Salka Valka – Haldór Laxness (tr. Philip Roughton)

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

THAT HAUNTING OPENING SCENE…

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

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

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

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

ESSENCE OF PLOT & STRUCTURE

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

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

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

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

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

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

RICHLY DRAWN, COMPLEX CENTRAL CHARACTERS

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

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

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

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

PANOPLY OF THEMES

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

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

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

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

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

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

STARK WEATHER – A FORCE IN ITS OWN RIGHT

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

AN EPIC NOVEL, EXPANSIVE IN SCOPE

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

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

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

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

IN A NUTSHELL…

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

The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington

Originally published in 1974 and reissued by NYRB Classics in 2020, Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet had been languishing on my shelf for more than a year (I could say that for most of the books that keep streaming into the house endlessly) and it was Kim McNeill on Twitter and her excellent #NYRBWomen23 reading challenge (there are many gems on that list) that finally prompted me to pick it up.

If you thought a story centred on a 92-year old protagonist was bound to be dull and depressing, think again. Leonora’s Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet is a delicious romp, a stunning feat of the imagination and an iconoclastic book if you will that refuses to be pigeonholed into convenient definitions and genres; and in Marian Leatherby, the nonagenarian in this superbly off-kilter tale, Carrington has created an unconventional heroine who is charming, feisty and memorable.

The book begins in a quiet, residential neighbourhood on the outskirts of an unnamed Mexican city where Marian Leatherby, our narrator, resides with her son Galahad, his wife Muriel and their 25-year old unmarried son Robert. It soon becomes clear that Marian is not welcome in that house; the family considers her an embarrassment. Marian has been allotted a room that opens into a little garden and she pretty much keeps to herself for larger parts of the day hardly venturing into the main house. She seems content in her own little world with a couple of cats, a red hen and her fanciful daydreaming to occupy her time. She also enjoys the company of her spirited and loquacious friend Carmella with her penchant for conjuring up unrealistic and improbable schemes and ideas.

“Men are very difficult to understand,” said Carmella. “Let’s hope they all freeze to death.”

One day, Carmella in a considerable state of excitement gifts Marian a hearing trumpet she purchased in a market.

When Carmella gave me the present of a hearing trumpet she may have foreseen some of the consequences. Carmella is not what I would call malicious, she just happens to have a curious sense of humour. 

It’s a thing of beauty (“encrusted with silver and mother o’pearl motives and grandly curved like a buffalo’s horn”), and with its aid Marian’s hearing is now amplified to such a degree that she can hear conversations hitherto inaccessible to those with normal hearing. Until one day, she inadvertently chances upon a conversation between Galahad, Muriel and Robert plotting to dislodge her from their house and park her in an old age home much against her true wishes.

Marian internally seethes but realises that resistance is futile and resigns to her fate. When the family finally arrives at the old age home, Marian is completely taken by surprise; the institution (the building itself and the area around) run by the overly pious Gambit couple gives the impression of an enchanting medieval castle quite unlike the bleak, cheerless structure she had envisaged.

First impressions are never very clear, I can only say there seemed to be several courtyards, cloisters, stagnant fountains, trees, shrubs, lawns. The main building was in fact a castle, surrounded by various pavilions with incongruous shapes. Pixielike dwellings shaped like toadstools, Swiss chalets, railway carriages, one or two ordinary bungalows, something shaped like a boot, another like what I took to be an outsize Egyptian mummy. It was all so very strange that I for once doubted the accuracy of my observation. 

Marian soon begins to settle in, gets introduced to her fellow residents, finds herself entangled in various adventures and is caught up in the fascinating life of an abbess. Indeed, in the middle of the book, the story goes back several centuries in time to a convent where this Abbess takes centrestage, an iron-willed woman with her proclivity for unimaginable luxuries and riches, an unconventional way of life and her daring quest to restore the Holy Grail back to the Goddess of Venus. Also enmeshed in the story are Marian’s reminisces, her carefree childhood spent in the company of her mother “who had lived a constant round of dizzy pleasure” that involved trips to Paris, Biarritz, Monte Carlo, Sicily and so on.

Murder and mystery, cross-dressing, hunger strikes, rebellion, midnight dancing and revelries, poetic riddles and the spectre of a looming frozen apocalypse are only a few of the smorgasbord of ingredients that spice up everyday life at the old age home.

