A Month of Reading – August 2021

August turned out to be a terrific month of reading. Barring My Phantoms, I read the rest of the four for #WITMonth, and all were excellent. However, my favourites were the Riley, Mizumura and Piñeiro. You can take a look at my full length reviews for each of them by clicking on the titles. So, without further ado, here are the books…

MY PHANTOMS by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is a brilliant, engrossing tale that explores the complexity of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Our narrator is Bridget Grant, who is now in her 40s, and lives in London with her partner John and their cat Puss. Through Bridget’s eyes, we gradually begin to see a fully formed picture of her narcissistic father Lee and her emotionally detached mother Helen – parents who have continued to haunt Bridget’s psyche.

The relationship with the mother forms the focal point of the novel, she is independent living in her own home, but portrayed as an insecure woman on many fronts and unable to really open up. However, we view the mother from Bridget’s eyes, and even if the mother is not someone you warm up to, Bridget is not always the ideal daughter either and comes across as cruel and deeply unsympathetic in certain situations.

Riley’s prose is biting and as sharp as a scalpel, but also suffused with tender moments. The primary characters are finely etched and the dialogues between them are superb, they feel very real. In My Phantoms, then, she explores the tricky terrain of fractured familial bonds with much aplomb.

AN I-NOVEL by Minae Mizumura (tr. Juliet Winters Carpenter)

An I-Novel is a gorgeous, lyrical meditation on language, race, identity, family and the desire and deep yearning to go back to your roots, to your own country. The novel is a semi-autobiographical work that takes place over the course of a single day in the 1980s.

Our narrator is Minae, a young woman studying French literature at a prestigious university on the East Coast, close to Manhattan. When the novel opens, it is deep midwinter, and Minae is alone, struggling to grapple with apathy and loneliness as a deepening pall of gloom pervades her apartment. The intensity of stasis afflicting Minae is rooted in her unwillingness to take any decisive action regarding her future. After having lived for two decades in the United States, Minae has an aching desire to relocate to Japan, her home country. Minae is aware that the sooner she takes her orals, the sooner she can start thinking about beginning life anew in Japan. And yet she cannot bring herself to do so.

An I-Novel throbs and pulses with big ideas on language, race, identity, family, freedom and loneliness, all presented in Minae Mizumura’s stylish, understated and elegant writing. She manages to brilliantly convey the dilemma that plagues our narrator – the sense of never really settling down in a new country and longing for the country of your origin, the impression of being adrift, uprooted and never belonging anywhere. No place you can truly call home.

ELENA KNOWS by Claudia Piñeiro (tr. Frances Riddle)

Elena Knows is a forceful, thought-provoking, unconventional crime novel where Claudia Piñeiro effectively explores a range of social concerns such as illness, caregiving, crippling bureaucracy and a woman’s choice regarding her body.

When the book opens, Elena, a woman in her sixties, is home alone waiting for the clock to strike ten. Elena suffers from Parkinson’s, a progressively devastating illness, characterized by loss of control over everyday movements.

But that’s not the only matter troubling Elena. The real burden weighing heavy on her soul is the sudden, recent death of her daughter Rita. On a rainy afternoon, Rita was mysteriously and inexplicably found hanging from the bell tower in the local church. The police classify her death as suicide and close the case with no inclination to pursue the matter further. But, Elena refuses to accept the police’s version. She’s convinced it is murder and knowing fully well that the police don’t take her seriously, she decides to approach Isabel, a woman Rita had “helped” twenty years ago but since then they had not been in touch.

What makes Elena Knows so compelling is the richness of themes explored, a gamut of hard-hitting social issues. First of all, the book is an unflinching portrayal of a debilitating disease and the loss of dignity that it involves. Other themes explored are the challenges of being a caregiver and abortion. It’s a brilliant novel and the fact that the author manages to address these issues without being preachy or sentimental only enhances the book’s power.

A WOMAN by Sibilla Aleramo (tr. Erica Segre & Simon Carnell)

Billed as the first Italian feminist novel, A Woman is a remarkable piece of work that charts the downward spiral of a woman to a point of no return, only to claw back and display courage in reclaiming her life.

