Notes from Childhood – Norah Lange (tr. Charlotte Whittle)

Notes from Childhood is a unique, inventive memoir filled with evocative vignettes that capture the innocence and essence of childhood; the fears, anxieties, love and simple moments of happiness that children experience.

These snapshots of family life and domesticity are filtered through our narrator’s (Norah herself) childhood memories. When the book opens, it is 1910, a few years before the First World War and the family is in the midst of relocating from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, from the urban city to the rural province. Our narrator’s big family comprises her parents, elder sisters (Irene, Marta, Georgina), and younger siblings (Susana and Eduardo).

Flickering and joyous, broken by only a single night, the first journey we made from Buenos Aires to Mendoza emerges from my memory like a landscape recovered through a misted pane of glass.

As Norah and her family settle into their quinta, a stream of visuals presented to us paint a picture of their harmonious existence in Mendoza, a period that forms a substantial part of Norah’s childhood.

She begins by describing the “three windows that looked into her childhood” – her father’s study with its imposing furniture upholstered in leather, a very formal place Norah could visit only occasionally; her mother’s sewing room, which was inviting and emanated warmth as the sewing baskets overflowed with ribbons and lace, a place where her children could unburden themselves; her eldest sister Irene’s room as she regaled them with tales of kidnappings, of elopements, and how she would one day run away from home.

Our narrator then dwells on her sisters and their personalities – the brooding and intense Marta, whose peeled hands “looked like the pages of a well-loved book whose edges curl backward.” There’s Georgina with her immaculate, poised figure, always ready to help with anything and the apple of their mother’s eye. Then there’s Susana, younger but closer to Norah in age, so that they bond better coupled with the fact that both have flaming red hair.  

Shards of surrealism, seen through the prism of a child’s vivid imagination, pierce these scenes. For instance, one such piece conveys how Norah always tried to slip into the faces of people she observed.

At the age of six, whenever I noticed a pronounced curve in the nose of any of the important men who filed through my house, I would laugh. Then I would slide into their faces, positioning my body inside to adjust to their silhouette.

Another touching snippet showcases the tragic death of her father’s horse and the deep impression it leaves on young Norah’s mind. It’s made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the horse could not adapt to its old age and was sidelined for a younger one.

He died of jealousy. That’s how I understood it, and that’s what I wish to keep on believing forever.

Of course, any family life is punctuated by its fair share of highs and lows, so while the birth of their youngest sister Esthercita brings immense joy to the family, the father’s death leaves them feeling adrift as they venture into an uncertain, unknowable future.

Occasionally news from the outside world penetrates the fabric of their domestic life. Even though Buenos Aires is physically and figuratively far away from Europe, the hotbed of strife during the First World War, snatches of it reaches the ears of the sisters inducing feelings of dread.

…the events of the First World War were for us a hazy, distant reality, and once settled in Buenos Aires we were so cut off from all that went on in the world that we ended up forgetting it entirely.

One afternoon, rumors flew through the neighborhood that the Germans were winning. Terrified, and convinced that their victory would mean any number of humiliations, that we would be forced to marry them and to speak their language, we decided to barricade ourselves in the house.

Our narrator, meanwhile, as a child is beset with fears and obsessions (“At one time, it occurred to me to make a list of my obsessions, to contemplate them coldly and perhaps try to free myself of one”). Her role is akin to that of a voyeur, as she observes her sisters and acquaintances surreptitiously, often hidden from full view – she snoops on Marta bathing naked in the moonlight, she peeks into a room where Irene is breastfeeding their younger brother, she yearns to spy on her French teacher’s daughter through a crack in the door so that she can see the latter faint during a dress fitting.

There is joy to be found in simple pleasures – an outing to the cinema (“a room filled with a thick and mysterious darkness we sensed would be unlike any other we’d known”) stimulates feelings of intense excitement and wonder; the crowning glory of those perfect Saturday nights is exemplified by hot baths at dusk complete with lit stoves in the bedrooms, warm towels and nightgowns; while Christmas conjures up glowing images of “huge parcels, that late, keen ritual, that poignant and slightly dreamy midnight…”

I loved to contemplate even more from the next day, in the tangible truth of the gifts that were proofs of its fleeting, mysterious, tender reality.

