The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi (tr. John Bester)

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!

Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.

Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.

In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking task, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.

The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.

The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.  

When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy.  Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.

Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.

Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.

As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another mistress Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.

Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.

Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.

Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.

The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.  

If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s ability as Yukitomo’s manager when it comes to matters relating to handling his plethora of estates and other business matters.

As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.

There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.

Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.

The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.

General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown:  “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”

Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state. 

As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time.

It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.

The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!

Will and Testament – Vigdis Hjorth (tr. Charlotte Barslund)

Will and Testament was my first novel by Vigdis Hjorth and it was just amazing. I now have Long Live the Post Horn to look forward to as well as her latest Is Mother Dead, a copy of which is already on its way to me. But in the meanwhile, this novel will 100% find a place on my best of the year list.

They say that to find a solution to a problem you need to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. How can you find ways to resolve the issue if you are not willing to accept the existence of the very issue that needs resolving? It’s the same with family and relationships. Families can be complex and complicated. Arguments, deep seated resentments and differing points of view can cause cracks in the familial structure that maybe hard to fix. While reconciliation is always a preferred option and healthy communication between various parties is one way of achieving this, what if there are certain instances where this is definitely not an option? Especially, in a scenario where a serious crime in the family has been committed and differing versions of it exist, where the victim’s version is not acknowledged because it challenges the other family members’ sense of self and makes them uncomfortable?

That is the central theme that underlines Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament – a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

Our protagonist is Bergljot, working as a magazine editor in Oslo writing theatre reviews. Bergjlot is now in her late fifties or earlier sixties with three grown up children (Soren, Ebba and Tale) and grandchildren, is in a relationship with a man called Lars and close to her friends Klara and Karen always pillars of support whenever a crisis erupts and she desperately needs someone to talk to.

Will and Testament opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Before his death, the father had made a will leaving the two family cabins at Hvalar to his youngest children Astrid and Asa at very low valuations, a fact that angers Bard the eldest child and only son.

Bard vehemently challenges the terms of the inheritance but he is pretty much contesting a lone battle when the mother, father, Astrid and Asa refuse to budge from their position. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash, having severed contact with the family more than twenty years ago. The modern reader will immediately discern the reason for Bergjlot’s refusal to get entangled – having been abused by the father as a child, the subsequent ordeal and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely cut contact with her family in order to maintain her sanity.

Which is one of the reasons she does not wish to get embroiled in the feud; she thinks if she hasn’t bothered keeping in touch with her family, she cannot expect to be entitled to any inheritance. And yet the unfairness of the entire affair given how inextricably it’s linked with her past, persistently nags her compelling her to finally join the row siding with Bard; the two elder children against their mother and younger siblings.

Bard, a victim of neglect and physical abuse himself, argues about the principle of the matter, that the disagreement over the inheritance is not so much about money as it is about acknowledging the trauma inflicted upon them by their father, a view Bergjlot also shares. Isn’t it fair that he gets entitled to a half of one of the cabins as a form of compensation for a very difficult childhood?

The fractured family dynamics rub off on their children too. Bard’s daughters refuse to have anything to do with their aunts and grandparents, a development that causes the mother much heartache as she fears losing them completely. It’s the same with Bergjlot’s children who also remain ambivalent. Her daughter Tale refuses to attend family gatherings, but Soren and Ebba attend these get-togethers to keep up appearances although these occasions leave them uneasy.

While distribution of the property is a bone of contention in the present, much of the drama takes place in Bergjlot’s past, the root of all the discord in subsequent years. Through much of her growing up years and even post marriage, the abuse remains repressed in Bergjlot, life continues as if it never happened. But what is repressed is bound to resurface later and Bergjlot finally confronts her family only to be stonewalled. Branded as a liar by her mother, the father’s denial and lack of support from Astrid and Asa who choose to remain silent; Bergjlot is finally compelled to cut all contact.

One of the striking aspects of Will and Testament are the superb character studies, Hjorth brilliantly captures the flawed personalities, fears and insecurities of not only Bergjlot but also those of the mother (Inga) and Astrid who are as damaged by the father’s actions but unwilling to admit them.

