Cursed Bunny – Bora Chung (tr. Anton Hur)

Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny was shortlisted for the International Booker Prize this year and has received such widespread acclaim, that having read it now I can only concur with all the praise heaped upon it.

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.

As usual, I won’t focus on each of the ten stories but dwell instead on the ones that really stood out and made an impression.

I’ll begin with the second story “The Embodiment”, a disturbing tale of prospective motherhood, single parenting and how the idea of a family unit is heavily defined by conventional mores. The protagonist, a young woman, is prescribed birth control pills by the doctor for a certain period when she complains of heavy menstruation and the unbearable pain that comes with it. But things go awry the day she’s shocked to discover she’s pregnant, the result of having taken those pills for a longer time than necessary. Her doctor, a heavily made up woman, is unsympathetic about her plight and makes a strange statement of how the woman needs to urgently find a father if the pregnancy has to proceed normally. So intent is the woman on the task of finding a suitable father which entails going on a slew of pointless seon dates that she laments at not having the option of considering single motherhood.

But what did it mean for the baby to not grow “properly”? She thought of the hostile glare of the obstetrician with the thick make-up. If she needed a father for the baby for its proper growth, what could explain the size of the stomach now? Hadn’t she simple been scared by a few words of a doctor – some young woman with a nasty personality? Had she been so focused on finding a father for the baby that she hadn’t thought enough about that the baby really needed? Regardless of its growth, whether it had a father or not, the baby was hers and hers alone, in the truest sense. “Live only for the child.”

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. The narrator is a man working in his family business that makes “cursed fetishes”. We learn of how his family’s business is looked upon with suspicion by their neighbours because its very nature means that it can’t quite be conveniently classified. There are two essential principles that the business must follow, and yet the narrator’s grandfather recounts a story from his childhood, a tale that the narrator has heard umpteen times, but a novelty to the reader. We learn of the grandfather’s friend, an upright man running a distillery business, a family run affair where innovation, superior quality and technology are worth their weight in gold. But then a larger company enters the scene to disrupt the operations of the family distillery. Hugely relying on political connections and networking rather than product quality and technology, the conglomerate pretty much puts the grandfather’s friend out of business with debilitating results, paving the way for the grandfather, a master at cursed fetishes, to plot his revenge.

Another favourite of mine is the story called “Snare”, a chilling, frightening tale of the gruesome aftermath of avarice. One day a man, while walking through the snow clad forest, comes across a fox trapped in a snare. However, it’s not blood that oozes out from the wound, but something that resembles gold. The man takes the injured fox with him home and over the next few years deliberately injures the beleaguered animal to extract as much gold as he can. The man thrives in his business to become immensely rich, but the fox after his grievous injuries is reduced to skin and bones, and finally dies. The man makes a scarf out of the fox’s fur which he gifts to his wife. Soon after she is pregnant and gives birth to twins, a girl and a boy. One day in a scuffle between the children, the girl lets out a bloodcurdling scream because her brother has bit her and is sucking her blood. The mother in her attempts to tear them apart, scratches her finger on the boy’s forehead, out of which gold starts trickling. The man, as a witness, realizes the implications of this, and sensing an opportunity, begins to use his children to feed his appetite for wealth with terrible consequences.

Another story “The Frozen Finger” has all the makings of a typical horror story, a story of being trapped where the line between dreams and reality is blurred. It begins with a woman opening her eyes.

Darkness. Pitch black. Like someone has dropped a thick veil of black over her eyes. Not even a pinpoint of light to be seen.

Has she gone blind?

Frantically groping around her to find her bearings, she is able to discern a steering wheel but is unable to remember a thing. Not surprisingly, she is disconcerted when a voice somewhere near her begins to whisper her name. The voice informs her that she has been in an accident, that the car is stuck in a swamp, and that she needs to get out from there quickly lest she sinks into the marsh. Rescuing her from the car, the voice urges her to move on and acting with urgency the woman relents. She begins to run blindly in search of firmer ground guided by the frozen fingers of that mysterious being only to realize that she is stuck in some kind of bizarre but claustrophobic nightmare.

