A Month of Reading – September 2022

September was an excellent reading month in terms of quality. I managed six books in all – a mix of early 20th century literature, translated lit, a biography, a short story collection, a Booker Prize longlisted title, and of course, the eighth book from Richardson’s Pilgrimage series – The Trap – for #PilgrimageTogether.  

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

THE PACHINKO PARLOUR by Elisa Shua Dusapin (Translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)

Set in Tokyo during a sultry summer, The Pachinko Parlour is an atmospheric, haunting tale of loneliness, identity, connection and the all-pervading sense of ambiguity felt by people whose lives are at crossroads.

Our narrator is Claire, a young woman in her late twenties, who has arrived in Tokyo to spend the summer with her maternal grandparents. Claire’s grandparents are Korean, but were forced to flee to Japan in 1952 when Korea was embroiled in a civil war. Having made a life for themselves in Japan, they haven’t visited Korea since. For Claire this particular vacation in Tokyo is loaded with a mission. She is intent on making the trip with her grandparents to Korea, so that they can revisit their roots, and yet she is gripped by a sense that her grandparents are ambivalent. 

For the most part, Claire is by herself, the hours stretched empty before her. On other days, Claire visits the home of ten-year old Mieko whose mother, Henriette, has employed her to teach the girl some French.  Claire and Mieko develop a close but fragile bond as both seek to connect and belong in their own way.

The Pachinko Parlour, then, is a lyrical meditation on identity and the need to belong, an exploration of displacement both physically and figuratively, and the loneliness we feel within our own families. Delicate, elegantly written and drenched with a tinge of melancholia, Dusapin’s prose displays her signature restraint and poise making The Pachinko Parlour a pretty irresistible read.  

I USED TO LIVE HERE ONCE: THE HAUNTED LIFE OF JEAN RHYS by Miranda Seymour

I Used to Live Here Once by Miranda Seymour is a superb, immersive and moving biography of the incredibly talented Jean Rhys chronicling her turbulent life right from her early years in Dominica which were to haunt her for the rest of her life to remote Devon where she spent year final years; the highs and lows of her writing career, catapulting her from obscurity to international renown; how writing was a vital force in her life, an anchor when all else around her was in shambles.

Seymour’s biography is a meticulously researched, wonderfully written, engrossing biography painting a vivid picture of a proud, brilliant, highly volatile but tremendously talented writer. Rhys had to battle many a crisis but she had the iron will and capacity to somehow bounce back; unlike the archetypical ‘Rhys woman’ she was never a victim but a resourceful woman who dug deep to forge ahead. Moreover, I liked how Seymour provided context to each of Rhys’s novels and some of her finest stories which often drew on the rich material that marked her life.

CURSED BUNNY by Bora Chung (Translated from the Korean by Anton Hur)

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

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

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

SOMETHING IN DISGUISE by Elizabeth Jane Howard  

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style. The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative chap, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

The Colonel has been married thrice – Alice is his daughter from his first marriage. His third and current wife, May, also has two children from an earlier marriage; adults in their early 20s – Oliver and Elizabeth. Oliver and Elizabeth can’t stand their stepfather – the Colonel is an insufferable bore, one of those dry, old-fashioned men who have a set, unimaginative way of living and thinking, often imposing their demands on women. With May not good at managing the house, that burden always fell on Alice, but now with Alice starting the next chapter in her life, who is going to fill her shoes?

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, and immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. That’s the basic set-up but as the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds, while at the same time a sense of claustrophobia sharpens as some sinister happenings begin to come to the fore.

Something in Disguise, then, is a brilliant tale of ‘domestic horror’ – the palpable feeling of being trapped; signals of impending doom that evoke a mood of creeping dread in the reader. The final pages, particularly, heighten this effect making this a novel that will linger in the mind for a while.

TRUST by Hernan Diaz  

Set in early 20th century New York, Trust by Hernan Diaz is a cleverly constructed, fascinating tale of money, deception, power and the ultimate question of who controls the narrative.

