s lack of compassion towards animals, labeling them as inferior beings. The other theme explored is the treatment meted out to elderly women – the blatant lack of respect shown for their views and how younger people (men mostly) fail to take them seriously while also adopting a condescending attitude when interacting with them. This is very apparent in the way Janina is treated. Her various letters and entreaties to authorities to stop the inhumane killing of animals simply fall on deaf ears.
“But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.”
The novel is pretty atmospheric given its setting in a remote village during a harsh Polish winter, and death permeates everywhere as the bodies of both humans and animals pile up.
Drive Your Plow is no ordinary ‘whodunnit’, but that’s really not the point of the book. Peppered with doses of black comedy as well as melancholia, this book has existential overtones as it poses questions on our place in the universe, and challenges notions that humans are superior to animals. Strange and unique, with fascinatingly named characters (Oddball, Big Foot, Dizzy, Good News), and a fierce, eccentric personality in Janina, Drive Your Plow is a brilliant read leaving the reader with much to think about.
“You know what, sometimes it seems to me we’re living in a world that we fabricate for ourselves. We decide what’s good and what isn’t, we draw maps of meanings for ourselves… And then we spend our whole lives struggling with what we have invented for ourselves. The problem is that each of us has our own version of it, so people find it hard to understand each other.”
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.
The Artificial Silk Girl is narrated in the first person, in a voice that is immediately captivating, fresh and lively – a voice I was instantly drawn to.
After being fired from a dull office job and followed by a failed attempt at theatre in her mid-sized hometown, Doris makes her way to the big city – Berlin.
While she is dazzled at first by the city’s charms, she gradually drifts into homelessness and her reduced circumstances compel her to rely on men for money and company.
In a nutshell, The Artificial Silk Girl is a wonderful novel that captures Berlin in the Roaring Twenties in all its glitter and grimness, seen through the eyes of an unforgettable protagonist.
Wild Swims – Dorthe Nors (tr. from Danish by Misha Hoekstra)
I had been meaning to read Dorthe Nors for quite a while now, ever since her first collection of stories Karate Chop/Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was released a few years ago (a book I had purchased then but is now languishing somewhere on the shelves).
I delved right into her latest collection Wild Swims instead. The themes of loneliness and human connection are central to these stories, but they are also brief character sketches encapsulated in certain moments with an element of darkness running through them.
In ‘In a Deer Stand’, man in his late forties, finds himself miles away from home on a deserted dirt track, wet and frozen. Hampered by an injured ankle, he thinks desolately of his wife and the toxic nature of their marriage.
In ‘By Sydvest Station’, two girls who are going around houses collecting charity from people for a cause, encounter an old woman living in considerable poverty and distress. While one of the girls is quite disturbed by the incident, it barely ruffles the other who is more preoccupied with a relationship gone sour.
In ‘Our Narrow Paved Paths’, Alice is super busy taking care of a friend – Einar – who is suffering from cancer and expected to die anytime, although by the end you get a feeling that its Alice who possibly needs support as she is wracked by a feeling of emptiness.
In a disturbing story called ‘Honeysuckle’, a medical student studying at the NYU meets a blind Hasidic woman with whom he frequently has sex. It is during these moments that her face truly comes alive when at other times she is described as ‘a pale blotch in the midsummer night’.
All in all, there are fourteen stories in this collection and despite their brevity, it’s the sharpness in them that makes quite an impression.
Sisters – Daisy Johnson
Sisters is the second novel I have read this year where the relationship between two sisters is the focal point (the first was the marvelous We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson).
September and July are born ten months apart but are almost inseparable. When the book opens, the girls (in their late teens) have just moved to Settle House in the remote Yorkshire moors with their mother. A certain ‘incident’ at school is alluded to – the primary reason for the house move – though not revealed to us (that will come later on).
As sisters, September and July could not have been more different. September is the dominant personality, she is assertive, willful, fiercely protective of July but also prone to bouts of cruelty. July, on the other hand, is always in September’s shadow, doing what her elder sister tells her to do, although there are moments where she yearns to have an independent identity.
Their mother, Sheela, is an author of children’s books but prone to bouts of depression after a failed marriage, her ex-husband having died since then. She loves her daughters but is also unsettled by their closeness. The sisters are in some sense self-sufficient in their own private world, a world from which Sheela is excluded. This greatly disturbs her, although she feels powerless to do anything about it.
The relationship between September and July is complex suffused with love but also extreme possessiveness and manipulation. So entwined are the two sisters, it almost feels like there is a merging of identities into one (September insists that rather than have separate birthdays, the sisters celebrate it on a single day). However, for a considerable part of the novel, particularly after the ‘incident’, July becomes increasingly unsure of their bond, and where they stand in relation to the other. She is loyal for the most part but also wants to break away from September.
