The Waiting Years – Fumiko Enchi (tr. John Bester)

Fumiko Enchi’s The Waiting Years is my contribution to #JanuaryinJapan and Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literary Challenge, and what a terrific read it turned out to be!

Set at the beginning of the Meiji era, The Waiting Years is a beautifully written, poignant tale of womanhood and forced subservience; a nuanced portrayal of a dysfunctional family dictated by the whims of a wayward man.

Tomo, our protagonist, is married to Yukitomo Shirakawa, a publicly respected man holding a position very high up in the government ranks. But while the Shirakawas are a symbol of respectability when it comes to outward appearances, privately within the confines of the family the scenario could not have been more different.

In the very first chapter, Tomo is tasked with a heartbreaking task, a matter which causes her much anguish. Now that her husband has risen the ranks in his career, bowing down to expectations from certain quarters that he can allow himself a mistress, Yukitomo entrusts Tomo with the job of finding a suitable concubine for him, the younger the better and preferably untouched. Yukitomo has granted funds to Tomo for this purpose with permission to take her time in finding a suitable woman.

The very idea that a husband is asking a wife to find him a mistress is detestable, but Tomo is aware that she hardly has much choice in this matter. She could refuse, but that would not stop Yukitomo from finding a mistress himself and Tomo takes some solace (if one could call it that) in the fact that if the matter of a permanent mistress for Yukitomo is a given, then at least she can have full control of who will set foot in the house.

The earlier chapters focus on the turmoil raging within Tomo, her love for Yukitomo when she married him, a man she still desires, which is why this task is so much harder. Yukitomo’s waywardness is nothing new to Tomo, she is aware of his womanizing ways but officially installing a mistress in the house is a different matter altogether. If Yukitomo has risen in his career, so has Tomo in her position as a government official’s wife – despite her country roots and lack of sophistication, she adapts to the demands of maintaining a respectable household, ensures that the Shirakawa name is held high, and effectively manages all property, land and sundry matters commensurate with the wealth and status of her husband.  

When the novel opens, Tomo and her young daughter Etsuko make the journey to Tokyo from the provincial town of Fukushima. Her destination is the Kusumi house by the Sumida River, the residence of a woman called Kin who Tomo decides to enlist to help her find the right mistress. This job is all the more cumbersome because of its very nature – all forms of enquiries must be discreet and the people consulted must be trustworthy.  Tomo, along with Kin, visits a slew of geisha houses, where even the proprietors are struck by the strangeness of the situation – a man having mistresses hardly raises eyebrows, but a man asking a wife to find a mistress seems bizarre.

Three months pass by without yielding any results until finally, Tomo finds the girl she is looking for. Through a reference, Tomo and Kin visit a school where they watch girls practicing for a dance and her attention is brought to Suga, an innocent girl barely fifteen years of age. Suga is strikingly good-looking, a baleful beauty that is particularly captivating. Suga’s family is in dire circumstances financially, the family business has gone under, and under sheer desperation, they agree to send off Suga to the Shirakawa family. The guilt in Suga’s mother is palpable for having literally ‘sold’ her daughter, and she privately requests Tomo to take upon herself the responsibility of caring for her.

Suga has been vaguely told by her family to respect the master’s wishes without really conveying their true nature. Thus, when ensconced in the Shirakawa household at the very beginning, Suga seems carefree and happy. She is barely older than Etsuko and the two hit it off immediately. But after a few days when reality hits her hard, Suga slowly begins to sink into despondency.

As the novel progresses, in a timespan encompassing several years, various developments take place in the Shirakawa household that only heighten how dysfunctional the family is, particularly its male members – another mistress Yumi is installed as Yukitomo’s mistress, Tomo and Yukitomo’s emotionally distant and unstable son Michimasa is married off to Miya who comes from a trading family and whose easygoing, coquettish manner results in her embarking on a highly forbidden affair with her father-in-law.

Where Enchi excels is to offer a window into these women’s inner lives. She beautifully captures the internal drama of Tomo, Suga and even Yumi – the anguish of their narrowed existence, catering to the whims of a morally irresponsible man, and given the times they lived in, a feeling of having their hands tied and their dreams and desires squashed.

Right from the time she is entrusted with the burdensome task of searching for a suitable concubine, we are privy to the range of emotions that flit through Tomo’s mind; the knowledge that she is no longer desired and that her rightful place in the marital bed is upended by a young girl.

Her mind that under the pressure of the search had felt nothing so long as no suitable woman had presented herself was suddenly assailed with a yearning like the hunger that comes with the ending of a fast. The pain of having publicly to hand over her husband to another gnawed at her within. To Tomo, a husband who would quite happily cause his wife such suffering was a monster of callousness. Yet since to serve her husband was the creed around which her life revolved, to rebel against his outrages would have been to destroy herself as well; besides, there was the love that was still stronger than that creed. Tormented by the one-sided love that gave and gave with no reward, she had no idea, even so, of leaving him.