Our narrator is an unnamed woman whose idyllic childhood takes a turn for the worse when her mother attempts suicide but fails. The apple of her father’s eye, but full of contempt for her mother for being weak and afraid of her husband, our narrator only begins to understand her mother’s plight when she finds herself eerily in a similar situation. Both women are trapped in a loveless marriage, our narrator in fact is frequently assaulted by her husband, and yet the two women respond differently. While the mother plunges into the depths of mental illness, our narrator fights back on the strength of two things – her deep love for her son and the fire that burns inside her to chart a new path fuelled by her passion for writing.

A Woman, then, is rich with ideas and crackles with weightier themes – the limitations imposed by marriage on women of ambition, the obstacles they face in a patriarchal society, and how motherhood can be a fount of infinite joy and a weakness at the same time. But the theme that towers above all others is how crucial it is for a woman to respect herself, lead an independent existence and have her own thoughts and opinions. Given that this novel was published in 1906, the originality of ideas on display is pretty astonishing and way ahead of its time and only heightens its power.

NOTES FROM CHILDHOOD by 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. 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.

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.

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.   

That’s it for August. For September, I have almost finished reading Winter Flowers by Angélique Villeneuve, the latest Peirene title and very good, as well as Deborah Levy’s Real Estate, the final volume in her ‘Living Autobiography’ series, and which has been simply terrific.

A Month of Reading – July 2021

I have been very, very late in putting up my July reading post for various reasons. It was not a great month in terms of quantity of books read, I barely managed three. But that’s also because I was occupied by family stuff which affected my concentration quite a bit. However, all the three books were great, so definitely a good month quality-wise. Without further ado, here is a look at the books…

THE PROMISE – Damon Galgut

The Promise is a riveting, haunting tale that chronicles the disintegration of a white South African family seen through the prism of four funerals spread decades apart. Steeped in political overtones, the novel packs a punch with its lofty themes explored through the lens of the morally bankrupt Swarts. 

One of the key themes explored in The Promise is racial division and South Africa’s shadowy, opaque transition from apartheid to the post-apartheid era. We are also shown how South Africa’s economic progress has paved the way for unchecked greed and rampant corruption.

But the most striking feature of The Promise is the shifting narrative eye, which takes on a gamut of varied perspectives. It moves fluidly from the mind of one character to another, whether major or minor, and at times even pervades their dreams. But for the most part, the narrator is in direct conversation with the reader, always scathing, biting and lethal in his observation not only when exposing the hypocrisy and foibles of the Swarts, but also while commenting on the murkiness of South Africa’s altered political landscape and dubious moral standards. I hope the book goes on to win the Booker Prize.

THREE SUMMERS – Margerita Liberaki (tr. Karen Van Dyck)

Bursting with vibrant imagery of a sun-soaked Greece, Three Summers is a sensual tale that explores the lives and loves of three sisters who are close and yet apart given their different, distinctive personalities.

First published in 1946, the novel’s original Greek title when literally translated means The Straw Hats. Indeed, like the first brushstrokes in a painting, the first image presented to us is of the three sisters wearing their newly bought straw hats – Maria, the eldest, wears a hat adorned with cherries, Infanta has one with forget-me-nots perched on her head, while the youngest and also the book’s narrator – Katerina – has donned a hat with poppies “as red as fire.”

Gradually as the novel unfurls, the varied personas of the three sisters are revealed to us – the sexually bold Maria, the beautiful and distant Infanta, the imaginative and rebellious Katerina, also the narrator of the story.

Three Summers, then, is a lush, vivid coming-of-age story that coasts along at a slow, languid pace…it drenches the reader with a feeling of warmth and nostalgia despite moments of piercing darkness. With its rich evocation of summer and luscious descriptions of nature, the narration, in keeping with Katerina’s personality and penchant for telling stories, has a dreamy, filmic, fairytale-like vibe to it.

