Somebody Loves You – Mona Arshi

Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You first came to my attention when it was shortlisted this year for the Goldsmiths Prize, always an interesting prize to follow…and it turned out to be an excellent read.

The day my sister tried to drag the baby fox into our house was the same day my mother had her first mental breakdown.

Thus begins the second chapter in Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You, a beautifully written, poetic, coming-of-age novel on family, mental illness, immigrant life and the trials of growing up.

Comprising a series of vignettes (the kind of storytelling I’ve come to love), this novel is mostly from Ruby’s point of view who from an early age decides to become silent on her own terms, refusing to speak.

The first time I spoke out loud at school I said the word sister and tripped all over it. I tried a second time, and my tongue got caught on the middle-syllable hiss and hovered there. The third time? A teacher asked me a question, and I opened my mouth as a sort of formality but closed it softly, knowing with perfect certainty that nothing would ever come out again. I was certain about this the next morning and even more certain about it the day following that. I uttered absolutely nothing. It became the most certain thing in my life. 

These myriad snapshots coalesce to paint a picture of a family struggling to come to terms with their inner demons and the demands of the world outside.

Ruby is the youngest member of her family that comprises her parents and her older, more voluble and fiery sister Rania. Her father is an “untidily put together man with a mild temperament.” Her mother is prone to bouts of depression which entails days and months of absence from home until one day she never comes back. During these days called Mugdays (“Mugdays start with unpredictable and approximate mornings”), when the mother’s melancholy moods take centrestage and performing simple tasks becomes a challenge, the burden of responsibility falls on Rania and Ruby who are compelled to do the heavy lifting.

Gradually we are given a glimpse into Ruby’s circle of friends, family members and neighbours. As far as the extended family goes, there’s Biji, the maternal grandmother, who relies on potions and superstitions to ward off the cloud of despondency that has descended upon Ruby’s mother as well as various ills that afflict Ruby in her early years; Auntie Number One, who Rania and Ruby dislike because “she almost always appeared when there was some crisis or other in the family”, her presence a constant reminder that things at home are not well. Biji derides Auntie Number One for her modern outlook, remarking that she is “tainted by the bitterness of unmarriage and the foul bile that builds up in a barren womb.” But there’s something about their aunt that also impresses the girls…

Rania and I knew the truth about Auntie Number One; we had come across her once on The High Street. We knew she lived with a man; we caught sight of her putting up posters for the Labour Party with someone who wore a leather jacket; they kept leaning into each other and sharing a kiss and a roll-up cigarette. Rania was impressed. ‘Look, Ruby, he’s not even bad-looking – good for Auntie Number One. She actually seems happy!’

We learn of Ruby’s friendships with a boy called David, who is nonjudgmental and accepts her for who she is (“he was complicated and sensitive and had been adopted”); her best friend Farah who longs for a normal life and to be accepted by her peers only to be estranged from Ruby when her wish is granted.

The next time I see her at school she’s been adopted by her classmates again and is becoming prettified. This time the makeup sticks and the clothes hang spectacularly on her long body. She is spectacular. Her little teeth are glinting in happiness. When I am in the library, I meet her in the doorway; her eye makeup is in three different shades and matches her jumper, good for her. This is Farah. The other Farah is dying softly in another room.

Racism, violence against women, mental illness, loss, sisterhood are some of the themes woven into the fabric of this novel that make it such a haunting, elegiac read. As their mother’s moods become increasingly unpredictable, and the father struggles to cope, the sisters appear to share the kind of bond that helps them tentatively navigate challenges at home, school as well as the heartaches of plain growing up. One gets the feeling that Rania is the stronger sibling, protective of her younger sister, and those roles get reversed later when a traumatic event compels Rania to seek solace in Ruby’s companionship, Ruby’s silence is a balm to the clamour in Rania’s heart.

The spectre of racism looms large – when Ruby is born, her mother is attended “by a health visitor who was suspicious about Indian mothers and their baby-mother-habits”; a pen friend is forbidden by her father to write letters to Ruby (“I’m not allowed to be your pen friend anymore because he found out you’re a Paki”). Hints of violence against women disturbingly abound, Rania will go on to face the worst of it as the novel progresses.