The idea of leaving Yukitomo and moving back to her parent’s place does occur to her, but she senses the futility of this. Tomo’s upbringing has been as per old-fashioned moral codes and for her to simply abandon them is not easy. She realises she has her children to care for and a wife’s standing to maintain, and she decides to take these developments in her stride. Of course, over the years, Yukitomo’s irresponsible behaviour hardly recedes, and Tomo treads on eggshells, left with the thankless, difficult job of keeping the household together and preventing it from falling apart, which not surprisingly begins to take a toll on her. Although she no longer shares Yukitomo’s bed, her position as his wife remains secure, and yet at the beginning, a flicker of fear passes through her that this might not be so. And yet despite it all, there is an inner strength that is inherent in Tomo, a will of steel palpable that enables her to perform her duties, however unpleasant they may be.  

If Tomo’s standing is not something to be envious of, Suga’s circumstances are even worse (“Pity welled up at the sorry fate of the girl fluttering before her like a great butterfly”). At the very beginning when the reality of placement in the Shirakawa household dawns on her, Suga is beset by a growing sense of disillusionment and sadness. Although her material comforts are taken care of and she no longer has to worry about money, she is struck by the hopelessness of her situation, the loss of freedom that it entails, the feeling of her wings being clipped. Suga’s position is particularly cruel because she is trapped in no-man’s land – she might be Yukitomo’s favourite but does not enjoy the privilege of being the official, respectable mistress of the house, that status irrefutably belongs to Tomo. Suga also lacks Tomo’s ability as Yukitomo’s manager when it comes to matters relating to handling his plethora of estates and other business matters.

As the years pile on and Suga grows older, her sense of claustrophobia only heightens and along with it her resentment for being answerable to Tomo. Nor can Suga marry another man, set up her own home as a respectable wife and start a family. To make matters worse, Suga’s worries only deepen when Yukitomo begins to have an affair with his daughter-in-law, a development that only increases her sense of peril.

There’s also the delicate, complex relationship between Suga and Yumi, the latter installed in the Shirakawa household initially as a maid, only to move on to become another of Yukitomo’s concubines. Suga’s family on hearing this, worry about the rivalry that is likely to arise between the two women, but interestingly rather than become sworn enemies, Suga and Yumi bond as sisters, probably Suga broadly identifies with the grimness of their situation, a spider’s web in which Yumi is as much trapped as Suga.

Yukitomo is the quintessential, tyrannical man, ruling the household with an iron fist, disrespectful of women, compelling them to kowtow to his demands and find a way to adjust to his increasingly untenable loose behaviour. The less said about him the better.

The book also subtly explores the transition of Japan to the Meiji era which is visible in the way Yukitomo’s career plays out. Yukitomo espouses conservative values and along with his boss strongly opposes liberal thinking and the stance of the liberal movement. But he is increasingly aware of the frailty of their seemingly invisible seat of power.

General Kawashima, a man not easily daunted, had said, his large heavy-lidded eyes creasing in a grim frown:  “If we don’t get complete control within the next year or two, it’s all up with us. Personally, I don’t want to live to see that day come.”

Could it be that the demon superintendent, the man who had devoted all his energies to suppressing the popular campaign for civil rights, had come to realize that the new age rolling towards them like the sea at full tide was something against which resistance was possible? Shirakawa could not avoid a sense of disheartenment at the crack he saw appearing in the disposition of this obdurate man who had once so blithely seized people’s homes in what amounted to daylight robbery, and pulled them down in order to make way for a prefectural road – the man who had happily tolerated the poisoning by mineral wastes of a whole area along the banks of the Watarase river so that the copper mine at Ashio might prosper – all this done in the name of loyalty to the state. 

As far as themes go, The Waiting Years, then, is an acutely observed portrait of a marriage and a dysfunctional family, the heartrending sense of entrapment felt by its women who don’t have much agency, which is probably representative of Japanese society at that time.

It is a quietly devastating tale of the plight of women who are compelled to be subservient to the unreasonable demands of men in a patriarchal society. Enchi’s prose is suffused with an elegiac, haunting power; her writing is sensitive and perceptive, finely attuned to the turmoil that seethes within her female characters. The way she delves deep into the complexity of their emotions and depicts the impossibility of their situation is particularly striking. This is an emotionally wrought tale and yet there is no melodrama, which also in a way lends the story an atmosphere of sadness. The novel also simmers with tension, a sense of foreboding about how the events are likely to unravel, not to mention an ending that throws a punch to the gut.

The subject matter might be bleak, but it’s a powerful book with unforgettable characters whose fates will forever be impinged on my mind. Highly recommended!