THE LIGHT YEARS (VOL. 1 OF THE CAZALET CHRONICLES) – Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Light Years is a wonderful, absorbing, sprawling family saga set in England just a few months before the advent of the Second World War. It is a novel teeming with characters providing a panoramic view of the various members of the Cazalet family over a course of two summers spent in the Sussex countryside.

William Cazalet and his wife Kitty (known as Duchy to their children and grandchildren) own a country estate in Sussex called Home Place where their unmarried daughter, as well as their three sons and respective families gather every summer to spend the holidays. Their eldest son Hugh had fought and been wounded in the First World War and the scars of that traumatic experience haven’t entirely healed. His wife Sybil is expecting their third child – the first two offspring are Polly and Simon, both in their teens. Hugh and Sybil love each other and have a successful marriage although there is a sense that both in their desire to please the other don’t really express their true feelings.

The middle son Edward, handsome and insouciant, is married to Viola (Villy) and the couple has three children – Louise, Teddy and Lydia (Louise and Teddy are close in age to Polly and Simon). Prior to her marriage, Villy was a dancer with a Russian ballet company but gives up her dancing career once she marries Edward. With not much to occupy her mind, Villy is beset with a feeling of emptiness and existential angst. Edward, meanwhile, continues to have extra-marital affairs of which Villy remains in the dark.

The youngest son Rupert is a painter compelled to hold a regular teaching job to support his family. Rupert has two children – Clary (in the same age group as Louise and Polly) and Neville. With the death of his first wife Isobel when Neville is born, Rupert subsequently remarries. When the book opens, Rupert has only recently wed Zoe who is much younger to him. Rupert and Zoe behave like a young couple in love but Zoe enjoys the finer things in life and is prone to throwing tantrums when things don’t go her way. Rupert is always on the edge trying to please her. To complicate matters, Zoe does not care for motherhood and has a fraught relationship with Clary. Rupert, meanwhile, laments at not having his space to paint…his day job and family affairs take up most of his time not leaving any room to pursue his vocation and passion.

Along with their father, Hugh and Edward are heavily involved in the family business (a company selling timber), Rupert is not yet part of it. Financially, Hugh and Edward are comparatively well-off, while Rupert struggles to meet expenses, particularly, Zoe’s extravagant tastes.

Then there’s Rachel Cazalet, the only sister among the three brothers, and unmarried. Rachel is in love with her woman friend Sid. But while both the women are crazy about each other, their backgrounds and personas throw up many obstacles. Rachel is deeply devoted to her family often thwarting her chance of happiness with Sid. And Sid, whose origins are humble, refuses to accept any favours from Rachel and her family out of pride.

The children, meanwhile, are absorbed in their own world, made up of picnics, games, friendship, fears, anxieties, and trying to get a grip on the bewildering realm of adults.

At more than 500 pages, Elizabeth Jane Howard, has ample scope to let the characters breathe and develop at a languid pace with the result that each of them has a distinctive personality. Also, to make things easier, the beginning of the book displays the Cazalet family tree as well as a list of the primary characters.

Reading The Light Years was an immersive experience – it’s an evocative read with the feel of a family soap on TV but without all the trappings of a melodrama. Composed entirely of a wide range of set-pieces, it’s like opening a photograph album that provides a glimpse into its vast array of people and their unique, complex stories. Led by finely etched characters, Howard’s writing is sensitive, nuanced and graceful, and she is adept at infusing psychological depth into this compelling saga along with keen insights into human nature.

Observing the Cazalets enjoying their annual summer holiday is akin to settling in with them for a nice, comfort read. The sumptuous country meals are tastefully described and I came across food items I had not heard of before – Charlotte Russe cake and angels on horseback, particularly, come to mind.

But despite the convivial holiday atmosphere, the threat of disruption and their lives being upended hangs like a Damocles Sword over the Cazalets. The novel is set in 1937 when Hitler had started capturing territories but Britain was not sure whether the political environment then could escalate into a full-blown war. Of course, as readers we know otherwise, but the Cazalet family remains on the edge and gripped by mounting uncertainty especially in the second half of the novel. Against this broader landscape, what makes this novel so interesting is the rich, layered interior lives of the family members, many of whom are either battling their own demons or have dark secrets to hide…all of this is gradually revealed to the reader as the novel progresses.

