Foster – Claire Keegan

Claire Keegan is a wonder. I absolutely loved her short story The Forester’s Daughter as well as her latest novella Small Things Like These, the latter having garnered rave reviews, and very rightly so. With Foster, her earlier penned novella, she continues to impress.

“God help you, Child,” she (Mrs Kinsella) says. If you were mine, I’d never leave you in a house with strangers.”

There’s a moment in this achingly beautiful novella when our narrator, a young girl, is asked by Mr Kinsella whether she can run. She is confused by the question, but what Mr Kinsella wants to know is how fast she can sprint from the end of the lane to the post box. When she runs as fast as she can, Mr Kinsella is impressed by her speed given it’s her first time but indicates that they will try again tomorrow to test whether she can improve. The girl is struck by the idea that she is expected to run any faster to which Mr Kinsella replies, “By the time you’re ready for home you’ll be like a reindeer.” That haunting scene of the young girl racing down the lane is once again presented to the reader in the final pages, but rather than something as innocuous as collecting letters from the postbox, it’s for a reason that’s much more sad and heartbreaking.

Foster, then, is a gorgeous, perfectly crafted novella of great emotional depth where love, kindness, warmth and affection play a significant role in transforming the life of a young girl.

The novel opens with our narrator undertaking a journey with her father deep into the heart of the Wexford countryside where she is to reside with the Kinsellas on their farmhouse for a few months. The girl has many siblings, she’s born into a family that continues to grow, and her mother is once again expecting another child shortly. Having been brought up in an environment of poverty and neglect, the girl is apprehensive about her short stay at the Kinsellas and consoles herself by the thought that she’s only there for a short period.

Her father leaves her at the Kinsella home with no suitcase of fresh clothes other than the ones she is already wearing. Intimidated by her new surroundings, the girl is at first homesick and longs to be back in her familiar space, however imperfect. But things gradually begin to change.

As the days roll by, she becomes absorbed in the daily routine of the household, helping Mr and Mrs Kinsella in the house, kitchen and on the farm, deriving joy from these simple pleasures. The aroma of good, wholesome food instills a sense of wellbeing, and she revels in warm baths (“The water is deeper than any I have ever bathed in. Our mother makes us bathe in what little she can, and makes us share.”)

The Kinsellas buy her new clothes and she develops a fine camaraderie with Mr Kinsella who takes her out on walks and to the beach, and expands her worldview by introducing her to books.

We fold my clothes and place them inside, along with the books we bought at Webb’s in Gorey: ‘Heidi’, ‘What Katy Did Next’, ‘The Snow Queen.’ At first, I struggled with some of the bigger words but Kinsella kept his fingernail under each, patiently, until I guessed it and then I did this by myself until I no longer needed to guess, and read on. It was like learning to ride the bike; I felt myself taking off, the freedom of going places I couldn’t have gone before, and it was easy.

But the Kinsellas harbour a terrible secret and its discovery makes the girl realize for the first time how easily her idyll could shatter to pieces.

Among other things, Foster is a stunning meditation on class differences and the pivotal role a child’s upbringing plays in the shaping of its future. It’s a poignant depiction of how a little bit of compassion and tender loving care can make a marked difference in an individual’s life, considerably altering it for the better. For instance, given that our narrator’s parents have to grapple with financial constraints and are barely making ends meet, it does not help matters that the family keeps expanding. Lack of time and money only exacerbates their precarious situation – her siblings are neglected too and must learn to fend for themselves. For our narrator, life with the Kinsellas is a whole new world altogether, akin to being transported to another orbit and she marvels at how different it is from her family experiences so far. The Kinsellas don’t have children and are relatively well-off and it is no surprise that she begins to blossom under their care.

I go down steps until I reach the water. The sun, at a slant now, throws a rippled version of how we look back at us. For a moment, I am afraid. I wait until I see myself not as I was when I arrived, looking like a tinker’s child, but as I am now, clean, in different clothes, with the woman behind me.