After Rain – William Trevor

I haven’t read much William Trevor – only his novel Felicia’s Journey and his short story collection Last Stories – and I don’t know why because those books were brilliant and clearly I should be reading more. But I was keen to participate in Cathy and Kim’s A Year With William Trevor (#williamtrevor2023) and thus chose his collection of stories called After Rain, which turned out to be, unsurprisingly, a really stunning work.

As is the case with short story collections, I don’t intend to write on each of the twelve stories in the book, but will dwell on a few instead that I really loved and which give an overall flavour of the collection.

The first in the collection, The Piano Tuner’s Wives, is an achingly poignant, richly layered and sensitively written story about the passage of time on two marriages – two women married to the same man at different points in his life and the bitterness that engulfs the second wife who is unable to emerge from the shadow of the first. Owen Dromgould is the piano tuner of the title and in the opening pages we witness his second marriage to Belle, two years after the death of his first wife Violet.

We soon learn that both Violet and Belle were in love with Owen all those years ago, but Owen chose Violet, a fact that caused Belle much heartache then and resentment in the subsequent years. What particularly irked Belle was that by all measures she definitely had many advantages over Violet – Belle was five years younger and also beautiful, while Violet was plainer, even drab.

But the quality of beauty, always an asset for woman, did nothing to elevate Belle’s position because Owen was blind.

Since the time of her rejection Belle had been unable to shake off her jealousy, resentful because she had looks and Violet hadn’t, bitter because it seemed to her that the punishment of blindness was a punishment for her too.

Violet may not have been blessed in the looks department but she and Owen shared a strong bond and a good marriage. She was in many ways Owen’s “eyes”, his primary source of vision, patiently describing their immediate surroundings both inside their home and on their travels; a kind of a guiding light in his career and shaping up his life, instrumental in helping him set up his piano tuning business and driving him to various appointments thereafter.

Now, several years later, Belle’s wish has been granted, she finally marries the man she’s always loved, and yet something rankles her – Violet’s influence continues to haunt the house. Violet was Owen’s wife, manager, friend and confidante, and her presence in the home is so vivid even after her death that Belle feels stifled. She begins to introduce minor changes into the house to stamp her personality on her newly married home, but it often seems a futile exercise.

Every time she did anything in the house that had been Violet’s she felt it had been done by Violet before her. When she cut up meat for a stew, standing with the light falling on the board that Violet had used, and on the knife, she felt herself a follower. She diced carrots, hoping that Violet had sliced them. She bought new wooden spots because Violet’s had shriveled away so.

There was always this dichotomy: what to keep up, what to change. Was she giving in to Violet when she tended her flowerbeds? Was she giving in to pettiness when she threw away a frying-pan and three wooden spoons?

Owen senses the discomfort in Belle and makes attempts to quell Belle’s unease by assuring her of his love and encouraging her to make changes she deems fit, until Belle chooses that one crucial weapon in her arsenal to change the way Owen sees the world in her final attempt to snuff out Violet.

A Friendship is a fine, beautifully rendered tale of female friendship, marriage and an extra marital affair that threatens to ruin both. Margy and Francesca have been good friends since childhood, a friendship that has remained strong even after Francesca’s marriage to Philip – a dull, stuffy man but a brilliant, respected lawyer – and the birth of her sons, Jason and Ben. Francesca and Margy are as different as chalk and cheese but their friendship has endured for a reason…

Margy brought mild adventure into Francesca’s life, and Francesca recognized that Margy would never suffer the loneliness she feared herself, the vacuum she was certain there would be if her children had not been born.

Philip does not care much for Margy but tolerates her without making it obvious, although the ever perceptive Margy senses this. Margy does sometimes wonder how Francesca managed to marry Philip – his position and its consequent demands of a social life and impeccable household management skills often stresses Francesca, who is much more easygoing.

One day, a quarrel erupts between Philip and Francesca over a prank played by their boys; a development that causes Francesca much distress, and Margy to ease her burden sets in motion a plan that has serious consequences she may have not foreseen.

Child’s Play is a subtle story of the breakdown of a marriage and its repercussions seen through the eyes of the children involved. Rebecca becomes Gerard’s half-sister when Rebecca’s father and Gerard’s mother marry. We soon learn that theirs was an extra-marital affair that resulted in each of their respective marriages falling apart. Gerard’s father and Rebecca’s mother, each now alone, must move on in their own way, with Sunday visits from Gerard and Rebecca respectively to look forward to. For their part, Gerard and Rebecca quickly get along, and the one thread that binds them is the similarity of their circumstances; they come from broken families having witnessed the fights, resentment, bitter recriminations between their parents. The two often indulge in games of play-acting and make-believe, enacting those distressing scenes that only reinforce how deeply their parents’ divorce has affected them.