But this microcosm of a happy family is shattered when the father dies, plunging his wife and children into hardships and poverty, their misery amplified when they are compelled to make the ultimate sacrifice – sell their piano.

Together, we all had sensed that the worse was to come, since though we’d suspected it many times, the sale of the piano was something we didn’t dare countenance for even an instant. The side table, the enormous mirror in the drawing room, and nearly all the furniture we brought from Mendoza had already gone, but giving up the piano represented a decisive, unmistakable poverty.

Our narrator is no stranger to poverty having glimpsed this condition early on in the book when a man approaches her father for a safety pin to fasten his shirt so that he can properly mourn the death of his wife – “I believe no case of poverty has touched me so much since then.”

Where coming-of-age novels typically tend to follow a linear narrative structure mostly illustrated by the protagonist looking back upon his/her past, Notes from Childhood is composed entirely of clips of family scenes woven into a rich tapestry, each clip not more than 2-4 pages long. This fragmented narrative style works since, as adults, what we remember most from our childhood are certain key moments that stand out from everything else.

In her afterward, translator Charlotte Whittle talks about how Lange was inspired by collage artwork  – characterized by varied images stuck together to produce one vibrant piece of art – while composing this memoir. An indication of this is given earlier on in the novel where our narrator entertained herself with her favourite pastime that involved “clipping words from local and foreign papers, arranging them into little piles.”

Notes from Childhood, then, is a gorgeous book exploring the realm of childhood, the light and darkness within it, intimate portraits that sizzle with strangeness, wonder, beauty and sadness.   

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial – Maggie Nelson

The Red Parts is Maggie Nelson’s fascinating, singular account of her aunt Jane’s brutal death and the trial that took place some 35 years afterward. It is a blend of true crime and personal memoir told by Nelson in prose that is clear cut and engaging in style.

In 1969, Maggie Nelson’s aunt Jane Mixer was found dead in a cemetery in Michigan having reportedly died of two gunshot wounds. A stocking found around her neck was used to strangulate her thereafter. Her body was then dragged to the cemetery and left there, while all her personal belongings were carefully gathered and laid beside her body. Jane was on her way home for spring break, and had advertised for a car ride to her home on the college message board. She was not seen since then until her body was discovered a few miles away from the campus.

Jane’s murderer was never found. At around the same time, there were a slew of young women who were murdered by a serial killer called John Norman Collins – these killings were labeled the Michigan Murders – and it was presumed that Collins had also killed Jane although it could not be effectively proved and Collins himself denied having done so.

Meanwhile, the family moved on, but the spectre of her aunt’s death continued to haunt Maggie, who had never met her aunt. She had just released a book of poems on her called “Jane: A Murder” and goes on to describe how the whole process of trying to make sense of that murder consumed her.

But then a phone call that Maggie’s mother received in November 2004 put a new spin on things and altered their world. The Detective Sergeant on the case – Schroeder – informed them of having uncovered new DNA evidence which led to the arrest of the suspect. Profile-wise, the person charged – Gary Leiterman – was nothing like what Maggie had envisaged as her aunt’s potential murderer. A family man and mild mannered, there was no way of gauging why he would brutally murder Jane…the lack of motive was a mystery, but the science of DNA, which overwhelmingly pointed out to him, could not be ignored.

As far as the DNA samples go, there is one particularly fascinating chapter which ponders on the question of how precise DNA testing is. Besides Leiterman’s DNA on Jane’s clothes, there was a single drop of blood on her body that belonged to a prior convict Ruelas.  In 2004, Ruelas was an adult spending time in prison having murdered his mother, so he seemed like a likely suspect. But there was a problem. When Jane was murdered, Ruelas was a four-year old boy…obviously he can’t have killed Jane at that age, so how did his blood land up on her body?

One of the biggest themes that Nelson explores in this book is society’s relentless obsession with violence, particularly against women. She also touches upon how the murder of white women draws significant media attention, while the women of colour who are exposed to violence go unnoticed, as if all lives don’t equally matter.