The greatest strength of Foster, though, is how it pulsates with a gamut of emotions, and how Keegan effortlessly packs multitudes in such a short space. Her writing drips with so much beauty and tenderness; there’s something soulful about her spare, finely chiseled sentences that leaves a deep impression on the mind. As with a perfectly composed piece of music, absolutely nothing in this novella strikes a false note. In a nutshell, Foster is an 88-page display of sheer virtuosity, a mini marvel that I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Two Atmospheric French Novellas – Patrick Modiano & Dominique Barbéris

This post takes a look at two French novellas, different yet similar in many ways – they are haunting, gripping, set in and around Paris, and narrated in first person where the narrator is not really the central character. While I have reviewed a Patrick Modiano novella on this blog before – After the Circus, Barbéris is completely new to me. Long story short, both these novellas are excellent.

INVISIBLE INK – Patrick Modiano (tr. Mark Polizzotti)

Invisible Ink is classic Modiano fare, a murky, haunting, atmospheric tale of memory, illusion and identity.

Our narrator is Jean Eyben who recalls a case he was assigned, nearly thirty years ago, during his brief stint as a private detective at the Hutte Detective Agency. Displaying a file containing a sheet with the scantest of information, Mr Hutte outlines what Jean is required to do. He has to locate a woman called Noelle Lefebvre, who has disappeared without a trace, practically vanished into thin air. To complicate matters, her identity is also called into question – she may not be who she says she is.

Jean’s task is divided into three steps – first ask the concierge of a certain apartment building in the 15th arrondissement whether he has heard from Noelle; second, make his way to the General Delivery window of the post office and use Noelle’s card to retrieve her mail, and then stop at the café where Noelle spent a lot of her days and ask around about her. When the first two tasks culminate in a dead end, Jean proceeds to the café Noelle frequently haunted, hoping to pick up some sort of clue.

There he runs into Gerard Mourade, Noelle’s acquaintance and an aspiring actor, who reveals that Noelle was married to Roger Behaviour and lived in the same neighbourhood as the café. But Roger’s whereabouts also remain unknown.

Meanwhile, there’s the client himself – Georges Brainos – who has approached the Hutte Agency for the purpose of locating Noelle, leaving Jean to wonder what Brainos’ motive could possibly be. One day, on intercepting a letter meant for Noelle from the General Delivery, it dawns on Jean that Noelle had wed Sancho Lefebvre, and the mystery only deepens.

As the years roll on by, and even much after Jean is no longer employed at the agency, he manages to amass information in bits and pieces from various people who circled Noelle’s orbit, but no one can shed any meaningful light on either her true identity or her whereabouts.

It’s not a case that Jean single–mindedly broods over as time passes, but it hasn’t been completely erased from his mind either. What’s more, there remain substantial memory gaps that he can’t account for.

There’s something about Noelle’s case that holds a spell over him. Could it be that he had come across her, met her in the past, but had no inkling of her name?

Invisible Ink, then, is a beautifully written, elegiac and moody novella about the passage of time and the elusive nature of memories, how memories whether deliberately or subconsciously buried deep in our minds can suddenly resurface when confronted with certain triggers. But even then, those memories are seemingly never whole, but jagged pieces mired in uncertainty. The passage of time, particularly, leaves in its wake big memory holes impossible to fill.

Truth be told, I’ve never owned a datebook and never kept a diary. It would have made my job easier. But I didn’t want to quantify my life. I let it flow by, like mad money that slips through your fingers. I wasn’t careful. When I thought about the future, I told myself that none of what I had lived through would ever be lost. None of it. I was too young to know that after a certain point, you start tripping over gaps in your memory.

The central character haunting the novella’s pages is, of course, the enigmatic Noelle Lefebvre, whose disappearance decades ago has clearly left a deep impression on Jean’s mind. Some details do emerge – she worked at a dance club owned by Georges Brainos who also had another restaurant to his name. But connecting all these dots does not make the job of finding her any easier.

As he tries to rake up the past in his quest for Noelle, Jean realizes that his memories are as elusive as the woman he is trying to find. Noelle is a paradox, both a presence (as a point of obsession for our narrator), and an absence in many ways. Is she even real or just a ghost, a figment of imagination?

