Some years earlier, I was impressed by the two Manchette novels I had read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad. No reviews on both of them here, because it was in the pre-blog days, but given that quite a few of his books have been published recently, I felt it was time to pick up another one.
Chaos reigns supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. When the book opens, Aimée Joubert, quintessential femme fatale, has left a trail of bodies in her wake, mostly of people belonging to the wealthy and privileged set.
Aimée has a single-minded focus – when on a mission in any particular area, she gathers information on members of the elite society there and leverages it to extract money.
“Well, it’s the same as ever, isn’t it? It seems slow, but actually it is quite fast. Sex always comes up first. Then money questions. And then, last, come the old crimes. You have seen other towns, my sweet, and you’ll see others, knock on wood.”
Aimée is now on her way to a town called Bléville (literally translated as Doughville). Like any other town or city, Bléville has within its folds all strata of society, but Aimée is not interested in the working class obviously, heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhood instead.
Once ensconced in a spacious apartment she finds with the help of moolah-loving realtor, Aimée begins to steadily move around in these upper circles and blend in with them. A series of dinners, openings, bridge games follow and Aimée attends them all, always the cool observer.
At one such opening at a mansion, Aimée spots Baron Jules pissing publicly against the walls of the house. The baron is not at all liked in the town, his reputation is tarnished. A notoriety for voicing frank opinions and a stint in a psychiatric hospital have blemished his image.
We are also introduced to a variety of characters Monsieurs Lorque and Lenverguez, owners of a food factory, and “the pillars of Bléville’s prosperity. There’s Monsieur Moutet, a senior manager at the factory. His wife Christiane Moutet along with Sonia Lorque team up with Aimée for a series of bridge sessions. And then there is Lenverguez’s wife who is carrying on an extramarital affair with Baron Jules.
Aimée, meanwhile, goes about her business in town, attending parties and get-togethers, gathering information on the residents and honing her physical fighting skills. The plot suddenly thickens when a series of fatal food poisonings pushes the town residents to the edge.
When the spotlight glares on the powerful Lorque and Lenverguez, all hell breaks loose and Aimée plans to take advantage of the chaos that ensues.
Aimée is a fascinating character. She is a highly trained killer with gorgeous looks, but romantic entanglements do not interest her. Her past is murky – we learn that she was married, but subsequently killed her husband for abusing her.
“It was a genuine revelation, you see,” said Aimee to the baron. “They can be killed. The real assholes can be killed.”
Her motives seem to be purely driven by money and she has no qualms killing her wealthy victims who have largely risen to the top riding on the waves of corruption and exploitation.
Baron Jules could be labelled as left wing as far as his views go. He hates the town residents with intense fervour and claims to know all about their darkest secrets, although he hasn’t yet revealed any of it. As far as the town is concerned, he is a loose cannon.
“You poor old fool,” said the factory owner. “Nobody dares say it to your face, but I’ll say it: You are not welcome here, you are not invited. You think you can do whatever you like because everyone in Bléville is afraid of you. Well, I’m not afraid of you.” Lorque glanced at the man with the mustache. “Commissioner, throw this man out!”
“I don’t give a fuck!” cried Baron Jules as he was hustled towards the door. “I’ll be back to piss all over the place.”
The commissioner and the servants threw him down the front steps. He rolled into the gutter. “I don’t give a fuck,” he cried once more. “You’re all done for.”
These are some striking, bold set pieces that dot the novel – signature Manchette stuff. For instance, right at the beginning when travelling in a luxury train compartment, Aimée, all alone in her cabin, gorges on pickled cabbage and champagne, strips naked and rubs all the banknotes against her body. It’s the only time we glimpse her taking pleasure in something, in sharp contrast to the cold efficiency she displays otherwise. Then there is the incident of Baron Jules deliberately peeing in public as a mark of scorn, a man who greatly unsettles Aimée and which will later have consequences.
In terms of themes, Fatale explores the dark side of capitalism, and is an indictment of the evils of status and class differences. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the noir is as black as it gets hurtling towards a conclusion that does not leave much room for hope. The madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing – I am particularly reminded of that striking supermarket set piece in The Mad and the Bad.
In a nutshell, Fatale, is another excellent novel from Manchette’s repertoire, well worth a read with a terrific NYRB Classics cover to boot.
I had a good December in terms of reading and managed to finish five books. I also started Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, most of which will definitely spill over to next month, so hopefully it’s a book that will feature in my January 2022 post. Anyway, of the five books this month, my favourites were Small Things Like These, Nightmare Alley and Suite for Barbara Loden.
