November turned out to be another slow reading month for me. I barely read anything in the first week as the US Presidential election drama made me anxious. Subsequently, things improved. But despite focusing entirely on novellas this month for the Novellas in November challenge, I did not read as much as I would have liked.
But the good thing is that the books I did read were very good. My favourites of the bunch were CHEERFUL WEATHER FOR THE WEDDING and NOTES TO SELF.
When Olga’s husband Mario suddenly decides to opt out of their marriage, her life turns upside down, and so begins her downward spiral into depression and neglect.
What stands out in The Days of Abandonment is Olga’s voice – she is brutally frank in conveying her thoughts and feelings, minces no words, and is almost always angry, sometimes uncomfortably so. At its core, the novel touches upon the themes of how absurd conventional definitions of womanhood can be, while also highlighting the trials of motherhood.
Set over the course of a single day, this is a funny, beautifully penned novella centred on the wedding of our protagonist Dolly Thatcham, with an ill-assortment of guests congregating for the event including her possible former beau Joseph. It’s a gem of a novella focusing on the themes of missed opportunities and consequences of things left unsaid.
NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
This is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence. There are a total of six pieces in the book, but to me the second essay called ‘From the Baby Years’ was the standout piece in the collection and worth the price of the book alone.
DESPERATE CHARACTERS by Paula Fox
Sophie and Otto Brentwood are an affluent couple having a seemingly well-established life in Brooklyn, New York. But when Sophie is viciously bitten by a cat she tries to feed, it sets into motion a set of small but ominous events that begin to hound the couple – a crank call in the middle of the night, a stone thrown through the window of a friend’s house and so on. Sophie is subsequently plagued with fear and anxiety and is reluctant to visit the doctor even though the worry of contracting rabies is not far behind. Otto is concerned with carrying on his lawyer practice by himself, after his partner Charlie quits to start out on his own. In writing that is sophisticated and perceptive, Paula Fox presents to the reader a tale of a gradually disintegrating marriage.
THEATRE OF WAR by Andrea Jeftanovic (Translated from Spanish by Frances Riddle)
Through the motifs of theatre and drama, Jeftanovic weaves a tale of a fractured family devastated by war and trauma, not only in their country of origin but also in their adopted homeland. Told in three parts through the eyes of Tamara, it’s a fragmented narrative that tells us of her parents’ broken marriage, how the ghosts of war continue to haunt her father who has lived it, and the debilitating impact it has had on their family dynamic, and her own struggle to pick up the pieces and move on.
THE APPOINTMENT by Katharina Volckmer
A young woman embarks on a razor sharp monologue addressing a certain Dr Seligman and touches on topics such as the origins of her family, her troubled relationship with her mother, her conflicted gender identity, her affair with a married man called K who is a painter and paints on her body, sexual fantasies involving Hitler and the legacy of shame. I have had a great run with Fitzcarraldo titles this year, and at barely less than 100 pages, this was an interesting, fascinating read.
As December begins, I plan to read the first two books in Susan Cooper’s DARK IS RISING series along with the PENGUIN BOOK OF CHRISTMAS STORIES. Given that I am going through a bit of a reading slump, let’s see if I can stick to this plan.
I first heard of Selva Almada last year, when Charco Press released her excellent novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, which fuelled my appetite for more of her work. So I had high expectations from her second book published this year – Dead Girls – and I must say it turned to another impressive offering.
Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina.
It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.
In 1983, Maria Luisa Quevedo, a fifteen-year old girl, working as a maid, was raped, strangled and dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city of Sáenz Peña.
Sarita Mundín was twenty when she disappeared in March 1988. One year later her disfigured body is found washed up on a river bank in the Córdoba province.
The case of nineteen-year old Andrea Danne, who was training to be a psychology teacher, is even more disturbing because she was murdered while sleeping in her bed in the alleged safety of her own home in San José.
Almada’s investigation into these three murders reveals a shocking societal structure where casual violence is the norm rather than the exception, and while men are the clear culprits, this misogynistic attitude has been ingrained into the psyche of the women too.
I didn’t know a woman could be killed simply for being a woman, but I’d heard stories that gradually, over time, I pieced together. Stories that didn’t end in the woman’s death, but saw her subjected to misogyny, abuse and contempt.
In her introduction, Almada tells us that she completed writing the book in three months, but the research required for it took three years. As part of her extensive fieldwork, Almada pored over police reports, case files and newspaper articles. She communicated with the family members of the three victims either by meeting them personally or through mail. She also had extensive consultations with the Señora – a medium and a tarot card reader – to gain some perspective on the circumstances surrounding those three deaths.