Indeed, Jean’s investigation is fraught with abstract conclusions and the absence of any concrete forms or meaningful results. Things are hinted at, not effectively proven, until it all moves towards a fascinating finale.

Ultimately, experiencing Invisible Ink is like staring through a rain-soaked windowpane with its hazy views, blurred contours, distorted images, all seeped in a tincture of melancholia. Haunting, mysterious and unforgettable.

A SUNDAY IN VILLE d’AVRAY – Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

In terms of mood and atmosphere, the qualities of a Modiano novel are reflected in A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray too – the air of melancholia and sadness. This is a dreamy, disquieting novella of missed opportunities, a particular yearning for ‘something else’, set over the course of a languid autumn afternoon when the light is quickly fading.

The book begins when our narrator Jane, one Sunday, decides to visit her sister Claire Marie, who resides in Ville-d’Avray in the western suburbs of Paris. Comfortably settled in her well-appointed home with her husband Christian and her daughter Melanie, Claire Marie many a time assists Christian in his medical practice by stepping into the shoes of a receptionist. Otherwise, she is mostly left to her own devices stifled by boredom and seclusion of this calm, leafy suburb. Jane, on the other hand, is settled in the centre of Paris with her partner Luc – both prefer the hustle bustle of city life, its culture and entertainment to the quiet existence in the outskirts.

Jane and Claire Marie seldom see each other, in fact Jane’s visits to Ville-d’Avray are pretty rare. While the distance is an issue, her partner Luc hates visiting the place because he finds Claire Marie boring and the dullness of their lives gets on his nerves.

On that particular autumn afternoon, however, Jane makes a visit to Ville-d’Avray on her own. As she settles in the garden outside waiting for her sister to come out with drinks, a gamut of memories flood her mind. Those flashbacks particularly dwell on the sisters’ lonely, isolated childhood, those dreary Sundays when the hours dragged on interminably as both the sisters engaged actively in a make-believe world filled with wild landscapes and romance conjured up by books they read, notably Jane Eyre. For the people around them, those Sunday evenings mostly invoked feelings of fear – of seeing the day end, or of stirring up an antique sadness.

As the sisters finally sit down for a chat, Claire Marie makes a dramatic revelation of a chance encounter in her life several years ago, a confession that startles Jane considerably. As Claire Marie goes on to furnish the details, we learn of how she first met this man in the waiting room of her husband’s practice. When she bumps into him again some days later on her way home, the two of them start talking and he convinces her to share a drink with him at a pub. Revealing his name as Hermann, he shares his story of his “other life” in communist Hungary, how he escapes that country to choose a life of exile abroad. It’s a story that seems as shadowy as his import-export business he claims to own.

Will Claire Marie give in to his charms? Does she have it in her to disrupt her carefully constructed idyll at home for the sake of an out-of-the box experience that marks a break from her everyday routine?

While Jane is our narrator, it is Claire Marie really who is the nucleus of the book. Despite her outwardly unruffled and passive demeanour, she unsettles Jane greatly. Jane recalls how several years ago, Claire Marie stumped her with the loaded question – “Are there ever times when you dream of something else?” It’s a question that gets under Jane’s skin and makes her wonder whether her sister is happy with the life she has chosen.

What of Claire Marie? We are told that as a child, Claire Marie had a dreamy disposition, living in a world of her own, often staring out of the window for hours on end, waiting for exactly what? Did the world outside signify something infinitely better than her lonely existence at home?

Claire Marie noticed that, without thinking, she was going more and more often to the window and looking out, the way she’d done when she was little. All night long on the border (so he’d told her), searchlights would illuminate the barbed-wire fences and the watchtowers; and when she looked out at her street, those luminous circles and those pockets of darkness were what she’d see, as they’d been seen in former times by people desperate to leave, to change their lives.

As Jane grows up and transforms into a more practical adult, Claire Marie never really grows out of her passive, not-in-this-world persona, and Jane is often left to ponder what her sister expects from her life.