Mental illness and its impact on a family unit is a core theme, particularly, explored. For Ruby’s mother suffering from chronic depression, gardening becomes a hobby that sustains her – the positive vibes from plants and flowers growing and blossoming with tender loving care adds that extra spring to her step, even if her family does not share her passion. However, the menacing approach of winter when most activities in the garden cease is a portent of darkness once again enveloping the mother’s mind. 

When the garden’s asleep for winter, when there’s nothing to nurture, nothing to fight for or revive on the borders, when my mother has put away her tools and potting soil in our shed, that strange look of blank hunger takes up residence.

Employing a style that is episodic and non-linear, this is a sensitively written novel – quietly devastating and lush with vivid imagery and poetic descriptions. For instance, the very first vignette has shades of a dream logic, where Ruby puts a blue egg into her mouth which transforms into a slew of birds filling the room “with their iridescent turquoise feathers and clamour of yellow-black beaks”; the word ‘agony’ to Ruby is the worst of all the ‘a’ words because “there was a sliver of glass in the middle of the brittle ‘o’.”

Ruby might be silent but her voice is unforgettable as she tries to comprehend and cope with various forces at play often resisting the growing pressure to blend in (“’Are you listening?’ Farah persists. ‘Because sometimes I think you are drifting further and further from what is normal’”).  While the tone is often melancholic, the sheer beauty of the writing and a unique way of looking at the world makes Somebody Loves You an astonishing read.

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.”

The Trouble with Happiness & Other Stories – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Michael Favala Goldman)

Tove Ditlevsen first came to my attention three years ago with the publication of her remarkable The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three memoirs – Childhood, Youth and Dependency – released in slim, individual volumes by Penguin Classics. I loved that trilogy, some of the best books I read in 2019. Another book called The Faces, a lived experience of mental illness, was also pretty good. And now we have the latest offering, her short story collection, The Trouble with Happiness, another superb book that in terms of content and style pretty much mirrors the trilogy.

The Trouble with Happiness are terrific stories of fear, anxiety, guilt, loneliness, told by Ditlevsen in her customary frank, lucid, absorbing style. The book is an amalgamation of two collections – “The Umbrella” and “The Trouble with Happiness” with around ten to eleven stories under each. Just like the previous collections I have reviewed, I won’t focus on all of them but more on those stories that really stood out for me.

In the first story, “The Umbrella”, we are introduced to Helga who “had always – unreasonably – expected more from life than it could deliver.” Helga is presented to us as on ordinary woman having never demonstrated a special talent of any kind.” She is hardworking, accommodating, and quiet and like her girlfriends interested in dancing and men, although she never displays the kind of desperation her friends sometimes do.

Over time, many small infatuations rippled the surface of her mind, like the spring breeze that makes new leaves tremble without changing their life’s course. 

But then Egon comes along, falling hard for Helga and they get engaged. Egon is a mechanic, interested in sports, and not culturally inclined, and yet during their days of courtship he reads poetry, using modes of expression very unlike him. Egon is happy with the fact that he is engaged to a chaste woman. But her first experience of physical intimacy leaves her confused with the sinking feeling that there was nothing very extraordinary about it.  For her parents though, it’s a perfect match, but Helga is beset by uneasiness, the source of which she can’t put a name to.

When she was half asleep, a strange desire came drifting into her consciousness: If only I had an umbrella, she thought. It occurred to her suddenly that this item, which for certain people was just a natural necessity, was something she had dreamed of her whole life. As a child, she had filled her Christmas wish lists with sensible, affordable things: a doll, a pair of red mittens, roller skates. And then, when the gifts were lying under the tree on Christmas Eve, she’d been gripped by an ecstasy of expectation. She’d looked at her boxes as if they held the meaning of life itself, and her hands had shaken as she opened them. Afterward, she’d sat crying over the doll, the mittens, and the roller skates she had asked for. “You ungrateful child,” her mother had hissed. “You always ruin it for us.” 

The umbrella, in many ways, symbolizes a secret desire, a want, and an alternate world that Helga keeps longing for and thinking about, because the reality has turned out to be a disappointment. While her life has all the hallmarks of respectability – a home, husband and child – Helga increasingly becomes indifferent, lost in her inner world. But then, a day dawns when she converts her desire for an umbrella to a reality that has dramatic consequences.