So, without further ado, here are the books…As usual, for detailed reviews on the first two books you can click on the links, while there are a couple of reviews I plan to put up in January.
Small Things Like These is a quiet, haunting, atmospheric tale that dwells on how kindness can make a difference in people’s lives and how having a purpose can instill a sense of meaning or fulfillment.
This novella is set in a small Irish town and the year is 1985. We are introduced to our protagonist Bill Furlong, a respected coal and timber merchant and a decent man. Bill’s business provides comfortably for him and his family, but the work is physically demanding.
During one of his coal deliveries to the Convent, by chance he comes across a group of women working hard at scrubbing the floor, one of whom walks up to him and implores him to rescue her. The arrival of a nun restores the scene to what it was, but that one fleeting moment unsettles Bill greatly.
The developments at the Convent form the central story arc of this novella and are modeled on the horrific Magdalen laundries that sprung up in Ireland till the late 20th century.
Small Things Like These is a compact gem, a timely reminder of how simple gestures of kindness and empathy are crucial in communities, especially at a time when we live in an increasingly fraught and polarized world.
This book had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…
Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.
The first chapter is striking where our protagonist Stan Carlisle, a magician at the carny show, is mesmerized by the geek in the enclosure, a man who has sunk to the lowest of depths, is akin to a beast biting the heads of chicken. Carlisle subsequently learns that he is a man-made geek, a drunk who can be manipulated by the lure of the bottle. Meanwhile, Stan, an ambitious man, wants to rake in moolah, and we subsequently follow his journey from his days at the carny to becoming a preacher and plunging headlong into full-blown spiritualism where he latches on to wealthy, gullible clients as prey. Until he meets Dr. Lilith Ritter, a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.
Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical. It’s a terrific novel and highly recommended.
FATALE by Jean-Patrick Manchette (tr. Donald Nicholson-Smith)
Chaos runs supreme in Fatale, another delicious, slim, stylish novel from Manchette’s oeuvre. We are introduced to the quintessential femme fatale, Aimee Joubert, a highly trained killer who has left a trail of bodies behind her, mostly of the wealthy and privileged set. Aimee is now on her way to a town called Bleville, particularly heading towards the upscale residential neighbourhoods. Once ensconced in that wealthy set, Aimee sets about putting her plan in motion of extracting money, but a baron with Marxist tendencies veers her from her path.
In terms of themes, Fatale, can be looked upon as a statement on the dark, dirty side of capitalism, and an indictment of status and class privileges. The novella surges ahead at a frenetic pace, and the madness and mayhem depicted within is characteristic of Manchette’s writing, atleast in the two noir books I’ve read – Three to Kill and The Mad and the Bad.
NECKLACE/CHOKER by Jana Bodnárová(tr. Jonathan Gresty)
Necklace/Choker by Jana Bodnárová is among the first titles released from Seagull Books’ newly created Slovak List, one of the books I purchased from its recently concluded excellent Winter Sale.
It’s a book about memories, nostalgia for a way of life that has vanished, the debilitating impact of war on ordinary citizens, the power of art as a means of protest and how it can be snuffed out by totalitarian regimes.
When the book opens, we are introduced to Sara who has returned after a longtime to her hometown in Slovakia, to the bungalow which belonged to her father, the renowned painter Imro. Sara’s return is solely to wrap things up, hand over the bungalow to the municipal authorities to convert it into a museum. In this project, she is joined by her friend Iboja, a woman some years elder, and who lived across from Sara and her family when they were both children.
As Sara and Iboja spend an evening at the bungalow quaffing wine, relishing food and enjoying the beautiful night in the garden, they begin to reminisce about the past, about their parents and their own personal lives. In that sense, through their flashbacks, we are presented in a way a brief history of Slovakia right from the glorious pre-war days, to the terrifying life under the Nazis, the brutal impact of the World War to be followed by the cruelty of Soviet rule.
Through Sara, we learn about her father Imro, his Jewish heritage, his passion for painting, how Imro’s parents find it difficult to adapt to the harsh realities of Nazis and the war, followed by his marriage to Sara’s mother and the birth of Sara.
Through Iboja, we learn about her grandparents. How her grandfather ran Hotel Aurora, a classy, beautiful hotel filled with wealthy, stylish patrons, smoky jazz evenings, music, gaiety and laughter. How he and Imro’s father were good friends and his fondness for Imro. But the brutality of war and the massive scale of political upheavals take its toll on running the hotel, it becomes increasingly clear that things will never go back to what it was once.
Despite its ambitious scope, Necklace/Choker is a quiet, elegantly written novel. While I enjoyed it, I’m not sure it effectively conveyed the uniqueness of Slovakia, somehow I felt a sense of place was missing.