In “Goodbye, My Love”, a trio of robots with artificial intelligence capabilities revolt against their maker; in “Home Sweet Home”, a woman invests her hard earned savings into buying a building only to be confronted by a host of problems, not the least of which is her irresponsible husband; the story “Scars” is a violent, disquieting tale of imprisonment, the illusory notion of freedom and the price one has to pay for it.

There’s a wide variety of themes explored – entrapment, capitalism, patriarchy, the roles of women, body image, violence, cruelty and the distorted illusion of freedom. Women, particularly, often get a raw deal trampled by the burden of patriarchal society, their agency curtailed. We see this in “The Embodiment” where the woman is told in no uncertain terms that her pregnancy has meaning only if she can find a father; we see it in “Snare” where the man treats his wife and daughter terribly as if their wishes and opinions don’t matter in his quest for immense riches; we see it in “Home Sweet Home” where the woman pays off all her debts, saves up enough to buy a house only to see her husband squander it away with no inkling of respect for her hard work.

Cursed Bunny, then, is a smorgasbord of genres, range and style – horror, fantasy, magical realism where the bizarre sometimes effectively blends with the mundane. Chung has an unflinching perspective, which is particularly jarring but vivid in the way bodily functions are candidly depicted in her stories. In lesser hands, this would have been too much to stomach, but Chung displays a knack for making the stories she weaves around them strangely riveting. 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. These macabre, fantastical setups are not only horrific by themselves, but become an effective framework to explore the horrors of real life – cruelties of men, ill treatment of women, evils of capitalism and so on. Absorbing and utterly compelling this is a collection not to be missed.

Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham

Nightmare Alley had been languishing on my shelves for a while, and only came to my attention because of its recent film adaptation by Guillermo del Toro starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette and Rooney Mara. The film has yet to be screened in my part of the world, but intrigued by the premise, I had to atleast read the book…

Nightmare Alley is a wild ride of a novel; a wonderful, dark slice of noir fiction with its mix of unique elements – carnival life, tarot cards, spiritualism, psychoanalysis – that make it compelling in its depiction of horror, pure evil and the randomness of fate.

The novel’s opening chapter is striking. We are taken to the scene of action, the Ten-in-One carnival show. Stan Carlisle is stationed well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure where a ‘geek show’ is in progress. Stan is the novel’s protagonist, the carny magician with his impressive sleight of hand and a host of tricks up his sleeve. But he is not the show stealer in the first chapter. That crown belongs to the carny geek, a near madman with bloodshot eyes, cradling snakes like they were his babies and biting off the heads of chicken. Stan is merely an observer, but he is mesmerized. The “marks” attending the carny, are both disgusted and fascinated by this geek and despite their revulsion they can’t take their eyes off him, they want to witness this freak show and egg on the geek to get at the chicken. It’s a show that panders to their basest instincts.

Later in the chapter when conversing with the carny boss Clem Hoately, Stan is stunned to realize that the geek is a man-made phenomenon (“Well, listen – you don’t find ‘em. You make ‘em”). Since the man playing the geek is a raging alcoholic who fears the tremors associated with withdrawal, Hoately explains how the lure of the bottle and a little bit of manipulation compels the guy to become a geek if only to ensure that he can continue drinking. But that fact leaves an indelible mark on Stan’s mind – that every individual is gripped by hidden fears, fears that can be exploited to one’s advantage.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to a slew of characters that form the pulse of the Ten-in-One carny show. The doyenne, Zeena Krumbein, is the show’s “mind reader” and an expert at tarot cards. Stan is impressed with her ability to understand human nature and play into the crowd’s emotions…

Magic is all right, but if only I knew human nature like Zeena she has the kind of magic that ought to take anybody right to the top. It’s a convincer – that act of hers. Yet nobody can do it, cold. It takes years to get that kind of smooth talk, and she’s never stumped. I’ll have to try and pump her and get wised up. She’s a smart dame, all right. Too bad she’s tied to a rumdum like Pete who can’t even get his rhubarb up any more; so everybody says. She isn’t a bad-looking dame, even if she is a little old.