In “My Wife Doesn’t Dance”, an innocuous comment made by the protagonist’s husband opens the floodgates for a host of insecurities to spill out (“A hollow melancholy enveloped her with an unmerciful darkness she could not escape”). Our unnamed woman hears her husband answer the telephone, and tell the person at the other end who is advertising dance classes that his wife doesn’t dance. Nothing wrong with that statement when taken at face value, but for the protagonist it reveals many hidden meanings. We learn that she suffers from a limp that is quite conspicuous when she walks but it soon becomes apparent that this is a childhood torment that she hasn’t completely left behind, ready to resurface at the slightest hint. She is an accomplished woman capable of eloquently speaking on a variety of topics such as art, literature, politics and is married to a man who loves and desires her. So why is she on tenterhooks?

Did he think about it when they were out together? All the time? Had she lulled herself into a false sense of security here, inside the walls of the home they had created together?

In “Queen of the Night” we get a glimpse of a toxic marriage through the eyes of a young girl. When the story opens, Grete is kneeling on a chair observing her mother put on make-up for a carnival she’s about to attend, a spectacle that completely absorbs the young girls’ attention.  Grete’s father is nearby, seemingly fast asleep, after having worked a night shift, and the mother is anxious about not waking him up. Grete loves her mother’s costume called Queen of the Night that “made a nice crinkling sound when she moved”, the nicest and the most expensive dress in the catalogue. This costume becomes a symbol of how mismatched the couple is, money as always remains a bone of contention.

The cloth for that one had only cost two kroner, but her father, as usual, still had to calculate how many bags of oatmeal or pounds of carrots could have been bought with the money. What nonsense. They had oatmeal and carrots to eat anyway, and her mother didn’t get many chances to enjoy herself, and it wasn’t her fault he was unemployed half the year, so she had to go out and clean for other people.

Grete loves her mother and resents her father taunting her all the time (“Grete was completely convinced that they would be better off if her father wasn’t around”), and the reader observes a brief moment of bonding between father and daughter but that spell is quickly broken.

“One Morning in a Residential Neighbourhood” is a heartbreaking tale of a breakup of a marriage and family life and its shattering impact on the various parties involved. On one particularly cold morning, a young girl is wearing her new brown winter coat for the first time, in anticipation of a journey she is about to embark on with her father. Her nanny Miss Hansen is inconsolable, and wakes up the girl that morning unable to stop crying. The girl’s mother is also dazed, trying to brace herself for this difficult moment, vaguely aware that she is being judged and secretly admonished by everyone around her. The father is obviously coming to take the young girl away, as previously arranged with his wife, but the girl is unaware of the real circumstances of this ‘so-called trip’ she’s about to take with her father (“Children are so willing to be tricked to avoid the truth they don’t want to hear”).

In “Depression”, another excellent piece, a woman married to her depressed husband, comes pretty close to a nervous breakdown herself. The story opens with Lulu, washing stacked plates at the sink, dead tired after playing the perfect hostess at a house party. The festivities aren’t entirely over yet, her husband Kai, who has smoked and drank copiously, is still regaling his guests, but by this time Lulu could not be bothered. We learn that Kai is suffering from depression, the first bout having lasted five months…

Of course, it was unfortunate, but to her mind it wasn’t the end of the world. And certainly not for him. In the end, she was the one who had to do the heavy lifting.

Lulu is seemingly content and well-adjusted to Kai and his unemployment is not a nagging source of worry because they are supported by his parents financially. But a sense of discontent is gradually looming large within Lulu. Kai is visiting a psychoanalyst but it doesn’t seem to be helping, while the costs of those visits keep mounting. During periods when he manages to cast away the shackles of his mental illness, Kai becomes a transformed person, happy, carefree and eager to socialize. Those moments gladden Lulu but it feels fragile, as if a bomb is ticking, because the next bout of depression could just be around the corner ready once again to drown Kai. Meanwhile, Kai seems to be taking Lulu’s good health for granted, because Lulu often wonders “how he would take it if one day she ‘gave up’!” Until one day, she does come close to breaking point.

Bullying fathers and passive-aggressive behaviour forms the backbone of “The Knife”, another superb story and the first in the second collection. The father in this tale is an overtly cold, rational man who abhors affection and sentimentality.

One of the duties he adopted, for some obscure reason, was to show his family a cool and slightly accusatory tone, which was supposed to express his general attitude toward life, and reinforce his own estimation of himself as a rational person who disdained sentimentality.

