Autumn Rounds – Jacques Poulin (tr. Sheila Fischman)

Autumn Rounds was my first foray into the works of the Canadian author Jacques Poulin, and I enjoyed it so much that I’m keen to explore more of his work, which like this one has been published by the excellent Archipelago Books.

Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.

Our protagonist is an older man called the Driver whose job involves lending books. He has a milk van now converted into a bookmobile, and he makes three trips every year, visiting the small villages between Quebec City and the North Shore. No longer in his prime, this could very well be one of the Driver’s final trips during the year.

The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.

The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off.

While the Driver’s bookmobile and the school bus broadly halt at the same villages, they are not always together during their journey. Sometimes, the Driver would arrive at a village and find the band members already present putting on a show, at other times he is the one to reach first always looking to spot Marie.

Meanwhile, at the villages, the Driver enjoys meeting the network leaders who drop off previously borrowed books and collect new ones for their readers. Occasionally, individual readers pay the Driver a visit with the sole purpose of borrowing books. The Driver is a kind man; he lends the books to all sorts of readers and does not make a big deal about books not returned, his motto is to not deny any one the delights of reading.

That’s really the basic premise of the books and what makes it such a joy to read is the burgeoning relationship between the Driver and Marie, it is so nuanced and understated, really beautifully rendered. The conversations between them are the most striking feature of this novel; the two share a spontaneous connection fuelled by common interests as they discuss books, life, Paris and the iconic bookstore Shakespeare & Company, and the majestic landscapes unfurling around them…and it’s immediately obvious to the reader that they are steadily falling in love, a relationship replete with possibilities even when both are a little past middle age.

The power, bliss and comfort of books is one of the central themes of the novel. At every village where the Driver stops and meets the network coordinators, we are given an enticing glimpse of the books chosen – some are well known works such as The Little Prince, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, others are a slew of French poets, a few titles are in French, not yet translated but fascinating nonetheless.

“With the row of windows, it reminds me of the sun porch that we had when I was a child. That’s where I discovered books. It was a very special place.”

He described the long sun porch with the bookshelves at either end, the wicker chairs, the small desk, and the row of windows with a shelf underneath where you could rest your feet. The porch was closed in winter and opened again in the spring, as soon as the sun was warm enough. He’d spent part of his childhood reading in that room flooded with light, sitting in a deep armchair with his feet resting on the window ledge. And over time, because the sun had brightened him and warmed him while he was reading, his mind had associated light with books.

“That’s why I wasn’t surprised later on when I saw Shakespeare and Company in Paris one autumn evening, with the golden light that came from the books and spread into the blue night. It confirmed what I’d known since I was a child. Do you understand?”

Occasionally there are streaks of anxiety and melancholia that come to the fore. The Driver is at times consumed with ‘dark thoughts’ and confesses some of his fears to Marie. He frets about growing old and increasingly feels that he can’t cope with a body that is gradually on the decline. There are even moments when he feels utterly lost, but he finds comfort in talking to Marie who patiently hears him out. There is one particular set piece where a young reader asks for books that he can’t provide (“a book that answers questions on why we live, why we die”), an encounter that deeply disturbs him.

The vibrant landscapes of the route between bustling Quebec city to the remote North Shore is suffused with the texture of a travelogue, it pulsates with the atmosphere of an alluring road trip punctuated with impromptu picnics.

While he was recounting these stories the landscape had changed. The narrow paved road was now squeezed in between the sea and a hill that was getting steeper and steeper. The tide was out and Marie was driving very slowly so as not to lose sight of the sometimes strange rocky formations that bristled from the sandbar. At L’Anse-Pleureuse they drove off Highway 132 and went to a rest stop along a river, on the road to Murdochville. They chose the picnic table closest to an embankment covered with closely mown grass that sloped gently down towards a lake; it was just a small lake formed by a dam on the river but the water, which was very calm, was emerald green.

The Driver stretched out on the embankment near a tight clump of birch trees, while Marie sat at the table to write postcards. Gradually some black clouds gathered above them and a breeze that heralded rain made the leaves of the birches and the surface of the lake shiver.