In a nutshell, with its domestic themes and a cast of fully realized characters, The Light Years is a brilliant read, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Can’t wait to begin the second installment of the series – Marking Time.

That’s it for July. August is Women in Translation Month and I am currently in the midst of reading A Woman by Sibilla Aleramo and An I-Novel by Minae Mizumura, both excellent so far.

A Month of Reading – June 2021

These are the books I read in June, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, classics and memoir. All were very good, but my favourites were the Edith Wharton and Sigrid Nunez. Here is a brief look at the books…

TIESDomenico Starnone (tr. Jhumpa Lahiri)

Ties, a visceral, intense story of a marital breakdown and its damaging consequences for the parties involved, cleverly told through multiple perspectives.

The first section is where Vanda is writing to her husband, and it’s a letter that drips with rage, fury and frustration at him for abandoning their family and shirking his responsibilities of a husband and father.

 The second section opens with the two of them going holidaying to the seaside, a vacation that turns out to be perfect, freshening them up considerably. But when Aldo and Vanda return to their apartment, they are in for a rude shock. Their home has been vandalized, and Vanda’s beloved cat Labes is missing. 

As Aldo begins to clear up the mess, he chances upon the letters Vanda had written to him all those years ago, and this sets off a chain of memories – his reasons for abandoning the family, his aching love for Lidia and his fragile, uncertain rapport with his children. 

In Ties, then, Starnone presents to us a scathing but psychologically astute portrayal of marriage, of how one man’s actions can damage the entire family unit. The writing style is spare, furiously paced and intense especially when analyzing the characters’ motives. While betrayal and marital discord are its dominant themes, the novella is also a subtle exploration of love, parenting and the passage of time.

OLD NEW YORKEdith Wharton

Old New York is a marvellous collection of four novellas set in 19th century New York, each novella encompassing a different decade, from the first story set in the 1840s to the last in the 1870s. All these novellas display the brilliance of Edith Wharton’s writing and are proof of the fact that her keen insights and astute observations on the hypocrisy of New York of her time are second to none. In each of these four novellas, the central characters struggle to adapt to the rigid mores of conventional New York. Thrown into extraordinary situations not aligned to societal expectations, they find themselves alienated from the only world they have ever known. 

All the novellas are well worth reading, but the second one – The Old Maid – particularly is the finest of the lot, exquisitely written, and alone worth the price of the book.

THE FRIENDSigrid Nunez

The Friend is a beautiful, poignant novel of grief, love, loss, writing and more importantly the uniqueness of dogs and what makes them the best of companions.

The book opens with a suicide. We learn that the narrator, an unnamed woman, has just lost her lifelong best friend who chooses to end his life. Like the woman, we don’t really know what caused her friend to undertake such a drastic step, there is no suicide note either to give any sort of clue.

The friend’s third wife does not know what to do with the pet he has left behind – a Great Dane called Apollo, who is ageing and pretty much on his last legs. It was the man’s wish that the narrator adopt the giant dog, but she is initially reluctant. Dogs are prohibited in the building where she resides. But when subsequent attempts to re-home the dog fail, she decides to adopt him even when the threat of eviction looms large.

One of the biggest themes explored in this lovely novel is the joy of canine companionship. The book is also a lyrical meditation on grief, not just grief felt by the narrator but also by Apollo. In a nutshell, The Friend, then, is a truly wonderful book that sizzles with charm, intelligence and wisdom in equal measure.

NO PRESENTS PLEASE: MUMBAI STORIES – Jayant Kaikini (tr. Tejaswini Niranjana)

Published by Tilted Axis Press, No Presents Please is a wonderful, unique collection of 16 stories that encapsulate the essence of Mumbai, of what it represents to its inhabitants, many of them small-town migrants, drifters or ordinary middle class families, whose struggles don’t typically make for screaming headlines. It is a vivid portrayal of city life, a sense of place evoked by exploring the identities and the spirit of Mumbaikars.