The novel is made up of four sections each providing a different point of view – the first section called “Bonds” is a novel written by a forgotten author Harold Vanner thatnarrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world. The second section is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, and it quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself. The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally, and she is hell bent on discovering the truth about Mildred Bevel, while in fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

While Trust, in a way, is a commentary on the excesses of Wall Street, itis really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

THE TRAP (PILGRIMAGE 3) by Dorothy Richardson

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

In The Trap, we once again see Miriam in a different environment. While the last four books saw her lodging at Mrs Bailey’s on Tansley Street with a room of her own, in The Trap we see Miriam change her lodgings and share a room with a woman called Selina Holland. Given Miriam’s penchant for independence and solitude, it is perhaps a surprise that she has taken this step, but as readers we accept and go along because Richardson chooses not to provide an explanation.

At first, Miriam is excited at this prospect of a big change in her circumstances…

Left to herself, she would now go out, not only for tea but for the whole evening, into a world renewed. There would be one of those incidents that punctually present themselves at such moments, a link in the chain of life as it appears only when one is cut off from fixed circumstances. She would come home lost and refreshed. Laze through Sunday morning. Roam about the rooms amongst things askew as though thrown up by an earthquake, their exposed strata storied with memory and promise. There would be indelible hours of reading and dreaming, of harvesting the lively thought that comes when one is neither here nor there, but poised in bright light between a life ended and a life not yet begun. The blissful state would last until dusk deepened towards evening and would leave her filled with a fresh realisation of the wonder of being alive and in the midst of life, and with strength to welcome the week slowly turning its unknown bright face towards her through the London night.

In the previous novels, while we see Miriam’s resolve to stay true to her wish to be on her own (her rejection of Shatov’s proposal was partly influenced by this), we also see her social circle expand, and one gets the sense that there is a conflict within her – while she is prefers being alone, she is not completely averse to company.

At first, the two women eagerly set up the room they are to share with their furnishings. It’s a new experience for Miriam, but that novelty rapidly wears off as differences between the two start creeping up. First, Miriam quickly learns that her love for reading does not find much resonance with Selina. But much to Miriam’s dismay, Selina also has strong negative opinions on Donizetti’s, Miriam’s favourite café, which had always been a refuge and a haven during her time in London. 

As the novel progresses, Miriam sees the real William Butler Yeats in a room across the road, and also frets about meeting the landlord to pay the rent, feeling claustrophobic when she is compelled to chat with his mother. Then there’s another neighbour Miriam and Selina gossip about – Mr Perrance, a sculptor, prone to causing a disturbance regularly, amplified by his heavy drinking and verbal brawls with his wife. Miriam also becomes increasingly unhappy with the dinginess of their room made all the more palpable when the Brooms pay her a visit. The Brooms are reserved in their opinion, but Miriam is more than thankful to take them out to tea.

Ultimately, Miriam and Selina have a huge argument which only reinforces the failure of Miriam’s social experiment with hints provided to the reader that this is not an arrangement Miriam is likely to continue.

That’s it for September. October has started on a slow note where I’m taking my time to read A Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff and O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker both of which I’m really enjoying. I do intend to also read the ninth and tenth books from the Pilgrimage series – Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

The Memory Police – Yoko Ogawa (tr. Stephen Snyder)

Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize. While the book was released in its original language (Japanese) in 1994, it was translated into English and published last year – a gap of nearly 25 years. And yet nothing feels outdated about this novel, its themes are quite relevant even today.

At its very core, the theme in The Memory Police centers on disappearance and memory loss.

Our narrator is a woman earning her living by writing novels on an unnamed island. It’s a place where the Memory Police at regular intervals make things and all memories associated with them disappear. As soon as these objects are made to vanish, most residents easily forget them and no longer recall that they ever existed. But there are those who cannot forget. Thus, the Memory Police’s mandate also involves tracking and hunting down these people after which they are never heard of again.

