An I-Novel – Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

Back in 2017, I was blown away by A True Novel, Minae Mizumura’s 800 page epic, a book that found a place on my ‘Best of’ list that year. And now, this year, it’s An I-Novel which has floored me, another fabulous book which is certainly a strong contender for my Best of 2021 list.

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment.

Her relationship with a man having come to an end, and at crossroads in her academic career, Minae stares at an uncertain future. She has completed all the coursework required for her graduate term and all that is required of her is to take the orals. But she postpones this several times on the pretext that her mentor is ill. Now she has reached a crucial stage where any further delay will culminate in the withdrawal of academic support from the university.

The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. She has vague plans of writing her dissertation while settled in Japan, but before she embarks on that project, Minae has ambitions of writing her first novel, and that too in Japanese. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

“You know, the fear builds up, day after day, month after month, year after year. It just becomes more and more insurmountable.”

Minae is plagued with guilt and foreboding – If she goes back to Japan, her elder sister Nanae will be compelled to fend for herself, all alone in America. On this front, she can’t shake-off the painful ghost of Nanae’s attempted suicide years ago when a romantic attachment goes awry. It’s an incident that only underlines how unstable Nanae can be. Moreover, with their family now torn apart (the father is in a care home, and the mother has left him for a younger man in Singapore), Minae and Nanae rely on each other for emotional support, having become quite close despite their varied personalities.

As Minae and Nanae regularly converse over the phone about the latest happenings in their respective lives, Minae fails to muster the courage to frankly confess to her sister the news of her impending departure for Japan. Meanwhile, as the heavy snowfall amplifies the silence and heightens her solitude, Minae saunters on a trip down memory lane – her nostalgia for the Japan of yore, the awareness of being unmoored in America and never quite feeling at home in her adopted country.

All through my girlhood, I was consumed by thoughts of the homeland I’d left. I longed for it with an intensity that worlds like “yearning” or “nostalgia” could not convey. I felt I was someplace I didn’t belong, where I should not be. Japan steadily grew to near-mythic dimensions in my mind, transfigured into a place where life transcended the smallness of the everyday.

Like the snow falling steadily outside her apartment window, we are gradually given a glimpse into Minae’s interior life, as she ponders over her family, particularly, her relationship with her sister, her thoughts on life in the US, which in many ways both embraces and perplexes her, and never quite assimilating into its society despite all the privileges she has enjoyed.

Slowly but surely, the sisters’ backstory is fleshed out. When both Nanae and Minae are young girls, their parents jump at the opportunity to begin a new chapter in America. Those were the years when the war had left a bitter taste in the mouths of the Japanese and so all things American held a dazzling allure. Given the father’s respectable position in the company which posts him to the West, the Mizumuras live in a comfortable home and are reasonably well off. The parents quickly adapt to the country – the father develops a taste for rich American food and shuns the simplicity of Japanese cooked meals, while the mother revels in a slew of luxuries, immersing herself in fashion, art and culture and transforms from a housewife to an independent working woman. The Mizumuras have hazy plans of returning to Japan eventually but never take any decisive step towards that goal.

But while the parents have no qualms about life in America, both Nanae and Minae struggle in their own way. As far as personalities go, Nanae and Minae could not have been more different. Being an elder child, Nanae is the cynosure of her mother’s eye, and the latter pins a lot of hope on her future, sort of relegating Minae to the sidelines. Nanae is admitted to a conservatory for expensive piano lessons, and when she later drops out to attend art school, her parents indulge that whim too.

Of the two, Nanae is more outspoken and prone to throwing tantrums, always sharing a difficult relationship with her mother, the one person she wants to please and defy at the same time. She engages in relationships with a string of men which her mother puts up with in the eternal hope that Nanae will eventually settle down with a respectable Japanese man. Furthermore, in stark contrast to Minae, Nanae takes the initiative to blend in with the crowd, immediately learn English and adopt a plethora of American manners however outlandish they may seem at times. 