Pete is Zeena’s drunk husband and a shell of his former dynamic self. At one time, Zeena and Pete as a team were unbeatable, working up a code-act that transfixed the audience. But fear gets the better of him and Pete these days is nothing but an alcoholic. Zeena remains loyal to him much to Stan’s chagrin.

Molly is a victim of bad luck too. Always her daddy’s girl, Molly adored her father, a real estate man, who could talk himself out of a jam in any situation. His death leaves Molly rootless until she finds a place in the carny show as “Mademoiselle Electra.” Zeena takes her under her wing and is protective of her.

Ever ambitious and with a desire to master Zeena’s tricks of the trade, Stan begins an affair with her but is irritated with Pete’s continual presence. But then an “incident” at the camp provides Stan an opportunity to team up with Zeena and he grabs it with both hands.

A turning point occurs when a policeman raids the carny premises and threatens to arrest Molly for indecency (she is in the midst of her act wearing skimpy clothes to give the impression of electricity passing through her body). Displaying a tremendous presence of mind, Stan gives the policemen a “cold reading” of the kind that only Zeena is capable of and averts that threat. Stan’s inspired act earns him new found respect from his colleagues, but he craves for something more, something big where the payoff will be huge (“Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough”).

Teaming up with Molly, who is smitten by him (particularly by his smooth talking ability which reminds her of her father), Stan and Molly breakaway from the carny to venture out on their own. Not content with only vaudeville, Stan has big plans and flings himself headlong into full-blown bizarre spiritualism to become a preacher where he finds his audience in gullible, wealthy patrons who are more than willing to buy into his nonsensical ramblings desperate to get a glimpse of their dead, loved ones through mediums and séances.

Meanwhile, enmeshed into this narrative are Stan’s forays into his troubled past. We are provided a peek into his childhood as he becomes overwhelmed by a flood of memories – an abusive father, a distant mother in the throes of an affair, and hints of animal cruelty.

There is one recurring image that keeps haunting Stan – a sense of being trapped in an alley, a “nightmare alley” that gives the novel its name, where the walls around him are closing in, and the exit (or the light at the end of the alley) seems so far away that he might not reach it in time.

Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream. He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and menacing on either side. Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and never reached the light.

Thus, tormented by his past and super stressed in his attempts to always stay one-up in his charade as a spiritualist, Stan finally consults a psychoanalyst – Dr Lilith Ritter – a cold, calculating, ruthless woman in whom Stan finally meets his match.

The other fascinating image that keeps popping up in Nightmare Alley is the symbol of tarot cards. The novel is made up of 22 chapters, each depicted by a tarot card at the beginning. In his introduction, Nick Tosches gives an interesting commentary on these cards and how Gresham used it to structure his book. These 22 cards are figured trump cards beginning with ‘The Fool’ and ending with ‘The World.’ However, Gresham chooses to shuffle the deck and the last chapter in the novel is thus titled ‘The Hanged Man.’ Therefore, from the index alone, one can gauge in a broader sense where the novel is headed and who the ‘hanged man’ refers to, even if we don’t know the details yet.

A cynical vision brews at the heart of Nightmare Alley, fumes of fear leap up from its pages. Stan spots this window into fear – that raw, base emotion – in the very first chapter when he learns about the geek, and an idea begins to ferment in his mind.

The geek was made by fear. He was afraid of sobering up and getting the horrors. But what made him a drunk? Fear. Find out what they are afraid of and sell it back to them. That’s the key.

This bleak view is further cemented when Stan is reading Pete’s old notebook. Written on its pages are not only Pete and Zeena’s trade secrets but also these lines…

Human nature is the same everywhere. All have the same troubles. They are worried. Can control anybody by finding out what he’s afraid of. They’re all afraid of ill health, of poverty, of boredom, of failure. Fear is the key to human nature.