Bergjlot, particularly, is a richly drawn character struggling to be believed by a family that staunchly refuses to do so. Unsurprisingly and understandably Bergjlot’s scars run deep and manifests in the chaotic way her personal life pans out – she divorces her wealthy, “nice” husband when her children are young because she is deeply in love with an unscrupulous married man, a relationship that also ultimately sours prompting her to finally opt in for psychoanalysis as a step towards healing. Bergjlot’s severing of all ties with her damaged family works to her advantage, but she remains tormented by her mother’s digs and insults about her behaviour and her sisters’ refusal to accept her version of the past. She is deeply conflicted about a family that desperately tries to silence her while at the same time makes her feel guilty about her actions. She is flawed but vulnerable and it’s her dogged insistence on fighting back, on telling her story that lends the novel much of its power.

The mother is also a damaged individual, a woman with only looks to her credit with no money or prospects of her own, at the mercy of her husband, and unable to stand up for her children. Bergjlot’s mother has suspicions of her husband’s crime, but she chooses to look away. Having loved another man herself, that affair comes to nothing, and somewhere deep down she resents Bergljot for taking charge of her life which she considers a rebuke to her own inability to do so. Hjorth often refers to the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen in her depiction of the mother – in Ibsen’s The Doll House, Nora finally decides to abandon her husband and family in an attempt to begin life anew, a path the mother does not have the guts to embark on.

Mum didn’t feel good about herself. Mum was pretty, but had no education, no experience, no money, Mum was Dad’s possession, Dad was proud of his pretty possession, Mum radiated fear. Mum was innocent in the sense that she was inexperienced and naïve. Many men prefer and are attracted to inexperienced and naïve women, simple, childish ones who are easy to impress, awestruck, devoted, sincere, needy, those who don’t use irony, who don’t hold back. Mum was inexperienced, childish and chose to remain a child. If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable. 

Astrid desires the best of both worlds; she wishes her family to reconcile but without acknowledging the event that caused the rupture in the first place. She projects herself as a good person who wants to keep up appearances, and adopt a diplomatic approach towards the matter at hand, without accepting that there are times when you need to take a stand however unpleasant and even if it means a further rift in the family.

That was her mistake, Astrid’s mistake. She claimed to be neutral, but deep down she wasn’t because sweet-talking everyone isn’t being neutral if one party has hurt the other, only she didn’t factor that in or she didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.

Deep down, Astrid and Asa resent Bergjlot because they perceive her to be their parents’ favorite child given the attention they showered upon Bergjlot little realizing the nature of that attention. As grown-ups, Astrid and Asa maintain a strong relationship with their parents, a bond that also results in them benefitting financially, but their closeness with the parents and silence on the ‘unmentionable’ matter makes it very clear to Bergjlot whose side they are on even if they have not explicitly stated it. Asa, interestingly, is not much of a presence in the novel as Astrid, but that is because she does not care about mending relations in the way Astrid desperately does.  

At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. This is a first person account; Bergjlot is the narrator where the repetition of events and episodes reflects her anxious, feverish state of mind as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her. The frenzied internal monologues capture Bergjlot’s distress to brilliant effect, the mounting dread and anxiety she experiences every time she is required to come face to face with her family. The tension palpable in Bergjlot’s voice, a product of her fretful personality lends an intense, gripping quality to the narrative propelling it forward.

If Bergjlot has deliberately abandoned her family, why should she bother what they think? If she has long ago given up the idea of any inheritance, why change her stance? Can such a fractured family ever reconcile when they are so intent on denying her reality and are busy brushing things under the carpet? These are the questions that repeatedly swirl in Bergjlot’s mind and raise pertinent questions about the limits of forgiveness in a family which repeatedly denies the existence of a grave crime.

Was it any wonder that I had felt troubled and ambivalent towards someone who wanted proof and reconciliation at the same time? That was the impossibility, the untruth which had lain unspoken underneath all our conversations, which now turned out to have been nothing but lies.

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic novel, timeless in its themes, and especially relevant given how difficult it is for abused women to come forward and be believed even in the current #MeToo era.

Somebody Loves You – Mona Arshi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trouble with Happiness & Other Stories – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen first came to my attention three years ago with the publication of her remarkable The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three memoirs – Childhood, Youth and Dependency – released in slim, individual volumes by Penguin Classics. I loved that trilogy, some of the best books I read in 2019. Another book called The Faces, a lived experience of mental illness, was also pretty good. And now we have the latest offering, her short story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, another superb book that in terms of content and style pretty much mirrors the trilogy.