Autumn Rounds, then, is an ode to the simple pleasures of life – leisurely picnics on sandy coves or by the lakes; simple food and good wine; enjoying hot mugs of coffee in a cabin full of books; reveling in unexpected friendships and simple conversations.

After a fifteen-minute wait, a boat came to pick them up and they went back to the campground in Percé. Contrary to their usual prac- tice they ate in a restaurant that night, took a long walk, and went into some stores; Marie bought herself a blue sweater with a hood. They took boundless pleasure in doing little things together.

Inside the van the air was cool and damp, so they burned some alcohol and made hot chocolate. Again, they drank their chocolate sitting on the floor, facing one another and with their backs against the shelves of books.

It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart. Very much recommended!

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.

Children of Paradise – Camilla Grudova

I was a big fan of Camilla Grudova’s collection of stories The Doll’s Alphabet, one of the earlier titles published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, a book that found a place on My Best Books of 2017 list. Children of Paradise is Grudova’s first novel and I thoroughly enjoyed it; it retains many flavours of what made her short story collection so memorable.

Children of Paradise is a lovely, beguiling tale of cinema, flimsy friendships, loneliness and the evils of corporate takeovers.

Our protagonist is a young twenty-something woman called Holly who at the beginning of the first chapter sees a sign outside Paradise cinema advertising that they are looking for recruits. Paradise is one of the oldest cinemas in the city located in a decrepit building and Holly is immediately struck by its appearance…

The Paradise cinema had a gaudy interior and a pervasive smell of sweet popcorn and mildew. It was built on the ground floor of a block of flats around the time of the outbreak of the First World War, its entrance like the building’s gaping mouth, a sparkling marquee teeth grin with the word PARADISE written in pale yellow neon. They tore down some of the flats to put the cinema in. I imagined someone with a giant cake knife cutting out whole living rooms and bedrooms with people in them, and throwing them away, replacing regular, mundane lives with glamorous Hollywood ones.

Holly applies to the post and is subsequently interviewed by the manager of the cinema theatre – a heavily made up woman wearing a vintage dress called Sally. Holly is hired on the spot (“I don’t know why she hired me, but I later learned that Sally had mysterious ways of doing things”), and as Sally shows her the ropes, she (and the reader) are introduced to a slew of characters working behind the scenes at the cinema – the assistant manager Otto who “was aloof, carrying a clipboard, a pen behind one year”;  Patricia and her “large plastic glasses with greasy popcorn fingerprints on them”; Paolo who “looked like a beautiful Roman soldier, covered in jewels he had plundered”; the taciturn Flynn whose “voice became normal and friendly when talking to customers but he never smiled at them”; Flynn’s dad Pete who is the master of the projection room and so on.

In the beginning, the work is arduous, and Holly struggles to the point of tears but holds on. The theater is often grimy laced by dirty plates and cups, half eaten food, wasted drinks, and other paraphernalia strewn across the seats, making her job of scrubbing and cleaning all the more harder.

The carpet of the screen after a show was dirtier than any restaurant floor. There was so much broken glass that everything looked covered in a fine layer of frost. I guess people found an animalistic pleasure in eating and drinking in the dark, in making a mess, leaving bags, boxes and cans behind. Spilled popcorn, contraband glass bottles of wine, champagne and beer that people snuck in, candy bar wrappings, banana peels, strangely heavy Pepsi cups, sunglasses, umbrellas and, occasionally, toenails and semen, feathers even, as if someone had brought a dead chicken to pluck.

It does not help that Holly’s colleagues, a close-knit circle, are initially hostile towards her. Holly does not feel welcome, and she hardly speaks to anybody. In the evenings, after the cinema is finally empty of viewers, Otto and the rest of the cinema gang watch movies on the screen by themselves, a sort of a tradition…but Holly distances herself from these screenings. Wracked by loneliness, Holly seeks refuge in her bleak rented room watching films on TV instead all by herself.

Those first few weeks were unbearably lonely. I’d walk home, in the dark, listening to OMD, New Order or Duran Duran on full blast. I hardly saw any of the city beyond the Paradise and the walk to and from my apartment. It was nothing but a grey blur between the Paradise and my cold bedroom.