The themes touched upon in this wonderfully evocative novella are the consequences of a path not taken, the weight of unfulfilled desires, and the wish for a unique experience. Is a life of contentment preferable to one that boasts of drama and intrigue? The mood and tone captured is excellent – feverish, deeply unsettling and rife with lurking dangers as Claire Marie wanders alone in the dense forest and near the ponds depicted in Corot paintings.

I could practically see my sister strolling with her stranger in a setting composed of reflections, of beautiful trees, of leaves speckled with tiny light-coloured patches, like eye floaters, as if the blurriness of dreams interposed itself between the image and the beholder (which is always the case with Corot).

The flavor of autumn is also superbly realized, a time when the mornings and evenings are drenched in chilly, torrential rains; the gardens are darkened with showers; the asphalt and slate roofs glisten with water; the brown leaves lie sodden in heaps. An aura of ruin, desolation can be felt all around where patches of reflected light alternate with shadows settling in.

Set during an afternoon that is burnished the colour of molten gold, like the light that shimmers over the sea, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray, then, is a haunting, elegantly written novella where the tension is palpable under a seemingly calm surface. It’s a novella that throbs with dreamlike vibes, fraught melancholia and wistful longing and is perfect for any quiet, cosy afternoon with a hot mug of tea.

Old New York – Edith Wharton

I have been on a bit of an Edith Wharton spree over the last couple of years. In 2020, I read and wrote about The Custom of the Country and The New York Stories (the latter published by NYRB Classics in a handsome edition). And this year, earlier on I wrote about The House of Mirth. All are wonderful books to which Old New York is another worthwhile addition.

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.

FALSE DAWN (The ‘Forties)

In False Dawn, the first novella in this collection, we meet Mr Halston Raycie, whose “extent in height, width and thickness was so nearly the same that whichever way he was turned one had an equally broad view of him.”

Mr Raycie has a formidable personality and is generally well-respected in his social circle, although in many ways he is a tyrant at least where his family is concerned. The novella opens with a garden party at the Raycie residence in honour of the young Lewis Raycie, who is about to embark on his first Grand Tour to Europe. It is intended that Lewis should travel extensively since his father strongly believes that “a young man, before setting up for himself, must see the world; form his taste; fortify his judgement.”

But the senior Raycie also has a project in mind for his son. He wants to build a Raycie gallery with as many Italian art masterpieces as possible, and Lewis has been entrusted with adequate capital to select and purchase some of the finest works of art from the Italian masters in vogue then. Domenichino, Albano, Carlo Dolci, Guercino are some of the names thrown about, even a Raphael, if possible.

The dream, the ambition, the passion of Mr Raycie’s life, was (as his son knew) to found a Family; and he had only Lewis to found it with. He believed in primogeniture, in heirlooms, in entailed estates, in all the ritual of the English “landed” tradition.

Temperament-wise, Lewis could not have been more different from his father – he is impressionable, malleable and remains in awe of Mr Raycie’s imposing persona. Lewis is a bit apprehensive about his upcoming trip, but the mission of building a Raycie gallery fills him with a sense of purpose. Once on his travels though, Lewis befriends a fellow called John Ruskin who introduces the former to some stunning paintings, but from relatively obscure artists. Lewis is mesmerized and suddenly takes the bold, innovative step of buying these artworks. But when he returns home with them, both father and son are in for a rude shock.

Lewis is sure of gaining his father’s approval, but the latter is strongly of the view that his son has “wasted” the capital at his disposal by not buying the famous art paintings as was his mandate. Senior Raycie leaves no stone unturned in expressing his deep disappointment with Lewis, and resorts to actions that have deeper repercussions for his son. But will Lewis end up having the last laugh?

False Dawn, then, examines the set ways of New York society and how it values collective opinions rather than individual views. Halston Raycie is no art connoisseur by any yardstick, but insists on his gallery displaying works of Italian masters that are the talk of the town simply because he wants to keep up with his peers. It is ultimately a question of status and not aesthetics. The fact that every painting can communicate something personal and unique to every viewer is a concept lost on him. Lewis Percy’s individual thinking has no place in New York society and he is derided for his so-called foolishness, not to mention that he must bear the brunt of his father’s subsequent actions.

