A Month of Reading – December 2022

In a year that was full of wonderful reads, December also turned out to be a good month. On the 14th of this month, I released My Best Books of 2022 list, a mix of 20th century literature, translated lit, contemporary fiction, novellas, short stories, a memoir and a biography; books that truly enthralled me.

In December, I read five books – a combination of translated literature, Indian fiction, crime, short stories and volume 11 of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage.  My favourite was the Hjorth by a mile, a novel that also found a place on my year end list.

So, without further ado, here’s a brief look at the five books…

WILL AND TESTAMENT by Vigdis Hjorth (tr. from Norwegian by Charlotte Barslund)  

Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament is a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

The novel opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash and the modern reader will immediately discern the reason for this – she was abused by her father as a child and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely sever ties with her family for more than 20 years in order to maintain her sanity. At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. The prose has a feverish quality that is compelling, the characters are brilliantly drawn and overall this is really a superb novel.

KILLING HAPPINESS by Friedrich Ani (tr. from German by Alexander Booth)

Friedrich Ani’s Killing Happiness is a dark, wintry, melancholic but beautifully written crime novel. Lennard Grabbe, Stephan and Tania’s 11-year old son, is found brutally murdered in a forest one cold December day after being missing for a month. This devastating news is delivered to them by Jakob Franck, now retired from the police force but not entirely out of it – he still performs the difficult duty of conveying news of death to the victim’s loved ones.

Her son’s tragic demise sees Tania spiraling into a depression, while Stephan is left to run their café. Holed up in her son’s room for most part of the day, communication between husband and wife is pretty much non-existent; cracks in their marriage leave no room for the couple to find solace in each other in their grief. For some reason though, Tania remains closer to her brother Maximilian, a shaky mysterious relationship the nature of which Jakob Franck and even Stephan can’t quite fathom.

Meanwhile, the case completely consumes Franck; a crime seemingly difficult to solve given the lack of clues and reliable witness statements (“Franck knew from innumerable question sessions that memories consisted of fissures, ellipses, misperceptions, loose sensory connections”). Heavy rain and thunderstorms on the day Lennard disappeared pretty much obliterates the chances of finding critical forensic evidence, and Franck is desperately seeking that crucial piece of information, or what he calls the ‘fossil’ (“that very material or immaterial link that placed the act’s past in an unassailable connection to the crime’s present and held the genome of the truth to solving the case”).

While Killing Happiness has all the traits of a crime novel, it is also very much a novel of marriage and family, the dark secrets that lurk within and how a hidden past can drive a wedge into already fragile relationships.

Franck is also an interesting character, effortlessly donning the dual roles of investigator and confidante. He assiduously and patiently chips away at the evidence before him, revisiting the crime scene innumerable times, probing witnesses to remember better, while his gentle, quiet personality compels Lennard’s family members to talk to him in a way one would to a therapist.

Published by Seagull Books, this is a novel I very much enjoyed and I plan to read Ani’s other work released earlier, The Nameless Day.

A SURPRISE FOR CHRISTMAS & OTHER SEASONAL MYSTERIES edited by Martin Edwards

This turned out to be an excellent Christmassy read in December; a terrific compilation of golden age crime stories and my first ‘British Library Crime Classics’ read.

The stories are mostly set around Christmas, and while Christmas itself might not be a dominant theme, quite a few are atmospheric, capturing the starkness of the wintry season. In GK Chesterton’s ‘The Hole in the Wall’, a country house fancy dress party in the depths of winter goes awry when the host mysteriously disappears; while Ngaio Marsh’s ‘Death on the Air’ is an excellent story of a dysfunctional family ruled by a tyrant with “a clever murder device and a cleverly hidden murderer.”

‘Person or Things Unknown’ by Carter Dickson is a historical mystery set in the Restoration period during Charles II’s reign centred on a love triangle gone wrong; ‘Dead’s Man’s Hand’ is an atmospheric, intense story where guilt is examined to brilliant effect; Cyril Hare’s ‘A Surprise for Christmas’ (lending the collection its name) is also wonderful where an old homicide gets unexpectedly discovered in a cosy domestic setting. A postman is killed in Margery Allingham’s ‘On Christmas Day in the Morning’ that combines the gloominess of winter with the warmth of the festive spirit in a surprise ending.

Medieval masked balls, notorious gangs, pantomime, ghosts among other things feature in these stories as do love affairs, fractured families and broken relationships. A collection comprising 12 stories, I have given a flavour of only a few but overall I thought this was a lovely collection well worth reading.

SOJOURN by Amit Chaudhuri 

Sojourn was my first foray into Amit Chaudhuri’s work; I enjoyed this novella but didn’t quite know what to make of it. Our narrator/protagonist is unnamed, a middle aged Indian writer, who has been offered a short stint as a visiting Boll professor in a Berlin university where he is required to give weekly lectures.

