2022 Honourable Mentions: Five Superb Short Story Collections

Last week, I released a post on My Best Books of 2022; books that gave me much joy this year and would heartily recommend. As I reflected on my reading, I noticed that I had read quite a few short story collections in 2022, certainly more than in previous years. Two of them – Tess Slesinger’s Time: The Present and Tove Ditlevsen’s The Trouble with Happiness – made it to my year end list. But there were five collections that despite not making the cut were still great.

This post is to highlight those five short story collections, sort of my ‘honourable mentions’ if you will (You can click on the links for detailed reviews)…

WE ARE FOR THE DARK by Robert Aickman & Elizabeth Jane Howard

We Are for the Dark is a wonderful collection of ghost stories written by both Robert Aickman and his lover at that time, Elizabeth Jane Howard (of The Cazalet Chronicles fame). First published by Cape in the autumn of 1951, it is a collection of 6 stories, 3 stories written by each. However, at the time, the stories were not individually credited and were presented as a collaboration between the two authors.

The best among these is Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Three Miles Up’ -a perfectly paced, chilling story set on a boating trip through the canals of England; one where an atmosphere of menace and doom unfurls like a blanket over its characters as they navigate an alien canal, until it opens out into an ending that is truly terrifying. Click on the title for a more detailed write-up.

A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (tr. from Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

ART IN NATURE by Tove Jansson (tr. from Swedish by Thomas Teal)

Art in Nature by Tove Jansson is a beautiful, beguiling collection comprising 11 short stories of art, ambition, loneliness, unusual relationships and family.

How we perceive art is an individual experience and one of the cornerstones of the first and titular story of the collection, while one of my favourites “The Cartoonist” is a wonderful, unsettling piece on the price of ambition and the perils associated with the commercialization of art.

The “Flower Child” is a dreamlike, other-worldly tale of loneliness and alienation while nostalgia for home, fractured relationships between siblings and the struggle to blend in with the crowd forms the essence of the story “A Memory of the New World.” A “Sense of Time” is a disorienting tale of losing your bearings where the line between dreams and reality gets blurred, while in “Locomotives” a draughtsman’s obsession with drawing trains provides a sinister twist to a love story.

The stories told in a simple, lucid and arresting style are often dark and disquieting but also drenched with wisdom, beautifully capturing the creative process.

DANCE MOVE by Wendy Erskine

Dance Move is a wonderful collection of short stories set mostly in Belfast; eleven tales of ordinary lives written with warmth, compassion and Erskine’s keen insight into human nature.

Typically, when we talk about short story collections, there are always some stories which really stand out, while some others fade away from the memory quickly. What’s great about Dance Move though is that there’s something memorable about each of the stories, although I do have my favourites.

The first, “Mathematics”, is a superbly penned tale of abandonment, unlikely bonds, and how our past can define the way we live the present, where Roberta, a cleaning woman, comes across an abandoned child in a room she is cleaning. One of my favourite stories, “Cell”, is a dark, devastating tale of control, imprisonment and neglect in communal settings fuelled by shaky political activism; while “Golem” is another excellent tale of mismatched relationships, of alternate lives that could have been lived.

Erskine’s storytelling is sublime, very down-to-earth, and each story is written with such tenderness and compassion. With her sensitive portrayal of fraught lives, she understands the psyche of her characters and is able to convey multitudes in a short space in her distinct expressive style (“What happened next, remembered so many times, is burnished and glittering and perfumed”). In a nutshell, Dance Move is a great collection, one I would whole-heartedly recommend.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (tr. from Korean by Anton Hur)

Cursed Bunny is a terrific collection of ten stories that merge the genres of horror, science fiction, magical realism and dream logic to explore a wide variety of themes that are possibly a commentary on the ills of Korean society, but which could simply be applied to any society where patriarchy and greed rules the roost.

“The Embodiment” is a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores, while the titular story “Cursed Bunny” is a story within a story, a wonderful tale on the evils of capitalism which bolster greed and unfair business practices. Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. While a later story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

The stories in Cursed Bunny are surreal, visceral and quite unlike anything I’ve read before, but they come with a unique, interior logic that works.