SUITE FOR BARBARA LODEN by Nathalie Léger (tr. Natasha Lehrer & Cécile Menon)
Nathalie Léger’s Suite for Barbara Loden is part of a triptych of books that include Exposition and The White Dress. The book is based on the actress Barbara Loden and the only film she directed Wanda. Before embarking on the book, I decided to watch Wanda first and was pretty struck by its subject matter. Wanda is a woman completely adrift and rootless. She has abandoned her husband and kids, has been kicked out of her job at a sewing factory (she is too slow), and is now homeless and practically penniless. The only real thing she clings on too is her prized possession – a white handbag. As she aimlessly roams the streets of Pennsylvania, she runs into the robber Mr Dennis and for the rest of the film hangs on to him, even agreeing to become his accomplice in an attempted bank robbery.
Loden’s inspiration for the film came from a newspaper article she read which reported on the arrest and sentencing of a woman for being an accomplice in a failed bank robbery. Her partner having been shot at the scene of crime, this woman is pronounced guilty and actually expresses relief for being locked away, and this fact plants a seed of an idea in Loden’s mind.
Meanwhile, Léger’s mandate from her editor is to prepare a short encyclopedic entry on Loden but Leger can’t bring herself to commit to such a narrow task. She desires to research deeply on Loden, on Wanda, on how bits of Loden’s life and Wanda’s circumstances are intertwined. It also explains why Loden cast herself as Wanda in the film, because, in many ways, she was Wanda.
Suite for Barbara Loden, then, is a hybrid book, a wonderful amalgam of film appreciation, biography and memoir. Indeed, just as the creation and filming of Wanda was part of Loden’s vision to express a part of herself, so is Suite for Barbara Loden a vehicle for Léger to examine her own motives which include her relationship with her mother who finds herself abandoned by an abusive husband. In short, this is a wonderful book on what drives us to make art, on being a woman, on relationships and the desire to be accepted.
That’s it for December. I had an excellent reading year and last week released My Best Books of 2021 with a total of 21 books. I loved them all and would heartily recommend them. Hoping for an equally amazing 2022 bookwise and everything else!
Last year, I decided to foray into Georges Simenon’s oeuvre. But rather than dig into the Inspector Maigret novels, which made him famous, I opted for his darker novels or romans durs, which had a psychological edge to them and were therefore richer.
The first one that I read was The Blue Room, which was excellent. Consequently, I made a note of reading more by him.
This time I zeroed in on Act of Passion published by the ever fabulous NYRB Classics. Incidentally, this novel was first published in French in 1947 as Lettre a Mon Juge, the literal translation being Letter to My Judge.
Act of Passion is a dark, psychological tale of buried passions and murder as the protagonist struggles to come to grips with his demons.
The man here is the protagonist Dr Charles Alavoine. The entire novel is in the form of a long letter that Alavoine composes while in prison. At the outset we know that Alavoine has committed a crime – a murder – a trial for which has already taken place.
So this novel is not really a question of who committed the crime, but rather what the motives were for Alavoine to commit the crime in the first place. It is more of a character study.
Act of Passion is narrated in the first person, by Charles Alavoine. When the book opens, Alavoine is writing to the magistrate Monsieur Comeliau. This is the magistrate who was in touch with Alavoine during the questioning sessions before the trial eventually begun. Alavoine chooses to write to him simply because he is quite confident that the magistrate will understand his motives, and somehow find it in himself to forgive Alavoine. Mind you, he does not expect the magistrate to exonerate him, because Alavoine unconditionally accepts his guilt.
You are afraid of yourself, of a certain frenzy which might take possession of you, afraid of the disgust that you feel growing in you with the slow and inexorable growth of a disease.
We are almost identical men, your Honour.
Alavoine also strongly believes that for the magistrate to really understand why he committed the crime, it was essential first for him to know more about Alavoine as a person.
And that is how gradually we begin to get an inkling of Alavoine’s personality.
Charles Alavoine is the son of a reasonably well to do peasant farmer who marries one of the Lanoue girls (Charles’ mother). It gradually emerges that his father drank too much, and getting a glimpse of the emptiness of his life, finally commits suicide.
Charles, meanwhile, grows up to become a doctor (a doctor or a priest are the two professions his mother would have preferred anyway). It becomes apparent that the mother in some way has exerted control over Charles life, and he has felt no reason to contradict her. And yet, her it is not a form of control that is obvious or in your face, it’s rather subtle.
In fact, we are introduced to Charles’ mother at his trial, where she is extremely nervous and embarrassed and worried about disgracing her son.