All these elements pretty much set the tone of the novel right from the start – there’s a creeping sense of dread that pervades it. Daisy Johnson is great at creating atmosphere, there’s a gothic fairytale feel to the story, where the house is as much as a character in its own right as the mother and her two daughters. Throughout the book the narrative voice shifts from July’s first person to a third person from Sheela’s point of view offering us a glimpse into their shifting mental states.
Ultimately, Sisters is a very-well written novel, which besides the overarching theme of the unconventional rapport between two sisters also takes a look the intricacy and delicate balance of the mother-daughter bond.
The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald
I always turn to Ross Macdonald when I am going through a bit of a reading slump and he never disappoints. I am gradually making my way through his Lew Archer novels in the order of publication and The Zebra-Striped Hearse is the tenth in the series.
The novel begins when Archer is paid a visit by a client – Colonel Blackwell – who wants Archer to find dirt on a certain Burke Damis who is set to marry Blackwell’s daughter Harriet. Blackwell is a man prone to quick flashes of temper and his attempts to dissuade Harriet from marrying Davis are in vain. Archer for his part realizes that although Harriet is besotted by Davis, he is anything but.
A deeper examination into Damis’ background leads to a trail of murders which takes Archer to San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Guadalajara in Mexico as he tries to get a sense of Damis’ personality.
The Zebra-Striped Hearse is another excellent addition to the Lew Archer oeuvre with a solid plot, a keen insight into the nature of family and how the past always comes back to haunt the present.
So, that’s it for August. It was a solid month of reading with not a single dud among them. My favourites, though, were the Chang, Keun and Johnson.
To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.
On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.
Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.
All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.
Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:
All the books are written by women.
Five of the titles (or 10 books) are translated works of literature from countries such as Italy, Denmark, Argentina, Colombia, and Japan.
One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).
So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…
(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).
Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!
It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.
One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.
Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.
The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.
In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all.
While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.
2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).
Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.
This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!
Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated.
At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.
This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.
Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!
The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.
Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.
Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!
When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.
I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.
I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.
Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.
In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.
Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.
Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.
In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.
Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.
Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.
The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.
There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.
Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.
I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.
I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.
In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.
The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.
Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!
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.
Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…
That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.
Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!
Tove Ditlevsen was reputed to be a renowned literary figure in Denmark with many poetry collections and novels to her credit.
But before I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, I had no clue about her existence let alone her impressive body of work.
Thanks to the internet and Twitter, I became aware of these incredible set of memoirs when Penguin Modern Classics reissued them last month. It is safe to say that they will easily find a place in my Best of the Year list.
The Copenhagen Trilogy is a collection of Ditlevsen’s memoirs; the first, second and third books are titled, Childhood, Youth and Dependency respectively.
In Childhood, Tove is living with her parents and her elder brother Edvin in Vesterbro, a working class neighbourhood in Copenhagen.
The family exists on the fringes of poverty, a fact further exacerbated by the father being in and out of jobs and her mother not holding on to one either.
Tove attends school but in essence is a lonely child believing herself to be a misfit in the environment in which she belongs.
The one thing that motivates her is her passion for writing poetry.
Tove, meanwhile, has a difficult and complicated relationship with her mother. She thinks it is exhausting to not only gauge but also pander to her mother’s moods.
When hope had been crushed like that, my mother would get dressed with violent and irritated movements, as if every piece of clothing were an insult to her. I had to get dressed too, and the world was cold and dangerous and ominous because my mother’s dark anger always ended in her slapping my face or pushing me against the stove. She was foreign and strange, and I thought that I had been exchanged at birth and she wasn’t my mother at all.
What’s more, her father does not really understand Tove’s love for poetry either because this is how he responds when she takes the courage to voice her dream:
‘Don’t be a fool! A girl can’t be a poet.’
Tove’s father is a socialist who is often unemployed, something that the mother always resents. The parents, however, have greater expectations from Edvin.
Besides finding solace in poetry, Tove increasingly longs to escape her confined childhood. She is waiting to turn eighteen and move away from her parents’ home.
Childhood is long and narrow like a coffin, and you can’t get out of it on your own.
In such an environment, Tove manages to befriend Ruth, a red haired girl, who is extroverted and daring, a sharp contrast to Tove’s personality. In the dynamics of that relationship, Tove is clearly in Ruth’s shadow.
Meanwhile, hope begins to glimmer when one day Edvin demands to read Tove’s poetry. Suitably impressed (even though he derided it previously in the same manner as the mother), he offers to pass it on to his friend Thorvald who can give her pointers on how to get those poems published.
It’s a big chance for Tove, a big opportunity for her dreams – of getting published – to come true.