A Month of Reading – August 2022

August was a great month of reading in terms of quality, especially because it also focused on Women in Translation (WIT). I read three books for WIT Month (a novel, a novella and a short story collection) covering three languages (Japanese, Spanish and Danish), along with a Booker Prize longlisted title, a contemporary debut novel, and of course, the seventh book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – Revolving Lights.  

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.

SPACE INVADERS by Nona Fernández (Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer)

In her novella Space Invaders, using this cult game as a motif and through a series of visions, dreams and fragmented memories, Nona Fernández brilliantly captures the essence of growing up in the shadow of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship in Chile.

These set of childhood friends are now adults, but they remain haunted by events when they were young, particularly those around their mysterious classmate Estrella Gonzalez, who one day suddenly disappears. They vaguely recall rigid class assemblies and class performances imbibing nationalistic fervor. Estrella, herself, is a potent force in their dreams, but the dreams are all different (“Different as our minds, different as our memories, different as we are and as we’ve become”). 

Space Invaders, then, is a stunning achievement, a haunting dream-like novella of childhood, the loss of innocence it entails, and real life under junta rule whose very nature remains opaque and unfathomable.

THE COLONY by Audrey Magee

Longlisted for the 2022 Booker Prize, Audrey Magee’s The Colony is an impressive, multifaceted book on colonization, violence, language, art and identity rooted against the backdrop of a particularly turbulent time in the history of both England and Ireland.

The book begins with Mr Lloyd, an English artist, embarking on a journey to a remote Irish island, choosing to arrive there the hard way. Once on the island, he starts throwing his weight around, but eventually settles down. Lloyd is explicitly told not sketch the island’s residents, but while he initially agrees, soon enough he breaks that rule. After a few days, the Frenchman Masson (called JP by the residents), arrives on the island and is disconcerted by Lloyd’s presence. Masson is a linguist and an ardent supporter of the island’s ancient Irish culture. Hence to him, the Englishman’s arrival spells bad news and he worries about the behavioral shifts that might occur as a consequence. The two constantly bicker and argue, often in front of the islanders, who are for the most time observers when these acerbic conversations take place, but sometimes they venture an opinion or two.

There is a fable-like quality to The Colony, a measured detachment in the storytelling, and the narrative is made up entirely of dialogues and interior monologues, the latter particularly being one of the novel’s real strengths.

SCATTERED ALL OVER THE EARTH by Yoko Tawada (Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani)

Scattered All Over the Earth is a wonderfully strange, beguiling novel of language, nationality, climate change, friendship and connection set against a dystopian backdrop.

The book is set in the not-too distant-future, the details of which remain vague. However, we are told that Japan has completely disappeared off the face of the earth; oblivious of the drastic impact on climate, a terrible national policy put in place by the Japanese government leads to Japan entirely sinking into the sea. So much so that henceforth it is no longer called Japan, but remembered as the ‘land of sushi.’ Its inhabitants are now scattered all over the earth, lending the novel its name.

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole. Among its myriad themes, what I really loved about the story was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.  

 A POSTCARD FOR ANNIE by Ida Jessen (Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences, while “December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

Each of the six tales is drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings.

CHILDREN OF PARADISE by Camilla Grudova

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers. Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building. Holly is hired on the spot, but in the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. Holly also grapples with loneliness as her colleagues, a circle of close-knit oddballs, are initially hostile towards her. Gradually, the ice breaks and Holly finds herself enmeshed in their world, made up of cinema, drugs and casual flings. Until one day, a major development threatens to uproot their already fragile existence.

Surreal and immersive, Children of Paradise effortlessly packs in an array of themes – cinema, capitalism and camaraderie – into its 196 pages, churning out an offering that is truly original in the way it views the world.

REVOLVING LIGHTS (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

Revolving Lights is the seventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim and Deadlock.

Revolving Lights immediately follows the events from Deadlock, but at the same time is also marked by a series of flashbacks with Miriam recalling certain events in the immediate past.

In terms of structure, it again differs from the earlier books – there are four long chapters, each focusing on certain key episodes during Miriam’s life. The book begins with Miriam’s thoughts as she walks the streets of London to Mrs Bailey’s boarding house on Tansley Street. As Miriam reminisces on various events we learn of her conversation with Hypo Wilson where she talks about Michael Shatov and airs her views on women artists…

“Well, the thing is, that whereas a few men here and there are creators, originators … artists, women are this all the time.”