How will this all end? In a deliciously unexpected way in what is a highly original story in the first place, reveling in taking the reader down surprising paths right from the very beginning.

There are so many facets to The Hearing Trumpet that makes it such a captivating read, the first and foremost being the characters. Marian Leatherby is a terrific creation; she may be hard of hearing but has lost none of her zest for life.

Here I must say that all my senses are by no means impaired by age. My sight is still excellent although I use spectacles for reading, when I read, which I practically never do. True, rheumatics have bent my skeleton somewhat. This does not prevent me taking a walk in clement weather and sweeping my room once a week, on Thursday, a form of exercise which is both useful and edifying. Here I may add that I consider that I am still a useful member of society and I believe still capable of being pleasant and amusing when the occasion seems fit.

She is, of course, distressed at the prospect of spending the rest of her days in an old age home, uprooted from the life she had grown used to, separated from her pets and her friend Carmella, but she takes it in her stride, and keeps her mind open to new experiences at the institution, even to new adventures of which there are plenty. Then there’s Georgina Sykes, an elegantly dressed woman (at least to Marian), irreverent and opinionated who has caught Mr Gambit’s fancy much to the chagrin of Mrs Gambit and is often involved in a hilarious slinging match with the grating, phony and self-righteous Natacha Gonzalez.

“Georgina Sykes is an obscene old woman,” said Natacha with unction. “She is a sex maniac and ought not to be allowed to mix with the other members of the community. She warps their minds.”

“I shall have to talk to her at once,” said Gambit in extreme agitation. “This might ruin the reputation of the whole Institution!”

“That is not all,” added Natacha. “She insulted me outrageously. Naturally I hurried to her bungalow to transmit the Message, with all the purity of mind I have cultivated for my Mission. Georgina,’ I said gently, ‘I have a message for you.’ She replied very rudely, saying: ‘If it’s a message from Heaven stuff it up your something or other.’ 

Mrs Gambit leads a self-improvement cult at the institution, bizarre as hell, with its emphasis on dodgy principles of Christianity and goodness. Other characters include the meek Maude Wilkins who unwittingly finds herself at the centre of a sinister plot, the imposing Vera Van Tocht, the overburdened Anna Wertz with her propensity to chatter away, the painter Veronica Adams who practices her art on reams of toilet paper and the Marquise with her tales of war and the battlefield. Last but not the least is the fiery Abbess whose tale wonderfully leaps off the pages for both Marian and the reader.

Yet despite its leanings towards fantasy, humour and banter, there are a variety of timeless themes that form the nucleus of the book. Growing old is, of course, one of them, and the way Marian is considered a burden to her son and daughter-in-law reflected in the cold manner in which she is treated is a grim reminder of the heartaches of old age. The Abbess is a symbol of feminism – her leadership skills and daring exploits, however dubious, is a breath of fresh air in a world and time largely dominated by men. The book also explores politics – the powerplay, hierarchy, scheming and favouritism rampant in the old age home is akin to the deceptively simple environment children experience in school (they say old age is like second childhood, don’t say?) and palpable even in the complex world of adults.

The Hearing Trumpet could be considered an extension of Carrington’s identity as Surrealist artist; the novel is a unique montage of styles and genres that resist the laws of conventional narration to brilliant effect. Indeed, Carrington’s creative vision is laced with its own interior logic – daydreams blend with reality in a sort of homage to Surrealism; historical fiction, comedy, fantasy and an embedded narrative (the literary equivalent of a Russian doll) effortlessly co-exist within the seemingly limitless boundaries of the author’s vivid imagination. A hearing trumpet, a painting of a derisive winking nun, a magic elixir that facilitates levitation to name a few are the hallmarks of Carrington’s delightful flights of fancy; much of the humour comes from Marian’s keen observations on her surroundings and its people as well as the interaction between the oddball residents of the institution; we have a book within a book that transports the reader to the 17th century replete with a maverick, cross-dressing Abbess, plots and intrigues that involve the cultish Knights Templar, Goddess Venus and the Holy Grail.

But that’s not all! The icing on the cake and a lovely surprise are the illustrations peppered throughout the book (her son Pablo Weisz Carrington is the artist) – quirky and playful that perfectly capture the mood and eccentricity of this heady, surreal concoction.

The Hearing Trumpet, then, is a triumph; a novel that radiates charm, joie de vivre and a forceful personality of its own that makes it utterly singular. Highly recommended!