He is married to a woman called Esther and they have a young son, although the father is ambivalent towards them, sometimes struck with the thought – “My life would have evolved quite differently if they weren’t around.”

Meanwhile, the father has gifted his son a very special knife, a relic that has passed hands through the generations. And the boy has been warned not to lose it and look after it well. Every Christmas, it becomes a tradition for the son to display the knife to his parents, but one Christmas, the son in a fit of extreme fear and panic is forced to confess that he has lost the knife. The mother senses the fear and immediately takes her son’s side, nonchalantly declaring that the knife is probably just misplaced and bound to turn up soon. The father, however, is livid. But is the father genuinely upset that a family relic has been lost or is he secretly happy at the chance of asserting his authority over his son?

“Anxiety” is an excellent but nerve-wracking tale of a claustrophobic marriage, of a woman distressed by her husband’s tyrannical behaviour only to find her world slowly shrinking. Married to a man who is a light sleeper, our protagonist’s life is defined by the tone of the creaking noises made by the bed on which her husband sleeps or tries to sleep. Gripped by the fear of rousing him and incurring his wrath, the woman is compelled to move around on tiptoe in her own home. Stressed by the momentous effort required to remain quiet, she often longs to just head out and spend time with her sister Henny. Until one day she does. At Henny’s welcoming home, bristling with warmth, noise and children, our protagonist experiences that rare pocket of joy where her doleful existence seems like a surreal dream. But soon it is time to head back home and to the suspense of wondering whether her husband noticed her absence or not…

In the “Two Women”, a woman looking to be luxuriously pampered in a salon so that she can leave her growing anxieties on the backbench for a while, comes out feeling more rattled than ever; while in “The Little Shoes”, an ageing woman laments her middle-age exacerbated by her lovely, spirited daughter and the possibility that her second husband is infatuated with his step-daughter. While in the titular story, “The Trouble with Happiness”, which has echoes of Childhood, a young woman decides to take charge of her own life by leaving behind her despondent family home so that she can harness her ambition of being a writer.

The Trouble with Happiness, then, is a biting, scalpel-sharp, devastating depiction of love, marriage and family; succinct, intense tales that make for compelling reading. These stories offer readers slices of domestic life in Copenhagen; gloomy, gut-wrenching situations which see her characters teetering on the edge. The women particularly are in a perpetual state of anxiety, paralyzed by an unnamable fear – unhappy in love, gripped by feelings of doom, grappling with stressed financial circumstances and unnerved by insecurities that sometimes threaten to overwhelm them. These haunting, unsettling vignettes, simmering with undercurrents of desire and violence, are made all the more arresting by Ditlevsen’s clear-eyed vision and an honest, lucid writing style that conveys multitudes in a few paragraphs.

It’s a rich, layered collection sizzling with a gamut of themes – mental illness, impact of broken marriages on children, bullying fathers, deteriorating relationships, a longing for happiness that is forever on the fringes seemingly an illusion. The subject matter, reminiscent of The Copenhagen Trilogy, is doled out to us in short, measured doses this time, but the brevity matches the brilliance of those memoirs. Highly recommended!

Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden

I had never read Rumer Godden before, but Black Narcissus was so so good that I am now very keen to read more of her books.

Set in 1930s India when the British still ruled the country and featuring a cast of British Christian nuns, Black Narcissus is a sensual, atmospheric and hallucinatory tale of repressed female desire.

When the novel opens, Sister Clodagh and four nuns under her command are given instructions by their Order (the Sisters of Mary) to establish a convent in the Palace of Mopu, situated in a remote hilly village in Northern India, some miles away from Darjeeling. Abandoned, windswept and haunting, the palace, owned by General Toda Rai and his predecessors, is stained by an aura of bad reputation. Called the House of Women, it was a place previously reserved for the wives of the royalty and was once filled with music, gaiety and abandon, but now no more. The General bestows the palace to the Sisters of the Mary who have been charged with the responsibility of converting it into the Convent of St. Faith.

Sister Clodagh, the youngest Sister Superior of the Order, has been chosen to lead the mission. We are subsequently introduced to the other nuns accompanying her and the various duties assigned to them – the efficient Sister Briony is to run the dispensary, quiet Sister Philippa has to build and manage the garden as well as the laundry, the smiling, carefree Sister Blanche has to manage the Lace School, and last but not the least is the sly, outspoken and unstable Sister Ruth who has to run the school for children and girls.

