November turned out to be a great month. I read six books – a mix of contemporary literature featured on prize lists such as the Goldsmiths Prize and the Irish Book Awards, translated literature from Norway and Canada, a forgotten classic recently reissued and a graphic memoir. All were excellent but the best of the lot was Trespasses.
So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on the first five you can click on the links.
SOMEBODY LOVES YOU by Mona Arshi
Mona Arshi’s Somebody Loves You is 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.
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. 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.
TRESPASSES by Louise Kennedy
Trespasses is a sensitively written, gut-wrenching tale of forbidden love and fractured communities set during the Troubles. The setting is mid 1970s Northern Ireland, a small town a few miles away from Belfast. Our protagonist 24-year old Cushla Lavery is Catholic, a school teacher by profession and in the evenings volunteers as a bartender at the family pub now managed and run by her brother Eamonn. It is during one of her evening stints at the pub that she first meets Michael Agnew, a Protestant barrister defending IRA criminals and the two embark on a whirlwind, passionate affair that has doom written all over it.
This is a beautifully observed novel with a rich palette of themes – forbidden love, the unbridgeable wealth and class divides, the austere unforgiving face of religion, divisive politics, sudden eruption of violence intertwined with the mundane, a sense of communal harmony driven by small acts of kindness…but more importantly the devastating impact of protracted hostility and simmering tensions on a community that is already on tenterhooks but is desperately trying to live normally.
AUTUMN ROUNDS by Jacques Poulin (Translated from French by Sheila Fischman)
Autumn Rounds is a subtle, beguiling novel about books and nature, a meditation on forming connections and finding love late in life that has the feel of a travelogue, both charming and melancholy at the same time.
The book opens on the eve of the Driver embarking on his summer tour. He hears faint notes of music drifting into his room, and when he heads out for a walk, he comes across a motley crew of performers – musicians, acrobats, jugglers – putting on a show on the streets for the audience. But then he chances upon Marie, the group’s manager of sorts, with “a beautiful face like Katharine Hepburn’s, a mixture of tenderness and strength”, and the attraction is immediate prompting them to strike up a conversation.
The Driver is entranced by Marie and her troupe, and they in turn are enamoured by the idea of a bookmobile, and soon an agreement is reached wherein the troupe will follow the same route taken by the Driver on his summer tour. The Driver arranges for a school bus for Marie and her crew for the purpose of this trip and they are all ready to set off. It’s a bittersweet, quietly powerful novel, a soothing balm for the soul, and there’s something about the goodness and kindness of the people within its pages that touches the heart.
ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)
The musical, rhythmic chant-like writing style that was such a striking feature of Jon Fosse’s Septology is very much palpable in Aliss at the Fire, a haunting meditation on marriage, loss, grief and the randomness of fate; a book that at 74 pages might not seem as weighty as the monumental Septology series, but is no less impressive.
It’s March 2002 and we see Signe lying on the bench in her old house taking in all the objects around her. Signe is now alone, riddled with grief for her husband Asle who disappears one day in November in 1979. In typical Fosse style, we are transported to the past in the space of a sentence and we see Signe in the very same room, standing by the window as she waits for Asle to return.
As Asle walks in the dismal dark, he is faced with visions of a fire near the beach around which he sees his great, great grandmother Aliss and in a matter of minutes the scope of the novel widens to accommodate five generations of Asle’s family spanning across the immediate present to the distant past. Written in his trademark hallucinatory and melodic prose, the visuals and phrases often repeat to hypnotic effect lending the novella an other-worldly quality.
THE GLASS PEARLS by Emeric Pressburger
The Glass Pearls is a brilliant unsettling tale of paranoia and moral complexity centred on a war criminal on the run. We are introduced to our protagonist Karl Braun who in the book’s opening pages arrives at his new lodgings on Pimlico Road in London. Karl works as a piano tuner at Mr Parson’s firm and his job requires him to visit client homes all over the city to fix or repair their pianos.
It soon becomes clear within the first ten pages itself that Karl Braun is a Nazi war criminal on the run, and for twenty years has managed to remain in hiding, a period during which the War Crimes Tribunal was hunting down perpetrators of heinous crimes to prosecute them. With this twenty year statutory period almost coming to an end, Braun is looking to enjoy his first taste of freedom, but soon learns that the period of tracking war criminals is likely to get extended.
Braun is consistently tormented by the fear and paranoia of being caught and imprisoned and his panic further escalates when he learns of some unknown, shadowy individuals who are trying to locate him – are they the police or the war crime tribunal who has finally learnt of his whereabouts and are out to get him?
The Glass Pearls then is an excellent novel, a fascinating exploration of fear and moral dilemma, of an individual’s desperate effort to start afresh, how you can’t entirely leave the past behind and how fate can play cruel tricks.
DUCKS: TWO YEARS IN THE OIL SANDS by Kate Beaton
This book came to my attention thanks to the One Bright Book podcast hosted by Dorian, Rebecca and Frances and it is lovely. This is a graphic memoir written and illustrated by Kate Beaton and gives an account of the two years she spent working at the Alberta Oil Sands.
A resident of Cape Breton in Nova Scotia Canada, Beaton majors in art and wishes to pursue a museum career but she has a big burden to bear – crippling student loans – and in order to repay that debt she needs money, which a career in art is hardly going to fulfill. Hence, she heads west to Canada’s oil fields like so many other Canadians from different parts of the country with hopes of raking in some moolah.
Beaton gets employed as a tool attendant and while she is a hard worker soon gets disillusioned by the people who surround her. In a largely male-dominated workplace, misogyny is rampant and Beaton is often at the receiving end, unfortunately facing a harrowing ordeal herself. The ghastly behaviour of quite a few men makes her wonder whether they are portraying their true selves at the camps or whether it’s a persona they are putting on for survival, fuelled by the need to belong, a result of being away from their families for so long.
This is a book that explores loneliness, survival, the clash between man and nature, the huge costs of exploiting the environment in the quest for development (the three legged fox is one symbol), the difficult choice between making money and pursuing your dreams and how the two are often divergent, and a tough, misogynistic work culture. It’s a statement on the economic and political landscape of Canada against which Beaton’s own personal story plays out.
The graphic artwork is gorgeous capturing the stark beauty of the boreal forest, the pristine snow and the majestic Northern Lights in a palette of grey, white and black; the stunning depiction of nature a sharp contrast to the ugliness of the industrial oil machinery that has encroached upon it. In a nutshell, Ducks is a wonderful book…honest, poignant and humane at the same time and heartily recommended.
That’s it for November. In December I’m reading Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament which is absolutely brilliant and I plan to complete the remaining three volumes from Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage series (Clear Horizon, Dimple Hill and March Moonlight). I also plan to release “My Best Books of 2022” list somewhere around mid-December, I’ve read some great books this year.