THE OLD MAID (The ‘Fifties)

The second novella, The Old Maid, to me, is the finest in the collection and alone worth the price of the book. It opens thus…

In the old New York of the ‘fifties a few families ruled, in simplicity and affluence. Of these were the Ralstons.

Within the limits of their universal caution, the Ralstons fulfilled their obligations as rich and respected citizens. They figured on the boards of all the old-established charities, gave handsomely to thriving institutions, had the best cooks in New York, and when they travelled abroad ordered statuary of the American sculptors in Rome whose reputation was already established.

We are introduced to Delia Lovell who has married James (Jim) Ralston at the tender age of twenty. Prior to her marriage, Delia had romantic feelings for Clement Spender, an aspiring painter in Rome, who was also passionately in love with her. However, their union does not come to fruition largely because of his uncertain financial position and his inability to provide for a family.

Now, as part of the Ralston fold, Delia, at 25, is “established, the mother of two children, the possessor of a generous allowance of pin-money, and by common consent, one of the handsomest and most popular ‘young patrons’ of her day.”

Delia is grateful for her comfortable life and her established position, and yet somewhere she is gripped by a sense of discontent, that fleeting notion that life is somehow passing her by.

She was too near to the primitive Ralstons to have as clear a view of them as, for instance, the son in question might one day command: she lived under them as unthinkingly as one lives under the laws of one’s country. Yet that tremor of the muted key-board, that secret questioning which sometimes beat in her like wings, would now and then so divide her from them that for a fleeting moment she could survey them in their relation to other things.

Meanwhile, there enters Charlotte Lovell, Delia’s impoverished cousin, “the old maid” of the title. Charlotte’s upbringing is in sharp contrast to Delia’s despite coming from the same family. Charlotte’s father was in fact branded as one of the “poor Lovells.” Due to their constrained means, not much of a bright future is expected for her. Indeed, we are told “poor Charlotte had become so serious, so prudish almost, since she had given up balls and taken to visiting the poor!” It is generally agreed that Charlotte is destined to be an old maid.

But then to everyone’s surprise, Charlotte’s engagement to Joe Ralston is announced. However, instead of experiencing the joy of a promising future, Charlotte’s woes only deepen. In the weeks leading to her betrothal, Charlotte makes a dramatic confession to Delia that alters the course of the former’s life. Delia learns that Charlotte has borne a child out of wedlock as a consequence of a brief love affair, and has managed to keep it a secret. It also explains why Charlotte had devoted so much of her time to poor children, her daughter – Tina – has been placed among them, and it’s the only way for her to remain as close to Tina as possible.

What torments Charlotte is the future of Tina. Should she part herself from her? Or should she reject marriage and happiness to continue her furtive care of her baby?

Charlotte’s dilemma is particularly fuelled by the fact that after marriage, Joe Ralston expects her to give up her time with those poor children. Why visit them when she can focus on starting her own family? But that would mean abandoning Tina, which Charlotte cannot bring herself to do. Delia suggests a way out. She offers to provide a comfortable home for Tina and for Charlotte to be with her, but for this she has to make a sacrifice – Charlotte cannot entertain any hopes of marrying Joe Ralston.

At the core of this gorgeous, layered novella is the relationship between Delia and Charlotte, how they are as different as chalk and cheese, and how they envy each other on certain aspects. Having married safely, Delia hasn’t experienced sexual passion like Charlotte has. Similarly, Charlotte, despite being a mother, cannot really experience the joys of motherhood like Delia can, because her secret cannot be revealed at any cost, not even to her daughter. It’s a story where Wharton does not entirely rule out the idea of human happiness; it’s only that this happiness is always narrow in its scope, confined within strict boundaries. One can’t help but think that all things considered, it is Charlotte to whom Fate deals the cruellest hand.

THE SPARK (The ‘Sixties)

The third novella called The Spark, was my least favourite of the lot, but still very interesting, delving into the theme of the moral compass of Old New York.