The titular story After Rain is a beautiful, melancholic tale of lost love and finding the strength to heal and carry on. Set in Italy, Harriet chooses to spend her holidays all by herself in an Italian pensione when the latest of her love affairs ends. The end of this relationship is particularly hard having occurred before the couple’s planned holiday on a Greek island, now cancelled. Wishing to spend some time alone to reflect, Harriet chooses to come to the same Italian hotel of which she has fond memories from childhood; it was where she often stayed with her parents as a child, those flashbacks all the more poignant, because her parents have separated since. However, Harriett’s sense of isolation only heightens during her stay at the hotel; it has moved along with the times, and is markedly different in various aspects from her first impressions of it as a child, and she begins to wonder whether this holiday like all her previous love affairs was just another mistake. Until a stroll in the quaint village, after a particularly heavy spell of rain, and a painting of the Annunciation offers Harriett that singular moment of epiphany.

There is a blankness in her thoughts, a density that feels like muddle also, until she realizes: the Annunciation was painted after rain. Its distant landscape, glimpsed through arches, has the temporary look that she is seeing now. It was after rain that the angel came: those first cool moments were a chosen time.

Widows is a brilliantly written piece on the relationship between two sisters and the undercurrent of jealousy running underneath, hidden at first only for the crack to finally widen. Catherine and Alicia are sisters in their fifties; Alice is elder and beautiful of the two who moves in with Catherine and her husband Matthew when she becomes a widow. The story opens with Matthew’s death, Catherine is now a widow like her sister Alicia and deeply grieving. Alicia was the one blessed with beauty, the popular one, but unlucky in marriage, her husband’s death in many ways a relief. Catherine is the plainer sister but her marriage with Matthew was a very happy one. Alicia hopes that with Matthew’s death her relationship with Catherine will go back to the way it once was (“Why should she not fairly have hoped that in widowhood they would again be sisters first of all”), but the matter of an unpaid bill brought forward by a confidence trickster sparks a fight between the sisters and only highlights Catherine’s loyalty and her love towards her late husband.

Widows were widows first. Catherine would mourn, and feel in solitude the warmth of love. For Alicia there was the memory of her beauty.

Gilbert’s Mother is a masterclass of creeping dread and suspense – a mother paralysed by a sense of entrapment by her possibly wayward son. The story begins with the murder of a 19-year old girl, Carol Dickson, somewhere between ten and midnight, her body being discovered the next day. With no forthcoming suspects, her murderer remains large and the police seem defeated by the lack of progress in the case. The story then zooms to Rosalie Mannion and her twenty-five year old son Gilbert. We learn that there’s something not quite right about him for which he spent some time a few years ago in a psychiatric centre so that his behavioral traits could be observed. Gilbert is employed in an architect’s office and tasked with menial jobs, but his intensity is unnerving and way he meticulously narrates details often taxes Rosalie but she humours him because she senses that no one else does. Gilbert’s erratic behaviour in the past – unexplained disappearances, items missing from the house – often suspiciously coincide with incidents of thefts, arson and so on in the neighbourhood and Rosalie often wonders whether Gilbert is at the centre of it although there is never any proof. Is he then in any way involved in Carol Dickson’s murder?

The Potato Dealer is another wonderful story that examines some of the same themes seen in Felicia’s Journey – an unwed mother and the shame and guilt that follow in its wake. Having lost her father at a young age, Ellie and her mother move in with Ellie’s uncle Mr Larrissey (her mother’s brother) at their family farmhouse. When Ellie is pregnant out of wedlock, the unborn child being the product of a summer love affair with a priest, the sense of shame felt by the family knows no bounds. Despite being Catholics, Ellie’s mother and uncle favour abortion there being no other choice, but Ellie wishes to keep the baby as the symbol of her love for a man who she knows can never marry her. An arrangement is then reached with a potato dealer called Mulreavy – a sum offered to him in exchange for his marriage to Ellie with other forthcoming benefits such as the prospect of owning the land and house once the uncle dies provided he helps with the day’s work in the fields. Mulreavy settles down in his new abode, the child is born and things seemingly progress along smoothly until a growing sense of guilt in Ellie threatens to disrupt their fragile tranquil state and shared arrangement of compromise.

The tales in After Rain, then, are incredibly nuanced, quiet, artfully crafted with a lingering, haunting power that leaves a deep impression. The set-ups are brilliantly presented and the characters depicted are ordinary people struggling to navigate pivotal moments or periods in their lives; Trevor’s masterful portrayal of the small dramas of everyday life come vividly alive on these pages.

Failed relationships, impact of broken marriages on children, extra-marital affairs, children disappointing parents, waywardness of youth, female friendships, betrayal, death, sibling jealousy, and consequences of sex outside marriage are some of the myriad themes uniquely explored in this rich, sumptuous collection. Trevor focuses his unflinching lens on parents and children, friends and lovers, widows, husbands and wives as much as he does on petty thieves and confidence tricksters capturing their innermost turmoil beautifully. His characters experience a gamut of emotions – loss, guilt, shame, mounting unease, despair, jealousy, moments of revelation and even joy.

Tender and exquisite, After Rain, then is a finely chiseled collection of stories that is truly a joy to savour. Highly recommended!