We are offered a glimpse into the lives that unfold in their small, humble settings, their endless drive for a better life which they believe is possible in the vast, teeming, bustling and sometimes cruel metropolis of Mumbai. These are stories that reveal a range of facets – poignant, heartbreaking, absurd, comic – and gradually work their magic on you.

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.

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. 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?

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. But 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.”

A MONTH IN SIENAHisham Matar

Hisham Matar’s fascination with the Sienese School of painting can be traced back to when the author was nineteen years old. It was 1990 and he had lost his father that year. Hisham’s father was living in exile in Cairo, and suddenly one afternoon, was kidnapped and flown back to Libya. He never met his father after that.

A year later Hisham started visiting the National Gallery and became absorbed with a slew of Sienese paintings. He could not really figure out why, but one can assume that being lost in these paintings offered some sort of a refuge and a way to think about the world around him.

Decades later, with no idea of his father’s whereabouts or even if he was alive, Hisham decides to finally visit Siena, the birthplace of the paintings that captured his imagination. As he visits art galleries, museums, chapels, and the city square, Hisham reflects on the big questions of loss, grief, faith, violence, the purpose of art and its relationship with life.

He forges new friendships, is touched by the hospitality of the city’s inhabitants, and grapples with the concept of faith and how it was severely tested in the Middle Ages when the Black Death swept across most of Europe and the Middle East, ravaging the countries and reducing their populations by almost half.

Matar’s writing is understated and elegant, as he beautifully articulates his thoughts on a variety of topics. His exploration of Siena evokes nostalgia for what makes Europe so unique – abundance of art museums, pretty squares and the luxury of sitting at a pavement cafe in the summer sun savouring a glass of wine. Reading A Month in Siena really felt like armchair travelling to my favourite continent…at a time when overseas trips seem pretty nigh impossible.

That was it for June. July is turning out to be a tough month because of a personal emergency, and my reading has taken a big hit. But as and when I’m finding the time, I am alternating between Damon Galgut’s The Promise and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s The Light Years, the first book in the Cazalet Chronicles.

A Month of Reading – May 2021

These are the books I read in May, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, golden age crime, and 20th century women’s literature. All were very good, but my favourites were the Barbara Comyns, Jhumpa Lahiri and Muriel Spark. Here is a brief look at the books…

IF YOU KEPT A RECORD OF SINSAndrea Bajani (tr. Elizabeth Harris)

When as a young boy, Lorenzo’s mother abandons him and his stepfather and relocates to Bucharest (Romania) to make the most of a career opportunity there, Lorenzo is left feeling unmoored. Having completely lost contact with her since then, Lorenzo is a young adult now, and travels to Bucharest for the first time to attend his mother’s funeral. Through a series of conversations with the people there who were close to his mom, he gleans information on the tragic fate she suffered – despite all the promise in the beginning, the last few years of her life were spent in squalor, and her business partner-cum-lover ditches her for a younger woman. In a second person narrative (the ‘you’ is his dead mother) and taking the reader through a series of flashbacks, Bajani throws light on the themes of grief, loss, a fractured mother-son bond, and a portrayal of Romania emerging from the shadows of a dictator. Tenderly written, the book aches intensely with loneliness, and is a tale of a son trying to understand a mother who was largely absent in his life.

WHEREABOUTSJhumpa Lahiri

In a prose style that is striking, precise and minimalistic, Jhumpa Lahiri’s Whereabouts is made up of a multitude of vignettes, most not more than two to four pages long, kind of like a pointillism painting, where various distinct dots of our narrator’s musings and happenings in her life merge to reveal a bigger picture of her personality. It’s a novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections as mesmerizing as the light and languor of a European city in summer.

THE HOUSE ON THE STRANDDaphne du Maurier

When the narrator Richard Young, at a crossroads in his life, begins consuming an experimental psychedelic drug, he is transported back in time to the 14th century. Mesmerized by what he sees, his addiction to the drug dangerously mounts putting in peril his marriage and family. The House on the Strand is an excellent, absorbing tale of a man literally caught between two worlds where du Maurier deftly weaves in elements of time travel and horror to offer a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of the narrator.