While writing about her aunt, Nelson also reflects on her family – her parents’ divorce which bewilders her father, his subsequent death and the void it leaves in their lives, the difficulty of connecting with her then rebellious and wayward elder sister Emily, her love-hate relationship with her mom and last but not the least – the lack of warmth both Emily and she feel towards their stepfather.

Nelson particularly draws parallels between her aunt Jane and her sister Emily – both were rebels but paid a heavy price for not always conforming to societal expectations.

For as long as I can remember, this has been one of my favorite feelings. To be alone in public, wandering at night, or lying close to the earth, anonymous, invisible, floating. To be ‘a man of the crowd,’ or, conversely, alone with Nature or your god. To make your claims on public space even as you feel yourself disappearing into its largesse, into its sublimity. To practice for death by feeling completely empty, but somehow still alive.

It’s a sensation that people have tried, in various times and places, to keep women from feeling. 

But more importantly, Nelson wrestles with the fact whether it’s even her right to write about her aunt, to present her story to the world, an aunt she never personally knew, and a story that is not Nelson’s in the first place.

Nelson’s language is lyrical, precise, wonderfully controlled and she eschews any tidy resolution. Yes, the DNA evidence marks Leiterman as the man, but seeds of doubt remain. Nelson’s grandfather (Jane’s father) particularly feels that he would rather have an un-convicted man look him in the eye and confess he killed Jane rather than have a convicted man spend the rest of his life in jail maintaining his innocence.

Nelson is brilliant at depicting how the re-opening of the case after 35 years, reopens old wounds for the family and how they cope with it. For Nelson’s grandfather it feels like his daughter has died twice. Nelson’s mother recalls her fears when Jane was just murdered, that she might be the next in line. And after so many years, even if the guilty party is convicted, will the family feel any sense of closure? Or is the whole exercise pointless because Jane had been dead a long time ago and nothing can ever bring her back?

The witnesses and detectives fold and unfold this towel many times, always with a certain solemnity and formality, as if it were a flag. But the flag of what country, I cannot say. Some dark crescent of land, a place where suffering is essentially meaningless, where the present collapses into the past without warning, where we cannot escape the fates we fear the most, where heavy rains come and wash bodies up and out of their grave, where grief lasts forever and its force never fades.

Nelson wonderfully combines elements of psychoanalysis, a personal memoir that is deeply touching and an interesting crime story with a forensic portrayal of all the details that come with it – the grisly photos of Jane’s dead body, the list of items marked as evidence and an analysis of the truly perplexing enigma of the discovery of a 4-year old’s blood on Jane’s body.

The Red Parts, then, is an honest, gripping and moving account of the painful aftermath of a heinous act being committed. Maybe, writing the book itself offered some sort of a closure, however miniscule, to Nelson, or as she puts it, “Some things might be worth telling simply because they happened.”

I know what I want is impossible. If I can make my language flat enough, exact enough, if I can rinse each sentence clean enough, like washing a stone over and over again in river water, if I can find the right perch or crevice from which to record everything, if I can give myself enough white space, maybe I could do it. I could tell you this story while walking out of this story. I could—it all could—just disappear.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada (tr. Annie McDermott)

I first heard of Selva Almada last year, when Charco Press released her excellent novel, The Wind That Lays Waste, which fuelled my appetite for more of her work. So I had high expectations from her second book published this year – Dead Girls – and I must say it turned to another impressive offering.   

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina.

It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

In 1983, Maria Luisa Quevedo, a fifteen-year old girl, working as a maid, was raped, strangled and dumped in a wasteland on the outskirts of the city of Sáenz Peña.

Sarita Mundín was twenty when she disappeared in March 1988. One year later her disfigured body is found washed up on a river bank in the Córdoba province.

The case of nineteen-year old Andrea Danne, who was training to be a psychology teacher, is even more disturbing because she was murdered while sleeping in her bed in the alleged safety of her own home in San José.

Almada’s investigation into these three murders reveals a shocking societal structure where casual violence is the norm rather than the exception, and while men are the clear culprits, this misogynistic attitude has been ingrained into the psyche of the women too.

I didn’t know a woman could be killed simply for being a woman, but I’d heard stories that gradually, over time, I pieced together. Stories that didn’t end in the woman’s death, but saw her subjected to misogyny, abuse and contempt.

