The Best of the Blues – Fitzcarraldo Editions

One of my favourite UK based independent publisher is Fitzcarraldo Editions, which specializes in publishing contemporary literature, a combination of translated lit and those with English as the original language. What distinguishes them are the covers – plain and simple, and yet stylish and striking. These covers come in two colours – Blue (for fiction), and White (for non-fiction, typically essay collections). I have read only the ‘Blues’ so far, and these are some of them that I have loved and would recommend.  

Of course, this list will evolve and change, as I keep reading more of their books, and also begin delving into the ‘Whites.’

POND by Claire-Louise Bennett

Pond is an intriguing book, an absorbing and lyrical work, and can be interpreted as either a short story collection or a novel with chapters of varying length, all with the same protagonist. Some of these chapters are just one page, others run into twenty pages. Essentially, the book dwells on the thoughts of a woman living by herself in a rented cottage on the west coast of Ireland as she ponders over the pleasures and pitfalls of a life in solitude.  Bennett has flair for making poetic observations about mundane, everyday life, and at the same time also creating a slightly unsettling atmosphere. This was the first book that I read from the Fitzcarraldo catalogue, and since then I have always kept an eye on their new releases, which are always interesting and well worth exploring.

THE DOLL’S ALPHABET by Camilla Grudova

The Doll’s Alphabet is a collection of 13 stories, each fantastical, and weird but in a good way. Here’s how the first story ‘Unstitching’ opens:

One afternoon, after finishing a cup of coffee in her living room, Greta discovered how to unstitch herself. Her clothes, skin and hair fell from her like the peeled rind of a fruit, and her true body stepped out. Greta was very clean so she swept her old self away and deposited it in the rubbish bin before even taking notice of her new physiognomy, the difficulty of working her new limbs offering no obstruction to her determination to keep a clean home.

Another strong story ‘Agata’s Machine’, is a tale of two eleven year olds – the narrator and Agata, who is a genius excelling in maths and science. One day, Agata shows a sewing machine in her attic to the narrator, and for days on end both the girls are mesmerized by it.  This then is an unusual, dark story about obsession and indulging in destructive activity and what happens when it gets out of control.

Sewing machines, dolls, factories, mermaids, babies are some of the recurring motifs in this collection, and a general air of dirt and dereliction permeate all of these stories. Grudova has a way of drawing you into her surreal, unusual world with prose that is enthralling. There is also a whiff of feminism in some of the stories, and an abundance of anachronistic subjects, an ode to something ancient, an older era. Grudova has painted a different world; a macabre world of fables, dreams, nightmares and otherworldliness. Each of these stories is haunting, dark, striking and will stay in your mind for a long, long time.

TELL THEM OF BATTLES, ELEPHANTS & KINGS by Mathias Enard (Translated from French by Charlotte Mandell)

I love Mathias Enard and pretty much plan to read everything he’s written. I was mesmerized by Compass, and the only reason why I have not included that book here is because I read the Open Letter edition.

But his shorter and latest work, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants is also excellent. At the end of this slim novella, Mathias Enard lists a series of factual events with proof of their existence. One of them in essence is that the Sultan had invited the celebrated sculptor and artist – Michelangelo – to build a bridge over the Golden Horn in Constantinople. There is no record that Michelangelo ever took up this offer and travelled to the East. That’s because he never did.

But Mathias Enard cleverly builds his story around this premise – What if Michelangelo had accepted the Sultan’s project?

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants then is a wonderful slice of alternative history that also allows Enard to revisit his favourite theme – the meeting of the East and the West in the pursuit of art. It is a short book and a great entry point into Enard’s work, if one is daunted by his bigger books.  

HURRICANE SEASON by Fernanda Melchor (Translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes)

Right from the beginning, the pace of Hurricane Season never lets up. Set in the decrepit village of La Matosa in rural Mexico, the book begins when a group of boys playing in the fields come across a corpse floating in the irrigation canal, immediately identified as that of the Witch. The Witch is a highly reviled figure in the village, an object of malicious gossip and pretty much an outcast to most of La Matosa’s inhabitants.

The murder of the Witch then forms the foundation upon which the bulk of the novel rests. We are presented with four main narratives which circle around and closer to her murder, providing more details as the novel progresses. But other the gruesome killing itself, Melchor highlights a toxic environment where the characters are caught up in a vicious circle of poverty, casual violence, and sexual abuse ingrained into their psyche with no hope of a better future.