From the outset, there is a scent of mystery and menace permeating the palace. Having learnt that just a few months earlier, the priests of the Brotherhood had packed up and left the palace without offering any explanation, the Sisters are determined that such a fate will not befall them.

Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary.

It was strange how little you noticed the valley or the River where the green snow water streaked the jelly whiteness of the stream. You noticed the gulf where the birds flew level with the lawn: across it was the forest rising to bare and bony ridges, and behind them and above them, the Himalayan snows where the ice wind blew.

Sometimes they were like turrets of icing sugar, pretty and harmless; on some days they seemed as if they might come crashing down on the hill. On others they were hidden behind drifts of cloud and a spray floated from one to another; but however they looked, there was always the wind to remind you of what they were. The wind was always the same.

But quickly realizing that they can’t do everything on their own, Sister Clodagh reluctantly seeks counsel from the magnetic Mr Dean, who is the General’s Agent. Mr Dean is British, but having spent several years in India, has adapted to his surroundings and thus feels completely at home with the locals.

The nuns have the best of intentions, but their casual confidence in their power to do good is undermined by the complexity of the local conditions. Unbending in their own beliefs and traditions, they fail to understand the rules that govern the people.

Mr Dean’s presence, further, complicates matters.  Because of his heavy drinking and numerous affairs, Mr Dean’s bad reputation precedes him. But since they are completely new in a place that feels unfamiliar, strange and alien at first, the sisters rely heavily on him when it comes to supervising the construction work or communicating and dealing with the locals.

Sister Clodagh’s chemistry with him is especially fascinating, and there is an underlying tension palpable in their conversations. Quick to consistently challenge her beliefs and ideals, Sister Clodagh finds she is unsettled and disturbed by him. But more than that, his Irish countenance unleashes a wave of memories of her past life in Ireland, particularly her passionate feelings for Con, a man she thought she would marry.

She (Sister Clodagh) did not try to bother in these happy relaxed days, she simply let herself drift with the present or sink into the past.

It was like practicing the piano: at first your fingers feel cold and stiff, and the notes seem a little sharp on the air and the phrases stupid and meaningless. Then you are warm, it flows, it becomes music and it seems to take you where it flows. It was getting to be a habit with her, to let her mind flow away, to spend minutes and hours back in the past with Con. 

The nuns, meanwhile, become preoccupied with other things, perhaps more than what is expected of them. Sister Philippa becomes engrossed in the garden to the point of neglecting her other duties, and Sister Blanche gets attached to the children who attend the school, as her maternal instincts she thought were dormant come alive. Sister Ruth is sexually attracted to Mr Dean, dangerously so, and the continuous interaction between Sister Clodagh and Mr Dean awakens in her feelings of jealousy and deep resentment towards the former.

Essentially, the sisters, having committed to a life of spiritualism and selflessness, increasingly find it difficult to uphold these values and attune themselves to God. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation only stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. The fact that their monastic, stark and frugal living is in sharp contrast to the sensuality and colourful lives of the locals, only disorients them further.

The presence of the General’s nephew and heir Dilip Rai dishes up further difficulties. Immaculately attired in rich, vibrant clothes and adorned with jewels, the handsome Dilip Rai is a dazzling spectacle in the eyes of the sisters – he is the Black Narcissus, a vicious term coined by Sister Ruth because of the lady’s perfume that he wears.

As the novel progresses, the clash between Sister Clodagh and Sister Ruth only intensifies, and the interplay of these various elements heightens the urgency of the narrative as it reaches its tragic and dramatic conclusion.

As far as dominant themes go, Black Narcissus thrums with sexual obsession and insanity. It is a restrained and nuanced portrayal of female repression, a masterful depiction of the conflicted feelings that the nuns grapple with as their bodily urges jostle with spiritual yearnings. It is also a subtle exploration of the follies of Colonialism – of the sense of superiority felt by the British and their need to impose their values on the locals when the latter had no desire to be taught or their way of life interfered with.

Sublimely visual and psychologically astute, there is a hypnotic, dreamlike quality to the story that makes it irresistible and hard to put down. Godden’s evocative descriptions of nature lend the novel a strong sense of place and the book’s hypnotic power draws the reader into a realm that is both strange and compelling at the same time.  

Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, Black Narcissus is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling. Highly recommended!