“My dear Miriam, I don’t know what women are. I’m enormously interested in sex; but I don’t know anything about it. Nobody does. That’s just where we are.”

“You are doubtful about ‘emancipating’ women, because you think it will upset their sex-life.”

“I don’t know anything, Miriam. No personality. No knowledge. But there’s Miss Waugh, with a thoroughly able career behind her; been everywhere, done everything, my dear Miriam; come out of it all, shouting you back into the nursery.”

“I don’t know her. Perhaps she’s jealous, like a man, of her freedom. But the point is, there’s no emancipation to be done. Women are emancipated.”

“Prove it, Miriam.”

“I can. Through their pre-eminence in an art. The art of making atmospheres. It’s as big an art as any other. Most women can exercise it, for reasons, by fits and starts. The best women work at it the whole of the time. Not one man in a million is aware of it. It’s like air within the air. It may be deadly.”

She recalls a picnic with the Orlys in the previous summer around the time of Leyton Orly’s engagement…

And they had suddenly asked her to their picnic. And she had been back, for the whole of that summer’s afternoon, in the world of women; and the forgotten things, that had first driven her away from it, had emerged again, no longer mysterious, and with more of meaning in them, so that she had been able to achieve an appearance of conformity, and had felt that they regarded her not with the adoration or half-pitying dislike she had had from women in the past, but as a woman, though only as a weird sort of female who needed teaching. They had no kind of fear of her; not because they were massed there in strength. Any one of them, singly, would, she had felt, have been equal to her in any sort of circumstances; her superior; a rather impatient but absolutely loyal and chivalrous guide in the lonely exclusive feminine life.

At one point, Miriam is also disconcerted by the sudden appearance of the opportunistic Eleanor Dear (“lliterate, hampered, feeling her way all the time. And yet with a perfect knowledge. Perfect comprehension in her smile”).

I could have kept it up, with good coats and skirts and pretty evening gowns. Playing games. Living hilariously in roomy country houses, snubbing “outsiders,” circling in a perpetual round of family events, visits to town, everything fixed by family happenings, hosts of relations always about, everything, even sorrow, shared and distributed by large rejoicing groups; the warm wide middle circle of English life … secure. And just as the sense of belonging was at its height, punctually, Eleanor had come, sweeping everything away.

The next key episode focuses on her evening with Michael Shatov and his friends the Lintoffs, who are revolutionaries. But more importantly, Shatov proposes to Miriam and she firmly declines…

“You know we can’t; you know how separate we are. You have seen it again and again and agreed. You see it now; only you are carried away by this man’s first impression. Quite a wrong one. I know the sort of woman he means. Who accepts a man’s idea and leaves him to go about his work undisturbed; sure that her attention is distracted from his full life by practical preoccupations. It’s perfectly easy to create that impression, on any man. Of bright complacency. All the busy married women are creating it all the time, helplessly. Men lean and feed and are kept going, and in their moments of gratitude they laud women to the skies. At other moments, amongst themselves, they call them materialists, animals, half-human, imperfectly civilised creatures of instinct, sacrificed to sex. And all the time they have no suspicion of the individual life going on behind the surface.”

Although Miriam does not regret her decision, she does waver for a moment (“All the things she had made him contemplate would be forgotten…. He would plunge into the life he used to call normal…. That was jealousy; flaming through her being; pressing on her mind”).

Miriam spends a long summer vacation with the Wilsons – Hypo (modeled on H.G. Wells) and Alma. Miriam’s has conflicted feelings about Hypo. On the one hand, she revels in the knowledge that he is interested in her thoughts, but on the other hand, she is repelled by his views on  women (“To shreds she would tear his twofold vision of women as bright intelligent response or complacently smiling audience”).  