In her introduction, Almada tells us that she completed writing the book in three months, but the research required for it took three years. As part of her extensive fieldwork, Almada pored over police reports, case files and newspaper articles. She communicated with the family members of the three victims either by meeting them personally or through mail. She also had extensive consultations with the Señora – a medium and a tarot card reader – to gain some perspective on the circumstances surrounding those three deaths.

Dead Girls is as tense and gripping as a crime novel but what sets it apart is that Almada is not interested in finding out who committed the murders. The investigation is more to seek out patterns, threads of similarities between the murders of which there are plenty – widespread gossip when these deaths were discovered, lack of serious intent by the police or the law to nab the culprits, and the general sense of apathy – of how little the society cared for what happened to these girls.

Hence, the focus of the book is entirely on the victims, to ensure that their stories do not sink into complete obscurity. Given the unforgivable nature of these crimes, any attempt to extensively explore the motives and reasons behind them would only mean devoting more space to the perpetrators. Why give them that importance?

We are given a glimpse of the potential suspects in each case and the arrests made, but we are also told that lack of concrete proof hampered efforts to build a watertight case with the consequence that the criminals went punished and the murdered girls never got justice.

What also comes to the fore is the malicious gossip and “trial by the public” aspects in each of the three cases. Absence of solid evidence, at the time, did nothing to prevent tongues from wagging, with the result that the victims’ families suffered too. For instance, in Andrea Danne’s case, her mother found herself at the receiving end and judged harshly for slipping into a state of shock and displaying a calm demeanor because this response did not fit in with society’s expectations of wailing and crying. 

Though Almada’s narrative centres on these three girls, while also giving a flavor of the community and neighbourhood they were a part of, she also weaves in elements of her own personal experiences, of the dangers she herself faced as a woman.

I don’t remember a specific conversation about violence against women, or any particular warnings from my mother on the subject. But the topic was always there.

In her powerful introduction as well as in the epilogue, Almada makes it clear that her fate could easily have mirrored that of Maria Luisa, Sarita and Andrea, and if she is alive today it’s only because of sheer luck.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

Violence was normalized. The neighbour beaten by her husband, the teenager next door who put up with her jealous boyfriend’s tantrums, the father who wouldn’t let his daughters wear short skirts or make-up. All the responsibility for what happened to us was laid at our feet: if you stay out late you might be raped, if you talk to strangers you might be raped, if you come back from a dance by yourself you might be raped. If you were raped, it was always your fault.

Almada is, of course, referring to the environment in Argentina. But really, the violence she points to, unfortunately, has global resonance and is the story of pretty much any country.

My Best Books of 2019

To quote Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….” Well, certainly in 2019. But there was nothing quite as therapeutic and rewarding as reading for me this year.

On the surface, books can be the perfect portals to travel to another world. And yet, even where we are, good books can help us make sense of what is happening around us. They introduce us to a myriad of cultures, offer different perspectives on global issues and evoke empathy in a reader. Sometimes we read to glean new meanings and new ways of thinking. Sometimes we marvel at how authors can magically transform innermost feelings and emotions – that resonate with us – into words, which we could not have possibly done ourselves.

Personally, at the best of times, I sunk my teeth into some gorgeous pieces of writing, and savored fresh ideas to mull over. To top it all, I rediscovered some amazing women writers of the early 20th century, whose works, for reasons I cannot quite fathom, had passed me by. But there were some low periods too. And during these times, books were like a soothing balm for a bruised soul.

All in all, 2019 was another brilliant reading year. Most of the books I immersed myself into were fiction – a healthy mix of novels originally written in English (both classics and contemporary lit), translated literature and some short story collections. A couple of times, I did venture outside my comfort zone – poetry and essays – with excellent results.

Let us look at some stats for the best books I ultimately selected:

One more thing. In the last 2-3 years, I largely restricted the list to not more than twelve books. This time I have decided to expand the list a bit. Also, some of the works by Elena Ferrante, Tove Ditlevsen and Olivia Manning are all part of a bigger story spread over 3-4 books, and so for the purposes of this post I have counted them as one (The Neapolitan Novels, The Copenhagen Trilogy and so on).