Aliss at the Fire – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I loved the first two volumes of Jon Fosse’s fabulous SeptologyThe Other Name and I is Another – and have yet to read the final book, but thought I’d first read his much shorter work Aliss at the Fire which has been recently published by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.

It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.

To Signe, that day was like any other day, whereupon Asle expressed his wish to head out into the fjord on his small, unsteady boat, an excursion that became part of his daily routine, only that time Asle failed to return home.

Signe persistently wonders why Asle is consumed by this pressing need to take his boat onto the fjord practically every other day. Initially, Signe does not think much about it and even accepts it as a matter of course, but on days leading to that fateful evening Asle’s isolation, his withdrawal into himself and that craving to head out onto the fjord even in inclement weather are occurrences that begin to disturb Signe. And the weather on the day he disappears is turbulent laced with heavy rains and gusty winds, conditions not at all conducive for rowing on the waters.

…because this darkness, this endless darkness all the time now, she can’t stand it, she thinks, and she has to say something to him, something, she thinks, and then it’s as if nothing is what it was, she thinks, and she looks around the room and yes everything is what it was, nothing is different, why does she think that, that something is different? she thinks, why should anything be different? why would she think something like that? that anything could really be different? she thinks, because there he is standing in front of the window, almost impossible to separate from the darkness outside, but what has been wrong with him lately? has something happened? has he changed? why has he gotten so quiet?

Asle agrees and decides to go for a walk instead, all alone, but everytime he urges himself to head back home, he resists. He senses Signe standing by the window staring into the dark; she can’t see him, but he can sense her presence and can’t bring himself to walk back into the house.

As Signe increasingly frets about Asle’s absence, she is paralysed by fear and uncertainty. How will she cope without him if something terrible has happened, but meanwhile in the immediate present what must she do – should she head out to the fjord to search for him? How can she do that all by herself?

As Signe waits for Asle on a day that on the surface seemed normal and yet underlined with a different quality, Signe reflects on their marriage, how they met and were destined to be together and even whether she needed Asle more than he needed her.

Asle, meanwhile, has become a recluse, shunning company as much as possible. There’s a darkness raging inside him that is the colour of the darkness enveloping the fjord, black and impenetrable. It is possible he is suffering from depression and it seems that Signe’s company now does not offer him the solace he desires, his trips onto the fjord is the only activity that entices him.

…but anyway it’s probably all right just to go out for a little walk, he thinks and he starts to walk down the big road and it’s terrible how dark it is now, late in the autumn, they’ve already got to late November, it’s a Tuesday in late November, in the year 1979, and even though it’s only afternoon it has got as dark as if it was evening, that’s how it is at this time of year, late in the autumn, he thinks, and after not much longer it will be just dark, dark all day, with no light left to speak of at all, he thinks, and it’s good to go for a walk, he likes that, he thinks, it sometimes does take some effort to get out of the house, true, but as soon as you’re out it’s better, and he likes it, he likes to walk, he only needs to get going, to re- ally get going, to find his own pace again, and then it’s good, he thinks, it’s as though the heaviness that other- wise fills his life gets a little lighter, it gets taken away from him, turned into movement, it leaves behind the heavy thick motionless blackness that life can be the rest of the time, he thinks, but when he’s walking, he thinks, he can feel like a nice piece of old woodwork…

As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach (“it’s a big fire, and pretty, the yellow and red flames in the darkness in this cold”) around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past.

We are introduced to Aliss while she is busy throwing sticks mounted with sheep’s heads into the fire (“that’s Aliss, he thinks, and he sees it, he knows it. That’s Aliss at the fire”), and her son Kristoffer (Asle’s great grandfather) by her side, a young boy then and completely entranced by the sight before him. In time periods that effortlessly blend and fuse, we also see Kristoffer as an adult married to Brita and their two sons Olaf (Asle’s grandfather) and Asle (Asle’s granduncle). We learn of the tragedy that befalls Kristoffer and Brita when their 7-year old son Asle drowns in the fjord; a fate that shares a striking parallel with Signe’s husband Asle who has also likely drowned. This intermingling of two Asles, how their fates are inextricably bound together and yet different is a recurring theme that is also resonant in the Septology.

Aliss at the Fire, then, is a haunting, lyrical meditation on marriage and the fluctuating emotions within, the pain of loss and seemingly insurmountable grief and the wicked play of fate. As far as their marriage goes, a union of more than twenty years, Signe ponders on what makes two people committed to each other for so long (“what ties two people together?”).  

…and he just opened the door and walked out, she thinks, but then again there are no problems between them, everything is good, they really are the closest couple you can imagine, the two of them, they never say anything to hurt each other, and he probably doesn’t even know, she thinks, what good he can do for her, he can be so unsure of himself, not knowing what he should say or do, but there’s not any resentment of her in him, she’s certainly never noticed any, she thinks, but then why would he want to be out on the fjord all the time? 