Despite such a dark subject matter, Hurricane Season is brilliant and incredibly fascinating. Melchor’s prose is brutal, electrifying and hurtles at the reader like a juggernaut. The sentences are long and there are no paragraphs but that in no way makes the book difficult to read. Rather, this style propels the narrative forward and ratchets up the tension, always keeping the reader on the edge. A cleverly told tale with a compelling structure at its heart, Melchor’s vision is unflinching and fearless.

THE OTHER NAME (SEPTOLOGY I-II) by Jon Fosse (Translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls)

I have been waxing eloquent about The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse, one of my favourite books this year, and one which I will highlight again here. The Other Name is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

As I write this, I have been reading another latest Fitzcarraldo Edition – The Appointment by Katharina Volckmer, a novella that is less than 100 pages, and as fascinating as I expected. Maybe, it will join the list the next time I compile one.

A Month of Reading – October 2020

Here’s what I read in October – a mix of translated literature, contemporary lit and early 20th century lit. It was a slow reading month, but I am pleased that atleast the books were high quality. My favourites, however, were The Other Name by the Norwegian author Jon Fosse, and Dead Girls by the Argentinean writer Selva Almada.

Dead Girls – Selva Almada

Dead Girls is a searing, hard-hitting book which explores the blight of gender violence and femicide in Almada’s native Argentina. It is a powerful, hybrid piece of work – a blend of journalistic fiction and memoir – as Almada digs deeper into the murder of three small-town teenage girls in the 1980s, unspeakable crimes that never got solved, where “being a woman” was the primary motive for these heinous acts being committed.

At the beginning of the book, Almada writes:

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

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

The Other Name – Jon Fosse

The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader.

The Fountain Overflows – Rebecca West

The Fountain Overflowsis a lovely depiction of childhood and family life as it centers on the talented Aubrey children comprising Cordelia, Mary, Rose and Richard Quin (Rose is the narrator). Their father’s financial instability reduces them to near poverty and their mother frets over their circumstances, but the children’s appetite for adventure remains intact. This is a book filled with music, poltergeists, wonderfully described Christmas gatherings, and a murder trial. West’s writing is warm and charming, and reading the book had been pure delight.

Ankomst – Gohril Gabrielsen

In Ankomst, our narrator is a woman, a scientist whose job is to study the impact of climate on the behavioral patterns of seabirds. For the purposes of her research, she decides to spend six months in isolation in a remote cabin in northern Norway, way up in the Arctic. And yet she has no plans of really being alone. Rather she awaits the arrival of her lover, who is reluctant to come because he has a daughter to look after. Our narrator is also married with a daughter of her own. Gradually, it emerges through a series of flashbacks that her marriage is troubled as she is a victim of domestic violence. Not to mention, she is also plagued by the guilt of abandoning her daughter. The sense of place in the novel is excellent, the feeling of isolation against a backdrop of snow, ice and freezing temperatures. Gabrielsen also racks up the tension as the reader wonders whether the abusive husband will be successful in tracing our narrator’s whereabouts. As the drama builds up, so does our narrator’s feelings of isolation and possibly disorientation. And then, in the final pages there is a knock on her cabin door – is it her lover who has finally arrived, or is it her violent husband?

Academy Street – Mary Costello

Academy Street is about Tess Lohan, a book that journeys through six decades of her life. Born in a rural farm in Ireland, Tess is confronted with a tragedy as a young girl – the death of her mother due to tuberculosis. Raised in a big family of brothers and sisters, prone to not expressing their feelings, she is overwhelmed by a sense of stasis and longs for escape.  Pouncing on an opportunity to train as a nurse, she migrates from Ireland to New York in the 1960s, seeing America as a land of many possibilities. And then she falls in love, and this has consequences. This is a beautifully rendered tale, full of heartache, and compassion and Tess is a wonderfully realized character. The prose is lovely, which is always to be expected from Irish authors, who are truly masters of the language.

That’s it for October.  I plan to read a few novellas in November and have started on Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. It’s been very good so far, but my concentration had dwindled largely due to the anxiety over US elections. With Biden finally (and thankfully) emerging as a victor, I am hoping to resume reading soon.

The Other Name (Septology I-II) – Jon Fosse (tr. Damion Searls)

I had not read anything by Jon Fosse before but when The Other Name (Septology I-II) was longlisted for the International Booker Prize this year, I was greatly interested. The book ultimately failed to make it to the shortlist, and after having just finished it, I wish it had. I loved this novel.  