So without much ado, let’s move on to the books I selected and what made them special…

(The books are not ranked in any particular order. While I have provided a brief write-up on each, for more detailed reviews you can click on the links).

The Best of 2019: The Winners

2019: Books of the Year

The Neapolitan NovelsElena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels took the world by storm when they were published, and My Brilliant Friend – the first book in the quartet – is where it all started. Set in a poor and violent neighbourhood in Naples, these novels chart the friendship between two women – the fiery and fiercely intelligent Lila Cerullo and the clever and hardworking Elena Greco. Their story begins in My Brilliant Friend when the girls are eight years old and ends with the last novel The Story of the Lost Child when the two women are in their sixties. Intense, frenetic, cinematic in scope with richly drawn characters, all the four books are fabulous. I came very late to these books, but it was essentially high quality binge reading!  

Childhood, Youth, DependencyTove Ditlevsen

It was thanks to Twitter that I discovered the joys of Tove Ditlevsen’s memoirs. Childhood, Youth, Dependency (together called The Copenhagen Trilogy) are three brilliant, short books which explore the themes of writing, marriage, parenthood, abortion and drug addiction in a very frank voice. Ditlevsen’s prose is clear, unadorned, and highly absorbing.

One interesting thing about the trilogy is how the mood differs in each of the books. While Childhood is intense and gloomy, Youth is more lighthearted with moments of comedy. Dependency is the best of the lot, quite unsettling and harrowing in some places. Overall, the trilogy is a remarkable piece of work.

The Balkan Trilogy & The Levant TrilogyOlivia Manning

Both of Olivia Manning’s stunning trilogies helped me navigate some challenging times this year.

The first one i.e. The Balkan Trilogy highlights the chaotic lives of Guy and Harriet Pringle – British expats in Bucharest and subsequently in Athens during the Second World War. In The Levant Trilogy, we follow the Pringles to Cairo in Egypt, followed by Damascus and then Jerusalem in the midst of the raging Desert War.

In both the trilogies, Manning superbly brings to life different cities and its citizens during wartime – the increasing uncertainty of having to flee is nerve wracking, and yet at the same time there’s this sense of denial that maybe the conflict will not impact day to day life after all. 

While Guy and Harriet Pringle are the central characters, the supporting cast is great too…particularly Yakimov, an aristocrat fallen on hard times, and the wealthy, irreverent Angela Hooper who is forced to grapple with a personal tragedy.

The Driver’s Seat Muriel Spark

2019 marked my entry into the brilliant world of Muriel Spark. I began with the rather black and hilarious Memento Mori and followed it up with the excellent The Girls of Slender Means (which I have not reviewed).

Both the books could have easily found a spot on this list had there been space, but the Spark I am going to include is The Driver’s Seat.

This is a clever novel – weird and dark as heck – and the central protagonist Lise is an unforgettable, bizarre creation. The opening pages are memorable where Lise tries on a dress in a shop, but creates a ruckus when she is told the dress is stain resistant!

Good BehaviourMolly Keane

Good Behaviour is considered to be Molly Keane’s masterpiece. The focal point is the St Charles family at a time when the world of aristocracy and country estates is fading. It is a family that prides itself on manners and insists on ‘good behaviour’, where feelings and emotions are hidden, and not explicitly stated. 

At the centre of it all is Aroon, the narrator of this tale. And yet, paradoxically, in all of her relationships, Aroon is always at the fringes unable to grasp the full meaning of the events taking place around her. She is an awkward, tragic creation longing to belong.

This is a dark gem brimming with family secrets and hidden meanings and a great ending.

Vertigo & GhostFiona Benson

Fiona Benson’s Vertigo & Ghost was the only poetry collection I read this year, and what a fabulous collection it was!

The collection is divided into two sections. In Part One, Zeus, the god of gods in Greek mythology, is portrayed as a serial rapist and an abuser. He is unable to control his urges, and longs to exert his power over women and little girls. This section is stunning as Benson’s writing is furious and visceral and the poems surge along at a frenetic pace.

Part Two is more reflective and meditative but without losing any power. It deals with the themes of depression, nature and the first stages of motherhood – especially the fear and anxiety of being a new mother.