SYMPOSIUMMuriel Spark

The beauty of Muriel Spark’s books lies in the fact they when you pick one up, you are never quite sure where it’s going to take you. The focal point in Symposium is a dinner hosted by the elegant couple Chris Donovan (a sophisticated, wealthy woman) and her partner Hurley Reed (a painter). With a guest list that comprises eight interesting people, various layers of their personalities and circumstances are revealed to us gradually through expertly woven flashbacks. Throw in a series of unexplained deaths, an active burglary ring, and a convent of Marxist nuns who believe in Lenin more than in God, and you have all the ingredients for a typical ‘Spark’ian fare. This cleverly told tale with its pitch perfect character sketches packs quite a punch, and is a wonderful reminder of how Spark whets the reader’s appetite for the unexpected.

A POCKET FULL OF RYE & A BODY IN THE LIBRARYAgatha Christie

Two excellent books featuring her wonderful creation Miss Marple. In A Pocket Full of Rye, when a wealthy man is found dead with grain in his pocket, the focus shifts to the famous nursery rhyme, and a sumptously described afternoon tea. In The Body in the Library, Miss Marple is summoned by her good friends Colonel and Mrs Bantry when they wake up one morning and discover a body in their library, of a person they have never seen before. In both these mysteries, Miss Marple displays a flair for making astute observations on human nature drawing on parallels from village life.

MR FOXBarbara Comyns

Set in London, in the period immediately before WW2, our narrator is the young, naïve Mrs Caroline Seymour, who having separated from her husband, is now a single mother to her three-year old daughter Jenny. When Caroline is unable to find a way out of her predicament and is left with no choice, she moves in with the dubious schemer Mr Fox for financial support. One of the most unique features of this novel is Caroline’s voice – chatty, informal, as if she is confessing and unburdening herself. There’s a child-like quality to the narrative, it is Caroline’s charming naiveté that blunts the impact of the mounting horrors in her life. Mr Fox, then, is another gem from the Comyns repertoire, laced with her trademark way of looking at the world – odd and offbeat but in a compelling way.

A Month of Reading – April 2021

Putting up this post a bit late, but better late than never. So these are the books I read in April, a mix of contemporary fiction, translated literature, crime, short stories and 20th century women’s literature. All were excellent, but my favourites were the Rumer Godden and Barbara Pym.

I have already reviewed some of them, you can access them by clicking on the links. I plan to put up detailed reviews for a couple of the others over the coming days. Meanwhile, here’s a brief write-up for each book.

BLACK NARCISSUS – Rumer Godden

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. Close to the heavens, the nuns feel inspired, working fervently to establish their school and dispensary. But the presence of the enigmatic agent Mr Dean and the General’s sumptuously dressed nephew Dilip Rai unsettles them. Distracted and mesmerized by their surroundings, their isolation stirs up hidden passions and interests, as they struggle to become fully involved with their calling. There is a dreamlike quality to the story that makes Black Narcissus irresistible and hard to put down. Armed with a riveting plot and memorable characters, it is a wonderful, old-fashioned piece of storytelling.

THE DRY HEART – Natalia Ginzburg (tr. Frances Frenaye)

The Dry Heart begins in a dramatic fashion with a matter-of fact pronouncement made by the narrator…

 I shot him between the eyes.

The ‘him’ is none other than the narrator’s husband Alberto, a man considerably older to her. What follows, thereafter, is an unsentimental, psychologically astute tale of an unhappy marriage told with astonishing clarity.

It’s a novella that takes us into the anxiety riddled mind of a woman trapped in a loveless union – her insecurities, her dashed expectations, her inability to walk away when there are clear signals telling her to do so, and the circumstances that compel her to eventually crack. It’s a tale that plunges into the chilly waters of loneliness, desperation and bitterness. The prose is stripped of any sentimentality, the narrator’s voice is unemotional, unvarnished…she states things the way they are, and if her seething rage is palpable, it just about stays under the surface, always in control.