Dead Girls is as tense and gripping as a crime novel but what sets it apart is that Almada is not interested in finding out who committed the murders. The investigation is more to seek out patterns, threads of similarities between the murders of which there are plenty – widespread gossip when these deaths were discovered, lack of serious intent by the police or the law to nab the culprits, and the general sense of apathy – of how little the society cared for what happened to these girls.
Hence, the focus of the book is entirely on the victims, to ensure that their stories do not sink into complete obscurity. Given the unforgivable nature of these crimes, any attempt to extensively explore the motives and reasons behind them would only mean devoting more space to the perpetrators. Why give them that importance?
We are given a glimpse of the potential suspects in each case and the arrests made, but we are also told that lack of concrete proof hampered efforts to build a watertight case with the consequence that the criminals went punished and the murdered girls never got justice.
What also comes to the fore is the malicious gossip and “trial by the public” aspects in each of the three cases. Absence of solid evidence, at the time, did nothing to prevent tongues from wagging, with the result that the victims’ families suffered too. For instance, in Andrea Danne’s case, her mother found herself at the receiving end and judged harshly for slipping into a state of shock and displaying a calm demeanor because this response did not fit in with society’s expectations of wailing and crying.
Though Almada’s narrative centres on these three girls, while also giving a flavor of the community and neighbourhood they were a part of, she also weaves in elements of her own personal experiences, of the dangers she herself faced as a woman.
I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.
In her powerful introduction as well as in the epilogue, Almada makes it clear that her fate could easily have mirrored that of Maria Luisa, Sarita and Andrea, and if she is alive today it’s only because of sheer luck.
At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:
Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.
Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.
Earth and High Heaven is a wonderfully absorbing novel the focal point of which is a love affair between a Gentile woman and a Jewish man portrayed against a backdrop of racial prejudice.
The novel is set in the city of Montreal in Canada in the early 1940s when the war was still raging in Europe. The implication of racial prejudice is a big theme of the novel, particularly the danger of making sweeping generalisations.
Erica Drake, an English Canadian born to a wealthy family, falls in love with Marc Reiser, a Jewish man with origins in Austria. Erica’s parents are highly opposed to this relationship because of their deep-seated prejudices against the Jews and they refuse to cast them aside and see Marc as an individual. Will the couple surmount all odds and eventually marry?
Earth and High Heaven is a brilliantly immersive novel. Graham’s writing is sensitive and intelligent and many of the discussions and arguments between Erica and her parents and Erica and Marc are tense but riveting.
At a little under 200 pages, Look At Me is a compelling and searing portrait of loneliness and wanting to belong.
By day, our narrator, Frances Hinton works in a medical library and in the evenings spends time in solitude in her large flat, writing. However, one day the charismatic doctor Nick Fraser and his equally dynamic wife Alix appear on the scene and Frances finds herself in their company thoroughly enjoying herself. Until something terribly goes wrong and Frances finds that the Frasers are no longer interested in her.
Look At Me then is quite a fascinating but heartbreaking account of a lonely woman who can never really belong to the social circle she wants to be a part of, having to contend with the role of an outsider.
Brookner’s writing is brilliant. Her sentences are precise and exquisitely crafted and she captures perfectly Frances’ mental state as she is drawn towards the allure of the Frasers and then cruelly cast aside.
Invitation to the Waltz is the first of the Olivia Curtis novels. When the book opens, Olivia has turned seventeen and there is a family gathering to celebrate and present her with gifts. The novel charts the emotions of a young girl on the cusp of womanhood – the anxiety as well as the excitement of making a good impression at the dance, hopes for a schedule full of dance partners alternating with the fear of being left alone.
Lehmann’s prose is lush and beautiful and I was immediately struck by her impressionistic writing style. Set in the 1930s, she also subtly brings to the fore the class differences prevalent in the society at the time.
Set ten years after Invitation to the Waltz, The Weather in the Streets revolves round the doomed love affair between Olivia Curtis and the married Rollo Spencer who is first introduced to readers in the final few pages of the first novel.
Olivia is the narrator and she is now residing in London, in cramped quarters with her cousin Etty and is leading a bohemian lifestyle with her artist set of friends. While on a trip to the countryside to meet her family, particularly her father who is down with pneumonia, she starts talking to Rollo Spencer on the train and they hit it off.
From thereon Olivia and Rollo embark on a passionate affair that is played out behind closed doors and shrouded in a veil of secrecy.
Lehmann brilliantly captures the stages of the affair as it pans out from Olivia’s point of view – the first heady days of the affair gradually when the world is seen through rose-tinted glasses, and then followed by moments of desperation as Olivia endlessly waits for Rollo’s call.
Lehmann manages to turn the ‘done-to-death’ tale of an extra-marital affair into something entirely new, and her sensitive portrayal of Olivia’s plight is truly heartbreaking and evokes the sympathy of the reader.
The Hours Before Dawn – Celia Fremlin
“I’d give anything – anything – for a night’s sleep.”