Source: NYRB

Mrs Caliban – Rachel Ingalls

Mrs Caliban was one of the books I had carried with me to a much needed holiday in Goa; the beach, the waves and the leisurely pace of the hours stretching before me only enhanced the joy of reading this terrific book.

About twenty pages into Mrs Caliban, Dorothy Caliban is busy in the kitchen making preparations for dinner. Fred, her husband, has invited a colleague over and the two are in the living room discussing work. This dinner having been sprung on her last minute, Dorothy makes it clear that the party will have to make do with spaghetti and salad and Fred relents. It’s a very ordinary scene – a housewife bustling about in the kitchen, cooking and assembling dishes, but suddenly this very ordinary moment is transformed into something extraordinary. Dorothy whirls around and sees an amphibian creature, a frogman, barging into the kitchen.

She was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face.

This is the very same frogman who has escaped from the research institute he was imprisoned in with repeated warnings given over the radio on how violent he is since he had killed two scientists while breaking free. After the initial flash of shock and fright, Dorothy regains her composure and offers the frogman some celery since he is ravenous and later installs him in a room downstairs, a place that Fred barely visits, and thus a secret Dorothy can keep till she figures out what to do next.

On the strength of such a wonderfully novel idea, Mrs Caliban, then, is a tale of the disintegration of a marriage, love and sexual freedom, grief and loss, friendship and betrayal, and the re-invention of a woman having hit rock bottom.

Our protagonist is Dorothy, a housewife residing in the suburbs of California stuck in a stagnant, loveless marriage. With the unexpected death of their son, Scotty, during a routine operation as well as a miscarriage thereafter, Dorothy is tormented by grief and despair. Her relationship with Fred has reached breaking point. Resentment brews between the two as they silently blame each other for these twin tragedies. The sense of hopelessness has reached a stage where both are too tired to even divorce. And so they stumble along…staring into an uncertain future.

During those days there were times when Dorothy would lean her head against the wall and seem to herself to be no longer living because she was no longer a part of any world in which love was possible.

Dorothy’s days are filled with household chores, frequent shopping trips, cooking meals; tasks that lack variety and signify mind-numbing tedium. The demarcation between days seems blurred pushing her into a state of apathy. A part of her is even aware that Fred is sleeping with other women, but she is now indifferent. She does derive some joy from her friendship with Estelle, a divorced woman with two grown-up children, and the two women often spending time together chatting about themselves and their lives, discussing their problems and providing each other emotional support.

Whenever she was with Estelle, Dorothy became louder, more childish and happier than when she was with anyone else.

But when one day, Larry, the frogman, lands in Dorothy’s kitchen, her life alters unexpectedly and in ways she has not imagined.

Dorothy is aware of Larry’s history from bits she has gleaned from the radio news. Having been captured from the Gulf of Mexico, Larry had been installed at the Jefferson Institute of Oceanographic Research as a specimen for scientific analysis and study. Rebelling against the continuous ill-treatment meted out to him, Larry manages to escape but not before he kills two scientists on his path to freedom.  The institute brands the incident as murder, for Larry it’s an act of self-preservation.

The reader immediately senses the perceptible shift in Dorothy’s circumstances;  a chance for excitement, love and adventure…a development that pushes her head above water, breathing new life into her, just when she was slowly and steadily sinking.  As Larry and Dorothy embark on a passionate affair, her world begins to light up, the days are suffused with colour and there’s a sharp clarity to the way she views the people and situations around her.

There, up in the sky, she noticed for the first time a gigantic mounded cloud, as large and elaborately moulded as a baroque opera house and lit from below and at the sides by pink and creamy hues. It sailed beyond her, improbable and romantic, following in the blue sky the course she was taking down below. It seemed to her that it must be a good omen.

What makes Mrs Caliban unique is not just its unusual premise but also how rich the novel is in terms of themes explored. We learn about the gradual disintegration of Fred and Dorothy’s marriage, and decline in Dorothy’s mental health exacerbated by the death of her son and the miscarriage. It’s a loss she is left to grieve alone; their marriage left in tatters leaves no room for the couple to help each other through this difficult time.

Another theme touched upon is the beauty of new ways of seeing and perceiving things. Being an aquatic creature, his new surroundings are a novelty to Larry. But as Dorothy begins to view the world through Larry’s eyes fuelled by his questions on basic human behaviour and traits, she is forced to think a lot and even question many of the things that she otherwise took for granted or about which she didn’t much care previously.