While Revolving Lights for the most part focuses on Miriam’s thoughts and her flashbacks, there is often a sudden but interesting switch in narration from the third person to the first person, a technique I first came across in Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room. Revolving Lights also continues to focus on Miriam’s strong opinions on the dynamics between men and women, the pleasures of solitude, the joy of London and the sense of freedom she experiences when strolling the city’s streets, a feeling particularly accentuated after she immediately rejects Shatov’s proposal. Richardson also excels in the way she describes light, which particularly comes alive during Miriam’s stay with the Wilsons, at their Bonnycliff residence by the sea. One gets the sense that Miriam has evolved a great deal since Pointed Roofs, both by the substance of her interior monologues and the way social encounters and interactions have shaped her. Revolving Lights didn’t always make for easy reading, but it was interesting enough for me to want to continue with the series. On to The Trap and Oberland next!

That’s it for August. In September, I started Hernan Diaz’s Booker longlisted novel Trust as well as Elisa Shua Dusapin’s The Pachinko Parlour, both very good. Plans on the anvil also include reading the seventh and eighth books from the Pilgrimage series – The Trap and Oberland (I continue to lag behind for #PilgrimageTogether).

A Postcard for Annie – Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Ida Jessen is an author I discovered last year thanks to her wonderful novel A Change of Time published by Archipelago Books, a book about how a woman re-invents herself after the death of her husband. It found a place on My Best Books of 2021 list, hence I was excited about the release of her short story collection, A Postcard for Annie, and I’m glad to say that it is superb.

A Postcard for Annie is a quiet, exquisite collection of short stories of ordinary lives; the highs and lows of marriage and family life told in lucid, restrained prose suffused with great emotional depth.

There are six stories in this collection, which makes it easier to give a flavour of each of these tales and the themes depicted within.

The first piece titled “An Excursion” is a beautiful story of a marriage, of how it changes people, of the ties that bind couples despite their differences. It’s a tale that flits between two timelines, the present, when our protagonist Tove, after a heated exchange with her husband, goes off for a long walk to clear her head and calm down and the past revealed to us through a series of flashbacks which tells us how she first met Max and the course of their marriage thereafter. In a town, where the residents are trying to survive in the aftermath of a financial crisis, Tove runs a business of her own – “Tove had set herself up selling curtain materials, but had gradually moved into buying up old furniture she reupholstered before selling on.”

One day, along with her friend Larna, she visits a big antique fair in Odense hoping to spot some furniture classics that she can buy. While perusing a slew of items she comes across a yellow floor vase, struck by the vividness of the colour.

It was the colour that had prompted her to stop. Ever since she was a little girl she had hovered over that same colour with a love so powerful it felt like a vice, and so very private to her. Even now, in the home she had made as an adult, she possessed very little that was yellow, as if she was afraid of overdosing, just as she would only rarely go to her doctor, fearing herself at bottom to be a hypochondriac.

The price is too expensive and she almost gives up until a voice in her ear convinces her to do otherwise. That person would turn out to be her future husband Max, and after the first few years of intense feelings for one another, cracks in their marriage begin to develop. Max is a fussy, meticulous person who likes planning and order; in sharp contrast Tove is more spontaneous reveling in the joy of discovery rather than any form of structured thinking.

He studied websites, catalogues and books, so as not to be caught off guard. Unlike her, when they went out bargain hunting together he never bought anything he hadn’t decided on beforehand…She tried to explain to him that it was the very sense of being caught off guard that was exciting to her. Getting carried away. He told her she was pandering to a throwaway culture, that it was bad taste and he expected her to learn from his example. With a swagger she told him not to count on it.

As the tale unfolds at a languid pace, we learn of arguments that often flare up between Tove and Max, another personal development that hits her hard, a random encounter with a stranger and memories of a woman from Tove’s past whose persona alters significantly after marriage; and in the midst of all this, there are moments when Tove often contemplates divorce but eventually does nothing about it.

And what about her? Where did her energy come from? Where did she find what it took to want to be alive?

It came from hoping, it was as straightforward as that. But her hope was not yet a bright song of spring. It was a deep bass tone that followed her around. Even when it was barely audible it was still there, at the bottom of things. If she listened only superficially, she would have thought it was grief.

“December is a Cruel Month” is a heartbreaking story on grief, loss, the tender and often tense relationships between parents and their children. Here’s how the story begins…

It was the tenth of December, early evening. The time was twenty minutes to seven and the Co-op had closed. The delivery boy had gone home, the till ladies had gone home, the store manager had gone home. But the lights were still on inside. The girls’ mother hadn’t gone home.