The theme of grief and loss is explored not only through Signe’s yearning for Asle and her efforts to process her grief all those years later, but also the grief of a mother and father losing their child (seen through Kristoffer and Brita’s eyes) and the strength required to carry on (“and in the woman’s eyes, her big eyes, there is something like a yellow sunbeam of despair”).  

…he too stood there like that in front of the window, like she now sees herself standing, before he disappeared and stayed gone, gone forever, he often stood like that and looked and looked, and the darkness outside the window was black and he was almost impossible to tell apart from the darkness out there, or else the darkness out there was almost impossible to tell apart from him, that’s how she remembers him, that’s how it was, that’s how he stood, and then he said something about how he wanted to go out on the water for a little while, she thinks, but she never, or almost never, went with him, the fjord was not for her, she thinks, and maybe she should have gone with him more often? and if she had been with him on that evening, then maybe it never would have happened? then maybe he would be here now?

That fate is arbitrary and unpredictable is all too obvious through the repeated occurrence of an event across the five generations with varying outcomes. Kristoffer as a child accidently falls into the fjord waters and Aliss manages to save him in the nick of time, yet Kristoffer’s own child Asle, alas, is not that lucky and drowns at a time when Kristoffer is not around.

The Norwegian fjords are a character in their own right – fierce, sinister, inscrutable and especially ominous during seasons of autumn and winter when the days get increasingly dark and gloomy. This is a deeply atmospheric novella with a vivid sense of place; a mysterious, menacing air that surrounds the fjords and the fates of the characters within the novella’s pages.

…in the summers, rowing out on the fjord when the fjord is sparkling blue, when it glitters all blue, then maybe it’s tempting, when the sun is shining on the fjord and the water is calm and everything is blue upon blue, but now, in darkest autumn, when the fjord is grey and black and colourless and it’s cold and the waves are high and rough, not to mention in winter when there’s snow and ice on the seats of the boat and you have to kick at the rigging to get it loose, get it free of the ice, if you want to free the boat from its moorings, and when snow-covered ice floes are floating on the fjord, why then? what’s the appeal of the fjord then?

The fluid shifts in various points of view and across time spans are seamlessly accomplished within the space of a few paragraphs and sentences; it’s as if the distant past, the immediate past and the present are compressed within the confines of a single space.

Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending the novella an other-worldly quality. In a nutshell, Aliss at the Fire is an excellent novella and a perfect entry into Fosse’s unique world if you haven’t sampled his work before.

Something in Disguise – Elizabeth Jane Howard

Elizabeth Jane Howard’s wonderful series – The Cazalet Chronicles – were some of my favourite books in 2021; intelligently written, perfect comfort reads during a particularly difficult time. Her collaboration with Robert Aickman that produced six ghost stories (three each) in a collection called We Are for the Dark is also well worth reading. I have now embarked on her standalone novels and the first I chose to read was Something in Disguise, a book that I really liked very much.

Something in Disguise is a sad, chilling, darkly funny tale of loneliness within relationships told with Howard’s consummate ease and style.

The book opens with a marriage – Alice, the meek daughter of Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, is to wed a well-to-do conservative man, Leslie Mount, a man who she met on one of her recent holidays.

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

Oliver particularly detests the Colonel, always pouncing on any opportunity to needle him, the brunt of the Colonel’s subsequent anger borne by May, who valiantly attempts to diffuse the situation. Worried that his sister will be expected to take up Alice’s mantle, Oliver immediately convinces Elizabeth to come live with him at their Lincoln street flat in London, a considerably attractive proposition as opposed to being stuck forever at Monk’s Close, a monstrosity of a house in the countryside where the Colonel and May reside. Elizabeth is guilty about abandoning her mother, but the desire to get away from the Colonel is simply too great.

Infact, one gets the impression that Alice also chooses marriage as a means of escape, to get away from the interminable tedium of household chores at Monk’s Close made worse by the Colonel’s irascible, dull personality. Poor May must manage alone. Oliver, meanwhile, is shown to be an erudite, intelligent young man, newly graduated from Oxford, blessed with brains but seriously lacking ambition. With no sense of purpose to guide him, Oliver appears to be aimlessly drifting, unable to settle into any job, and always flitting between girlfriends. He often jokes about marrying a rich girl to save him the indignity of hard work, and what’s more it does seem like he means it.

Elizabeth is nothing like him. She knows that Oliver is fond of her and often wonders why he puts up with her when she is incapable of making intelligent conversation. But she acknowledges the close bond that they share and is happy to play second fiddle to Oliver’s numerous friends and the parties at their place. Once in London, Elizabeth knows she will have to work to earn her living despite the allowance they get from their mother. Displaying a flair for cooking, she begins to professionally cook meals for dinners and parties for her clients – a job that begins on a shaky note but one that she subsequently settles into.