Here’s how Charles chooses to give some idea of his mother’s status in the overall scheme of things…
With my first wife, who was not a very good housekeeper, who was what they call at home a ‘lump of dough’, my mother remained the mistress of the house.
With Armande, things changed, that was all, because Armande has a stronger personality and very decided tastes of her own. When a woman of sixty is suddenly deprived of her occupations, can no longer give orders to the servants, can no longer fuss over the meals and the children, it is exceedingly painful for her.
Armande is Charles’ second wife. But before that we learn that Charles was married to a young woman Jeanne who bore him two daughters, and died on the birth of her second daughter. It was clearly the union of an inexperienced couple. Charles marries his first wife without really knowing her or even asking himself if he loved her. He marries her because that is what men his age did after they were more or less settled in their careers.
Charles’ marriage to Armande (his second wife) is also neither a product of love, nor any kind of passion. Armande is portrayed as a cool, dignified woman with sufficient presence of mind, who instills herself in the Alavoine household and comes to control it. It becomes inevitable to both Charles and his mother that Armande will become Charles’ wife.
Armande is shown to be a true model wife who efficiently runs the house, looks after Charles’ daughters, and slowly also has a say in Charles’ practice as a doctor. It appears to be a model of the ‘perfect’ family – Charles has a successful career, he and Armande host bridge parties, and they go on vacation with the daughters.
And while Charles through all his life has passively accepted the fate that Life has doled out to him, gradually but surely begins to feel an emptiness creeping upon him. He feels he is losing his sense of self, or maybe he never had a self in the first place.
You walk along the pavement flooded with sunlight and your shadow walks along with you almost at your side; you can see it broken in two by the angle formed by the white-walled houses and the pavement.
All at once, this shadow accompanying you disappears…
It doesn’t change its position. It doesn’t pass behind you because you have changed your direction. I mean, it just disappears.
You begin to feel yourself all over. Your body has the same consistency as on any other day. You take a few quick steps and you stop short, hoping to find your shadow again. You run. Still it is not there.
You are not dreaming. You have no shadow and, seized with anguish…
It is then that on one of his doctor’s trips to Nantes, he meets Martine. Martine is a woman, down on luck, a drifter, prone to sipping cocktails in bars, and then sleeping with men. She is neither sophisticated nor beautiful but is rather quite ordinary, and this is paradoxically what makes her extraordinary to Charles. He realizes that there is an air of innocence about her that she tries hard to mask. They end up having passionate sex in a cheap hotel room.
It is from hereon that things begin to get difficult for Charles. He can’t bear being away from her. And yet, when he is with her, he is tormented by images of the ‘other’ Martine, the one who is at the beck and call of men, and this drives him into a rage. Slowly but surely, Charles’ downfall begins…
Act of Passion then, on one level, is an examination of existential angst, and on another level is a character study of an obsessed man. Charles time and again talks about love in his letter to the judge, his love for Martine and vice versa. But while it is easy to believe that he indeed does love her, it also points out to his inexperience in terms of what healthy, loving relationships are really like.
And while the reader can sympathize with Charles and why this extra marital affair made him feel alive, bringing him out of his dull existence, we are never entirely sure what Martine really feels about it, because this account is ultimately Charles’ point of view.
Roger Ebert in this introduction for the NYRB Classics edition sums up Charles’ personality very well:
Alavoine in turn depicts himself as an ordinary doctor, a man of fixed routines, a man who submits to the supervision and scrutiny of a mother and a second wife who is like a mother, a man to whom no one could object, and in whom few could take an interest. He is a man who has reached middle age having only once done anything which gave him a sharp sense of self.
Georges Simenon can clearly write and while we will never know if the magistrate ever understood Charles’ motives from the letter addressed to him, he did a brilliant job of just about evoking sympathy of this reader, and I stress ‘just about.’
Basically, this is another wonderfully penned and fascinating romans durs from Simenon and ably translated by Louise Varese. On deeper reflection, I preferred Act of Passion to The Blue Room (and The Blue Room is very, very good).
Last year, I was introduced to the ‘French master of noir’ Frederic Dard when Pushkin Press’ Vertigo crime imprint released his first title Bird in a Cage. It was a very clever piece of noir and I loved it.
I thought, therefore, it was time to foray into my second Dard novella, and so picked out the latest release – The Gravediggers’ Bread. It was as fascinating as the blurb promised and it is safe to say that Dard has clearly been quite the find for Pushkin Press.
When the book opens Blaise Delange – unemployed and down-on-luck – is standing outside a phone booth waiting to place a call to his friend. Blaise has arrived in a small town to interview for a job at a rubber factory only to realise that the position has already been taken.