The novel is also radical in the way it questions gender roles. The Calibans find themselves ensconced in traditional gender stereotypes – Fred earns the income, while Dorothy’s role is reduced to that of a housewife following the same unvarying routine day in and day out. But that changes with the arrival of Larry. With no qualms or knowledge about the pigeonholing of roles, Larry is more than willing to chip in and learn to perform a slew of chores, easing some of the burden off Dorothy. Mrs Caliban is an exploration of love and sexual freedom; Dorothy’s affair with Larry is a revelation to her, and makes her feel alive after years of being trapped in an airless marriage. At a time, when women were expected to put up with their husbands having affairs, Dorothy refuses to follow what’s expected of her by society, choosing instead to seek some modicum of happiness in the manner she deems fit.

Furthermore, the novel is a statement on how society perceives outsiders with contempt and suspicion rather than compassion, inclusiveness and understanding. We are shown how narrowly defined and restrictive the definition of “normal” is, how anything outside that constricted space is immediately looked upon with venom, violence and hate. Being an amphibian man, Larry is branded  an outcast by the scientific community as well as the general population, a creature to be captured and tortured, rather than accepting him for who he is and treating him with more respect. Thus, despite being a tender, caring man, often Larry finds himself pushed into the corner by aggressive behaviour of the people around him and compelled to use violence as the only form of self-defense.

Above all else though, Mrs Caliban is a tale of the re-invention of a woman, her journey from a state of abject depression to that of rejuvenation and self-discovery – an evergreen theme which also forms the essence of another novel I read and loved recently – Tessa Hadley’s wonderful novel Free Love.

Within the broader strange outline of its plot, the novel has an interior logic all its own. In fact, Mrs Caliban is a testament to Ingalls’ excellent storytelling ability that she is able to blend the fantastical with the mundane to greater effect and on the strength of her assured writing the reader is willing to be led along in whichever direction she takes us. The foreword by Irenosen Okojie in my edition highlights how the book has influenced several people in the fields of art and culture – Guillermo del Toro’s award-winning The Shape of Water, particularly, is a prime example. In a nutshell, Mrs Caliban is an excellent novella, a magical, subversive fairytale and its themes of gender stereotypes and the isolation of people who don’t fit in remain relevant even today.

Free Love – Tessa Hadley

I had never read Tessa Hadley before and was all set to begin with her earlier novel The Past widely considered to be the best entry point into her work. But the best laid plans often go awry, and her newest novel Free Love is what I wanted to read first simply because I was fascinated by its premise. Anyway, long story short, I loved this novel.

Set in the 1960s, Free Love is a beautifully constructed novel, a sensual exploration of love, passion, liberation, sexual awakening, and new beginnings.

The book’s protagonist, Phyllis Fischer, is a 40-year old stylish woman, comfortably married and settled. Her husband Roger has a plush job in the Foreign Service and the couple has two children – Colette (the elder one), and Hugh.

When the book opens, the Fischers are all set to welcome their guest who they have invited home for dinner. The person they are expecting is a young man they have never met before – his name is Nicky Knight and he is the son of Roger’s close friends. The Fischers have a well-appointed, cozy home, artistically decorated by Phyllis who has a flair for these things and is now well ensconced in her suburban life. In contrast to Phyllis’ flighty, flirty personality, Roger is more stable and well-grounded, but the couple seems to get along fairly well. They do have their disagreements though. One point of contention revolves around their son’s education. Roger believes that a stint in a boarding school will go a long way in shaping up Hugh’s character and career, while Phyllis sees no reason why his current life must be disrupted.

Phyllis is close to her son, but shares a volatile bond with Colette, her awkward but intelligent teenaged daughter. In terms of physique, Colette is ungainly but what she lacks in looks, she more than makes up for in intelligence.

Her father’s intelligence was so much stronger than her mother’s, Colette thought; yet it was the slippery labyrinth of her mother’s mind – illogical, working through self-suggestion and hunches according to her hidden purposes – which was closed to Colette, and therefore more dangerous for her.