Vertigo & Ghost won the prestigious 2019 Forward Prize for poetry, and has also been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. And very rightly so!

Slow Days, Fast CompanyEve Babitz

When it comes to the evocative portrayal of California and Los Angeles, there is no female writer to match either Eve Babitz or Joan Didion.

I didn’t read any Didion this year (her novel Play It as It Lays was one of my top reads in 2016), which I hope to correct come 2020.

I did venture for the first time into the work of Eve Babitz though. Eve Babitz was a firm fixture in the L.A. circuit. But her flamboyant lifestyle, her string of lovers and the fact that she played chess nude with Marcel Duchamp lent her a notoriety that unfortunately overshadowed her standing as a strong writer.

Slow Days, Fast Company is absolutely delightful, simmering with hedonistic qualities. Babitz comes across as a spunky, witty and worldly woman who understands the trappings of her milieu, and is frank about it. The book is filled with immensely quotably lines and reminded me of another favourite short story writer of mine – Lucia Berlin.

The Juniper TreeBarbara Comyns

In ‘The Juniper Tree’, Barbara Comyns cleverly provides her own feminist twist to the Brothers Grimm fairytale of the same name as she examines what it means for a woman to be independent.

Bella Winter is scarred by an accident, ditched by her boyfriend and is the mother of an illegitimate child. Despite these challenges, she has the resolve to carry on and manages to eke out an independent life by working in an antiques shop, a job she comes to love.

Then she becomes friends with the wealthy couple Gertrude and Bernard, and for a while things coast along smoothly. But will this idyllic existence last? The Juniper Tree is a wicked jewel of a novel suffused with a delicious sense of dread and foreboding and a tale that lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.

The German Room Carla Maliandi

In The German Room, the central protagonist is a young woman who travels from Argentina to Germany to escape all her problems back home. But life in the town of Heidelberg has its own share of adventures and challenges.

Throughout the book, our protagonist is ambivalent about her situation and circumstances, preferring to go with the flow. It is this uncertainty that drives the narrative forward and makes the story quite suspenseful. One character particularly sticks in the mind – her friend Shanice’s mother, a woman quite tragic and haunting.

Fish SoupMargarita Garcia Robayo

Fish Soup is an invigorating collection of novellas and stories that explore the themes of frayed relationships, travel and the opposing forces of sex and desire as against abstinence and self-denial.

The first novella – ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ – is particularly the highlight where the narrator is dissatisfied with her current life and longs to escape and run away from her dead-end circumstances. The other novella – ‘Sexual Education’ is equally good. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Mrs Palfrey at the ClaremontElizabeth Taylor

There has been a lot of love for Elizabeth Taylor on Twitter to the point that I could ignore it no longer. It had inexplicably been a long while since I read A Game of Hide and Seek – a great one – and it was time to remedy that with Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont.

Mrs Palfrey is an exquisite and bittersweet novel on ageing and loneliness sprinkled with doses of humour. Taylor’s writing is gorgeous and she manages to make this a poignant read with observations that are biting and hard-edged. Taylor has nailed to perfection the psyche of all her characters and the insecurities they have to grapple with in old age. I must read more Taylor in 2020.

The Man Who Saw EverythingDeborah Levy

I am a big fan of Deborah Levy’s writing. I have pretty much loved everything I have read of hers so far and the second instalment in her ‘living autobiography’ – The Cost of Living – had been one of my best books in 2018.

I must say that her latest offering, The Man Who Saw Everything, also more than met my expectations. The Beatles play a significant role in The Man Who Saw Everything, particularly the part about the band’s camera shoot for the cover of their album Abbey Road, the last album they recorded together.

In Part One, it is September 1988. Saul Adler, 28, is crossing Abbey Road, preoccupied in thought, when he is hit by a car, a Jaguar. Saul is not grievously hurt and manages to get up and keep his date with his girlfriend Jennifer Moreau. When Part Two begins, it is June 2016 and we are once again on Abbey Road, London. Saul Adler is crossing the zebra, deep in thought and is hit by a Jaguar, whose mirror is also shattered. This time Saul is badly injured.