As an aside, capitalizing on fear and greed is a potent marketing tool even in the corporate world. This strategy of playing on people’s fear and greed reminded me of my stint in a financial firm that tracked stock markets. For instance, when stock markets are in a downward spiral, fear becomes the dominant emotion as investors stare at massive losses in their portfolios. In such times, the marketing copy emphasizes on how a particular strategy can help investors preserve their wealth when there is chaos all around them. That strategy changes in a rising market, when investors are greedy, they want to make big profits and the marketing copy adjusts its tone and message accordingly, highlighting the huge returns to be made from investing in a particular set of stocks.

Anyway, the point here is that Stan’s dreams of making it big in the world are dependent on exploiting this fear. In that sense, the novel explores the foibles of human nature – how people readily abandon reason when they are beset by fear or are promised something that they desperately want; how they become the perfect targets for con artists, crooks and evil doers.

Nightmare Alley brims with liberal use of slang language, the kind of expression natural in the carny world, and Gresham’s writing is a wonderful blend of gutter talk with the lyrical.

The speech fascinated him. His ear caught the rhythm of it and he noted their idioms and worked some of them into his patter. He had found the reason behind the peculiar, drawling language of the old carny hands—it was a composite of all the sprawling regions of the country. It was the talk of the soil and its drawl covered the agility of the brains that poured it out. It was a soothing, illiterate, earthy language.

There is loads of tough talking but at various moments the poetry of the prose shines through such as in these lines…

Loneliness came over him, like an avalanche of snow. He was alone. Where he had always wanted to be. 

Some excellent set pieces pepper the novel – the geek show at the beginning, Stan’s inspired ‘cold reading’ to the policeman, the team learning a thing or two about tarot cards, one of Stan’s duped clients led into believing that her house is haunted by ghosts, Stan’s sessions with Dr Ritter and so on…

In a nutshell, Nightmare Alley is a terrific novel, a fascinating spectacle of manufactured horror and evil. Like the crowd at the geek show, we the readers are the viewers. We are horrified by what we see, but we can’t look away because it’s so utterly riveting. We have to follow this story right through to the end, and when we do those last lines are singed into our minds, lines that depict irony and a cruel twist of fate that is simply unforgettable.

Things We Lost in the Fire – Mariana Enriquez (tr. Megan McDowell)

Last year, the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream made it to My Top 12 Books of 2017 list. As I pored over the glowing reviews of that novel in the cultural sections of newspapers, I stumbled across another translated book from Argentina, and published in the same year. But it was a short story collection this time, and penned by a writer previously unknown to me.

Not surprisingly, this collection was published by Portobello Books, a rather excellent publisher which introduced me to Han Kang and Andres Barba among others.

Things we lost in the fire
Portobello Books Edition

Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of 12 wonderful short stories steeped in Gothic horror. The difference – it’s not set in Victorian London, the birthplace of Gothic fiction, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In most of them, there are many traces of supernatural elements, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships.

The translator, Megan McDowell, gives some perspective on the backdrop against which these stories are set…

Argentina’s twentieth century was scarred by decades of conflict between the leftist guerrillas and state and military forces. The last of many coups took place in 1976, three years after Marian Enriquez was born, and the military dictatorship it installed lasted until 1983. The dictatorship was a period of brutal repression and state terrorism, and thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. Since the dictatorship fell, Argentina has lived its longest period of democracy in recent history.

The collection opens with the story ‘The Dirty Kid.’ In this the narrator is a young woman who chooses to stay alone in her ancestral home in Constitucion, a dangerous neighbourhood rife with poverty and drug junkies. One day, she comes across a homeless woman, and her five year old son. Then, all of a sudden after some days they are gone, and the body of a child surfaces in the neighbourhood. Is it the same dirty kid?

There is a hint of violence that seeps through the story, but equally chilling is the narrator’s casual observation…

I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.

In Enriquez’s stories, violence is a part of everyday, ordinary life and occurs with alarming regularity. Children, in particular are at the centre of many of her stories, either as sufferers or the ones inflicting harm on others.

In one of my favourites ‘Adela’s House’, a group of three children are drawn to a house that is supposedly haunted, expressing extreme eagerness to explore it. But do all of them emerge unscathed?