The narrator’s mother was one of those whose memories remained intact and was therefore captured by the police. In the opening pages our narrator harks back to her childhood and recalls a particular moment with her mother when the latter displays a chest of drawers containing objects that no longer exist on the island. These objects – perfume bottle, ribbon, bell, stamp – fill our narrator with a sense of wonder but she cannot conjure up any memories, even though her mother is nostalgic about them. The fate of the narrator’s mother after her refusal to conform is not surprising and very soon the father, an ornithologist, is also whisked away.

Indeed, one of the first disappearances on the island the reader is introduced to is birds.

I think it’s fortunate that the birds were not disappeared until after my father died. Most people on the island found some other line of work quickly when a disappearance affected their job, but I don’t think that would have been the case for him. Identifying those wild creatures was his one true gift.

Meanwhile, in the present, our narrator is working on a novel and provides updates on its progress to her editor R. Upon realising that R also cannot erase his memories, she decides she has to hide him before he is found out by the police.

Enlisting the help of an old caretaker, who is like family, she builds a secret, functional room in her own house. R installs himself there and gradually adjusts to this new life.

The rest of the novel then revolves around the fate of all the three – the narrator, the caretaker and R – and whether they will be able to hold on to this secret.

Objects, meanwhile, continue to vanish at an alarming rate to the point where one of the disappearances impacts our narrator directly – novels (‘Men who start by burning books end by burning other men.’)

At first, she has no issues losing her memory of things and adjusting to the new normal. But this becomes increasingly difficult in her subsequent interactions with R, who coaxes and encourages her to understand the significance of her memories and value them.

This specifically comes to the fore when one of the objects made to vanish is photographs, an occurrence which disturbs R greatly.

As I was gathering all the albums and photos in the house, R made a desperate effort to stop me.

“Photographs are precious…They may be nothing more than scraps of paper, but they capture something profound. Light and wind and air, the tenderness or joy of the photographer, the bashfulness or pleasure of the subject. You have to guard these things forever in your heart. That’s why photographs are taken in the first place.”

“Yes, I know, and that’s why I’ve always been very careful with them. They brought back wonderful memories every time I looked at them, memories that made my heart ache. As I wander through my sparse forest of memories, photographs have been my most reliable compass. But it’s time to move on. It’s terrible to lose a compass, but I have no strength to resist the disappearances.”

Interspersed with this narrative is a glimpse into the novel, our narrator is writing. It’s about a young typist who has lost her voice, is in a relationship with her teacher and can only communicate by typing out the words.  But what begins as a simple love story morphs into something darker involving capture and submission. In terms of atmosphere and the theme of control there are similarities between our narrator’s novel and her real life. But other than that, I am not sure that this ‘novel within a novel’ really added much to the overall storytelling.

In stark contrast to the feral tone in Melchor’s Hurricane Season, Ogawa’s prose is haunting, quiet, reflective and yet suffused with enough tension to keep the reader heavily interested. One way of looking at the novel is that it is a statement on totalitarian regimes and their impact on ordinary people – there are those who adapt, those who resist and go into hiding. These are themes and reactions universal even today.

But other than the one chapter where our narrator visits the headquarters of the Memory Police and experiences firsthand the menacing and oppressive atmosphere of the place, the novel is more concerned with the significance of memory loss and what it means to people in everyday life.

Ultimately who stands to lose more – the people who easily forget and have nothing to hold on to, or those who remember and possibly carry a heavier burden because of it?

Hurricane Season – Fernanda Melchor (tr. Sophie Hughes)

Hurricane Season caught my eye as soon as it was published and the slew of positive reviews only fuelled my appetite. Not surprisingly, it has been shortlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize and widely touted to win it.

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. The novel is set in the village of La Matosa – a few miles from the town or city of Villa – a decrepit place of abject poverty dotted with roughly built shacks and surrounded by sugarcane fields.

In the first chapter, the shortest of the eight, a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal. The identity of the corpse is no big secret, the boys immediately identify it as that of the Witch.