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. Just like the previous collections I have reviewed, I won’t focus on all of them but more on those stories that really stood out for me.

In the first story, “The Umbrella”, we are introduced to Helga who “had always – unreasonably – expected more from life than it could deliver.” Helga is presented to us as on ordinary woman having never demonstrated a special talent of any kind.” She is hardworking, accommodating, and quiet and like her girlfriends interested in dancing and men, although she never displays the kind of desperation her friends sometimes do.

Over time, many small infatuations rippled the surface of her mind, like the spring breeze that makes new leaves tremble without changing their life’s course. 

But then Egon comes along, falling hard for Helga and they get engaged. Egon is a mechanic, interested in sports, and not culturally inclined, and yet during their days of courtship he reads poetry, using modes of expression very unlike him. Egon is happy with the fact that he is engaged to a chaste woman. But her first experience of physical intimacy leaves her confused with the sinking feeling that there was nothing very extraordinary about it.  For her parents though, it’s a perfect match, but Helga is beset by uneasiness, the source of which she can’t put a name to.

When she was half asleep, a strange desire came drifting into her consciousness: If only I had an umbrella, she thought. It occurred to her suddenly that this item, which for certain people was just a natural necessity, was something she had dreamed of her whole life. As a child, she had filled her Christmas wish lists with sensible, affordable things: a doll, a pair of red mittens, roller skates. And then, when the gifts were lying under the tree on Christmas Eve, she’d been gripped by an ecstasy of expectation. She’d looked at her boxes as if they held the meaning of life itself, and her hands had shaken as she opened them. Afterward, she’d sat crying over the doll, the mittens, and the roller skates she had asked for. “You ungrateful child,” her mother had hissed. “You always ruin it for us.” 

The umbrella, in many ways, symbolizes a secret desire, a want, and an alternate world that Helga keeps longing for and thinking about, because the reality has turned out to be a disappointment. While her life has all the hallmarks of respectability – a home, husband and child – Helga increasingly becomes indifferent, lost in her inner world. But then, a day dawns when she converts her desire for an umbrella to a reality that has dramatic consequences.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of insecurities to spill out (“A hollow melancholy enveloped her with an unmerciful darkness she could not escape”). Our unnamed woman hears her husband answer the telephone, and tell the person at the other end who is advertising dance classes that his wife doesn’t dance. Nothing wrong with that statement when taken at face value, but for the protagonist it reveals many hidden meanings. We learn that she suffers from a limp that is quite conspicuous when she walks but it soon becomes apparent that this is a childhood torment that she hasn’t completely left behind, ready to resurface at the slightest hint. She is an accomplished woman capable of eloquently speaking on a variety of topics such as art, literature, politics and is married to a man who loves and desires her. So why is she on tenterhooks?

Did he think about it when they were out together? All the time? Had she lulled herself into a false sense of security here, inside the walls of the home they had created together?

In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl. When the story opens, Grete is kneeling on a chair observing her mother put on make-up for a carnival she’s about to attend, a spectacle that completely absorbs the young girls’ attention.  Grete’s father is nearby, seemingly fast asleep, after having worked a night shift, and the mother is anxious about not waking him up. Grete loves her mother’s costume called Queen of the Night that “made a nice crinkling sound when she moved”, the nicest and the most expensive dress in the catalogue. This costume becomes a symbol of how mismatched the couple is, money as always remains a bone of contention.

The cloth for that one had only cost two kroner, but her father, as usual, still had to calculate how many bags of oatmeal or pounds of carrots could have been bought with the money. What nonsense. They had oatmeal and carrots to eat anyway, and her mother didn’t get many chances to enjoy herself, and it wasn’t her fault he was unemployed half the year, so she had to go out and clean for other people.

Grete loves her mother and resents her father taunting her all the time (“Grete was completely convinced that they would be better off if her father wasn’t around”), and the reader observes a brief moment of bonding between father and daughter but that spell is quickly broken.