The idea of going inside the house was my brother’s. He suggested it to me first. I told him he was crazy. And he was, he was obsessed. He needed to know what happened in that house, what was inside. He wanted it with a fervor that was strange to see in an eleven-year old boy. I don’t understand, I could never understand what the house did to him, how it drew him in like that. Because it drew him to it, first. And then he infected Adela.

In ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, the protagonist Pablo is a tour operator taking tourists on a popular murder tour of the city. But one day he sees the apparition of one of the most famous murderers on the tour.

But it was impossible for him to be there, where Pablo saw him standing. The Runt had died in 1944 at the Ushuaia penitentiary in Tierra del Fuego, a thousand miles away, down at the end of the world. What could he possibly be doing now, in the spring of 2014, a ghost passenger on a bus touring the scenes of his crimes?

In her novel Fever Dream, Schweblin uses the supernatural as a tool to expose the ground realities in her country such as the harmful effects of agricultural pesticides. In a similar vein, Enriquez’s haunting and unsettling story ‘Under the Black Water’ mixes the eerie with the stark reality of Argentina’s hazardous, industrial waste dumped in a river.

He also explained to her that the Riachuelo’s deep and rotten stench, which with the right wind and the city’s constant humidity could hang in the air for days, was caused by the lack of oxygen in the water. Anoxia, he’d told her. “The organic material consumers the oxygen in the liquid,” he said…

Horror drips off the pages of this collection, and yet it’s not the only factor that punches you in the gut. Argentina has had a troubling past, it is still transitioning into a democracy, and is grappling with all the problems that a typical developing country faces. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.

Enriquez’ stories also explore relationships, in particular the weaknesses in men and their inability to understand the women they are in a relationship with.

‘The Neighbour’s Courtyard’ for instance focuses on a young couple; the woman is prone to depression, and how her partner just does not get it.

Paula convinced herself that it had been the stress from the move; she’d read once that moving was the third most stressful life event, after the death of a loved one and being fired. In the past two years she’d gone through all three: her father had died, she’d been fired from her job, and she’d moved. And then there was her idiot of a husband, who thought she could get over it all just by trying.

In a nutshell, this is a strange, macabre and superb short story collection, making Argentina a thriving hotbed of exciting literature. There’s loads to explore!

Reading Bingo 2017

Although 2017 is long gone and we are well into 2018, I couldn’t resist compiling this list. It’s a great way to summarize what had been an excellent reading year. Besides my Top 12 Books for the Year, this includes many more books that I loved but just missed the Best of the Year list.

So here goes…

Reading Bingo 2017

A Book with More Than 500 Pages

A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

At around 800 pages, this is a wonderful novel from Japan about family, class distinction and the rise and fall of Japan’s economy. It has also been billed the Japanese ‘Wuthering Heights’ focusing on the intense relationship between the brooding Taro Azuma and the beautiful Yoko. And yet without the Bronte tag, this rich, layered novel stands well on its own feet.

A Forgotten Classic

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym wrote some excellent novels during her time but probably fell out of fashion later. But she has seen a revival of late in the book blogging world. ‘Excellent Women’ in particular is an extraordinary novel about ordinary people. Mildred Lathbury is a spinster, leads an uneventful life and is quite happy with her circumstances, until a new couple move in as neighbours and wreak havoc.

A Book That Became a Movie

Vertigo by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

The first book released by the Pushkin vertigo crime imprint, but much earlier it was the inspiration for the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. This is classic crime fiction with enough suspense, good characterization and plot twists.

A Book Published This Year

Compass by Mathias Enard

An erudite, mesmerizing novel about the cultural influence that the East has had on the West. Over the course of a single night, the protagonist reminisces on his experiences in Damascus, Aleppo, Tehran and his unrequited love for the fiery and intelligent scholar Sarah.

2017 Bingo 1
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press Boxed Set, Folio Society, Pushkin Vertigo, New Directions Hardback

A Book with a Number in the Title

Madame Zero by Sarah Hall

I love Sarah hall’s novels for her raw, spiky writing and she is particularly a master of the short story. This is another brilliant collection of stories about metamorphosis, sexuality and motherhood, the standouts being ‘Evie’ and ‘Mrs Fox’.