Once ensconced in a flat in his new surroundings, he meets the Bangladeshi poet Faqrul, an exile in Berlin, who takes our narrator under his wing, helping him navigate everyday living in the city. Our narrator ponders about the Japanese writer Oe in the bathroom, aimlessly wanders around the city – Brandenburg Gate, Jewish Museum et al – thinking about the history of Berlin and its present status, dines in restaurants with acquaintances, and so on. Faqrul then disappears as fast as he had made an appearance, and our narrator later gets entangled in a tentative relationship with Birgit, until a feeling of disorientation completely engulfs him in the final pages.

Throughout this novella, there’s a sense that our narrator is lost and maybe trying to find himself, akin to Berlin’s identity which also seems in flux; a unified city very different in the present but one that has not entirely shaken off the remnants of its past.  The prose is elegant, pared to the bone, not a word wasted and an aura of uncertainty and rootlessness pervades the novel, the sense of being in no-man’s land  further heightened by the fleeting nature of things and the impermanence of connections. Like I mentioned, I am not entirely sure of having grasped the essence of this novella and yet it was laced with the sort of suspense that made it fascinating.

CLEAR HORIZON (PILGRIMAGE 4) by Dorothy Richardson

Clear Horizon is the eleventh installment in Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage cycle of novels, after Pointed Roofs, Backwater, Honeycomb, The Tunnel, Interim, Deadlock, Revolving Lights, The Trap, Oberland and Dawn’s Left Hand.  

In Clear Horizon, Amabel continues to be a dominant presence, and a telegram from Michael Shatov sends Miriam reminiscing on their friendship and his marriage proposal which Miriam rejects, but in this book she considers introducing Shatov to Amabel. There’s also a sense that Miriam could be pregnant post her one night stand with Hugo Wilson in Dawn’s Left Hand, but then realises that not to be the case. That’s the first very long chapter and the second chapter entirely consists of a lengthy conversation between Miriam and Hugo Wilson, where Amabel is partly present at the beginning. This meeting only confirms Miriam’s opinion of how different her views are from Hugo’s who continues to be annoying and patronising. It’s then that Miriam decides that the end of her relationship with Hypo is now final.

It suddenly occurred to her that perhaps much of his talk was to be explained by the fact that he had never known that rapture. Had always been shut in and still, in spite of his apparent freedom, was enclosed and enmeshed? If this fact were flung at him, he would freely admit it, with an air of tragic hilarity, while overtly denying it, with a conspiratorial smile to emphasize his relatively large liberties, in order to use the admission as a point of departure for fresh insistence upon their neglected opportunities, while, hovering high above the useless to and fro, would hang the question, sometimes accepted by Amabel and sometimes wistfully denied, as to whether men, however fitted up with incomes and latchkeys and mobility, can ever know freedom-unless they are tramps.

Meanwhile, Richardson’s descriptive powers continue to enthrall as can be seen in the following passage…

And again, demanding no price for truant contemplation, the heavenly morning received her. Turning, in the fullness of her recently restored freedom, towards the light as towards the contemplative gaze of a lover, she felt its silent stream flood her untenanted being and looked up, and recovered, in swift sequence, and with a more smiting intensity than when she had first come upon them, the earlier gifts of this interrupted spring: the dense little battalions, along the park’s green alley, between tall leafless trees, of new, cold crocus-cups, glossy with living varnish, golden-yellow, transparent mauve, pure frosty white, white with satiny purple stripings; the upper rim of each petal so sharp that it seemed to be cutting for itself a place in the dense, chill air; each flower a little upright figure and a song, proclaiming winter’s end. Then tree-buds in the square seen suddenly, glistening, through softly showering rain. Then the green haze of small leaves: each leaf translucent in the morning and, at night, under the London lamplight, an opaque, exciting, viridian artificiality. And it was with power borrowed from this early light, and from the chance of stillness as perfect as its own, that these memories were smiting through her.

Just as The Tunnel marked Miriam’s entry into London as an independent woman with a career as a dental assistant to Dr Hancock, so does Clear Horizon mark the end of this period of Miriam’s life, a period that encompassed a decade. Having now read 11 of the 13 volumes of Pilgrimage, Miriam’s journey has certainly been interesting although I must say that to me the first six volumes (including Deadlock) were the best. I’m not yet sure whether I’ll continue with the remaining two volumes, we shall see.

That’s it for December. 2022 has been wonderfully rich in terms of reading and I hope that streak continues in 2023 too!

Five Books for Winter

As winter deepens and it gets colder, it’s time to curl up indoors in a cosy room with mugs of hot drinks and good books that capture the essence of the season. I wrote these seasonal posts for Summer and Autumn and now that we enter the last week of December, here are five atmospheric reads for Winter.