Enmeshed in this set-up is the ghastly house itself, Monk’s Close; a house that the Colonel forces May to buy with her money. He loves it with a zeal that May can’t simply fathom. The house is ugly, cold, airless, with no character whatsoever, and May is faced with the prospect of resigning to her fate, of spending the rest of her life there, dictated by a man who is stingy and a frightful bore. Little wonder then, she seeks refuge in some religious cult meetings her friend Lavinia introduces her to, an organization led by the dubious and opportunistic Dr Sedum. We are given a brief glimpse into May’s first marriage – a seemingly happy union until her husband is killed in the war. Elizabeth often wonders what made her mother marry the Colonel…

Her mother wouldn’t have married Herbert if she’d cared about an intellectual life. She certainly hadn’t married him for money, and at her age sex appeal was out of the question- – so what was it?

As the novel progresses, there’s a love story that unfolds; May becomes increasingly bewildered by the Colonel’s moods and tempers and Alice is forced to admit to herself that her marriage to Leslie may not be the haven she was expecting.

One of the core themes explored in this novel is the loneliness that women feel in a marriage, depicted through the unhappy marriages of both May and Alice. Their thoughts and opinions are not given due weight or agency, often buried under the burden of their husbands’ conventional expectations and infuriatingly patronising attitude.  The men in the novel are deeply flawed, some are cowardly even, but when it comes to the unpopularity scale, the Colonel and Leslie take the cake; they simply possess no redeeming qualities.

The most memorable character in the novel is Claude, Alice’s cherished cat, and it is while portraying his demeanour and his utter contempt for humans and their ways that Elizabeth Jane Howard’s flair for wit and dark humour shines through. There is a particularly hilarious scene at the beginning of the novel whether the industrious Claude steals a couple of trout from the larder, which were to be cooked for the Colonel’s dinner…

He (the Colonel) had managed, during the service, to count the guests – roughly, anyway – and on the whole he felt he had been sensible to put away two of the cold salmon trout that the caterers had been laying out. Those fellows always produced too much food because then they could charge you for it. So he had simply taken away two of the dishes and put them in the larder…

Where Claude, who never had very much to do in the mornings, smelt it. He had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination.

Just like in the Cazalet Chronicles, especially The Light Years, Elizabeth Jane Howard has a striking way of describing food, be they everyday meals or elaborate dinners. She is also terrific at conveying a wonderful sense of place, especially vivid in the chapter set in the south of France whether the languidness of the summer is beautifully evoked. Not to mention she effectively conjures up the atmosphere around Monk’s Close – chilly, dreary and sinister – that so weighs heavy on poor May. Overall there is something magical about Elizabeth Jane Howard’s writing style that is perceptive, intelligent and incredibly immersive.

It was now very hot: their wet heads steamed; cicadas had reached their seemingly endless zenith; the smells of hot thyme, juniper and resin from the pines thickened the hot and dazzling air. They slipped on sharp, slippery stones as they climbed: geckos froze into grace fully heroic attitudes as they approached, and then, when they got too near, disappeared with jerky speed – like odd pieces of silent film pieced together; butterflies loitered, bees zoomed, there were no birds, no fresh water and no shade. ‘A foreign land,’ thought Oliver, watching his sister climbing the path ahead of him.

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

Trust – Hernan Diaz

After many years, the Booker Prize longlist in 2022 has looked quite interesting. I thought Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These was great (it was recently shortlisted for the Prize), as was The Colony by Audrey Magee. To this, I will now add Trust by Hernan Diaz, another excellent read from the list.

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

The book comprises four sections of which the first is called “Bonds”, a book written by the author Harold Vanner, who has seemingly sunk into oblivion. “Bonds” narrates the story of Benjamin Rask whose astounding success on Wall Street and the stock markets during the heydays of the 1920s, transforms him into one of the richest men in the world.

Because he had enjoyed almost every advantage since birth, one of the few privileges denied to Benjamin Rask was that of a heroic rise: his was not a story of resilience and perseverance or the tale of an unbreakable will forging a golden destiny for itself out of little more than dross.

We are told of his privileged background – a gregarious and sociable father whose success has come from running the family tobacco business and cultivating relationships in gentleman’s clubs, the haven where men smoke cigars; and Benjamin’s mother, a woman always surrounded by her coterie of wealthy friends, who spend their days in each other’s homes. Compared to his parents’ need for company, Benjamin grows up as a lonely child with a remarkable aptitude for mathematics and an outlook that differs sharply from that of his father’s.  On the death of his parents, Benjamin begins to chart his own course of success, one that is largely determined by his flair for numbers and staying ahead of the game in the world of high finance despite his awkwardness in social situations.

He was an inept athlete, an apathetic clubman, an unenthusiastic drinker, an indifferent gambler, a lukewarm lover. He, who owed his fortune to tobacco, did not even smoke. Those who accused him of being excessively frugal failed to understand that, in truth, he had no appetites to repress.