A Book Written by Someone under Thirty

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Waugh penned this novel in 1930, when he was 27. A humorous, witty novel and a satire on the ‘Bright Young Things’ – essentially decadent young London society between the two World Wars.

A Book with Non-Human Characters

Record of a Night Too Brief by Hiromi Kawakami

This is a strange, surreal but highly original collection of three stories. From the blurb on Amazon – In a dreamlike adventure, one woman travels through an apparently unending night with a porcelain girlfriend, mist-monsters and villainous moneys; a sister mourns her invisible brother whom only she can still see, while the rest of her family welcome his would-be wife into their home; and an accident with a snake leads a shop girl to discover the snake-families everyone else seems to be concealing.

A Funny Book

Bye Bye Blondie by Virginie Despentes

The novel’s protagonist is the highly volatile Gloria, now in her middle age, but having lost none of her capacity for rage and outbursts of anger. And yet it is not a gory novel. Infact, it has many moments of humour and compassion; a novel brimming with spunk.

2017 Bingo 2
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Folio Society, Pushkin Japanese Novella Series, Feminist Press

A Book by a Female Author

Edith’s Diary by Patricia Highsmith

There were many this year, but I chose one of my favourite female authors, Patricia Highsmith. Edith’s family is breaking apart and she takes to writing a diary. A heartbreaking novel about a woman’s gradual descent into madness told in very subtle prose.

A Book with a Mystery

Black Money by Ross MacDonald

Ross MacDonald wrote the excellent Lew Archer (private detective) series of novels and this is one of them. A solid mystery with wonderful evocation of California, interesting set of characters, and a tightly woven and compelling plot with enough twists and turns.

A Book with a One-Word Title

Sphinx by Anne Garreta

An ingeniously written love story between a dancer and a disc jockey where the gender of the principle characters is never revealed. An even remarkable feat by the translator for ensuring that the essence of the novel (unimportance of gender) is not lost.

A Book of Short Stories

A Circle in the Fire and Other Stories by Flannery O’ Connor

Remarkable collection of stories by the Queen of Southern American gothic. A dash of menace lurks in the everyday lives of ordinary Americans living in the rural regions of the South. The theme of her macabre stories? The painful, necessary salvation that emerges from catastrophic, life-changing, and sometimes life-ending, events. ‘A Good Man is Hard to Find’ and ‘Good Country People’ particularly are classics.

2017 Bingo 3
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Virago Modern Classics, Orion Books, Deep Vellum Publishing, Folio Society)

Free Square

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

This is a passionate love story between an eighteen year old drama student and an actor in his thirties written in innovative prose that brings out the intensity of feelings of the young girl. It was the first book I read in 2017; I loved it and it pretty much set the tone for the rest of a wonderful reading year. The novel had also been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Book Set on a Different Continent

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

The continent is Europe and the novel is Solar Bones – a wonderful, quiet story of a man, his whole life, his work, his marriage, his children set in a small town in Ireland. It is an ode to small town life, a novel suffused with moments of happiness, loss and yearning, and quite simply beautifully penned. This novel was the winner of the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016.

A Non-Fiction Book

Shakespeare and Company, Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone Shop of the Heart

This is a fabulous book on the history of the iconic bookshop in Paris – Shakespeare and Company. It is the story about its founder George Whitman, his passion for books and how some of the most famous authors of his time frequented the shop. Budding authors were allowed to stay in the bookshop (they were called ‘Tumbleweeds’), provided in return – they helped around in the shop and wrote a bit about themselves. The book is a wonderful collection of stories, anecdotes, pictures and also displays many of the written autobiographies of those Tumbleweeds.

The First Book by a Favourite Author

A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter

This isn’t exactly his first book but one of his earlier ones. James Salter has a knack of crafting exquisite sentences and conveying a lot in poetic, pared back prose. ‘Light Years’ still remains my favourite one of his, but this title is also good.