On the other hand, Minae is left to fend for herself for the most part.  Even though she displays an aptitude to write and speak English based on her progress in high school, she shows least inclination to do so simply because her inner self rejects the idea of abandoning her Japanese heritage and language and letting English become a dominant force in her life.

Eventually, I became so consumed by this imagined past that my own parents struck me as frivolously modern. Yet I myself never suspected how obsolete I was becoming; I simply thought I was being Japanese.

An I-Novel, then, throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

Throughout her formative years Minae spends her time alone, cooped up in the house, getting completely immersed in Japanese novels. These novels conjure up images of a Japan of the olden days, a Japan that has vanished, its remnants barely visible. The modern Japan, fed on a diet of capitalism and commercialism, is not the Japan of Minae’s imagination but her resolve to go back to her country does not diminish although she laments the loss of many of her country’s traditions.

The rebel in her questions the place of English as the most dominant language in the world. Post the war, Japan is clearly attracted by Western influences – not only in food and culture, but also in its bigger ideals of freedom and independence. But these influences don’t remain one-sided. Eventually many facets of the Japanese culture find a way into the fabric of American society. And yet, when it comes to communication and expression, English makes rapid strides to become the most widely spoken language in the world, while the Japanese language is restricted only to the archipelago or spoken by the Japanese expatriates. Minae expresses her desire to pen her first novel in Japanese, and is not daunted by the fact that she has barely spoken or written the language during her long sojourn in the US.

In the final analysis, did not literature arise out of the deep desire to do something wondrous with a language? In my case, it was a desire to be born once again into my language so as to appreciate and explore it anew. As I spent ungodly amounts of time assembling futile strings of words in languages that remained foreign to me, this desire had grown inexorably, year by year, until my craving to write in Japanese now seemed intense enough to move mountains.

Mizumura also ponders over the question of race in America, the dominance and limited worldview of the whites, and the inability of many Americans to distinguish between various people of the South Asian and Eastern countries. For Minae, who prides herself on being Japanese, it is a shock for her to discover that in the States, she is viewed through the wider prism of being “Asian”, how her Japanese identity is obliterated.

Ultimately, the novel explores the idea of identity – is Minae American or Japanese? Certainly, while her head is in the US, her heart is definitely in Japan. Minae acknowledges the community spirit of America, how her family is warmly welcomed in the town they settle in when they were very new in America, but she admits it’s not sufficient enough for her to settle there permanently.

Another aspect the novel dwells on is how Japanese customs widely differ from those in the States. For instance, in Japan, the education for women was largely relegated to grooming them as “women of accomplishment” to be eventually married to respectable Japanese men. For Japanese families residing abroad, the sons were sent to Japan for education, the daughters had the freedom to pursue an education in the US with the aim of ultimately settling into traditional Japanese families. Having grown up in that atmosphere, Nanae and Minae, pursuing art and French literature respectively, are forced to confront the fact that they will have to employ the education they received not to marry but to support themselves financially, something that becomes painfully clear to them when their family breaks apart. In this vein, other themes expanded upon are the concept of family and how its disintegration can leave an individual engulfed in alienation and loneliness.

The loneliness of such women built up gradually during the day, growing discernably as evening came on and finally exploding in the hush of night, making those lucky enough to have a confidant reach for the telephone. In the middle of the night, the wires across America were filled with the voices of women whose struggle with loneliness had proven too much to bear quietly alone.

Over and over, Nanae and I comforted each other with the same words.

“It’s so hard.”

“It really is.”

“But it’s hard for Americans too, I think.”

Yet were American women really as lonely as we were?

An I-Novel, then, is a deeply absorbing book with its stunning articulation of complex, relevant themes. Having grown and lived in Mumbai all my life, I haven’t experienced firsthand the feeling of being uprooted in a foreign land. But Mizumura has done such a commendable job of conveying the essence of that sentiment that you can actually empathize with the uncertainty and slew of emotions that flood Minae’s mind.  The book is also dotted with a myriad of atmospheric black & white photographs (also a notable feature in A True Novel) that enhances the overall reading experience.