That in a nutshell is the essence of Childhood, the first installment in The Copenhagen Trilogy.
Two immediate striking features are apparent – the voice of the narrator (Tove herself), and the language.
Tove’s voice is frank, fresh and distinct, and way she chooses to express herself comes across in the writing which is lyrical and sublime.
Although the overall tone of Childhood is gloomy, the gorgeous quality of the prose takes it up a notch making the reading experience utterly compelling – it was like being immersed in a gothic fairy tale.
If there is a sense of melancholy pervading Childhood, there is a shift of tone in the next book in the trilogy. Youth is more lighthearted peppered with moments of comedy.
In Youth, Tove has discarded the skin of her childhood behind. She must now venture into the big world and find a job to support herself and contribute to her family. It’s a prospect that terrifies her and paradoxically makes her yearn for her childhood.
The opening lines set the tone for what is to follow…
I was at my first job for only one day. I left home at seven-thirty in order to be there in plenty of time, ‘because you should try especially hard in the beginning’, said my mother, who had never made it past the beginning at the places where she’d worked in her youth.
In Youth, then Tove finds herself wading through a series of dull, meaningless jobs, which heighten her sense of boredom, and yet provide the means to maintain an independent existence. Eventually, once she turns eighteen, she immediately takes the step to leave her parents’ house, and find lodgings for herself.
One of her ladies is a Nazi sympathizer who tries to enlist Tove in various activities, which she manages to dodge. There is also the fear of the Second World War looming large. Indeed, Tove casually juxtaposes the broader canvas of these unsettling developments with what is happening in her own life…
The next day I start my job at the Currency Exchange typing pool and Hitler invades Austria.
Tove is also now dating and there is one comic set piece where she attempts to have sex for the first time with her boyfriend. Her friends think it’s shocking that she hasn’t already taken that step.
There are other spells of playfulness too when she enrolls for a few sessions in drama school, or when she is composing love songs for one of her employers.
In the final section, after a couple of disappointing attempts, Tove finally manages to get a poem published in a literary journal called ‘Wild Wheat’, edited by Viggo Moller, who goes on to become the first of her four husbands.
This finally paves the way for her dreams to materialize, as her first poetry collection manages to find a publisher.
We then move on to the final book in the trilogy, Dependency. There is once again a shift in tone as the writing gets more intense, feverish and terrifying. This book addresses some difficult times in Tove’s life making you wonder whether her youth – working in those dull jobs as an independent woman – wasn’t actually her best.
It addresses dependency in its many forms – marriage and drug addiction. Interestingly, the Danish novel was called Gift, which in the original language means both married and poison.
In Dependency, Tove is now an established author but her marriage to Moller is beset with problems. There are compatibility issues thanks largely to the big age gap between the two (Moller is old enough to be her father).
Tove finds some stability in her second marriage and goes on to have a daughter with her husband. However, the marriage is not without its share of problems, and there is one unsettling but riveting set piece where Tove is hell bent on terminating her second pregnancy and is on the hunt to find a doctor willing to perform an abortion.
Somewhere along the way, Tove falls prey to the dangerous allure of drugs notably Demerol and Methadone. These developments are entwined with a disastrous marriage to her third husband – a weird quack responsible for her addiction – and her debilitating struggle to break free from this ordeal.
These sections are quite harrowing and there is a creeping feeling of dread and foreboding as the book progresses. Indeed, for Tove, the drugs are an escape from a reality she can’t cope with, or a balm for the gnawing feeling of emptiness inside.
It is only when she is writing her novels, poems or short stories that she feels truly alive. When she is not writing, this is how she feels…
I have a huge void inside me that nothing can fill. It feels like everything is going into me but nothing is coming out again.
The title Dependency is an apt one for this volume. The reference to addiction is the obvious one. But the book also explores how Tove increasingly depends upon marriage to support her and many of her decisions. This despite the fact she was an independent woman in her youth. For instance, her marriage to Moller is influenced more by her mother’s insistence that she be supported by her husband rather than work herself. Even when married to her second husband Ebbe, the decision to abort the second child is more out of a fear of their marriage ending. And yet, in all of her three marriages, which are detailed here, it is Tove who took the decision to end the union.
There is a glint of hope when the novel ends and the overall trilogy concludes – a sense that she is on the path to recovery even if that path is anything but smooth.
I was rescued from my years of addiction, but ever since, the shadow of the old longing still returns faintly if I have to have a blood test, or if I pass a pharmacy window. It will never disappear completely as long as I live.
The Copenhagen Trilogy then is a wonderful piece of literature, one of those works where the sheer force and beauty of Ditlevsen’s writing makes various elements and emotions in the books – bleakness, comedy, terror, dread – ultimately riveting, immersive and thoroughly absorbing.