The Man Who Saw Everything is a wonderfully disorienting novel and if you are looking for an anchor while reading it, Deborah Levy refuses to give you any. The novel is like a prism offering different perspectives and is peppered with recurring motifs and ideas. Plus, in Saul Adler, Levy has brought to life a complex character.

Conversations with FriendsSally Rooney

Conversations with Friends was one of those novels which I began reading with low expectations courtesy all the hype but ended up loving. It is a story of four people – the intellectual Frances and her outspoken friend Bobbi who strike up a friendship with Melissa, a reputed journalist, and her actor husband Nick. This is nothing like your run-of-the-mill novel on adultery. What stands out is Rooney’s ability to astutely convey the complexities of modern relationships. Plus, she has a flair for wit and her dialogues are spot on!

The Ten Loves of Mr NishinoHiromi Kawakami

The Ten Loves of Mr Nishino is an excellent collection of ten interconnected tales of love told in sharp, lucid prose. Each of those ten stories is told by a different woman. As the title suggests, Yukihiko Nishino is the main thread that binds these tales. There is a beguiling and other worldly quality to Kawakami’s writing laced with her keen insights and observations.

Summing Up and Some Honourable Mentions…

That rounds up my best books in 2019. I could easily have included a couple of more titles, so let me give a special shout out to Loop by Brenda Lozano and Disoriental by Négar Djavadi.

Happy reading and best wishes for the festive season!

Welcome Home – Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin was relatively unknown when her first compiled collection of short stories called ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ was released three years ago, 11 years after her death. But this collection became a huge hit with readers and critics alike, and she gained recognition in a way that she never did during her lifetime.

I absolutely loved it too, and it found a place in my Best Books of 2016 list.

Hence, when it was revealed that Picador in the UK (and Farrar, Straus, Giroux in the US) were going to release two (and not one!) new books this year by Berlin, I was thrilled.

The two books are – Evening in Paradise, a short story collection (Yay! More stories from Berlin), and her memoir Welcome Home.

I rarely read memoirs, but given that Berlin’s real life was as endlessly fascinating, adventurous and rich as the stories that drew from these experiences, I was very keen to make an exception this time.

Welcome Home
Picador Hardback Edition

Welcome Home consists of Lucia Berlin’s memoir peppered with wonderful photographs (of her, her sons and family), and a selection of her letters (a majority of them to friends Edward and Helene Dorn).

The memoir comes first, and rather than a linear retelling, Berlin has focused on places she has lived in and the memories associated with them. It has a spare, impressionistic feel to it; the hallmark of Berlin’s writing.

It begins in Juneau, Alaska where Lucia was born, and the description is enchanting enough…

They said it was a sweet small house with many windows and sturdy woodstoves, screens taut against mosquitoes. It looked out on the bay, onto sunsets and stars and dazzling Northern Lights. My mother would rock me as she gazed down at the harbor, which was always crowded with fishing boats and tugs, American and Russian ore ships.

From thereon, Berlin writes about her childhood in places such as Idaho, Kentucky, Montana, El Paso in Texas and then onto Santiago in Chile.

The rate at which Lucia Berlin moved places both during childhood and adulthood is simply astonishing. Her father was a mining engineer and thus the family kept shifting often.

In Montana for instance, Berlin talks about how her father took her into the mountains every Saturday for weeks before the first snow. An old prospector lived alone in a cabin up there, and they carried winter supplies to him. This snippet of her life offers us a glimpse into Lucia’s early fascination with stories.

I carefully tore out pages from magazines and glued them onto the walls with flour and water paste, careful so as not to wet any of the text. The idea was to have a tight patchwork of pages all over the cabin, from floor to celing. All through the dark days of winter Johnson (the prospector) would read the walls. It was important to mix up the pages and magazines, so that page 20 might be high on a north wall and 21 on the bottom of the south wall.

I believe this was my first lesson in literature, in the infinite possibilities of creativity. What I knew for sure was his walls were a great idea. This way, since they were not in any order, whenever he read a page he had to invent the story that went with it…

When her father gets called abroad for the Second World War, Lucia and her family move to El Paso in Texas to stay with Lucia’s grandparents, where relations between them and her mother are fraught.