However, things one day turn for the better, when Otto invites her to his home for dinner and movies, where the other members are also present, and the ice is finally broken. Holly gradually begins to feel a part of the extended Paradise family as they begin to accept her into their fold.  

But the Paradise staff is living on the edge, in danger of falling into an abyss, and mired in drugs, alcohol, and casual flings burdened as they are by an ambiguous future. The wages are poor, they live on the margins and barely get by, and the camaraderie is the only thing that sustains them but it is precarious.

As the days go by, Holly notices a loud-mouthed old lady introduced to her as Iris who frequently visits Paradise asking for the films being played. Holly tries to avoid her whenever possible, but observes that the rest of the staff indulges her because, she is told, Iris owns the theatre although she is not involved in running it, that responsibility has been entrusted on Sally. Holly’s orders are to cater to Iris’ whims even when they are contrarian to the overall theatre rules.

But then a tragic development occurs, and the fate of Paradise hangs in the balance, the staff has to grapple mounting insecurities, and they struggle to cope.

Loneliness is one of the central themes explored in the novel. We first experience this through Holly who increasingly isolated as a new employee withdraws more and more into herself. But even when she comes out of her shell and makes friends, the dregs of loneliness remain as she relies on the usual suspects to alleviate that aching aloneness – drugs and casual sex.  The rest of the Paradise members are no different, each feeling unmoored in his/her own way, and feel isolated due to their unstable circumstances even when surrounded by people.

Children of Paradise is also a novel of fragile friendships; bonds between friends as delicate as treading on eggshells. The Paradise staff comprises a band of eccentrics and misfits glued together by the lure and love of cinema and because they have an almost non-existent life outside of the theatre. But when faced with the harsh realities of an unforeseen event and the frightening prospect of unemployment, these bonds begin to fray and disintegrate just like the theatre around it.

The book also examines the murky side of capitalism – exploitation of employees, the soullessness of corporate takeovers led by an indifferent profit-hungry management, creativity losing out to commercialism, and how small businesses suffer as a result because when forced into these one-sided partnerships to stay afloat, they lose something of their integrity and uniqueness in the process. A tough tradeoff that can have debilitating consequences.

Grudova’s fascination with dirt, dereliction, and discarded objects is one of the factors that made The Doll’s Alphabet so compelling, and Children of Paradise is also drenched with ample doses of those ingredients.

Whenever I touched the table or moved my feet the entire bar seemed to rattle, the shelves of oddly shaped glasses for obscure cocktails, the dim-coloured liquors, the jar of pickled eggs, olives with tiny red tongues, cornichons and jalapeños floating in foggy water like dead slugs, Luxardo maraschino cherries and dusty peanuts.

In fact, the book’s gothic overtones and preoccupation with dirt also has shades of Angela Carter to it as depicted in the latter’s terrific novel The Magic Toyshop. Grudova has a flair for vivid descriptions which come alive when the object of focus is the gently decaying theatre…

The Paradise was a Frankenstein’s monster of a place. Over the years, rooms were added and rearranged but with all the same old rotting pieces, the same red, white and gold paint retouched, another layer put on.

There was a chandelier in the lobby, red carpeted floors, gold trim on the white walls, wide and narrow mirrors which gave it the feeling of a funhouse though they distracted from the oppression of the flats above – layer upon layer of furniture, crockery and lives.

The structure of the book is in keeping with the book’s cinema theme. Made up of several chapters, what’s striking about them are the headings – each chapter displays a different film title with the name of the director and the year that film was released. In many ways, Children of Paradise is homage to cinema, the reel world versus real life, and how for the book’s characters these realms often merge, the lines between them increasingly blurred.

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

Scattered All Over the Earth – Yoko Tawada (tr. Margaret Mitsutani)

Language and identity seems to be the major theme of my August reading. Just a few days back I reviewed Audrey Magee’s brilliant novel The Colony, which touched upon those topics, and now here I am writing about Yoko Tawada’s Scattered All Over the Earth which highlights those very ideas but in a completely different and unique way. This was my first Tawada and I liked it so much that I definitely plan to read her earlier books particularly The Emissary and Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

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

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

“Even when an empire sinks to the bottom of the sea,” he said, “it doesn’t disappear from history because it lives on in memory, from generation to generation, and then somebody decides they want to revive it. But isn’t there something frightening about the idea of bringing an empire back to life? Of course it’s fine to fix something that’s broken, to restore it to its original condition. But doesn’t the idea of reviving an empire bother you?”