The Other Name is an intense and deeply introspective novel about an ageing painter reminiscing about his life, where elements of the everyday and the existential flow into one another, while touching upon big topics of life and death, love and grief, and the process of art.

Our protagonist, Asle is an ageing painter who lives alone in the small town of Dylgja in southwest Norway. When the novel opens, Asle is standing before his newest painting – a canvas depicting two lines intersecting in the middle – and is contemplating whether it’s a piece of work that satisfies him.

And I see myself standing and looking at the picture with the two lines that cross in the middle, one purple line, one brown line, it’s a painting wider than it is high and I see that I’ve painted the lines slowly, the paint is thick, two long wide lines, and they’ve dripped, where the brown line and the purple line cross the colours blend beautifully and drip and I’m thinking this isn’t a picture but suddenly the picture is the way it’s supposed to be…

Asle is a widower, having lost his wife Ales many years earlier, and leads a solitary existence. He is religious and a teetotaler having given up drinking years ago at the insistence of his wife. His only friends seem to be his neighbour Asleik, a fisherman-farmer, and Beyer, who is the gallery owner in the city of Bjorgvin.

Asle’s shows are held annually in the Beyer Gallery, which is located in Bjorgvin, a few miles away from Dylgja. This entails trips to Bjorgvin on some days to procure art supplies and also to deliver his final paintings. Asle is not comfortable commuting in big cities, and Beyer assigns him a designated parking space, making things easier for Asle.

At the same time, the reader is introduced to the other Asle who stays near Bjorgvin, in Sailor’s Cove. This Asle is also an ageing painter and lives alone in his home. But there the similarities end. Bjorgvin Asle is an atheist and an alcoholic with two failed marriages behind him. He has children from both his marriages, but they don’t keep in touch. The only person who cares enough for him is Dylgja Asle.

Are both Asle and Asle doppelgangers? Or is the second Asle an alternate version of the first Asle – of what the latter’s life would have been had he not stopped drinking?

There is not much in the way of plot in the novel and the drama is mostly internal, as the characters think about the present and hark back to the past. The crux of the plot then is this – While Asle drives back home to Dylgja from his trip to Bjorgvin, he regrets not having stopped at Sailor’s Cove to check on the other Asle. He reaches home, puts all his purchases on the kitchen table, has a long conversation with his neighbour Asleik, and decides to drive back to Bjorgvin the same day to make sure the other Asle is all right (which he is not) even though it is getting dark and there’s a snowstorm on the anvil.

And yet it’s a unique novel with the power to transfix the reader. That’s largely because of the quality of writing that takes it to a whole new level. Fosse has employed what is called ‘slow prose’, a circular narrative technique, which reminded me of Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. There are no breaks in the paragraphs except when the characters are conversing, and the sentences are punctuated with commas and no full stops. But while Bernhard’s tone is more of a rant, Fosse’s novel is meditative and personal. Reading this novel feels like being at sea – the endless repetitions and rhythmic quality of the prose is akin to the ebb and flow of waves crashing on a beach. Or, there is a sense that you are listening to the chorus in your favourite song again and again. It has a soothing and calming effect.

There are some beautiful passages in the book which dwell on Asle wanting to perfect and hone his craft. He loves the stream of light in his paintings as do his eventual buyers, but he emphasizes that it’s only when he highlights the shadows and the darkness in this pictures, does the light shine through.

…I’ve sometimes thought that’s why I became a painter, because I have all these pictures inside me, yes, so many pictures that they’re a kind of agony, yes, it hurts me when they keep popping up again and again, like visions almost, and in all kinds of contexts, and I can’t do anything about it, the only thing I can do is paint, yes, try to paint away these pictures that are lodged inside me, there’s nothing to do but paint them away, one by one…

The book is also a meditation on grief and death. It becomes obvious as the novel progresses that Asle deeply grieves for his wife Ales. This is presented to the reader in the form of vivid forays into his past where he relives moments with his wife particularly when they were young and courting.

…and I’ve never missed it, not the beer, not the wine, not the stronger stuff, but that’s because of her too, because of Ales, without her I never would have been able to stop needing to drink, I think, and now Ales is waiting for me, she and our child, and I need to get home to them, to my wife, to our child, but what am I thinking? I live alone there, I’m going home to my old house in Dylgja where I used to live with Ales but she’s gone now, she’s with God now, in a way I can feel so clearly inside me, because she’s there inside me too, she isn’t walking around on earth any more but I can still talk to her whenever I want to, yes, it’s strange, there’s no big difference or distance between life and death…

In this regard, there’s a wonderful set piece in the early part of the novel. Dylgja Asle is driving back home from his trip to Bjorgvin and passes a playground where he sees a young couple on the swings. Are those two people real or is it a figment of his imagination?