2017 Bingo 4
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Faber & Faber, Canongate Books, Shakespeare & Company Paris, Picador

A Book You Heard About Online

Climates by Andre Maurois

Climates is a story of two marriages. The first is between Phillipe Marcenat and the beautiful Odile, and when Odile abandons him, Phillipe marries the devoted Isabelle. It is a superb novel with profound psychological insights, a book I only heard about through one of the reading blogs I regularly frequent.

A Bestselling Book

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Not sure this is a bestselling book, but I can say that it was certainly the most well-known of all that I read last year. I have always balked at the idea of reading a Woolf for fear of her novels being difficult and highbrow. But I decided to take the plunge with the more accessible Mrs Dalloway. And closed the final pages feeling exhilarated. More of Woolf shall be explored – perhaps, To the Lighthouse will be next?

A Book Based on a True Story

The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald

Penelope Fitzgerald is a wonderful but underrated writer. The Blue Flower is a compelling novel that centres around the unusual romance between the poet Novalis and his young fiancé Sophie. Novalis was the pen name of Georg von Harden berg who was a poet, author and philosopher of Early German Romanticism in the 18th century.

A Book at the Bottom of Your TBR Pile

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi

This was the first title published by Peirene Press way back in 2011, and on the strength of some solid reviews, had been meaning to read it for a while, only to find it languishing at the back of some shelf. I finally pulled it out and gulped it in a single sitting. It is quite a dark, bleak but poignant tale of a young mother and her two sons and the extreme step she takes to shield them from a cruel world.

2017 Bingo 5
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Other Press, Folio Society, Folio Society again, Peirene Press (‘Female Voice: Inner Realities’ Series Book One)

A Book your Friend Loves

First Love by Gwendoline Riley

First Love had received quite some rave reviews last year and was also shortlisted for a couple of prestigious prizes. It is a story of a woman in an abusive marriage told in sharp, intelligent, lucid prose. Here’s the blurb on Amazon – Catastrophically ill-suited for each other, and forever straddling a line between relative calm and explosive confrontation, Neve and her husband, Edwyn, live together in London. As Neve recalls the decisions that brought her to Edwyn, she describes other loves and other debts–from her bullying father and her self-involved mother, to a musician she struggled to forget. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2017.

 A Book that Scares You

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

This is a tense, chilling and utterly gripping book that combines elements of the supernatural with the more real matters of agricultural disasters. The tone of storytelling is feverish and urgent; it filled me with dread as I raced towards the ending.

A Book that is More Than 10 Years Old

The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

A great novel with psychologically complex characters and a narrative style that forces you to keep shifting sympathies with them. And the opening sentence is a corker – This is the saddest story I have ever heard.

The Second Book in a Series

Transit by Rachel Cusk

The first was Outline, which I read at the start of the year. So impressed was I that I read the second in the trilogy – Transit – the same year too. The third one is yet to be published. In both the novels, the protagonist who is a writer meets people while she is away in Greece or in London. They tell her stories about their lives, each one with a different perspective. Paradoxically, the protagonist is in the background as the stories told by her friends, colleagues and new people she meets take centre stage. While the main character’s story is never directly narrated, we learn something about her from the way she interacts with the others. This novel had been shortlisted for the Goldsmiths Prize in 2016. Incidentally, Outline was shortlisted for the same prize in 2014.

A Book with a Blue Cover

The Doll’s Alphabet by Camilla Grudova

This one was easy simply because the publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions made it so. All their fiction titles have blue covers. The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories. Each story is wondrous, fantastical, weird and an ode to anachronism. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness.

2017 Bingo 6
Editions (Clockwise from Top): Oneworld Publications, Folio Society, Picador E-Book, Granta Hardback, Fitzcarraldo

Such Small Hands – Andres Barba (tr. Lisa Dillman)

Portobello Books is a publishing house to watch out for.

In 2015, it released the marvelous The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Hang which turned out to be one of my top reads that year. It’s a story about how a supposedly unremarkable woman decides one to day to become a vegetarian and shocks not only her husband but her whole family and the consequences this act has for everyone (this might not be such a big thing in our world and we are free to make that choice, but in a rigid society such as Korea, it is considered an act of rebellion).