Click on the links for detailed reviews…

ALISS AT THE FIRE by Jon Fosse (tr. 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 this deeply atmospheric novella an other-worldly quality.

ETHAN FROME by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.

Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet.  Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape.  Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury. To make matters worse, Ethan and his wife Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan. In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan.

It’s a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.

WINTER LOVE by Han Suyin

Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain during winter at the end of the Second World War.

Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses. During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across the beautiful, wealthy, dreamy Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).

The novel, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance. 

THE ICE PALACE by Tarjei Vesaas (tr. from Norwegian by Elizabeth Rokkan)

The Ice Palace is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond in a narrative where things are implied, never explicitly stated. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship, redemption and recovery and the power of nature.

ICE by Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred. When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves who continues to remain elusive. The disorienting nature of the book is precisely its strength, it’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not. Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers – the world she has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice, on the brink of an apocalypse.

Will and Testament – Vigdis Hjorth (tr. Charlotte Barslund)

Will and Testament was my first novel by Vigdis Hjorth and it was just amazing. I now have Long Live the Post Horn to look forward to as well as her latest Is Mother Dead, a copy of which is already on its way to me. But in the meanwhile, this novel will 100% find a place on my best of the year list.

They say that to find a solution to a problem you need to admit that there’s a problem in the first place. How can you find ways to resolve the issue if you are not willing to accept the existence of the very issue that needs resolving? It’s the same with family and relationships. Families can be complex and complicated. Arguments, deep seated resentments and differing points of view can cause cracks in the familial structure that maybe hard to fix. While reconciliation is always a preferred option and healthy communication between various parties is one way of achieving this, what if there are certain instances where this is definitely not an option? Especially, in a scenario where a serious crime in the family has been committed and differing versions of it exist, where the victim’s version is not acknowledged because it challenges the other family members’ sense of self and makes them uncomfortable?

That is the central theme that underlines Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament – a powerful, gripping, masterfully constructed novel about family feuds, abuse, trauma and a woman’s fight to be believed and her story acknowledged, where Hjorth cleverly uses the set-up of an inheritance dispute to examine the deeper fissures that run in a dysfunctional family.

Our protagonist is Bergljot, working as a magazine editor in Oslo writing theatre reviews. Bergjlot is now in her late fifties or earlier sixties with three grown up children (Soren, Ebba and Tale) and grandchildren, is in a relationship with a man called Lars and close to her friends Klara and Karen always pillars of support whenever a crisis erupts and she desperately needs someone to talk to.

Will and Testament opens with the news that Bergjlot’s dad died five months ago, a development that only exacerbates the ongoing property dispute between the four children and the mother. Before his death, the father had made a will leaving the two family cabins at Hvalar to his youngest children Astrid and Asa at very low valuations, a fact that angers Bard the eldest child and only son.

Bard vehemently challenges the terms of the inheritance but he is pretty much contesting a lone battle when the mother, father, Astrid and Asa refuse to budge from their position. Bergjlot initially chooses to stay out of this clash, having severed contact with the family more than twenty years ago. The modern reader will immediately discern the reason for Bergjlot’s refusal to get entangled – having been abused by the father as a child, the subsequent ordeal and the scars from that incident made it easier for Bergjlot to completely cut contact with her family in order to maintain her sanity.

Which is one of the reasons she does not wish to get embroiled in the feud; she thinks if she hasn’t bothered keeping in touch with her family, she cannot expect to be entitled to any inheritance. And yet the unfairness of the entire affair given how inextricably it’s linked with her past, persistently nags her compelling her to finally join the row siding with Bard; the two elder children against their mother and younger siblings.

Bard, a victim of neglect and physical abuse himself, argues about the principle of the matter, that the disagreement over the inheritance is not so much about money as it is about acknowledging the trauma inflicted upon them by their father, a view Bergjlot also shares. Isn’t it fair that he gets entitled to a half of one of the cabins as a form of compensation for a very difficult childhood?

The fractured family dynamics rub off on their children too. Bard’s daughters refuse to have anything to do with their aunts and grandparents, a development that causes the mother much heartache as she fears losing them completely. It’s the same with Bergjlot’s children who also remain ambivalent. Her daughter Tale refuses to attend family gatherings, but Soren and Ebba attend these get-togethers to keep up appearances although these occasions leave them uneasy.

While distribution of the property is a bone of contention in the present, much of the drama takes place in Bergjlot’s past, the root of all the discord in subsequent years. Through much of her growing up years and even post marriage, the abuse remains repressed in Bergjlot, life continues as if it never happened. But what is repressed is bound to resurface later and Bergjlot finally confronts her family only to be stonewalled. Branded as a liar by her mother, the father’s denial and lack of support from Astrid and Asa who choose to remain silent; Bergjlot is finally compelled to cut all contact.