Finally the phone booth opens and a woman emerges from it…
In reality, the person for whom I stood aside was a woman of around thirty, slim, blonde, with blue eyes that were slightly too large.
If she had lived in Paris she would have possessed the thing she most lacked, namely a certain sense of elegance.
Once Blaise is through with his call, he notices a wallet in the booth, left there by the woman. A closer inspection reveals 8,000 francs, the woman’s identity card, and another man’s photo.
There is nothing to stop Blaise from claiming the money; there’s no one around, he has already lost out on a job opportunity and here is lady luck giving him a consolation prize.
But he cannot get the woman out of his mind. And so rather than keep the money, he decides to return it to her.
Meanwhile, both he and the reader learn that the woman’s name is Germaine Castain and she is married to a man old enough to be her father, Achille Castain.
Achille Castain runs an undertaker business and is the funerals director so to speak.
“I’m well aware that the layman imagines all sorts of things about our profession. Or rather, he finds it hard to admit it’s an ordinary profession. Yet I can assure you that gravedigger’s bread tastes just the same as other people’s.”
When Blaise returns the wallet to Germaine, he manages to keep her out of trouble, and somehow also gains Achille’s trust. Achille offers him a job as a salesman, which Blaise accepts.
And that is how Blaise comes to stay in the town becoming quite adept at selling coffins and funeral services being quite the opportunist. It also gives him a chance to stay close to Germaine with whom he has fallen in love.
It gradually comes to Blaise’s realization that all is not hunky dory in Achille and Germaine’s marriage. Also, Germaine is keeping some kind of a secret that annoys Blaise greatly.
That’s the bare outline of the plot and I will not reveal more.
How will Blaise win Germaine over, while she is still married to Achille? How is it all going to end?
At 157 pages, The Gravediggers’ Bread is a tense, taut and riveting novella that keeps you on the edge as the ill-fated pair – Blaise and Germaine – seeks to outrun Fate. But will they succeed?
Dard has etched his characters quite well. He has successfully created an atmosphere that is bleak and claustrophobic and yet compelling and fascinating.
For all that he is unemployed; Blaise displays a flair for his new role as a salesman. There is one scene particularly, which stands out. This is when he accompanies Achille to meet his first client. Achille thinks it’s important to understand the psyche of his clientele, which he believes is the key to figure out what type of coffins will eventually sell. For Blaise that’s a passive strategy. He is bold and outspoken and chooses instead to address their clients’ hidden emotions and aspirations to make a sale.
Blaise is not just blunt and direct in his job, but also when he is conversing with Germaine to whom he frankly tells what’s on his mind. After all, despite his dubious character, he remains strangely a hopeless romantic.
Germaine, meanwhile, marries Achille because of a troubled past. And some bizarre need to stick to scruples makes her hang on to her husband even when he physically abuses her.
Achille Castain is an old brute; vicious, suspicious and a wife beater.
The Gravediggers’ Bread then is classic noir fare – obsession and murder at its heart – and with enough twists and turns (all done rather well) to keep the pages turning and make you race feverishly towards the end.
I loved Bird in a Cage, and thought The Gravediggers’ Bread was even better. I have four more Dards to look forward to and hope the Pushkin Vertigo imprint keeps more translations coming!
Translation credits from the French go to Melanie Florence.
Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.
So here goes…
A Book with More Than 500 Pages
A True Novel by Minae Mizumura
At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.
A Forgotten Classic
Excellent Women by Barbara Pym
Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.
A Book That Became a Movie
Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac
The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.
A Book Published This Year
Compass by Mathias Enard
An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.
A Book with a Number in the Title
Madame Zero by Sarah Hall
I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.
A Book Written by Someone under Thirty
Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh
Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.
A Book with Non-Human Characters
Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami
This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.
A Funny Book
Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes
The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.
A Book by a Female Author
Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith
There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.
A Book with a Mystery
Black Money by Ross MacDonald
Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.
A Book with a One-Word Title
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.
A Book of Short Stories
A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor
Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Book Set on a Different Continent
Solar Bones by Mike McCormack
The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.
A Non-Fiction Book
Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart
This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.
The First Book by a Favourite Author
A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.
A Book You Heard About Online
Climates by Andre Maurois
Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.
A Bestselling Book
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?
A Book Based on a True Story
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.
A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi
This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.
A Book your Friend Loves
First Love by Gwendoline Riley
First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.
A Book that Scares You
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin
This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.
A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old
The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
The Second Book in a Series
Transit by Rachel Cusk
The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.
A Book with a Blue Cover
The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova
This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.