I loved that book unreservedly and have always been keeping a close eye on Portobello’s catalogue every year.

When Portobello published Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, it caught my fancy. The premise of the novel was intriguing and the cover also had a lot to do with it. It’s quite creepy with the doll on the front.

Onto the story then…

Such Small Hands
Portobello Books Harback Edition

This is how the novel opens:

Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.

“Your father died instantly, your mother is in a coma” were the exact words, the first ones that Marina heard. You could touch those words, rest your hand on each sinuous curve; expectant, incomprehensible words.

Marina has lost her parents in a car accident. Marina survives the crash, and while she is traumatised, she is unable to grasp the significance of what has happened. For her, the entire incident is an amalgam of sounds and images. She is too young to articulate these events into words.

Meanwhile, in the hospital, a psychologist is trying to help her cope and gives her a doll.

The doll was small and compact. The psychologist gave it to her to make her a real girl once and for all.

Marina is then told that she will be taken to an orphanage. She has no clue what an orphanage is, obviously not ever having been to one before.

It was too hard to look forward to the orphanage; she didn’t know how to do it. And unable to picture it, random images jumbled together and came gurgling out like a death rattle. She looked at dolly to quiet them. Someone had gone to her house and packed her a doubtful suitcase. Winter clothes and summer clothes all jumbled together.

It’s at the orphanage where the story shifts to a whole new level.

Up until now, the story is told from Marina’s point of view. But once the focus is on the orphanage, the author’s narration shifts to an eerie chorus; a chorus which represents all the other girls. After that, the narration alternates between Marina’s point of view and the chorus of the girls.

In an interview, Granta asked the author what drew him to the collective ‘we’ voice – the chorus, the voice of the other girls. This is what he said:

“I had a tough time finding the appropriate perspective to tell the tale. What finally changed it for me was recognizing that what I was writing was nothing more nor less than a Greek tragedy and that what was therefore needed was . . . a chorus! That discovery gave me a way to give the girls a voice that was both conscious and childlike. It was a literary device that allowed me to be inside and outside the girls.”

The moment Marina makes her entry, it is evident to the girls that she is different. And they do not know how to deal with it.

Marina’s individuality poses a threat to an otherwise calm existence the girls had been leading. Prior to her arrival, they all did the same thing, followed the same routines.

But once Marina is in their midst, they become aware of themselves, of their bodies in a way they never did before.

We don’t even know if we actually saw it: Marina’s scar. We had to defend ourselves against that scar that Marina didn’t hide. Suddenly, we saw each other seeing it, we differentiated each other among things, among the others, we differentiated her, her back, her walk, her eyes, her face like a vague feeling of fear.

And it all started there, like a breach, in her scar.

We became aware of each other and we felt naked before that body that wasn’t like our bodies. For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we had materialized: these hands, these legs. Now we knew that we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose. We huddled together when she approached. We were afraid to touch her.

The girls are also not quite sure how to deal with Marina. They sense she is different. And that makes the girls love her and loathe her at the same time.

During the daytime, the girls are mean to Marina and treat her badly, and yet they are also fascinated by her and want her to be part of them. During the nights, Marina holds some power over them, inventing games that the girls want to eagerly play.

This is a short novel at 94 pages, but Barba manages to transport you into the world of children, their minds and how logic for them is ever shifting. It shows how children have a completely different world of their own. And all may not necessarily be hunky dory as adults perceive it to be. For most adults, children are the sweetest beings. But Barba highlights how children are equally prone to committing acts of cruelty, and playing politics. Adults may not think much of it (the adult world after all is far too complex), but for children their world is real, they live in the present with feelings and emotions that are quite intense.

I didn’t quite love this novel when I was reading it. And yet I was transfixed by it. As the novel veered towards its conclusion, it got murkier, haunting and gripping. More importantly, a few weeks after having read this book, it has stayed quite fresh in my mind and I continue to think about it from time to time; all of which are hallmarks of a very good novel.

Translation credits go to Lisa Dillman.