One of the striking aspects of Will and Testament are the superb character studies, Hjorth brilliantly captures the flawed personalities, fears and insecurities of not only Bergjlot but also those of the mother (Inga) and Astrid who are as damaged by the father’s actions but unwilling to admit them.

Bergjlot, particularly, is a richly drawn character struggling to be believed by a family that staunchly refuses to do so. Unsurprisingly and understandably Bergjlot’s scars run deep and manifests in the chaotic way her personal life pans out – she divorces her wealthy, “nice” husband when her children are young because she is deeply in love with an unscrupulous married man, a relationship that also ultimately sours prompting her to finally opt in for psychoanalysis as a step towards healing. Bergjlot’s severing of all ties with her damaged family works to her advantage, but she remains tormented by her mother’s digs and insults about her behaviour and her sisters’ refusal to accept her version of the past. She is deeply conflicted about a family that desperately tries to silence her while at the same time makes her feel guilty about her actions. She is flawed but vulnerable and it’s her dogged insistence on fighting back, on telling her story that lends the novel much of its power.

The mother is also a damaged individual, a woman with only looks to her credit with no money or prospects of her own, at the mercy of her husband, and unable to stand up for her children. Bergjlot’s mother has suspicions of her husband’s crime, but she chooses to look away. Having loved another man herself, that affair comes to nothing, and somewhere deep down she resents Bergljot for taking charge of her life which she considers a rebuke to her own inability to do so. Hjorth often refers to the Norwegian dramatist Ibsen in her depiction of the mother – in Ibsen’s The Doll House, Nora finally decides to abandon her husband and family in an attempt to begin life anew, a path the mother does not have the guts to embark on.

Mum didn’t feel good about herself. Mum was pretty, but had no education, no experience, no money, Mum was Dad’s possession, Dad was proud of his pretty possession, Mum radiated fear. Mum was innocent in the sense that she was inexperienced and naïve. Many men prefer and are attracted to inexperienced and naïve women, simple, childish ones who are easy to impress, awestruck, devoted, sincere, needy, those who don’t use irony, who don’t hold back. Mum was inexperienced, childish and chose to remain a child. If Mum had chosen to grow up, her reality would have become unbearable. 

Astrid desires the best of both worlds; she wishes her family to reconcile but without acknowledging the event that caused the rupture in the first place. She projects herself as a good person who wants to keep up appearances, and adopt a diplomatic approach towards the matter at hand, without accepting that there are times when you need to take a stand however unpleasant and even if it means a further rift in the family.

That was her mistake, Astrid’s mistake. She claimed to be neutral, but deep down she wasn’t because sweet-talking everyone isn’t being neutral if one party has hurt the other, only she didn’t factor that in or she didn’t believe it. She didn’t seem to understand or be willing to accept that there were conflicts which couldn’t be resolved in the way she would like them to be, that there are situations which can’t be balanced out, talked over and round, where you have to pick a side.

Deep down, Astrid and Asa resent Bergjlot because they perceive her to be their parents’ favorite child given the attention they showered upon Bergjlot little realizing the nature of that attention. As grown-ups, Astrid and Asa maintain a strong relationship with their parents, a bond that also results in them benefitting financially, but their closeness with the parents and silence on the ‘unmentionable’ matter makes it very clear to Bergjlot whose side they are on even if they have not explicitly stated it. Asa, interestingly, is not much of a presence in the novel as Astrid, but that is because she does not care about mending relations in the way Astrid desperately does.  

At its core, Will and Testament, is about a victim of abuse fighting back to be heard, about the legacy of abuse that can run down generations, how it can irreparably damage relationships. This is a first person account; Bergjlot is the narrator where the repetition of events and episodes reflects her anxious, feverish state of mind as she struggles to come to terms with what has happened to her. The frenzied internal monologues capture Bergjlot’s distress to brilliant effect, the mounting dread and anxiety she experiences every time she is required to come face to face with her family. The tension palpable in Bergjlot’s voice, a product of her fretful personality lends an intense, gripping quality to the narrative propelling it forward.

If Bergjlot has deliberately abandoned her family, why should she bother what they think? If she has long ago given up the idea of any inheritance, why change her stance? Can such a fractured family ever reconcile when they are so intent on denying her reality and are busy brushing things under the carpet? These are the questions that repeatedly swirl in Bergjlot’s mind and raise pertinent questions about the limits of forgiveness in a family which repeatedly denies the existence of a grave crime.

Was it any wonder that I had felt troubled and ambivalent towards someone who wanted proof and reconciliation at the same time? That was the impossibility, the untruth which had lain unspoken underneath all our conversations, which now turned out to have been nothing but lies.

I thought this was an absolutely fantastic novel, timeless in its themes, and especially relevant given how difficult it is for abused women to come forward and be believed even in the current #MeToo era.

A Month of Reading – November 2022

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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