The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

They called her the Witch, the same as her mother; the Young Witch when she first started trading in curses and cures, and then, when she wound up alone, the year of the landslide, simply the Witch. If she’d had another name, scrawled on some time-worn, worm-eaten piece of paper maybe, buried at the back of one of those wardrobes that the old crone crammed full of plastic bags and filthy rags, locks of hair, bones, rotten leftovers, if at some point she’d been given a first name and last name like everyone else in town, well, no one had ever known it, not even the women who visited the house each Friday had ever heard her called anything else.

One of the rumours surrounding the Witch, which assumes mythical proportions, is the alleged wealth that she is concealing – a wealth that comprises gold and various other treasures, which she likely inherited from her mother the Old Witch after the latter murdered her husband. And yet while these tales of hidden wealth refuse to die down, they don’t somehow match up to the filthy conditions prevalent in her home.

The village, however, continues to be fascinated with the Witch. The women visit her home to consult her about a myriad of illnesses and also to discuss domestic issues, while the men get attracted to the drug fuelled parties she regularly hosts.

The murder of the Witch then forms the base upon which the bulk of the novel rests. After the first couple of chapters, we are presented with four different perspectives (and these are the longest chapters in the novel). Each of these narratives circles closer to the Witch’s murder, throwing more light, and illuminating the motives behind it.

But that is only the tip of the iceberg. What these narratives also do is paint a grim picture of an ugly village mired in poverty and crime, a brutal world where it is increasing difficult for its people to rise above their bleak circumstances.  

The central character in these four accounts is Luismi, a boy in his teens, and we are given an inkling of his involvement in the crime in the first narrative itself – that of his elder cousin Yesenia. Yesenia is the eldest of her siblings, brought up by their grandmother, who treats them poorly but dotes on her grandson Luismi the same way she doted on Luismi’s father. This results in a deep seated resentment towards Luismi as Yesenia laments her fate and tries to paint Luismi’s true colours to their grandmother but in vain.

The second chapter centers around Munra, who is Luismi’s stepfather and crippled by an accident. Although Luismi’s relationship with his mother is strained, he nevertheless resides with them. Through Munra, Luismi is depicted as a young man addicted to drugs that leaves him dazed most of the time and under the influence of a young girl who he shacks up with, a girl not to be trusted.

The third chapter focuses on this young girl Norma and we learn of the circumstances leading to how she ends up with Luismi. And the fourth account is that of Brando, Luismi’s friend and also complicit in the crime against the Witch.

Luismi is clearly the focal point in these chapters, and yet we are never given his perspective, we always see him through the lens of others. For the most part he comes across as completely drug addled and spaced out harbouring dreams of a job in an oil company promised to him by an ‘engineer friend’. And yet every narrative brings out a different side to him driving home the possibility that he is not as bad as he is made out to be.

Violence and foul language practically drips on every page. Men regularly hurl insults and beat women, and the younger girls are not spared from physical and sexual abuse either. It’s a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty and casual violence ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future. In the village of La Matosa particularly, the men hold no meaningful jobs and waste away in drugs, drink and prostitutes. The women latch on to men, get pregnant regularly but this only accentuates their woes as the burden of raising kids and holding on to meager paying jobs falls on them.

…what happened to her mother after a spell of going out at night in her flesh-coloured tights and her high heels, when from one day to the next her body would start to swell, reaching grotesque proportions before finally expelling a new child, a new sibling for Norma, a new mistake that generated a new set of problems for her mother, but above all, for Norma: sleepless nights, crushing tiredness, reeking nappies, mountains of sicky clothes, and crying, unbroken, ceaseless crying. Yet another open mouth demanding food and whingeing…

The only thriving establishments around La Matosa are highway dives and brothels, which are also magnets for drug peddlers.

Of the four narratives, the chapter on Norma and Brando are particularly disturbing and sometimes difficult to stomach – the one on Norma more so because it delves deeper into the deviant mind of a child molester.

And yet despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless. She does not mince words but depicts a small claustrophobic world in the back of beyond just the way it is.

It’s a book that deserves its place on the International Booker shortlist.