For all her exuberant, outgoing nature and her willingness to integrate herself into the ways of America, is Nanae the one who is really lost? Will Minae finally summon the courage to let Nanae know of her decision to go back to Japan and how will she respond?

Shimmering with a rich kaleidoscope of ideas, An I-Novel certainly is another winner from Minae Mizumura.

American settlers had left the fences of the Old World in search of freedom, making it imperative for them to accept loneliness as a basic condition of life. Perhaps more than an ideology, it was a faith. And what could fortify a human being against life’s adversities better than faith?

A Month of Reading – September 2020

September 2020 turned out to be another stellar month of reading. My favourites were Passing, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Birds. But, the Wharton and the Penelope Fitzgerald were also superb.

Here’s a brief summary of the books I read…with links to detailed reviews wherever applicable.

Passing– Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.

The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good. Not having revealed to her husband that she is black, Clare Kendry’s dangerous deception means that she is constantly living on the edge.

At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s, and when the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie has left him. The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Along with its evocative portrayal of Russia, the novel is made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh.

Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy frame of mind, although we will soon read that this happiness has come at a considerable price. Immediately then, the reader is taken to a period in her life eight years back – Sophia’s story begins when she meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged (everyone calls him Simple Simon), and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable character, saddled with the burden of not being able to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” But the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel of uniquely etched characters subtly displaying a gamut of emotions. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both.

The Pear Field – Nina Ekvtimishvili (tr. Elizabeth Heighway)

Set in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a newly independent Georgia, our protagonist Lela at eighteen is the oldest student at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or, as the locals call it, the School for Idiots.  The plot is essentially driven by Lela’s single-minded focus on two objectives – (1) to help Irakli, a nine-year old student, make most of a good opportunity offered to him, after which she would leave the school to start afresh, and (b) to kill her history teacher Vano, who we are told has sexually abused her when she was younger, as he has countless newly inducted, young girls before her.

The novel contains a diverse range of characters – students and staff as well as some families in the neighbouring buildings. The pear fields stretch nearby and the air of neglect that surrounds them in some way serves as a symbol of the overall moral decay of the school.

At a little less than 200 pages, The Pear Field was a quick read, and while I liked the novel, I didn’t exactly love it. However, what I did enjoy very much were the sumptuous descriptions of Georgian food sprinkled throughout the book.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface.

This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.

In Mrs Manstey’s View, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A Journey, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.

In After Holbein, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, Autres Temps, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.

The last story in the collection, Roman Fever, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.

That’s it for September. I hope to read some fab books in October too and have begun with Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which only a few pages in, is already promising to be a special book.

Two NYRB Classics – Natsume Soseki & Barbara Comyns

I read some wonderful books from NYRB Classics in September and because I am rather behind in my reviews, I decided to write about two of them – The Gate and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – in this post. They are as different as chalk and cheese, but excellent in their own way.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple and frugal life on the outskirts of Tokyo. Sosuke works as a clerk in a company and almost never takes a day off. Oyone manages the house. It’s a routine they have been following for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining.

But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku. Koroku is almost ten years younger than Sosuke. In stark contrast to his older brother, Koroku is a selfish and brash man, who has had it easy for much of his life and cannot come to terms with his recently reduced circumstances. Koroku wants Sosuke to approach their aunt and come to an arrangement regards his education, but becomes increasingly impatient with Sosuke’s laidback attitude. Sosuke is in no hurry to move things along.

Koroku reminds Sosuke of his own youth, of how confident he once was with dreams of completing university…only it all fizzles away. Subsequently a series of flashbacks offer a glimpse of Sosuke and Oyone’s background, how they marry and become estranged from their respective families and how they lead an existence of isolation with not many ties.

And yet, Sosuke and Oyone are content in their closed world, happy in their marriage in their own way.

Sosuke and Oyone were without question a loving couple. In the six long years they had been together they had not spent so much as half a day feeling strained by the other’s presence and they had never once engaged in a truly acrimonious quarrel. They went to the draper to buy cloth for their kimonos and to the rice dealer for their rice, but they had very few expectations of the wider world beyond that. Indeed, apart from provisioning their household with everyday necessities, they did little else that acknowledged the existence of society at large. The only absolute need to be fulfilled for each of them was the need for each other; this was not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for life. They dwelled in the city as though living deep in the mountains.  