And then there is Nicky, who has not turned up at the Fischer residence yet. Nicky does not look forward to the evening at all; he has merely accepted the dinner invitation on his mother’s insistence. He finally announces his presence at the Fischer home, terribly late, just when the family has already started dinner without him. Nicky, with his revolutionary bent and left leaning outlook, is contemptuous of the world in which the Fischers move, their bourgeoisie living and staid, conservative ideas. Dinner is a fraught affair with Nicky openly airing his radical views, and while Colette remains sullen throughout the meal, Roger is keenly interested in what Nicky has to say.  Phyllis is her old, flirty self but suddenly becomes self-conscious when Nicky inadvertently makes her feel her age.

It’s only when the party embarks on a bizarre expedition to retrieve a neighbour’s son’s slipper from the pond that things take a quick and unexpected turn. Nicky and Phyllis kiss passionately setting in motion a chain of events that will throw the Fischer family life upside down.

What had been unthinkable yesterday, now felt inevitable and necessary: she saw that she was capable of being two contradictory things at once, wife and lover. The two sides existed as separate sealed chambers, both were necessary to her, only she had the key to both – how could that harm anyone?

Phyllis and Nicky, enamoured with each other, become immersed in a passionate affair, despite the significant age gap. For Nicky, with a trail of desultory, half-hearted relationships behind him, sex with an experienced woman like Phyllis is a revelation. For Phyllis, whose sex life with Roger borders on the awkward, the affair with Nicky is bracing and gives her a sense of liberation.

His lascivious uninhibited gaze was as arousing, almost, as if he touched her. She had never been seen like this before, or allowed herself to be seen, without any ironic deflection: not with Roger, nor that other man. Getting his pleasure, Nicky was so heedless and unconstrained – so that she, too, was unconstrained, and didn’t care how he saw her. Married love was too kind, she thought, it hovered on the threshold of this knowledge and never went inside, never took the necessary liberties.

But what is the price that Phyllis will pay for this newfound sliver of freedom?

Free Love, then, dwells on the themes of reinvention, the thrill of new experiences, new beginnings, rediscovering oneself, defying conventions, and a woman’s choice to carve out an identity for herself separate from family.

Phyllis becomes increasingly drawn to Nicky’s bohemian world which is a stark contrast to her dull, orderly existence where beauty and polite conversations take precedence over ideas and new ways of thinking.

As the novel progresses, Phyllis’ relations with her family, unsurprisingly, undergo a sea of change; with the children, particularly, it reverses. Her son, the apple of her eye, disapproving of the path Phyllis has chosen, becomes increasingly estranged from her. Colette, visibly shaken by the breakdown of her family, feels unmoored and adrift, and yet slowly begins to bond with her mother. Roger is angry with Phyllis for throwing him into an embarrassing situation, and puts on an impenetrable exterior that only alienates his children. Struck by the difficulty in communicating his feelings, he struggles to cope, but then finds solace in an unexpected quarter.

Based on the premise alone, Free Love could easily have been a run-of-the-mill kind of a novel, but it is not…it’s quite the opposite. The maturity and elegance of Hadley’s writing lends the book a special quality, and there’s something deliciously luxurious about her prose that makes it a pleasure to read, the sort of book that you can just sink into.

The characters are well-developed, fully realized…they are flawed and deeply humane as they struggle to navigate an uncertain future fuelled by the disintegration of their old world. Various facets of their personalities – desires, fears, hopes, secrets – are so sensitively presented, but Hadley never judges them. The point is not to dwell on their faults, as much as it is to delicately depict the differing perceptions of each of her characters as they grapple with a common dilemma. Hadley’s warmth, wisdom and understanding are on full display here as she beautifully renders the turmoil raging in her characters’ inner and outer lives.

In a nutshell, Free Love, is a profound meditation on the importance of a meaningful existence, and how that definition can mean different things to different people. Highly recommended.

Checkout 19 – Claire-Louise Bennett

In 2016, I was highly impressed by Pond, a book that featured on my Best of 2016 list that year. Not surprisingly, I was really looking forward to Checkout 19, and was lucky to procure a signed copy from the Blackwell’s UK website.

Checkout 19, Claire-Louise Bennett’s latest offering, is a difficult book to write about. It’s a dazzling feat of imagination, smart and profound, a book that defies the conventional methods of categorizing. Is it a novel? Is it a compilation of short stories? It can’t be neatly slotted into either of the two, but it most certainly is an unforgettable experience, and the one pulse that throbs throughout its pages is our love for books and literature.

The book comprises a total of seven pieces. I began the book thinking that these are seven different chapters, but on progressing further, I noticed many themes and motifs that are intertwined, denying it the neat classification of a short story collection. However, for the purposes of this review, I will focus on some of the pieces separately, because I don’t know how else to approach it.