The narrator here is a young male from a good family who is fascinated by an older man in his parents’ set, a man called Hayley Delane. What catches the narrator’s eye is how different Delane is from the other men of his ilk. For instance, Delane marries Leila Gracy, a woman fifteen years his junior, despite the fact her father is in disgrace to the point where “he had to resign from all his clubs.” Delane, however, loves her unreservedly and does not seem to be too perturbed even when she is brazenly flirting with other men.

Two particular incidents form the focus of this novella, which display how Delane can rebel and be at odds with his social set. The first is when he slaps one of Leila’s lovers for ill-treating a horse. But because this would be perceived as an act of revenge of a jealous husband, Delane is forced to apologise so that his wife’s reputation is not sullied. The other incident where Delane draws much flak is when he decides to provide a home to his father-in-law under his own roof and undertake the responsibility of his care, an act which sees Leila distancing herself from Delane as well.

Delane has differing opinions when it comes to social questions, or the relation between “gentlemen” and the community. And his typical response tends to be along the lines of…

“After all, what does it matter who makes the first move? The thing is to get the business done.”

NEW YEAR’S DAY (The ‘Seventies)

In New Year’s Day, the spotlight is on Lizzie Hazeldean, a married woman, who is spotted leaving a Fifth Avenue hotel with a man who is not her husband. This development immediately sets tongues wagging, and Lizzie is in danger of being completely excluded from society.

A lot about this novella reminded me of The House of Mirth, where Lily Bart’s downfall is precipitated when she is unfairly judged for leaving the house of a married man, and how society gradual shuts her out with tragic consequences.

Interestingly, Lizzie’s circumstances are subsequently revealed to the reader and the reasons that compel her to hook up with another man. But in the claustrophobic world of Old New York, conventions and decorum are meant to be adhered to, and there is a heavy price to pay for deviating from conformity. Unconventional behaviour is a surefire recipe for doom.

This is also a novella which shines a light on the plight of women who due to their single-minded upbringing are not equipped for an independent career but must rely on marriage for financial support.

Marriage alone could save such a girl from starvation, unless she happened to run across an old lady who wanted her dogs exercised and her Churchman read aloud to her. Even the day of painting wild-roses on fans, of coloring photographs to “look like” miniatures, of manufacturing lampshades and trimming hats for more fortunate friends – even this precarious beginning of feminine independence had not dawned.

Some more thoughts on these novellas…

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. In her introduction, Marilyn French dwells on how appearances matter a great deal and if a man lost his money or a woman lost her reputation, they simply fell out of society, they were treated as if they did not exist.

The women, as ever, are always given a raw deal. A married woman seen with another man means that the woman’s image is guaranteed to be tainted, the man is never judged. Similarly, a man with a child out of wedlock hardly causes much flutter, and if he separately provides for it, the matter is considered closed and swept under a carpet. But a woman in exactly the same situation is sure to be ruined and treated harshly.

What makes it all the more worse is that these so-called rules of society are also upheld by women. There is a particular scene in The Old Maid where Charlotte is yet to divulge to Delia the gravity of her problem. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between the two…

“Well?-Oh, Chatty,” Delia exclaimed abruptly illuminated, “you don’t mean to say that you’re going to let any little thing in Joe’s past-? Not that I’ve ever heard the last hint; never. But even if there were…” She drew a deep breath, and bravely proceeded to extremities. “Even if you’ve heard that he’s been…that he’s had a child-of course he would have provided for it before…”

The girl shook her head. “I know: you needn’t go on. ‘Men will be men’; but it’s not that.”

Delia seems to be okay with the irritating, misguided notion that “men will be men” and that Charlotte can brush aside Joe’s affairs and offspring from them, if any. But when it’s clear that Charlotte is the one with an illegitimate child, Delia feels that it is dishonourable for Charlotte to wed Joe without revealing the truth of her situation to him. Delia may have taken the unconventional step of providing for Charlotte’s child, yet she is also prone to double-standards that are troubling.

In all the four novellas, Wharton’s prose sparkles with intelligence and deft touches of irony. Nowhere is this more apparent than in False Dawn and The Spark, both of which end on a visibly ironic note, while there are subtle hues present in the other two novellas.