The one blemish is their inability to have children. On this front, the book is laced with some heartbreaking passages, which elucidates this tragic development in some detail and how it affects both of them.

While Koroku’s predicament is the driving force of the tale, there are also some other smaller moments of tension that propel the narrative along such as Oyone’s illness and the sale of a Meiji period screen the couple possess.

As the novel progresses, while on the one hand Sosuke forges a new friendship with favourable consequences, on the other, the possibility of a chance encounter looms large, which has the danger of raking up a past he is keen to forget.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. I was first entranced by the completely off-kilter The Vet’s Daughter and then followed it up with the brilliant The Juniper Tree which found a place on my Best Books of 2019 list.

In both those books, there was something fascinating about her female characters and their unique narrative voices and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is no different, although this story is more straightforward compared to the other two.

The narrator in Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy place, although this happiness has come at a considerable price. Here’s the opening passage…

I told Helen my story and she went home and cried. In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now. I hardly dare admit it, even touching wood, but I’m so happy that when I wake in the morning I can’t believe it’s true. I seldom think of the time when I was called Sophia Fairclough; I try to keep it pushed right at the back of my mind.

This paragraph is important because we are immediately taken back to Sophia’s grim past filled with poverty and harrowing ordeals that she has to endure, and it’s those opening lines that make some of the difficult moments in the novel bearable.

The story begins when Sophia meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. Sophia at the time is working at an artist studio with a regular pay, while Charles has not been too successful in selling his paintings yet.

Charles’ parents are separated and both oppose the marriage at first – his mother strongly opines that marriage will greatly hamper Charles’ artistic career. But eventually they come around.

The couple move into their new flat – small but within their budget. Things are hunky dory at first but quickly, it becomes clear that Charles is a selfish man, not capable of taking on responsibilities. The only thing that interests him is his painting. Meanwhile, Sophia is struggling as she juggles her job with domestic duties. And then she finds out she is pregnant, a development which both delights and unnerves her, but greatly horrifies Charles.

What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent. Not surprisingly, their marriage begins to falter.

Charles and Sophia’s circumstances are not always bleak though. There are some periods in their life when money does come their way and they are able to enjoy the finer things in life – a better flat, a larger friend circle involving a lot of entertaining, and good food. But the ground beneath them is always shaky, and the prospect of money running out continuously hangs like a sword over their heads.

That’s the basic outline of the story, but suffice to say a lot more happens as the novel moves forward.

The most striking feature about Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Sophia’s voice – frank, captivating and quite child-like. Sophia is naïve about a lot of things, especially birth control, thinking that “if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come.”

Barbara Comyns’ writing is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. It blunts to a greater effect the sharp edges of her suffering and prevents the novel from being utterly tragic. There’s also solace in the knowledge that she makes it through that difficult period in her life, as clearly shown in the first chapter.

The book also highlights some of the problems that women had to grapple with in the early 20th century. For instance, when Sophia announces her pregnancy to her boss, she is fired – the protection of maternity leave was pretty much non-existent at the time. Also, treatment in public hospitals especially maternity wards left a lot to be desired. There are a couple of chapters focusing on the time when she is in labor – she is shunted from room to room despite being in immense pain made all the more horrifying by the nurses’ obvious lack of compassion.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is Comyns’ earlier work – her second novel in fact – and there are a lot of autobiographical shades to it. Indeed, here’s one of the things displayed on the copyright page…

The only things that are true in this story are the wedding and Chapters 10, 11 and 12 and the poverty.

It’s another brilliant novel from Comyns and I plan to gradually make my way through all of her books as and when they become available (there are quite a few that are out of print and hard to obtain).

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?

A Month of Reading: March 2020

March was easily the strangest month ever, one that felt like it would never end. Despite the coronavirus crisis only worsening, I took solace from the fact that the books I managed to read during the orders to mandatorily stay at home were all very good.