…come on, come on, just come over here, she says and then he takes off his brown shoulder-bag and puts it down next to the sandpit and takes off his long black coat and lays it over her and then he covers the both of them with the coat so that only his coat is visible and, no, I have no right to look, to watch this, I think, and is it really happening? or is it all just something I’m dreaming? or is it something that actually happened to me once?

It seems more likely that the couple is a younger version of Asle and Ales in their earlier days. Ales is on the swing, and Asle begins pushing her swing hard. Ales is terrified and implores him to stop, but Asle keeps pushing anyway. Suddenly, Ales begins to enjoy thoroughly and begs Asle to continue. It’s a lovely section in the novel and wonderfully brings to the fore, the charm of adults when they occasionally display the inner child in them.

Death and sickness pervades the life of the other Asle in Bjorgvin. Wrecked by drink and loneliness, Asle is at the end of his tether and contemplates suicide. He is rescued by Dylgja Asle in time and taken to a hospital where the latter spends a sleepless night worrying.

The Other Name is also a book of many contradictions. Asle wants his art to be displayed in the gallery and yet he wants to keep his best paintings himself and not sell them. His wife’s death instills a feeling of loneliness in Asle and yet he does not really crave company except that of his neighbour Asleik. The other Asle drinks heavily to stop his tremors which are the result of his relentless drinking in the first place.

Despite the reflective tone of the novel, it is not without its fair share of tension. There is a particular set piece in the middle of the novel where Dylgja Asle has reached Bjorgvin in the middle of a raging snowstorm. With the snow obliterating the landscape, Asle loses his bearings and spends an interminable amount of time trying to locate the place to where he is heading. With no one on the streets, the whole scene feels surreal, tense and other worldly.

The Other Name is the first book in Fosse’s Septology trilogy comprising sections I and II. Both the sections begin with Asle standing before his painting as he reflects on merging of the two lines and end with him reciting prayers with his rosary beads.

It’s a brilliant book, personal, intimate and hypnotic, and asks some big questions – To what extent can certain decisions alter the course of one’s life, one that is different from someone else’s? What determines our identity – our actions or our circumstances or both?

The second book I Is For Another (Septology III-IV) has also been released by Fitzcarraldo Editions and I plan to dig into it soon.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

A couple of years ago, I was blown away by Tarjei Vesaas’ The Ice Palace, a haunting exploration of the friendship between two young girls – a novel that made its way into my Best Books of 2018 list. Wanting to read more of his work, I settled for The Birds, and it turned out to be another incredible book.

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is known as Simple Simon in the village. It’s a label that has fastened on to him because of his inability to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” He envies those people who are endowed with the three qualities he realizes he is not blessed with, but for which he yearns – strength, wisdom and beauty.

Hege and Mattis survive on the income that Hege brings home by knitting sweaters. In a way, the burden of providing for the two of them falls on her, and she is frustrated and tired. She implores Mattis to look for work on the farms everyday, but to no avail. Mattis dreads the prospect of physical labour, knowing fully well that he lacks ability. The farmers are aware of this too and therefore don’t want him working for them either.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable, memorable character, although the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show. While Mattis’ awkward conversations with Hege and some of the villagers form one aspect of the novel, Vesaas also peppers the story with some unique set pieces – occurrence of events that are fascinating to Mattis and offer us a glimpse into his mind.

For instance, at the start of the novel, Mattis observes a woodcock flying over their cottage. Woodcocks typically do not alter their flight paths, and the fact that this one has is a source of marvel to Mattis.

Mattis sat waiting almost breathless. For if it was a proper flight, the bird would return in a little while, along the same path, again and again during the short hour that the evening flight lasted. He knew this from other areas where flights occurred. Early in the morning, too, the bird moved along the same path, a fowler had told him so. On dry marshlands he had sometimes seen the marks of woodcocks’ beaks, next to the imprints of their dainty feet.

He sat waiting, full of excitement. The moments seemed to drag on, and his doubts grew stronger.

But hush, there it was. The flapping wings, the bird itself, indistinct, speeding through the air straight across the house and off in the other direction. Gone again, hidden by the gentle dusk and the sleeping treetops.

Then Mattis said in a firm voice: “So the woodcock came at last.”

To him, this heralds new possibilities of their lives changing for the better. But when he attempts to express this to Hege, she barely gives it the importance he thinks it deserves.