In the first piece called ‘A Silly Business”, the narrative voice is first person plural (as if they are complicit with the reader) and we are immediately plunged into Bennett’s highly original writing, as our narrator begins talking about books and our attitude towards them. She highlights how we go to a library, pull out six to eight books, and once we have them, we can’t really get engrossed in them. Once we begin reading a book, we immediately begin to wonder what lurks in the pages of the other tomes.

It really was just the same no matter which book we picked up. As long as there were other books we thought about the sorts of words they might contain non-stop and were thus precluded from becoming engrossed with the very book we had in our hands. The very book. A silly business. Yes, it was a silly business.

Bennett, then, dives into our narrator’s childhood love for reading, how the books she read had an aura of exclusivity about them, a hobby greatly encouraged by her mother, and yet there was a hidden corner in the house which displayed a row of books that were out of bounds for young readers. It didn’t stop our narrator from secretly opening this cupboard with mixed feelings of curiosity and anxiety, and pulling out a book – “We were looking at things that were no business of ours. Illicit things.”

In the second piece called ‘Bright Spark’, our narrator elaborates on her deep craving for solitude, and the crush she has on her English teacher, Mr Burton, highlighting how he is a critical force in her school years, encouraging her talent as a writer and in a way laying a foundation for her career. She adores him, his classes are lively and exciting, but she hates how he is seemingly quite pally with the boys, a sort of male bonding that excludes her. She wonders about his life outside the classroom. Then, one day, he fails to appear for a class and his place is taken by a substitute teacher who is no patch on Mr Burton. In a fit of boredom, our narrator begins doodling on the back of her exercise book, and failing to capture Mr Burton’s facial features in an attempted drawing, she begins to feverishly pen a story. Mr Burton later chances upon it and a bond is formed.

He was with me very strongly when I lay in the dark, it was almost as if I was made of him. Writing could do that. Here was a way of reaching someone, of being with them, when you were not and never could be. Here was where we met. Here was where the distinction between us blurred. When he returned my story to me the following Tuesday the paper was covered with him – touching it was like touching his skin.

The third piece, ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, the longest and my favourite of the lot, is a remarkable fusion of fantasy and reality dotted with a dazzling array of authors and books which played an important role in shaping our narrator’s world. Our narrator tells us how when she was in her twenties, she penned the story of Tarquin Superbus – “a very elegant sort of man who lived in a very elegant European city sometime in a previous century.” The era is never defined, but when he is having conversations with the Doctor, our narrator imagines “gentlemen in the mid-1800s so to speak – byzantine, comical and portending.” Where is his apartment situated? Vienna possibly, but Venice seems apt – “if his grasp on reality is a little shaky to say the least, Tarquin Superbus is in Venice, because, after all, what reality is there to be found in Venice?”

Our narrator subsequently chronicles a chain of events in Superbus’ life – his close relationship with the Doctor who looked like Death (“there was nothing inside of him, he was vaporous, empty as a hologram, he achieved movement, not via the mechanism of his body, but by the fact that he consisted of a substance lighter than air – Death.”), but more importantly the central feature in his life which is the acquisition of a large library of books. The possession of such a gargantuan library, at first, makes Superbus a figure of awe and reverence, and he revels in his sense of importance. But this respect quickly gives way to contempt and derision, which begins to trouble Superbus deeply.

When he confides to his close friend the Doctor, the latter enters Superbus’ visually stunning library, begins pulling out various books off the shelves and feverishly turning their pages. He delivers his shocking verdict – all the pages in the books are literally blank, there is not a single printed word.

That is the original outline of the story penned by our narrator in her twenties, an enterprise that is thwarted by an incident revealed in the final pages of this piece.  In later years, however, she adds to it the dramatic revelation by the Doctor…

The pages Tarquin, are all blank, except for one page. Within the collection there is one page that is not blank – at least not entirely. It has upon it one sentence; that’s all, that’s it – one sentence. And this one sentence contains everything. Everything.

In subsequent years, our narrator often goes back to this story, rewriting it and embellishing it with books and authors that have influenced her way of thinking with the result that as a reader what we are reading is a retelling of the Superbus story.