Thus begins Celia Fremlin’s wonderful novel The Hours Before Dawn. The protagonist Louise Henderson is an utterly exhausted housewife. Her newborn son Michael insistently wails every night at an odd hour thereby disrupting her sleep. So as to not disturb her husband Mark and her daughters Margery and Harriet, Louise often takes Michael to the scullery to calm him down as soon as he starts crying in the dead of the night.
The lack of sleep is debilitating for Louise because for a larger part of the day she is trying to complete the household chores in a dazed state leaving her very tired. The day is busy as she has to juggle her daughters’ school activities, meals for the family and keeping the house clean, all of which begin to take a toll on her physically and mentally.
Louise has to do it all single-handedly. Her husband Mark is not much of a support. Michael’s night crying annoys him. And his meager attempts to show concern for her only ends up stressing Louise more.
Moreover, the neighbours are of no help either. They are judgmental, they consistently complain about the noise the children make, and Louise finds herself apologizing all the time. Louise is also wracked with guilt and inadequacy as she struggles with all the multi-tasking expected of her.
Into this household, comes a new lodger to stay – Vera Brandon. When Louise shows Vera the room, she accepts it without asking any questions which surprises Louise but doesn’t particularly distress her at the time since the family needs the extra income with a new baby born.
Things begin to get sinister when a friend of Louise’s, Beatrice, makes a chance remark that Vera had approached her husband Humphrey to enquire about the Hendersons. This unsettles Louise since she is under the impression that Vera had responded to the Hendersons’ advertisement in the newspapers.
As Louise’s suspicions about Vera grow, so do her exhaustion levels so much so that there are times when her dreams begin to merge with reality.
This is a wonderful novel, which besides having shades of a psychological thriller, also has moments of black comedy thrown in. In a world where it is taken for granted that motherhood is only full of joys, Fremlin provides a realistic portrayal of how challenging being a mother can be and how society is not always kind in understanding this.
Who Among Us? – Mario Benedetti (tr. Nick Caistor)
This is a story of an unusual love triangle where the reader gets to see the perspective of all the three participants.
Miguel and Alicia fall in love when they are teenagers and their relationship proceeds simply until the charismatic Lucas turns up on the scene. Miguel sees the spark grow between Alicia and Lucas as they have passionate discussions on various topics, and he assumes that he and Alicia have no future. And yet, Alicia chooses to marry Miguel, and Lucas fades away. After eleven years of marriage (and two kids), Miguel somehow comes to see their union as a mistake. Thus, he persuades Alicia to meet Lucas whence a chance for a trip to Buenos Aires turns up.
Miguel’s perspective on the events is in the form of undated notebook entries as he analyses in deep detail the nature of the relations between the three of them. Through his entries, it becomes apparent that Miguel is a passive man who considers himself second-rate. We see Alicia’s perspective in the form of a letter she writes to Miguel which casts a different light on what we have read in Miguel’s account. Alicia loved Miguel but acknowledges that their marriage has deteriorated and largely blames him for it. Lucas’ viewpoints are displayed to us in the form of a short story, including footnotes, which explains the text and how it relates to the reality of what happened.
At less than 100 pages, Who Among Us? is an absorbing novella that explores the themes of love, missed opportunities and misunderstandings.
Solea – Jean-Claude Izzo (tr. Howard Curtis)
I had read the first two books in Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy – Total Chaos and Chourmo – a few years back. Billed as Mediterranean noir, these books featured the cynical, beaten-down cop Fabio Montale and his attempts to solve the crimes surrounding his best friends Manu and Ugi killed by the Mafia and cops respectively.
What also stood out in these books is the vivid evocation of Marseilles, its sights and smells, various mouth-watering descriptions of food and drink. It also highlighted the uglier side of the city – the poverty, crime, racism towards immigrants and the crippling corruption.
Both of them were very atmospheric books but for some reason I completely forgot about the third installment in this trilogy – Solea.
In Solea, Montale’s former lover and investigative journalist Babette is on the run from the Mafia as she is about to publish some shocking details about the organization. The Mafia wants Montale to find her for them. To show that they are dead serious about it, two people very close to Montale are murdered.
That’s the basic premise of the plot and I won’t reveal more. But Solea is also suffused with Montale ruminating a lot about his past and the level of growing corruption and extremism in Marseilles and on a larger scale in France. In that sense, the novel is quite cynical and bleak. While Solea is a solid book, I somehow felt that it was not on the same level as either Total Chaos or Chourmo.
That’s it for July.
I intend to devote August entirely to Women in Translation (WIT Month), and have begun my reading with Olga Tukarczuk’s novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead and Eileen Chang’s collection of novellas Love in A Fallen City, both of which I am enjoying.
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.
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…
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).
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.
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.