Hege is a practical woman, worried about the trials of everyday life and ensuring there is food on the table. But Mattis is mostly in his own world, seemingly inept at carving out the kind of living as defined by society.

And yet, there are activities that give Mattis pleasure because he can do them well – rowing a boat is one of them. Hege pounces on this and encourages him to become a ferryman, just to have him out of the house, knowing fully well that there will be no takers and no money coming from this futile enterprise.

Mattis, though, is optimistic and on his first day on the lake, he ferries across the one customer he will ever have – a lumberjack called Jorgen. Jorgen spends the night in their home, and subsequently settles there – Jorgen and Hege have become lovers.

While a man in her life brings Hege much needed happiness, Mattis feels threatened and unsure of his own position in the house in the new scheme of things.

One of the many things that Vesaas excels at in The Birds is visual imagery. The flight of the woodcock becomes a thing of wonder to the reader as much as it is to Mattis. Then there is the time when Mattis spends the day toiling on a turnip field.  Vesaas beautifully captures the sense of futility that creeps up on Mattis as he struggles to keep pace with the farmer and a young couple on the field. Beset by a stream of thoughts, Mattis is much more arrested by the sight of the couple – sweethearts as he calls them – rather than the work in front of him. A little later on in the novel, when he is rowing his boat out on the lake, a chance encounter with two holidaying girls – Anna and Inger – fills him with joy and instills in him a confidence he never knew he possessed.

Was this happiness? Happiness had come to him on a bare, rocky island, without any kind of warning. He hadn’t done anything to bring it about. He could even make sharp-witted remarks.

There lay the two girls, who weren’t a bit afraid of him. They were so near, he could have put out his hand and touched them. The sun was turning them golden brown for him, had been shining on them for fourteen days.

He had to do something. And it had to be something out of the ordinary.

But for the larger part of his existence, Mattis is always pondering the bigger questions – “Why are things the way they are?” And on those occasions when he musters up the courage to put them forth, no one really bothers to answer him.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel, subtly displaying a gamut of emotions and filled with uniquely etched characters. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both. Being ‘different’ from the others is always tough, but so is the responsibility of being the sole caregiver.

A Month of Reading – September 2020

September 2020 turned out to be another stellar month of reading. My favourites were Passing, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths and The Birds. But, the Wharton and the Penelope Fitzgerald were also superb.

Here’s a brief summary of the books I read…with links to detailed reviews wherever applicable.

Passing– Nella Larsen

Published in the 1920s, Passing is considered a landmark novel of the Harlem Renaissance period focusing on the themes of racial identity and colour and the blurring of racial boundaries.

The novel centers around two black women Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry Bellew, who because of their light skin can easily pass off as white. However, while Irene passes over only occasionally in certain situations, Clare has completely passed over to the other side for good. Not having revealed to her husband that she is black, Clare Kendry’s dangerous deception means that she is constantly living on the edge.

At barely over a 100 pages, Passing is slim but packs in a lot of weightier themes with some really stunning writing from Larsen. As it hurtles towards a climax that is both strange and surprising, it leaves room for a lot of interpretation and debate for the reader.

The Gate – Natsume Soseki (tr. William F. Sibley)

The Gate is a beautiful and reflective novel of dashed dreams and lost opportunities interspersed with quiet moments of joy.

At the heart of this novel is a middle aged couple – Sosuke and Oyone, who eke out a simple life on the outskirts of Tokyo, following the same routine for many years with little room for any significant variations. They lead a quiet life and seem resigned to their fates, hardly ever complaining. But this delicate equilibrium is upset when they are confronted with an obligation to meet the household and educational expenses of Sosuke’s brother Koroku.

The Gate is one of those novels which harbours the impression that not much happens, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beneath a seemingly smooth and calm surface, emotions and tensions rage. Soseki’s writing is sensitive and graceful, and he wonderfully tells a story shot with melancholia but also suffused with moments of gentle wit.

The Beginning of Spring – Penelope Fitzgerald

There is something quite wonderfully strange and compelling about The Beginning of Spring, one of the later novels in Penelope Fitzgerald’s oeuvre.

The novel is set in Moscow, Russia in the early 1910s, and when the novel opens, Frank Reid comes home to find that his wife Nellie has left him. The reasons for Nellie leaving are not really revealed and this development is as much a mystery to the reader as it is to Frank. Indeed, one of the remarkable aspects of the novel is the subtlety of Fitzgerald’s writing, a lot is left unsaid and there is space for us to form our own impressions.