Old New York, then, is Wharton’s brilliant, scathing depiction of a society “where sensitive souls were like muted keyboards, on which Fate played without a sound.”

Fish Soup – Margarita Garcia Robayo (tr. Charlotte Coombe)

Charco Press books have been the highlights of my reading so far this year. I had already loved and written about The German Room by Carla Maliandi.

And now it is Fish Soup by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, another equally wonderful offering, from the same publisher.

Fish Soup

Fish Soup comprises two novellas ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, and ‘Sexual Education’ as well a collection of seven tales titled ‘Worse Things’.

The opening lines of ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ hit you right in the gut.

Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realize nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead. I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle.

Our narrator is a woman, tired and self-aware, obsessed with escaping both her life and her country (Colombia).

She is emotionally detached from her family with not much respect for them. Her dad “was a pretty useless man. He spent his days trying to resolve trivial matters that he thought were of the utmost importance in order for the world to keep on turning.” Her mother “every day was involved in some family bust up.”

Stories of travel offer our narrator glimpses of hope, of running away and not coming back. There’s Gustavo, the local fisherman living in a shack by the sea, who enthralls her with his stories of travel. She keeps coming back to him even though “he stroked her down there with two fingers” when she was a young girl.

Even when she does fall in love with a man called Tony, there’s that cynical feeling that it’s not going to last.

Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.

Escaping, leaving, getting out of the rut are feelings that permeate the consciousness of our narrator with the result that they form the focal point around which her relationships and even her profession is based.

She manages to find a job as an air hostess with an airline, even though Tony doesn’t like it. The route she is assigned to is Miami and even if it involves frequent visits to the same city, for her it is still a start.

Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.

An affair with the captain of the plane, not surprisingly, ends up nowhere like all her relationships. And there are moments of regret, of whether chances have passed her by and she failed to grab them or latch onto.

‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ is a beautiful novella. Despite the all-pervading cynicism, wariness and the tiredness, there is something lyrical and poetic about Robayo’s writing that makes it intense and absorbing.  It is a novella about the frailty of relationships, of missed chances and regret, of why travel may not always be the answer to everything.

The second novella that also packs quite a punch is ‘Sexual Education’. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.

Here’s how it opens…

“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties.”

The characters that people this novella are part of the narrator’s inner circle of friends. There’s Dalia ‘a bad apple’ who doesn’t care about going to university, preferring to travel instead.

Others – me included – thought that backpacks and dreads and Latin American travels were an invention of poor people who liked to think they were bohemians. Dalia was not poor, but she smoked weed and that was enough to make her feel bohemian.

Then there’s Karina, a real devotee of Mary…

She had convinced everyone that the Virgin talked to her in her sleep and gave her instructions about how to behave at moments of moral conflict.

‘Sexual Education’ is essentially a novella that explores the existence of opposing forces side by side – sex and confronting desires as against celibacy and self-denial.

Between these two novellas, ‘Worse Things’ (a collection of seven short stories) is sandwiched. These stories examine frayed relationships, death and illness.

In ‘Like a Pariah’, Ines who is dying of cancer, refuses to have people fussing around her and insists to her son “I’m perfectly alright.”

In ‘Worse Things’, Titi, who suffers from a debilitating condition causing obesity, prefers staying in his room, engrossed in games.

In ‘Better than Me’, Orestes is trying to connect with his distant daughter Becky, sometime after his other daughter Rosa has committed suicide.

In ‘Fish Soup’, one of the stories, from which the overall title of the book has been taken, an old man is beset by the smell of overpowering fish soup. This is a strange tale in which the man’s dreams and reality merge making it disorienting to distinguish one from the other.

Overall, Fish Soup is a very strong collection, stimulating and refreshing despite the tiredness of the characters. Most are struggling to keep head above water and fight even if they perceive their circumstances to be bleak and meaningless.

The blurb at the back of my edition states:

Throughout the collection, Garcia Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with a rich vein of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties throughout the remarkable universe that is Fish Soup.

Highly recommended!