The book opens in Copenhagen with Knut, a Danish linguist, sprawled on the sofa watching TV. Knut lives alone, his parents divorced when he was a kid, and his relationship with his mother is hazy and strained.  While flipping TV channels, Knut comes across an interview with the other central character in the book, Hiruko. We learn that Hiruko was a citizen from the ‘land of sushi’ forced to relocate once her country of origin disappeared. Hiruko now resides in Odense, having secured a post at the Märchen Centre. Having created her own language called ‘Panska’ or ‘homemade language’; it’s how she communicates with the immigrant children who attend the centre where she narrates stories showing picture dramas.

“recent immigrants wander place to place. no country obliged to let them in has. not clear if they can stay. only three countries I experienced. no time to learn three different languages. might mix up. insufficient space in brain. so made new language. homemade language most scandinavian people understand.”

As a linguist interested in all sorts of languages including the ones that have vanished and are no longer spoken, Knut is struck by the interview and immediately calls up the TV station to connect with Hiruko. He discovers that Hiruko is keen to travel to Trier in Germany to visit the Umami festival where a ‘dashi’ competition is set to take place.

“I’m sure that sometime in the future, when fish are extinct, people will rely on chefs to extract fish traces, distant memories of fish from plants that grow in the sea. That is my project: I call it ‘Dashi Research’.”

On learning that a man named Tenzo is hosting it, Hiruko is excited about the prospect of connecting with someone from her vanished homeland, a chance to seek out her roots and communicate in her now extinct language in a world where she often feels adrift. Knut, interested in how the encounter between Hiruko and Tenzo will play out, decides to join her.

On their quest to locate Tenzo, their travels take them to Trier, Oslo, Arles where they meet a host of people along the way; chance meetings which quickly transform into easy friendships. They come across Akash, a Marathi speaking, red sari-clad transgender student; Nora, a blonde German who has arranged the Umami festival at the Karl Marx House in Trier and is also Tenzo’s lover, and then Tenzo himself whose case is that of mistaken identity – he is not Japanese but a Greenlander. Not to mention, a mysterious character called Susanoo, who disillusioned with the robots his father designs in Fukui turns towards a career in ship building in Kiel, only to completely change course again and become a sushi chef in Arles.  

The novel is a heady concoction of encounters and set pieces where sushi, Roman ruins, dead whales, robots, Eskimos, ultranationalists are all effectively mixed together from which emerges a deliciously surreal whole.   

The themes depicted are pretty wide-ranging. First up is the idea of language, nationality and loss of identity, a topic touched upon through Hiruko’s dilemma. In the modern world, borders, nationalities, clear-cut identities heavily define an individual, but what happens when these are obliterated? What becomes the fate of people who find themselves in the murky in-between, those caught in a Kafkaesque position of belonging nowhere on paper – refugees and immigrants in particular? As her country no longer exists, Hiruko and the rest of her kinsfolk become stateless refugees overnight forced to migrate all over the globe, struggling to eke out new identities and begin life anew.  Other characters like Tenzo are surprised to discover how race and identity matter so much in urban cities, things he had hardly ever given a thought to during his childhood in remote Greenland (“I wasn’t ashamed of being an Eskimo, but a whole life with just one identity seemed kind of dull”).

We get an inkling of the fraught complexities of language and communication as the novel progresses and how helpless refugees are almost always at the receiving end, their fates sealed by the whims, fancies and random policies of governments. For instance, in the dystopian world of Tawada’s creation, Hiruko invents the homemade language because she desires to procure residency in Scandinavia; however, Europe wants to pare down welfare costs and are more than willing to pack refugees off to America where English-language speakers are in demand, but Hiruko afraid of being deported to America refuses to speak English freely even though she can. Tenzo, meanwhile, displays a flair for languages conjuring up a ‘second identity’ for himself (“Learning a new language that would give me a second identity at the same time was much more fun”). One can’t help but feel that language is probably a theme close to Tawada’s heart given her background – Tawada was born in Tokyo but has lived in Germany for 40 years and writes in both German and Japanese.