The mother is all set to close up and head home, but then notices the refrigerator where blood from the meat stored inside has seeped onto the floor. The mother decides to clean up the mess before shutting shop, which automatically means that she would arrive home later than usual.

Since her husband is also compelled to work that evening, the woman’s daughters are all alone home engrossed in craftwork – “Marianne, who was eight years old, the eldest and cleverest of the two, had learned how to fold stars. Hanne, five, was glueing paper chains.”

When the mother fails to arrive at her usual time, Marianne is disconcerted and decides to walk all the way to the Co-op to find out why she has been held up. Hanne tags along. The mother chides them for leaving the house, telling them to run along, that she would join them shortly. The girls deliberately take a longer detour on their way home, gazing with wonder at the brightly lit shops dotting the streets, confident that once they are home their mother will be there waiting. But she never returns.

Running parallel to this story is that of the Knudsens – husband and wife who run the Co-op store where the mother works. We learn that the Knudsens are a respected couple who go about their lives with a calm demeanor, but inwardly they despair at the doings of their wayward son. These two storylines then collide and the Knudsens are confronted with a tough decision.

The titular story, “A Postcard for Annie” is another dark, evocative piece on mental illness, chance encounters, the unexpected blossoming of love and its subsequent pitfalls. Mie is a young woman of nineteen staying in a room she shares with two other women, Bodil and Annie; a room she has grown fond of, “from where when she opened her dormer window, leaned over the sill, and poked her head out, she could see the red rooftops of Trojborg, the woods and the bay of Aarhus Bugt.”

One day, while waiting for a bus, the sight of a woman clad in a nightgown and slippers traversing the streets in the freezing cold greatly disconcerts Mie and her attempts to help the woman end in naught. Subsequently, a tragic accident follows which affects Mie deeply and she is further distraught when a young man she had noticed waiting at the same bus stop, harshly judges her for her actions or lack of them. She walks off from him in a huff, but then Mie is gripped by the power of making a sudden decision – will it turn out to be a good sign or a misguided step?

“Mother and Son”, my favourite of the lot, focuses its lens on a troubled mother-son relationship highlighted by an atmosphere of menace and suspense.

And now this evening, sitting with her family in the kitchen, with her husband, Thomas, and their fourteen-year-old youngest son, Esben, and with Malthe, the eldest at twenty, who has come to visit. It’s not often the four of them are all together. Theirs is a fatigued family, familiar with misfortune, but Lisbet’s love springs forth at the slightest opportunity and flushed with food and wine she can’t help herself from touching her sons, even though she knows they’ll pull away.

Malthe is at that difficult age where he is adult enough to decide for himself how he wants to lead his life, and yet Lisbeth cannot pull away, she often frets. Malthe is a cocky, aggressive young man, rude to his autistic younger brother, disrespectful towards his father and often locked in heated verbal exchanges with Lisbeth who relentlessly pounds him with questions.

Malthe, being restless, is unable to stick to a job for long, much to the frustration of Thomas and Lisbeth, but he is their eldest son and Lisbeth loves him. In one of their many fraught conversations, Lisbeth is horrified to realize that Malthe has unwittingly involved himself in a particularly unsavoury situation and she agonizes over its possible consequences.

In an “An Argument”, a married woman, as the title suggests, argues with her husband on how the physical intimacy between them has deteriorated, while “In My Hometown”, the last story in the collection, is a short piece told in the first person about village secrets, the private lives that people lead and how we don’t know people as well as we think we do.

These are chronicles of troubled marriages featuring aloof husbands and lonely wives; of imperfect families burdened with good-for-nothing sons; of imprudent decisions, thwarted desires, complex parent-child bonds underlined by fiery exchanges, and love and desire in its myriad guises…piercing, understated stories that surprise the reader because they  unfurl in unexpected ways.

One of the striking themes of this collection is the passage of time; an aspect that is depicted by the seamless jumps in time periods in the narratives – a story might begin in the present and a series of flashbacks take us back to the characters’ past; or a paragraph might end at a crucial juncture in the present, the reader is not sure where he/she is being led, and in the next paragraph we find that the story has taken a leap forward by many years with the happenings in the intervening years outlined in a few sentences.