“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. On one particularly cold morning, a young girl is wearing her new brown winter coat for the first time, in anticipation of a journey she is about to embark on with her father. Her nanny Miss Hansen is inconsolable, and wakes up the girl that morning unable to stop crying. The girl’s mother is also dazed, trying to brace herself for this difficult moment, vaguely aware that she is being judged and secretly admonished by everyone around her. The father is obviously coming to take the young girl away, as previously arranged with his wife, but the girl is unaware of the real circumstances of this ‘so-called trip’ she’s about to take with her father (“Children are so willing to be tricked to avoid the truth they don’t want to hear”).

In “Depression”, another excellent piece, a woman married to her depressed husband, comes pretty close to a nervous breakdown herself. The story opens with Lulu, washing stacked plates at the sink, dead tired after playing the perfect hostess at a house party. The festivities aren’t entirely over yet, her husband Kai, who has smoked and drank copiously, is still regaling his guests, but by this time Lulu could not be bothered. We learn that Kai is suffering from depression, the first bout having lasted five months…

Of course, it was unfortunate, but to her mind it wasn’t the end of the world. And certainly not for him. In the end, she was the one who had to do the heavy lifting.

Lulu is seemingly content and well-adjusted to Kai and his unemployment is not a nagging source of worry because they are supported by his parents financially. But a sense of discontent is gradually looming large within Lulu. Kai is visiting a psychoanalyst but it doesn’t seem to be helping, while the costs of those visits keep mounting. During periods when he manages to cast away the shackles of his mental illness, Kai becomes a transformed person, happy, carefree and eager to socialize. Those moments gladden Lulu but it feels fragile, as if a bomb is ticking, because the next bout of depression could just be around the corner ready once again to drown Kai. Meanwhile, Kai seems to be taking Lulu’s good health for granted, because Lulu often wonders “how he would take it if one day she ‘gave up’!” Until one day, she does come close to breaking point.

Bullying fathers and passive-aggressive behaviour forms the backbone of “The Knife”, another superb story and the first in the second collection. The father in this tale is an overtly cold, rational man who abhors affection and sentimentality.

One of the duties he adopted, for some obscure reason, was to show his family a cool and slightly accusatory tone, which was supposed to express his general attitude toward life, and reinforce his own estimation of himself as a rational person who disdained sentimentality.

He is married to a woman called Esther and they have a young son, although the father is ambivalent towards them, sometimes struck with the thought – “My life would have evolved quite differently if they weren’t around.”

Meanwhile, the father has gifted his son a very special knife, a relic that has passed hands through the generations. And the boy has been warned not to lose it and look after it well. Every Christmas, it becomes a tradition for the son to display the knife to his parents, but one Christmas, the son in a fit of extreme fear and panic is forced to confess that he has lost the knife. The mother senses the fear and immediately takes her son’s side, nonchalantly declaring that the knife is probably just misplaced and bound to turn up soon. The father, however, is livid. But is the father genuinely upset that a family relic has been lost or is he secretly happy at the chance of asserting his authority over his son?

“Anxiety” is an excellent but nerve-wracking tale of a claustrophobic marriage, of a woman distressed by her husband’s tyrannical behaviour only to find her world slowly shrinking. Married to a man who is a light sleeper, our protagonist’s life is defined by the tone of the creaking noises made by the bed on which her husband sleeps or tries to sleep. Gripped by the fear of rousing him and incurring his wrath, the woman is compelled to move around on tiptoe in her own home. Stressed by the momentous effort required to remain quiet, she often longs to just head out and spend time with her sister Henny. Until one day she does. At Henny’s welcoming home, bristling with warmth, noise and children, our protagonist experiences that rare pocket of joy where her doleful existence seems like a surreal dream. But soon it is time to head back home and to the suspense of wondering whether her husband noticed her absence or not…

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 his step-daughter. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of 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. These stories offer readers slices of domestic life in Copenhagen; gloomy, gut-wrenching situations which see her characters teetering on the edge. The women particularly are in a perpetual state of anxiety, paralyzed by an unnamable fear – unhappy in love, gripped by feelings of doom, grappling with stressed financial circumstances and unnerved by insecurities that sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. These haunting, unsettling vignettes, simmering with undercurrents of desire and violence, are made all the more arresting by Ditlevsen’s clear-eyed vision and an honest, lucid writing style that conveys multitudes in a few paragraphs.