“Once when I asked Cho who had taught him all this tuff, like how to press rice into little oblongs for sushi, or what to boil to make dashi for miso-shiru, or how to make perfect agedashi tofu, he told me he’d learned it all from a French chef at a hotel where he’d worked in Paris. I was shocked. “When the original no longer exists,” he said, “there’s nothing you can do except look for the best copy.”

The debilitating impact of climate change as well as natural and man-made disasters is another theme explored in the novel. Japan’s disappearance forms the cornerstone of this idea but through Susanoo’s monologue we are also introduced to how the construction of nuclear power plants affects a community as livelihoods dependent on nature (read: fishing) are lost. Then there’s the dead whale whose survival skills are destroyed by the greed of oil companies boring laser beams deep into the sea to detect oil deposits.

But what I really loved about the novel was the feel-good portrayal of bonding and warm companionship – a group of strangers as different as chalk and cheese, linked by a common cause, immediately becoming good friends; a travelling troupe ready to support each other.   Tawada’s modern world might be a complex, frightening space but no such barriers exist in the way her motley band of travellers openly befriend one another on parameters not related to race, class, identity and language.

The novel is also delightfully funny in places largely fuelled by cultural misunderstandings. I am reminded of a particular conversation between Hiruko and Akash intently engaged in a heated discussion about the origin of the word Osho, whether it’s a proper noun (the famous sage Osho with his ashram in India), or a common noun (osho, which means Buddhist priest).

As far as the book’s structure is concerned, the reader is presented with myriad points of view – first-person retellings with each character narrating a chapter or two. The language is plain but the story is richly imagined, and the narrative is drenched with an energy that propels it forward turning it into an immersive, absorbing read.

Scattered All Over the Earth, then, is a fascinating prism of a novel refracting a slew of varied ideas; a delectable mash-up of exotic ingredients that are a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

In The Woods – Tana French

Tana French is an author I had been meaning to read for quite some time. Some love her, some have mixed opinions and I was curious to know on which side of the fence I would fall. As of now, she has written six novels under the Dublin Murder Squad series and two standalone novels, and I decided to begin with the very first, In The Woods. My verdict – I really, really liked it.

Picture a summer stolen whole from some coming-of-age film set in small-town 1950s. This is none of Ireland’s subtle seasons mixed for a connoisseur’s palate, watercolour nuances within a pinch-sized range of cloud and soft rain; this is summer full-throated and extravagant in a hot pure silk-screen blue.

Thus begins Tana French’s In The Woods, the first in the Dublin Murder Squad series, a fascinating gothic mystery, but also a beautifully written novel of memory, identity and childhood trauma.

The place is Knocknaree, a small County Dublin town, sparsely developed with its housing estate bordered by the deep, dense woods quite vast. During that particular summer in August 1984, three children aged twelve – Peter Savage, Jamie Rowan and Adam Ryan – ventured into the woods as usual, but two of them never returned. The woods were no stranger to the children; they knew it like the back of their hands.

These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the micro-landscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams.

So when they asked for permission that day to spend some time there, they were allowed to do so provided they were back in time for tea. But when the children failed to return by teatime, one of the parents knew that something was amiss. Large search parties went further into the forest to hunt for the children, and came across one of them – Adam Ryan – standing with his back and palms pressed against a large oak tree, his nails digging deep into the bark. Adam’s shoes were heavily bloodstained but otherwise he suffered minor injuries. However, he had no recollection of the events, of Jamie and Peter’s whereabouts, or why he was the only one to be discovered. Given Adam’s memory loss and no new leads, the case goes cold.

Fast forward to twenty years later.  Our narrator is Rob Ryan, newly accepted into the elite Dublin Murder Squad, having assiduously worked his way to get there.

What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass.

We immediately learn that Rob Ryan is actually Adam Ryan, but he has deliberately changed his identity to begin life anew and leave his troubled past behind. Also, a new recruit is Cassie Maddox, one of the very few women to find a place on the squad. Cassie is a tough young woman, exhibiting a flair for human psychology and profiling, adept at navigating the trickier moments of misogyny displayed by a heavily male squad. After a warm, cozy evening of wine, music and conversation reminiscent of their student days, Rob and Cassie quickly become best friends, pairing up to take on cases.