The Doctor provided no explanation of this sort in the story I wrote all those years ago. The pages of Superbus’ library were blank, and that was all there was to it. It seems in the retelling I have got carried away. But then I have read so much and written so much since then it is hardly to be wondered at that in the meantime some ideas pertaining to the potency of the written word, based upon direct and seismic experiences, have been developing inside of me and should find their way out…

It’s a story that acts as a framing device as our narrator then deviates from that path and ventures into a range of topics and life experiences that occupy her thoughts – how women in the earlier century, restricted to the household, were belittled driving them to point of madness; how she is drawn to shadows rather than light citing Tanizaki’s concept of ‘visible darkness’; a boyfriend who mocks her reading choices; a trip to Florence influenced by Foster’s A Room with a View; a journey to Tangier and Fez prompted by Paul Bowles’ life (“what kind of person, who had the kinds of connections and opportunities that Paul Bowles must certainly have had, feels that life in New York would be boring nevertheless?”), how she is of the view that Anais Nin should be read later on in life, “when one has solidified and feels so very sure of themselves and would perhaps benefit from coming undone, from perhaps going out of their minds”, how her boyfriend Dale keeps poetry by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath out of her reach because they committed suicide, and whether she has what it takes to be a writer.

I had read a few books by Francoise Sagan, including “Bonjour Tristesse”, which I discovered she’d written when she was just eighteen, and that threw me into a tizz for a little while because I would have been that exact age when I read “Bonjour Tristesse”, but the things I was writing at that time when I was that age had none of the clarity and assuredness of Sagan’s work, they were autotelic and inscrutable and quite often when I read back over them I didn’t understand them at all, they perplexed and disturbed me, they didn’t tell a story, they expressed confusion and despair and desire and anger, irrepressible forces which issued out of dissonance that existed between my interior life and the world around me, and nobody would want to read that…

In the fifth piece ‘We Were the Drama’, among many things, our narrator recalls her impromptu trip to the seaside city of Brighton, a spur of the moment excursion that considerably distresses her boyfriend Dale. She talks about how she had no idea about Brighton’s best kept secret at the time – Ann Quin, but subsequently comes to love her imaginative work, particularly Berg. She also dwells on how Quin’s working-class circumstances stifle and terrorize her, how her job in a Cornwall hotel is a symbol of mind-numbing tedium. Her travels to the US are a bright spot, but the return to menial work again fills her with dread and consequently compels her to committ suicide. But Ann Quin’s suicide is the not the only one that haunts the pages of this piece, our narrator witnesses another disturbing death of an unknown person in an unfamiliar place that leaves an indelible impression on her mind.

As I said before, the boundaries of genre in Checkout 19 are pretty blurred, but interestingly, the second and third parts (‘Bright Spark’ and ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’) form the nucleus of the book and the subsequent pieces build on the ideas showcased in those two sections so that this could possibly be called a novel with its seemingly disparate pieces bound together by the recurrence of certain themes, motifs, incidents and images. For instance, the man who pushes a book into our narrator’s hand when she is a supermarket cashier assigned to checkout 19, reappears later as a Russian guy who glides through the aisles at the speed of light always pushing the basket in front of him. The increasingly possessive boyfriend Dale who makes his first appearance in ‘Won’t You Bring in the Birds?’, becomes a kind of a central figure in “We Were the Drama.” Glimpses of our narrator’s story that captures the imagination of her English professor in ‘Bright Spark’ are revealed to us in some of the final pieces.

What about our narrator herself, what do we know about her? She is certainly vulnerable, yearns for solitude, is an aspiring writer with a vivid imagination, finds herself in relationships with the wrong men who thwart her creative ambition, who are a disturbing presence in her life. But there are people who also value her love for books and writing, particularly Mr Burton, her mother, her friend Natasha.  

Checkout 19, then crackles with a slew of themes – the pleasures of books and how they can change our perception of the world, the creative process and its vision, feminism and women living life on their own terms, the working class existence, suicide, and so on and so forth. But the real tour-de-force is Bennett’s prose – a stunning spectacle of language and voice that is utterly singular. With her flair for astute observations and an uncanny ability to look deep into your soul, as a reader I often asked myself, “How did she just do that?” On a sentence level, the writing often soars to poetic heights, and I was often spellbound by her creativity and originality.

I’m not sure whether I have done a good job of conveying the mood and essence of this book, but my assertion – that it is poised to be one of my favourites this year – will hopefully compel you to crack open its pages and delve into Bennett’s vibrant world.