It’s a rich, layered collection sizzling with a gamut of themes – mental illness, impact of broken marriages on children, bullying fathers, deteriorating relationships, a longing for happiness that is forever on the fringes seemingly an illusion. The subject matter, reminiscent of The Copenhagen Trilogy, is doled out to us in short, measured doses this time, but the brevity matches the brilliance of those memoirs. Highly recommended!

The Antarctica of Love – Sara Stridsberg (tr. Deborah Bragan-Turner)

Sara Stridsberg first came to my attention when her earlier book The Faculty of Dreams was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. I’ve yet to read that one, but on the strength of The Antarctica of Love, she is definitely a writer to watch out.

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.

The book begins with Inni’s gruesome murder in a stark, bleak area, on the outskirts of civilization, close to a lake, the water as smooth as a sheet of metal. It’s a remote place with not a soul in sight. A slurry pit like a quivering marshland lends the area an eerie, ominous air (“When the engine stopped we sat in silence, surveying the lake’s silvery sheen; a solitary black bird, soaring and dipping over the inky surface, the world’s last bird”). This is the spot where the unnamed murdered has captured and brought Inni, the final hours before her imminent death.

It was the blue hour, the hour when the sun and the moon met and the first tremulous night-time light and vestiges of daylight merged like magical waters and swathed the world in a quivering violet phosphorescence, when everything grew soft and nebulous and all the outlines and shadows melted away.

Inni is not scared though. She is resigned to her fate and possibly even welcomes the prospect of her life being extinguished. A chronic drug addict, she has reached the end of her tether with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to. Death seems like a release.

The murderer does not waste time. He strangles Inni, and cuts her body into pieces. The head is thrown into the slurry pit where it steadily sinks (“mine disappears into the slurry pit with the pink surface, sinking slowly to the bottom; and as it descends, my hair opens out like a little parachute over my head“). The rest of the body is dumped in two white suitcases and left close to the road where they will be eventually discovered.

Perhaps the reason I was already at the end, too soon, far too soon, on this muddy road at the edge of an unknown forest, was because I had no words for who I was and what I had come from. Inside me was voiceless silence, above me only a bare, defenceless sky and beneath ne the earth’s unrelenting gravity, pulling me down.

In The Antarctica of Love, then, Inni is sort of an omniscient narrator because we follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife. 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. Just minutes before her death, when fragments of her past flash before her, the readers are also given a window into her world. At first, we are thrown headlong into a recitation of names the details of which remain hazy. We hear of Raksha and Ivan. We learn of Eskil, drowned many years ago. Shane is mentioned as is Valle and Solveig. These names are meaningless at the beginning, a clearer picture emerges as the tale unfolds, but we immediately get a sense that these are people integral to Inni in the way they shaped up her short life. In other words these are her closest family members whose destinies are very much entwined with hers.

Inni’s parents are Raksha and Ivan, a couple bound in a mercurial relationship. Inni adores Raksha, but her mother’s world is dominated by her passion for Ivan and for drugs. An early tragedy pushes Inni to the edge, a traumatic event that pretty much lays the foundation for how the rest of her life pans out. She and her younger brother Eskil are playing by the river; Raksha and Ivan are somewhere nearby. At a crucial moment, when the three are not looking, Eskil drowns. Attempts to revive him in the hospital are in vain, and Eskil is declared dead.

Everyone weeps apart from me, but something inside me has frozen. It isn’t just the tears, it is something else. A disillusionment so deep, so penetrating, the freezing point of blood, the ultimate Antarctica of love.

Eskil’s death not only affects Raksha and Inni badly, it increases the gulf between them. Inni still craves for Raksha’s love but Raksha remains distant and remote as ever. It’s also around that time that Inni develops an addiction for heroin; the heady rush of the drug coursing through her blood becomes a vehicle to escape a pitiless reality and get lost in a dream world. That steady descent into drugs will blemish her life forever – Inni does experience the joys of falling in love and of motherhood, but those new bonds are fragile; with her inability to remain clean, she is treading on eggshells, paving the way for more tragedy.

The Antarctica of Love, then, is an evocative, unflinching tale of a woman driven to the edge of an abyss from which there is no hope of redemption (“I had sunk deeper into the mire and slime that existed beneath the city, below the earth and asphalt where the filth gathered, in the underground sewers and metro bunkers where people lived like ghosts”).