Gradually building up a solid reputation and a good solve rate, Rob and Cassie go from strength to strength until they land up with the Devlin case. For Rob, the Devlin case is a trigger for his old ghosts returning to haunt him. Strictly from a point of view of conflict, Rob shouldn’t be on the case, but he can’t tear himself away, a part of him wants to know the truth. What if the two cases are linked?

The brief outline of the case is this – at an archeological site in Knocknaree bordered by woods, the very woods where Rob’s friends vanished all those years ago, Katy Devlin, a twelve-year old girl, is found dead on a high rise altar. Brutally hit by a stone and subsequently strangled, Katy’s death sends shockwaves throughout the small Knocknaree community. We learn that Katy had become quite the talk of the town before her untimely death having secured a place at a prestigious ballet school for which the community had organized a fundraiser. Enmeshed in this story is the politics of the place – the archeological site is to be completely razed to make way for a motorway funded by nebulous corporations, a development that does not sit well with certain members of the community.

We are then introduced to a host of characters – the motley crew of archeologists digging for finds at the site, the dysfunctional Devlin family, the protestors signed up for the ‘Move the Motorway’ campaign, not to mention certain key figures from Rob’s past.  

In The Woods, then, is a fascinating exploration of fractured memories, the elusive aspect of them; memories like jagged shards that pierce the consciousness when least expected. It’s a closer look at how certain events can trigger seismic shifts in memories forcing those wedged in the subterranean recesses of the mind to suddenly reveal themselves, but that too only partly. For Rob, the Devlin murder in Knocknaree is too close to home, a painful reminder of a traumatic period he would rather forget. Rob is an extremely flawed character, and as the novel progresses seems more and more lost grappling with a range of emotions – anger, guilt, suspicion and fear. It is crystal clear that the trauma entrenched within him is unresolved threatening to spill over into his work and personal relationships jeopardizing them.

And then, too, I had learned early to assume something dark and lethal hidden at the heart of anything I loved. When I couldn’t find it, I responded, bewildered and wary, in the only way I knew how: by planting it there myself.

French uses the Devlin murder as a medium to study the widening cracks in society, particularly the unholy nexus between politicians and property developers and how small time residents end up getting a raw deal.

Corruption is taken for granted, even grudgingly admired: the guerilla cunning of the colonized is still ingrained into us, and tax evasion and shady deals are seen as forms of the same spirit of rebellion that hid horses and seed potatoes from the British.

References are made to the Celtic Tiger, or ‘Ireland’s Economic Miracle’ and the accumulation of wealth it fuelled, how the generation before it slipped through the cracks never to corner a slice of the country’s rapidly expanding wealth pie.

There’s a gothic feel to this book amplified by the fear of the unknown; the deep, dark, mysterious forest at once terrifying and familiar. The other strength of the book is the depiction of Rob’s relationship with Cassie, the camaraderie and banter between them becomes a febrile ground for close friendship to the point that they gradually become comfortable sharing their secrets with each other, secrets they have told no one else.

It’s a deliciously slow-burn of a novel (although at times one does feel it’s a tad too long), but French’s prose is electrifying and gorgeous, blurring the lines between literary fiction and traditional crime. She is interested in character studies, of delving into their minds…highlighting the psychological aspects which expose their flaws as well as their strengths. The flashbacks often have a filmic quality to them, tinged with nostalgia and regret and French is great at portraying the simplicity and innocence of children to whom the complex world of adults is unfathomable.

Trauma is a theme that pulsates throughout the novel; French is particularly keen to examine this topic from varied angles. For instance, while the events of Adam’s childhood form the core of this theme, Cassie is not without scars either having been profoundly affected in her student days by the actions of a pathological liar.

In a straightforward police procedural, the solving of the crime takes centrestage, the resolution is neat with the threads all tied up, and I liked how In The Woods refused to conform to these requirements. It’s a beautifully written crime novel, melancholic, haunting and poignant, a reminder of how our childhood crucially defines who we shape up as adults.

I have now bought the rest of the books in the Dublin Murder Squad series and am looking forward to making my way through them.