A GHOST IN THE THROAT – Doireann Ní Ghríofa              

A Ghost in the Throat is a wonderful book that came to my attention because of its shortlisting for the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses. It’s a difficult book to define – it is part memoir, part essay, part historical fiction, if you will. A Ghost in the Throat tells the stories of two women, born centuries apart – Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and Doireann Ní Ghríofa herself. The author traces Eibhlín through her shadowy past, she is the woman who has penned the 18th century poem and lament, Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Doireann combines a blend of research and rich imaginings to weave a story around Eibhlin, her family and the violent death of her fiery husband Art, who dies in a duel. At the same time, while deep in her research, Doireann writes of her own life as a mother in language that really soars – lyrical, moving and gorgeously descriptive. Her portrayal of the daily grind of motherhood is quite something – Doireann finds great joy and beauty in her chores, it instills in her a sense of purpose. There is a particular chapter which dwells on how she nearly lost her daughter, born prematurely, that makes for very poignant reading. This is a “female text” that deserves to be read for its themes of domesticity, desire, creativity, and what binds women across ages.

JANE AND PRUDENCE – Barbara Pym

Jane and Prudence is another wonderful, poignant read from Barbara Pym’s oeuvre. Jane Cleveland and Prudence Bates, despite the gap in their ages, are friends. But the two could not have been more different. Jane, having married a vicar, has settled into her role of being the clergyman’s wife, although she’s not really good at it. Having studied at Oxford, Jane had a bright future ahead of her with the possibility of writing books, but that ambition falls by the wayside once she marries. Carelessly dressed and socially awkward, she can cause a stir by saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Prudence, also having graduated from Oxford, is elegant, beautiful, and still single with a flurry of relationships behind her. Prudence is getting older but has lost none of her good looks, and is an independent woman working in a publisher’s office in London run by Mr Grampian. Mr. Grampian is an older, married man, but Prudence has taken a fancy for him, although Jane remains doubtful of anything meaningful coming out of it. Meanwhile, an introduction to Fabian Driver, a good-looking widower in her village, brings out the matchmaker in Jane, and she casually mentions Fabian to Prudence. When Prudence visits the Clevelands, she and Fabian get along quite well and begin to see each other. Will it result in a significant announcement being made?

As was evident in Excellent Women and Some Tame Gazelle, Pym excels in describing the eccentricities of parish life, its small time politics, how a woman meeting a man can set tongues wagging, and how rumours of people’s lives fly thick and fast. In this novel, particularly, with great depth and subtlety, Pym explores how, as we grow older, our lives can completely deviate from the path we had originally envisaged in our idealistic youth. We might not live the life we had planned, but once we accept it, we can somehow make it work. She also raises the point of how in an era when women were destined for marriage, being single and living independently can bring its own share of rewards.

THE ENCHANTED APRIL – Elizabeth von Arnim

The Enchanted April is a delightful, charming novel centred on four women from different walks of life who decide to spend a month in summer holidaying in Italy.

We are introduced to Lottie Wilkins, who married to a city lawyer, feels bogged down and stifled by their humdrum existence in Hampstead. While on one of her shopping trips, she spends a miserable afternoon at a women’s club, and there chances upon an advertisement in the newspapers that sets off a chain of thoughts. The ad is addressed to those who appreciate wisteria and sunshine and proposes to let furnished for the month of April a small mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean. When she spots Rose Arbuthnot staring wistfully at the ad too, she approaches Rose, the two strike up an earnest conversation and Lottie gradually convinces her that if they in turn advertise for two more companions, the four of them could split the costs of staying at the castle so that the individual burden will be considerably reduced.

These women come from completely different backgounds, but there’s one common thread binding them: they are disillusioned with the sameness of their days and are desperately seeking an outlet that will bring some colour to their lives along with the much needed rest and solitude.

Once ensconced in the Italian castle, the four women begin to interact with each other and it is these exchanges that make The Enchanted April so delightful – the awkward dinner conversations, the various machinations of Mrs Fisher and Caroline Dester to claim the best rooms and views for themselves, and their opinions of each other.