The Faces – Tove Ditlevsen (tr. Tiina Nunnally)

Danish author Tove Ditlevsen became known to the wider world a couple of years ago when her stunning memoirs, The Copenhagen Trilogy, were released. With the dexterity of an alchemist turning minerals into gold, Ditlevsen mined her real life for raw material which she transformed into polished, haunting works of art. Those elements are very much on display in The Faces too, written around the same time as the memoirs.

Reality disappeared behind her like someone on a railway platform as the train pulls away.

The Faces is about a woman’s journey through mental illness and recovery, unique for its striking language and poetry in prose – all hallmarks of Ditlevsen’s writing.

Our protagonist Lise is a famous author of children’s books, although she hasn’t penned anything in the last two years. While professionally, a writer’s block has hampered her creative output, in her personal life too, Lise is on the edge. To her ex-husband Asger, “a wife who wrote something as ridiculous as children’s books was suddenly a liability.” Her current husband, Gert, has been consistently unfaithful to her, not exactly the ideal husband material. Their housekeeper, Gitte, is a toxic influence on the family – she is sleeping with Gert as well as Lise’s elder son Moyen.

Lise is shown to be persistently tired, preferring the comfort of her bed and her pills. Then one night, in the novel’s first chapter, Gert confesses to her that his previous lover, Grete, has committed suicide. It profoundly unsettles Gert and Lise now feels stained by this incident too. One day, while having her bath, Lise overhears a heated conversation between Gert and Gitte through the bathroom pipes. Convinced, that they are plotting against her to induce her to take her own life like Grete did, Lise confronts them. Their vehement denial leaves Lise feeling dazed and confused. Yet her sense of unease is not quelled.

Finding her home environment increasingly unbearable and claustrophobic, Lise yearns to get away from it all. This desire compels her to overdose, not because she wants to die, but because she sees it as an opportunity to be transported somewhere else – a hospital.

Lise’s stay in the psychiatric hospital, then, forms a substantial chunk of the novel. It’s only in the hospital that the full extent of Lise’s illness becomes clear to the reader. Sadly, Lise may have escaped Gert and Gitte, but their voices continue to torment her. These taunting voices, playing on the frayed edges of her mind, are vividly real to her even when the reality is completely different. They assail her from all nooks and crannies, from the pipes to the non-existent speaking devices by her pillow. It’s not only the voices though, as she is increasingly haunted by disembodied faces too. Not only does Lise hear Gert and Gitte, she also sees them all over the hospital. To Lise, the faces of various staff members morph into the faces of these two, hounding her endlessly.

Lise is treading on eggshells as she tries to convince the doctors she is fine, while appearing surprised and disoriented on learning that they can’t experience the visions and hear the voices as she does. To complicate matters, Lise is wracked by guilt of being selfish and self-absorbed in her woes, for not being alive to the suffering of the wider world – a guilt that Gitte’s voice rubs like salt on her wound causing her much anguish.

As the title of the novel suggests, faces feature predominantly in the novel and the masks we allegedly don to keep up appearances forms one central theme.

They slept, and their faces were blank and peaceful and didn’t have to be used again until morning. Maybe they had even taken off their faces and placed them prudently on top of their clothes, to give them a rest. In the daytime the faces were constantly changing, as if she saw them reflected in flowing water.

Ditlevsen essentially offers a glimpse into the lived experience of mental illness, the inability to separate reality from illusion. By sleight of hand, she recreates the experience of madness from the inside, letting us explore the shifting contours of Lise’s mind and her unreliable perception of the world around her.

Brief, intense and awash with sublime imagery, Ditlevsen’s writing is beautiful and clear as always, and the plethora of metaphors and similes dotting her prose are breathtaking. For instance, the voices which came back to her “could be unraveled from each other like the strands of a tangled ball of yarn.” A random childhood day was “preserved in her mind like a thousand-year old insect encased in a lump of amber.” When looking in the mirror, “three delicate wrinkles lay like a pearl necklace around her neck”, while the morning light “had a yellow, withered cast to it, like fading snapshots left in a drawer that no one opens anymore.”

As Lise limps towards a tentative recovery underlined by her fear, the reader is aware of the path being anything but smooth given the complexity of her feelings. For we can’t help but wonder despite everything – Would Lise prefer the comfort and solace in madness far more than the bitter ugliness of reality?