Each of these six tales are drenched with a quiet beauty, marked by the author’s penetrating gaze into her characters’ outer lives and their innermost feelings; characters who display an outward exterior of eerie calm akin to the surface of a glassy, pristine lake that hides the raging currents and turmoil underneath. These are ordinary people who wrestle with a gamut of emotions – anger, frustration, grief, worry, despair often alternating with love in its many avatars, joy and desire. 

A Postcard for Annie, then, is a wonderful book with its nuanced, subtle portrayal of themes often reminding us that life is not always perfect and how the act of compromise, unique to every form of relationship, is what ultimately compels us to move on.

WIT Month: Some Excellent Books from Scandinavia & The Baltics

August is Women in Translation (WIT) Month, and last week I wrote a post on some of my favourite reads from Japan, Korea & China. In today’s piece, I will focus on Scandinavia and The Baltics.

A CHANGE OF TIME by Ida Jessen (tr. Martin Aitken)

Set in a rural Danish village in the early 20th century, A Change of Time is a beautiful, quiet and reflective novel told through the diary entries of a schoolteacher called Frau Bagge. The novel begins when her husband, Vigand Bagge, a mocking and cruel man, and who is also a respected village doctor, passes away. Subsequently, the novel charts her response to his death and her attempts to build herself a new life, find herself a new place and identity and discover meaning in life again. An exquisitely written novel.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved.

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. 

THE ANTARCTICA OF LOVE by Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss. The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered. We follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife.

Thus, the narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.

The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing – prose that is haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty.

THE SUMMER BOOK by Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

A lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters. Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways.

LOVE by Hanne Orstavik (tr. Martin Aitken)

Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.

From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.

Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.

THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)

I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:

“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”

The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.

SOVIET MILK by Nora Ikstena (tr. Margita Gailitis)

The first in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series, Soviet Milk is a poignant tale of a mother and her daughter and the difficult life they are forced to live in Latvia, which is under Soviet occupation. It explores the notion of motherhood, oppression, the freedom to choose one’s calling in life and the frustration of living in exile.

The novel is set over a period of time – from 1944 to the fall of the Berlin Wall – and is narrated in the first person and alternates between the central character (the mother) and her daughter. The characters are not named and to us they are referred to as the mother, the daughter and the grandmother.

Despite her mother’s moods and descent into depression, the daughter is more positive and pragmatic as she goes about her life. She also finds relief in the strong attachment she shares with her grandmother and step grandfather. Yet, her beliefs in the State are tested when under the tutelage of a brilliant teacher, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of knowledge and ideas.

SHADOWS ON THE TUNDRA by Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

In those horrific days of the Second World War, Dalia and her family (mother and brother), along with a host of fellow Lithuanians were deported to Siberia to work in labour camps there. In a harsh and tough environment, where blizzards recurred often, the weather was bitingly cold, and where the living conditions were ghastly, Dalia survived that period on true grit, hope, and sheer willpower.

She wrote her memories on scraps of paper and buried them in the garden, fearing they might be discovered by the KGB. They were not found until 1991, four years after her death. Shadows on the Tundra is the story that Dalia buried, and is the second book in Peirene’s excellent ‘Home in Exile’ series.

A Month of Reading – June 2022

June turned out to be an excellent month of reading in terms of quality; a mix of short stories, 20th century literature and memoir/biography. All the books were great, ones I would highly recommend. As I mentioned in my May 2022 reading post, I am lagging a bit in my Pilgrimage reading, and finished Interim in June with plans of hopefully catching up in the coming months.

So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first three you can click on the links.

THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE by Elizabeth Jenkins

The Tortoise and the Hare is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing.

Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. She is blessed with beauty and charm, qualities that first attracted Evelyn to her, but it is pretty apparent early on that she plays second fiddle in their marriage. And then there is Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village. Blanche is about the same age as Evelyn and in the eyes of Imogen, an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude.

Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn begin an affair with Blanche, a development that pushes Imogen into a state of crisis.