The Enchanted April then is a gem of a novel with much wit and humour to commend it. Arnim’s writing is lovely and evocative and all the four women in the novel are brilliantly etched, they come across as fully realized characters. This was a perfect book to read in April with a particularly feel-good vibe in these trying times.

THE CHILL – Ross Macdonald     

The Chill is another fine, intricately woven crime novel in Ross Macdonald’s brilliant Lew Archer series with a fascinating, byzantine plot and a stunning twist in the final chapter.

Here are the bare bones of the story…A distraught, young man Alex Kincaid approaches private detective Lew Archer with the hope of hiring him to locate his runaway bride. Alex reveals that his wife Dolly Kincaid nee McGee ditched him just a couple of days into their honeymoon and the police are not taking him seriously. Despite Dolly’s weird behaviour, Alex is a supportive, steadfast man and refuses to annul the marriage even when others are advising him to do so. The duo quickly locates Dolly, but it’s clear that there is more to the matter than meets the eye. For one, Dolly appears psychologically disturbed, and it does not help that subsequently she finds herself entangled in two murders practically decades apart.

Characters are aplenty in the book, some of whom are – Roy Bradshaw, dean of the college where Dolly has enrolled herself; his formidable, overbearing mother Mrs Bradshaw; the flirtatious college professor Helen Haggerty; the over-protective psychiatrist Dr Godwin; Dolly’s aunt Alice Jenks, a self-righteous and allegedly principled woman, to name a few.  As the world weary Lew Archer digs deeper, he is often stonewalled when questioning the various cast of people connected with the case, but steadily their defenses break down and the skeletons begin to tumble out of the closet.

The plot in The Chill is extraordinarily deep and complex, but in Macdonald’s assured hands, it is never difficult to follow. This is a tale of mistaken identities, dark family secrets, fractured relationships, deceit and trauma. Plus, it has all the trademarks of a theme that the author continually explored in his books – how the ghost of the past always haunts an increasingly fragile present. The final twist is quite unexpected but also strangely satisfying.

A PERFECT CEMETERY – Federico Falco

This is a good collection of stories – five in total – with a strong sense of nature and place. In ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’ when the titular character, a 16-year old girl, informs her parents that she is abandoning her Christian faith, she decides to convert into a Mormon. Her reason is misplaced though – it has nothing to do with religion, but is largely driven by her infatuation with a Mormon missionary. It’s a story that also explores Silvi’s relationship with her parents – her mother Alba Clara, a deeply religious woman who is tormented by SIlvi’s lack of faith, and her father, who is a much more tolerant man and uses a different approach to communicate with Silvi.

In ‘A Perfect Cemetry’, Victor Bagiardelli, is awarded the biggest assignment of his life – to design a cemetery for Mayor Giraudo’s father in the town of Colonel Isabeta. Mayor Giraudo’s father, called Old Man Giraudo is not yet dead, but because of his frail health, he is being cared for in an old age home. Bagiardelli begins to envisage what to him is ‘a perfect cemetery’, the abundance of land given to him for the project fuels his creative energies to transform it into his best design yet. His plans also include transporting an ancient oak tree to the premises under which will lie Old Man Giraudo’s grave. Bagiardelli, even visits the old man, and describes the cemetery he has created, but Old Man Giraudo is a tough character and is not ready to hang up his boots yet, he is determined to live on. It’s a story that explores the uncertainty of death and how a man’s all consuming passion for his craft can make him oblivious to the other possibilities in his life.

In ‘Forest Life’, after losing their family home, Wutrich desperately offers his daughter Mabel’s hand to any man who will take them in. Mabel finally marries a Japanese settled in town, but will she learn to adapt to her new life, or will her yearning for the past unravel her like it does for Wutrich?

Connecting with nature, loss of home and faith, grief, and radically reinventing the self to new circumstances are some of the themes explored in this collection.

All in all, April was a great reading month. I started May with Jhumpa Lahiri’s brilliant new offering Whereabouts, a fragmentary novel of solitude, alienation and fleeting connections. I am also dipping into The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, which has been compiled and edited by Lahiri, and am enjoying it immensely. There are 40 authors covered and so this book is going to keep me nicely occupied for a month.