The Beginning of Spring is a quiet but very atmospheric novel with a fairytale feel to it. Along with its evocative portrayal of Russia, the novel is made all the more satisfying by an excellent ending.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths – Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths is a gripping tale about a young woman’s life gone astray but narrated in a voice that is so captivating and fresh.

Our narrator is Sophia Fairclough and when the book opens she is in a happy frame of mind, although we will soon read that this happiness has come at a considerable price. Immediately then, the reader is taken to a period in her life eight years back – Sophia’s story begins when she meets Charles, an aspiring painter, and they decide to marry. What follows subsequently is a tale of abject poverty and daily toils to keep their head above water, the burden of which falls on Sophia’s shoulders, as Charles continues to remain indifferent.

Despite her seemingly unending trials and tribulations, it’s the beguiling nature of Sophia’s storytelling that makes the book so compelling. Barbara Comyns’ writing, as ever, is top-notch.  In her assured hands, what might have been a humdrum melodrama about a young woman’s life gone awry transforms into a more unusual kind of novel – a novel way ahead of its time.

The Birds – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Michael Barnes & Torbjorn Stoverud)

The Birds is a sad but gorgeous novel about the difficulty of communicating with one another and the hurdles that intellectually disabled individuals have to grapple with. Our protagonist is 37-year old Mattis, who is possibly mentally challenged (everyone calls him Simple Simon), and lives with his elder sister Hege in a cottage by the lake in a Norwegian village. Theirs is a lonely existence.

Mattis is quite an unforgettable character, saddled with the burden of not being able to express his thoughts clearly and behave in a way that others perceive as “normal.” But the reader is also keenly aware of Hege’s plight – of the difficulty of living with him and not letting it show.

The Birds is a sensitively written novel of uniquely etched characters subtly displaying a gamut of emotions. Its beauty is all the more enhanced by Vesaas’ nuanced portrayal of both Mattis and Hege, which evokes in the reader an equal amount of empathy for both.

The Pear Field – Nina Ekvtimishvili (tr. Elizabeth Heighway)

Set in the outskirts of Tbilisi, in a newly independent Georgia, our protagonist Lela at eighteen is the oldest student at the Residential School for Intellectually Disabled Children – or, as the locals call it, the School for Idiots.  The plot is essentially driven by Lela’s single-minded focus on two objectives – (1) to help Irakli, a nine-year old student, make most of a good opportunity offered to him, after which she would leave the school to start afresh, and (b) to kill her history teacher Vano, who we are told has sexually abused her when she was younger, as he has countless newly inducted, young girls before her.

The novel contains a diverse range of characters – students and staff as well as some families in the neighbouring buildings. The pear fields stretch nearby and the air of neglect that surrounds them in some way serves as a symbol of the overall moral decay of the school.

At a little less than 200 pages, The Pear Field was a quick read, and while I liked the novel, I didn’t exactly love it. However, what I did enjoy very much were the sumptuous descriptions of Georgian food sprinkled throughout the book.

The New York Stories of Edith Wharton

There is no one quite like Edith Wharton when it comes to the portrayal of Old New York – its rigid society with its strict moral codes, and the passions that simmer beneath a seemingly respectable surface.

This collection contains 20 wonderful stories gathered over the course of her writing career, and of these 5-6 are absolute gems.

In Mrs Manstey’s View, the titular character spends her final days in an old aged home, the large window in her room with its extensive view being the only bright spot in her day. When the threat of a possible blocking of this view looms large, Mrs Manstey resorts to drastic measures. In the brilliant nightmarish story A Journey, a woman is travelling back home to New York with her very ill husband on a train, and is overcome with mounting fears of abandonment, helplessness and being judged by her fellow passengers.

In After Holbein, the octogenarian Mrs Jaspar entertains her lone guest at an imaginary dinner party, while in one of her finest stories, Autres Temps, Mrs Lidcote is compelled to realise that she remains condemned by the stifling codes of Old New York, and the newer, more modern society in which her daughter moves, holds no place for her.

The last story in the collection, Roman Fever, is another brilliant piece, and takes place on the terrace of a hotel with gorgeous views of the Roman ruins. Two middle aged women, who were friends and neighbours in their younger days and now have a grown-up daughter each, reminisce about the past in the same city. It’s a past filled with rage, passion and deception as the story moves towards a corker of an ending.

That’s it for September. I hope to read some fab books in October too and have begun with Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows, which only a few pages in, is already promising to be a special book.