We are also introduced to Helen Rask, Benjamin’s wife – a reserved, introverted, deeply intelligent woman born into a family of eccentric aristocrats, parents who are often at odds with one another.  We learn of Helen’s precociousness as a child; her closeness to her father, who nurtures her talent and her thirst for knowledge; and her strained relationship with her mother, a woman with impeccable networking skills and a thirst for a vibrant social life.

Helen had left her childhood in Albany. Being constantly on the move, she met few girls her age, and those casual encounters never had a chance to blossom into full friendships. To pass the time, she taught herself languages with books she shifted between different homes and hotels…When books proved insufficient, she turned to her diary. The dream journals that her father had made her keep for a few years had instilled in her the daily habit of recording her thoughts. Over time, her writings turned away from her dreams and toward her musings on books, her impressions of the cities thy visited, and, during her white nights, her innermost fears and yearnings.

Benjamin and Helen’s marriage becomes a union of mutual respect and understanding given their respective solitary natures rather than love and passion, and while Benjamin goes on to amass unimaginable wealth from the soaring financial markets, Helen focuses her attention on philanthropy, culture, books and music. Until there comes a point when things begin to unravel as Helen’s health deteriorates and she is committed to a medical institute in Switzerland.

The second section titled “My Life” is an autobiography by Andrew Bevel, who is the chief protagonist of Trust (or is he?), an unscrupulous and powerful man willing to go to any lengths possible to restore his public image which he believes has been unfairly tarnished. It quickly becomes clear that Benjamin Rask is a fictional version of Andrew Bevel himself.

My name is known to many, my deeds to some, my life to few. This has never concerned me much. What matters is the tally of our accomplishments, not the tales about us. Still, because my past has so often overlapped with that of our nation, lately I have come to believe that I owe it to the public to share some of the decisive moments of my story.

Bevel’s autobiography is an account written in rough draft of his accomplishments as a financier par excellence, focusing mostly on his illustrious family history, his thoughts on the American economy and the rise of high finance, his instrumental role in shaping up the markets and the most important woman in his life, his wife Mildred Bevel.

These two narratives have similarities and yet differ significantly on crucial aspects. Andrew Bevel and his fictional avatar Benjamin rise to the pinnacle of wealth not only during the unsustainable boom of the stock markets in the 1920s, but they also earn immense profits during the massive Wall Street crash in 1929. But the stories differ on how Bevel’s meteoric rise is perceived. Vanner’s novel paints Rask as an opportunist, his greed for wealth and power starkly apparent and resented at a time when the country is plunged into the doldrums, while Bevel painstakingly paints a picture of a highly intelligent gifted man, who having engineered the country’s economic success is now unfairly accused of instigating its downfall.

The biggest anomaly in both the accounts is the depiction of Mildred Bevel (Helen Rask in Vanner’s novel), who remains an enigma, all the more because there are marked differences in how her personality and her circumstances have been highlighted by both men. Is the fictional woman real or is the real woman a figment of the imagination?

The third section focuses on Ida Partenza, an Italian immigrant, employed as Bevel’s secretary chiefly to type out his autobiography as per instructions given by him personally. After a few sessions with Bevel, Ida is disconcerted to find that rather than give a shape to the facts of Bevel’s life, Ida’s job is really to invent a narrative that aligns with the story Bevel wishes to tell, a large part of it centred on projecting Mildred’s “watered-down” personality to the world. This fuels her quest for the truth, a research that she secretly carries out on the side, if only to untangle fact from fiction.  

“Miss Partenza, I am writing this book to stop the proliferation of versions of my life, not to multiply them. I most emphatically do not want more perspectives, more opinions. This is to be my story.”

And in the fourth section titled “Futures”, we hear from Mildred Bevel herself.

In terms of structure, Diaz’s Trust employs a slew of narrative devices that add depth to the book – a novel within a novel, an unfinished autobiography, memoirs and journals – conjuring up varied perspectives on the same set of events.

With respect to subject matter and themes, in replaying the events of the halcyon years of Wall Street and the debilitating crash thereafter that sparked the depression of the 1930s, one could say that Trust is an exploration of the enigmatic and competitive world of finance, the immense greed and corruption that fuels it, the inequality bred by concentrated wealth at the hands of the very few. Diaz has excellently captured the milieu of the rich – the hush and the quiet, the aura of awe and invincibility that it exudes. One could also say that the novel takes a closer look at the topics of mental illness, deception in relationships and limited roles for women during the early part of the 20th century who languished in the shadows of men.

But at the end of the day, Trust is really a novel about how stories are told (what is revealed, hidden, enhanced or diluted), how viewpoints often differ and how power can warp reality and ultimately influence the narrative.

“It seems to me that you don’t understand what any of this is all about.”

“I do.”

“Is that so?”

“Bending and aligning reality.”