Most evenings he (Lucia’s grandfather) was at the Elks club and my mother was at the Pomeroys’ playing bridge or in Juarez. The two of them ate in their own bedrooms and never spoke a word to each other.

Once the war is over, Lucia’s father comes back and they move to Patagonia in Arizona, and it’s a phase in her life where she wonders, “Is it possible that we were all happy every day that we lived there?”

It is during her teenage years that the family moves to Santiago in Chile, and here Berlin lives a rich life brimming with a buzzing social circle – friends, parties, balls, dresses and so on. Her mother cannot adapt to this high society life, always retiring to bed early with a bottle, and it falls upon Lucia to host these gatherings.

After moving back to the US during her late teens, Berlin goes on to marry a sculptor with whom she has two sons – Mark and Jeff. He ditches her and just before her second son  Jeff is born Lucia meets and marries the jazz musician Race Newton. This period of her life is also marked with moves and chaos as the family first settle in Albuquerque, New Mexico and then move on to the East, to New York City, where the jazz scene is flourishing.

Berlin finally marries Buddy Berlin, another jazz musician, who is brilliant, charismatic and dynamic but consistently struggling with a drug addiction problem. She eventually went on to divorce him too and never re-married.

However, Berlin’s memoir was unfinished at the time of her death, and she had left off at the time when the family was once again on the move in both New Mexico and Mexico (she had not yet divorced Buddy Berlin, which she would eventually do).

One of things that is so fascinating about Berlin’s stories and her memoir is the constant moving, travelling, never settling down anywhere for long periods. It only gave way to chaos and upheavals. One wonders why that is so….

Of course, she didn’t have much choice in her younger years given the demands of her father’s profession, but even in her adult years, she was never rooted to one place. It could be that on some subconscious level, she welcomed upheavals and the chances it offered to re-invent herself, as opposed to staying in stasis for too long at any one place and suffering boredom.

It is a mesmerising, fascinating life nevertheless, and gave Berlin a lot of rich material to work with when writing her stories.

At the end of the memoir, Berlin provides a list of the places she has lived in titled, “The Trouble with All the Houses I’ve Lived in”

Here’s a snippet:

Corrales Road, Alameda, New Mexico – No running water, no electricity, no bathroom. Two kids in diapers.

Thirteenth Street, New York City – Five flights up. Two kids, none walking. Blizzard, all streets closed, miracle. Rothko.

Acapulco, Mexico – Honeymoon. Three weeks of rain. Flood, dysentery, Mark electrocuted, more flood.

An article in the Los Angeles Times sums it up wonderfully…

As the list of her homes suggests, her 68 years were almost impossibly full of travel, adventure, loves found and lost, alcoholism and its defeat, and the struggle to get by as a single mother of four boys.

The second section of Welcome Home comprises her letters.

The first letter is a poignant one from her father when he is away at war and Lucia is 8 years old.

The reason I’m writing you this, Lucia, is that I’m so far away I can’t talk to you like I used to, and I just suddenly remembered, in the middle of this war, that you’re growing up without a daddy almost. I want you to know, now that you are the young lady of the house, that you are a partner in this family and we want it to be the most wonderful and happiest family in the whole world…

The second one is to a friend Lorna, where she confesses that she loves Lou (Berlin’s first love before she married) but is not sure she wants to marry yet given her desire to make something of her life. Berlin was 17 then.

I love Lou and we’re still going together, but all of a sudden I have become ambitious, and I want to finish school and there are so many bloody things I want to do…I never thought school would ever come between me and a guy…I’m real proud of myself…got two A’s in summer school…I like this idea of doing something and working for something that I can be proud of doing…

The later letters are mostly to her friends – poets Edward and Helene Dorn, and many are written in 1959, the period when she was in New York with her second husband Race Newton. And then on, she wrote from Mexico and New Mexico when she was married and living with Buddy Berlin. Essentially these letters correspond to the same time period as her unfinished memoir. They give a great feel of what was going on in her mind during those times, her struggles, and her attempts to churn out quality writing material often asking Edward Dorn to give the necessary feedback.

Welcome Home is a wonderful companion piece to Lucia Berlin’s short story collections. And it was just as much of a pleasure to get a glimpse into her real life, as it was to read her stories.