I read six books and could have read more had I not been incessantly checking my phone for the latest news. Of these, I have reviewed two, and should hopefully write about the others in the coming weeks.

In the meanwhile, here is a brief round-up of what I read in March…

Every Eye – Isobel English

Awkward Hatty Latterly is the protagonist in Isobel English’s superb novella Every Eye. It focuses on two pivotal periods in Hatty’s life – the past when she is a young adult in a relationship with a considerably older man, and the present when she is on a honeymoon with her husband who is much younger to her.

Eventually both the past and the present will merge in an unexpected way. You can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Fate – Jorge Consiglio

Fate focuses on four individuals – or rather two couples – one pair who is gradually falling apart, while the other is seemingly coming close.

Karl and Marina have been together for ten years and have a young son, Simón. Karl is a German-born oboist at Argentina’s national orchestra, and Marina is a meteorologist. On a field trip, she meets fellow researcher Zárate, and begins a fling. Then there is Amer, a dynamic and successful taxidermist. At a group therapy session for smokers, Amer falls for the younger Clara.

By focusing on the minutiae of everyday life, this was an interesting tale which showcased all the characters trying to control their lives or their destiny in some way or the other but not always succeeding in doing so.

A Quiet Place – Seicho Matsumoto

When on a business trip to Kobe, Tsuneo Asai, a hardworking government bureaucrat, receives news of his wife’s death due to a cardiac arrest. This is not wholly unexpected given that she suffered from heart ailments. But yet, there are some aspects of her death that seem out of the ordinary to Asai.

As he delves deeper into the matter, he realizes that his wife – who he thought was shy and mostly by herself – had a kind of a secret life he was not aware of.

This was an absorbing tale where more than the death/ crime, the psychological depth of the characters – notably Asai – carried more weight. The last section particularly had shades of a typical Patricia Highsmith novel (I am a Highsmith fan).

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

With the coronavirus raging all over the world, I felt the urge to pick up something topical and when I checked my shelves, I felt quite drawn to Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

The premise in ‘Station Eleven’ is eerily familiar to what we are witnessing right now. It centers around the Georgian Flu disease that sweeps over America, its aftermath and the events leading to it, all the while focusing on a certain group of characters.

It is a vividly imagined and unique novel with a focus on humanity at its heart. And you can read the full review by clicking on the title.

Actress – Anne Enright

In Actress, Norah FitzMaurice is narrating her mother’s story in the form of a book she addresses to her husband. Her mother is Katherine O’Dell and we learn of her ascent to stardom, her gradual decline, and her descent into madness further accentuated when she shoots a renowned producer in his leg.

That is the bare bones of the tale, one that explores the relationship between mother and daughter and the price each has to pay for being in the limelight. Enright’s prose shines on every page – intelligent, wise and sensitive and it was a pleasure to lose oneself into the book.

I have read two Enrights now, the other being The Forgotten Waltz, which examined an extramarital affair against the backdrop of the financial crisis in Ireland. Although Actress was excellent, I still much preferred The Forgotten Waltz where Enright’s writing was simply brilliant.

The Wycherly Woman – Ross Macdonald

Here’s what the blurb on the book states…

“Phoebe Wycherly was missing two months before her wealthy father hired Archer to find her. That was plenty of time for a young girl who wanted to disappear to do so thoroughly–or for someone to make her disappear. Before he can find the Wycherly girl, Archer has to deal with the Wycherly woman, Phoebe’s mother, an eerily unmaternal blonde who keeps too many residences, has too many secrets, and leaves too many corpses in her wake.”

This was another excellent Macdonald novel – the ninth in the Lew Archer series – with a tightly woven plot, surprising twists and turns and beautiful descriptions of California as well as the seedy world of blackmailers.

That’s it. I thought all the books were well worth reading but my favourites of the bunch were Station Eleven, A Quiet Place and The Wycherly Woman.

As April begins, I have embarked on my first Shirley Jackson novel – We Have Always Lived in the Castle – and I am already intrigued.