What’s remarkable about the novel is Inni’s vulnerability – It would be easy to dismiss her as a woman who deserved what was coming to her because of the bad choices she made, but the emotional depth and beauty of Stridsberg’s writing refuses to let the reader judge her so harshly. There are moments when some sections seem repetitive and one wonders whether this is deliberate, given that we are inside the mind of a damaged woman who is plumbing the depths of her memories in recounting her tale…indeed, there’s a part somewhere in the middle of the book where Inni tells us something she’s already told us before and immediately follows up with the line – “but I already told you that, didn’t I?”

One of the themes explored in The Antarctica of Love is the debilitating consequences of parental neglect. Raksha is a self-absorbed mother, with Inni and Eskil for the most part left to their own devices. Inni yearns for her mother’s love, to be the centre of her world…Indeed, even minutes before death, despite Inni having accepted her fate, we witness brief moments of resistance with Inni calling out for Raksha. But the bitter reality of being denied her mother’s care manifests itself deep into Inni’s psyche with the result that this legacy of neglect is something that Inni passes on to her children as well.

It is strange that I fantasise so much about Solveig. I don’t know her and I never have. All I have is those two hours on the maternity ward when she was a tiny bundle of warmth in my arms. But it is easier to think about her than to think about Valle, because I never did her any harm. I kept her safe by making sure she would never need to be with me. For Solveig I did the only thing I could have done, even if Shane could never forgive me for it.

The novel is also a heartrending meditation on fragile familial bonds, loss, death and the momentous effort of pushing forward. The latter is particularly exemplified in how Inni’s parents and her children (her son Valle and her daughter Solveig) try to patch together the tattered fragments of their lives and attempt to move on, however, imperfect or arduous the journey. After years of separation, we see Ivan and Raksha reunite in their grief, and Raksha after having adapted to an independent existence, faces the prospect of being dependent on a man again. We also see the children Solveig and Valle, the latter in particular, try to adapt to their respective foster homes, and build a new life for themselves as they grow into adults.

Death is a potent force in the book, always lurking in the corner – Eskil’s death is the starting point of Inni’s lifelong downward spiral culminating in her own death at the hands of a random man. It’s also a tale seeped in loss and isolation – with death taking away her two children, Raksha is now utterly alone in her old age, while Inni’s unfathomable dependence on drugs isolates her from the world even further. Unable to drastically alter her circumstances, she also experiences the anguish of losing her children, but she harbours hope that they will go on to lead better lives with her not around.

Familial bonds are as frail as bone china, ready to crack at the slightest signal of danger. Raksha and Ivan’s passionate, volatile relationship threatens to engulf them…Inni and Shane love each other deeply but as addicts theirs is a relationship always in peril, of not being able to withstand the pressures that life throws at them.

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. The prose is simply gorgeous and haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty, with that aching melancholic feel to it but also punctuated with glimmers of hope.

The book is lush with a strong sense of place, stark, surreal and even dystopian at times; whether it’s the desolate lake area where Inni meets her end (“The world seemed to be heavy with rain, a world of rain in which the green appeared in sharper focus, a world immersed in water”), or the murky underbelly of a metropolis like Stockholm.

It is an archaic landscape swept by cold, harsh winds; it looks modern but it is ancient. A cluster of islands surrounded by motionless seawater beneath a naked sky. A patchwork of faded facades in yellow and pink with modern buildings made of black steel and glass. Bank headquarters, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks have a futuristic look, but age-old thoughts fill people’s minds, ponderous, inalterable; there are victims, there are perpetrators, there are witnesses, and they all peer down at the ground. The well-heeled live in the centre, as they always have. And the lifeblood of this city circulates around Herkulesgatan and from there to the banks, the money moves in and out of the state, and the architecture framing all of this is raw and cold. Some are doomed to failure, others destined to advance, a certain few will rise above the rest; and you can see the early signs, children defined from the start.

As a victim of parental neglect, trauma, debilitating drug abuse, and eventually murder, Inni’s fate mirrors that of people who live on the margins and sink without a trace; lives that hardly cause a ripple on the surface of the broader world. But Inni does not face that ignominy, through the sheer poetry of Stridsberg’s writing, her life becomes alive and vivid…she transforms into an unforgettable narrator whose heartbreaking, poignant tale will leave a deep impression on our minds.