The Tortoise and the Hare, then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing; infused with psychological depth that makes the book so utterly compelling. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head –  an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead.

THE TROUBLE WITH HAPPINESS & OTHER STORIES by Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of her insecurities to spill out. In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl, while “One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved.

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with her. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Ditlevsen’s terrific memoir Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. 

LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN by Celia Paul

Letters to Gwen John is a stunning meditation on the creative process, women making art, the pleasures of solitude, living life on your own terms, ageing and loneliness.

It’s an imagined conversation between two artists – Gwen John and Celia Paul – born in different eras, and yet sharing striking similarities in terms of relationships and their approach to art. A wonderful blend of artistic biography, memoir and the epistolary form, Celia Paul addresses her letters to Gwen John giving readers insight into various facets of their personalities. For Celia Paul these letters are homage to an artist with whom she feels a kinship and a spiritual connection, a guiding light particularly during some challenging moments.

Interspersed with sublime paintings by both artists, Letters to Gwen John is an exquisitely produced book and a pleasure to read. The scope is wide-ranging and there is both a historical and contemporary feel to the narrative – from Gwen’s life at the turn of the 20th century to the global Covid pandemic and lockdown.

INTERIM (PILGRIMAGE 2) by Dorothy Richardson

Interim is the fifth installment in Dorothy Richardson’s extraordinary Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, and The Tunnel

The first thing that’s different about Interim is that we don’t see Miriam arriving at a new place to begin a new position as was the case in the previous four novels. During the entire course of Interim, Miriam continues to be in London, staying at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street and working at the Orly dental practice on Wimpole Street.

These different series of jobs in the earlier novels introduced Miriam to newer people, and it would be natural to assume that her staying put at Mrs Bailey’s would mean a status quo as far as her social life goes. Quite the contrary, it turns out. Miriam’s circle of acquaintances in fact widens primarily because of Mrs Bailey’s decision to house boarders introducing her to a wide array of people from beyond England.

Thus, we are introduced to Mr. Antoine Bowdoin, a Frenchman interested in music, the violinist Mr Gunner, a Spanish Jew Mr Bernard Mendizabal, and four Canadian doctors who are also studying, one of whom Dr von Heber is romantically interested in Miriam.

Introverted and comfortable in her solitude, Miriam struggles with the hustle bustle of the boarders early on, although gradually she begins to socialize with them lured by the promise of newer ideas and worldviews. 

But this is also a phase in Miriam’s life when she feels at home in London, a period that sees her dabble in a range of cultural experiences the city has to offer. She finds the lectures on Dante thought-provoking, attends a musical evening hosted by Mr Bowdoin, as well as Sunday concerts, and even finds refuge in a restaurant run by Donizetti Brothers.

The little man was sitting writing with a stern bent face at a little table at the far end of the restaurant just in front of a marble counter holding huge urns and glass dishes piled with buns and slices of cake. He did not move again until she rose to go when he came once more hurrying down the aisle. Her bill was sixpence and he took the coin with a bow and waited while she extricated herself from the clinging velvet, and held the door wide for her to pass out. Good evening thank you very much she murmured hoping that he heard, in response to his polite farewell. She wandered slowly home through the drizzling rain warmed and fed and with a glow at her heart. Inside those frightful frosted doors was a home, a bit of her own London home.

The presence of boarders at Mrs Bailey’s from different countries and different walks of life also offers Miriam the enticing prospect of knowledge and debate – for instance, the earlier chapter sees her argue with Mr Mendizabal on the concept of “Cosmopolis”, an idea he dismisses.

Miriam found herself in the midst of a train of thought that had distracted her during her morning’s work. Cosmopolis, she scribbled in her note-book. The world of science and art is the true cosmopolis. Those were not the words in “Cosmopolis” but it was the idea. Perhaps no one had thought of it before the man who thought of having the magazine in three languages. It would be one of the new ideas. Tearing off the page she laid it on the sofa-head and sat contemplating an imagined map of Europe with London Paris and Berlin joined by a triangle, the globe rounding vaguely off on either side. All over the globe, dotted here and there were people who read and thought, making a network of unanimous culture. It was a tiring reflection; but it brought a comfortable assurance that somewhere beyond the hurrying confusion of everyday life something was being done quietly in a removed real world that led the other world. People arrived independently at the same conclusions in different languages and in the world of science they communicated with each other. That made Cosmopolis.

But more importantly, the innate foreignness of these boarders fascinate her, rousing her interest in varied cultures and the manner in which they differ from the English way of life. Here, she reminisces about her German sojourn as a governess (in Pointed Roofs), as well as a holiday in Ostend of which we are given a brief glimpse.

Miriam is also exposed to the wonders of café life – the smoking, exotic food and wines, and an overall air of gaiety and bonhomie.

Ruscino, in electric lights round the top of the little square portico, like the name of a play round the portico of a theatre, the sentry figure of the commissionaire, the passing glimpse of palm ferns standing in semi-darkness just inside the portico, the darkness beyond, suddenly became a place, separate and distinct from the vague confusion of it in her mind with the Oxford Music Hall; offering itself, open before her, claiming to range itself in her experience; open, with her inside and the mysteries of the portico behind … continental London ahead of her, streaming towards her in mingled odours of continental food and wine, rich intoxicating odours in an air heavy and parched with the flavour of cigars, throbbing with the solid, filmy thrilling swing of music. It was a café! Mr. Mendizabal was evidently a habitué…

…In a vast open space of light, set in a circle of balconied gloom, innumerable little tables held groups of people wreathed in a brilliancy of screened light, veiled in mist, clear in sharp spaces of light, clouded by drifting spirals of smoke. They sat down at right angles to each other at a little table under the central height. The confines of the room were invisible. All about them were worldly wicked happy people.

…She could understand a life that spent all its leisure in a café; every day ending in warm brilliance, forgetfulness amongst strangers near and intimate, sharing the freedom and forgetfulness of the everlasting unchanging café, all together in a common life. It was like a sort of dance, everyone coming and going poised and buoyant, separate and free, united in freedom. It was a heaven, a man’s heaven, most of the women were there with men, somehow watchful and dependent, but even they were forced to be free from troublings and fussings whilst they were there … the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest … she was there as a man, a free man of the world, a continental, a cosmopolitan, a connoisseur of women. 

On the personal front, Miriam is excited to meet her elder sister Eve, who has left her job as a governess at the Green residence to take up a position of an assistant in a London flower shop, an excitement that gives way to disappointment (I think?), and she also briefly meets Jan and Mag, the independent women we are introduced to in the Tunnel, and who were some of my favourite characters.

But there’s a sense that Miriam still has a lot to learn about people, and her naiveté particularly becomes apparent in the later chapters, when her actions are grossly misunderstood by one of the boarders.  

One of the pleasures of Pilgrimage, for me at least, has been Dorothy Richardson’s evocative descriptions, be it nature or interior decors; surroundings which heighten Miriam’s sense of well-being and indicate the joys to be found in the everyday. Here is a passage from the earlier chapters when Miriam is staying for a short while with the Blooms (her friends Grace and Florrie, who were also her students in Backwater), and their aunt Mrs Philps.

Miriam emerged smoothly into the darkness and lay radiant. There was nothing but the cool sense of life pouring from some inner source and the deep fresh spaces of the darkness all round her. Perhaps she had awakened because of her happiness… clear gentle and soft in a melancholy minor key a little thread of melody sounded from far away in the night straight into her heart. There was nothing between her and the sound that had called her so gently up from her deep sleep. She held in her joy to listen. There was no sadness in the curious sorrowful little air. It drew her out into the quiet neighbourhood…misty darkness along empty roads, plaques of lamplight here and there on pavements and across house fronts … blackness in large gardens and over the bridge and in the gardens at the backs of the rows of little silent dark houses, a pale lambency over the canal and reservoirs. 

I enjoyed Interim, but must admit that to me it paled in comparison to The Tunnel, which was much more rich, vibrant and interesting, and therefore a better reading experience even though it was the longest novel. On to Deadlock next!

That’s it for June. I began July with the brilliant Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks as well as Tess Slesinger’s wonderful collection of stories, Time: The Present. I also plan to read the sixth and seventh books from the Pilgrimage series – Deadlock and Revolving Lights.